Travel photographers like me are constantly on the lookout for ways to add variety and novelty to my portfolio of images. One of the techniques I use is to get a unique travel photography composition 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. Drone photography has allowed me to capture photos that were previously impossible to capture from the ground.
There are many reasons why travel photographers may want to use a drone, now that technology is becoming mature and affordable. It’s the perfect gear for both beginner and professional travel photographers. It allows us to go where we normally couldn’t, it’s portable (especially the Mavic), and it’s fun. 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 of travel photography compositions 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.
Of course, travel photographers 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 drones, however, means that these kind of travel photos 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.
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 travel photos 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 drone 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.
#1: Photograph in RAW
It goes without saying that serious travel 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.
#2: Use the lowest possible ISO setting
When shooting stills, I always use the lowest possible base ISO setting of 100. Since I can do camera 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 settings to 200 or more. Flying drones at night is also illegal pretty much everywhere. I have noticed that higher ISO setting for drone photography can create noisy images, so I try to avoid them.
#3: 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 camera exposure.
Travel photographers should 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).
#4: Use exposure bracketing
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.
#5: Shoot Stitched Panoramas
Twelve megapixels are not enough? Then shoot multiple images and combine them into a stitched multi-megapixel travel panorama. Again, doing this with Lightroom and DNG files is very convenient and easy.
The DJI Mavic Pro 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.
Also set camera exposure to manual settings 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.
Are you a travel photographer who uses drone regularly to capture photos? If so, feel free to share your own examples and experience about drone photography in the comments below.