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Colin Devroe

Photographer. Podcaster. Blogger. Reverse Engineer.

Observations about flying a DJI Phantom 4 Pro

Maria Langer, professional helicopter pilot, blogger and Twitter friend, got her DJI Mavic Pro on nearly the same day as I got my DJI Phantom 4 Pro. She’s taken the time to write down her thoughts on the experience and so I thought I’d quote her post since she and I agree on our first few flight missions. We also purchased a professional drone for the same reason:

And that’s a big part of what this drone is to me: it’s a tool for making photos and videos. While some people buy drones for the flying aspect of them and actually race them around obstacles, etc., I have no intention of doing that.

Ditto.

Here is a good tip about landing and taking off from the ground:

And if there’s dust, that dust is going to fly on landing and take off (just like with a helicopter) and possibly get into rotor heads or gimbal parts. I had the foresight to order a foldable landing pad to operate from — this helps ensure a safe, clean environment for operations.

As often as possible I take off and land from a small foldable table that I keep in my Jeep for this very reason. I don’t want to land in snow or in wet grass or, as Maria points out, in a dusty area. And, although I’ve seen others do this, I do not want to (nor should you) catch my drone.

She also notes something I had trouble with too:

The only real complaint I have about the design is related to the plastic clamp that holds the gimbal immobile during transport: I have a heck of a time getting that damn thing on. I assume I’ll better at it one of these days; I sure hope it’s soon.

I agree with her on this. But, gimbals are fussy things. They are free moving and so very hard to get into the right position to get this clamp in place. However, her assumptions are correct, the more I’ve done it the better I’m getting at it.

Maria regarding the app and controller:

There is a lot to learn about the controller and the DJI Go app. Yes, you can pick it up and fly it almost immediately with just a few pointers from a friend or a quick glance through the manual, but you will never master either flying or photography — which really do need to be considered separately — without reading the manual and trying various features until you learn what works for you.

The app is incredible. It has many features for controlling the drone, the camera, for programming the drone to do actions autonomously, and more. I’m super, super impressed with the app and I know it will be months before I feel comfortable with every feature. On the other hand, the app is terrible at transferring files. I recommend getting a card reader as soon as you can for this.

Be sure to read the rest of her post as her experience is based on the Mavic Pro.

I’ll add a few things; first, the speed of the Phantom 4 Pro. Even though I’m using this as a camera it is fun to get some wind under the props now and then. Sport mode is essentially what I was used to with my other, inexpensive, featureless UAV in that it turns off all obstacle avoidance and goes all out. I’ve flown my drone over 50MPH according to the app. At that speed it is really moving. It is impressive.

The engineering that has gone into this device is pretty staggering. The app has features for following objects, orbiting points of interest, you can draw on the screen where you want the drone to fly and it does it. There are also preferences for nearly every single setting. And, I’ve found, for the most part this thing is impossible to crash. I’m afraid to write that sentence but I do believe that if I crash this drone it will be my fault and not the fault of the drone.

If I could just warn others that the ease of flight can cause complacence. Flying a drone is a serious responsibility. Not only are you flying a device that likely set you back a few thousand dollars but you’re more than likely flying over some property that may not belong to you. And as Maria has pointed out in the past, you’re also flying in shared airspace. This drone can fly itself but I’d still recommend you create your own pre-flight checklist. Here is mine that I’m continuously adding to.

I’m only a few missions into having this new drone but I can say that I’m very happy with my investment so far. I’ll report back as I learn more.

 

Tips for new drone owners

After a few weeks of trial and error, (lots, and lots of error) video tutorial binging, manual devouring, and literally swimming for and losing my first UAV, I thought it might be good to jot down some tips for new drone owners.

