I have a DJI Mavic Pro and a Phantom4 Pro+ with the remote control with the big screen. Although the Mavic is tiny and convenient when hiking or travelling on flights, I almost always use the Phantom4 Pro + instead because I don’t like using my phone. Chances are, it’s low on battery and I’ll need to use it for other things like maps etc when hiking, so I like to keep a separate fully charged remote. The screen is also really lovely to view while flying. And I find the quality of the Phantom4 Pro is a bit better. I almost always fly using ND filters, which needn’t be DJI – almost any brand will do. These are like sunglasses for your lens and allow you to film in strong harsh sunshine but still keep your settings as they should be for filming, i.e. the shutter speed should be double your frame rate.
Drone laws are hard these days. I’ve droned in the snow, rain, on mountain tops, in cities, in hotel rooms and off boats, in cars and from the back of Vespas. Most countries will say you cannot drone in cities. Legally, if I remember my training correctly, you’re not supposed to drone less than 30metres from a human being. I’ve often emailed the aviation department of countries or the tourism department to apply for permission to drone in advance. This almost never works. Either they don’t reply or they expect you to fill out some laborious document and pay filming rights and list where your content will be aired, assuming you’re making money from the footage as a production company, which rarely am. Sometimes you read about drones being taken away from people at airports, other times they are totally cool with it and don’t even question me when I carry it in my carry-on bag. You must not fly with drone batteries in the checked luggage, that is for certain. You will probably be stopped if you are flying in a major city (Rome included) and I’ve heard of people having their drones taken away when flying near monuments or churches. This is justified as I have seen a lot of people who don’t know how to fly a drone safely, going so close to these historic domes and structures and risking causing irreparable damage. If you really want to drone a beautiful city, get up at 4am. Sunset is not going to work. Police are out, tourists are out. At least at dawn you don’t risk hurting anyone or invading anyone’s privacy because there are so few (if any) people out on the street. If a policeman stops you, be polite, agree to delete the footage and promise you won’t do it again. Sometimes they are kind and relaxed, other times they’ve just had a bunch of other tourists damaging ancient monuments or selling footage without a permit or any communication to the local council so they’re understandably strict.
If you’re just flying and creating content for personal use, I believe it’s okay to film on beaches or out in the countryside where you don’t risk damaging buildings, hurting anyone or invading the privacy of people in their homes. If you’re working on a project that you intend to sell, it gets much trickier and I’ve heard of creators being fined after the content is out in the world. So far, I’ve been lucky but any time a police officer has politely ask me to stop flying, I obeyed without question.
In Iran, I made sure I didn’t even have my drone in my suitcase in case the car was searched. The airport I arrived in had huge posters saying drones are illegal. The poor couple who were arrested in Iran in 2019 were reportedly droning near a military zone and you just can’t mess around in countries that are already suspicious about espionage or have poor relations with your country.
I have used Canon cameras but then I swapped to Panasonic Lumix GH4 cameras, only because I like that you can shoot in 96fps, which is super slow motion. I still liked the Canon L series lenses with the red ring so I use a Metabones adaptor so I can use my GH4 camera body with a Canon lens. Keep in mind, I bought two GH4 cameras about six or seven years ago and haven’t updated my cameras since so I’m sure there’s a lot more on the market now. I have just found that they work so well that I haven’t looked into upgrading. What I have upgraded are my lenses. I think you should buy a basic zoom lens – I have a 12-35mm and a 24-105mm if you want to vlog or just do simple interviews. If you want to capture detail with a beautiful depth of field and use a lens that allows a lot more light into any context, you probably want a fixed lens. This means that you can’t zoom in and out to frame your subject, you will need to move the whole camera and it will be very difficult to shoot yourself or others with video. A 50mm lens is often what photographers and filmmakers recommend for capturing details and beauty. I love my 50mm lens. I use it everywhere. I don’t mind the extra work required to run around like a mad person trying to get things in focus, or re-shooting things because the subject in an interview has slipped out of focus. I just prefer the beautiful creamy soft quality of the footage. Often I will get the message ‘lens attachment failed’ when my adaptor can’t handle that I’m shooting with a Lumix body and a Canon lens. But for me, it’s still worth it. Sony make wonderful cameras and many professionals prefer this brand. I like what Sony can achieve in low light. The GH4 isn’t as good in dark settings. But the settings for Sony are not as intuitive as Canon or Panasonic so if you’re a beginner, you might find Sony a bit overwhelming or frustrating.
