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View From The Top

Nelly Furtado’s song, ‘I’m Like a Bird’, never rang truer than for drone enthusiasts, who enjoy a bird’s-eye view each time they launch their gadget. A professional photographer and videographer offers some advice to beginners.

The popularity of personal drones among amateur enthusiasts and seasoned professional photographers and videographers cannot be overstated.

Aerial drone footages are a dime a dozen these days, and non-professionals are purchasing easy-to-use drones such as the DJI Spark to capture snippets of their travels and social activities. In fact, DJI, the most popular drone brand now - thanks to models such as Phantom and Mavic - raked in US$2.7 billion in 2017.

And DJI is not resting on its laurels. It recently added a model to its product line-up: the Mavic Air. The Mavic Air is a more economical version of the Mavic Pro; however, the Air is a step up from the meant-for-hobbyists Mavic Spark, thanks to a better camera.

It’s relatively safe to fly a drone as newer iterations come with safety features, such as a one-tap auto-home button and obstacle sensors that prevent your drone from crashing into structures or people. While the Mavic Pro only has two front sensors, the newer ones by DJI come with 360-degree coverage, so you never have to worry about crashing into something if your drone is banking sideways. The Mavic performs flawlessly even in high winds; its internal gyroscope and GPS positioning keep the drone relatively stable. Although the visual experience may make you exceedingly anxious, rest assured it’s safe up in the air, as there are enough warnings of high winds and low battery levels to prompt the pilot to call back the drone.

"My first flight with a drone was exhilarating. I remember looking through my phone, watching the footage live with quivering hands. Here in my control was a device that went everywhere and saw everything. It was a video game come to life!"

Professional opinion

I’m a photographer-videographer by profession, and an avid traveller. I find myself lugging a Mavic Pro whenever I head overseas, be it for work or play. Although it is the largest of the Mavic series, the Mavic Pro can easily sit on the palm of your hand when folded, and is about 76cm in diameter when fully extended. Its easy setup and control, coupled with AI technology, make it a no-brainer to carry around. Within three minutes, I’m up in the sky! The images and footages captured from each of these drone flights is invaluable, making the hassle of having another small bag as part of my handcarry well worth it.

My first flight with a drone was exhilarating. I remember looking through my phone, watching the footage live with quivering hands. Here in my control was a device that went everywhere and saw everything. It was a video game come to life! I no longer had to chase rooftops for cityscape views. I would equate the joy of drone flight to flying kites as a child. You’re forced to focus, enjoy the scenery and take in the moment. Many times when I’m travelling, I tend to focus on getting the shots, and not spend enough time to just soak up the environment - that’s just as important for a professional as it is for a tourist.

Drones have become much smaller and more compact, with even better cameras to record up to 4K resolution, and even up to 120fps on full HD for the DJI Mavic Air - that means 4X slow-mo! But photographs from drones aren’t particularly fantastic, in my opinion. At about 16 megapixels from a tiny CMOS sensor - same as tha t of your mobile phone - they are good enough for online use, but won’t hold up for large formats. There’s also the lack o f dynamic range. While this can be compensated, it doesn’t negate the fact that the sensor itself doesn’t have a very good image quality for conditions other than bright daylight.

4 tips for beginners
Scout for landing zones Designate a landing zone that is relatively clear of obstruction, such as trees and buildings, out in the open.

Get the basic movements right New drone users should familiarise themselves with basic aircraft movements, such as bank, pitch and yaw. Learn also about general bearings and map-reading. Otherwise, DJI’s intelligent app allows you to perform automated movements such as circling, tracking and setting high limits.

Be wary of interference A common issue I’ve faced flying in cities is str ong magnetic interference. They come from anywhere metallic, such as buildings and dr ain covers.

Maintain line of sight with your drone to keep the control signal strong. GPS tends to be fickle around tall walls and inside corridors; this messes with the stabilising sensors in the drones. In the open, the gyro sensors can counter a gust of wind, but not when there is no GPS signal; the drone will fly with the wind unless you manually counter it. In tight spaces, this is can be dangerous - you need experienced and steady hands.

Understand the regulations In recent years, governments have set up rules regarding the use of drones, since they could pose safety and privacy issues. Common concerns include flying height limits and proximity to aerodromes. It is always wise to know the rules regarding drone use in the country and city you’re in, as they differ from place to place.

Singapore bans drone flights within 5km of any aerodrome, including airports and military bases. Drones can fly no higher than 60m, which about the height of a 20-storey building. In addition, the spaces above certain structures are no-go zones; these include the Istana, Parliament and ministers’ homes.

With many of these sensitive areas dotted around Singapore, coupled with overzealous security guards, private building rules and generally uninformed idea of drone laws here, Singapore has a rather unfriendly attitude towards drones. That, however, hasn’t stopped drone photography enthusiasts - one can easily see on platforms such as Instagram plenty of images and footages, sometimes taken at up to 750m in the air!

On the other hand, Oslo, the capital of Norway, bans drones from flying over the city.

Irresponsible flights have caused massive inconveniences to the public. Recently, a drone spotted in the airspace of the Gatwick Airport in the UK prompted the authorities to close the runways for 14 minutes, leading to the diversion of many flights.

I would encourage anyone to take up drone photography as a hobby. The views you see are stunning. The experience can be significant, as it is possible to see familiar places from different perspectives.Furthermore, you might learn a thing or two about city planning and infrastructure - or you could simply enjoy taking awesome stills and footages with your drone!

"New drone users should familiarise themselves with basic aircraft movements, such as bank, pitch and yaw."

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