Lume Cubes - My initial review

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A few years ago, I heard some whispers about a new company building a super portable and customisable little light called Lume Cube - quick here. I loved the idea and on paper they looked good so it’s been great to finally have some time with them.

I took a set of two x cubes and two x DJI Phantom 4 Brackets to Norway with the hope of getting some serious air time with them on my DJI Phantom 4 Pro in the arctic mountains but, alas, the weather wasn’t playing ball and some serious wind kept me grounded during some prime opportunities. None-the-less I managed to trial them out and have plenty of thoughts to share.

I’ve spent a lot of time with lights over the years and am pretty comfortable in saying I know my way around a good set of flashes and some pocket wizards so let’s begin there.

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A flash alternative?

Creative lighting has always been an intimidating game. There’s a tonne of variables at play and knowing how to really optimise a set of flashes required a fair amount of photographic understanding. 1/250th curtain speeds, aperture ambience control v shutter speed, dialling up or down by stop ratios. Tripping wireless lights with triggers (like a pocket wizard) was never straight forward either.

The Cubes can be triggered as a slave from an external flash (identical to the standard speed light slave mode many would have used before). Their flash mode can also be controlled from within the app.

Compared with a high end and high price flash, the cubes are comparable in power (up to 1,500 lumens a piece) however the light temperature is just slightly too white for my liking and a little 'crisp' but it's absolutely manageable - especially for the price. 

If I were on assignment in the field I could easily get by with a set of these in the bag to use for any off camera lighting work that might come up. The Lume Cubes come real close to being a genuine alternative to flashes and so much easier.

The app

I’ll jump right to this now because, in my opinion, this is a game changer. The Lume Cube has two buttons for adjusting the mode of the light and the brightness without grabbing for your phone, the buttons are discreet but I had no problem using them even with thick winter gloves.

The majority of operation isn’t by these buttons but rather an app (ios and android). The level of control and customisation is huge and the ease of use is staggering (see ‘flash alternative’). Apparently 5 Lume Cubes can be controlled

Stills and video can be shot directly from within the app. 

Stills and video can be shot directly from within the app. 

All aspects of each cube can be controlled from within the app.

All aspects of each cube can be controlled from within the app.

Mounting a set of Lume Cubes on the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is seriously cool. Get it? ;)

Mounting a set of Lume Cubes on the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is seriously cool.

Get it? ;)

Airborne

A year or so ago I had the idea of putting some lights in the sky and rigged up a little make-shift mount on the bottom of my DJI M600 with 3 x Nikon SB910 speed lights + Pocket Wizards. The results were cool but it took work.

Fast forward and here’s the future. These lights are bright but what’s more, they’re small, light and seriously easy to mount. I used the DJI Phantom 4 mount which clipped into the landing gear easily and attached to the cubes via a standard ¼ thread.

The Phantom 4 mounting bars are simple to attach and easy to manoeuvre directionally.

The Phantom 4 mounting bars are simple to attach and easy to manoeuvre directionally.

The first time I flew with the cubes I was using my iPhone as the flight controller and this was also the same device I had the Lume Cube controller app installed on which was a little inconvenient to flick between. From then onwards I used my iPad for the drone which kept my phone free to control the lights – easy.

The DJI Phantom 4 Pro didn’t seem to labour with the added payload, I did notice it’s pitch was slightly exaggerated with the extra weight to momentum but overall it accommodated for them very easily. The flight time would unquestionably be impacted with the added payload but given I was already flying in sub-zero temperatures I wasn't able to isolate the payload variable for comparative measurements. 

As of writing my Phantom is in the shop for some signal issues (unrelated) but the creative opportunities here are really endless and I’ve got some terrific ideas to come.

 

My initial thoughts - the good 

I wish I had more time in the air whilst in Norway but my initial impressions have been very positive.

  • Compact, light, waterproof and super durable.
  • Bright. 0-1,500 lumens
  • Standard mount for attaching to almost anything
  • Very fast recycle time between flashes
  • Optical sensor for triggering
  • Inbuilt, rechargeable battery with USB recharging port – I was charging these in them car.
  • The app – seriously cool
  • Easy to use

 

The not so good:

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  • The colour temp on these is rated at 5600K but the light seemed cool and very white.
  • Battery life is acceptable but unlike mainstream flashes, you can’t simply switch out batteries when one is done.

As you can see, the good definitely outweighs the not so good and with logical application across both video and stills as well as in the air and under the water, these lights have some serious possibilities.

If you’re interested in purchasing a Lume Cube please use this link here to click through – it’ll help support this blog and be much appreciated!

Filters on drones?

Are drone filters worth it for photography?

