About the author: James is the voice of Affinity Photo and creates most of the Affinity Photo tutorial videos as well as providing in-house training. A self-proclaimed geek, James’ interests include video, programming, and 3D applications, though these are eclipsed by his passion for photography, which has now reached an obsessional level.
We often focus on the video capabilities of drones,
but what about their use for landscape photography?
Propelled by visionary excellence, drones have emerged as brilliant filmmaking tools for professional photographers and hobbyists. This article identifies drone buying tips, shooting techniques, and creative ideas that will help improve your landscape photography.
Drone Settings: Landscape Photography
Camera sensors contain pixels that detect light intensity. Many consumer drones feature 1/2.3-inch sensors that are typically capable of taking 12-megapixel images. Larger camera sensors contain more pixels that account for more detailed landscape photography and are especially useful for low-light photography.
Thankfully, we’ve reached a point where advanced technology has become more accessible, and drone models now offer a plethora of options for landscape photographers.
DJI’s Mavic 2 Pro, which I’ve been testing out for this article and video, has a Hasselblad L1D-20c camera that features a 1-inch sensor capable of taking 20-megapixel images. The lens has a 28-mm equivalent field of view (FOV) that provides a suitable wide angle without veering too far into the ultra-wide lens territory. With its 1-inch sensor crop factor, the lens has an actual focal length of around 10 mm, making it suitable for landscape photography.
When you are deciding on buying a drone for landscape photography, you should be aware of the concessions you may have to make. Larger pixel resolutions have some implications for filmmakers. A 12-megapixel resolution is close to the resolution of 4K video. For example, with a 3:2 aspect ratio, the pixel resolution of DJI Spark is 3968×2976. The resolution of 4K video is 3840×2160, which means the camera can almost read the full width of the sensor, resulting in minimal cropping.
However, with a 20-megapixel sensor, we’re looking at a 3:2 pixel resolution of 5472×3648. The camera then has to crop down to a 3840×2160 resolution for 4K video.
Methods that allow you to reach the required resolution:
- “Windowing” the image sensor takes a 3840×2160 cropped section out of the 5472×3648 resolution;
- “Line skipping” discards resolution lines to reach the required resolution, which often results in artifacts and degraded picture quality;
- “Pixel binning” is a process that combines the sensor values during the demosaicing process and is generally regarded as a better technique than line skipping;
- “Subsampling” involves resampling the image signal. Results may vary based on the method and implementation.
Windowing means the footage doesn’t make use of the full field of view that the lens offers. Line skipping, pixel binning, or subsampling the sensor output all provide a full field of view, but the results often succumb to softness, moiré, and false color issues.
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro offers both HQ and FOV 4K video modes. HQ mode takes a window of the sensor and therefore has a crop factor, whereas FOV records the full field of view the lens offers, at the expense of some finer detail.
If landscape photography is your primary reason for buying a drone, you should focus on drones with larger sensors and greater pixel resolutions. 1-inch sensors offer good image quality while keeping the weight and size of the drone to a minimum.
If you are more concerned with video flexibility and your photography needs are secondary, drones that have a 12-megapixel resolution may be better suited to your needs.
Drone Tips: Landscape Photography
Drone apps allow you to customize landscape photography settings and access key flight information. These apps typically let you choose between shooting modes as you would with a traditional camera, giving you options like full auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual modes.
Crashing waves at the Norfolk coast
A drone provides you with new creative possibilities and can completely change your perspective. The best example of this was when I took a drone to the north of Norfolk to capture the coast. Ordinarily, Norfolk is a very flat area to photograph, and I often struggle to find inspiration for different compositions.
A drone allowed me to observe the textures and patterns of the coastline from above, which drastically changed my perception of the Norfolk coast. Across crashing waves, sandy dunes, and marshland, these interesting compositions gave a new dimension to my photography.
Sandy dunes at Norfolk
A unique shipwreck scene
Another benefit of using a drone is that it gives you the opportunity to view harder-to-reach areas. I was able to capture a stunning shot of a shipwreck as the sun was setting, without having to get too close to the scene.
