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How to Shoot and Stitch Panoramas with a Drone

Drones allow photographers to capture images and video from unique perspectives and vantage points. Although digital cameras on modern consumer-level drones have come a long way, they are still quite limited when it comes to sensor size and resolution. As a result, images that come out of drones often lack the amount of detail that is needed for high quality prints. Thanks to the ability of drones to hover in the sky without any movement, it is possible to shoot vertical or horizontal aerial panoramas. In this article, I will go through the process of capturing panoramas with a drone, then discuss how you can use post-processing software to create high-resolution aerial images.

Drone Aerial Panorama with Telephoto Lens
Multi-Row Aerial Panorama captured with DJI Mavic 2 Zoom

First, let’s go over focal length and exposure considerations.

Focal Length, Focus and Exposure Settings

The process of shooting aerial panoramas with a drone can be somewhat complex, because there are a number of variables at play. First of all, you need to look into the focal length of the drone and see what type of panoramic photography you can do with it (typically, the longer the focal length of the drone lens, the better it is for aerial drone photography). While most drones on the market are armed with a wide-angle lens (typically 24mm or 28mm FoV equivalent in full-frame), some have longer lenses, or potentially even offer a zoom range. For example, the Mavic 2 Zoom has a 24-48mm equivalent focal length range, which can be very useful for doing aerial panoramas. Now you might be wondering why longer focal length lenses in drones are more suitable for panoramic photography. The main reason for this is the same as when shooting panoramas on a tripod with an ultra wide-angle lens – stitching such panoramas can be quite painful in post-processing due to extreme levels of distortion. It is simply a lot easier to stitch panoramas that are captured at longer focal lengths. So if you have a zoom lens on your drone, make sure to zoom in before starting to shoot an aerial panorama.

The second variable to consider is aperture. While most consumer-grade drones will feature one fixed aperture, more advanced drones might offer full aperture control, allowing you to stop down the lens to yield better contrast and sharpness. If your drone has this capability, my recommendation would be to stop down the lens to the aperture that gives you the best detail. This obviously depends on shooting conditions – if there is insufficient light, it might be best to choose a wider aperture rather than longer shutter speed, especially if you are dealing with windy conditions.

Next is shutter speed. The overall size and weight of the drone does impact its stability in the air, especially when it comes to combating light winds (generally, larger and heavier drones will hover with more stability compared to their portable and lightweight counterparts). As a result, the shutter speed you choose will primary depend on several factors such as shooting conditions, drone size / weight and overall drone stability while hovering. Even though some drones might offer a “tripod” mode, it does not mean that you can shoot long exposures – things like drone rotor vibrations and wind can easily result in enough shake to make images look unusable, so keep this in mind.

Drone Long Exposure
This image was captured at 0.6 seconds in ideal conditions with zero wind. I would not consider such slow shutter speed for a panoramic image, since there is a high risk of getting a blurry image

Since the goal is to generate a high-resolution panorama with as much dynamic range as possible, always make sure to choose the base ISO of the camera, which is typically something like ISO 100. Make sure to turn off Auto ISO, as it will mess up your exposures and make it extremely difficult to stitch images later in post.

Lastly, make sure to properly focus before your first shot (typically by tapping on the part of the scene that has enough edge contrast) and verify that you are properly focused, especially if you have previously zoomed in or out (if available). The last thing you want to end up with is a bunch of out of focus images!

As we have previously explained in our panoramic photography tutorial, always make sure to keep your exposure and focus settings the same when shooting panoramas. This means that once your focus is solid, you should pan from one side of the scene to another and note any serious changes in brightness – if one part of the sky is too bright, you might want to increase your shutter speed to reduce the potential for overexposure. Keep in mind that compared to your digital camera, you are going to be working with a small sensor drone that might have much less dynamic range to work with, which will limit your shadow and highlight recovery potential in post. Therefore, choose your settings wisely!

File Format / Crop Settings

Just like you should be shooting in RAW format when taking pictures with your camera, make sure to shoot in RAW with your drone! Also, pay close attention to image crop options – make sure not to crop your images and pick the native aspect ratio of your drone’s sensor. For example, if you use a DJI Mavic drone, you should pick 4:3 aspect ratio, since that’s the native aspect ratio of the drone’s sensor. Picking a different aspect ratio might end up cropping your RAW image, which is not what you want!

DJI Photo Image Quality

Shooting Conditions

It goes without saying that shooting conditions are extremely important for doing aerial panoramas. While light constant wind might be easy for your drone to deal with, sudden wind gusts and heavy winds will move your drone and mess up your panoramas, so you should avoid shooting in such conditions. Another thing to keep in mind is freezing cold temperatures at higher elevations – batteries don’t do well in cold environments and if you don’t plan properly, you might not have enough time to properly shoot a panorama. Lastly, if you are planning to do complex multi-row panoramas, you must make sure that the lighting conditions don’t change drastically in-between, so shooting sunrises and sunsets might not be ideal. My recommendation is to always start with a single “safe shot” when shooting a sunrise / sunset. This way, if your panorama does not work out or if the light conditions change drastically, you still have a single image you can work with.

