Can drones take pictures at night? [SOLVED]

You’ve almost certainly seen the incredible drone shots taken at night. You may ask yourself: Is this a special type of drone? Do you need special permissions? And how do you get those awesome night-time shots with a drone? Well, the answer is that you need to make sure that it is completely legal in your country to be flying a drone after sundown and that the settings on your drone are perfectly aligned for night-time photography. It is very different from photography with plenty of light in the daytime. In this article, we will go over all of the important points about taking drone photos at night and give you some insider tips along the way.

Drones are capable of taking photographs at night due to the manual settings on many consumer photography drones. You should shoot in a RAW format, minimise vibrations by turning off mechanical shutter and locking the gimbal during photos, and learning postprocessing techniques to make photos pop.

When people take photographs at night they are typically using a tripod in order to increase the amount of time that the shutter stays open – to capture the maximum amount of light – whilst also holding the camera in exactly the same position. Even the slightest movement of the camera during a long exposure shot can add a blur to the image.

Because we are flying a drone it is a lot harder to keep the camera stationary during long exposure shots. Consumer level cameras often come with a range of settings that can be optimised for giving you the best opportunity to take awesome drone pictures at night.

But for many people, the local laws and regulations dictates that you cannot fly your drone after a certain time.

Is it legal in your country?

It is not legal in every country to fly your drone at night. For example, in Australia where I live, I am not able to fly my drone legally after sunset. I am able to apply for a license and also permission to fly my drone at night but for the average person, it is not something they can do within the limits of the regulations.

Check with your local authorities and always fly within the local laws.

Even though you may not be able to fly at the official night time you can get relatively good shots about one hour before sunset – this is known as the Golden hour.

This is where the sun is just about to set on the horizon and the whole scene is lit up with a warm yellow glow from the sun setting. You can get some incredible “night-time” shots by flying right up to the official sunset time.

When to take night time photos

Taking pictures at night with a drone doesn’t necessarily have to involve it being completely dark or even after sunset. There are three options for taking pictures at night and this includes golden hour, 30 minutes after sunset, and also a full night-time shot.

As I mentioned, above, legally you can fly your drone during golden hour in almost all countries. If you want to fly after sunset you will require some form of permit, license, and permission.

Golden hour

At golden hour the sun is so close to the horizon that the light appears warmer and softer. This is the perfect time to capture photos from your drone that you can enhance the warmth of your photos.

The warm light that is characteristic of Golden hour is when the sun is between 6° below and 6° above the horizon. The reason the light is golden is that the rays impact the earth at a low angle and have to travel through more of the earth’s atmosphere before they reach the drone camera. On the way through the Earth’s atmosphere than cancer particles such as dust, water, and other pollutants which filter the sunlight more and make it less bright. This also adds more indirect light from scattering which softens the contrast.

This time is almost night-time photos.

30 minutes after sunset

30 minutes after sunset is another fantastic time to be capturing drone photos. This is because the light from the sun is still able to illuminate the sky to provide awesome colours and contrast with the features on the ground. Also, at this time, it is often that the streetlights and car lights have been turned on.

This gives you an incredible array of colours and textures to feature in your picture.

Well after dark

If you have the license and the ability to fly your drone well after dark you can capture some incredible footage as long as there is ample light coming from your scene. Typically, this means lights from buildings and streetlights.

With the introduction of cheap LED lights there is often some fun lighting in cities to illuminate famous buildings or structures. If you want these to stand out in your photos you should photograph these well after dark as they will completely pop out and stand out in your photo.

These times will enable you to capture a range of feelings and moods in your drone photo. But how do you make sure that you can take the best photos at night time? Here are all of the settings are incredibly important for improving the image quality but also reducing the vibration that can quickly ruin a long exposed shot.

How to take the best drone pictures at night

Because drones have been designed to primarily fly during the day – and capture photos during the day – it means that a lot of the automatic settings for taking photos and videos are optimised for when there is plenty of light entering the lens of the camera.

