HDR drone photography – Everything you need to know

High dynamic range (HDR) drone photography can result in some incredible shots that you will be proud to show to your friends. HDR drone photography takes a little bit more effort and set up to do properly and you will need to learn how to edit the photos together to create stunning photographs. However, I can assure you that the extra effort is certainly worth it.

High dynamic range drone photography is perfect for shots where there is a wide range of brightnesses in one image. Typically, the sky will be bright and the foreground will be in shadows. High dynamic range photography takes three shots at a number of exposures so everything is exposed properly.

You have definitely seen high dynamic range drone photography. Maybe you didn’t even know it when you saw it. In this article, we are going to go over everything you need to know about HDR drone photography, how to set it up, the best settings for various situations, and the post processing software which will make your editing much simpler – there are even some free options for you to explore.

Before we delve into drone photography we should look at what exactly HDR photography is and how it has been developed to capture shots that would otherwise easily become under or over-exposed.

What is HDR photography?

High dynamic range photography is able to bring out the deepest shadows of a scene without over-exposing the bright areas. It is particularly useful for real estate images and it can add a fantastic feeling to landscape photography.

The process is the merging of multiple images to create the final photograph. The method is relatively simple on the surface – it involves taking multiple pictures of the same scene and then stitching them together.

Each image is captured at a different exposure so that when they are merged together the photo is able to be exposed properly in every area.

In most cases, the process requires three images with the first being taken at the mid-range exposure and then rapidly taking an underexposed and overexposed photo. The under and over exposed exposure metres are typically expressed in negative and positive numbers and you will often take a HDR photo at -3, 0 and +3. This is also called bracketing which will talk about in more detail, below.

How do you use AEB?

AEB stands for automatic exposure bracketing. Many drones have this feature and allows you to automate the process of taking multiple exposures of a scene. This saves a lot of time and means that you are able to take multiple exposures of the same scene with a single press of the shutter button.

This is very important for a drone as even the smallest change in location can result in a fuzzy image once the photographs are combined. We wouldn’t want to have to take a single shot, enter the settings, and then retake the photo as it is likely the drone would have moved a significant distance. Typically, when people are doing this on a standard camera, they utilise a tripod in order to keep the camera as still as possible.

If you have a DJI drone here is how you turn on HDR drone photography and automatic exposure bracketing

DJI drones turn on AEB/HDR

I have the DJI Mavic Air which I think is a fantastic drone – even now after so many drone releases.

To get into the AEB or HDR mode you need to connect to the drone and open up the DJI go 4 app.

Make sure that you are in photo mode and click the settings button.

Once the camera settings are open you need to click the camera icon in the middle.

Once you are there you need to click on the photo button which will open up the range of photo modes that your drone has this includes – single shot, HDR, burst mode, AEB, interval, and Pano.

Clicking on the AEB option gives you the opportunity to produce a three or five-shot bracketed photo. If your photo has a number of different brightness says I recommend going with a five-shot photograph. However, this will take longer to take and may result in some blurring if the drone is attempting to fight against strong winds.

Most drones now have an automatic function that allows you to take high-dynamic range photos and adjust how many images you want to take. Simply click on the HDR option in the photo selection area of the app.

There are many awesome benefits of using HDR photography for your drone shots and here are some of the best reasons you need to know about HDR drone photography and use your automatic exposure bracketing option more often.

The benefits of HDR photography

The reason you would use HDR photography is if the sky is very bright and the foreground is very dark and it is difficult to make out the details.

Taking drone photos in the golden hour after sunrise and before sunset make for perfect HDR images. This is because the sun is typically still illuminating the sky but not able to eliminate the foreground of the shot using diffuse light which is coming down through the sky.

The great thing about high dynamic range photography is that you are able to take shots in low light conditions and even when the sun has set. If you want to know more about if drones can take pictures at night check out my other article – can drones take pictures at night? – Click here to be taken to article.

Can drones take pictures at night

HDR photo examples

here are some of the best photos that utilize high dynamic range shots.

You will notice that even though the shot is made up of incredibly bright areas and places that should be in shadows every part of the scene is exposed incredibly well. This is the ultimate power of utilising HDR photos and there are a variety of places where high dynamic range drone photographs can really make a big difference to the shot.