Drone on ground

So here they are, in no order, but all worth considering:

  • Fly over shallow water – If you are going to fly over water, fly over shallow enough water that you’ll be able to rescue your UAV should it take a dip. I was able to rescue my drone in 8 feet of water, but I wasn’t able to rescue it in 30 feet of water. Or, buy something like this.
  • Keep and read the manual that comes with your craft – You may not understand the lingo the first time you read it. But after a few weeks you’ll know what yaw, headless mode, pitch, m/s, and many other terms mean and this way you’ll understand the manual more each time you review it.
  • Search for your model on YouTube and watch other people fly – Some people have taken the time to record great tutorials on flying your particular model and you’ll be very glad they did. You’ll learn a lot by watching other people fly.
  • Fly in a huge, huge open area if you can find it – The bigger and flatter the area the more you can safely explore and make mistakes. You can make two, three, four or more flight corrections in a large area and you won’t hurt yourself, your craft, or any property.
  • Practice, practice, practice – Do the same exact maneuver over and over and over. When it comes time to use that skill your brain will just do it. Here is an example… watch this video. It is boring. Practice can be boring.  It is OK. It is worth the effort.
  • Immediately buy more flight time – If you’ve recently purchased a craft and only have access to the battery that comes with it… find some batteries for your craft on Amazon or eBay and buy them right now.
  • Buy replacement parts before you need them – If your craft didn’t come with replacement blades, legs, etc. just go on eBay right now and buy some. You may never need them but they are so inexpensive it is worth having them around. And you’ll want them to be handy when you need them.
  • Controllers need power too – Don’t forget to keep back up controller batteries with you at all times. Nothing worse than a full craft battery and drained controller batteries.
  • Flying in the morning is easier – Wind is generally down in the early morning hours. So if you want to fly over a body of water for the first time, morning is the best time to do it.
  • If there is a steady wind, fly into it, not with it – By flying into the wind you can safely return your craft by simply guiding it rather than fighting it. Also good when your battery is getting low.

I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list over time. If I do, I’ll make a note of the newer tips.

While I have you reading this, here are some general tips for shooting video with your UAV if you’re into that sort of thing.

  • High flying videos are cool, but so are low flying ones – Don’t concentrate solely on getting the highest footage that you can. Low and slow can be just as dramatic.
  • Use the sun to your advantage – Magic hour is great for video too. Face away from the sun to have the best naturally lit subjects… face into the sun to get that JJ Abrams lens flare.
  • Fly the same route more than once – Trying to capture a scene? Do the same route more than once to ensure you got the shot you want.
  • Record a bit more than you need – Don’t try to “edit in the camera”. You can edit the footage later. Bookend what you think you need with 10 seconds of padding.
  • Slow, smooth – It is very rare that you need really fast video. Slow and smooth wins the day. So keep the corrections to a minimum.
  • It isn’t just about the gear – Photography has a saying “the best camera is the one you have with you”. Same goes for video. Gear is important, but it isn’t as important as your creativity and diligence to get what you want.

Happy flying!

Observations from the first two years of kayaking

I’ve been kayaking for two years and one month.

Colin in Sandbridge VA

My first post about kayaking is a sprawling post about my first two paddles but one that I’m really happy I wrote and published. In it I show exactly the types of things a new paddler worries about; falling in, being cold, getting in and out of the boat, etc. In a recent post you see what a paddler thinks about after they’ve gotten over those things; where go to, what to see, and missing opportunities to catch snakes.

A bridge in Keenlake Campground

Kayaking may have saved my sanity. For the last two years I’ve been attempting to create a new company and I completely failed. Most start up companies fail. I knew that going in. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have an immense amount of stress living the ups and downs every day. Kayaking was my way to decompress. (More on this story in future posts.)

I’ve paddled in tons of local areas and even some a few hundred miles away from home. I have mentioned my goal of kayaking in Scotland once or twice here on my blog. Two years into my kayaking hobby and I still have that as a goal to do some day.

