Little Planet Twyford: The Story Behind the Image

June 03, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Once upon a time, there was a kind and helpful lady in the THRU-Christ Church Office in Twyford. The identity of the helpful and kind lady will stay undisclosed.

Taking part in local community activities is high on our family agenda, given we are reasonably social humans who moved to Twyford seven years ago from Eastern Europe. Hence the photography competition organised by Twyford Village Partnership did not escape my wife’s keen eye.

I hold a sceptical stance towards photography competitions. Too often they are of little benefit to the photographer. In this case, I thought it may be entertaining and useful to enter with locally taken images. Aerial photography came to mind as soon as my wife and I started to brainstorm vantage points.

The drone flying regulations in the UK indirectly limit drone flying in inhabited areas. Drones equipped with cameras cannot fly closer than 50 metres from people, cars and houses without permission. Yet a picture telling a story about Twyford should feature a local landmark. Looking at the satellite images we realised that the St. Mary's Church can offer a good focal point especially in conjunction with the leading line of Church Street and the London Road crossroads. The Photographer’s Ephemeris suggested that the evening sun will illuminate the church’s bell tower and provide a pleasant light to the image. The grassy patch between the St Mary's and the railroad branch to Henley will offer enough safe space for the quadcopter launch.

St Mary's Church in TwyfordSt Mary's ChurchThe original idea for the competition picture looked like this. With permission of the THRU-Christ Church Office.

The original idea for the competition picture looked like this.

Time was passing quickly. Planned holidays ahead of the submission deadline meant I had 4 days to go.

Without delay, I called the THRU-Christ Church Office for permission to take aerial images of the St. Mary's church. Nobody answered. I sent an email not even sure whether I will receive an answer. I got an automated reply apologising for the temporary gap in office coverage. It was Friday and I was leaving on Tuesday. The hope started to fade over the weekend.

On Monday morning, I received a pleasantly surprising email, a grant of conditional permission, provided I am able to produce relevant insurance cover. After a quick scan of insurance options, I became a member of the British Model Flying Association. The church office was happy with its generous insurance policy.

One late afternoon remained to take the picture.

The most adverse variable became the British weather. My drone cannot fly in rain or strong wind. Decent images desire sunshine preferably from low above the horizon. No sign of sun that day made me anxious.

I gave it a go anyway. Packed my drone at half past six in the afternoon, drove to the church, and got lucky again. Spring breeze cleared the sky a little and there was hope again. I screwed a circular polariser filter onto the drone camera lens, launched the drone and tried to find a good vantage point.

I love the three-dimensional freedom of aerial photography. Different altitudes offer surprising perspectives.

After half an hour of searching and a battery swap, I found the pictures I wanted. The bell tower now sunbathed in the sunny spells from underneath the sheet of cloud. Then I got an idea…

Two weeks ago I took a few test shots for stereographic projection also known as Little Planet. I realised that the church and the trees around the church offer a brilliant opportunity for such a shot. I positioned the drone so that the trees and the church tower visibly protruded above the horizon from the drone’s point of view. Then I took a series of images firstly horizontally rotating the drone approximately by 45° between the shots to cover the whole circle. I then tilted the camera so it looked downwards at 45° angle and again took a series of pictures to cover the surroundings. Lastly, I pointed the camera straight down and took 2 perpendicular images to cover the ground straight below the drone. Then repeat just to make sure I got the shot.

When I landed the drone I realised that I left the polariser on the lens. It is not ideal as the effect of polariser depends on the angle towards the sun, hence it causes colour shifts in panoramic pictures. Too late to fix that.

The first stitching of pictures in AutoPano Pro software has shown that areas underneath the drone were much darker than the sunlit bell tower. I had to increase the exposure of the dark images by 2 stops and apply graduated filters in Adobe Lightroom to pictures of the horizon. I also learned that it is important to let the drone stabilise after rotating it to avoid propellers ruining the individual shots. In the end, I developed 21 pictures for the final stitching. The AutoPano Pro’s stereographic projection worked its magic. Little Planet TwyfordLittle Planet TwyfordThis is an aerial photograph of the St Mary's Church in Twyford, my home town. It was created as a composition of 21 pictures in a stereograhic projection. With permission of the THRU-Christ Church Office.

The resulting image.

I was pleasantly surprised with the professional and positive approach of the THRU-Christ Church Office. Too often I experience dismissive or even aggressive approach to drones, usually fuelled by fears of privacy intrusion and risk of injury or property damage. I was able to demonstrate a flight plan compliant with valid regulations and covering potential risk. The office’s request for my insurance coverage was spot on.

So with all the preparation, photographer’s luck and support from the kind and helpful lady from the church office I managed to submit the picture on time and win the Twyford & Environs category in the end.

I take the safety of drone flying very seriously. I respect other people’s privacy. I believe that flying drones in adherence to these principles and UK regulations brings a lot of joy and can be helpful in many ways. It is likely that drones will become an everyday part of life, hence education of public together with fairness and transparency of press is paramount. I hope that this image will help the education whilst hanging at the exposition of winning pictures at the Twyford’s Donkey Derby on Sunday this week.


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