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Shooting Panoramic Images from a Drone

Image credit – Jag_cz on Adobe Stock.

These two videos are from my new class over at LinkedIn Learning… I’ll share with you in a six-part article the entire part of the course about aerial panoramic images.  You can see the series here as it’s released on Photofocus or watch the whole class here.

Configuring your drone for panoramic images and essential apps from Learning Aerial Photography with Drones by Richard Harrington and Francis Torres

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Shooting strategies for panoramic images from Learning Aerial Photography with Drones by Richard Harrington and Francis Torres

Configuring your drone for panoramic images and essential apps

I’m a huge fan of panoramic photography. I love making panoramic images in a variety of locations, ’cause they’re so immersive. And Francis, I think aerial panoramics are amazing because you can see so much content. Oh, yeah, definitely. And the best part is you can do it from any angle. – True, ’cause you can see everything. It’s really quite cool. So, there are several things you need to do to pull this off. Let’s break down the shooting strategies, and then a little later on, we’ll talk about post-production. One of the first things we have to do is fly in GPS mode. Why is that so important?

Well, flying in GPS mode ensures that your copters can be completely still in the air.

Oh, yeah, definitely. And the best part is you can do it from any angle. – True, ’cause you can see everything. It’s really quite cool. So, there are several things you need to do to pull this off. Let’s break down the shooting strategies, and then a little later on, we’ll talk about post-production. One of the first things we have to do is fly in GPS mode. Why is that so important?

Well, flying in GPS mode ensures that your copters can be completely still in the air.

There are no wind conditions. – ‘Cause I noticed, for example, on my controller here, I actually have a pause button. And that’s designed to sort of hold it in place, but with GPS mode, it will also do the same thing. When you let go of the controllers, it’s not gonna keep drifting or accelerating.It should stop and hold, unless there’s a really high wind. – Yes, even if you’re going at full speed with a drone, you let go of your controllers, the GPS mode will make the drone take the effort into stopping and hovering in place.

Very cool. So, that’s gonna usually be controlled by a switch on the front of your controller, right?

All right, so we’re in GPS mode. That’s fine, but there’s a couple things we have to do with the camera. One thing that people make mistakes with panoramic photography is they shoot in Auto mode, and as they pan the camera, at some point you’re looking into the sun, and it really changes the exposure. We have to avoid this, right? [Francis] Yes. When you’re shooting panoramic images, you wanna shoot in complete manual mode, and to just change the settings in your drone, you can do that in the app. – And this is gonna involve making sure that it doesn’t change as the camera changes. So you’re gonna be adjusting things like shutter speed and ISO, most likely, ’cause most of these have fixed apertures, so we’re really adjusting how long the shutter speed stays open and how sensitive the camera is.

Yes. When you’re shooting panoramic images, you wanna shoot in complete manual mode, and to just change the settings in your drone, you can do that in the app. – And this is gonna involve making sure that it doesn’t change as the camera changes. So you’re gonna be adjusting things like shutter speed and ISO, most likely, ’cause most of these have fixed apertures, so we’re really adjusting how long the shutter speed stays open and how sensitive the camera is.

And a lower ISO is better, how come? – Lower ISO is better because you’re gonna get less noise in your image. – Okay, so always try to find a balance, there. Of course, if you are flying, you wanna use a relatively shorter shutter speed to freeze that action, but you can balance it out. GPS mode’s gotten pretty good, here. So, essentially, now, we’ve got the exposure lockdown. We also need to lock one other thing, ’cause as we start to turn, the color temperature of the sky or the lighting can change. What else do we need to lock? – [Francis] We also need to lock the light balance in our image.

We also need to lock the light balance in our image.

So if it’s a cloudy day, you wanna set the white balance to a cloudy day, or if it’s a sunny day, you wanna lock the white balance to sunny or about 6500 Kelvin when it comes to color temperature.- So these presets can be useful, and they’ll be typically presets that you’re used to seeing in a DSLR, like cloudy, things like that. Or you can dial in a very specific one. And sometimes I’m also a fan of just, as I look at this, sort of framing up the shot so that I’ve taken a pass and looked at the brightest and darkest areas, so we can compensate. Now, a little later we’re gonna talk more about high dynamic range photography, and if you are a bit aggressive, you can actually combine those HDR techniques with the panoramic shooting.