Tide is out in Back Bay Sandbridge Virginia

Here are some random observations I’ve made after two years of kayaking:

  • Anyone can do it. If you think you can’t for some reason, you’re likely wrong. Start off simple and slow with no expectations and you’ll likely be surprised.
  • More people should do it. Kayaking sounds like a great hobby to everyone I talk to and yet not as many people have kayaks as I think should. Especially here in Pennsylvania with thousands of bodies of water to explore.
  • It is less expensive than you think. A used kayak will set you back a few hundred dollars at most. The rest of the gear you need; paddle, life jacket, etc. is maybe $100 for a brand-new set. A rack for your roof may cost up to $100 too (unless your car already has them). After that kayaking is generally free and you can likely do it for years on your first set of gear.
  • It is very good for you. Exercise, fresh air, sun. All great things.
  • It is the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done. Some like to read a book to relax, some like to nap. I like to paddle. I like to be active yet my brain can simply forget the cares of the day and focus on moving forward or finding critters or enjoying the sounds of nature.
  • You don’t fall in often. In fact, I would say a more cautious paddler than me would almost never fall in. I’d even go one step further and say you could, if you wanted to, plan to never even get wet. I’ve paddled in jeans before. Getting in and out of the water using a dock you may never get any water on you at all.
  • You won’t be cold. Your body heat in a kayak creates a really nice insulated spot. Bundle up a little, you won’t be cold even in winter.
  • Pay attention to wind more than any other weather factor. Kayaking in rain is fun and adds no difficulty to your paddling. Even in a downpour it’d be a long time before your kayak gets enough water in it to make a difference. (And, you could cover your hull with a skirt if it is that bad). However, wind is a huge factor in how difficult your paddle will be. Take a minute to read this post I wrote after kayaking in Back Bay, Sandbridge, Virginia in 2015.
  • Tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to return. Even very rough estimates of either of those things help a lot should anything happen.

Here are some, quite literally, random photos from the last two years.

Snapping Turtle in Lackawanna State Park

Oru Kayak in Back Bay Sandbridge VA

Crab claws in Sandbridge Virginia

Eliza and I in Lackawanna State Park

Eric and I in Quaker Lake

Dunn Pond

Sunset over Lackawanna State Park

A colorful Oru in Prompton State Park

A painted turtle in Prompton State Park

Oru Kayak in Prompton State Park

Snake in Back Bay Virginia

Colin and Justin in Sandbridge Virginia

Kayaking in the rain in Back Bay

Kayaking with Eliza, Kim, Jackie in Lackawanna State Park

Kayaking and rafting down the Delaware

A Beaver Dam in Dunn Pond

 

Painted turtle in Merli-Sarnoski County Park

A peaceful paddle in Lackawanna State Park

My next kayaking goals are to get onto a few rivers, to paddle a two-day trip where I camp on the side of the river or lake, and to maybe fish from my kayak. I haven’t done any of those things yet.

Observations on using a standing desk

I’ve used a standing desk on-and-off for a few years.

In 2011 I stood for a week before giving up. At the time I claimed that I wasn’t able to focus on my work as well while standing as I was while sitting. Reading that now confuses me as I believe standing is far more conducive to focus than sitting. I think it is because I didn’t push through the initial discomfort of standing. If I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had an issue with focus.

In 2014-2015 I tried again and ended up standing for 4 months straight. The first two weeks, I recall, were very hard on my feet and knees. But it was after those initial two weeks that I really began to see the benefits of standing all day (or, at least most of the day). Once those first two weeks of discomfort were over I ended up putting in my longest continuous stretch of using a standing desk. I had to sit down because I injured my ankle playing basketball and could not stand.

I tried standing again earlier this year just prior to moving from a dedicated office to my home office. And I likely would have stuck with it. But once at home I didn’t try standing again until this past week. I hadn’t even thought about it.

This time has been a bit different. I’ve had nearly no discomfort that I’ve had to push through and I’ve noticed an increase of focus almost immediately.

