By David Cardinal
While you may have shied away from shooting video with your traditional cameras, it is one of the most powerful ways to use your drone. Just like with drone photography which we covered in an earlier article, there are plenty of tricks to getting great results.
Getting and setting up your drone
For maximum flexibility in capturing video, you’ll want to have a drone that can shoot in a LOG colorspace. This is essentially the video equivalent of RAW for still images. It gives you more latitude for post-processing at the expense of requiring at least some post processing for the image to look good. There are various different versions of LOG colorspaces, just like with RAW formats. DJI calls theirs D-Log, while Parrot’s is P-Log for example.
If you’re willing to let DJI do the hard work for you, then their D-Cinelike colorspace is an excellent choice that provides a nice result out of the box. It also lets you get a good sense of what the video will look like while you’re flying, while if you are shooting in a Log colorspace your preview image will look washed out. Whichever you choose, you’ll also want to experiment with your drone’s image adjustments — typically saturation, contrast, and sharpness. In general, setting them to -1, may provide more flexibility in post-processing, although there is a quirk with Mavic Pro noise reduction that makes +1 for sharpness a good option on the original Mavic Pro.
You’ll also need to decide whether to opt for the convenience of Auto White Balance, or pick a manual value for each clip to keep things consistent for the length of the clip. Unless you need a high frame rate for some reason, recording in 4K will provide the most detail in your video. Just make sure you use a fast-enough microSD card so you don’t drop any frames.
Learn how to use ND filters
PolarPro’s drone filters are well made and easy to use.
Their Cinema set includes both ND and ND Polarizing versions in varying strengths.
Like almost all smartphones, most consumer drones have a fixed aperture, usually a wide one. That limits your ability to manipulate your shutter speed. For smooth video, ideally you want your shutter speed to be twice your frame rate. So, for 4K / 30fps, you want a shutter speed of 1/60s. To get that in bright sunlight, you’ll need to add a neutral density filter. For my Mavic Pro in full sunlight it can require as much as an ND16 (a 4-stop neutral density filter that cuts the light by 15/16ths). You can also get filters that include a polarizer, for helping reduce glare. DJI sells a few filters, but I’m a big fan of PolarPro, who makes a very-full range of filters that are light enough not to upset your drone’s motors or gimbal.
Flying your drone for a winning video
It’s possible to get excellent drone footage when flying by hand, but it takes practice. If you’re limited in how much time you have to fly outside, a simulator like Zephyr from Little Arms Studios can be very helpful. Most drones also feature a number of intelligent flight modes that allow you to execute pre-planned maneuvers. They are usually designed to mimic some of the popular shots used by Hollywood, or to facilitate following a moving subject. TIP: Try flight modes out in a large empty space the first time, as some feature quite a bit of movement. For hand-flying, most drones offer a precision navigation mode like DJI’s Tripod mode that slows the drone down and makes it react much more slowly to movements of the sticks.
If you don’t have the patience to become a wizard with your controller, pre-programmed “Waypoint” flying is an excellent alternative. Parrot offers it as an add-on to its flight app, while for DJI many of us use Litchi. It allows you to plan waypoints, flight patterns, and camera angles by using a mashup of Google Earth data. The resulting routes can be created and shared using a web interface or the mobile app. One of my favorite things about pre-programmed routes is that you can tweak and re-run them as needed. For example, there is a large construction project near us, and I have a route that flies a loop around it that I can run every few days to create a record of progress.
Grant Park overflight. Inset shows the original footage /main screen is after post-processing
Noise Reduction is also an important part of post processing
Depending on your video editor you’ll have some options for noise reduction, beginning with its built-in capability. For my use, the extra time and expense of the Neat Video plug-in for Premiere Pro is worth the hassle. You can even find some pre-made noise profiles for some drones like the Mavic Pro that work with Neat Video out of the box.
Even the small camera like the one on the Mavic Pro can create high-quality video
when carefully shot and processed – like this video from Inle Lake in Myanmar
Pro-quality color correction using LUTs
Shooting in a LOG colorspace, similar to shooting still images in RAW, requires post-processing of tonal range and colors. Most video editing packages can make use of LookUp Tables (LUTs) to perform the needed correction for a particular camera and LOG profile. Pre-packaged LUTs are available for a variety of drone models, both for free and at low cost. However, if you can’t find one for your drone, or want something different, you can make your own.
Applying a LUT to drone footage in Adobe Premiere Pro
Using a SpyderCHECKR to help with color correction
Your SpyderCHECKR is useful for video as well as still photography
Depending on the drone you’re using, there may be some excellent LUTs available either for free or for a small amount. For the Mavic Pro, I’ve used the ones from Icarus and from the Film Poets with good success. But for my Parrot, for example, there don’t seem to be any pre-made LUTs for its P-Log colorspace. Even when there are LUTs available, you might want to create your own look. Fortunately you can do that using a Datacolor SpyderCHECKR, either by hand or the same way you can use it to build a Lightroom Preset.
To create a look for yourself, and possibly turn it into a LUT, open a video clip of the SpyderCHECKR captured with your drone’s camera set up the way you like it. Then adjust the white and black points to use the full dynamic range, the way you would when processing an image. After that you can increase saturation or manipulate individual colors until the image of the SpyderCHECKR looks like one that you’ve captured using a profiled camera. Of course, you’ll need to make sure the monitor you’re using is properly calibrated and profiled, ideally using a Datacolor SpyderX.
Once you have those settings in Premiere Pro, for example, you can simply open up the Lumetri Panel and choose to export them to a “.cube” file (LUT). In Photoshop the process is similar. Use Adjustment Layers to get a still frame of your video (hopefully one that includes an image of your SpyderCHECKR for easy reference) looking the way you want and then use File->Export->Color Lookup Tables to generate a LUT for your use.
Using the SpyderCHECKR software to automate color correction
Using a SpyderCHECKR with your drone is just like using it with a traditional camera.
(No, your drone doesn’t have to be flying to record video, it just seemed appropriate)
It is also possible to use the SpyderCHECKR software to automatically help you get accurate color. Simply run the SpyderCHECKR software on a single frame of video captured with your drone set up the way you like. As when using the software with still images, adjust the white and black point, and then open the image in SpyderCHECKR. The software will create a Lightroom preset with slider values that you can apply in your video editor. Or there are plugins that will allow you to export the Lightroom Preset you’ve created as a LUT that you can use in your video editor. SpyderCHECKR can also generate an Adobe Camera Raw profile, but I haven’t found a way to directly take an Adobe Camera Raw profile and turn it into a LUT yet.
- Make sure your system is color-managed
(SpyderX is perfect for this)
- Shoot video in a Log colorspace and post-process
- Noise Reduction
- Color LUT
- Or shoot in D-Cinelike or similar
- SpyderCHECKR can help
Film Poet’s Mavic Pro D-Log LUT
Film Poet’s De-Flicker and Noise Reduction Profiles
Icarus LUTs for D-Log and D-Cinelike
Neat Video Noise Reduction Software
Mavic Pro Noise Reduction Profiles for Neat Video
About the Author – David Cardinal:
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.