(text and photos by Matt Cashore) Matt Cashore is senior university photographer at Notre Dame and the editor of the UPAA blog and magazine. (…so, um, yeah, Matt is talking about himself in the third person.) Matt’s Campus Environment category “Snow Aerial” was voted Best in Show in the April 2020 Monthly Image Competition.

Quick tech stuff—camera model, focal length, exposure data, lighting used (if any):

•DJI Mavic Pro 2

•10.3mm on a 1” sensor (roughly 28mm FF equivalent)

1/200 f5 ISO100

Briefly go through the process: How did the job land on your calendar? Any unique logistics in making the photo? What sort of post processing (or not)?

The quick answers are: a) Random meteorological luck, b) drone, and c) one metric ton’s worth.

Many people say I just drone on and on and on and on... Oh, different kind of 'drone!' We file flight plans via AirMap and notify our Campus Safety office before drone flights.

Before I begin yammering in earnest: We follow both FAA laws and our own Campus Safety protocols for drone flights. In the pre-pandemic days we’d try to give our Campus Safety office a minimum 24-hour heads-up. During the campus closure, however, approval was much more nimble--in this case it was under 15 minutes.

Now for the long answers:

On March 23, 2020 with our heads still spinning from the Coronavirus campus closure, we woke to see a pretty snow had unexpectedly coated the trees overnight. Without even being asked, nearly the entire department-both photographers and one of our videographers-raced to campus to make the most of the opportunity. I’ve never shot aerials in winter, so I brought along my Mavic 2 Pro.

Ooooh! Pretty! But...I've stood in this same spot and made this same photo many times before. Gotta elevate my photo game...literally!

A little background: Every organization has a certain unique set of priorities that only those in the organization can fully understand. No explanation can fully capture the nuance and history of whatever it might be. 

For us…it’s Christmas cards. Seriously. We can never have enough pretty winter photos to satisfy campus demand for Christmas card images.

Those who don’t live in a snowy region probably think, “What’s the big deal? Expensive camera + snow = Christmas cards.” Those who do live in a snowy region know not all snow is “pretty” snow. And even when it is, it quickly turns to “snirt.” (snow + dirt) There's actually a little bit of snirt at the bottom of the image!

Another benefit to the campus closure (in addition to easier drone approvals) was that the snow was less traveled on and stayed pretty longer than usual. So on this particular Monday morning, for a couple glorious hours, the hunt for Christmas cards pushed aside the worry and uncertainty of the first week of the pandemic shutdowns.

Auto mode made everything flat and gray straight-from-camera. Middle row is the 5-shot burst used to make the final image.

My post-processing of drone photos is usually pretty elaborate. A couple reasons: First, 10+ years of prints sales show that aerial photos are top sellers--and likely quite large prints. The Mavic 2’s 1” sensor is definitely better than the 1st generation Mavic but still falls short of what a larger sensor can produce. To maximize image quality I use a 5-image stacking technique (detailed in #5 on this list) to minimize noise. The second reason is because safely flying a drone on campus is a mentally saturating thing to do! “Not Crashing” comes first and “Making Pictures” second. So I leave the exposure and white balance on auto mode and take a “fix it in post” approach. And, don’t forget, we’re making Christmas cards here... Photojournalism, avert your eyes! Time to post-process like a champion!

Almost there…After stacking and blending, the image needs a little tweaking and cropping.

I punched up the whites a bit on the trees and used a gradient “dehaze” filter in an attempt to get the Dome to be a little punchier. It had an unexpected side benefit of intensifying a slight blue cast in the clouds. (The effect is greatly exaggerated here for illustration.) I cropped out the contractor vans and the water tower and Merry Christmas!

What (if anything) would you do differently if you could re-shoot this today?

Seriously, the amount of post-processing in this photo is kind of embarrassing. And yet, with aaaalll the stacking and cropping and toning and dehaze-ing and gradient-ing, I left three people in the shot, and the snirt at the bottom. I bet a dollar if this gets used as a Christmas card I'll be asked to fix those things or the designer will do it on their own.

Where do you look for inspiration, feedback and motivation?

Said it before and I’ll say it again: UPAA. The contests, the online group and following UPAA members on Instagram. Thanks for the kick in the creative posterior!

What would your dream assignment be?

These days? Every job is awesome.

_______________________________________________________

"Who likes Roman numerals?? I, for one!" Send your laurels and darts to editor Matt Cashore, mcashore@nd.edu. Follow UPAA on Instagram!