For example, the ISO setting will quickly ramp up in low light settings which will create a lot of noise in your image as the sensitivity of the sensor will be very high. We can get around this by using manual settings are drone and getting to understand exactly what you need to change.

Shoot in RAW

Firstly, you should make sure that you are shooting in a RAW format. The raw format is a much larger file than other types of images such as JPEG’s. This is because it is a minimally processed and uncompressed image.

Drones typically come with two main photo formats which is JPEG or raw. The default settings typically saves the drone image as a JPEG in order to save space on the memory card.

JPEG is a compressed file format which means that there are various optimisations applied to the image file which makes the file smaller. There is typically a very small loss of quality but not normally noticeable by the average photographer.

The raw file on the other hand is an uncompressed version of the image. It contains a lot more information about the scene and provides much more depth of information. This is so very important with night-time drone photography since you will be using a lot of postprocessing to make the image much better than the raw version.

Shoot in raw – you won’t regret it! You just have to make sure that you buy a bigger memory card to store all of the extra information.

Turn off the mechanical shutter (if your drone has one)

If your drone has a mechanical shutter, you should turn off the mechanical shutter. Because at night-time you rely on the stability of the drone for capturing awesome shots the small movement that can result from the mechanical shutter opening and closing can cause a small amount of blur in the image.

Simply turning off will remove any small shudder or movement that can result from using a drone with a camera that has a mechanical shutter.

Lock gimbal

The gimbal is a very important part of a drone. It essentially enables for smooth footage and videos as it counterbalances any of the turbulence or movement related vibrations which get past and to the camera while the drone is flying.

The gimbal is constantly assessing the position of the camera in 3D space and it can compensate for wind gusts and movements as the drone is flying and taking photos or video.

If you want to know more about to access versus three axis gimbals check out my other article – diagrams and best drones with two axis and three axis gimbals.

2 axis vs 3 axis gimbal

Turn on the setting which enables you to lock the gimbal during the process of taking a picture. This means that the gimbal will not try to counteract any pilot movement related instabilities. It will try to keep the gimbal in the same position throughout the picture capture.

And as long as you do not move the drone with the joysticks as it is taking the photo it will try to very best and the technology is improving year on year. Getting stable photos with a drone is becoming easier and easier – particularly evident at long exposure times.

Turn Front LEDs off

Many drones come with a set of forward-facing LEDs. The forward-facing LEDs signified to the pilot what mode the drone is in. For example, while am flying my DJI Mavic air I am able to use the forward-facing LEDs to deduce whether or not the drone is actively recording, not recording, or taking a photograph.

These LEDs can be very bright. This means that there can be a small amount of light captured in the lens of the drone camera which can add a red, green, or yellow haze into the image. By turning off the LEDs you can make sure that there is no spill over into the image you are capturing.

Tripod mode

Many of the DJI brand drones have a tripod mode. In this mode the drone will try its best to emulate a stable position that you would get from a tripod.

These advanced modes are becoming more and more reliable as DJI releases each new iteration of its hardware and software. Turning on the tripod mode simply says to the drone that you want the photo to be as stable as possible.

This will cause the drone to work as hard as possible to stabilise against any wind gusts or other environmental conditions during the exposure time of the photograph.

Proper white balance

If you want your night photography to look realistic you should select the appropriate white balance.

A lot of people keep their white balance on auto and, if you want to make sure that you have full control on the colours and outcome of the footage you should start playing about with white balance.

In order to select the best setting you need to use a Kelvin temperature white balance value. Since the night sky has a lot of blues and purples the Kelvin range will vary from 4000 to 7000. Start with a setting of 5500 Kelvin which will give you a consistent realistic night sky colour whilst also preserving the colours of the foreground.

Play about with this value until you find a setting that you like the look of.

Increase the ISO

The ISO range of a camera tells you how sensitive the sensor is to light. Low numbers require that a lot of light enters the camera which results in a much better image. Typically, when you are flying a drone light is not too much of an issue because you are generally flying in daylight.

However, if you are flying in cloudy conditions or you have a new density filter on the front of your drone and it is not a bright setting the ISO needs to be increased.

