Drones offer a simple and unique way to create amazing video footage. Most prosumer models now feature 4K video, and pretty good autofocus, autoexposure, and auto white balance. But there is a big difference in the quality of video you get by simply pressing the Record button in your flight app, and what you can create by capturing with the right accessories and settings and then spending some time post processing.
We’ll show you how you can up your game when it comes to drone videography. We’ll use the popular Mavic Pro to highlight specific accessories and plug-ins of value, but there are similar options for other prosumer models including the Phantom product line and the Spark. You’ll have to supply your own story line and shot list, but we’ll help you make them a reality.
Setting Up Your Drone for Video Capture
First you need to choose a resolution and color setting. For best results on the Mavic Pro and similar drones, 4K resolution with D-Log as your color setting is the best bet. 4K, with proper post-processing, will look best on high-resolution displays, and D-Log provides the smoothest rolloffs in highlights after it is processed. The downsides of shooting this way is you’ll have large video files need to post-process them. If you want to have something closer to instant gratification, then 2.7K resolution and D-Cinelike color is probably your best option. Especially if you’re shooting 4K, make sure and use a fast enough microSD card so that you don’t lose any frames.
You’ll also get to tweak the contrast, saturation, and sharpness. If you’re using D-Log, setting your contrast and saturation to -1 gives the best raw material to work with. Due to a quirk in the Mavic Pro’s noise reduction, setting sharpness to +1 in this instance helps keep the NR from going overboard — and we’ll apply our own, improved, noise reduction later (Thanks to Matt Harris of the Film Poets for all the work he did discovering this trick).
White balance is also important. While auto white balance is good on the Mavic Pro, manually setting the white balance is important if you need a consistent look throughout a clip, and to allow you to process the entire clip similarly once you get to the computer. Typically, that means a fairly standard value between 5500K and 6500K for well-lit scenes, but you may want to experiment with more radical settings for sunrise or sunset shots.
For a little richer colors, you can use a combination filter that is both an ND filter and a polarizer. The only trick is that polarizers are sensitive to the direction of the sun, so they work best if you’re planning to fly in a consistent direction and place the filter so the scene looks best when facing in that direction.
It isn’t easy to capture smooth video flying by hand, but with practice it’s possible. Fiddling with the controller settings to reduce the response of the drone and the gimbal can also be quite helpful. If you want to practice flying without risking your drone, I’ve had good success using the Zephyr flight simulator. It provides quite an accurate simulation of most of the popular drones and controllers on the market. If you’re going to fly your drone by hand, it’s also much easier to see what it sees if you use a tablet instead of a smartphone. You may even want a hood so that you can see the display more easily in bright light. DJI makes a bright display, but it only works with the company’s own software.
The video below is one I captured with my Mavic Pro in the Shan State of Myanmar flying freehand (so I could find and follow some of the small boats on the Lake), so the camera motion isn’t great. But you can see the output video quality after post-processing winds up being very impressive for such a small camera and drone:
Fortunately for most of us who aren’t yet Top Gun flyers, you can also pre-plan flight missions on your computer or on your mobile device — setting waypoints, camera angles, and other specifics in advance. There are several apps which let you do this, but my favorite is Litchi. It isn’t free, but if you’re serious about video it is a small investment. It’s available for both iOS and Android (and features a web interface as well). It also has a large user community where you can ask questions, and there are some excellent tutorial videos available at the Phantom Film School.
In between flying by hand and pre-programmed flights are DJI’s own canned “cinematic” shots. You can zoom up and away from a subject, orbit them, or corkscrew slowly away, for example. These are well-crafted and provide a solid “pro” feel, but you risk having your footage look eerily similar to the other zillion people who use them.
Post-Processing Steps and Tips
As far as video editors go, if you have a Creative Cloud subscription, Premiere Pro does everything you need and more. If you are on Mac, Final Cut Pro X is an option. Most popular, particularly because you can get an entry-level version for free, is DaVinci’s Resolve. All three of these editors can make use of LUTs.
The step of getting your video’s colors to look right is called color correction, but after that comes color grading. Color grading involves any enhancements or “looks” that you want to apply to your video. All of the tools we mentioned have myriad options for doing so. Even easier, one reason packages like Elektra provide a variety of LUTs is that they have a “look” built-in to them, so you can do a quick version of color grading simply by choosing among them.
Along with correcting the color of your video footage, you’ll want to reduce the noise. There are noise reduction tools built in to all the major video editors, but for better results you’ll want to consider a dedicated plug-in, especially because of the inter-frame compression applied by the Mavic that produces a flickering look. I use Neat Video, along with the $9 custom profile for the Mavic Pro. If you’re planning to share your video on YouTube it can do some of this for you, but typically will only output 1080p from its processing tools, even if you upload 4K.
Now you’re all set. All that remains is the time-consuming process of rendering out your final video. Be patient. Unfortunately video rendering is one of those tasks that still uses the CPU. The more cores, the better. Hopefully the final results will be worth it!