Here are my best drone photography tips. Before we even talk about editing your drone images, you want to make sure you understand how to set the DJI go app properly to get the best pictures possible. If you can’t bear to listen to my thick French accent, here’s the low-down:
1/ Most important feature
Photo in RAW.
Why? RAW have all the information in them, yes bigger files, but who cares, you’ve got a big memory card.
With Jpgs, you leave the camera to make the edit for you, once you go back and you want to change something, you can’t. I’m not stopping you from shooting RAW + JPG, but it’s just more photos and space in Lightroom for no good reason, as you can create JPGs out your RAW files.
2/ AEB: Bracket 5 exposures.
What does it do? It will take 5 pictures from dark to bright.
Why? Because it allows you to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. What is that? It’s the range between shadows and highlights, between the darkest part of the image and the brightest. The human eye can see the difference between very dark and very bright elements in a scene. A camera struggles. It will either show you only the brightest part of an image, or the darkest. A drone camera struggles even more because of the size of the sensor inside (i.e. tiny).
Even if you don’t do HDR afterwards, or merge the files in post, you might realise you prefer the slightly under-exposed version of the image to start editing with. With 5 brackets, you basically have the luxury of choice, that you wouldn’t have with one.
3/ Style: Saturation / Contrast / Sharpness
Leave everything at -2. Why? You have more room to correct in post than the other way around. You will have a flat image, which is much easier to edit than a picture that has had applied saturation, etc, by the camera. The Phantom 4 also has a bad tendency to over saturate images, even at -2 they appear really saturated.
4/ Make sure ISO stays at 100
Why? Iso 100 = best image quality. In DJI Drones the images quality isn’t yet comparable to ‘normal’ DLSR type cameras, so you want to make sure you are in the best possible settings. By Iso 400 the quality starts going down the drain. ISO 1600 is generally unusable, noisy and with poor details.
In auto, you can’t control your ISO, but you want to make sure the ISO is at 100 when you are about to shoot.
During most daytime situations auto will be fine and keep your ISO at 100. But in low light situation, morning, evenings, overcast, night photography, the camera will automatically bump your ISO, which in most cases is not what you want. In these situations, you will have to go to manual mode and bracket your images yourself.
When in manual again, leave the ISO at 100 and control the shutter speed yourself. For night photography, f you are lucky enough to be able to do that in your country without having to go to jail, you might have to go to 200 to 400, to keep your shutter speed below 1 to 2 seconds.
5/ Auto is fine, for most daytime situations.
The exception is if you are shooting into the sun, which you shouldn’t be doing anyway. In auto and AEB with 5 images selected, you should be fine 95% of the time. If you want to make sure you get it right 100% of the time, you have to do it in manual but I find it a bit too cumbersome to shoot all my pictures like that when we have limited battery.
White balance in auto is fine as well during daytime, as you are shooting RAW you can easily change this in Lightroom. For night photography you might have to change it yourself if you see the picture on the screen is getting too yellowish or blueish.
6. Put the histogram on.
The histogram should become your best friend. It warns you if you are losing information. To make sure you capture all the dynamic range in an image, the dark parts and the bright parts, which is not always feasible with one picture. In the example above, the histogram is good, which means I’m not losing any information on the dark part (the left side) and the bright parts of the image (the right side) and all the information is in the middle (this is good).
If the ‘mountain’ is tipping towards the left side, it means you are under exposing, and will struggle to recover your shadows. Like the picture below. If I only had that picture to work with, I’d be losing lots of details in the shadows.
If it clips on the right side, it means you are losing your highlights (like a bright sky) and will end up with a big white blurp instead. Having only one picture like that would be uneditable.
As a rule of thumb, shadows are generally easier to recover in post, but if you’ve clipped your highlights, that’s it you are doomed. Hopefully having 5 brackets should give you enough security.
In auto, depending if you want to make sure you capture all the bright or dark part of the image, you may want to start the bracketing at -1 EV (if the overall scene is really bright) or +1 EV (if the overall scene is really dark) by moving the slider here on the remote control and keeping your eye on the monitor.
In manual mode, you have to do the bracketing yourself. Which mean taking a picture with all the information stuck on the left, decreasing the shutter speed slightly so the mountain moves to the center, take a picture, etc. until I start clipping my highlights and take a final picture. 3 to 5 pictures should be enough.
7. Drone photography tips – Advanced settings
If the scene is getting dark, really cloudy, or you are shooting a sunrise / sunset, and you stay in Auto mode, bracketing 5 images, the drone will automatically start bumping the ISO without you realising. It’s happened to me, I wasn’t very happy coming home…When I realised some of the images were ISO 256 etc. It does that because it doesn’t want to get into low shutter speed (I’m not sure that the automatic limit is, but it’s probably around 1/60th). However, in most scenarios, your drone can handle much longer shutter speeds. I’ve shot at 1,2 even 3 seconds with sharp images.
Anyway, when it gets to under 1/100th in the shutter speed, it’s when it’s time to switch to Manual (shock horror).
In manual mode, you set the shutter speed. What is the shutter speed? It’s the speed at which the camera takes a picture. It depends on how much light is available. For example, on a bright day, the shutter speed could be 1/2000th of a second. Which means even if the drone was travelling at full speed you could still have a sharp image.
But in low light condition, the shutter speed will need to go down. This is when problems start happening because a drone is not stable, you don’t have a tripod to put your camera on. Even with the ”tripod mode’ in newer drones, like the DJI Mavic, or P4P, the drone is still susceptible to movement, which means your picture could be completely blurred.
So, the goal of the game is to get a sharp picture while still using the smallest ISO possible.
In my experience, without wind, my drone (P4) can handle 1s even 2s images while still turning sharp pictures.
You will need here to bracket manually. Start with ISO 100, and cover the range from dark to bright on your histogram. Pro-tip, here you may want to click multiple and 3 or 5. The drone will take a succession of 3 images in short burst, and with a bit of luck, one of them will be tick sharp.
If you see that the dark image would take more than 1 or 2 seconds to take, you will have to bump the ISO, until you get down to 1s.
It takes some practice but is not that difficult.
8. I don’t recommend filters for photography. They make the picture slightly less sharp and by bracketing you will always have the opportunity to get the sky back.
9. The exception is If you want to do long exposures and polarizer filter. I use ND64 to do long exposures and get silky smooth water during the day.
Same as for night photography, shoot in manual, stay at iso 100, make sure the shutter speed doesn’t go below 1 or 2 seconds, do multiples so you have at least 1 sharp image.
A polarizer will help you take some of the glaze and reflection on water. I rarely use it though as it decreases the sharpness and makes the image darker, meaning a slower shutter speed (and more risk of a blurry image or higher ISO). And with a drone if you want to just put it on and off, you have to come back, land, take off again, which I don’t find very practical.
And that’s all you need!
Any questions, let me know in the comment section below.