In the past I’ve said that my productivity increases while standing. I’m now not so sure that is the best way to describe it. It isn’t that I get less done when I’m sitting down but I am able to be fully alert and feel no “lull” that I have to push myself through each day. When I have a deadline, I’m going to work like crazy to meet it whether I’m standing or sitting. However, there is a time period each day where I feel less alert or focused or in the mood to work when I’m sitting at a desk. Whereas when I’m standing I feel like I never have that lull in my day.

I still do not own an adjustable desk. I’ve looked at a few but have never made the investment. Sitting all day is definitely bad for your body. Standing all day is also bad. I hope to find the right adjustable desk for me in the near future and give it a whirl.

Further iCloud Photo Library observations

On March 29th I began syncing to iCloud Photo Library using Photos on OS X. Today, over a month later, I’m just over halfway done. For context, you may want to read Photo stats and observations, and A few iCloud Photo Library observations.

As with those last two posts I’m going to provide a laundry list of observations that I’ve made. In no particular order:

  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that Apple throttles photo syncing. Telling Photos to sync takes a random amount of time to begin, suggesting that Apple has some queue in place. Also, I physically drove my external hard drive to a location with 4x the Internet connection that I have at home and I was able to upload roughly the same amount of data over the same period of time. Though, at that location the connection was still usable while syncing and at home it is not.
  • Library metadata is not kept up-to-date with every sync. For instance, I’ve begun tagging my photo library and on my Mac the keyword “kayaking” has hundreds more results than on my iOS devices even though those photos are already synced to iCloud Photo Library. I’m hoping that the metadata gets synced at the tail end.
  • During this month-long sync routine I’ve taken 445 photos/videos (not including Eliza’s hundreds of photos). As I take photos they are synced across my iOS devices but are not synced to Photos on Mac. So I have to manually import new photos/videos into Photos myself. I’m guessing this process will work (a new photo should show up everywhere automatically according to what I’ve read) once the entire library has been synced. In fact, Ben Brooks says it is fast.
  • Looking at my “Years” view on iOS I see a bunch of blank thumbnails unless I tap into each respective section over and over and over. Apple is likely trying to conserve as much space as they can by only loading thumbnails as you need them… but it is annoying. Tap tap tap tap.
  • There is no such thing as a photo on my phone anymore. Once my library has gotten to a specific size, I think, all photos are now going to iCloud Photo Library once I’m on wifi. So even recent shots need to “download” from the cloud. Since I typically post photos that I’ve taken within the last few weeks, it’d be nice if iOS kept 1,000 or so photos fully loaded.
  • Prior to syncing all of these photos to my iOS devices using Photos was lightning fast. Now, with  just about 45,000 photos/videos on all devices synced so far, everything to do with photos feels slower.

I’m looking forward to this process being over with. I have about 50GB still to go. On average I’m able to sync about 12GB a night. So perhaps in a week or two I’ll be completely done and I can really see how great this service will be.

One last observation: If I wasn’t a geek I wonder if I would ever go through this. My wife, as an example, can’t stand that our connection is down while this process is happening. I’m a little more understanding because, while I think Apple could prevent the issue, I understand it takes a lot of connection to sync so many photos. I’m willing to bet only the geekiest of the geekiest people would ever go through the relative pain I have to get this library synced. Google Photos, Flickr, and Picture Life didn’t have this issue.

Observations about “tweeting” from my site

It is hard to believe that it has been over 6 weeks since I began posting status messages from my site rather than through Twitter or Facebook. Here was my first status update. Here are some observations that I’ve made:

  • I figured out my process of updating, and replying, within about 10 days and have only made subtle changes since.
  • I’ve only had one or two people complain about the fact that every tweet or Facebook update contains a link even if there is no more content to find on the site. Even so, once Barley 2 is finished I’ll drop IFTTT for my own custom solution which will ditch that link unless it is needed.
  • I do not check Twitter nearly as often. Usually twice per day or so. I catch-up on Twitter in bulk using Tweetbot on my iPad the most. I hope Tweetbot never goes algorithmic.
  • My status updates are far more informal and personal. Sort of like Twitter in 2006-2008 before every tweet had to feel like a well-written press release. I’m now more apt to share the shirt I’m wearing or my opinion on hotel sheet tucking. Some may not like this, I love it.
  • I’ve only shared a photo in a status update once or twice. Here is an example. I do not know if I’ll ever share photos in a status update again or not but I’d really like to. One thing that keeps me from doing it is that IFTTT doesn’t send that photo off to the networks. Perhaps my custom solution will.
  • All of my status updates currently have a “title” that you can’t see. And I have to manually edit it on mobile. With Barley 2 I will be able to remove the need for a title since WordPress supports title-less posts. I think.
  • I didn’t lose a single subscriber to my RSS feed as a result of including these status updates in it (that I know of).
  • I sort of wish I had a private version of my site so that I could update my status 10-times as often without annoying anyone simply to have a searchable history of these types of thoughts and observations. In fact, I may do exactly that. Or, I could turn off Twitter/FB/RSS unless I tag a post with a specific keyword. Choices.
  • Not being limited to 140-characters comes in handy once-and-a-while.
  • I wish more people did this.

I’m definitely going to continue on. My only regret is that I didn’t do this sooner.

A few iCloud Photo Library observations

Somewhat related: Photo stats and observations.

I began the switch to iCloud Photo Library a few days ago and so far it has been a mixed experience. Since weaving a good narrative is not in my wheelhouse, here is a laundry list of observations that I’ve made over the last few days.

  • iCloud Photo Library brings the Internet crashing down. While syncing my library using the Internet for anything else is impossible. And, last night, it brought my Airport Extreme down. Actually down. No devices were connected to it when I woke up this morning. Something that has only happened once or twice since owning the device. I can only imagine this is a bug of some sort that I’ve found.
  • After tens-of-hours (since I let Photos sync at night only) I’ve only managed to back up less than 15GB out of 220GB. I think I will call Apple Support today, not because I think they can help me fix it, but because I hope they will write down the issue and perhaps issue a patch in the future.
  • Photo editing on any device and then the edits appearing on all devices is a miracle of modern technology. For the last several years I’ve been editing exclusively on my iPhone or iPad since doing so was cumbersome on the Mac. Photos for OS X doesn’t have every editing feature Photos for iOS does but I hope these will continue to improve. But nothing beats editing a photo full-screen on a 27-inch display and I haven’t been able to do this in years.
  • One of my biggest hangups with Picturelife was the speed of perusing my library or finding a specific photo. It didn’t matter if I was using the web site or the mobile apps. It was impossibly slow. Photos on iOS is much, much faster. I don’t think this is a fair comparison just yet (since I only have ~5,000 images on iCloud Photo Library so far) but I hope Photos is still snappy with 65,000 photos.
  • Searching is pretty great on Photos for iOS. I can type in a location, name, date, and they all return results. And very quickly. Imagine being in a conversation at a bar with friends and they mention a trip you took 4 years ago and how awesome this one night was. Two or three taps and you’re there. Something that should be possible on Picturelife but in practice wasn’t.
  • Photos including “Faces” is great. Like I said in my previous post, I really hope they make facial recognition 10 times better in an update (because it is very poor now compared to say Google Photos). Picturelife didn’t have facial recognition at all though so I’ll take what I can get. Even if I have to do it manually.
  • Having a copy of all of the originals in the cloud gives a lot of peace of mind. But, even more so, having an application on my desktop which stores the originals on an external drive makes accessing them very quick and painless. Both Picturelife and Google Photos merely piggyback on top of Photos and so would never be able to provide that complete seamless experience.

As you can see, so far it has been a mixed bag. Uploading has been horrendous. Impossible even. Yet, every other part of the experience has been pretty great. Sometime in the near future I’d like to write up specific comparisons between Picturelife, iCloud Photo Library, and Google Photos since I’ve tried all three.