I often see a lot of people asking “what filters did you use?” and also spending money to buy them. Therefore to help clear up any confusion, set the right expectations and hopefully save some peeps a few bucks here’s a quick little brain dump on filters. It might be of some help to those who may be new to photography. 

I tend to think of filters in two groups. Optically altering and non-optically altering. Filters such as UV and polarising filters literally change or modify the light. ND and Grad ND Filters do not modify the light. 

A standard screw in UV lens filter

A standard screw in UV lens filter

Just part of my personal Lee Filters landscape  kit.

Just part of my personal Lee Filters landscape  kit.

Whilst there’s literally hundreds of filter variants not all of them are applicable to aerial photography so I’ll explain the four different types of filters I often see people ask about or buy for drones. 

1. UV. A UV filter was traditionally used to block UV rays from the film. Digital camera sensors have an IR or UV filter built in making UV filters completely redundant for this purpose. Many still like using a UV filter to protect the lens of their camera from scratches. Personally, I’ve never used a UV / clear filter for protection.

I’ve never scratched a lens and the lens of a drone camera would be even harder to scratch (given they’re used in the air). I’ve seen a lot of people buy UV / Clear filters for their drones and IMO this is of no benefit and in-fact will degrade image quality. 

2. Polarising filters. Of all the filters available for drones, a polarising filter is the single filter I agree has the most value for photography. The type of polariser filter used is a circular polariser (circ.pol) 

These could be seen to benefit aerial photography in a number of ways. They remove reflected light waves, reducing glare and helping improve clarity in things such as water and clouds. They can also help improve the natural saturation of colours. 

There are a lot of people who swear by polarises but IMO they’re not worth it for aerial photography. Here’s why:
-They work when they are perpendicular to the direction of the sun. This is controlled by manually rotating the filter which obviously one cannot do when their lens is in the air. 
-The guessing game of ‘putting her on and sending her up’ can impair the image with uneven areas of polar reduction. 
-Photographers compose their shots to ensure uniformed saturation with polarises. Again, this isn’t possible when the lens is in the sky. 
-Polarises reduce approx. 2 exposure stops of light which has subsequent impacts when your camera is airborne (I’ll get to this below). 

So – I agree, circ.pol filters can absolutely have an impact on the photo. IMO, the results aren’t worth it and with the above limitations in mind, are probably better achieved in post-production. This is a personal preference though 🙂

3. Neutral Density (ND) filters. I think ND filters are one of the more misunderstood filters in the drone community. ND filters are optically neutral, meaning, they don’t change the light like polarises or UV filters do. ND filters are literally just darkened glass (perspex, plastic etc). Landscape photographers will have many times when they need to reduce the amount of light entering their lens. This comes down to the basic principles of exposure. Ie. Exposure is a product of three variables. Shutter speed, aperture and ISO (film sensitivity). 

If a photographer wishes to reduce their shutter speed they are then allowing more light into their lens, this is compensated by closing the aperture. For example. 1/1000th of a second and f2 is the same exposure as 1/500th second and f2.8 and the same exposure as 1/250th second and f4 and so on. All variables work in sync. So if a photographer needs their shutter speed to be slow (ie 1/8th second) they need to compensate this with their aperture. In the above example 1/8th sec would be an aperture of f22). 

This isn’t always achievable or ideal, so, enter ND filters. 

IMO, this isn’t valuable in drone photography because the only value of slowing the shutter speed would be for long exposures (to blur water for example) which requires a tripod. Some might say their gimbals are magic and can allow for this, and whilst it’s a fun novelty, the image won’t be sharp or useable for anything other than phone size screens.

So why do ND filters serve no other purpose? Some drone camera’s such as the P4P and Inspire camera’s allow for aperture control. Even on drones without aperture control and fixed at f2.8, if you need to reduce the exposure you can simply dial up the shutter speed. 

(I'll pause here to make it clear I'm talking to photography and not videography. I absolutely agree some videographers will want ND filters for many other reasons). 

4. Grad ND. Grad ND’s are filters which gradually change from clear to a darker number of exposure stops. These are invaluable for landscape photographers when they want to balance their foreground light with the higher exposure of the sky. 

Could you do that on a drone when airborne? I guess maybe. Would I spend money on a filter for it for my drone. Nope. I’d take two exposures and blend them. It’d be easier than trying to balance the horizon along the grad line in the air.

Shooting the northern lights

Svolvear Aurora - Sony A7R2, 15mm Laowa f2, ISO 640, 8seconds

Svolvear Aurora - Sony A7R2, 15mm Laowa f2, ISO 640, 8seconds

I’ve had a few messages recently asking for tips or advice on photographing the northern lights and thought this would make for a helpful blog.

I’ve had a lot of experience photographing the milky way and wrongly assumed it’d be a lift and shift for photographing the aurora so let’s begin there.