But for now, we’re just doing single exposures. All right, so now we’ve got the camera configured.The drone is gonna hover in place. We really have sort of two options here, and it’s gonna depend upon your drone. The DJI Inspire, this gimbal can rotate around. How does that work? – Well, this gimbal can rotate around by using the second controller. So you have one controller to control the drone, and then one controller to control the camera. When this is up in the air, these legs are actually folded up. So, when I come in here to the second controller, I can actually take the left stick and actually turn the camera around just like this, and position it to whichever direction I want.

If I’m taking a panoramic photo, I can start with starting on center, here, taking a photo, and then go about 45 degrees, leaving about 20% to 10% overlap on each photo, take another photo, 45 degrees, take another photo, et cetera. – And if you want the safest on the overlap, 10% to 20% is sort of the minimum, obviously, we’re pushing it here ’cause we’re flying. We don’t wanna be doing tons of images, ’cause we have to get ’em in the can. Tools like Photoshop are happiest with a 50% overlap, that’ll minimize the distortion as you start to unwrap the pano, but you’re gonna have to split the difference.

If you’re shooting landscape, you got plenty of time to get those overlaps. In aerial photography, we gotta split the difference. So, 10% to 20% is sort of a minimum. And, for example, let’s illustrate this here. Show me about a 50% overlap. Start all the way to the left. All right, so now we’ve got that. If we pan, we’re gonna sort of position that subject so it’s in the rule-of-thirds area.Yeah, sorta there. Okay. And then as we pan again, it’s a little dark here, keep going. So now we sorta see these things overlapping, and then we would keep panning and it would be like that.

Now, obviously, you’re just seeing the drone legs here. We’re gonna go out and fly, but we wanted to give you a nice, controlled environment. Francis, I see clearly here we have the ability on higher-end drones to rotate the camera. And there’s certainly a benefit there. This is matching the traditional photography aspect where we try to minimize the distortion and rotate around. Now, we’re not gonna get into nodal points and all of that today, But the less movement side to side, the better off you are. If you’re on a more traditional quadcopter or a smaller quadcopter, when it takes off, we’re gonna have to rotate this unit.So with a controller, with my left

So with a controller, with my left stick, I’m just gonna turn the controller either left or right.

That way, it would yaw the craft and turn the craft at the same time. [Tall Man] And with GPS mode, when you let go of the stick, it should pause again, right? – [Francis] Yes, if you let it go, it should pause using GPS. – That’s pretty straightforward, because on these cameras, once that is stabilized, this is gonna just point forward. And so, we can’t really rotate, ’cause we would see the legs. So it’s just gonna have to turn into place. – [Francis] Yes, making the Owl compensate for having the legs there. – So, I know that there are panoramic apps available for smartphones.

And with GPS mode, when you let go of the stick, it should pause again, right? – [Francis] Yes, if you let it go, it should pause using GPS. – That’s pretty straightforward, because on these cameras, once that is stabilized, this is gonna just point forward. And so, we can’t really rotate, ’cause we would see the legs. So it’s just gonna have to turn into place.  [Francis] Yes, making the Owl compensate for having the legs there. – So, I know that there are panoramic apps available for smartphones.

Yes, making the Owl compensate for having the legs there. – So, I know that there are panoramic apps available for smartphones.

Are there apps available for drones? – Yes, there are actually a couple apps that I use, and one of ’em is called Dronepan. It’s a free app that you can download for the iOS devices and Android devices. Another one is called the Litchi app, and the Litchi app is about, like, $30, I think, but it’s a great app that comes with not just panoramic photos, but giving the function for the Inspire to actually have a tracking mode. The Litchi app is actually a really good app, too. – So it’s beyond just panoramic, as it does other advanced shooting modes, too. – Yes. – Some of these are gonna be model-specific, right? Like, it only works with certain drones? – Yes, as far as I know, the Dronepan app and the Litchi app only work with DJI drones at the moment.

Okay, but don’t be surprised if other people come up with more apps, and always check your favorite app store. Just search on drones and you’ll find a wide range, including some of those useful planning apps we talked about earlier, where you can check for no-fly zones. – Now that you understand the equipment, let’s get into some shooting strategies.

Shooting strategies for panoramic images

When it comes to panoramic shooting, there are lots of different ways to pull this off. Let’s give you a few practical tips. First off Francis, when we fly, I think a lot of folks go oh well it’s aerial, so I have to go to the maximum height of 400 feet. That’s not necessarily the best place to make a picture, is it? – No, 400 feet is way too high, considering it’s the limit in the US to fly. Best pictures, in my opinion, are when you’re actually flying relatively close to things. What I mean by that is if I’m shooting a house, I’m not gonna go over 25 feet above the roof line. I’m gonna go maybe around 15, 20 feet.

