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Using drones to take backdrop photographs? Edit - and other backdrop photo questions

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Using drones to take backdrop photographs? Edit - and other backdrop photo questions
Posted by hon30critter on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 10:26 PM

Hi folks,

The club would like to use actual photographs to do the backdrop scenes in a few areas on the layout. We are having a bit of a time finding good shots with the proper perspectives. Specifically, we want shots of northern Ontario with rock cuts and outcroppings, heavily treed hills, water or marsh scenes and farm fields with barns etc.

Taking a shot from the side of the road at normal standing height brings the bottom of the picture in too close. We want shots that would represent the view of a scene on the far side of a set of tracks that are already some distance away. In other words, we want shots that suggest depth and distance rather than shots that start right at your feet. The perfect shot would be one with actual tracks in the foreground but finding those isn't easy.

Would a drone allow us to capture better shots? I'm thinking that if the drone was 20 or 30 feet in the air it would reduce the impression that the bottom of the shot is right at my feet. It would also allow me to shoot overtop of hydro lines and poles instead of photoshopping them out of the scene. Any ideas on whether or not that would work? Would taking a distant shot from that height affect the perspective enough to make the picture look strange?

If it would work, any suggestions on which drone(s) might do the job for a reasonable price?

Another advantage of using a drone would be to be able to take shots some distance from the road without having to crawl through the bush, but that is secondary to the issue about getting the correct perspective.

Thanks,

Dave

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Posted by BNSF UP and others modeler on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 10:53 PM

I have a tiny bit of experience with drones. More so the rules. Yes, it is feasible to do what you described, but the price for one that would take higher quality pictures is going to be AT LEAST $100. Then you have to follow all the FAA rules. No flying near power lines, airports, commercial structures, or anything else that could somehow run afoul of your 'lil flying machine. And you have to liscence it. Thats another $5 for non commercial use. If you are planning on using the drone to make money (which I doubt you are) that costs $50. You cannot fly the drone out of eyesight, even with a camera. You cannot fly it higher than 500 ft. And historically, railroads haven't been real happy about drones near their trackage...

If none of this is a problem for what you have in mind, I'd be more than happy to give you some drone suggestions from what I have seen from online reviews, videos, specs, etc are good models. Just let me know.

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Posted by carl425 on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 10:55 PM

hon30critter
Another advantage of using a drone would be to be able to take shots some distance from the road without having to crawl through the bush

I think you have a great idea.  I wouldn't count on this added advantage though because you'll end up crawling through the bush to retrieve your crashed drone.

If you try to match the angle of the shot with the viewing angle on the layout you should get good results.

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Posted by "JaBear" on Thursday, August 22, 2019 12:05 AM
Gidday Dave, all I know about them is that they exist, but would a 360° panoramic camera be of more use?
Cheers, the Bear.Smile

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Posted by hon30critter on Thursday, August 22, 2019 2:47 AM

would a 360° panoramic camera be of more use?

Hi Bear,

I already have a camera that takes panoramic shots. It will shoot up to about a 60 degree arc and it works very well. I have several panoramic shots that would look great as backdrops. Our problem is that we are having trouble finding someone who can both blow up and print the scenes at a reasonable price. Costco used to do it for decent prices but they don't offer the service any more.

Cheers!!

Dave

Edit: I managed to find a Canadian photo printing company that will do the prints in the sizes that we need and at what I would call "fair" prices, i.e. not exactly cheap but not too expensive either. I was able to crop the sample photos so that the foreground wasn't so obvious. I have ordered a couple of samples to see how they will work out.

