We have all seen a drone photo of a spectacular landscape with amazing detail, or particularly eye-popping, out-of-this-world aerial night photograph of a city skyline making the rounds on our Facebook groups the last year.
There’s a good chance they where made using High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography and tweaked in HDR software. These images often look like the work of a pro photographer, but the tools to easily make your own amazing HDR images are available, often very cheap or for free, to everyone.
If you always wanted to make great HDR photos, but didn’t think you had the skills or ability to do it, read on and let this be a starting guide for you to get the most out of your camera. If you are already making HDR photos, keep reading, there’s a good chance you’ll find some useful tips and tricks here too.
This article will focus on the workflow in Lightroom but most of the tips can easily be applied to other editors. I will also sprinkle it with a few Photoshop tips in the end that you can easily use without being a PS wizard.
What is HDR
High Dynamic Range photos are made up of a series of shots with different exposure settings. The dynamic range of cameras on an aerial platform like the Phantom/Inspire is not as wide as if you where shooting with a pro DSLR camera. This is especially true for the Phantom series and the Inspire 1’s X3 camera. The X5 camera has a much higher dynamic range, but can still benefit greatly from shooting in HDR.
HDR provides a way to combine a range of exposures of the same scene into one image, adding significantly to the amount of data held per pixel. The result is an image with more dynamic range—in other words, the brights are brighter, the darks darker, and there’s much more variance in between to work with in your photo editor. To squeeze the maximum amount of detail out of the shot, ALWAYS shoot HDR in RAW.
So to achieve a wider dynamic range, set your DJI drone to shoot a series of 3 or 5 bracketed shots with different exposures in the GO app.
In Photo mode, click Menu > Photo > AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) > choose 3 or 5 photos. The “HDR Shot” option in the menu will blend 3 exposures and automatically spit out a finished HDR image for you, but it will be nowhere as good as what you can process in LR.
Press the shutter once and your drone will take 3 or 5 photos. If you use the X5 camera, remember to shoot in A-mode (aperture mode) to ensure the aperture doesn’t change between shots.
Note: if you take photos of fast movings subjects you will get some motion blur as the photos are taken (rapidly) one by one. So HDR is best suited for fixed or slow moving subjects like landscapes or architecture. Also beware that the camera will take a lot longer to write the images to the memory card, and thus take a while before it it’s ready for a new shot. But you can move your drone after you press the shutter, so you don’t need to hang around while the camera buffers.
For the best result, you would normally use a tripod to avoid camera shake during shots, but both the Phantom and Inspire does a remarkably good job of stabilizing the camera in the air and they are often called a “tripod in the air”. Just be aware that strong wind could easily mess up your shots and there is after all a limit to how much the gimbal can do for you.
HDR Workflow in Lightroom for Phantom and Inspire 1
This is a general description of the HDR workflow in Lightroom with the goal of giving you a natural looking photo. It’s by no means the “right” way, or only way, to edit HDR, but meant as a guide to help you get started if you are new to HDR editing. You will find that pretty soon you will have your own preferred tweaks and settings and hopefully enjoy shooting in HDR.
This workflow will not go overboard with the artificial HDR look (if you want that, try specialized software like Photomatix Pro or Aurora Pro) but it will make you get the most possible detail out of your photos and make them stand out from the crowd of dull, flat looking images your drone will give you when shooting regular jpg’s.
Import your RAW files into Lightroom.
Enable the lens profile in the tab “Lens Corrections” (doesn’t apply to X5 camera)
If necessary you can tweak the lens profile: remove Chromatic Aberration, adjust the distortion, Defringe and fix DJI’s notorious tilted horizon here.
Adjust the White Balance.
Do not adjust Shadows/Highlights or Exposure at this point.
Do this on one photo and use the Sync button to apply the exact same adjustments to the other photos.
Select all your bracketed shots, right click > Photo Merge > HDR… and LR will open up the HDR window.
Leave Auto Align checked, set the Deghtost Amount to None or Low and click Merge.
LR will chew on that and create a new photo with the filename plus the added “-HDR”.
Select this image and go to your Develop module (press D).
Select Highlights and move it all the way to the left.
Select Shadows and move it all the way to the right.
Adjust the Exposure slide as needed.
After that you can use the brush adjustment to improve specific parts of the image as you like.
Now you can do further general adjustments like increased contrast, clarity, saturation etc. Be careful not to overdo it. Here less is more.
After making you adjustments, finish up your editing with Sharpness and Noise Reduction in the Details tab.
Finally crop your image for the best possible composition and export the file as a JPG in high quality if you want to share it online.
Pro Tip 1 – Sharpening in Photoshop
If you want to do sharpening like the pro’s and you have access to Photoshop try this trick out.
Send the image to Photoshop from Lightroom (right click > Edit in > Edit in Photoshop).
In Photoshop duplicate the Image layer Ctrl+J (Win) / Command+J (Mac) – select the duplicate layer – go to Filter > Other > High Pass. In the pop up window, adjust the Radius slider until you just start seeing outlines of the subject in your image (normally somewhere around 1,8 – 2,2 pixels). Click OK.
Select the new layer and set blend mode to “Overlay” and tweak the sharpening by turning down the opacity (around 40-60%).
Don’t overdo sharpening as you can easily introduce noise and halo effects.
Save the image, close it and it will be send back to Lightroom as a TIFF that you can export from there.
Pro Tip 2 – Sharpening amount
For best result always apply sharpening as the last step in your editing process. For tack sharp prints you should sharpen your image a bit more than what looks good on your monitor (oversharpen) as the printer will smoothen it out.
Pro Tip 3 – Noise
HDR editing images from the very small sensors you have in the Phantom series, and the Inspire 1’s X3 camera, is bound to introduce noise. In night shots you will see a lot of noise – and maybe feel sad.
If you are serious about your images, or just hate noise, you’ll need to go a step further and use a dedicated noise removal program.
I have tried a lot of different ones, but I have stuck with Imagenomic’s “Noiseware”. It’s not cheap (USD 79.95), but if you find yourself doing a lot of HDR editing, or just want to remove noise in general, this is one of the best programs you can find. It comes as both a standalone software or PS plugin. For professional work, noise removal software is a must.
I hope this workflow guide has inspired you to start doing HDR images and try out all the different ways you can make an image look using these techniques. Just experiment with different software, presets and settings to see how far you can push your images. Remember there’s no right way to edit your images. Play around, tweak, go crazy and see what you can do, and soon you will enjoy the world of HDR.