I was recently assigned to shoot a cover and feature on the hottest quadcopter on the market, the new DJI Inspire 1. This has been designed from the ground up by DJI to be a ready-to-fly system with a 4K camera and the ability for two operators; one controlling the drone and one controlling the camera, all for FAR less than anything else on the market on this level. They took what they learned from the Phantom platform, their incredibly successful and virtually ubiquitous quadcopter, and built it into this incredible new drone.
Check out Director of Photography, Philip Bloom’s description of the Inspire 1. There’s some incredible samples of the type of footage that you can get from this drone that’s easily on-par with drones that cost well into the 5-figures.
Betty Nero, Creative Director at Air Age Media, assigned me this great shoot. Air Age publishes the industry-standard magazines about all things radio controlled, from planes to cars to boats to drones. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with these guys for many years as a freelancer, shooting not only amazing R/C vehicles, but the people who are the best in the world at making them do what they do. And often pushing the very limits of what their manufacturers designed them to do.
Betty asked me to shoot the Inspire 1 at a model airplane field near me. The Inspire 1 is the absolute hottest drone on the planet right now, and she asked me to create something “high tech” for the cover. That was all I had to go on. I’d not been to that field in years, and with the scheduling of everything, it was going to have to be shot at 10 AM. That’s hardly a time for stellar light. But I’m a professional, and I’m charged with making something spectacular within the parameters I have.
The location wasn’t amazing, though it was green, a rarity in Southern California during the winter. And there was a full downpour until an hour before the shoot. Actually, that was a plus, wetting the ground and making for a cooler look. There was no budget for a water truck, but Mother Nature was looking out for us.
When the rain cleared, the sun came out and the clouds vanished. Even better, shooting a black and white drone against a cloudy sky might be tough to create the proper contrast. A lot of creative decisions to make on the fly. No pun intended.
I had one of the best pilots in the business, Sergio Marachilian, owner of Piroflip RC in Van Nuys, CA to fly this grand machine. His co-pilot, operating the FPV controller and the 4K DJI camera was none other than Robert Rodriguez, President of the Society of Aerial Cinematography. And third, we had Willis Chung from DJI making sure it all worked. They have an app for both iPhone and Android that actually plugs into the device and uses it as the monitor. This is pretty amazing, in that you can put an iPad on the controller and it actually connects via the Lightning connector to make it into the monitor. I understand it working the other way, but this worked perfectly. With overlays to control things like resolution, start/stop, modes and so much more.
We shot the setup from removing the Inspire 1 from the case to getting it ready to fly. Then for the cover, I picked a spot on one of the pads to get started.
Seeing the guys shadows when backlit gave me the idea to let them go dark, as well as the sky, but let the sun show up in the image. I wanted to light the Inspire 1 well and allow it to be strong in the foreground. I set up a Lumedyne 067x pack and head into a medium softbox. I needed Hypersync to allow me to get the darker sky and shadows, so I triggered it with a Mini TT1, shoe-mounted on my Nikon D800. I had a Flex TT5 attached to the Lumedyne head to fire it. I’ve carefully programmed the Pocketwizard units to work with my various lighting kits, it’s easy using the PocketWizard utility.
To use Hypersync effectively, I had the Lumedyne pack set up to 400 w/s. Even with this, since I’m going into a softbox, it had to be very close, JUST out-of-frame. To add a little difficulty to that, I was shooting with a fisheye lens (16mm Nikkor), so my field of view was extremely wide. I was shooting vertically. Everything in the image looks further away than it actually is. The Inspire 1 was nearly buzzing my hair. Those blades are spinning EXTREMELY fast, the drone is pretty heavy. If it would have touched me, it could have been literally a bloody mess! This is where you have to trust your operator completely. Between Sergio’s experience and the great electronics in the Inspire 1, I could get it exactly where I wanted it. The sun gleaming through the carbon fiber arms was so perfect.
Hypersync allows me to have full control of lighting and freezing action. I can get it to sync at up to 1/8000th of a second. In this case, I didn’t want to fully freeze the blades, then it would just look like they dropped a product shot into that image. I needed SOME movement. I kept the ISO at 100 and shot at 1/1250th of a second. What looks like flex in the rotor blades is actually from the blades moving while the shutter curtains are chasing each other across the focal plane. Between the fact that the Inspire 1 is inches from my camera and spinning THAT fast to hold it in a hover, there’s a perfect amount of blur to let you know it’s flying!
With the right shutter speed and some creative lighting, we came up with a cover shot that both speaks to the great technology of the Inspire 1 and also catches your eye on the newsstand.
That issue of Rotor Drone Magazine (rotordronemag.com) hits the newsstands on March 17th (St. Patrick’s Day). Check it out, it’s full of great stuff!