I use a Zhiyun 3-axis gimbal for most of my moving shots. If you can’t afford this, try shooting in slow motion and putting your camera strap around your neck for support and doing little panning movements (only very little!!) just handheld by holding the camera strap out tight while you glide. If you’re shooting in normal speed this isn’t going to work and using some kind of stabilizing setting in your edit later is going to look messy and just warp your footage to the point where it isn’t achieving that calm, sensual glide you originally intended to achieve.
COMPUTER AND EDITING SOFTWARE
What should you edit on? It is a question that many people ask me and is still a work in progress for me to answer. For years the answer has been Premiere Pro. But I recently added an iMac and FinalCut to my editing suite so that I can always have both a HP laptop and a more powerful Apple desktop and two options for editing software. The truth is, both brands of software have their pros and cons and both have annoying bugs that you spend hours reading forums to resolve.
FinalCut famously has a magnetic timeline where all your clips snap onto each other, which I actually love. But with Adobe, you can use the whole Creative Cloud (for a slightly higher fee) and I often clean up my audio with Adobe Audition, convert files with Adobe Media Encoder and do special effects using Adobe After Effects. Probably if you’re a beginner or just making simple YouTube videos, you won’t need all those extras.
I learnt to edit using FinalCutPro X. I even tried the classic Avid software but this was not intuitive at all and nowadays so many films are made using the more modern software. Adobe has a monthly subscription, while FinalCut is a one-off price. I like Premiere because it gives me so many different tracks in my audio and I first switched over because I was making TV shows and needed comprehensive editing channels/tracks to clearly distinguish my dialogue from my soundtrack and my ambient sounds. I love how it works and they’re always updating and adding new features. I found it was crashing A LOT but this was because I only had 16GB of RAM, when apparently you need a minimum of 32GB of RAM to run Premiere.
I always used MacBook Pro laptops but they kept dying on me. As in, they would literally not turn on after about 8-12 months of use. That said, many many editors use Macs and have no trouble. But they also have a limit in terms of how much RAM you can add to your laptop, which I don’t like. My series of MacBook Pro’s dying could be because I travel so often and would take my laptop home to work at my parents’ place on the beach in the tropical humid climate of Byron Bay, where all electrical goods tend to die in the sea air.
Anyway, I wanted something robust and reliable – even though it pained me to say goodbye to the beautiful clean design of Macs. So a few years ago, I invested in a HP 15-inch Zbook. It’s supposedly the laptop NASA uses on the space station. At first I was really disappointed. Customer service kind of sucked. I asked for help deciding on the best option for editing and was misinformed as they’re not really set up to help creatives at all. They’re more about those corporate clients. It’s also super heavy and a pain when I’m travelling. I had to invest thousands more to up the RAM and add another TB of space to my main drive. The speakers are not great for watching films but when I’m editing I have headphones on so it’s not so bad. It is working well, it survives some rough treatment, has great battery life and it’s always hard to say if your software is crashing because of the computer or just how you’ve chosen to upgrade it – graphics cards, memory, RAM etc.
I’m currently editing on the iMac and it is wonderful. Irrespective of which brand you go for, the difference of editing with a giant screen instead of a laptop is incredible if you care about colour grading. That said, I far prefer colour grading in Premiere. FinalCut obviously gives you all the standard options to do RBG curves and fine tune details and apply effects, but I just feel more comfortable with Adobe. It feels more grownup, more professional. Sometimes FinalCut seems like it’s got all the gimmicks in an effect like an Instagram filter for those who can’t be bothered to learn how to colour grade.
FinalCut supposedly gives you the option to skip the export and just upload from your timeline directly to your YouTube account – which would be amazing for me, except that recently it hasn’t worked so I’ve just had to export and upload like I do in Premiere.
So I shall continue using both and I would say that it’s good to understand both if you intend on working with teams or applying for jobs in the industry as many agency briefs specify a preference, especially if they have you working with other editors.
If you’re just starting out, go for a Rode shotgun mic that attaches to the top of your camera. Super simple, good sound for vlogging or interviews. Easy to set up. Using the internal microphone of any camera is a bad idea. It’s just not going to give you good content, even for vlogging when it can’t shield you against the wind and inside a room it will give you that amatuer echo.
If you want to use lapel mics, which attach to interviewees individually, which REALLY increases the quality and professionalism of your content, I wouldn’t go for Rode’s filmmaker package. They sent it to me for free and it was okay but nothing compared with the new mics I am crazy about. The SENNHEISER AVX-ME2 SET. This microphone is so damn expensive but it’s worth it if filmmaking is your profession and you’re making money from your content. I was so disappointed to find that only ONE mic comes in the pack for that price and I was forced to buy two in order to mic myself and my interviewee but again, the sound quality is just remarkable. It’s very easy to set up – even if you’re like me without a background in audio.