Guide to HDR Drone Photography

High-Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography is popular technique to expand the range of light in a picture. HDR combines photos taken of the same scene at different exposure levels to bring out the shadows and dim the bright areas – creating very vibrant, colorful images. This technique is especially popular with drones due the large contrast in light between the sky and the ground in landscape pictures. Let’s take a look at how you might create some HDR images with a DJI Phantom drone.

Capturing the Images

The first step is to capture the images with the DJI GO app. Once you are airborne, head over to the camera settings menu as shown below.

Choose the Photo Setting and you will be presented with several different camera modes.

You might be tempted to select the HDR mode, but you do NOT want this one. The HDR mode will auto-process the HDR image on the drone, giving results that are far inferior to processing it later with dedicated software. In fact, using this mode I could barely tell a difference than taking a normal shot. Instead, select the AEB option – Auto Exposure Bracket, that will take multiple shots at different exposure levels. There are options for 3 shots and 5 shots. I recommend the 5 shots as you will have a greater range of light at the expense of a little storage space and somewhat slower capture times.

Now that you are armed with the correct camera mode, take a handful of bracketed shots. The best HDR shots are those that cover a wide range of dark and light areas - like landscapes that capture the sky and the ground. Remember that the effects of motion and camera shake are amplified with HDR since several shots are combined. To limit this, make sure to let the drone come to a complete stop/hover before taking pictures and obviously don’t rough the drone until it’s done taking all the pictures, which can be a few seconds. Also try to avoid any objects that are moving in the scene. I’ve inadvertently captured a few with cars. While this can sometimes be a cool effect, the unplanned results just give a blurred, distorted object.

Here are the bracketed shots of sunset that I took. Sunsets are an excellent scene to use HDR since the bright sun is contrasted with the dark ground. Notice how individually each shot captures a different part of the scene in just the right amount of light, providing great detail and contrast.

HDR Processing

The DJI app comes with tools to take HDR pictures, but you’ll need some software to do the magic post-processing that combines the images. For this example, I’ll be using Macphun’s Aurora HDR 2017, but there are plenty of other options that will work just fine for both Mac and Windows.

Once you have a combined HDR photo, this is where the process becomes more of an art than a science. There are a lot of levers to pull that can create very different images. The incredible range of light you have to work with means that HDR can go from adding a subtle amount of detail to creating unrealistic, vibrant photos. The right amount of HDR is a contentious topic in the photography world, with many criticizing its overuse. My advice is to use it conservatively, but ultimately you are the artist and its important to discover your own style and not get too distracted by the crowd’s opinion.

This is how the default HDR image looks right after the bracketed photos have been merged without any additional edits. Normally the defaults don't look too bad and get about 80% of the way, so don't think you have to go crazy with adjustments.

There are also a lot of presets included in Aurora HDR that you can play around with, but I found most of them to be too overblown for my taste. Here is an example:

Going back to the default photo, there are some key parameters that I find myself always adjusting. The Phantom 4 takes some great pictures, but I find that most of its photos are over-saturated and HDR seems to really bring this out. So, I usually turn down the saturation and vibrance. HDR also has a tendency to create a little blurriness, so turn the Clarity bar up a little bit to sharpen the image.

Now we have a completed HDR image: