Up early this morning to head to Brancaster beach along the North Norfolk coast and capture these images. The beach is vast as you can see and to the east of it, there’s a channel, Norton Creek, which separates the mainland from Scolt Head Island. The channel itself leads into Brancaster Staithe where many boats are moored.
The island is quite enticing to get to, but despite being just about reachable at low tide, it can be dangerous and there are plenty of stories of people being trapped or worse.
On the tip of the island is the wreck of the SS Vina, a ship that dates from 1894 and was used as target practice during the war. Today, despite efforts to salvage it, its position means that it’s hard to reach, and it’s visible at low tides.
For some time now I’ve been thinking about putting a camera or cameras on my bike for my commute. While there was no single thing that tipped me over the edge, and I’ve been lucky to only have some rare incidents with other traffic, the ease with which you can fit cameras to bikes meant that I needed to bite the bullet. On camera footage definitely helps with prosecutions of bad behaviour – especially driving.
I wanted to do it cheaply and I already owned an inexpensive GoPro Hero camera. These retailed for less than £100 or so a couple of years ago (that’s cheap for a GoPro). These models aren’t available any more, but they shoot 1080 at 25 frames a second which is fine in this instance. I know that today, there are a wide range of cheaper action-cams available online and on the high street. I suspect that some of these may supercede a three-year-old base level GoPro, but the footage is of high enough quality for my needs, and I already had the camera.
I attached it to my saddle using an adapter that fits to the rails at the back of the saddle (although see below for a better value package). This mounts the camera upside down, and as long as you make the change in the settings, it records video in the correct ratio. Mounting it under the saddle hides, to some extent, the size of the camera.
For the front camera, I chose a GoPro Hero Session which is just under £150 and is the cheaper of the two Session cameras currently available (Note that GoPro will probably update their range soon with a rumoured Hero6 being launched at the top end). There’s a Hero5 model that costs another £100 and adds things like voice control and automatic upload to the cloud. The more expensive model is 4K, whereas the model I bought maxes out at 1440p (2.7K). GoPro says that stabilisation comes with the more expensive model, but there is definitely some stabilisation in this cheaper one – at least when you record in 1080p. You can see an example of that in the video of above at around 7:30, when I go over some cobbles. You can see my bag bouncing around on the cobbles while the camera’s view is relatively stable (the bag was a bit overstuffed, but is attached firmly to the bike). The image remains stable as I believe there’s some electronic stabilisation going on – probably throwing away some of the extra pixels from the wider 1440 image.
The cheaper Session is still waterproof without a housing to 10m, and has Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, although I tend to leave these off to maximise battery life.
Other cameras I considered were the Cycliq Fly6[v] and Fly12. These are cameras specifically designed for bikes, and are built into LED lights. While the rear Fly6[v] was reasonably priced at a little under £100, and includes a very decent looking light, I already have plenty of rear lights. I currently use the Blaze Burner which I backed via Kickstarter. The problem with the front light is that it’s over £200, and is massive. Mounting it on a Brompton would not be easy as you want something that doesn’t stick out when you fold the bike. So it was a non-starter.
Contour cameras are popular with some cyclists and include functionality like over-writing older files that you don’t want to keep. But the camera quality isn’t that great, and there don’t seem to have been any updates in a while. The GoPro Session does have some reasonable low-light imagery for rides in the evening.
To mount the Session to my bike I bought a set of adapters which was good value on Amazon. I was specifically after a minimalist mount that would let me hang the Session below my Brompton’s handlebars. This set came with two options, and I used the smaller one, meaning that the camera doesn’t get in the way when the bike is folded. The camera casing is firmly afixed to both the bars and the GoPro which means removing it all requires a hex key. However the Session itself can easily be popped out via a quick release. The mount set also included another adapter for saddle rails.
Both cameras can be set to use single-button quickstarts – indeed the Session only has one proper button, with a second tiny one set out of the way. So a single press of a button on each camera both turns them on and starts a recording.
The sample video above gives you an idea of what the cameras are capable of, although I know that I could do a bit better with the Session’s output, especially with Protune which allows a “Native” output for finer colour correction in post processing. The regular Hero has no such options with the video quality.
Overall I’m pretty satisfied with my solution. A series of beeps let me know that I’ve switched the cameras on (and off), and I’ve left the LEDs on for confirmation that all is working. The set-up is fully waterproof – the cheaper Hero doesn’t actually come out of its case – and the battery life is sufficient for my needs. I’d say that it’s roughly 2 hours for each camera. Importantly, both cameras fit onto a Brompton very comfortably, and don’t shout “camera” too much.
No sooner had I written most of this entry than I was on my daily commute and the following incident happened. It all happened slowly, and I was unlikely to get hurt as I had plenty of time to brake, but the car driver simply didn’t look to see if there were any cyclists coming as he crossed the junction where I had right of way. Note that while the rear facing camera wouldn’t seem to be much help in this instance, it does allow me to clearly read the driver’s number plate.
Long time readers will know that I’ve been playing with a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced for over two years now. I’ve posted a number of videos and photos from that drone in the past and I’ve been very happy with it. However there’s no denying that its size limits where you can take it. You do have to actively choose to take it with you – perhaps at the expense of other things. I’ve had the whole kit fit into a rucksack, but I need other baggage if I’m taking anything else with me. It’s especially limiting for something like a cycle ride.