An abstract view of Norfolk marshlands
Taking aerial images with your drone is a great way to obtain abstract landscape photography. Usually, I wouldn’t look twice at the marshlands, but their small streams and ruts now provide some inspiring compositions.
An aerial shot of a stranded boat
Sometimes you don’t even have to fly the drone at a high altitude; lower altitudes also offer unique perspectives such as the reflection of the sunset on the water surface.
Landscape panoramas are an excellent way to enrich your drone photography. You can make use of automated panorama shooting modes that will automatically position the drone and allow you to take multiple shots. You can even shoot spherical (360×180) images.
However, I prefer to shoot panoramas manually, and I’ll often shoot two or more rows to increase the vertical resolution. This can be easily achieved by moving the drone left or right while taking shots, ensuring there is a 20% to 30% overlap between each image. The resulting JPEG or RAW files can then be stitched in post-production.
If you’re shooting with automated panorama modes, be sure to double check the image format because it may change back to a JPEG file. You may also want to save the original panorama because sometimes only the stitched file might be written to the storage.
Shooting and Flight Modes
As detailed in the video, I tend to stick to the aperture priority mode for my convenience. The camera will automatically determine the shutter speed and ISO, although I disabled Auto ISO and specified the ISO value manually.
The Mavic 2 also features different Intelligent Flight modes such as Tripod mode and Sport mode. Tripod mode is one way to achieve sharper images at lower shutter speeds. With suitable wind conditions, it’s possible to get sharp photos all the way down to a one-second exposure. This helps immensely in low-light situations where the only alternative is raising the ISO and compromising the image quality.
Having a drone that shoots in RAW is a great feature for landscape photography since you can take advantage of the full sensor data as opposed to compressed 8-bit JPEGs. All of the images in this article and video were processed from their RAW counterparts, enabling me to push the tonal detail further without banding and apply more advanced noise reduction. Whatever you choose to edit with, shooting in RAW (or indeed, RAW+JPEG) is highly recommended.
The majority of drones will write out RAW files in Adobe’s DNG format, which is fantastic because it’s an open standard and is widely supported by RAW development software.
While drones can autofocus reasonably well, it may comfort you to know that they also have manual focusing options and additional features to support this choice. This includes the ability to choose between infinity and close focus, as well as focus peaking, which helps you check the shot is in focus. Being able to change the focus to infinity is especially useful in low contrast scenes where the autofocus may struggle.
On the DJI GO app, you can set the Peak Focus Threshold, and I tend to set it to high, which gives a much thinner tolerance for highlighting sharp details and gives a more accurate representation compared to using a normal or low threshold. In low light, a high peaking threshold is sometimes harder to see, in which case, I’ll subsequently review the images using the playback feature to double-check the image sharpness.
HDR Exposure Bracketing and Merging
Sometimes the dynamic range of a scene may exceed the capabilities of a camera sensor; landscape drone photography is no exception in this regard. Exposure bracketing is used to capture the full dynamic range of a scene, and can also be used to enhance the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) by merging pixels at different exposure values for more precision.
Auto exposure bracketing can be done within the drone camera app but may be slightly limited. I could only capture five exposures with 1EV spacing, which wasn’t enough to capture the brightest areas of the sunsets I was trying to photograph. To get around this, I switched to Manual mode and adjusted the shutter speed to capture a range of exposures, which I could then HDR merge in post-production. It’s a good idea to switch the drone to Tripod mode in order to keep it still between shots so that minimal image alignment is required.
An HDR-merged scene with vibrant colours
Drones have always been an exciting proposition, and technology is moving at such a fast pace that they’re becoming ever more attractive to landscape photographers who have challenging technical standards. The combination of larger sensors, high megapixel counts, and RAW support (along with the control over shooting parameters) have welcomed us into a new era for landscape photography.
I hope the videos and article have given you some inspiration to take more landscape photography with your drone. Don’t forget to check out the other Shooting Series episodes and let me know your thoughts on Twitter @JamesR_Affinity.