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Posted by hon30critter on Thursday, August 22, 2019 3:47 AM

BNSF UP and others modeler
I have a tiny bit of experience with drones. More so the rules. Yes, it is feasible to do what you described, but the price for one that would take higher quality pictures is going to be AT LEAST $100. Then you have to follow all the FAA rules. No flying near power lines, airports, commercial structures, or anything else that could somehow run afoul of your 'lil flying machine. And you have to liscence it. Thats another $5 for non commercial use. If you are planning on using the drone to make money (which I doubt you are) that costs $50. You cannot fly the drone out of eyesight, even with a camera. You cannot fly it higher than 500 ft. And historically, railroads haven't been real happy about drones near their trackage... If none of this is a problem for what you have in mind, I'd be more than happy to give you some drone suggestions from what I have seen from online reviews, videos, specs, etc are good models. Just let me know.

Hi BNSF,

Thanks for your offer.

I have been doing some research on drones with regard to the rules here in Canada and there are just as many rules in the snowy white north, if not more.

I have also been looking at drone capabilities and the more I read, the less enthused I am about the cheaper models. For example, things like stability control and return to base functions aren't always available in the $100 models. I am of the opinion that both of those features would be essential to my needs. Also, the reviews of the cheaper models poke some pretty big holes in the manufacturer's claims. As several reviewers have stated, you get what you pay for.

My research has also suggested that using a drone might not be necessary in order to accomplish what I want. I spent some time tonight playing with various printing options for the panoramic photos that my camera can take, and I discovered that I can change the perspective of the photos in order to take the immediate foreground out very easily. I have ordered a couple of samples. I'll let everybody know how they work out.

Dave

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Posted by rrinker on Thursday, August 22, 2019 7:09 AM

 Yeah, the cheap ones aren't going to cut it as a stable and HIGH QUALITY photo platform - you need a very high resolution photo to blow up to backdrop size and not get all grainy. Friend of mine has one that is capable - I think he has more than $500 in just the drone and radio, with a camera gimbla and stabilizer. He mounts his own camera in to get photos, the drone cam is not hi res and is really only good to guide the drone, though his does have all the fancy auto return to base and so forth.

 Know any realtors? At least around here, a lot of them are using drones to get overall views of the outside of properties. There was one who actually owned a bucket truck to do it - they're out of business now that drones can get in there, even in places the bucket truck won't work because of safety reasons.

 

 You don't necessarily want photo prints - too realistic stands out in contrast to the model scenery in front of it, imo. a good quality printer output on continuous paper, but not photo paper, may be the better option, and likely less costly. Usually the big box office stores can do that kind of work.

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Posted by MisterBeasley on Thursday, August 22, 2019 9:05 AM

Can't you take a ground level photo and use photo editing software to alter the perspective?  That would seem to be at easier option than trying to get a high quality picture from a drone.

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Posted by Doughless on Thursday, August 22, 2019 12:34 PM

I have issues with photo backdrops sold by the commercial producers.

Yes, the perspective is usually off, especially on building photos where the street perspective gives an upward look at the building, as opposed to a downward view that is common in just about every layout.  Some scenery photos are high enough to gain the proper perpective.

Using a drone is a great idea.

In fact, a person with entrepreneurial spirit could make a lot of money with a drone and a commercial quality printer or digital replicater, IMO.

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Posted by hon30critter on Thursday, August 22, 2019 9:01 PM

rrinker
You don't necessarily want photo prints - too realistic stands out in contrast to the model scenery in front of it, imo. a good quality printer output on continuous paper, but not photo paper, may be the better option, and likely less costly. Usually the big box office stores can do that kind of work.

Hi Randy,

I guess that's a matter of personal taste. For me, I much prefer the clarity of a matte finish photo print to something printed on plain paper. For scenes where the backdrop object would be close to the tracks, like a rock cut for example, I think that sharp clear pictures are very realistic. For scenes where the object in the photos will be far away, like a distant tree line for example, the natural haze in the picture makes it look very realistic as well, at least IMHO. Having said that, we have two members in the club who can print up to 44" widths. Whether the cost of the ink to make the prints ourselves would be less expensive than the commercial printing services is debatable.

I understand that getting a close match between the photo colours and any scenery immediately in front of it will be a challenge, but it has been done before. We will just have to do some experimenting.