ISO ranges typically start at 100 and go up to 12,800. As a general rule of thumb is always best to use the lowest value and aim to increase the amount of light entering the camera.

As the number increases the sensor works harder and harder to compensate for low light this introduces a fair amount of noise.

Typically, you should aim to use an iso range that is as low as possible to capture your shot and I have found that this is in the range of 200 – 800 for low light situations.

Lengthen shutter speed

Another popular look that is in night-time photography is streaky car lights. This is where the shutter speed is lengthened so that you capture cars moving through the photograph. Using a short shutter speed will freeze the car in the frame.

The longer the shutter stays open the more chance you have of increasing blur and fuzziness into your drone footage. I would recommend playing about with the shutter speed and the iso settings until you find a balance between a well exposed image and minimal blurriness.

Also, making sure that you are flying on a night that is relatively wind free will also ensure that you minimise the amount of compensation the drone and gimbal has to do during the exposure time.

If the wind is really high simply choose another time to fly your drone.

Use bracketing options

Often drones come with an option to bracket the shots. This means that it takes photos at three ranges. This enables you to capture a shop that has a bright sky and a darker foreground easily.

This is known as HDR photography. HDR stands for high dynamic range. It is a specific style of photograph with an unusually high dynamic range that could otherwise be achieved in a single photograph because the brights would be too bright or the shadows would be too dark.

In the simplest of terms it is really just two (or more) photos taken at different exposure levels and then pushed together with software to create a better picture. The photographer takes a range of bracketed photos and I recommend that you choose a two stop difference during nighttime drone photography to give yourself the best option of capturing good high dynamic range photos.

Once you use a bracketed photo option you will need to combine the photos in a post processing and photo manipulation software such as Photomatix, Aurora HDR and Luminance HDR (FREE).

Even if you do not have a high dynamic range image to fit together the postprocessing components of night-time photography with a drone are very important. Here is a quick rundown of how you process nighttime drone photos to achieve the best photo possible.

Post processing

I can assure you that the majority of drone photos that you have seen in the wild have had a significant amount of postprocessing done on the image to make it stand out. Here are the simple steps that you need to go through to create a drone night-time picture that you are proud of.

Highlights down

Typically, the highlights will be very bright. This is because there is a lot of artificial lighting in the scene from streetlights, cars, and other buildings and structures. Turn the highlights down until they are not the brightest thing in the image and that the image is well-balanced.

Shadows up

Bringing the shadows up will also highlight the darker areas of the photograph. You should be able to see the spaces in between the artificial lighting glow.

Sharpen highlights

All of this postprocessing can sometimes blur and deaden some of the sharpness of your image. You should select the highlights and sharpen the edges so that they are crisp and standout well in the image.

Noise reduction

As you are postprocessing your photo there are plenty of opportunities for the software to overcompensate and increase the noise. This is particularly evident in dark areas of the photograph and using a simple noise reduction algorithm and setting will remove the dots and other noise.

Graduated filters

Using a graduated filter on different parts of the photo will enable you to reduce the highlights and also select which part of the photograph stands out the most. Typically I like to use a graduated filter which darkens the sky towards the top of the photo and highlights where I want the viewer to focus their attention.

Colour balance

Lastly, you can colour balance the drone image. At nighttime the dominant colours are purples and blues. You can create a cinematic feel by slightly warming up the image with a yellow filter and also pushing the blues into the teal range. This is a very popular look used by many drone photographers and videographers.

Summary

In this article, we answer the question can drones take pictures at night? There is certainly no reason that you can’t use a drone to take photographs at night and getting used to the manual settings in the drones photography settings will enable you to take the best drone photo at night.

Simply put, all of the settings and choices are to maximise the amount of light getting into the camera lens was also reducing the amount of vibration mechanical shutter and movement of the drone during the photograph exposure time. There is a balance between some of the settings but play about until you find the best settings for your drone and your be able to capture some incredible high dynamic range photos that simply blow the viewer away!

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!