Why does my drone footage look grainy? [SOLVED]

Getting amazing drone footage is more of an art than a science. You’ve probably seen all of the YouTube videos where they have amazing footage completely noise-free and you are struggling to replicate it. It is surprisingly easy to collect rubbish footage if you skim over some of the most important settings. Nothing will compensate for having a basic knowledge of photography which includes shutter speed, frame rate, color profile, exposure, and much more. But, in this article we are going to go over everything you need to know about why you’re drone footage may look grainy and how you can solve it.

Why does my drone footage look grainy? There is now one reason that could be caused your drone footage to look grainy – is normally a combination of factors. For example, your ISO is set to too high which introduces a significant amount of noise. You may have the sharpness setting set at the wrong value which is forcing the drone to do a load of processing.

These are not the only reasons why your drone footage looks grainy. There are plenty of other reasons which we can discuss in more detail, below.

Your ISO is too high

One of the most common reasons drone footage looks grainy is because the drone is increasing the ISO setting to compensate for filming in low light.

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.

To reduce your ISO range you can remove any neutral density filter that is over the lens and you can record in brighter settings.

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Read more here!

Are you looking at the SD card video?

Another reason why people think they’re drone images are grainy is because they are not looking at the original, raw, footage that has been recorded. As your drone is flying you have the option to save the first person view of your drone on your smart device.

This is not a high-quality version of your flight and is very noisy.

To make sure that you are correctly analysing your drone footage you should make sure that you are getting the footage straight from the SD card or internal memory of the drone. Do not rely on any footage that you have saved on to your laptop unless it is come straight from the SD card at the highest possible quality. You can check this by right clicking and selecting the properties of the video.

If you are not sure whether or not your SD card is suitable for high-definition video recording you can use the internal memory that most drones come with. Most drones have an internal memory of approximately 8 GB so that you can test whether or not the SD card is causing noise by having a slow write speed.

Does the drone have a smaller sensor than the comparison footage?

Sometimes, when we are comparing our drone footage we are not comparing drones and cameras of the same quality. You see, the sensor that the drone camera has heavily dictates the quality of the image that you can expect to get from the drone.

A camera sensor is a rectangular grid containing millions of tiny pixels. These pixels collect the light that lands on them and sends that information to the processor.

The camera sensor size is the most important factor in determining the overall camera performance and image quality.

To measure brightness of the image the sensor detects how many photons of light hit the sensor and convert that into electrons.

The colour information cannot be determined simply by counting the number of electrons are generated at each pixel. So a colour filter is placed over each of the pixels which filters out different energies of photons to create a colour profiled image.

The physical size of the camera sensor also determines the size of each pixel. The physical senses in the camera are provided in terms of width and height which is usually stated in millimetres.

The larger the sensor the more surface area there is to capture information about the light over the exposure time. A bigger sensor however does not necessarily create a better or more high quality image. It is a combination of the properties of the sensor which can provide a reasonable estimate of a camera’s ability to take a noise free image. These include:

  • sensor size
  • sensor quality
  • software
  • megapixel count
  • how many colours and tonal values the sensor can capture and display.

It is the combination of these things which make an image better quality.

This means that you cannot compare the DJI Phantom series to the DJI Mavic series. Both of these drones have different sensor sizes and different quality software.

Make sure that you are comparing apples with apples!

Is the footage 4K on a small screen?

Another reason why you’re drone footage may look grainy is because of compression artefacts on a small screen. If you are viewing a video which is 4K on a much smaller screen the software and codec which is analysing that footage to display on your screen is making judgements about what to ignore and what to display. Sometimes, this can cause noise in the image.

This is especially true if you are watching very high definition footage on small screens such as tablets and smart phones.

To make sure that you are actually looking at the footage in the way it is meant to be displayed you should view your drone footage on a large screen that is capable of displaying 4K footage. If the noise is still there than it is another problem beyond image compression and you can look at other options in this list.

Record different settings

Drones and cameras come with a variety of different options for your camera settings. If you view the forums you see a range of different settings that people like to use while shooting using their drone.

For example there is this recommendation from the forums:

If you want to apply your own settings or apply a LUT, you will probably want to be shooting with 0 Sharpness, 0 Saturation, and -3 Contrast. That will give you the cleanest possible slate for post processing.

