Aerial panorama with DJI Mavic Pro, Sydney skyline sunset

Sydney, aerial panorama with DJI Mavic Pro

This is a short article about how to shoot a stitched panorama with DJI Mavic Pro drone. Then I take the frames through post-processing to a finished photograph. I used my drone only to capture video footage as of yet. I decided to put the camera to the test and create a stitched panorama with DJI Mavic Pro drone. 

DJI Mavic is a beautiful and affordable piece of technology. The camera is relatively powerful for its size. Gimbal works like a charm and the drone is very stable in the air even with stronger wind. These features lend themselves for shooting stitched panorama with the Mavic. The only difference, is that camera is in the air and we control it via remote control rather than directly.

Mavic camera settings

As far as controls it is a good idea to use a "Tripod mode" which is one of the intelligent flight modes available in Mavic. This mode slows the drone down and attempts to keep it as steady as possible. Of course, it helps when the weather plays it's part. Strong winds are definitely not recommended. 

It is paramount to keep set all camera controls to manual mode for successful panorama stitch. I always set the image format to DNG for best possible image quality. Since it is a RAW format, the white balance and picture profile are not that crucial. The only important thing is that white balance is set to something else than "Auto". I always choose the setting according to scene and light conditions so the resulting image is as close to reality as possible. 

Aperture is obviously fixed on camera so remaining two settings I have to control is ISO and shutter speed. Since the sensor of the Mavic is tiny, I recommend setting the ISO to 100  and leave it there. Higher ISO might quickly introduce unwanted noise and should be avoided if possible. The last setting to get the correct exposure is the right shutter speed. Again, I have to go full manual. I don't want to have a different exposure on my frames. It needs to be consistent. I enabled the histogram permanently on the app. This way I can set the correct shutter speed and make sure I have a nice distribution of tones across the whole range. And importantly, that not clipping the highlights.   

Although the image is captured as RAW (DNG), the dynamic range of the small sensor is not what I would expect from a bigger camera and larger sensor. If the scene has too high dynamic range, it is impossible to capture it in just one shot. In that case, I make a necessary call and shoot multiple exposures or make a decision on what is more important to preserve. Is it shadows or highlights. Unlike when shooting video, a neutral density filter is not necessary. In fact, I want to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible.  

It is a good idea to turn the gimbal into a portrait mode. That way I am able to get a much higher resolution final panorama. Seems I don't do what I preach because I obviously didn't do it in this example.

In the air

Now, everything ls set and it is time to let the bird fly. I get the drone into a position and try to frame a nice composition. It is very important, and I have to constantly remind myself that I need to tap to focus. I evaluate the histogram and set the correct shutter speed accordingly. It is quite possible that one exposure will not work perfectly for every frame. In that case, the happy medium is a good way to go. It simply I favor the correct exposure in the frame with the main subject.  For example, direct sun will always cause trouble when shooting a panorama with DJI Mavic. With any other camera for that matter.

On operating the drone

After I am happy with the exposure and composition, it is time to start capturing the frames. Like with any other stitched panoramas, I take series of overlapping pictures. The only difference is that I don't rotate the camera on a tripod. I rotate the drone itself with a remote controller. I usually start on the far left frame and make my way to the right side. About 25-30% overlap is good for a successful stitch. 

There is only a very limited range of actual gimbal pan. It is definitely not good enough for capturing the frames. The whole drone needs to turn. This introduces a parallax shift.  But since I am taking an aerial panorama, there is usually no object close to the drone. With most panoramas, there will be no problem. I always photograph the subject several times to make sure I have the frames I need. Mavic is pretty stable in the air but it is not a tripod., so I find a few takes to be necessary. 

I have seen from other sources that3rd party apps can automate the picture taking. For example the Litchi can do it nicely, but I have not tested it. Panoramas are not limited to a single row of images only. The app can take control over the drone and gimbal movement.  It makes the things easier and more accurate. And that's pretty much it as far as taking pictures goes.

Stitching the panorama

Stitching and post processing is pretty straightforward. I personally use Lightroom or Photoshop for this. The result is pretty nice, considering how small this drone and its sensor is. Take a look at the example of stitched panorama with DJI Mavic Pro in this post.

panorama frame 1.jpg
panorama frame 2.jpg
panorama frame 3.jpg
panorama frame 4.jpg

These are the 4 frames I used to stitch the final panorama. In two of the shots, I have the sun in the frame. I have and obvious highlight clipping in that area. That's a hard one even for better cameras and sensors than the one of the Mavic. I wanted to keep some detail in shadow areas, so I  made a decision to clip a few the areas around the sun. 

Ungraded panorama stitch out of the Lightroom

Ungraded panorama stitch out of the Lightroom

I stitched the frames into a DNG file in Lightroom. It does not really matter if I do the basic corrections first and then proceed to stitching or vice versa. The editability of the file remains the same. Personally, I prefer to stitch the frames first and then edit the whole panorama. This way I have a better idea how the grade affects the entire image. Note that this is only true to Lightroom workflow and may vary with other applications.I stitched the frames is Lightroom into a DNG file. It does not really matter if I do the basic corrections first and then stitch, or vice versa. The editability of the file remains the same. Personally, I prefer to stitch the frames first and then edit the whole panorama. This way I have a better idea how the grade affects the entire image.

Almost finished panorame before the higlight fix.

Almost finished panorame before the higlight fix.

This is the graded panorama before sharpening and grain. At this point, I decided to take the file to Photoshop and do something about that blown out areas around the sun. Note the slightly more "cheated" details around the sun. Obviously, I couldn't pull those details out of the existing file. I used a frame that I shot earlier in the day and filled some of those clipped areas. It is still "hot" but looks a tad better. The final panorama is on the top of the article. This is pretty much how yu would go about shooting and creating stitched panorama with DJI Mavi Pro.

Slightly "cheated" highlight details.

Slightly "cheated" highlight details.

Shop for Mavic