Everyone has experienced this contrast while flying a drone: a fantastic flight some great images and you’re happy with the framing and then you get home to find out that most of the photos you have taken are grainy. Grainy photos are a common issue with drone images, and it can lead to frustrating times with post-editing and double guessing yourself while you are flying. In this article we are going to go over the top reasons for why you drone photos are grainy so that the next time you ask yourself why are my drone photos grainy? You’ll know exactly what you have done and what you can do about it.
There are a load of reasons why your drone photos could be grainy. It could be that you are not looking at the actual images but rather the compressed versions, you could be zooming in on images too much, you may be using too high of an ISO value, you may be recording in a format with high compression, or it may be that you are comparing it to a much more expensive camera and drone.
The good news is there are some simple tricks for taking better drone photos that are not grainy and show off the subject as best as possible. Firstly, let’s take a look at the top reasons for why you’re drone photos are grainy and what you can do about it.
The top reasons for why you’re drone photos are grainy
If you trawl the Internet looking for potential problems with drone photo graininess you come across a load of different issues which are relatively easy to solve. Here are the top reasons that your drone photos may be a little bit grainy.
Are you looking at the actual images?
One of the first things that you should check is that you are actually looking at the high definition photos. As you are flying your drone the drone is showing you a first person view. When you take a drone photo the low resolution streamed footage is what is saved onto your phone or smart device connected to the controller.
It can be very easy to mistake this image with the one that is saved on the drone.
The first thing that you need to do is make sure that you are looking at the actual image that the drone is saved. A few of the DJI Mavic drones have an internal memory of 8 GB so make sure that the drone is plugged into the computer and you are getting the photo directly from the drone. If your drone is fitted with an SD card remove the SD card and remove the images from the card.
When you have finished your flights you should always head straight to a computer to remove the high definition photos. One thing I like to do is to remove the cached photos from my phone so that I cannot get them confused and it also saves space on my phone.
Are you zooming in on the images?
Another issue that is regularly encountered is when you come to manually crop the photo. While you are flying your drone out and about in the real world it can be easy not to get the framing perfect. Whether it is from battling with the weather, having to focus on the flight instead of the photo, the framing is one of the hardest things to perfect. Also, there are very few drone cameras on the market that have an inbuilt optical zoom function. So if you want to get closer to something in your photo generally you have to rely on a digital zoom.
This is where the issue start.
Perhaps you are trying to zoom into far into your footage. Even though drones have an amazing resolution once you start zooming in the pixels will get bigger and pixelation will start to become more obvious.
So if you find that the photos are becoming particularly grainy because you want to zoom in on a very specific area of your drone photo there’s not much you can do. You have to go and get the shot again if you want to frame it zoomed in. In this instance you will have to get closer to the subject.
Check the ISO value of your camera
The ISO range of a camera tells you how sensitive the sensor is to light. Low numbers require that lots of light enters the camera and results in a better image. Typically, when you are flying a drone this is not too much of an issue because you are flying in daylight and unless it is particularly overcast there is normally enough light getting into the camera.
However, if higher settings are required when there is less light entering the camera it can result in a grainy and noisy image.
ISO ranges typically start at 100 and go upwards to 12,800 (the high numbers are only achievable when the camera is operating in manual mode) as a general rule of thumb it’s always best to use the lowest ISO range possible and aim to increase the amount of light entering the camera.
If you find that you are dealing with a really bright environment you should use neutral density filters to reduce the amount of light entering the camera lens. Neutral density filters are like sunglasses for your camera lens.
Check the format you are recording in
Cameras on drones have a load of different formats that you are able to take photos in.
Here are a couple of tips that will help you choose a format that will minimise the chances of getting a grainy photo:
- professional photographers will tell you the best way to shoot is in raw format. This is so that they can later correct any flaws or colours in post processing. Since the camera resolution on drones is lower we do not want to use any compression software such as the JPEG format as we will likely lose a lot of information about the colours and richness of the photo
- if you do not want to record in raw format because of its size you can use DNG. The NG is also considered a raw image file but it is Adobe’s proprietary image standard. Even though it is developed by Adobe it is supported in all Adobe applications and there are other camera manufacturers that use this standard as their native raw file format.
Some drones offer you the option of taking photos in JPEG format. The issue is that JPEG has a certain amount of compression applied to the photo which can result in graininess in some instances.
DNG versus JPEG
DNG is a lossless format that is similar to raw. The only difference is that the file size is significantly lower making them much easier to download, upload, or send via email. DNG files are about 20% smaller in size than the raw files but without any loss in quality. I recommend that you take your photos in DNG every time.
