Drone workflow from start to finish – DJI Mavic Pro

Introduction

Whether you’re taking a drone as just an additional camera for a family trip or it’s the primary, cinematic shot for a film, this is a straightforward workflow that can save you precious time and remove the stress of getting an epic shot.

Planning

Pre Flight Preparation

This is everything you need to do, at least the night before, if not 48 hours in case you need to do a quick test flight.

If this is an important, once off chance to get the flight, make sure you do a test flight the day before to make sure everything is working, particularly making sure firmware and apps are up to date and working. It’s only going to cost you a few minutes.

Everything else is about getting your equipment as setup as possible to reduce the number of things you need to do when it comes time to get the shot.

Setup

Resolution

My default is 2.7K at 50 FPS. This gives me room to crop into 1080p videos and slow it down to half speed if I want to. You want to slow it down to 24fps but you can shoot higher and drop that into a 24 sequence.

There is an argument for shooting at 24 fps instead which will allow the camera to process more data. I would do this if you’re shooting something with a lot of movement or detail such grass or vineyards.

I found with 4K I just end up with too much information loss due to the 65mbps limit of the Mavic. Higher frames are available in 1080 but unless I specifically want a slow-motion shot, I’d prefer the higher res at 2.7K, I think that’s more valuable in editing.

Colour

If you’re going to be doing any colour balancing, which you should, then you want to shot with D-Log. This will give you a much better range for brightness and contrast adjustments and consider drone footage often has extreme highlights with the sky and dark shadows on the ground, you want to get the broadest range possible.

Flight Planning

Plan your shots

Think about the story you’re telling and write a list of the shots you want to get, putting them into priority order to allow for battery drain and anything unexpected that can shorten your flight.

Check out your subject on a map and see where your shots are best to come from.

Check the suns location via suncalc.org for the day and time you plan to shot and make sure the sun is well positioned for your shot.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 15.16.59

The day before

  • All batteries are charged
  • Remote charged
  • Phone / Tablet charged
  • Check SD card is empty
  • ND / PL filters
  • Check the weather for likely filter
  • Check the sun suncalc.org
  • Set expected settings – Resolution and frame rate, ISO to 100 – cinematic or action
  • Video mode in D-Log unless you are not colour grading.
  • Turn on histogram and zebra overlay
  • Check date and time – all cameras

Flight

Pre Flight

  • Check that the battery is ready and fully charged
  • Remote on, DJI Go app open and switch Mavic on
  • Compass Calibration if needed
  • Max height set, assume needed – should be defaulted to region
  • GPS established – Home point set

Take Off

Use the precision landing option on take off so that the Mavic has enough time to take launch photos.

Grab video on take off, you never know what great shot you might get by accident.

Getting the shot

Firstly, stick to your plan and get the banker shots first. Line up for your shot and check that you have clearance all the way from the start to the end of the shot looking out for power lines, trees or anything that is in your path, or has the potential to send up in your path.

Set your exposure

Remember your 180-degree shutter rule of your shutter speed should be double your framerate, for example, if you’re shooting in 24fps then you want your shutter speed set to 1/48 if available, otherwise 1/50.

This is not a must have but it certainly makes a nicer shot by creating a bit of movement in each frame rather than each frame appearing completely stationary.

The complication with small-scale drones like the Mavic Pro, is that you don’t have an aperture so you’re light level is dictated by ISO and shutter speed. We’ll talk ND filters in a moment but for now, you need to set your ISO as low as possible and hope your shutter speed is near the 1/50 mark, or 1/100 if you’re shooting at 50fps.

Once you’re in the air, the only adjustment you really have is your shutter speed to lower exposure.

Manually set your shutter and ISO

Manual. Always Manual.

Reason being that when you’re editing, the big pain in the butt is when your shutter or ISO suddenly changes mid shot. So to avoid that we set it to manual but this means we need to check the exposure value prior to each shot.

The Histogram is the easiest way to do this along with zebra pattern to show over-exposed parts of the shot. Make sure both these options are turned on.

Screenshot 2018-02-22 20.28.46
Adjusting around changing shutter or ISO is a pain

ND Filter

When we end up with a shutter speed that way higher than the 180 rule and without an aperture, the only way to bring this shutter speed down is put sunglasses on.

The Neutral-density filter does exactly that with the intention of getting the shutter speed down to our desired speed of 1/50 or 1/100, depending on your frame rate as mentioned above. I use the PolarPro filters and they have a nice little app that basically does the calculation for you. You enter your currently set values and then it will tell you what filter you should use.

There’s a possibility that you’re going to rise up and then realise your shutter speed is wrong, usually too high. Note the shutter value, work out which filter you need and drop back down and swap the filters. It’s a pain in the butt to do but it makes the difference between a good shot and a great one!

Movement makes the shot

Remember that a drone shot is all about movement, buttery smooth and silky soft movement.

Similar to panning, you’re basically looking to set up the perfect arc without changing the sticks at all during the shot. If you do need to change the arc, make the movement as gentle as possible.

To avoid movement you can pre-program your flight with other apps like DJI Ground Station or AutoPilot by AutoFlightLogic.

If possible, and particularly if it’s an important shot, grab it a couple of times just to make sure you’ve got it.