Photo stats and observations

As I’ve been moving my photos from Picturelife into Photos for OS X over the passed two weeks I’ve run across some interesting observations so I thought I’d jot them down.

Here are some statistics in no particular order:

  • We take a lot of photos in October, August, and June. This is because we generally vacation during those months.
  • You’ll notice October 2011 was a boon for our photo library — this was the month we went to Ireland.
  • Our monthly average of photos has crept slowly up and to the right as the cameras in our phones have improved. We’ve gone from 228 photos per month (ppm) in 2007 to 826ppm in 2015.
  • Two years out of these 10 we spiked passed 10,000 photos for the year. I feel like we’ll break 10,000 photos each year from here on out.
  • In June 2007, when the iPhone debuted, the number of photos we took per month multiplied by 4 (and we got our iPhones on the 29th of the month).
  • The size of our library on Picturelife was 185GB. In Photos it weighs in at nearly 230GB. I’m assuming this has something to do with the thumbnails that Photos creates.
  • In 2007 an average month’s worth of photos weighed around 35MB. In 2015, 3.5GB (including videos).

And now some observations about Photos for OS X (keep in mind, I’m running Photos off of an USB3 external HD):

  • The app started slowing down when I hit 30,000 photos or so. But it never got too much slower in use. Just in start up time.
  • From a cold start the app takes 25 full seconds to launch. But once open it is fairly usable.
  • I feel like the only way for me to get any performance back my next computer will need to have at least 1TB internal SSD.
  • After using Photos for OS X and realizing you can maintain multiple libraries with it… it would likely make a great application for designers to store design resources in a separate file.
  • The app handles video far, far better than iPhoto ever did.
  • The Photos for OS X Keyword Manager is like a relic from a bygone era. But pretty useful.
  • Oddly the app can’t search GoPro photos or videos by date from the main search field. If I search “October 2015” I’ll see all photos/videos except the ones shot by GoPro. However, if I create a Smart Album by the same date range they all appear. This is super frustrating and I haven’t found a fix yet.
  • I’d like a feature that would help me find possible duplicates based on filename, date taken, and the contents of the file. Photos does a great job preventing duplicates but I was able to find a few using my 2010 technique.
  • I’d also like a way to search the entire library for blurry photos.
  • My solution for finding all photos created by Instagram was a Smart Album that searched both the Text and Description for the word Instagram. It found 2,600+ photos. It seems pretty close. Apple seems to be cheating by providing a “Panoramas” Smart Album based on aspect ratio and yet does not offer that as an option to us users. If I had that I’d likely be able to make it even more accurate.
  • I’m still trying to find a way to create a Panoselfie Smart Album. But so far I’ve been unsuccessful. It should be easy, two rules; 1. Is panorama. 2. Face contains Colin Devroe.
  • Photos has something called a “System Photo Library (SPL)” and that is kept on my local computer. I could make the one on my external HD the SPL but it is used by applications like Pages, Keynote, etc. and I do not always have this external drive with me. It contains things like My Photostream and a few thousand other photos. I don’t know what to do with it. I cannot import from it to the other library without losing all EXIF. This is mind boggling. Even Picturelife retained the EXIF information. Why wouldn’t one Photos for OS X library be able to be imported into another?
  • The “Selfies” Smart Album provided aren’t photos of you but are rather photos people took with the front-facing camera and have a face in them. To create a true “selfies” smart album you’ll need a ton of rules; 1. Face contains Your Name. 2. Lens equals ANY of the front-facing camera models you’ve ever had. That will get you close. But it is far from perfect because you’ve likely taken selfies with the back camera too or with GoPro or point-and-shoots.

I’m just getting started with Photos. I plan on really digging in and making the best of this large library that I have. I haven’t even scratched the surface of photo editing since all of my editing over the last few years has been on my iPad or iPhone.