Our club paid a visit to the Nottawasaga club in Collingwood last winter. They used photo prints as backdrops and everyone from our club was impressed.

We have also placed a few test prints behind various scenes on our own layout and, again, everyone thinks that they have great possibilities. In some cases the sky colour was so close to the colour we painted the wall that it was debatable as to whether or not the skies needed to be trimmed out. They will probably look better trimmed though.

Stay tuned!

Dave

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Posted by Mark R. on Thursday, August 22, 2019 9:54 PM

I shot the entire backdrop for my layout (close to 75 feet) myself using a 35mm camera about 20 years ago. I just panned the shots, zooming in or out depending on how big or small I needed what was in the image to be. No computers back then ! At that time, local film developers offered what they called "poster prints" which were 2 foot by 3 foot for about $6.00 each on actual photo paper. 

They took a fair bit of cutting and fitting, but the end result was a perfect view of the background being exactly what was being modelled in the foreground. Didn't help though that the background pictures I needed were 8 hours away and I had to do them twice to get them right as there was no computer to correct or adjust anything.

All the pictures were obviously taken at ground level. Usually a good chunk of the bottom of the picture was cut away as it was obviously too close and out of scale. As long as what is at the bottom of the picture is no bigger than HO scale, the rest will just naturally fall into perspective.

Mark.  

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Posted by hon30critter on Friday, August 23, 2019 3:11 PM

Hi Mark!

Thanks for sharing your experience! Dianne and I are headed up north to the area along Hwy 400 between Mactier and Nobel on Monday to see if we can get some shots of rock cuts as well as more distant tree lines.

As I mentioned earlier, I have ordered a couple of test prints from this company:

https://posterjack.ca/?msclkid=7b44b6e0ffa21bb5f05eebbeb77034da&utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Main%20Campaign&utm_term=panoramic%20photo%20printing&utm_content=Panorama

They have an editing option that allows the panoramic picture perspective to be raised, thereby eliminating some of the foreground. It reduces the height of the tree lines etc. but I'm hoping that there will still be enough height left to look convincing.

Can I ask how tall the photos were after you trimmed them, and did you trim the sky out as well?

Thanks,

Dave

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Posted by hon30critter on Saturday, August 31, 2019 3:42 AM

I got the blown up pictures today and I am very happy!

I ordered two test prints. One was a normal sized shot which I had stretched out to 8" x 36". As the printers warned me it is a little grainy, but still useable IMHO.

The second shot was taken as a panoramic shot and I had it blown up to 12" x 48". The clarity is amazing considering how much the shot has been expanded. As I mentioned in the previous post I was able to change the perspective enough using Poster-Jack's editing to remove the immediate foreground. That worked really well and the shot is still tall enough to present a convincing reasonably distant tree line with proper height. Unfortunately, I don't think that it is worth trying to show you the shots here, at least not until they are in place on the layout so the perspective can be seen better.

As a bonus for the club, we have a member who can print 8" x 36" photo prints. I have sent him the same picture as I had blown up by the poster printing service so we will be able to see if his results are comparable. I'm hoping they are. He can do the prints for 1/4 the price.

Relative to the original question about using drones, it would appear that we can get perfectly good results without them by using the right photo editing processes. Using a drone would give more options, but all the hassle and expense is not worth it, again IMHO.

Stay tuned.

Dave

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Posted by mlehman on Sunday, September 01, 2019 11:28 AM

Dave,

If you look around these days, you can generally find something with good enough resolution it could work for you. Be sure you're looking at the still pic resolution. I fly a Cheerson CX-23 and it's video is 720p but the stills are at 1080p. It was in the $200 range a couple of years ago when it was released, should be cheaper now if it can be found and not superseded by something newer.

It's a rather compact item, about 8" square.

The camera is adjustable, but only manually for tilt prior to flight. That would allow you to get a variety of perspectives.