Also, try to drag the shot out a little longer than you actually think you need, it’s far easier to edit out each end of the shot rather than to try and work around not finishing off the shot perfectly.

Record each shot separately

This is not actually about saving space, although it will help with that, it’s actually to make editing easier.

You want to make sure that each shot is it’s own file so it can be evaluated and sorted accordingly.

When you’re talking photos you always end up with good shots and bad shots and it’s easy to filter out the bad ones by giving them one star but with film, you don’t have the same options. If you’ve grabbed three shots within the one file, it makes it far harder to rate and organise your shots when editing so if you’re saving a separate file for each shot, then it will make organising far easier. There are ways to organise without doing this which I’ll talk about shortly.

Returning Home

Remember that the footage doesn’t exist until it’s safely off the SD card, so returning home is the single most important part of the trip and if you’ve set the RTH height from the take-off process as well as taking off with precision landing turned on, this can be as easy as hitting the RTH button.

The Content

Files and Import

As with most cameras, removing the MicroSD card and using a card reader is much faster than connecting directly to the aircraft via a USB cable.

My workflow for file management is usually the following which allows for backing up to a master drive plus keeping the most recent stuff on a portable like a Lacee. Oh, and seriously, just spend the money on the Lacee rugged if you’re taking the drive away anywhere, they’re built to take the movement. One hard drive loss is enough to make that decision.

Personal / Business => Year => Project or location => Video or Images => Date => Camera

Firstly a separation of business and personal, at some stage the files are going to be too big to fit on one drive and you only want to keep the important ones on your portable and if you end up having one drive for business and one for personal, your separation is already done.

At this stage, I’m basically buying a new drive each year which keep my files on my big master as well as having a second copy on another drive.

This next one is about finding content easily. I separate based on either a project if it’s business or a location or thing for personal. If you visit the same place more than once, you can use footage from multiple visits in one video. For example, if you go to a lake house and one time you’re on the boat with a GoPro but the next time you’re using the drone to follow the boat, you now have two camera angles for one video.

I then separate video and images because I’m using that data in different programs, everything in images gets imported into Lightroom and everything in the video folder gets imported into Premiere Pro. Then when I dump more images, I can just sync the folder in Lightroom.

The date is then fairly obvious but that is just to make it easier to match content with situations. Use a format that’s easily sortable like YYYY-MM-DD.

I then separate by the camera because this will help in editing combining all your shots together. It will also help in sorting and filtering your good shots from the dodgy ones. Images are easier in Lightroom by using stars to filter but you don’t have the same options with video, but there are ways to achieve the same thing.

Screenshot 2018-02-22 20.37.27.png

Sorting and finding content

There are multiple ways to do this but it is far easier, as mentioned above to make sure each shot is its own file. That way you can organise files by good and bad.

This comes down to a bit of a personal preference as there is more than one way to do this but what you want to end up with is a file structure that is easy to understand and easy to find the content you want. I tend to folder Premiere Pro in the same manner as the file structure which makes it easier to find but I also have two approaches to finding and storing the best content.

Screenshot 2018-02-22 20.26.16(2)
Organisation of your folders is the most important aspect of an optimised workflow

File per shot

The first version is the easy version where I’ve already got all my shots in separate files then all I need to do is watch each shot, set a good in and out point and then put it into a folder named by rating. You can use stars or just good and bad, up to you but the important thing is you know your good shots from your bad ones.

The in and out points are already set so when you drop that shot onto your timeline, it’s already sliced in the good part.

Long files with multiple shots

Sometimes you can’t separate the shots into other files, for example on a mounted GoPro, so you’ll need to be able to find the good bits of the minutes or even hours of stuff.

You can do this by dropping the entire clip onto a timeline and then basically run through it slicing out everything that is junk. This takes a bit of time but there’s a quicker process if you’re using Premiere Pro.

Run through your timeline, find a bit you like. Hit ‘Q’ at the start of the good bit and then run through to where that ends. Press CMD+K to slice the timeline and then just continue that process and you’ll end up with a timeline full of all the best bits.

Now you have two options here, again it’s your preference but you can either export that entire clip as a ‘best of’, re-import it into your project then you can delete the old file. This is a good way if you need to save space. This is also good if you’re using multiple GoPros and you want to capture one vision from all of them but with combined audio, just in case the audio is better from one of the cameras over others.

For example, on a motorbike, I combine the rear facing camera and the helmet camera, edit the vision with what I want, lowpass the rear camera audio to capture nice exhaust notes and combine that with the audio from the microphone in the helmet. That’s then exported as one cut down file which I can edit into something later. In the meantime, I reduced the hard drive footprint from 60-70GB to 3 or 4.

The second option is that you select all the clips in the timeline and drag that into a new folder in your project panel. This will create individual clips in the folder for each shot. You can then use those to drop onto your timeline individually and they’re already cut to size. This still relies on your original video files so you can’t delete those.

Screenshot 2018-02-22 20.26.16
The more efficient the workflow, the more time you spend being creative

Conclusion

This process is using the DJI Mavic Pro as an example but much of this can be applied to Mavic Air, Phantom and just about any drone. From there you’re ready to edit.

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