Drone Image Prep & Processing | A Guideline For Getting The Drone Shots You Really Want
Buying a drone for my photography was one of the easier gear choices I’ve ever made. Finding the right one, only slightly more complicated, and working with the images just a bit more complicated than that. Shooting with a drone is a cocktail of experimentation, fun, and occasional but crippling trepidation. You have to deal with elements that would otherwise never even be a thought (like aggressive seagulls, or watching it float away into space as your phone powers off because of the cold).
Without getting too bogged down by the technical differences of the equipment, or strategies and tips on how to fly, I’d rather talk about what to do with the your drone images once your back home, Lady Gaga playlist on, and in your editing pajamas.
First, for those of you who already know what shooting RAW means, some of this will seem redundant, but drones have their little RAW quirks the same way a Nikon’s NEF file or a Canon’s CR2 (or whatever setup you use) will have their own particularities.
Second, for those of you who may have never edited an image in RAW format, or don’t have the option, this might seem like a lot of new information. Also, I will be mostly referring to the RAW files that I use in editing drone shots, which are from the DJI Phantom 3 Professional, which shoots DNG (digital negative). If your camera doesn’t have the ability to shoot in a RAW format, still follow along, but know that some of the adjustments I suggest might need to be tempered a bit since the jpeg file format doesn’t have the flexibility that RAW files do.
First, Shoot in raw
I can’t speak for the other drones out there or the cameras they use, but if what you’ve got has a RAW format, use it. The entire camera system including casing, gimbal and all else, has to be able to get off the ground and then hold incredibly still, and typically that means there isn’t room nor ability to carry 3lb camera bodies, 2lb lenses, battery grips, and whatever else. So the cameras and sensors are small, like crazy-small on most drones systems, so they typically won’t have the same image quality you may be used to with a DSLR. While they are powerful enough to shoot in 4k, you should heed my advice that and shoot RAW so you’ll have the full access to the camera’s entire dynamic range when you get home (with aforementioned pajamas and jams).
Second, shoot at the lowest ISO available when possible
Pushing ISO to get a filmic grain or something is not going to translate the same on a drone. It’s going to add bad unwanted grain, and even worse: color distortion. The grain becomes distracting at and above 800 in my experience, and besides that, I always tend to lean towards underexposure. You’ll have a much easier time recovering color from shadows than you will fixing blown out highlights.
Third, get your hands on a polarizer
I use the PolarPro filters for my drone and they all rock. If you’re into drones for the video features they also make a handy set of NDs that are killer. If you’ve never shot with a circular polarizer in front of your lens before it is a beautiful thing; colors pop, reflections gone, unicorns aplenty.
Now you should have the best base image to work with.
Now lets get it into Lightroom.
One thing; if you are a preset guy/gal, you’ll notice if you’ve tried to click on your favorite preset that it’s, well, not really going to give you the same results. Drone shots generally need a little more TLC so you’re going to want to find a couple favorites and spend some real time with them. You could run any non-drone image through this process, but you might have more nuanced options with other files. For drones there are specific steps that help a file to be much more workable.
Post Processing Steps
Not really so much a trick, but a shortcut that shows where you have lost color information in blown highlights or shadows. In the develop module just click ‘j’ on your keyboard. This will be a great way to maximize the tonal spaces you can then further edit. You can ignore this part if that flat look is what you’re going for (and I’m aware there are a lot of you going for that).
For this image I wanted to keep it a bit brighter so didn’t mess with the dark part of the tone curve much. I also dialed back the brights so that I didn’t lose wave-highlight detail. Then I wanted to bump up the middle a little (no this isn’t a hip hop lyric reference).
Dehaze, Tone Curve, Contrast
Lightroom offers you 3 ways of increasing or decreasing contrast in your images if you don’t count the basic edit sliders. I’ve opted for this order, Dehaze>Tone Curve>Contrast. The dehaze tool is the most recently added to the software and I’ve found it is a bit more gentle with the colors when being adjusted than the contrast slider is. On an evenly exposed image I’ll usually take it up between 10-20. From there, if slight adjustments are needed, I use the tone curve. These might all do something very close, or exactly the same, but making those small adjustments in the different contrast options is how I roll. I really try and get my contrast and exposure nailed before I move into any color work, because changing the exposure value will also affect the colors. Here I moved the shadows and blacks up to give it a brighter feel and to emphasize the blue.
Dominant, Secondary Tone Selection
Decide if your image is warmer, cooler, dark, bright, or flat. Then decide what your dominant color in the image is (desaturated teal), or what you want it to be, or if you have a plain image and one accent color(amber). Use the temperature and hue sliders to get that one color exactly where you want it to be, and unless you have surrealist goals for your image then these will be slight adjustments.
There are times when toning beach images I find the sand becomes too red, or too green as I tone for the water, so if in selecting your dominant tone you’ve destroyed another, take it back to a medium and make the specific color adjustments in the HSL editing panel. The reason I do it this way is because if I’m able to make the color move in harmony–rather than brute force through selective color changes–it helps the natural feel of the image in the end.
You’ll notice I use a lot of yellows, oranges, and teals, and that’s not by accident. There are color combinations that are more naturally pleasing to the eye, and a grasp of color theory and color wheel (see this article), or a quick Google of complimentary color schemes will show you. You’ll also notice a lot of professional and famous painters have great understanding of how colors compliment each other, so find inspiration and use of different kinds of art to push your understanding of color.
Caring About The Details
You’ll want to tread lightly with the ‘details’ like sharpening, because once a drone file goes overboard with clarity and sharpness it will start to have some bizarre edge issues and artifacts. Also, pay attention to the smaller details; click that profile corrections button; clone stamp out the distractions; clean up inconsistencies with color, and use an adjustment brush if you have to. If it distracts or detracts then why not spend the extra time to care for this image? Unless you are bound to journalistic integrity with your photos, then this is your canvas. Care about those small things.
Oh, a quick word about “Magic Sauce”. (hint: magic sauce is just going back through and tweaking every knob until you’re happy). Every image has ‘magic sauce.’
These are the tools that have worked for me, but drone photography and processing can be a very useful tool in that right part of your brain that might needs. Don’t rush so quick to figure it out, have fun with it.