It doesn't have any fancy stabilization, but taking multiple shots helps a lot in getting usable ones. One tip is to use something with GPS stabilization at a minimum, like the CX23. Take it into position and let it sit there on it's own for a moment with no input from your sticks. If the wind is limited, it will usually yield a good pic. GPS also allows you to use it much more easily as a flying camera, because you can place it where you want it fairly easily.

I don't have anything I specifically shot as a backdrop, but here's a sample of something close.

Taken at about 100' this one has just a little shake in it, but shooting multiple images usually turns up something useful.

Shoot for the horizon to get a useful image. This next one done in summer is OK except for that last detail, but Photoshop or similar programs will allow you to level this out and crop it for best effect.

Don't forget the seasons, of course, as this similarly angled shot shows a different view in fall than the previous one's.

Level it out and then cut it to drop the bottom half and you could have a useful piece of horizon backdrop - where it's flat of course, don't plan on getting any good mountain views in Urbana!

Mike Lehman

Urbana, IL

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Posted by hon30critter on Sunday, September 01, 2019 11:08 PM

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your suggestions. Your advise is always welcome.

I'm going to hold off on investing in a drone until I see what I can do with ground level shots and photo editing.

My Sony camera takes very clear panoramic shots which is what we are looking for. I know that photographs can be stitched together to make a wider shot, but with my camera the stitching is all done for me and it is seamless. The one sample that I have had printed is amazing. I'm taking it to the club next Tuesday and I will try to set it up so that I can photograph it with some structures and/or tracks in the foreground.

Cheers!!

Dave

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Posted by Mark R. on Tuesday, September 03, 2019 12:53 PM

Dave - Since most all my pictures were taken in the hills of southern NY and northern PA, there wasn't much excess sky to cut off and not much off the bottom either.  I would zoom in / out of the scene so what was at the bottom of the frame was either correct for HO or slightly larger so minimal trimming off the bottom was needed.

Perspective can be hugely important. The drone shots in the post above might work if your bench work is lower and you are looking down on the scene, but take a photo at track level and that backdrop is going to look completely wrong.

The backdrop should have the correct perspective when being viewed from track level. You mind's eye will correct the perspective when looking at it in person, but a photo taken at track level will "see" the perspective for you and will only look right if it is correct for that level.

Mark.

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Posted by hon30critter on Wednesday, September 04, 2019 12:11 AM

Mark R.
Perspective can be hugely important. The drone shots in the post above might work if your bench work is lower and you are looking down on the scene, but take a photo at track level and that backdrop is going to look completely wrong.

Hi Mark,

I agree, the perspective is cruicial to making the shot work. When I was working with the editing program provided by the poster printing company that printed the samples for us, I was able to elevate the perspective just enough to eliminate the foreground without giving the impression that the shot was taken from a couple hundred feet in the air. Everyone at the club was quite impressed when I showed them the print on Tuesday night.

This is all still an experiment. We shall see where it goes.

Dave

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Posted by carl425 on Wednesday, September 04, 2019 11:01 AM

The post about $200 drones got me curious enough to do some window shopping (or would it be Windows shopping).  While scrolling through the choices I came across this beastie for $1,800.

Wondering what you get for $1,800 when you get so much for $200, I had to look closer.  This thing has a Hasselblad camera! Amazing.

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Posted by hon30critter on Saturday, September 07, 2019 3:15 AM

On Friday Dianne and I made a trip to Georgetown, Ontario. We had two purposes. One was to take some potential backdrop photos, and the other was to pick up some railroading related magazines and VHS tapes that were being donated to the club.

