I bought a drone. It’s the DJI Mini 2 Fly More Combo.
I wasn’t planning on this because they are darned expensive, but… I found a fantastic deal on Amazon and snagged it. The price was somewhere between MSRP and “it fell off a truck,” so that was wonderful. I’ll post a detailed review of the unit at some point, but for now here’s what you need to know about it.
This thing is the bees knees for aerial panoramas. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do them with a drone, but, as long as it’s not too windy out (above 25 kph), you can think of your drone as a mobile phone camera that is sitting on top of a ridiculously tall tripod. Just pan and shoot without worrying too much about stability.
The DJI Mini 2 produces 12 megapixel files. Not as big as I’d like, but I can certainly make those work. The important thing is that the camera on the DJI Mini 2 is outstanding. It has a top shelf lens paired with a quality sensor that produces nice, clean files that uprez and sharpen easily. I’ll have no problem getting good prints from it.
The camera is mounted on a motorized, three-axis gimbal that uses that drone’s IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) to cancel out motion from the wind knocking it around. This also helps produce extremely smooth video while flying if you’re into that sort of thing (I’m not). Think of the IMU controlled gimbal as image stabilisation on steroids. It works.
I’ve been using my drone for a couple of months now and have mostly gotten over my fear of crashing it or losing it in a body of water. It’s quite reliable and turns out to be extremely easy to fly so long as you exercise common sense.
Here are the settings I recommend on your drone at all times:
- Set to shoot in JPG + DNG. The RAW file EXIF data indicates a 16-bit depth, so you’ll want that for dealing with contrasty lighting that is common to sky shots.
- Set it for AEB (Auto Exposure Bracket). The bracket is -0.7, 0, and +0.7 EV. That can’t be changed, but it has been sufficient for me so far.
- Set the drone on Normal flight mode on the controller. It seems to work best if a wind gust comes up while not making the drone too hard to control. Sport mode is too sensitive for fine control and it responds too slowly to wind gusts in Cine mode.
Most sky life panoramics involve high contrast lighting that exceeds a sensor’s dynamic range. The ability to shoot bracketed exposures is a must. The other issue is that fast moving clouds are a real problem and can cause ghosting. You need to be able to shoot the bracket – and panned set – quickly. The DJI Mini 2 is able to accomplish this because of it’s ridiculously wide aperture that is common to mobile phone type cameras.
Here’s a high dynamic range panoramic I shot on the evening of July 30th, 2022:
It was between rain showers so I chanced sending up the drone. Once I reached 120m – my legal flight ceiling – I did a quick pan to check for reflections in the ponds that are near to my home. Then I repeatedly panned, stopped, and hit my shutter release capturing overlapping images. Each press took three bracked exposures. I took a total of twenty-four bracketed exposures in eight sets of three:
I was shooting into the light and was getting blowout warnings on my display – the scene exceeded the contrast range my sensor could handle. This is why I had to shoot in RAW, and then combine an expanded range of RAW files to get everything into one exposure.
I fed these into Aurora HDR from Skylum Software (this functionality is now in their Luminar NEO product). Using batch mode and one of the presets saves a lot of time. The software automatically detects which images are bracketed sets and gives you a chance to confirm in case it has screwed up (it hasn’t yet). Once you select the output directory, format, and other various settings, it chugs away and produces your final tone-mapped, high dynamic range files:
I fed the eight images into Photoshop’s Photomerge (cylindrical mode) and let it stitch them together for me. A bit of tweaking after that and I had a nice HDR panoramic. The only difference between this and what I would normally do is that my “tripod” was “holding” the camera 120m up in this case.
Here’s a video showing the flying involved with a bit of commentary.
Like all panoramas, the closer the subject is or the larger it is, the more distortion you get. Things that should be straight wind up very curved. That may or may not be desirable.
Unfortunately there is no getting around physics here. I’m learning to live with what I refer to as the Marilyn Monroe Effect (‘dem curves!). Overall I’m happy as a clam with the quality of the panoramic images I’m getting from the drone. The results are top shelf, especially when you consider the low cost of the unit – less than half the price of a good lens.