So you just got back from your first flight with your new DJI drone, and the photos are just, well, meh. If you are new to photography as well as drones, you were probably shooting in auto mode.
To get the most of your drone’s camera however, you should definitely be switching to manual, or PRO mode as it is now called in the DJI Fly App.
Once in manual, you get to control the camera’s settings, like ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and exposure value, or EV.
If you are reading this article, you might not even know what those terms mean, so I’ll start with that.
Then we will learn how to control them, and lastly, how to put it all together to make sure you are getting the perfect exposures.
What the heck is Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO?
Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are the three factors that determine how much light each pixel of your image receives, also known as the exposure of your image.
When in auto, cameras make all those decisions for you, often to the detriment of your images.
The aperture of a camera is the hole through which light that has passed through the lens must travel before getting to the sensor.
The bigger the hole, the more light will get through.
Apertures are described with numbers called f-stops and are written as a number under the letter ‘f’ in a fraction, such as f/2.8 or f/11.
It is important to keep in mind that the smaller the number on the bottom of a fraction, the bigger that fraction is. So then an f/2.8 is a much larger opening than f/11.
Only some DJI drones have variable apertures that can be altered in manual Mode.
The Mavic 3, Mavic 2 Pro, and the Phantom 4 Advanced, Pro, and Pro V2 are the consumer drones that DJI sells with variable apertures that range from f/2.8 to f/11.
The Mavic 2 Zoom’s aperture actually varies as the zoom is engaged from f/2.8-f/3.8, but the actual size of the opening doesn’t change.
The rest of DJI’s drones have fixed apertures, which means that even in manual mode, you can’t control the size of the opening, but you should still be aware of their aperture value to help better understand how to expose an image.
The DJI Air 2S, DJI Mini 2, Mavic Air, and Mavic Mini all have a fixed f/2.8.
The Spark is f/2.6, the Mavic Pro and Mavic Pro Platinum are f/2.2, and the new DJI Mini 3 Pro has an aperture of f/1.7.
The aperture affects more than how bright an image appears. It also can impact an image’s depth of field.
In most drone images this is fairly negligible, however I will still describe the effects. The larger the aperture, the narrower the depth of field or the part of the image that is in focus.
Even at f/2.8, however, I find only when I am very close to an object can the depth of field even be noticeable.
In this image, for instance, shot at f/2.8, the church steeple in the foreground is in focus, and the buildings and trees in the background are only slightly out of focus.
Even with super close objects, I wasn’t able to get much difference from f/11 (left) to f/2.8 (right). While focusing on Chippy, you can see the chair certainly is more in focus in the narrower aperture (f/11) image.
Keep in mind that in order to appear at the same brightness, I had to change the shutter speed. But more on that later.
To just see the effect aperture has on brightness, I kept all the other settings the same and varied only the aperture from f/2.8 through all the stops to f/11.
You can see that the images each get progressively darker and darker.
ISO is often described as a sensor’s sensitivity to light. However, that factor is actually built into the sensor and cannot be changed.
So, ISO is actually boosting the signal your sensor is sending as the image is being written. Unfortunately, this boosting of the signal introduces unwanted noise to your image.
Most DJI drones have an ISO range of 100-6400; the higher the ISO, the brighter the image.
For my example image, I again adjusted the shutter speed to get similar exposures, but you can see the tremendous amount of noise in the image on the right, which is shot at ISO 6400, compared to the image on the left shot at ISO 100.
This image-ruining noise is why I almost never change my ISO to anything other than ISO 100.
I think this is the setting in manual mode that most people are familiar with. It is simply how long the sensor is exposed to the light coming through the lens.
Much like aperture, shutter speed is usually listed as a fraction.
So a shutter speed of 1/100 exposes your sensor to light for 1/100th of a second; if you increased the speed to 1/200, you would get half as much light.
Generally speaking, you have a moving camera with some moving objects in the frame, so the longer your shutter speed, the more motion blur you will get with your images.
As you can see in the example images below, the snow on the right is frozen in place as it falls as it was shot at 1/320 (f/2.8), while the snow on the left creates blurs as it was shot at 1/15th of a second (f/11).
For the majority of images, you want as little motion blur as possible, so you will want the fastest shutter speed you can get without underexposing the image.
