The Castle of Cigognola, Italy. Shot with DJI Mavic Pro

Drone Photography Basics

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I am constantly on the lookout for ways to add variety and novelty to my portfolio of images. One of the techniques I use is to vary my point of view, but that approach has its limits as long as my feet are glued to the ground.

This has started to change since I bought myself a drone or more properly, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), namely the DJI Mavic Pro.

There are many reasons why a photographer might want to use a drone, now that technology is becoming mature and affordable. It allows us to go where we normally couldn’t, it’s portable (especially the Mavic), and it’s fun. It’s the perfect toy for grownups. Flying it brings new discoveries every day and it’s a type of great fun I wouldn’t be able to have with a normal camera.

The main reason, however, is the variety it can add to my portfolio. Shooting vertically downward above the confluence of two rivers, one muddy and the other one a deep emerald green, the currents create intricate, abstract patterns. This is something that I can only do from the sky in that particular place. I lived near that confluence all my life but couldn’t photograph that effect until I started using a flying camera.

The Ticino River flows into the Po River near Pavia, Italy

Drone Photography – The Ticino River flows into the Po River near Pavia, Italy

Of course, people have been getting images like this one for a long time but, until now, it required expensive helicopter flights. Now everyone can do it.

The wide availability of an airborne imaging platform, however, means that these kind of images will likely become more commonplace, but early adopters still have the edge; we are breaking new ground and exploring the possibilities of the new medium every day.

The Ticino River flows into the Po River near Pavia, Italy

The Ticino River flows into the Po River near Pavia, Italy

Ensuring Good Image Quality

Extreme portability does come at a price. In the case of the DJI Mavic Pro, the price is having a tiny camera. Its sensor is only 1/2.3” in size, like the one of a small compact camera, and it has a resolution of only 12.35MP.

Unless one needs huge prints, twelve megapixels aren’t too bad. It’s actually more than adequate for reasonably-sized prints. The real problem is that those megapixels are crammed onto a tiny sensor. The consequences are that the camera is sensitive to noise and its dynamic range is limited. With this in mind, here are some tips for making the most out of it.

Shoot RAW

It goes without saying that serious landscape photography requires shooting RAW files. The Mavic produces DNG files that are compatible with Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, Photoshop, and most other programs, so there are no issues here. I don’t think I shot a single JPEG image with my drone.

Drone Photography - Pavia, Italy from above

Drone Photography – Pavia, Italy from above

Use the Base ISO

When shooting stills, I always use the base ISO value of 100. Since I can do exposures that are a few seconds long and the fixed aperture of the lens is f/2.2, I rarely need to increase the ISO value to 200 or more. Flying drones at night is also illegal pretty much everywhere.

For drone photography, I noticed that higher ISO values can create noisy images, so I try to avoid them.

Country Road

Drone Photography – Country Road from the Sky

Keep an Eye on Your Histogram

You can configure the DJI Go 4 app to always display a histogram on the screen. Enable this feature and check the histogram to make sure you are not underexposing or blowing the highlights. The smartphone or tablet display you use as a monitor can be very deceptive, so don’t rely on that to check exposure.

Pay extra attention to avoid underexposure. When you have to open up the shadows in post, all the lurking noise comes out to bite you. The best approach is to always expose to the right (ETTR).

Castle of Montesegale, Italy

Castle of Montesegale, Italy

Bracket, Bracket, Bracket

Another great feature of the Mavic is auto-exposure bracketing. You can take three exposures (ranging from -1EV to +1EV) or five (ranging from -2EV to +2EV) each time you press the shutter button; creating a HDR  to increase the dynamic range, using Lightroom, Photoshop, or other programs is a piece of cake. Memory is cheap, too, so just do it.

I would keep AEB on at all times, if I could, but the Mavic resets itself to taking a single shot every time you turn it off.

The hilltop village of Fortunago, Lombardy, Italy

The hilltop village of Fortunago, Lombardy, Italy

Shoot Stitched Panoramas

Twelve megapixels are not enough? Then shoot multiple images and combine them into a stitched multi-megapixel panorama. Again, doing this with Lightroom and DNG files is very convenient and easy.

The Mavic makes it super easy to shoot wide panoramas. You put it in Tripod mode, then use gentle nudges of the stick to change the yaw with accuracy and sweep the scene from left to right (or right to left, if you prefer).

When doing this, I recommend turning the camera to portrait mode in order to maximize the vertical resolution. Yes, the Mavic lets you do this while in flight. Isn’t that amazing?

Also set exposure and white balance to manual for consistency across the sequence and use single AF with tap-to-focus or manual focus.

If you want to do a vertical panorama, you can easily do so by using the gimbal tilt control on the left wheel.

Finally, you can create a multi-row panorama by using both the yaw and the tilt controls. Presto! Twelve megapixels are no longer the limit.

The Castle of Cigognola, Italy. Shot with DJI Mavic Pro

6-image stitched panorama, each slice is an HDR image obtained from 3 bracketed shots

Feel free to share your own example about Drone Photography in the comments below.

About Author Ugo Cei

Ugo Cei is a fine-art travel and landscape photographer from Italy. If you were to ask him what he does, he would say that he is an educator who helps photography enthusiasts sharpen their skills, so that they can take amazing pictures.

He does this in various ways. First of all, by providing a wealth of free content here on Visual Wilderness and on his own website.

He leads photography tours and workshops to some cool destinations, including Oman, Venice, Milan, Cinque Terre, and others.

He co-hosts and publishes a weekly podcast about travel photography, The Traveling Image Makers. Every week, they pick the brains of famous and not-so-famous travel photographers to learn what it means to travel for the love of photography and photograph for the love of travel.