The photography was pretty much a bust but the magazine/VHS tape score was major! I now have about 250 magazines and about 30 VHS tapes in the back of the van! I am supposedly breaking the club library rules because no magazines are allowed into the library! I don't know who established that rule, but I say "phooey on the library rules!!" Nowhere in our bylaws does it say anything about what can or cannot go into the library. When I walk into the club next Tuesday night with my arms loaded with magazines and tapes, if anyone wants to take issue with my contribution, I will suggest that we "take it outside"! Being the gentleman that I am I will invite them to go first. I will then suggest that they get started without me when they get out there!Smile, Wink & GrinLaughLaugh

Seriously, we have several members who will eat these magazines and tapes up like candy! Yes, these guys all still have their VHS players! When I brought the original small donation of magazines from this collection into the club they literally were snatched up in seconds. I can just imagine what their faces will look like when I show them what I have in my trunk!

Doing this sort of thing for the club members is one of the things that makes being a leading presence in the club so rewarding.

The photography didn't produce much. It was mostly cloudy to start the day and then it started to rain as we got close to Georgetown. After taking more that a dozen panoramic shots at various locations, I scrapped all but one.

Cheers!!

Dave

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Posted by Doughless on Sunday, September 08, 2019 8:09 AM

mlehman

 

 

 

Don't forget the seasons, of course, as this similarly angled shot shows a different view in fall than the previous one's.

 

 

I think the first pic looks like the proper viewing angle most of us have with our layouts. 

The bottom two pics are similar to a six foot tall person looking at a 36 inch high layout, too high of an angle for most backdrops, IMO.

- Douglas

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Posted by hon30critter on Sunday, September 08, 2019 10:36 PM

Doughless
I think the first pic looks like the proper viewing angle most of us have with our layouts. 

Hi Douglas (and Mel),

I'm thinking that the elevation is just a bit high in the first shot too. Even with the foreground cropped the angle of view is still a bit steep. It looks like the trees are quite mature so they are probably 80' - 100' tall and the shot is taken from above that height.

I'm guessing my ideal shot would be taken from +/- 30' with very low foliage in the foreground and the trees 200' - 300' away. Even better would be to have a forested hill at that distance with nothing in the foreground except grass and low brush.

I think it proves that getting exactly the right perspective is a bit of a challenge. I am learning as I go, and I'm getting a better idea of where to go to get the shots I want. We need to head up towards Huntsville and Algonquin Park where there are a lot more hills and the bush is thick.

Unfortunately I'm running out of time for this year. The trees will be starting to get their fall colours fairly soon. I find fall scenes to be beautiful but only in the fall! I don't want permanent fall scenes on the layout. Anything useful will have to be photographed in the next 2-3 weeks. We will have to plan a couple of road trips.Thumbs Up

Cheers,

Dave

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Posted by Doughless on Monday, September 09, 2019 8:23 AM

hon30critter

 

 
Doughless
I think the first pic looks like the proper viewing angle most of us have with our layouts. 

 

Hi Douglas (and Mel),

I'm guessing my ideal shot would be taken from +/- 30' with very low foliage in the foreground and the trees 200' - 300' away. Even better would be to have a forested hill at that distance with nothing in the foreground except grass and low brush.

 

Agreed. 

Generally speaking, I think landscape shots need less precision because undulations throughout the layout and the backdrop sort of give a viewer different angles of grass and trees anyway. 

But changes in the viewing angle at the intersection of the layout and backdrop seem more noticeable in a flat prairie or urban scene where we would expect the viewing angle to be consistant for miles into the backdrop. 

 

- Douglas

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Posted by Mark R. on Monday, September 09, 2019 9:12 AM

If there are larger buildings in the picture towards the rear, like that first shot, you logically should not be able to see anything beyond them .... unless of course it is something considerably bigger than themselves (smoke stacks / mountains / etc.).

Mark.

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Posted by hon30critter on Monday, September 09, 2019 10:00 PM

Mark R.
If there are larger buildings in the picture towards the rear, like that first shot, you logically should not be able to see anything beyond them .... unless of course it is something considerably bigger than themselves (smoke stacks / mountains / etc.).

Good point!

Dave

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Posted by Doughless on Tuesday, September 10, 2019 7:03 AM

Mark R.

