Drone photography has opened up an entirely new level of excitement, not only in the landscape arena, but across so many genres of photography. I for one have fallen in love with getting my drone up in the air and capturing scenes from an entirely different perspective to the typical ground level. What I have found is the newfound ability to create stunning panoramas out of these smaller pixel-count cameras that rival the detail of my professional level Sony A7Riii.
In this write-up, I will be discussing the how-to’s of creating incredibly detail-rich and high-resolution panoramas manually from your drone which can print billboard size without issue. I realize the newer drones, such as the Mavic Air 2, which this image here was captured with, has an automatic panorama setting allowing for an easier capture. I, however, prefer the ability to control my start and end points on either side of the frame as well as utilizing the drones AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) feature to properly expose each frame. This saves time in changing lighting conditions like sunset or sunrise when you need to make each image really count.
Backstory to the image
While heading into the Utah desert a couple of months back, I was blown away by all the shapes and textures in the landscape. There were ridges and buttes everywhere! I had a strong gut feeling that as the sun set it would cast sidelight across the desert landscape creating a high-drama and moody scene, one that would be full of detail and depth. What I then thought to showcase was the scale of this landscape really giving the viewer a sense of place. This image above is comprised of 66 images stitched together to create a massive 9GB file! After reading this post, you will also be able to create mural-sized panoramas for home and office.
I typically use the following settings when taking photos for making stitched panoramic images:
Exposure Mode: Manual
White Balance: Auto or Sunny. I find the Auto setting works really well for most scenes, but if you are using a circular polarizer or neutral density filter you might need to change this to Sunny or even Custom so your images don’t come out with a brown or altered color-cast.
AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing): Either 3 or 5 stops of range here. AEB is super useful to help you focus on the shot and not as much on the exposure, since the drone will take your base exposure and give you either 3 or 5 frames of under and over-exposed images. This will really increase your dynamic range in final edits. Depending on how contrasty the scene is (meaning how strong the highlights and shadows are), I will go with five frames just so I am certain I have all the data I will need.
Allow Upward Gimbal Rotation: This setting allows you to raise, or tilt, your camera and field of view an additional 30 degrees upward which is really helpful when you want to capture more sky in your final image. This setting is located within Advanced Gimbal Settings which is typically under your Gimbal (Mavic Pro) or Control (Mavic Air series).
Technique to create jaw dropping panoramas and billboard sized prints out of your drone:
When shooting a drone panorama, there are several ways to achieve this: you can keep it quite simple by creating a single row of images Lightroom can easily stitch together, or you can go down the path of a more complex capture. By creating multiples rows and using Photoshop to create a wider field of view top-to-bottom, you can really create some incredibly dramatic images to add to your portfolio.
A basic starting point and easy trick to help you nail your subject in the center of the frame, like my Factory Butte image in this write-up, is to allow equal “space” on either side of your main subject when starting and finishing your sweep of images. To say this another way: when you begin taking your first set of images, pan far left until you don’t see your main subject. Now pan far right until you lose the subject out of your frame again. Either ends of these spectrums are where you will want to fall so you will have a successful range on each of your two to three rows of images. Always keep in mind: more data is better, so I find it safer to shoot WIDE and crop later.
I find two to three rows of images generally works pretty well, allowing for a clean stitch and also a perfectly balanced image with a good level of sky and foreground. To do this simply advance your gimbal upward a few degrees past 90 and begin taking images for your “sky” row. Be very steady on your panning stick and allow the drone to capture all images in the automatic exposure bracket before you rotate the drone a few degrees either right or left. Also be sure to keep roughly 30% overlap in each photo. Keep going until you reach the end point of your first row. Now, pan your gimbal downward to 90 and repeat this sweep beginning and ending at the same locations as the first row, also keeping roughly a 30% overlap from row 1 to 2 and 3. Pan downward keeping this 30% overlap again in both vertical and side-to-side and capture your third and final row of images.
I always like to repeat each of my rows a second time if time permits allowing me to make certain I have all of the data I will later need to blend together a perfect image. I have made the error in the past to have missed this 30% overlap between images, and having performed a second sweep saved me, being able to insert one of these frames into the first pass.
Once you capture all of your data in the field, it is now time to move into the digital darkroom and put all of this together for your final output.
In Ligthroom, I find an easy way to stack my exposure bracketed images together is to select the entire Filmstrip or folder of images, and when I hover over Stack Images, I navigate down to Auto Stack by Capture Time and reduce the time between sequences to 1-3 seconds. Lightroom magic happens and all of your 3 or 5 AEB brackets you setup in your drone are now automatically stacked together! Now you simply need to isolate your top row of images and click on Create HDR Panorama. Lightroom will do the work for you and simply repeat this process for rows 2 and 3. You'll know immediately if you need to increase or decrease time in the second step as you'll want to see 3 or 5 images in each stack. If you have too few or too many simply undo that step with Cmnd+Z or Ctrl+Z and try again.
Once you have all of your rows of panoramic images completed, select each row (avoiding any of the other images) and Merge to Panorama in Photoshop. Photoshop will now merge and create your master file you can begin editing.
And once again, the final product!
I hope you have enjoyed this write-up. Please leave any comments or thoughts below and I look forward to being in touch.
About the author
Joseph Roybal is a professional fine art landscape photographer based in Denver, Colorado. His passion for photography stems simply from his love of the outdoors. Joseph feels most at home when he is amongst snow-capped peaks, along rocky coastlines, or surrounded by fields of wildflowers. Joseph specializes in creating compelling imagery that allows his viewers to feel as if they are amid the scene, witnessing it firsthand. You can see more of his work at https://www.josephroybal.com.