Drone diaries/ Photoessay: Over Iceland

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I’m going to start this post with a confession: I lost/crashed a drone during the making of these, which is why there’s no video of me flying through the sea arch at Hellnar, or of that double sided beach where the waves pound a narrow strip of rocks. (I do have the stills from the Hasselblad though, which I’ll post in the near future.) Feeling confident after the flight low over the surf and through the arch, I went a bit further out to sea to do a flyby of the coastal cliffs, and an orbit of a sea stack. Mistake number one: I wasn’t high enough, and the signal was looking a bit ropey. That should probably have been enough of a clue that something was going to go wrong. Mistake number two: I underestimated the winds between the cliffs and the rocks – and there’s not really any way to judge wind speed remotely, other than sponginess of controls and lack of manoeuvring overhead as the bird uses more and more of its available reserve power to fight the wind. Mistake number three: I was flying sideways so the gimbal and camera would be pointed in the correct position to film, which meant that I didn’t really have much idea of what was behind me (the Mavic doesn’t have rearward or sideways sensors). What I surmise happened is that I got too close to the cliffs behind me, and a gust of wind did the rest. Game over.

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However – we managed to get two other good flying days, in which light and winds and locations were favourable. (High wind isn’t as bad as gusting wind, which makes it very difficult for GPS hold to compensate.) During those days, this set of images were produced – at Haifoss, and at the Ölfusá river delta near Selfoss. Flying in these kinds of conditions makes me wish for several things: higher image quality for more printing potential, obviously, but moreover higher motor power and longer battery life. It can take a good few minutes of flight time out and back to get to the vantage point you want; maybe longer to come back because of winds, and then there’s the time on station. With a total battery life in the best case of about 25min, plus a safety margin of 20-30%, you perhaps have at most 10-15min of actual shooting time – which is really not very much at all, and not very much if you’re also doing a video run and need a couple of passes to get the gimbal and aircraft movements perfect. Contrary to what you might think, a larger aircraft like a Phantom or Inspire isn’t any better – runtimes are actually a bit shorter in practice because much more energy is required to keep the heavier aircraft in the air, though you do get a bit more power.

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This brings me to what I was doing in Iceland in the first place: making two new videos for Hasselblad, one on using the X1D Field Kit in the field, and another on the Hasselblad Experience workshops. We used a pair of DJI Mavic Pros for scouting, video and of course, stills. Both videos and stills (including raw files) will be released shortly. The upgraded Mavic Pro Platinum would have been better, but was not available at the time of production. Practically, it was a sound choice also because of size and weight and the fact we were often hiking with the Hasselblad gear, video gear, tripods, and the aircraft – plus spare batteries for extended flight time weren’t too much of an additional penalty. Shooting D-Log for video resulted in surprisingly usable footage even in marginal lighting conditions (high contrast, low light) and since a couple of firmware updates ago, there’s a ‘True Color’ profile for stills on the Mavic – a mode designed to replicate the natural color produced by the Hasselblad cameras, which I was involved in developing. I have to say – if I wasn’t there and didn’t see it with my own eyes, it’d be hard to believe the colors of Iceland can actually be found in nature, and made even more surreal whens the right kind of light interacts with them.

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To be honest, I’m more sad at losing the footage and stills than the aircraft – there are low resolution versions automatically uploaded to your phone, but they’re really not the same. I actually landed up replacing it with another Mavic in Reykjavik (again, Platinum edition still wasn’t available) – but I’m glad I did so because there’d be no images from Haifoss without it. My conclusion is this: yes, drones are risky and potentially dangerous, so I wouldn’t fly like this in a situation where there was anybody else around; but at the same time, creative boundaries cannot be pushed without taking some chances, and if they result in destroyed gear – remember, they’re tools, and meant to be used. MT

The DJI Mavic Pro and Mavic Pro Platinum are available from B&H and Amazon. I recommend the Fly More combo as it includes additional batteries, props and a car charger.

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Prints from this series are available on request here

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. I like the borealis one in the video now on youtube, one of your best ones imo.
    Mark

  2. Martin Fritter says:

    These are really wonderful. Also: very happy for you getting to work with assistants and real technical support. There’s a lot that goes into this kind of photography.

  3. Did you recover the done? Leaving wreckage in the wilderness is not a happy thought.

  4. Off topic: Will we see a X1D | A7RIII | D850 shootout here at MT?

  5. I’m happy to see you mention that you lost your drone. I’m not happy you lost it, just happy you mentioned it. Crashing is something I think anyone who is interested in flying drones should be aware of. It’s a part of flying that is unavoidable but not talked about much. “Buy your first drone to crash, your second drone to fly.” “if you really need one drone, bring two or three.”

