Drone Photography: Some Like it RAW

With our aerial DJI drone cameras, we all have the choice to capture either JPEG or RAW photography files. Each format serves its own purpose, but there are vast differences. A realtor, home inspector or hobby pilot may prefer JPEG files to save time and end up with a tidy, smart looking image straight out of the camera. Stacy and I generally shoot RAW because we intend to spend time processing every selected image. It is crucial to capture your photos in RAW format if you intend to work at a higher level in still photography. Make a mental note that the type of RAW file that DJI uses is called a .dng. So when capturing a RAW file with your DJI drone, you set the file type to “.dng”.

Here is an example to show the power of RAW during the editing process:

Before and After processing example.
Shooting for highlights and recovering the shadows.

Shooting in  RAW, I intentionally captured this scene with the church under-exposed by approximately 4 EV’s (exposure values or ƒ-stops). What was I thinking when I captured this original photo? Why would I intentionally capture a scene like this with a “wrong” exposure? Why not just use the camera’s light meter to make a “correct” exposure?

This is why; with experience in photography there eventually comes a gut feeling about how far we can push the exposure latitude of a digital image during capture. Sometimes, I want to override the camera’s computerized exposure meter to achieve a particular effect. In this case, I could have shot the church scene with my Phantom 4 Pro in fully automatic settings and the outcome would have been a fairly average looking photo. In doing so, I would have lost most of the nice hues in the sky, and also lost the rich emotional feeling of the twilight hour. For a successful photograph, these things are important for me to convey to the viewer.

When shooting RAW, the histogram is a guideline for desired exposure.

Image and Histogram side-by-side. This is how the image relates to the histogram with regards to highlights and shadows.

The histogram represents the exposure data of your JPEG image.  You will have some “bonus” space on both the left and right side of the histogram when shooting RAW. Stacy and I consider the histogram a critical, yet flexible guideline tool to reinforce our artistic instincts. In the classroom we reinforce the use of the histogram repeatedly.

While flying the camera near this church at dusk, I knew how much shadow and brightness my RAW file could handle, and so I opted to expose the image more for the sky and later open up the shadow detail in post-processing. Again, I never fly without first opening the histogram in the DJI Go 4 app. Remember that this numerically based chart represents the exposure values of a JPEG image (not a RAW file) and so, in this case, I ignored the heavy left side of the graph, indicating underexposure. Conversely, on the right-hand side of the histogram, I was more careful to preserve the highlights because those bright spots are more delicate in post-processing. An over-processed sunset leads to undesirable posterization or color banding between subtle hues.

Raw Histogram vs. JPEG histogram
Raw Histogram vs. JPEG histogram

A dirty little secret in photography is that the image histogram represents the values of a JPEG file. When capturing a .DNG (RAW) file, you must understand that there is more latitude than the histogram reveals.

With the Phantom 4 Pro and Mavic 2 Pro, I commonly expose a bit to the left on the histogram (one EV underexposed). This helps me retain more solid data in the sky. All of this is easier than it sounds. Let’s take a look at the basic slider settings I used in Adobe Lightroom:

Adobe Lightroom sliders are a quick fix.

Using Adobe Lightroom, basic exposure decisions can be made and adjusted with sliders in just 30 seconds.

In the very first panel (Basic Panel) I made 4-5 quick adjustments which recovered the shadows while preserving the highlights. It took me a total of 30 seconds. From that point, I made additional adjustments in other panels to suit my personal taste.

Final image of Hawaiian church taken by the Phantom 4 Pro as a RAW DNG file and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

Final RAW .dng image processed using Adobe Lightroom.

Here is some more information about RAW versus JPEG. If you decide to shoot in RAW and learn post-processing, there are several RAW file processing applications available; Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Camera RAW, Skylum Luminar, DxO Optics Pro and Capture One Pro, to name a few.

Authors Randy Jay Braun and Stacy Garlington are co-founders of the DJI Aerial Photo Academy, providing live city-to-city workshops helping attendees to create better aerial drone photographs for work or for play. A current workshop schedule can be found at www.djiphotoacademy.com and on their facebook page.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face classes are currently very limited to small groups. They hope to resume full-sized classes in Q2 of 2021.

A book about Aerial Drone Photography? Yep. These two have energy! Randy and Stacy have just laid down the outline. There will be a nicely discounted price for every person on the MailChimp list. Chaaa-ching $$$$$. 

Until then, HECK YEAH, Randy & Stacy are teaching the same course (and more) to you as you sit in your LazyBoy chair at home. This is a bargain because you get a full six hours of bite-sized lessons that you can digest whenever you want. Take a look at our online Premium Masterclass.

Download our personal pre-flight checklists for:

•Mavic 2 Series
•Mavic Pro & Platinum
• Phantom 4 Series
•Mavic Air Series

Randy & Stacy are DJI’s only officially authorized aerial photography instructors worldwide.

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