Best uses of HDR drone photography

There is the risk that overusing high dynamic range drone photography can create a little bit of a fantasy looking scene. That is, that the photos will end up looking incredibly unnatural and mystical. One of the best ways to ensure that you do not over use the high dynamic range feature is to not push the exposure bracketing too high if the shot doesn’t need it.

If you are careful with its use you can get some incredible shots for real estate, landscape, Golden hour shots and other high contrast environments.

Real estate

The use of high dynamic range drone photography in the real estate marketing world can result in much more eye-catching photos of houses that are for sale.

It can be difficult to capture the surroundings of a house and the details on the walls all in one shot. Particularly if this shot is taken in low light or if the sun is illuminating the background too much when you turn up to take the real estate shots.

Combining the three auto bracketed photos can reveal all of the details in real estate photography which leaves nothing to the imagination for the potential buyers.

Landscape

I’ve always enjoyed landscape drone photography. Drone photography allows you to get an awe-inspiring perspective on even the simplest of landscapes. However, sometimes that landscape is hard to see because the sun is also in the shot.

If you are not able to pick out the foreground as well as the details in the sky you should immediately think of using the automatic exposure bracketing on your drone. This will allow you to get the sun in the shot (where you may need to turn down the exposure even more) as well as resolve the contrast in the foreground of the landscape.

Golden hour shots

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 light catches 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.

Using HDR photography will allow you to perfectly expose every part of the scene.

High contrast environments

Essentially, any high contrast environments should immediately raise the question as to whether or not you should employ high dynamic range photography or your automatic exposure bracketing settings.

If you cannot see the details in the shadows or the sky is completely washed out you should definitely turn on this setting.

As you become more experienced with drone photography you will start to get a sixth sense as to when this mode will become most useful for you.

Here are the best practices for shooting with HDR mode on your drone.

Best practices HDR on a drone

To make sure that you can get the best high dynamic range shots on your drone here are some of the principles which you should stick to in order to capture shots which you are going to be proud of.

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.

Shooting into the sun = -3 shot

If you are shooting into the sun you should also collect a shot that is three exposure settings below your middle exposure shot. Typically, on a drone, you can select the five AEB option which will take the lowest exposure at a -3 setting.

If you are not shooting into the sun you can get away with a three AEB option on your drone.

Use 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.

Turn off front facing lights

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.

Lowest ISO possible

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.

Software for post processing HDR drone images

Once you have captured the photos your job is not done. You need to combine the various exposed shots into one photo. There are variety of options including premium and free software and here are the most used in the high dynamic range drone photo community.

Photomatix

You can purchase this software from US$39 for the essentials pack up to hundred and US$119 for the pro version of the software.

There is also a HDR plug-in for lightroom if that is a photo editing software that you are more familiar with.

For US$99 you get:

  • 6 HDR styles and over 40 built-in presets
  • Automatic alignment of hand-held photos
  • Advanced ghost removal tools
  • Brush Tool
  • Presets and tools for real estate photography
  • Batch Processing
  • Lightroom Plugin and Capture One Plugin

Aurora HDR

Aurora HDR is available for approximately US$100. It is an award-winning software that has been used to create some incredible HDR photographs from photographers around the world. It is powered by artificial intelligence which means there are no artefacts when the photos are combined which ensures that you get the highest quality when merging the shots. It is also able to boost the colour so that your photo looks as natural as possible.

It comes as a plug-in for the majority of photo editing software such as Adobe photoshop and Adobe light room or you can use it as a standalone application.

Luminance HDR

Luminance HDR is an open source project for high dynamic range photography. It is free to download and use and, if you like it, I would recommend donating to the developers which are providing such a powerful tool for free.

This software is available for Lenox, Windows and Mac operating systems and can work with a range of high dynamic range formats including raw, tiff, and PFS native formats.

Summary

In this article, we have gone over everything you need to know about HDR drone photography.

Adding this capability to your drone photography will enable you to capture perfectly exposed shots and scenes even in the most challenging of environments. Capture photos with the sun in frame during golden hour and create shots that will make your friends jealous.

Make sure that you trial a range of HDR processing software until you find one that makes your photos as awesome as you want.

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!