On the other hand, JPEG is used by most digital cameras as a default format. It is known as a lossy compression as the algorithm removes some of the small details that your eye is least likely to notice to save space on your memory card. One of the other issues is that JPEG’s are not able to be manipulated in post production. If you want to use JPEG then the trick is to keep an un-edited version at all times because if you edit the same version over and over again it will end up losing more and more data and look worse and worse with each edit.
Try turning on your histogram
if you are finding that you are still not getting the images that you want you should try turning on your histogram. A histogram is a bar graph of the distribution of your black and pure white pixels. The left side of the graph represents the blacks or shadows while the right-hand side represents the highlights or bright areas of the image. The heights of the peaks also represent the number of particular pixels at that tone.
We can use a histogram to work out if an image is well exposed for example if it reaches fully from one edge to the other edge without a gap on one side of the graph. An ideal world the graph should just touch the left and right edges of the histogram and not spell out the sides. You should also look at the distribution of the middle parts and it should have a nice curve to it – being low at the sides and increasing to the middle.
You can use this histogram to make sure that you’re not over exposing or under exposing your drone photos which means that your ISO will thank you.
What camera does your drone have?
The final thing that you should check is what camera your drone has. That is because quite often in the drone world we are comparing our images with other peoples images who have a different drone. There is no doubt that the more you spend on a drone the better the camera is. There is no point comparing top of the range DJI phantom series cameras with the DJI Mavic mini series.
If photography is very important to you, check out my other article where I talk about the best drone for photography and give you all of the tips to create awesome photos – best drone for photography – click here.
To make sure that you are actually comparing apples to apples you need to compare with shots that are taken on the same model of drone as yours. In some instances, like the Mavic air, professional photographers were struggling to get non-grainy images that were comparable with their DJI Mavic pro. If in doubt, check out the forums that are specific to your drone series so that you can compare your experience with others.
It may just be that your drone is not capable of taking as good a photos as other drones. Although drone technology has come on a lot in recent years some of the cameras are still equivalent to the high end phone camera shots while others have much better specifications.
Here is the best drone for photography at the moment:
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
This drone is the perfect camera and addition to your kit. If you are thinking about buying a drone camera and want lost and lots of room to expand your creative freedom – this really should be the drone you buy! The drone takes amazing pictures straght out of the box and you’ll learn how to use each one of the advanced camera options as you get more and more comforatable flying and operating the drone.
This thing is by far the best drone for photography!
+ 31-min Max. Flight Time
+ Hasselblad Camera
+ 10 km 1080p
~ Users report a flight time of 21 minutes
~ Larger than other drones in the range so not as portable
So, there are all of the reasons why your drone may be having issues with grainy images. There are a few simple tricks as well that you can use to reduce noise in your drone images let’s take a look at those now.
How do you take good pictures with drones?
Taking a great picture with your drone comes down to understanding what tools you have within the software and hardware features of your drone.
Fixing in post production
Using postproduction is a powerful way of reducing noise when the image is very grainy. Although the example shown here is using photoshop you can find this in other open source software such as gimp.
Open up the image file in photoshop and then from the menu choose the filter option and then noise clicking on reduce noise. Once you click on reduce noise you’ll get a pop-up way you can set the strength, colour noise, sharpen details and preserve details sliders.
Move all of the sliders up and down until you are happy with the resulting preview.
After you have removed the noise you can fix imperfect parts with a blur tool. Using a blur tool will allow you to get rid of any of those pesky pixels that will not go away.
Use burst mode on your drone
Burst mode is a capture setting where the drone takes up to 5 images in quick succession. The idea is to take these images and add them together so that you can remove the noise but keep the image in perfect focus and quality.
After you have taken photos in burst mode you need to upload your images into post processing software. For example in light room you are able to input your images and then open the different burst images as layers.
In photoshop you can combine all of the images you have taken into what is called a smart object. Go over to the layer menu and click on smart objects and then convert to smart object. This will combine all of the layers that you have selected into a single smart object.
Now that we have a smart object we can average all of the images to reduce the noise. This is as simple as clicking on the layer menu then on smart objects and changing the stack mode to median.
Using burst mode and combining the shots is one of the most failsafe ways of creating a grain free image. It is incredibly simple to do and only requires that you have Adobe photoshop or other software capable of averaging images.
So, there are all of the reasons why your drone photos may be grainy and what you can do about it. The important thing is that you are willing to learn how to get the best out of your drone and its camera.
Professional photographers spend years and years trying to work out the best ways to take photos so that they are not grainy and look their best. Keep learning and practising and in no time at all you will be able to take photos that you are proud of. You could also turn into a little bit of a side hustle potentially!