  6. Long time lurker, first time poster.

    DAMN. These images are spectacular! Iceland, from this vantage point, looks like an alien world. Your images make me want to book my flight today!

  7. I hope you recovered the wreckage. Lithium batteries and plastic debris in pristine areas are a problem.
    This event raises the issue of how far we should go to get a photo.

  8. Awesome photos as always Ming! Any plans on adding drone photography to the teaching store? 🙂

  9. I like these images but I think drone shots are becoming ubiquitous and deserve a separate catagory or sub-catagory, if you will, differentiating them from “normal” landscapes. Perhaps I am merely jealous…but the skill set to acquire these shots seems at odds with what I believe constitutes thoughtful landscape photography.

    • You still need light and the ability to compose, so that hasn’t changed. But add to it piloting skills and a bit of imagination as to what you’ll find from the air…

  10. Absolutely awesome photos! Drone allows us to have a chance to get some really spectacular views otherwise only accessible by helicopter or plane. Were the photos taken by the camera in the Mavic Pro set?

  11. Fantastic images – and there’s something about the naturalness and clarity of the colours that I belive shows that a true photographer is at work here.

  12. Wonderful set Ming. Off topic: excellent firmware update to the X1D…is there any chance whatsoever that Hassey and Zeiss will partner in the future. Lenses seem to be the system’s only real weakness at this point.

    • I’d argue it’s the range of lenses rather than the quality, and 21, 35-75 and 65mm lenses are already in the works (plus others I can’t talk about yet)…but building a complete stable is the challenge of any new system.

  13. Sorry you lost your equipment. The captures are beautiful.

  14. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Hello Ming !
    Definitely Artistic vision !
    Sincerely,
    Anatoly

  15. David Mantripp says:

    Haifoss, eh? Where there any wealthy chinese dropped in by helicopter while you were there? Or was it only drone noise pollution ruining the day for people who wanted to enjoy the nature? Isn’t there no point where ego-driven photographers realise that their quest for Awesome Shots(tm) has turned the into anti-social pests? That they don’t understand that ruining other people‘s trip of a lifetime for on-line kudos is acceptable?

    It’s not going to make me popular around here, or in other geek-infested domains, for for a crashed drone is just a good start. Reallly, this madness has gone too far.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Totally at odds with the beauty and silence of nature. A totally alien and unwelcome (and selfish) intrusion.

      • If somebody didn’t do it, you wouldn’t get to see it because you can’t physically go to that perspective. The same can be said/applied to every kind of photography in a way…

        There’s a time and place for use of a drone. I agree that antisocial use is NOT on, but when there’s nobody else around, it isn’t even social.

    • No, just me and the film crew, so there wasn’t anybody else – not that you can hear a thing over the waterfalls. You’ll notice I have almost nothing from urban areas for that reason – I just don’t fly it in populated areas. If some photographers hadn’t made the effort to go on their trips of a lifetime to places without others and come back with images, the rest wouldn’t be going on ‘the trip of a lifetime’ because they wouldn’t know it was there. Lastly: one doesn’t have to fly a drone or physically go somewhere to be a noisy, antisocial pest, either. 🙂

  16. Absolutely stunning!

  17. Surreal, superb and splendid….love them all.

  18. Of all the excellent work you’ve shown here over the years, this is for me the best you’ve ever published.

  19. Truly great pics, but I wonder what it would be like to just walk for a few hours alone in that environment? Must be incredible.

  20. dimitri stamatakis says:

    Sorry if you have answered this already, why not the DJI phantom 4 ? the resolution and 1 ” cmos is better surely ?

  21. Ming, are you sure these are pictures from Earth – not from some other planet? What stunning beauty!

  22. mike gannon says:

    only nature can make perfect art, its great that you are able to capture it and share it with us,its a testament to your skills and camera

  23. This is unparalleled work on how you captured the raw and somewhat primal. Fantastic! Love it!

  24. Incredible photos Ming, could be from another planet.
    Too bad about the drone, but as you said, it’s equipment that’s made to be used. When my friend and I damage/destroy a racing engine, we shrug and start the repair/replace process.
    Will the day come when you’ll put a Hasselblad up in the air, so you can make the prints you want?

    • Thanks. We did put a H6-100 in the air for the Koenigsegg shoot, but with that payload it doesn’t have the endurance (and range) we need. Plus, given the wind conditions – I’m okay risking a Mavic, but a H6-100 is rather less disposable…

  25. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Lovely photos, just lovely!

    Next exhibition in Reykjavik?
    Or at a Museum Modern Art in e.g. Stockholm?

  26. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The photos are amazing – so is the scenery – and you only crashed the drone ONCE? I’m not game to fly mine outside, it crashes practically every time I use it. 🙂

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