Over the past couple of years there has been a huge increase in the usage of drones within the photography community. The technology within the drones themselves has improved extremely quickly with companies like DJI and GoPro investing massive amounts of resources into their products. Safety features, size, ease of use and the quality of the images from the cameras themselves are the key factors to the success of any individual drone model, and DJI in particular has managed to hit the mark with all of these across their consumer and professional products lines.
Now I don’t want to get into the politics and laws of flying drones here in Australia or elsewhere around the world. I am going to assume that if you are reading this you already know the general CASA guidelines, sub-2kg UAV commercial usage laws, use apps like “Can I Fly There?”, abide by your local regulations such as national parks laws in your state or territory, and just generally do the right thing legally and morally when it comes to using your drones. I am going to focus purely on providing some basic tips for maximising image quality from your drone, particularly consumer level drones such as the Phantom 3 / Phantom 4 and Mavic series. Much of this will be applicable to drones such as the Inspire/ Matrice range, but with interchangeable cameras and lenses I tend to see a higher overall quality of images coming from those particular models as the cameras have the specs to perform better.
I personally use and recommend DJI drones and have been flying them now for photography purposes for just over two and a half years. I have seen the popularity of them explode as technology and portability has improved. And I am certain as the camera technology continues to improve, the growth of drone usage will continue its exponential upward path. Anyone who listens to the Project RAWcast podcast or who follows me on any of my social media profiles would probably know that I am a massive fan of aerial photography, and drones have made it extremely easy to produce this type of imagery for what is a lower investment when compared to time in a helicopter or light plane. Here are 5 tips for shooting high quality drone images and maximising the potential of your flying cameras.
1. Know your camera
Most consumer level drones like the Phantom series of drones and the Mavic Pro have great cameras when you consider their physical size, but at the same time can be quite limited in their performance due to the physical size of the sensor, electronic / rolling shutters (rather than mechanical) and lack of variable aperture. The Phantom 4 Pro is different though in that is has a larger sensor and resolution (20MP as compared to 12MP), mechanical shutter and also variable aperture controls, so this drone can produce higher quality images than the others I will talk about in this article. For Mavic Pro / Phantom 4 / Phantom 3 models there is a noticeable drop off in image quality in low light situations and also when shooting scenes with a large depth of field. The drop off in sharpness is very noticeable when shooting out towards a horizon as the f/2 or f/2.2 aperture is extremely wide, but sharpness can improve substantially when shooting straight down with what are relatively flat scenes.
ISO performance can deteriorate the quality of an image quite a lot in low light situations with smaller camera sensors. Shooting in good light or using manual camera controls for the ISO and shutter speed on the Mavic / P4 / P3 can help improve on this. Working within the limitations of the cameras, and understanding how your camera will perform in different conditions will help you produce better images.
While there are limitations on the performance of the cameras in consumer level drones, this will become less noticeable when compared to larger bodied mirrorless and SLR cameras as technology improves. For most people though, the cameras are good enough to produce quality images for social media and other online platforms. I have personally printed images from a Phantom 3 and Mavic on canvas at 36″ wide x 24″ high and on lustre paper at 30″ wide x 20″ high. With a bit of post processing knowledge the quality of the images coming from the current model DJI consumer drones will suit most people’s needs.
As with many different types of landscape photography, stability can play a major role in the overall quality of your images. When you are using a drone, even the tiniest bit of wind can affect the overall sharpness of an image, especially if you are shooting at slower shutter speeds. A good tip I have is to use “Tripod” mode on any of the current model Phantom 4 or Mavic drones. Tripod mode effectively improves the stability by applying more torque and power in specific directions, allowing the drone to become more stable. Tripod mode will impact on the speed of the drone movements in any direction though, and can be effective when flying extremely close to objects or when there is a low level of wind. Most of the long exposure shots (anywhere from 0.25 seconds up to 8 seconds) I have managed to capture are done using tripod mode to improve overall stability, whether it is windy or not.
When I am capturing images I will generally try to ensure I am not moving the drone in any direction at the time and will only be triggering the shutter to capture images. The P4 and Mavic series of drones also have a “gimbal lock when shooting” function which can help prevent any shaking while taking images. I ensure that this is turned on to again help improve the stability of my flying cameras.
3. Shoot bracketed exposures
The P3 / P4 and Mavic series of drones will allow you to shoot bracketed images, and this provides the options of blending images in post processing for dynamic range, or selecting the best of the exposures for use later. This is a common technique with landscape photography and can help ensure you are capturing the full range of luminosity values from the darkest of shadows all the way to the brightest of highlights while maintaining detail throughout that range. When you are shooting into bright light you will often get what are known as blown out highlights if you are not controlling the exposure of the scene correctly. And just as you can get overblown highlights, you can also get under exposed shadows with no recoverable detail and high level of “noise” in them. The cameras on the popular DJI drones already have their limitations as mentioned above, so shooting bracketed exposures is an effective way of maximising your overall image quality.
4. Use neutral density filters
Just with normal cameras, drone cameras and image quality can benefit from the use of neutral density filters, polarisers and even potentially UV filters (UV filters are more for protection in my opinion than for image quality) to control the shutter speed, both for still images and also for video. Polarisers will help cut through the glare on water if used correctly, and can also help increase overall saturation of things like skies and foliage. Neutral density filters are very useful for video to control the shutter speed. I find a 1/50secs shutter speed is great for the cinematic feel to videos, and in the right weather conditions neutral density filters can be used for longer exposures of up to 8 seconds for still images on the Phantom 4 / Mavic series of drones.
I personally use and recommend NiSi Filters drone filters – check out their range of products via the links below.
5. Shoot in RAW
Most professional photographers will tell you that shooting in RAW will help you produce the best image quality. Shooting in RAW will require some level of post processing to produce an image that will be useful for any online / print purposes. All of the consumer level DJI drones have the option to shoot in RAW (DNG files), JPEG or both. The level of compression applied to the JPEG formats will make it very difficult to get the maximum quality from your drone images in that format. The cameras themselves already have limitations in resolution and performance on the P3 / P4 and Mavic series of drones (with the exception of the P4P as mentioned above) so maximising the potential image quality via shooting in RAW can be a huge benefit.
I highly recommend processing your RAW images in either Lightroom, Photoshop or any other major image processing suite.