In this case, I intentionally wanted the snow to be blurred, so I cranked down the aperture to f/11, allowing me to lengthen the shutter speed to show off the movement of the snow.
How to Get Into DJI Pro Mode to Control These Settings
Okay, now that you have a good idea of what these settings do, how do you control them in the DJI Fly app?
The default when you open up the DJI Fly App is Auto Mode. You can see the little camera in the bottom right corner with the word AUTO on it.
If you touch that icon, it will switch to PRO.
You will notice that the image got a little darker, as the auto settings for the DJI Fly App usually create a much brighter, sometimes over-exposed image.
Next to the now PRO icon, you can see the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all listed out.
You can also see the white balance (WB), more on that later, and the exposure value (EV) compared to the automatic settings under MM, in this case -1.7.
This means my manually adjusted settings are almost 2 stops darker than the automatic settings would have chosen.
To adjust the settings, tap between the line and the PRO Icon, and it will bring up a menu that you can slide through to get the desired exposure.
When you first open up the PRO settings, the Auto button on each may be highlighted in yellow, indicating that a particular setting is not in manual mode.
Go ahead and tap that yellow auto button to get full control. Now it’s as easy as sliding around the settings to get the exposure you want.
In the most recent update to the DJI Fly App and the Remote Firmware, the RC Pro (and I’m assuming the other remotes) can now control all these settings using the right wheel if assigned properly in the menu.
If you tap the three dots in the upper right corner, navigate to the Control tab and scroll down to button customization. You can now customize the function of the right wheel.
Using the other function buttons, you can actually give the wheel control of all of the parameters that affect the exposure of an image.
This amount of control was available on the Mavic 2 series, so I’m not sure why it was left of the Mavic 3 and other newer drones for so long, but I’m thrilled it is finally here.
I’ve set my wheel to adjust shutter speed when scrolled alone, and aperture when scrolled while holding the C3 button.
I use my C1 and C2 buttons regularly, so I left them with the settings that I almost never change, the EV and ISO.
This now allows me to adjust the exposure of my images without stopping to open up that menu.
If you tap on the other settings to the left of the line, you will have access to the menu that controls the white balance, file format, aspect ratio, and storage location.
I’ll start with the file format, as it is the most important and affects the other settings.
If you want to get the most out of your images, you need to be shooting RAW.
Yes, these files are much larger, and yes, they require processing before you share them to the ‘Gram’, but the JPEG images are just so compressed that they lose much of the data available from the sensor.
If you really want to, you can choose J + R to create both a JPEG and RAW version each time you press the shutter, but I promise, it’s not worth it.
Because you are shooting RAW, which produces much larger images, you will need to choose the external storage option, which should have your SanDisk Extreme 128GB MicroSD card in it.
You did read my article on what SD Card to use, right?
» MORE: Best SD Cards
Under Size, it lists the aspect ratio option of 4:3, which is the actual ratio of the sensor, and 16:9, which is the ratio of your screen.
If you select 4:3, you will have black bars on your screen, whereas 16:9 fills the whole screen. This often leads people to choose 16:9 as it looks like you are getting more picture.
In reality, however, the 16:9 option just cuts a little off the top and bottom and zooms in a touch to fill the screen.
Leave it at 4:3. You can crop it later when you are editing your image.
White Balance (WB)
Finally, you have White Balance. This is listed as a temperature range from 2000K to 10000K. You remember the Kelvin scale from high school chemistry, right? No? Just me? And only because I teach high school chemistry?
Regardless, all you need to know is that at 2000K, your images will look ‘colder’ or more blue, and at 10000K they will look ‘warmer’ or more yellow.
The setting is designed to counter the look of some artificial lights, which, unless you are flying indoors, doesn’t really much matter.
Also, if you took my advice above and selected RAW, the white balance of the image is fully changeable once you are editing it, so it doesn’t matter what you select.
JPEG images, however, have the temperature more locked in, so you have much less leeway when editing.
I generally stick with around 5100K, which seems natural most of the time. The key is to take it out of auto, so it doesn’t change throughout your shoot.
Over Exposure Warnings and Histogram
Now that you understand all the settings, you could just play around until the image is what you’d like it to be, but a couple more settings can help you choose the right exposure.
