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How to Produce Vertical Content with a Drone (That Isn’t the Mini 3)

When DJI released the Mavic Mini 3 Pro I was already flying the Mavic 3. At many times the cost, the Mavic 3 is a much more capable drone when it comes to nearly every spec in the book. But there was one feature that caught my interest – vertical shooting mode.

How to Produce Vertical Content with a Drone (That Isn't the Mini 3)

It’s not actually a new feature for the Mavic line. The OG Mavic Pro was able to tilt its camera unit way back in 2016 and I’ve been missing it ever since I sold my Mavic to get the Mavic 2 Pro.

Unfortunately, I just can’t justify picking up a new drone for a feature that I’ve been using workarounds for the past 3 years, so I’m going to share my tricks for creating vertical content with a drone that doesn’t swing that way.

Why Produce Vertical Content?

I suppose the easy answer here is because Instagram says so. But the actual reason isn’t that much more complicated.

The vast majority of media is now consumed on a phone, which is designed largely to be held in portrait orientation.

Horizontal images simply take up less real estate on your screen.

Almost twice the engagement on similar photos with different orientations.

This makes it more difficult for someone browsing to focus on the image and ultimately less likely to engage.

Is it out of the range of possibilities that Instagram’s algorithm takes into account the orientation of the image and promotes vertical content more to drive its creators in that direction?

Technique 1 – The Cropping Tool (Images)

The most obvious and easiest solution to this problem is to just crop your drone’s images. I’m going to use the Adobe Suite of programs to explain how to do this, but every program can crop.

We’ll start with images in Lightroom Classic because they are quite a bit simpler.

This image was taken off the Maine coast and features some classic New England imagery.

The sailboat was moving too fast to use my pano technique (more on that later) but I wasn’t aware of that at the time of shooting, so I didn’t take this shot with the idea of cropping in mind.

This is obviously a fully edited image, but I usually crop before I do any adjustments.

Click on the crop tool (highlighted in red above) and in the drop-down menu next to ‘Aspect:’ select 4×5. This is the ‘tallest’ aspect ratio you can currently post to Instagram, though they are experimenting now with 16×9 and I’m sure it won’t be long until that is available for everyone.

It will default to the same orientation as your image, in this case horizontal. This only crops in a tiny amount on the sides. If you press the X key on your keyboard, however, the orientation switches.

Now, it’s just a question of framing the image as desired. When you’re out shooting, it can be helpful to think about the vertical framing.

Obviously, with this image, I wasn’t thinking of that, so I will need to frame quite a bit to the left. I want to get the second sailboat in to give the viewer 3 things to look at, though if I had lined it up correctly, I may have gone just with the single sailboat.

Not only does this tool allow you to process the image specifically for sharing on social media, but it also allows you some leeway in the composition department.

Originally the subject of the image (the sailboat) was properly placed on the lower left third intersection, but the weight of the dark island along with the dead space to the right of the image pulled focus and could even have caused the lighthouse or island to be seen as the subject.

With the reframing, you can see the lighthouse and the second sailboat are now clearly supporting elements in this shot.

To be clear, this is my least favorite technique because it just trashes too many pixels. The Mavic 3 has a resolution of 5280 x 3956. That’s a little over 20 million pixels or a 20MP image.

Cropping that image down to a 4×5 creates a 3165 x 3956 in the best-case scenario, bringing you down to just 12.5MP or almost half the resolution.

Definitely not a deal-breaker when posting to social media, but my goal whenever I post is to sell prints and that’s where you can run into some issues.

Technique 2 – Sequence Settings (Video)

I almost included this as the same technique as above as really all we are doing is cropping the video, but we will be using the sequence settings in Premiere Pro rather than cropping to get the desired aspect ratio without those pesky black bars.

For this example, I’ll use I clip I got of a sturgeon swimming off the shore of the beach.

  1. Select the clip and then create a “New Sequence from Clip.”
  1. Then go up to the Sequence menu and open up the sequence settings window.
  2. Change the frame size to 1080 x 1920, which is Instagram’s max resolution for vertical videos. This clip was originally shot in 4K60 so I will have plenty of pixels going up and down to support the crop.

If you are shooting less than 4K however, well, stop doing that, you need those pixels… but to figure out the proper resolution just multiply your vertical pixels by 9 and then divide by 16 to get your horizontal crop.

Again, it is best to frame your shot with the idea of cropping in mind.

If you have the grid lines set up on your screen you can just frame using the center third and you get pretty close the correct framing when you finally crop.

Now this sturgeon was slowly swimming through the water so he doesn’t stay centered in my frame.

Fortunately, I can use key frames and the position tool along with a little trick to make sure he stays centered in my final edit.

  1. In your project window, create a new black video and drag it over the clip in your sequence.
  2. Then in the effects control window, click the arrow to expand the scale options and unselect Uniform Scale.
  3. Scale the width down to 1 percent and you now have a center line on your sequence.
  1. In the sequence window, make sure to select the original clip and then back in effect controls adjust the position so your subject is where you like it.
  2. In this case for me it’s along the center line. Make sure you are at the beginning of your clip and select the stopwatch next to position to turn on key framing.
  1. Skip forward a few frames and adjust the clip’s position. It will automatically create a new key frame.
  2. Continue skipping forward a few frames and adjusting as necessary throughout the clip.
  1. When you’re finished, just delete the black video that you’ve been using as a reference line and you can export with your favorite settings.

This technique works great for non-top-down videos as well.

