How to maintain detail in your drone photographs

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Landscape photography is all about detail, and the most difficult detail to capture is in the sky – it’s the way it’s always been. With a normal stills camera, the options for maintaining sky detail include split Raw or HDR techniques, or if you would like to get as much detail into a single exposure as possible ND grads are the answer. For drone photography, the options are slightly more limited.

Some filter companies make ND grads for certain drones, and while these are tempting they may not be the best option for stills photography. The reason for this is that you have no control over where the graduation begins and ends – it’s fixed – which means the filter may affect part of the frame that you don’t want it too. For video, however, where you can’t use alternative techniques for maintaining sky detail they work well, but for stills, using Auto Exposure Bracketing and shooting HDR is by far the best option.

HDR or high-dynamic range photography is a technique that’s used to capture detail from the highlights of a scene, all the way through the mid-tones to the shadows. This is achieved by taking three or five exposures, one or two stops apart, and these are then merged together in post-processing. For the best results, always shoot in aperture-priority using the Auto Exposure Bracketing feature. This means that only the shutter speed will change making a perfect blend possible at the image editing stage.

HDR Step 1

1. Use AEB for speed and ease

Set the drone to shoot in aperture-priority at f/5.6. Set ISO between 100-200 depending on wind and the shutter speed selected by the camera. Apply exposure compensation as required using the histogram as a guide, and finally set the camera to Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) mode at either three or five exposures. The camera will now take three or five exposures when you fire the shutter.

HDR Step 2

2. Merge exposures to HDR

Import your Raw files into Lightroom. Select your exposures by clicking on the first, hold down Shift and then click on the third (or fifth) image. Right-click the mouse on the selected images and go to Photo Merge>HDR. When the dialogue opens, ensure Auto Align is checked and Auto Settings is unchecked. Set Deghost to High and reduce if Deghost Overlay doesn’t show on the image. Hit OK.

HDR Step 3

3. Process your image

A new HDR DNG will be created, so you'll need to select this. To recover shadow detail, drag the Shadow slider to the right until the desired effect is achieved, and the Highlights to the left. Once happy, use the Blacks and Whites sliders to reduce the washed-out appearance of the image. With these, drag the Whites to the right and the Blacks to the left. Once done, you can apply all normal adjustments.

HDR Step 4

4. Refine with local adjustments

Using just the basic Exposure, Shadows and Highlights controls in the Develop module may not recover all image detail, such as in the sky or more localised areas, so for brighter and darker areas use the localised adjustment tools – the Graduated Filter, Radial Filter and Adjustment Brush – to apply further changes to specific areas. Here, the Graduated filter helped darken the sky.

HDR Main Image

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