You’ve all seen them. Videos produced via quadcopter that are smooth as glass with awesome music tracks that look ready for the big screen. Then you look at your latest video and it looks like you’re filming the apocalypse. Everything is shaking about, the jello is making you nauseous, and the whine from your motors is giving you a headache. So what’s the trick? Well, quite frankly the only way to get smooth as glass professional quality video is to spend some money on a larger quad and a good quality gimbal. Even with a gimbal though there’s no free lunch. Gimbals are expensive, add complexity to your quad, and shorten your flight times due to the added weight. There’s no denying they produce stellar video, but they’re not for everybody.
That doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck though. It’s entirely possible to produce very decent quality video without a gimbal and without spending a ton of money. You will still have to spend SOME money, expecting to produce good quality video from a $40 micro quad with a low res camera is simply unrealistic, but if you’re willing to spend up to a larger (250-450 sized) quad and at least a halfway decent camera, you can produce some very decent video by following a few relatively simple guidelines:
1. Balance your props
2. Fly at optimum times
3. Dampen Vibrations
4. Edit your videos
5. Stabilize your clips
6. Your Video Settings
I’ll go into detail on each of these items. If you do them all you will start seeing a big improvement in your video quality. You won’t need a $400 gopro either, I use an $80 Mobius for my videos and I’m quite satisfied with the results. Ok, so lets take a look at each of these items in detail.
1. Balance Your Props
This is probably the simplest and most important thing you can do to reduce jello in your videos, but it’s amazing how many people don’t bother. You will need a decent prop balancer to do this but this is a cheap and very worthwhile investment. There are actually 3 levels of balancing you can do, the blades, the hub, and the motors themselves. I won’t go into balancing the motors as I don’t feel it makes that much of a difference. Of the three balancing the blades is both the easiest and most important.
To balance your blades, simply put a blade on your prop balancer and take note of which side is heavy (the heavy side will drop down, the light side will raise up). There are two things you can do at this point, sand the heavy side to make it lighter, or add some weight to the light side to make it heavier. I typically add tape to the light side until the prop hangs perfectly level.
If you REALLY want to go all out you can balance your hub as well. The hub will have a heavy side and a light side just like your blades, so to balance your hub you will typically add some weight to the light side (I use hot glue). Balancing your hub may cause you to have to adjust your blade balancing as well, but once you are done your prop should sit firmly in place in any position you put it on the balancer. This is a perfectly balanced props. To be honest I only balance my hubs on my big AV quad, for my other quads that I use for proximity flying I find that just balancing the blades is sufficient.
If you only do one out of the 5 guidelines for better video, make it this one as it will not only improve your video but the performance of your quad and the longevity of your components as well due to reduced vibrations. Here is a quick video from the boys over at Flight Test showing how to balance your blades: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S0ae1A0gAw
2. Fly at Optimum Times
This is probably the next most important tip for getting good quality video. Lets face it, no matter what you do you’re not going to get good video if you’re flying your quad in high winds unless you have a good quality gimbal. I’ll get right to the point on this one. If you want to get the most out of your videos, the best time to fly is at the crack of dawn. Not only are the winds typically much lower at this time, but the lighting is spectacular, and it has the added benefit of not many people being around at this time so it’s safer as well. I’ve found that before 10:00 AM is best for avoiding the wind, and before 8:00 AM is best for spectacular lighting and crowd avoidance. If you can’t get up that early, then your best bet is to watch the weather and shoot for days with little to no wind. Next to vibration Wind is the biggest culprit causing choppy video.
Note – larger and heavier quadcopters can often withstand 3-5 MPH of wind and still take decent videos.
3. Dampen Vibrations
This may or may not be necessary depending on your frame. Sometimes even with perfectly balanced props you still get jello-causing vibrations that can drive you mad. Dampening vibrations is a bit of a black art and different things work for different people. Some frames come with vibration dampening built in, and may not require any additional dampening. For frames that do produce vibration though there are several things you can try.