That way I can actually see the detail of the house. So think about, would you rather see a movie on a 20 inch TV or a 60 inch TV? If it’s a 20 inch TV, gotta be compared to being in the air as flying 100 feet, but if it’s the 60 inch TV, I’m flying up and close to it. – ’cause these are very wide angle lenses so they have a very wide field of view. So, you don’t need to go that high to see things. And I’ve seen this. I’ve done some group portraits where we’re flying, not over the people, but a good distance in front and we fly up.

And it’s important that we don’t get too high or else it’s like well what are those small little dots there? You kinda lose the subject. Okay, well this gives us the ability. And as you get further and further away, it’s also possible that you don’t have as much control or stability. The signal can be a little weaker, you get a little more interference. So you’re not gonna necessarily see as much control if you get all the way to the max limit. – Yeah, definitely. – Alright, well besides that, well we have to actually deal with the fact of the angle of the camera. So remember, once you set this, you’ve got the ability for the camera to typically rotate about 90 degrees.

I’m usually a fan of, if I’m doing a simple panorama, keeping that rotated all the way up. So a single row, so that the horizon is even, and that’s gonna stitch all the way around, right?
Yes, correct. – But we can actually if you wanna do multiple rows, you can tilt the camera. But you always need that level one if you wanna stitch it. ’cause if you’ve got the camera tilted down, it doesn’t really make a panorama. It’s not gonna totally line up. – No, it’s gonna be a weird looking curved image when it’s into a flat screen.

So having that first row where the camera’s level definitely helps. – But once you’ve got that row down, if you’re patient, you can tilt the camera 15 to 30 degrees, right, and shoot again? – Yeah, if you tilt the camera down, you can even make a bigger panorama. So let’s say, if you have one horizon line with three images, you can make another row of images as long as there’s like a 50 to 25% overlap with the bottom to the top row you can make a bigger panorama. – And sometimes when you do that, particularly as you pan, shoot a little wider than you need.

Because as you shoot this way, once you tilt the camera down when you try to unwrap that image it’s gonna have a little bit of curvature. So it’s a good idea to shoot wider than you need and get a little bit of fluff on the left and right edges. And besides doing horizontal panoramas, we can do vertical panoramas. And there’s really sorta two techniques. – [Francis] Yeah, there’s one where you can tilt the camera, so facing down and then taking pictures as the camera tilts up. Or, you can elevate the camera, starting from a low angle to a high angle. – Yeah, and you just need to make sure you have overlap. It’s the same rule of overlap from left to right.

25 to 50%. But this is great if you’re shooting something like a waterfall, or maybe a monument. It just depends on what you want to get. And a lot of post-production tools are really good at lens correction these days. You’ve got things like the Upright adjustment in Photoshop, or the Transform tool inside of Adobe Camera Raw. That makes it easy. The adaptive wide angle filter. All of these can be used to force some perspective correction so that you can take this curved image and translate it into a flat image.

Well, any other strategies when it comes to successfully shooting panoramas? Things you’ve learned the hard way, or that’s really helped you move you to the next level? – Another technique that I really like doing is doing 360-degree panoramas. And that’s taking photos both horizontally and vertically. – Yeah, and ultimately if you do it right, it’ll match up into a sphere or a cylinder.There’s really two types of 360-degree photography. You can do this with a single row and capture it, sort of circular so you just get a really broad horizon and those could be printed out or easily shown online where you pan and look around.

But you did bring out that if you actually tilt the camera, we can have it so you can look up and down in the environment, right? – [Francis] I shoot most of the sky, but then definitely all the ground can be captured doing this technique. – [Host] Okay, and then we put it all together using Photoshop and PTGui? – Yeah, so when we put it together in PTGui, which is a 360-degree panoramic editing software, you can actually get the whole 360 and then we would have to add the additional sky to cover on top of whatever is on top of the drone.

So that’s something that you can shoot from the ground or just Photoshop and clone material in to fill that in, right?

So we’re gonna take a look at these techniques a little bit later and more in depth, but remember that if you want to learn more about panoramic photography, there are additional courses available here in the online library to help you master those tools. Alright, well now that you understand some of the shooting strategies, let’s show you the results and actually put some of these images together using different software tools.

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