Snow and Mist

Snow and Mist from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

The country has been covered with snow for the last week or so, but it’s not straightforward to get some spectacular drone shots because of the weather. Consumer drones aren’t capable of flying while it’s snowing. And you also have to consider wind speed, and there’s been quite a lot of that.

So my only practicable solution was to get up very early in the morning. Although a fresh fall of snow had been dropped the previous afternoon, and overnight the temperatures had remained sub-zero, but this morning the melt was very much on.

I shot this video and these pictures during a misty dawn. There was still plenty of snow on the ground, although it would disappear fairly rapidly as the day went on. The key thing to always remember with snow photography is that you need to increase the exposure beyond where the camera thinks it should be.

Wicken Fen: A Cycle Ride from Ely to Cambridge – Stuck in Draft #4

Here’s a cycle ride I took in April 2016. I think the winter and spring months are quite a nice time to do this ride. It’s not especially demanding and is easy to reach from London with direct trains from King’s Cross. Another in my series, Stuck in Draft.

Reading Rain recently, I realised that it had been a while since I last visited Wicken Fen, the National Trust owned wetland fen in rural Cambridgeshire. It’s a wonderful little paradise that shows how the fens would have looked before they were managed by man. The fenlands are very arable, so over years, a complicated system of ditches, dykes, pumps and droves has led to the marshes being drained and many crops being grown.

At Wicken Fen the National Trust has a 100 year vision to take over more of the land between Wicken and Cambridge and to preserve a unique natural habitat.

I suspect that most people drive to Wicken, but it’s pretty easy to get to via bike, which is of course how I travelled there. The closest station to the reserve is at Ely, but it’s a nice ride to continue on afterwards back to Cambridge. Ely is very easy to get to from central London, with three trains an hour leaving King’s Cross, the fastest taking a little over an hour.

The route I took, shown on the linked Strava map below, is actually not the one I’d fully recommend. My route took me along the A142 from Ely a bit too much, and although this isn’t a terrible road to cycle along, traffic does past you at speed. It’s worth noting that much of the landscape here is very exposed, so even a slight wind will be felt by you.

I’d instead recommend following the Sustrans National Cycling Route 11 which runs along the Ouse before turning SE and towards Wicken. The only thing to note about this, and other parts of the route, is that they’re not suitable for cyclist with skinny racing tyres.

My slightly duller route joined up with Route 11 at Barway, where a large grocery packing plant sits alone in the fens. An adjacent hostel suggests that many of the workers are not local. And continuing on, a sign in both English and Polish warning drivers to be on the lookout for cyclists, backs that up.

It only takes a little over half an hour to reach the reserve itself, down a short road in the village of Wicken itself. You pass a car park and several houses before reaching the visitor centre.

I would say that I’d arrived early, but the site is open from dawn to dusk, and now that we’re on British Summertime, that would have meant 6:30am – far too early for me to reach Wicken via public transport from London. Nonetheless, even a little past 9:00am, there were few about.

A helpful staff member pointed out the various routes around the reserve, and where was currently accessible. As these are wetlands, much of the land is inaccessible for large parts of the year. Sedge Fen has a Boardwalk allowing access year around, and that’s where most visitors go. Beyond that there is the longer loop that takes in a couple of the bigger hides that tower over the nearby fens. When I visited this was an out-and-back walk since the ground was still too wet towards the back of the reserve.

The National Trust also has cycle hire, a nice little café where I got a snack for lunch, and a well stocked shop. You can do short boat trips, and they even have some geocaches hidden around the reserve!

One solution for being able to get into the reserve early might be to camp, and I note that there’s a wild camp nearby that you can reserve for a group – especially good for families.

I got back on my bike and headed south, still in Trust-owned fens. The cycle route is well signed and you’re soon out in open land.

I’d brought my kite with me since I thought it might be fun to try some more kite aerial photography. There wasn’t a great deal of wind, but it was enough to get my camera up into the air. Not as fancy as my drone, but it’s much more packable in a runsack, and I’m not sure that the Trust would have been happy with me buzzing around with rotors, whereas a kite is harmless.

The cycle route is also called the Lodes Way, because it reaches the pretty village of Lode near another National Trust property, Anglesey Abbey. But also because lodes are what the manmade waterways that criss-cross the countryside in these parts are called. Lode is a pretty little village, filled with thatched cottages (alongside some more recent buildings). I’d have called in at the Abbey, but the car-park suggested that it was quite busy, so I decided to give it a miss.

From Anglesey Abbey, I should have perhaps headed south a little further to the village of Bottisham, before joining National Cycle Route 51, but I instead cycled along the B1102 through the village of Stow cum Quy before rejoining the route and riding into Cambridge. If you’re lucky you might pass the end of Cambridge Airport’s runway when something interesting lands.

The massive new CyclePoint at Cambridge Station has recently opened, with room for nearly 3,000 cycles, perhaps the closest anywhere in Britain to those enormous cycle parks you see near Dutch train stations. In due course there will also be an attached shop. But the whole area around the front of the station is still something of a work-site at the moment.

The whole trip at 36 km (22 miles) is a nice day out – especially if the weather is good.

Saturn – Farewell Cassini

Farewell Cassini. You have been wonderful!

On Friday, just ahead of Cassini finally burning up in the atmosphere of Saturn as the probe ended its 13 years orbiting the planet, its rings and its moons, the mission’s Twitter feed sent this.

And so, I did.

The picture above was taken in Zakynthos where I was on holiday. I only had my RX100 III “point and shoot” with me, which only has a 70mm zoom lens. That means that I had no chance of seeing the rings of Saturn. So instead I took a photo of the night sky, looking southwest, and relying on mobile apps to point me in the right direction to see Saturn. There was also a little light pollution from streetlights in the village I was staying in.

You can see Saturn in the lower quarter of the picture, just to the right of the Milky Way, which was nicely visible. The photo was taken in the relatively early evening after the sun had set since Saturn was only visible for a few hours before dipping below the horizon.

The picture below makes it clear exactly where in the image Saturn is.

The rings of Saturn are very viewable for the amateur. I still remember the excitement when I was younger, and my mum borrowed a large telescope from the school she taught in that was going unused. We had it at home for a few months, and seeing the rings of Saturn from my suburban back garden, with all the attendant light pollution, was just the most wonderful thing.

Sadly, I don’t have a telescope today – it’s on the wish list – and I certainly didn’t take one on holiday with me.

But looking up and seeing Saturn was a wonderful thing.

BTW NASA has published a wonderful free eBook containing many of the best images of Saturn and its moons, taken by Cassini over the years. It’s definitely worth a download! All the images within have links to the full size images from NASA’s website, so you can download them and make your own prints if you choose.

Also check out both episodes of The Sky at Night and Horizon on the Cassini mission.

Brancaster Beach

Brancaster Beach from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

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.

A couple more photos over on Flickr.

RideLondon Classique 2017

A few weeks ago, it was the annual RideLondon. This year I didn’t get a space in the main RideLondon 100, but I still popped down to watch the RideLondon Classique race around a central London course. Unfortunately it was a miserable day, with fairly unrelenting rain.

I meant to arrive a little earlier than I did, but by the time I got to the bottom of Piccadilly where the teams were warming up and had parked up their various buses and vans, they were mostly all heading to the start line.

I positioned myself near the top of Whitehall where the cyclist came past twice a lap, once heading out onto The Strand, and once again when they returned around Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch and into The Mall.

The rain meant that nobody wanted to let a breakaway go, and the race was tight all the way through. That also meant that any riders who dropped off the back would stay dropped for the remainder of the race. You felt very sorry when you saw the same riders, lap after lap, doing their own wet-weather time-trials.

RideLondon pays equally for both men’s race and the women’s race, and as a consequence offers more prize money than any other race in the Women’s World Tour calendar. For that reason alone, the teams take it seriously, even though I suspect many would rather race something more akin to the men’s route out in the Surrey Hills and back.

I suspect that the organisers don’t think that they could fit it another ride along that route when they already run both the RideLondon 100 and RideLondon 46 along those roads, making sure that they’re clear for the professional men who set off some 5-6 hours after them. There’s also the issue of TV coverage of both men and women. As things stand the Women get live TV on Saturday evening, while the men get coverage on Sunday afternoon.

Back to the race, and Sunweb took it very seriously. They always had riders at the front of the race, and were looking for intermediate sprint results too. At one stage I found myself standing next to team director or helper who had a radio, and was busily instructing his riders from his viewpoint where I was near the top of both Whitehall and The Mall.

In due course the race was won by Coryn Rivera in a closely fought sprint finish. Cevelo’s Lotta Lepistö came second while Canyon-SRAM’s Lisa Brennauer was third. Just behind them was Marianne Vos who had been reasonably anonymous in the race. I’d not seen her since I’d seen a couple of spectators grab a selfie near the start (I kicked myself I didn’t do the same).

A shame about the weather which I think neutralised the race too much. While a criterium like this affords plenty of views to see the riders, there’s a limited amount they can do to get a break.

Plenty more photos over on my Flickr page.

DJI Mavic Pro – Initial Thoughts

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.

Hilly Fields – First Mavic Pro Flight from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

There are a couple more photos on Flickr too.