Now, of course, with a top-down like this, I could have just twisted the entire drone 90 degrees and flown sideways to keep up with the fish. That’s what I did when I found this school of striped bass swimming near the sturgeon.

For these clips, I just rotate the clip 90 degrees (or -90 in this case so the fish were swimming up screen) and then scale the video down to 50%. This scale allows you to add some digital zoom into your video as well.

Just use the key framing tool and set the beginning of the clip to 50% and the end of the clip to 100% (or vice versa to zoom out).

Technique 3 – The Vertical Pano

By far my most used technique for creating vertical content is the 3 shot vertical pano.

This technique also has the added benefit of producing a much higher resolution image than your drone is capable of natively.

Typically, I frame up my subject for the first shot, then tilt the camera down around 20 degrees below the subject (using the left wheel), and then up 20 degrees above the subject.

Here’s a shot of a moose feeding in a winding river I took yesterday morning at sunrise.

Usually, when I tilt down and the sky is no longer in frame, I boost the exposure a bit to included more shadow detail, but this moose was on the move so I just snapped the down shot at the same exposure.

Finally, I tilted up the camera to get the sky detail.

You’ll notice that as the foreground is still fairly underexposed, the sky is definitely blown out.

Even with the improved dynamic range of the micro four-thirds sensor on the Mavic 3, this is a common issue, especially when shooting high contrast scenes like sunrises and sunsets.

For this reason, I almost always shoot with the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) setting at 5 shots.

To turn this on, while in photo mode, select the camera menu button above your shutter and then scroll down to AEB and select 5.

This takes 5 images each time you press the shutter; one at the exposure you set, two a little darker, and two a little brighter.

Here you can see the full 15 image series which typically goes into each shot I end up posting to social media.

When you arrange the images by capture time, you have the original image on the left, with the darkest and brightest exposures all the way on the right.

Lightroom Classic has the ability to merge the two extreme photos so the details from the bright parts of the dark images and the dark parts of the bright image are preserved in a single high dynamic range version of the image (HDR Merge).

Select the two extreme versions of the image, bring up the menu, and under photo merge choose HDR.

Notice they include the keyboard shortcut of pressing command H (on an Apple) which will bring up the same menu, or command shift H to just merge the files immediately without bringing up the menu.

Once the menu is up, make sure that Auto-Align is selected. I choose not to select Auto Settings because I want to edit the photo myself and don’t like the automatic results.

Unless something is moving a lot in the image like a car or waves, I leave the Deghost Amount set to zero. This will detect objects that move between frames and only include one of them. It can however create strange artifacts so I generally try to avoid it.

I do the same for all three images, HDR Merging the brightest and darkest versions. This produces a series of three images that we can now merge to create a vertical panorama.

Select the three merged images, again open the menu, and this time use Photo Merge > Panorama.

Again, notice the keyboard shortcut of command M to open the menu or command shift M to skip the menu and apply the same settings as the previous merge.

Once the menu opens you have the option to choose a projection that each results in slightly different warping techniques to get the photos to merge.

I find that for these vertical panos, perspective is generally the most pleasing when merged, but by all means, play around with them to see what you prefer.

You will find if trying to merge more than three photos that perspective almost never works. I also make sure to have Auto Crop selected so I have a better idea of how I will be able to compose my final image.

I leave Fill Edges (which makes up what the edges might look like using software that isn’t quite there yet) along with Auto Settings off (for the same reason as before).

Once the image finishes merging, switch over to the develop module to make the final cropping choice. Here you can see how the bottom images get stretched to make sure all the images are aligned.

Just like before, I select 4 x 5 and crop the image to follow some rule(s) of composition. Here you can see I’ve aligned the horizon with the top third line.

Ideally, the moose would have been located on the intersection of the lower and right thirds lines, but that would have off-centered the mountain in the distance and unbalanced the image as a whole.

Once I’ve got the image cropped, I can go through my typical editing workflow to get the image to a place where it is ready to share.

You’ll notice quite a difference from the raw, unedited file to the final shared image. My style is generally focused more on how it felt when I was shooting as opposed to what my sensor actually registered.

This was a lovely warm summer morning so my edit reflects that.

Recall that the native resolution of the Mavic 3 is 5280 x 3956 or 20MP. This newly merged image is now 4496 x 5620, a 25% increase in resolution to 25MP. Although had I cropped it as wide as possible, it would have been even larger at 33MP.

Obviously, resolution isn’t everything. Large prints can easily be made with fairly low-resolution images, mostly because those are typically viewed from several feet away. This just gives you the room you need for further cropping along with the detail required for those pixel peepers online.

Further Questions

I don’t have Lightroom. Can I merge Panos?

Yes, the DJI Fly app allows most drone users to create 3 shot vertical panos and stitches them together in the app itself.

My issue with this technique is the lack of AEB settings. It also makes it tough to choose your own framing.

What drones have the ability to shoot vertical video natively?

For DJI, it’s just the original Mavic Pro and the Mavic Mini 3 Pro.

The Autel Evo Lite can also shoot in portrait mode, however.

Will the update to the Mavic 3 be able to shoot vertically?

This is unlikely. The camera is just too large for the gimbal to support at the moment. Perhaps they will eventually make a beefier gimbal, but I’m guessing this feature will be reserved for their smaller drones going forward.

Final Thoughts

Like it or not, the world of media consumption has switched to vertical. If you want to compete and stay relevant, you need to follow along.

Think about vertical framing while out shooting and make sure you are exporting vertical before sharing to social media.