Moongel is popular for vibration dampening, as is Zeal tape (expensive). Other people use every thing from isolation mounts to foam ear plugs to dampen vibrations. How much of this you have to do will vary from quad to quad. My first quad was absolutely perfect in this regard, it never had a bit of Jello. My 2nd quad had some jello mostly at high speeds but for the most part was acceptable. My third quad was an absolute nightmare, and I all but had to sacrifice a chicken to get rid of the Jello. There’s no one best way to eliminate vibrations, but what finally worked for me on the nightmare quad was an isolation mount secured with two layers of double sided vibration dampening foam tape securing the mount to the quad and the camera to the mount. It’s still not QUITE as good as the first quad, but considering how horrible it was completely un-dampened I’m totally satisfied with the results.
Eliminating Jello can take a bit of trial and error. What worked for me might not work for you, and what works for you might not work for me. If you’re getting a lot of Jello my advice is to do some research and try different things until you find what works. If you stay with it you will eventually find what works best with your gear.
Note: If you have a GPS equipped quadcopter such as a Phantom 1, turning the GPS off (go into ATTI mode) during video shoots will help keep the quadcopter more vibration free.
4. Edit Your Videos
This one seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many videos I see of raw, unedited and boring video. Nobody wants to watch the grass blow for 5 minutes while you fumble around with your gear getting ready to fly. Nobody wants to hear your motors whining in their ears for 10 minutes. If you want to produce good quality videos, you are going to have to take some time to review the footage, find the interesting content, and put it together in an interesting an coherent way that draws people in. At the very least you should edit out the before and after stuff where your quad is just sitting on the ground, and add a music sound track in place of the motor noise.
I’ve occasionally gotten lucky and gotten one, complete flight that makes for a good video with no editing other than cutting out the before and after and adding music, but the vast majority of my videos have been edited. How much editing you do is up to you, but a good rule of thumb is to watch the video yourself and decide if it’s something you’d want to watch if somebody else put it up. As for which software to use, there are tons of choices ranging from free to fairly expensive. Windows movie maker is better than nothing and is a pretty good place to start if you’re a complete beginner at video editing. I personally use a package that’s free for non-commercial use called Video Pad. It’s not the most user friendly package on earth but once I got comfortable with it I found it to be an extremely capable video editor, and the price was right. Editing videos is a skill, and chances are your first one won’t win you an Emmy. Stay with it though, as your skills progress you will see your videos getting better and better, and pretty soon you’ll be producing slick, interesting videos that people will actually want to watch.
5. Stabilize Your Clips
This one is a bit controversial as some people think you should never do post-production stabilization and others think it’s a godsend. Personally I think it’s a very effective tool provided you use a good quality stabilization software, and take the time to stabilize your clips BEFORE tying them together in your editor.
I’ve tried 3 different ways to stabilize videos. One was using Youtube stabilization, which will smooth out your video but at the expense of producing some weird artifacts. The next one I tried was the stabilizer included with Video Pad, and this also produced some weird artifacts. The one I finally settled on was a $50 commercial package called Prodrenalin. This is a bit pricy for an article on how to produce budget videos, but I found it produces far better results than the other two. This is the only package I’ve seen that will smooth out your video without adding a bunch of weird, warpy artifacts. If you don’t mind spending a little money, then I recommend getting Prodrenalin and using it to smooth out your videos. If it’s beyond your budget, try the Youtube stabilizer and see how it looks, if you’re not happy with the results you can always go back to the original unstabilized version
6. Your Video Settings
In the majority of cases there is no need for full HD (1080) video – 720 is fine for most hobbyists applications. Setting your camera at 720 will often allow you to increase the frame rate from 30 fps (frames per second) to 60 – a setting that will often give a better final video, even if youtube, vimeo or your video program down-samples (changes it back to 30 fps) it.
And…speaking of Youtube and Vimeo, Vimeo will usually produce much better results. If you are using it only on rare occasions your account will be free – however, if you want access to more storage you’ll have to pay about $80 a year for the privilege.
Producing decent quality videos is possible without spending a ton of money if you follow these tips. You will still need a halfway decent camera and a quad that can carry it and fly smoothly, but other than that you don’t have to spend a fortune. Below is a video I made this summer, using these techniques and filmed with a Mobius flown on nightmare quad (a Flip FPV). As you will see it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly very acceptable and very watchable.
Here is another video from Droneflyers – this is taken with an older GoPro and no Gimbal: