By David Cardinal
Drone photography is one of the fastest growing, and most fun, new types of photography. Whatever your previous experience with photography and videography, it provides both unique opportunities and some novel challenges. In particular, consumer and prosumer drones have small-size sensors with fixed apertures, so getting great images and video out of them takes some work.
Start with the right drone and the right camera settings
Just as with your current cameras, not all drone cameras are created equal. In addition to looking at sample images and reading reviews, for best results you’ll want to make sure your drone can capture images in RAW (typically a .DNG) and video in some type of “flat” color space like D-Log. Ideally, it will also have built-in support for Bracketing — as the dynamic range of consumer drone sensors is limited. For times when you want the drone to do the processing for you, an automated HDR function is helpful. Make sure that the RAW images from your choice of drone are supported by your image processing applications. For me, DJI’s Mavic product line has the best combination of a decent price point ($700-$1200, depending on the model) and all of these features. Of course, it has tons of other settings and photo modes as well. Some of those are useful to serious photographers who want the best possible image, and some are simply shortcuts to getting reasonable results more quickly.
Flying your drone for great photography
DJI started as a stabilizer company, so it is no surprise that the gimbal on the Mavic (and its other drones) is excellent. But it isn’t perfect. So, the more you can do to help it, the better. High wind is its biggest enemy, so waiting for no wind or at most a light breeze is helpful. Lighting conditions of course also vary, so you may want to try several different times or days to get a particular image. One tool to make that easier is Waypoint-based flying. I use the Litchi app with the Mavic to allow me to pre-plan routes & photo and video actions on the way. Once I have the route set, I can repeat it with the punch of a button. For my Parrot Anafi, Waypoint flying is an inexpensive add-on to Parrot’s own app.
Drone photography workflow parallels your current workflow
Once you have your .DNG files, make sure and let your image processing application apply lens corrections (for the Mavic, I’ve used Lightroom, Photoshop, and PhotoLab with success so far). Of course, it will also do a default color correction. In general, I’ve found that the apps do a good job with white balance estimation and overall exposure (most drone photos are shot in fairly bright light in daytime, which helps). Tonal contrast and mapping is a different story. Drone photos almost always involve huge swings in lighting levels in various parts of the image. The problem is even worse if you’re stitching multiple frames into a panorama. So, expect to have to pull up the shadows in your images, either globally or locally. Similarly, highlights like sky and clouds often need pulling back. Because blown highlights are harder to restore than shadows, I often shoot with either manual exposure, or a -.3 EV, even for typical daylight scenes.
Color Management is just as important for drone photography
Ultimately a drone camera is still just a camera. So, having a color-managed workflow is just as essential. That of course starts by using a quality monitor with a quality profile like the ones generated with a Datacolor Spyder. Similarly, you can create custom profiles for your personal drone using a Datacolor SpyderCheckr. One additional element is that you’ll be doing your best to preview the drone’s images and setup its camera while looking at a phone or tablet screen. So, getting one with a quality display is helpful.
Consider HDR to get better color
Traditionally, we use HDR to span high dynamic range scenes. Most drone photos benefit from HDR for that reason alone, but richer color is another great reason to use bracketing (HDR) when photographing with your drone. This is especially true because of the often-harsh lighting in drone photos. You don’t need to do anything fancy with the bracketed images if all you want is rich color. The “Realistic” or “Architectural” or similar low-impact presets in your favorite HDR app should do a good job. I’ve used both Skylum’s Aurora and HDRSoft’s Photomatix with good success. Obviously, you can use your Adobe tools also, but I tend to prefer the standalone apps.
When you have a static scene like this architectural photo, HDR can do a great job of helping you capture rich colors. The drone isn’t quite as stable as a tripod, so make sure and use an HDR app that can adjust for some camera movement.
TECH TIP: A polarizing filter is a great bet for helping cut some of the glare and warm up sunlit scenes. The PolarPro filters for the Mavic drones are excellent and light enough not to interfere with their operation. If you also need an ND filter to slow down your shutter speed (either to allow motion, or simply to get your video shutter speed down to twice your frame rate) they also make combination filters that are both polarizers and ND filters. Remember if you’re using an ND filter to slow down your shutter then you may need to lock your ISO down so that the drone doesn’t increase it to try to get you a higher shutter speed.
Special considerations when shooting 360-degree panoramas
One of the coolest things you can do with a drone is shoot full 360-degree panoramas (typically 360-degrees horizontally and from directly below to slightly above the horizon vertically). Many drones have a built-in pano mode, but for best results you’ll want to capture a large number of RAW images and do your own processing. The first step is balancing out the light levels. In traditional panoramas we learned to find a reasonable compromise exposure and lock it in. But the massive dynamic range of drone panoramas shot anywhere except in a completely-sunlit scene makes that an issue. So, I’ve actually had good success by leaving the exposure set to Auto -.3 EV, and then bringing up the shadows in some of the images that have darkly-shaded sections.
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TECH TIP: If you are mixing images from your drone and your main camera, you can try to emulate the look of your main camera in your drone photos using software, like the multiple camera renderings supported in DxO’s photo lab.
Think of your drone as a smartphone camera in the sky
When in doubt, remember that most consumer and prosumer drone cameras are similar to the one in your smartphone, with all the same limitations. So, if you need to push the ISO, for example, you’ll have to work hard on noise reduction. And you’re getting limited dynamic range from its tiny sensor. But, hey, it’s in the sky! Just about any photo taken from a drone is one you couldn’t have gotten without one, so enjoy.
Activities of everyday life can sometimes best be captured from a drone. The farmers in Myanmar taking their cabbage to the market truck make a colorful scene that’s easiest to capture from the air. The farmers loved the drone, and offered to trade me quite a large number of cabbages and chili peppers for it
David is an award-winning professional travel and nature photographer, as well as a prolific writer on photography and other technical topics. He is a frequent contributor to Extremetech.com, and has been published in Outdoor Photographer, Photoshop User, PC Magazine, London Daily Mail, and many other magazines and websites. He has spoken on digital imaging and on the internet at Stanford, Dartmouth, Google, Electronic Imaging, and at B&H’s OPTIC conference. His clients include the BBC, Asia Development Bank, US Fish and Wildlife, California Fish and Game, National Wildlife Federation, American Prairie Foundation, DxO Labs, Datacolor, Photodex, and Lexar. David is also a Datacolor Expert. In addition to leading photo tours worldwide, he has shot high school sports professionally for CBS Interactive. He co-authored one of the first books on digital photography with colleague Moose Peterson and has taught workshops for North American Nature Photography Association and Digital Landscape Workshop Series.
David’s travel and nature photo tours and safaris include destinations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and throughout North America. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it, while his journalistic efforts span both photography and technology.