 

Milky Way

Exposure length.

When photographing the milky way, we need to keep our exposure length controlled to avoid star trailing (ie 30” @ 15mm, 25” @20mm etc). Star trailing isn’t a concern for the aurora but exposure length is. I’ll explain below.

Aperture and ISO

The Milky way is usually dark and I find that an ISO from 1600 – 3200 is usually needed at a wide aperture of say f2.8.

 

Aurora

The need for speed

The speed and adaptiveness needed for the aurora really caught me off guard. The aurora can change in an instant from a subtle green glow to giant super bright curtains dancing through the sky. I was shooting with the new Laowa 15mm f2 and chose the widest aperture to keep my ISO low.

Things began at f2, ISO 1600 and 30” but as the intensity of the aurora lifted I found my exposures were actually blowing out (crazy to think that could happen at night). At one point, I was at f2, ISO 200 (yes 200) and 20”.

When the Aurora is peaking and moving in curtains, 30 seconds will blend and blur the definition and form. 

When the Aurora is peaking and moving in curtains, 30 seconds will blend and blur the definition and form. 

Later that night I got the files onto the computer and realised my errors. Because I had ruled out the concern of star trailing I figured I could hold onto a longer shutter speed (30”) to keep my ISO nice and low. Unfortunately, when the aurora was at its best was when it was dancing through the sky and 20” – 30” was just too long to capture the form and shape of the curtains. Everything just blended in.

The next night started off much the same. A dim green glow which, in an instant would change to bright green curtains. This time, I kept my aperture at f2 but would roll between ISO 640 and ISO 800 to keep my exposure length at just a few seconds. This returned a far better shot with much more definition and form to the amazing shapes of the aurora.

 

White Balance

Of-course this can all be changed in post but I do like to get an accurate idea of how things are looking in the field. I found a temperature of 2900k – 3200k worked really nicely. 

Foregrounds

In a few shots I found my foregrounds were out of focus or soft due to my wide aperture (f2). In these instances (and when time permitted) I would shoot a longer 3 - 5 minute exposure at around f5 and blend with the sky in post production. 

 

Post Production

Raw conversion

Given the magnificence of the aurora is already so impressive I didn’t need to work on the shots in post much to get them to a point I was happy with. None-the-less I did play around a little and here’s a basic work flow that I found fairly effective.

I process my RAWS in ACR but this will be the same for those working in Lightroom or another similar raw converter. 

 

Pull the highlights down a little to control the hot points

Pull the highlights down a little to control the hot points

Add about 10 points of contrast.

Add about 10 points of contrast.

Boost the whites between around 35 – 55 points.

Boost the whites between around 35 – 55 points.

Add additional clarity (12 – 20).

Add additional clarity (12 – 20).

Add additional vibrancy (5-10).

Add additional vibrancy (5-10).

Add luminance with the Green, Aqua and Blue HSL sliders.

Add luminance with the Green, Aqua and Blue HSL sliders.

Add a Dehaze adjustment of around 6-8 points.

Add a Dehaze adjustment of around 6-8 points.

Use the adjustment brush to pull back the whites on any hot points of the aurora curtain (the exposure can vary greatly). Try to pull back the white level before pulling back the highlight as the highlights will results in an uneven look with the rest of the wave. 

Use the adjustment brush to pull back the whites on any hot points of the aurora curtain (the exposure can vary greatly). Try to pull back the white level before pulling back the highlight as the highlights will results in an uneven look with the rest of the wave. 

Photoshop

In Photoshop I’d add additional cyan but that’s a personal choice. You’ll notice my aurora shots aren’t as green as others, that’s from this adjustment.

I would also add additional contrast.

Finally, in some images I noticed the aurora to be particularly bright in one part of the sky and non-existent in another. In these instances that resulted in the dark starry parts of the sky having a blue tinge from the white balance and Cyan adjustments applied for the aurora. To address this, I would add another adjustment layer, desaturate the entire image and mask back in the aurora, leaving the dark sky nice and dark / black. 

Let's talk about Norway

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Let’s talk Norway. First things first, I’m no seasoned arctic explorer and this isn’t going to be a crash course travel guide. This blog entry has come from a number of messages asking for advice and suggestions based on my experience. I’ll share my itinerary and thoughts.

When it comes to Norway, I tend to split the country in two. The first being the southern fjords and the second being the arctic mountainous regions in the north. As a photography destination, Norway has to be one of the world’s best. The landscape is breathtaking but what’s more, it’s accessible. So much of the Norwegian landscape can be accessed and shot with ease. I love hiking and I love camping but it does take planning and it does consume valuable time on the ground. Bang for buck, Norway delivers.

Geiranger fjord, Sunnmøre region of Møre og Romsdal county, Norway.

Geiranger fjord, Sunnmøre region of Møre og Romsdal county, Norway.

I did spend some time in the southern fjords at the start of the ’17 summer and I can whole heartedly vouch for their magnificence. Nothing really compares. I am, however, returning from a photography trip to the north so I’ll focus on that for now.

Our goal for this trip was to photograph the northern lights in the Lofoten Islands (I’ll have a dedicated blog post for that coming soon). We flew into Oslo and caught a connecting flight to Bodø. It is possible to fly directly to Leknes in the Lofoten Islands but we opted for Bodø only so as we could visit Stetind en route.

Stetind is an incredible pyramidal mountain peaking from sea level in the Tysfjord municipality. We stayed at the Tysfjord Hotel for 2 nights which does have a restaurant / kitchen and fuel station close by.

Aurora over Stetind, Norway.

Aurora over Stetind, Norway.

We rented 2 cars for the trip, 1 x Toyota RAV4 SUV and 1 x small Peugeot 108. We only used the second car to haul our luggage to and from (5 strapping aussie blokes with winter gear does take up room). We didn’t end up needing the SUV capability of the RAV4 on this trip but the snow can come and go so it’s hard to say whether I would rent an SUV here again in the winter or not. I would definitely insist on winter tyres though; the roads can be very icy.

From the Tysfjord Hotel we caught the Bøgnes – Skaberget ferry. For 1 car and 5 adults it was NOK179 each way. Stetind is approximately 25min drive from the Skaberget ferry dock.  Here’s a link to the ferry guide.

Hamnøy - this classic scene is shot directly from the Hamnøy bridge.

Hamnøy - this classic scene is shot directly from the Hamnøy bridge.

Our plan was to then catch the Bøgnes – Lodingen ferry once we finished at Stetind and then drive from Lodingen to our accommodation in Leknes (it departs from the same ferry dock). Instead we opted to drive straight to Leknes through Narvik. No reason other than a little sight-seeing. This took us about 7hrs and was a beautiful wintry drive.

The Lofoten Islands can be split into three main areas for photography. To the south is Reine and Hamnøy, the Fredvang bridge and Flakstad Beach. To the north is Henningsvaer Stadium (however this is an aerial only location) and stunning coastal stop offs. In the middle is Haukland and Uttakleiv beach.

We chose to stay in Leknes for its central location. Here’s a link to the accommodation. Frode is the owner of Lofoten Vacations and I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. Let him know you read about them here and he’ll take extra good care of you.

After our stay we caught the Moskenes to Bodø Ferry. It was 3hrs:20min and cost NOK2,257 for 2 cars and five good looking guys.

 

Now for some vital information:

Sunrise and Sunset.

Yep, up here you’re in the arctic which means long nights to cuddle up with your buddies. Early in January, you’d have complete 24hr darkness but things change quickly. By the time we arrived on the 12th January sunrise was around 11:15am and sunset around 1:35pm. By the time we left it had stretched to 10:00am and 2:45pm.  

The light between daylight hours is truly stunning and perfectly photogenic the entire way through.

Many suggest visiting here in February with longer daylight hours. That is certainly an option but my goal was the northern lights so I wanted as much darkness as possible to maximise my opportunity in the dark and I can easily make-do with 2-3 hours of day light, especially when that light is just so, so good.

 

Coffee

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I’m a coffee lover and access to good coffee does matter. It does ok. Sadly, I’ve only yet found two good coffee shops in the Lofoten Islands. Leknes and Reine. Both do offer free wifi as well.

  • Huset Kafé: Idrettsgata 1, 8370 Leknes
  • Bringen Kafé: Reine

 

Living costs

Norway is expensive. There’s no getting around that. In general, eating out and drinking alcohol are going to hurt the wallet. We did both but our cabin had a kitchen and we tried to cook meals as often as we could. Grocery items were approximately 30% more expensive than Australia, Canada and the states.

 

Mobile phone and data

It’s fairly easy to buy a SIM card and load it with data. I went with Telia this time and paid NOK399 for a card, suitable call minutes and 3GB data . 6GB was available for an additional NOK100.

What's in the bag?

I’m sitting at the airport in Paris on my way to Norway and thought this would probably be a good time to write another blog post.

It was Maya Angelou who said, “we are only as blind as we want to be” and sitting beside me is my camera bag so, here’s a blog post on what’s in it. To my defence though, I have had a few ask for examples of the gear I travel with so this isn’t entirely fortuitous.

Without further ado – let’s get started. 

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Cameras

First things first, I am travelling to take photos so in order of priority are my cameras. 2 x Sony A7Rll in this case.