If there are larger buildings in the picture towards the rear, like that first shot, you logically should not be able to see anything beyond them .... unless of course it is something considerably bigger than themselves (smoke stacks / mountains / etc.).

Mark.

 

I think it still depends upon the angle.  I noticed this phenomenon when driving the Calumet IL skybridge, which is high, and looking at lake Michigan, obviously a huge body of water.  Since water looks the same, my eyes could not immediately perceive depth. 

In the above pics, pretend the landscape is simply a big body of water.  Extremely uniform (as it is, we know the scene is deep because we recognize buildings and trees and such).  If it were solid water, those pics would look two dimensional. In fact, it would look like a tidal wave approaching.

It scared the crap out of me as I was driving on the bridge until I blinked a bit and got my bearings and realized I was seeing depth, not height. 

Point being, the higher the horizon line, the higher the point of view, and the steeper, the angle.  So it is possible for smaller buildings to be above or behind taller buildings or even hills or smokestacks if the angle is high enough (you may have meant that from looking at the other two pics).

So the proper height for the drone would be dependent upon how high your eyes are over your benchwork.  Technically, that would be different for just about everybody. 

I'm not a math guy, but I assume the proper height to place the drone over the landscape would be the equivilent scale height of your eyes above the benchwork.  I think that is the technically correct way to do it, but there may be more to it.  

- Douglas

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Posted by hon30critter on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 10:57 AM

Hi Douglas,

I understand your point, but I think the layout would have to be rather low for the higher altitude perspective to work. In any case, it would appear that the drone concept is a moot point. First, they are too expensive to justify the investment for 30 - 40 ft. of backdrop, and second, I can get a decent perspective for the height of our layout (46") just by editing the ground level photos.

Thanks for all the input everyone!

Dave

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Posted by mlehman on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 12:59 PM

I should note that those pics above were just choices made from stuff readily at hand in my collection. The first one was sorta like how you'd do it, the second two were really more about showing how the resolution was likely adequate at 1080p so that things would look realistic.

Here's another pic that was taken to try and illustrate things better, although it's cramped a little because taken over a river and could only get so close to the opposite bank before the drone would've got into the trees.

This selfie shot shows that I was around 10 meters high (maybe a little more) at the time.

Here's some of the drone video I shot.

WARNING: Turn down your audio, as the drone buzz is rather loud and annoying on it.

If you look at it around the 1:30 mark, you see some views that could work as a backdrop. The camera wasn't straight forward, but that would make this  better. On the other hand, having a little bit of look down may actually help with establishing a more 3D effect when painted or printed for use on a flat backdrop.

Coming up on the 3:00 mark, there's a landing sequence that gives a good impression of the flight heights used in these l

Mike Lehman

Urbana, IL

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Posted by hon30critter on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 9:34 PM

Interesting Mike!

I like the first shot. It is close to the persective that I was thinking would be appropriate for our layout.

Dave

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Posted by mlehman on Thursday, September 12, 2019 12:53 AM

Dave,

I figured that was more like what you're looking for.  It's a matter of knowing what you need and then going out and experimenting with various pic angles and heights.

For getting an idea of what will work, the video still comes in handy despite it being only 720p. You can pause it whenever you like and take a screen shot. Then when you have some good angles, you can go back and take some still pics in 1080p.

I think a lot of the best opportunities for good background pics would be along roads, RRs, waterways, and field edges. That way there's room to work the drone without getting too close to the trees. Trees are the enemy of drones, so it's best to not get too close to them.

Mike Lehman

Urbana, IL

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Posted by hon30critter on Thursday, September 12, 2019 2:00 AM

Hi Mike,

Friday is supposed to be sunny in Northern Ontario so we are going to take a road trip up to the Parry Sound area to get some shots of the rather impressive rock cuts that have been made in the last few years in order to widen the highway. I have used Google Maps to identify some of the cuts. In several places the sides are far enough apart to perhaps get a few panoramic shots in. We shall see!

Dave

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