Each recommendation needs to be taken with a grain of salt because those settings work well for them. There is so much more that goes into recording drone footage than simply getting the right settings. They are a great place to start that you should consider trying a different range of settings to see if you can improve your footage based on the local conditions and your post processing systems.

Camera modes

There are a range of different camera modes which you can use for capturing your footage. This includes Cinelike, D-Log and normal modes.

Here’s a rundown of what each means and when you would use it.

Cinelike – Use this one if you have noise in your image!

this mode is a unique video colour profile that DJI has created full-service higher end and consumer level drones. This colour profile captures a broad range of colours and is not flat like D-log.

This mode preserves the shadows, highlights, and mid tones which can be altered during colour grading to make the footage look excellent.

This mode is considered to be the most representative of what the camera sees. Drones that support this colour profile include the DJI Mavic Air: DJI Mavic air 2, the DJI Phantom series and the DJI inspire series.

You will need to do a little bit of colour grading if you’re using this camera mode.

D-Log

This is a flatter colour profile than Cinelike. This setting has been designed to maximise the dynamic range of the video footage captured by the drone stop this means that it stops the shadows from being too dark and stops the highlights from becoming too bright. For example, if you’re shooting in challenging light conditions with a strong highlight and very low shadows this mode will allow you to retain a lot more data than if you are in the default drone setting.

This comes a cost: Firstly, please note that LOG footage increases dynamic range at the cost of noise.

Normal

Footage captured in the normal colour profile will look bright, saturated and vibrant as soon as is pulled from the drones microSD card or from the internal memory. This is the best option for Amit and hobby drone pilots who want to capture some cool area footage without having to colour grade it.

After colour grading, footage captured from Cinelike and D-log will be much better than footage captured in the normal mode.

These three colour profiles all have their uses and for most people normal load will be just fine.

If you are looking to create professional, cinematic footage you should shoot in Cinelike or D-log so that you are able to colour great the footage and make the video pop for all the right reason!  

Reduce the sharpness setting

Another reason why there may be a fair bit of noise in your image is if you have the sharpness setting too high! Choosing a sharpness setting sharpness of -1 or 0 means that the drone is doing all the noise reduction. Although most people will be happy with the result of this for people who are very picky about how they want their drone footage to look this can add a tiny bit of noise into the image.

Setting the sharpness to +1 in strong light will accentuate noise in your footage. Even in strong light setting the sharpness setting 20 can be a little bit overly sharp for some people.

Play about with the sharpness setting and what to do the sharpening in post processing if you’re finding that the noise is accentuated using the sharpness setting in the drone.

Use good quality NDF

Using a good-quality set of neutral density filters will allow you to slow down the shutter speed which can add a little bit of motion blur which can get rid of noise.

However, you have to be very careful about the neutral density filter that you select stop if it is not bright and your neutral density filter is too dark the drone will compensate by increasing the ISO and this will introduce noise into the image.

Too many people use neutral density filters as a fix all for drone photography and videography problems but in reality you probably don’t need to use them as often as you think. Unless you are recording in extremely bright areas most people get away without having to use neutral density filters.

Use auto mode to test

We all get carried away by adjusting the settings in our cameras to maximise the quality of footage that we obtain. Sometimes we can forget exactly what we have changed and how it affects the footage.

If you’ve been through this entire list and you are still yet to get rid of your noise record in auto mode to see if allowing the drone to select the best settings gets rid of your noise.

Use neat video for removing noise

if you’ve done everything that you can do there are always post processing options to remove noise.

One of the best digital filters is a filter called Neat filter: https://www.neatvideo.com.

Why does my drone footage look grainy? [SOLVED]

This is a filter which you can purchase for nearly every well-known video editing suite and can significantly reduce the noise induced by the image sensors of most modern drones. It can also remove compression artefacts and can also be used to remove dust and scratches found in digitised films – if that is your thing.

Using postprocessing isn’t an ideal solution but it can be useful if you have tried everything and you still cannot get rid of noise in your favourite shots.

The best thing you can do is to try and capture the shots again but postprocessing is perfect if you’re unable to get another attempt at capturing the perfect footage.

Summary

In this article we have gone through common reasons for why you’re drone footage is grainy.

Understanding the basics of camera settings and making sure that you are not using settings you are unfamiliar with will be the number one tool that you can use to keep your drone footage looking as clean and clear as possible.

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!