We’ve become used to shooting panoramas with convenient preset modes on our phones and cameras, but the unique perspective from a drone adds a vertical dimension that can create some impressive bird’s-eye views. However, this also complicates the process of capturing, processing, and sharing images. We’ll walk you through how to do it and the tools you’ll need. For illustration we’ll use my favorite DJI Mavic Pro, but the process is very similar for other prosumer drones.
Capturing 360-degree Panoramas with your Drone
For starters, you’ll want to optimize your drone’s camera settings. Use as low an ISO as you can that still allows you enough shutter speed to reduce or eliminate motion blur from the scene. For landscapes I’ve found speeds as low as 1/60 of a second work fine. If you are shooting in bright light, it is also worth seeing if adding a Circular Polarizing filter like those from PolarPro gives you an improved look (a CPL will filter out a lot of reflected light, and will often warm up an image shot under bright light conditions). I use PolarPro filters because they are light enough not to damage the drone’s gimbal, but still pretty rugged.
This 360-degree panorama of Red Rock Canyon was shot using a Mavic Pro, Litchi flight app, and the workflow described in this article (click to navigate):
Just as smartphones have added Panorama modes, drone makers have been adding automated 360-degree Panorama modes. DJI, for example, has added a 1-click Panorama option to the latest versions of its DJI GO application. The new mode allows your supported drone to take a pre-defined series of shots and stitches them for you. If you want a quick way to get a reasonable capture, this is ideal. It has four modes, with Sphere being the one to use to create a 360-degree image. Sphere mode captures 34 images and automatically stitches them for you into a composite JPEG.
As with almost any photography, you can get the best quality from your drone’s camera by shooting in RAW mode. For the Mavic Pro, that means 12MP DNG files. One cool trick with DJI’s Pano mode is that if you set your camera to RAW before using it, you’ll get both a stitched JPEG and all the initial RAW files that you can process yourself later.
Setting your Exposure is probably the trickiest part of setting up your camera. Ideally for shooting a panorama you want to pick a single exposure that will cover the important elements of the entire scene and then lock it in using Manual. However, with the limited dynamic range of prosumer drone cameras, there often isn’t a single Exposure setting that will work in all directions. In that case I’ve had surprisingly good success leaving the Exposure on Auto and letting the post-processing software deal with stitching. You can also set the drone’s camera to bracket, and take several images from each position. That gives you the best possible image data to work with, but of course takes much longer to do and process.
Flying your Drone to Capture the Panorama
If you’re not using a built-in Panorama mode, you have a couple options for flying your drone. The first is to manually fly it. Start at the Horizon (if there are interesting clouds or mountains, then you may want to start aimed even higher), and capture images at intervals around a full circle. For best results you want around a 50% overlap between images. For the Mavic Pro that means about a dozen images around the horizon. Then move your gimbal down about 1/2 of a frame height, and repeat. Do this until you are looking straight down, and then take a couple images while rotating around that point (referred to as the nadir). Then you’re all set!
If you want to have the drone do it for you (I love having my drone get a view of the surroundings while I stop and eat my lunch while traveling, for example), then you can use an app that supports programmed Panoramas. My favorite is Litchi, which is available for both Android and iOS. It isn’t free, but it doesn’t take long for it to pay for itself. Within Litchi you can set where you want to start, how many images you want on each row, and how many rows you want to capture. You can even put a delay between shots if you’re otherwise pushing the performance of your drone or mobile device too hard.
Post-processing your Drone Images
If you’ve shot RAW, you’ll need to process the images as a batch before you can stitch them. I’ve found Camera Raw in Photoshop or Lightroom a convenient way to do that. Typically you’ll want to use the same settings for all the images, to provide a consistent look. For maximum quality, save the results out as TIFF files, if your stitching software supports that; otherwise as JPEGs.
Quality stitching is the most-demanding part of the post-processing workflow. Fortunately, there are several really good tools available. One of the most impressive for its powerful simplicity is ICE (Image Composite Editor) from Microsoft Research. You can almost always just throw your images at it and it will do a great job of organizing and stitching them. Unfortunately, the software doesn’t add all the metadata needed to correctly display in some sharing sites, and Microsoft has abandoned it, so if you use it you’ll probably need to add some metadata on your own.
You can add your own metadata, but the process is a bit painful. Facebook provides some guidance, but it isn’t a particularly user-friendly set of guidelines. All in all, you’re probably better off working with a current application that has automatic support for the needed tags. I’ve also stopped cropping my panoramas, as it makes the metadata more complex, and the only downside is some black area (or perhaps artificially filled in blue area) above the horizon.
Panorama Stitching using Hugin
Ptgui is a paid application that is quite popular, but I’ve found Hugin, a free alternative, to be an excellent option. It isn’t the most obvious to use, but it does have an “Assistant” interface that will walk you through the steps (in the new 2018 version this is called up by selecting Interface->Simple). First, you Load your images by dragging or using File Open. Hugin accepts either JPEGs or TIFFs, so it is quite flexible. You will need to fill in the focal length for your drone. For the Mavic Pro it is 28mm.
Once you’re in the Assistant interface, you can simply click on Step 2, “Align…” Hugin fires up a background task that will attempt to align and stitch the images using control points it identifies in their overlap. If all goes well, you can simply correct the horizon by dragging it up and down in the Layout view. Hugin will also show you all the connections it has made between images. If you see gray lines then it couldn’t connect some images. You can fix that by clicking on the Link and then identifying corresponding points between the images that Hugin can use.
Sharing your 360-degree Panoramas
Facebook is most people’s first target for sharing photos, and 360-degree photos are no exception. Facebook has made the process fairly easy as long as your image covers the full 360-degrees x 180-degrees, has the right metadata, and isn’t over 10,000 pixels wide. You simply upload it like any other photo and Facebook marks it as 360 and allows users to rotate through it using their mouse or by moving their mobile device. YouTube doesn’t currently support 360-degree photos (although it does for video), but Google’s Street View does.
Unfortunately, SmugMug, my favorite photo-sharing site, doesn’t support 360-degree photos, so I had to look elsewhere for a quality hosting experience. So far Kuula.co has fit the bill. Their free subscription provides enough features for most users, and they have some really nice viewing tools. Kuula also assumes all uploaded images are panoramas, so for full spherical panoramas (360 x 180) you don’t even need any additional metadata. Kuula also supports the oddly-popular Tiny Planet view of your spherical panoramas. Finally, Kuula supports higher-resolution panoramas. up to 16,384 pixels across — nearly double what you can upload to Facebook. Their Pro plans, starting at $8 per month, allow some advanced features like Virtual Tours and Batch Uploading.
The Best Things about Drone Panoramas
Producing quality drone video takes a lot of work and background research on your location. But drone panoramas are easy to shoot, can be done anywhere, and when automated don’t require any manual intervention. You don’t even have to venture far from your takeoff point to capture one. Often just ascending is enough. That’s about as safe as drone flying gets. Make sure and do some experiments to see what heights work best for you. I tend to like 150-200 feet for most situations. Too much higher and you lose detail on the ground. However, if you’ve got tall buildings or mountains in the distance, like in the image of Red Rock Canyon in this article, being higher can help capture them.