Landscape photography and drones, my experience
Ever since I was little I have been fascinated with planes, flight and especially aerial photography. So when the first satellite photos where available in Google earth it sparked my interest. This was further fueled when I took a hot air balloon ride some years ago. Together with my camera I had a real change of doing my own aerial photography. This for me was a completely different approach to landscape photography that I had ever done before. However this type of photography I could not combine with my love of hiking through nature as you obviously needed a hot air balloon in your backpack. Which is, well, quite impossible.
With technology progressing I kept a keep eye on drones and their capabilities the last few years. As they became more powerful, smaller and more important cheaper this seemed to become an option. Still I won't give up my landscape photography, so a drone needs to be small and portable enough to fit together with my photography gear in my backpack.
Enter the DJI Spark
Obviously there were the phantom drones from DJI and later on the Mavic Pro. However I wanted to really test the hypothesis that I would use a drone as a additional tool to my landscape photography. So small and especially a cheaper option was preferable to get into drone photography. Enter the DJI Spark. A compact, cheap, but still good enough drone to start my adventure.
The Spark is a mini drone that features all of DJI's signature technologies, with a two-axis gimbal for optimal stability in a small package with additional electronically stabilized third axis. However the latter will sometimes interfere rather than stabilize the recording, more on this later.
Furthermore the Spark has a 12 Mpx camera, good for stills and 1080p Full HD video. No 4k here as the extra pixels on the sensor are needed for that stabilized third axis. The Spark can tilt almost 90 degrees downwards for birdseye perspective and in bright situations can shoot bracketed shots for optimal dynamic range. Good enough for me, or is it?
Take a look here for more information.
The challenge - a new perspective
Aerial photography is totally different from landscape photography even if it is the exact same landscape. The challenge is to find a perspective that tells the story of the landscape, but also fits within the photo or serie that you want to capture. So simply go fly and shoot is not something you just start to do, well you can, but then your photographs will not reflect or fit into your photographs taken from ground level.
This is more difficult than I initially thought. I thought I just makes these cool birds eye views photographs, straight down, as I have seen and studied these types of photographs quite often. Especially finding the right composition can really be difficult and having limited battery time doesn’t help. Normally my feet will carry me wherever I want to go. That’s complete different when flying a drone in line of sight (usually) and fear of running out of battery and losing the drone.
In the end I’m progressing but still learning. Here also lies a drawback of the Spark, later more on this.
The weird thing - video
Well this seems almost obvious, but video is something completely different! What I mean by this is that making video on a different plane (altitude) with an extra element added i.e. time is hard! Where photos are just one take, video is continuous. This makes that you need to think of flights paths, light, composition, time and the end result of how the video will be edited and what you miss and still need to film.
This really comes together when editing the video and making one coherent video with the different shots you have captured before. When I thought still photography editing was sometimes difficult, this is a whole different ball game. You can get properly lost in the editing of video.
So for me video is still the weird thing, but properly exciting and this motivates me to push further and really get into the drone game. A positive push is that I’m now more interested in video. No idea how or what to do, but it keeps me motivated and learning! That’s what you need, right?!
The advantages of the Spark
So to start of with the advantages or positive experiences with the Spark. Well it is small and therefor it easily fits inside my backpack. Although I need a new one, but finding a new backpack, that’s a life’s journey ;-) (Thinking Lowepro or Peak Design). Back to the drone.
Due to small and portable profile it is light and that helps with hiking through landscapes. The funny thing is, that when encountering people, they are more interested in the drone as it is more “toy-like” instead of being offended or scared off. I recently took some shots of the greenhouses over here and actually the owner walked by, he was quite interested and amazed that technology has become so small. We had a nice conversation and nothing about me intruding his compay or space. So no worries there!
The main advantage for me was the price, with a small discount, it was a good starting point to see if drone photography could be complementary to my landscape photography and boy it is! The Spark being positioned towards more consumer based usage it still comes with an additional remote, which in my case, you really need! Plus in the end the image quality is good enough. It will not win awards, but is good for web and social media usage. All in all it really has a different perspective and is complementary to my photography in general. With the side effect of getting more and more into video. Who would have thought.
The drawbacks of the Spark
Well now for the not so good things about the Spark. These are surely drawbacks for me, but none of them, except one, were a surprise for me as I knew what I was getting into.
To begin with, it is small! Wait, wasn’t that a positive thing? Yes it is, but there are drawbacks. The small profile and propellers make it susceptible to winds. It can face some decent wind speeds, but it will reflect in the footage. The Mavic Pro with the bigger profile will do a much better job. So living in the Netherlands, where we almost always have winds, this is something to taken into account.
The image quality is good, but not stellar. I would have liked 4K video, but that is not really a dealbreaker. The 1080p footage looks good on TVs and on Youtube, so use case covered! The image quality when taken stills is a bit different. The quality I think is fine, but there is NO RAW, there lies the problem. The jpgs are too sharp and kill detail, so not really a good thing. Being a small sensor the dynamic range is limited. Luckily you can shoot bracketed shots which helps. One thing that is not mentioned a lot, is the lack of the third stabilized axis. This doesn’t make this a bad drone and the third axis is stabilized electronically by the sensor in-camera. This works fine. Except when you encounter high winds the video will start to jitter. The electronic stabilization can not cope with the irregular vibrations from the wind. Shame!
“One thing that is not mentioned a lot is the lack of the third stabilized axis. The electronic stabilization can not cope with the irregular vibrations from the wind. Shame!”
To finalize the drawbacks as the ones above are not really that big of an issue as long as you know and I knew beforehand. Still the Spark makes me lust for a more pro version, more on that at the end. The biggest drawback for me is the limited battery life! The battery life for such a small drone is good. However for me starting out with drone photography, you need time to find compositions and video shots. In this case time is limited and I am now using three batteries. The batteries are small so that’s not really an issue, but changing batteries after about 12 minutes is. You just lose your “flow”.
My recommendation and way forward
Get the spark if you want to see and learn in a relatively cheap way if drones is something for you or if you just want to have fun! Than the Spark is a really good drone. I would recommend the remote as that makes flying much easier and will help your photos and videos to be much more cinematic.
So taking my experiences and summarizing them all. Would I buy the Spark again? Well yes! And no! Yes if this was the one option for the price. However we now have the Mavic Air. A really good tradeoff between the Spark and the Mavic Pro. With its price right between the two. Looking at the Spark with the remote and extra batteries, I would spend the extra 200-300 euro on the Air! The Mavic Pro however is above the 1000 euro threshold which feels expensive to me, but you know there is always a new one right behind the horizon. So do not be surprised that the Mavic Pro II will be announced soon, this spring 2018.
As for me, the Spark will find a new owner and I will probably end up getting a Mavic Air. The Mavic Pro (II) is tempting, but I really want the keep my backpack small and light! When the new drone is here, the next blog will appear! For now, enjoy the videos.