Horizontal vs Vertical vs Multi-Row Aerial Panoramas

Whether you shoot with a drone that has a single focal length lens, or with a drone that has a zoom lens, you can shoot a number of different types of panoramas with it. A horizontal aerial panorama is typically comprised of two or more drone images in a single row, which results in a thin horizontal panoramic image. Horizontal panoramas are the easiest to capture, because all you need to do is pan the drone camera from left to right or vice-versa, then capture images while overlapping between them by 20-30%.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro Sample Image #6
A Horizontal Panorama with Two Images

A vertical aerial panorama is typically taken with two or more images that result in a single vertical panorama, which is sometimes referred to as “vertorama”. If your goal is to capture a thin vertical image that showcases your subject as well as the sky, a vertorama is relatively easy to capture and can be shot with any drone. When using wide-angle lenses, my recommendation is to increase the amount of overlap between images when shooting with wide-angle lenses to 50% or more.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro Sample Image #3
A Vertical Panorama with Four Images

A multi-row aerial panorama is the most complex type of panorama to shoot. It requires proper planning and depending on the focal length of the lens, might require a lot of overlap, in addition to quite a bit of distortion correction in post-processing software like Photoshop. Multi-row panoramas take some practice, but once you learn how to do it right, produce the best results. The best candidates for multi-row panoramas are those drones that have lenses with focal lengths of 35mm and longer (in 35mm / full-frame equivalent).

To shoot a multi-row panorama, I personally start from the top left side of the frame (typically the sky, with a small portion of the ground), then shoot a bunch of horizontal images that overlap at least 50% until I am beyond the end of my frame. Then I move the gimbal down a little and go from right to left in the same manner. Depending on the scene and the drone I am using, I do between 2-5 rows, which can yield images over 10,000 pixels wide.

Stitching Aerial Panoramas

The process of stitching aerial panoramas captured with longer lenses is really no different than what one would normally do in something like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop – you just select the images you want to stitch, then use the panorama merge tool to create a Spherical, Cylindrical or Perspective panorama.

Simple Panorama Stitch in Lightroom

Where things get complex is when stitching panoramas captured with wide-angle lenses. In such cases, you might end up with a funky-looking panorama that looks like this:

Wide-Angle Multi-Row Panorama

Depending on what you are shooting, some panoramas might not work out at all no matter what you do, especially if they involve a lot of straight lines and architecture. However, when shooting landscapes, a heavily distorted image like the one above can be more or less “fixed”, although I would probably replace the word “fixed” with “artistically enhanced”, because the distortion correction tools you will be using are probably going to heavily influence the final look of the image (which might end up looking quite a bit different compared to the way the scene looks in real life).

The process to tackle such panoramas involves the use of Photoshop’s “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool. Here is the way I personally process such images:

  1. Merge all images to panorama in Lightroom. This way I end up with a DNG image that I can easily edit / post-process in Lightroom
  2. Perform the main edits in Lightroom (correct white balance, recover highlights and shadows, etc)
  3. Open the image in Photoshop
  4. Use the “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool to address distortion issues
  5. Perform final edits in Photoshop and save

Let’s go through the above image and see what we can do in Photoshop CC’s “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool. Once you fire up the tool, click the “Constraint Tool” on the top left side of the window, then draw a line between the areas that are curved, but should be straight. In the above image, I know that the mountain tops are more or less even in terms of their altitude, so I started by drawing a line from one of the mountain tops, as can be seen below:

Adaptive Wide Angle Tool Line

Holding the “Shift” button before placing the other end will force Photoshop to straighten and level that part relative to the whole landscape. After I went through the first ridge, I then did the same thing with the second mountain range, but this time, I used the rotate part of the tool to make sure that the line goes straight again. I repeated this for the whole mountain range, then corrected the curved lines on the sides of the mountain, as shown below:

Adaptive Wide Angle Tool All

Then I clicked “OK” to save and close the tool. There was a lot of empty space left to the sides of the image, which I then had to crop using Photoshop’s crop tool. The areas of the sky that were empty I filled with Content Aware Fill tool, which did a very nice job. After a few additional adjustments in Photoshop, here is the final image:

Final Multi-Row Panorama

This image took some effort, but thanks to the Adaptive Wide Angle tool in Photoshop, I didn’t have to mess with any other post-processing software and still ended up with a usable image.

Hope you find this article useful. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below!

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