You may have noticed earlier the black and white lines at the top of the image. These are the over-exposure warnings.
This means that those parts of the image will be over-exposed, and any detail there will not be recoverable even if you lower the brightness while editing.
However, DJI’s over-exposure warning is quite conservative, so you can probably recover the detail when there is very little overexposure, as shown below.
You may have also noticed the little graph above the map.
This is the histogram, which is essentially a graph of the brightness of pixels across the bottom versus the number of those pixels on the side.
You can see below that most of the pixels in this image are of medium brightness, with no pixels that are completely black and none that are completely white either.
To turn on your Histogram and Over Exposure Warnings, tap on the three dots in the upper right corner, navigate to camera and scroll down to find them both, and tap the toggle buttons on the right.
Putting it All Together For the Perfect Exposure
Okay, so if you are a little impatient, you might have scrolled down here without reading all that great information above.
You’re probably still going to get great exposures, but you just might not understand why, so really, take the time, head back up, and read all that technical mumbo jumbo. If you want to get better at aerial photography, it’s important.
- Over Exposure Warning and Histogram are turned on
- White Balance is set around 5000K (but most importantly NOT on AUTO)
- File format is set to RAW
- Aspect Ratio is 4:3
- Camera is in PRO mode
- ISO is set to 100
- Aperture is as open as possible (f/2.8 for most drones)
Now all that’s left to do is choose the shutter speed.
The key here is that you don’t want any black (underexposed) pixels, or any white (overexposed) pixels.
Even having lots of dark (not black) pixels should be avoided since recovering those details by lifting the shadows when editing can result in the same noise as increasing the ISO.
Most photographers follow the “Expose to the Right” rule when looking at their histograms.
Keep decreasing your shutter speed (making for a longer exposure) until the histogram produces a curve that is more towards the right or bright side of the graph, without getting any parts of the image over-exposed.
That’s the ideal anyway.
Dynamic Range Issues
Below you can see three histograms I got from increasing the exposure while my drone was sitting on my desk.
Obviously, you can see that the first histogram is quite underexposed.
The second, however, is still quite dark but is already getting some of the image over-exposed. This was the part of the image looking out the window.
The entire window was over-exposed in the third histogram to get more of the image properly exposed.
The main issue here is that camera sensors don’t have the same dynamic range that our eyes have.
I can easily look out the window at the leaves blowing in the breeze and at the same time can see the jumbled mess on my desk, even though those things have a much different brightness.
Unfortunately, camera sensors have a pretty poor dynamic range, which limits their ability to see both bright and dark things simultaneously.
This brings me to my final recommendation for properly exposed images. Hedge your bets. Take multiple exposures of the same image.
When you edit them in LightRoom, you can even take those different exposures and merge them together (called HDR Merge or High Dynamic Range Merge).
This gives you the detail from the dark parts of your image in the brightly exposed photo and the detail from the bright parts of your image in the dimly exposed photo.
Now I know what you are saying. “What a pain in the rear to take multiple exposures of each image!” But there is a setting for that too.
Tap the icon above the shutter and select AEB. This stands for Auto Exposure Bracketing.
Each time I press the shutter, it takes 5 images; one at the set exposure, then two a little brighter, and two a little darker.
This produces a range of exposures that, in the best case, you can just pick whichever exposure you like the best, or in the worst case, you can merge to produce a perfectly exposed image.
When arranged in LightRoom by capture time, the first image of the series is taken with the chosen settings, and you can see the range of exposures produced.
To merge the images, just highlight the darkest and brightest exposures (the last two images) and control (or right) click to bring up the menu and select Merge > HDR Merge.
The resulting image will have a much wider dynamic range than your camera was capable of producing in a single frame.
Sunsets and sunrises have notoriously difficult dynamic ranges to capture. This technique is a huge help in creating properly exposed images in those situations.
Remember in high school when you were taught how to write a proper 5 paragraph essay, and they all sounded repetitive and boring.
But it wasn’t until you were able to master those skills that you could then begin to push the envelope and actually craft a thoughtful and well-written essay?
Properly exposing a photo is much the same.
Once you’ve mastered the skills required to get a perfectly exposed image, you will be able to push the envelope and develop a style of your own.