After my initial foray into abstract drone photography, I was hooked. I enjoy the other aerial photography I do, but the ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) technique with a drone felt exciting and new. I went looking on the internet to learn more about it, but could find nothing than panning or tracking shots of sharp vehicles while the backgrounds are blurred. Maybe I was a pioneer!
After thinking a lot about the results of my first expedition, I couldn’t wait to return to Okia flat and pick up where I’d left off. My first goal was to achieve a spiral, like my favourite hand-held ICM image, done with a DSLR and fisheye zoom lens. I had asked if anyone knew how achieve a rotating long exposure in some online drone photography groups but only got one meaningful response and a lot more “why would you want to do that?” To be honest, the lack of comprehension spurred me on. I felt like I was really on to something fresh and new.
The answer to the spiral question was a simple setting in the drone’s camera menu: Lock gimbal while shooting. The default is set to lock, the point of which is to minimise camera movement for a sharp shot. That was preventing the camera from exposing the sensor while the drone was spinning. Once I turned that off, I started getting what I wanted. Here’s my first spiral shot, taken above the sand dunes:
I just love what it did with the colours of the dune flowers and grasses. I continued shooting these spirals in different spots. With just the ND16 filter, I could only shoot at half second shutter speed without blowing out the exposure, but it was enough. It seemed like the blur was deconstructing the shape of my subjects, leaving me with just texture and their distinctive colours. I was creating unique fingerprints of the vegetaion and landscape below, like this one of the dry Aruhe (bracken fern):
I flew two batteries, and even experimented with a spin while the drone camera was pointed straight ahead, but the result was identical to any ICM image shot with a DSLR on a panning tripod head. It was pretty, but I was unmoved at the time. I’m sure there’s a way to create something more drone-specific from this technique though, and I will investigate it in future but at the time, I had other fish to fry. I had saved one battery for a spot on the drive home, a section of Papanui inlet. I had started formulating a project: To create a series of these ‘fingerprint’ images of different environmental and vegetation types. I thought the sea grass, sediment and crab holes of the inlet floor offered some good potential:
And sure enough, it did:
And then I looked up from the mud…
There was one of Otago Peninsula’s many volcanic cones, beautifully reflected in the water, but with plenty of sediment features visible to make for some interesting ground rush. I locked focus on the cone, hit the stick and… boom!
Now I don’t know if anyone has done this before, but having pulled this off all on my own, I was pretty stoked. The cone is far enough away so that flying towards it at speed for a little while doesn’t significantly change its apparent size or position on the camera sensor, so it stays sharp. You can see the closer bit of landscape on the right of frame blurring a bit because of its proximity. The other significant blur in shot is the ground rush, because that’s zooming past us just a meter below at about 60 or 70 kph. But visible in that is the reflection of the cone in the water surface. Post production? Sure. Even at ISO 100 and my minimum aperture of f/11, the ND16 filter isn’t strong enough to expose the scene perfectly, so there’s 1.05 stops of negative exposure compensation in Lightroom. The long exposure – especially the blur also tends to be rather flat, so it takes a bit of contrast adjustment too: a little texture and clarity, and a lot of dehaze to look like this. But the heavy lifting, the ground rush effect, that’s all in camera. No Photoshop zoom filter necessary. Maybe I’ll call this the Copeman effect!
I’ve been in the creative industry for a long time, even devised some TV shows that other folks were kind enough to call innovative back in my younger days but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the process of discovery quite as much as this. This wasn’t just me fooling around with the tools, this was a careful process that started with a “what if”. This was photographic research. And that thought led me on to the next exciting step in this journey.