So when DJI release the Mavic Pro last year I was very tempted. It has more sensors than my Phantom 3 Advanced. Notably my early mistake of crashing the Phantom into a tree wouldn’t be possible with this. And the functionality is greatly improved too with lots more modes making use of the available sensors.
Now I confess that I was actually pretty happy with the 2.7k camera of the Phantom. While 4k video is nice and future proofs myself, I don’t actually have any way to see it back at that resolution. My laptop isn’t that high a resolution and nor is my TV. In any case, there are limits to the bitrate it records 4k at, and I suspect I’ll be using 2.7k to a larger extent with the Mavic.
One other consideration was the ultraportable DJI Spark which has just been released. This only shoots 1080 but is tiny and is a true go-anywhere drone. The arms don’t fold smartly like the Mavic, but it’s very pocketable and is the sort of thing you can easily keep in the bottom of your bag. I suppose my biggest concern was its performance in windy conditions. The UK doesn’t always have perfect drone flying weather, and while I’ll always avoid the rain, bigger beasts tend to be a bit more solid in the air. That said, in some of the YouTube reviews posted, it looks like it performs decently.
Another consideration is the likelihood that DJI will release an updated Mavic at some point soon. The Mavic Pro was released in October last year but it was post-Christmas before it was more widely available. No doubt there will be a new model available ahead of Christmas this year, but it’s like waiting for the next phone or the next computer. There’s never quite the right time to buy.
I still went with the Mavic, and I bought the Fly More pack – as much as anything for the additional two batteries. Other accessories were moderately useful, including some extra props, a car charger and so on, and although the bag is nice it’s not perhaps quite as tough as would be useful for protection. The hub charger is good, although I was slightly disappointed to learn that it charged batteries sequentially. So if you load 3 or 4 batteries onto it, it still only does them one at a time.
You will need to allow time to charge everything up, and importantly, get the most up to date firmware. DJI basically forces users to use the current firmware by making you use an account. If you don’t have the current firmware, your flight distances are highly restrictive. That all said, while it’s still slow, it’s a bit more obvious than the old Phantom 3 way of doing things. I updated using my phone (on WiFi at home), and that gives you a good idea of where you’ve got in the installation and update. Much better than listening for strange sounds from you Phantom!
The little remote is very nice, and DJI include microUSB, Lightning and USB C cables in the box to connect with your phone. I’ve been used to using a Nexus 7 for my phantom – which is basically that device’s single use. And I notice that there are lots of devices around that let you “mount” a tablet to your remote if you want. In use my phone (an HTC 10) worked well, although you’re going to be flattening your phone’s battery using it rather than a bespoke device. I can live with that for the benefits in portability. I’ll probably pack a small Anker battery charger in my DJI bag to recharge my phone if it flattens after a decent flight. I did however notice that the Mavic’s remote loses charge faster than my old Phantom 3 Advanced remote, which could effectively run for weeks on a single charge.
I played a little with some of the modes that track you as move, although I need to learn more about them.
The Mavic has a range of up to 7 km, but UK regulations say that you need to be able to see your drone at all times. There’s no way you can see something as small as a Mavic that far away. And I’m not sure whether a first-person headset would actually be legal here. One of the problems I had with a white Phantom was losing it against a white cloud sky. The dark grey of Mavic makes it easier to spot (and remain legal), and in any case, I probably don’t want to have to trek 7 km to retrieve an errant drone should it decide to land there. (I confess that I’ve never had a drone “fly away” from me. The closest I’ve got is have to use my eyes to fly a drone back when video connectivity caused me problems one time.)
One issue I will think about is bringing some kind of mat or cloth with me take off and land from. The lowness of the Mavic means even quite short grass could get caught by the propellers. I often find myself launching from grass, so a simple and lightweight solution would be useful.
I’m still learning about what the best recording settings are. I use RAW+JPG for photos, but video is another questions. I’ve also never bought any ND filters for a drone, although they do seem to be used a lot by the pros. We’ll have to see.
I did try doing some live streaming. I first tried YouTube, but the app kept crashing repeatedly when I tried it. So I fell back to Facebook which is never anyone’s favourite platform. They limit the video quality a bit for starters. But I confess that it just about worked (I’d embed the video, but Facebook makes that truly fiddly). A few people watched, although playing back, the video quality was at times poor. More annoyingly, there were cutouts continually. I was on 4G so it shouldn’t have been too bad, but it wasn’t great. Still it was good that the phone’s mic could be used for a sort of commentary of what I was shooting.
Otherwise, I’m really happy with my purchase. Expect more drone footage soon. In the meantime, here’s a sample of what I shot today.
Note that I shot on the default settings and have only done a tiny bit of colour correction on a couple of shots. I’m also interested to see what the difference is like between YouTube and Vimeo, so I’ve uploaded it to both, using Premiere Pro CC 2017’s settings.
I recently spent a week in Northumberland and took the above video. I’m pretty happy with it, although the drone footage is so superior to anything else I shot, that it just goes to show that shooting good video isn’t easy (and definitely needs a tripod). Incidentally, there’s an awful lot of really bad drone footage being used in dramas – even very big dramas. A bit of drone shake or slight jerks really shows up on a big screen and should be reshot. Yet it somehow ends up in the finished product.
Photos to follow in due course. And watch the video fullscreen!