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Drone Photography: Some Like it RAW

With our aerial DJI drone cameras, we all have the choice to capture either JPEG or RAW photograph 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. My choice is to shoot RAW because I intend to spend time processing every selected image. In my opinion, it is crucial to capture your photos in RAW format if you intend to work at a higher level in still photography. Here is an example:

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.

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. I consider the histogram a critical, yet flexible guideline tool to reinforce my instincts.

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. 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 are more delicate in post-processing. An over-processed sunset leads to posterization or banding between subtle hues.

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, 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:

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.

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, Macphun Luminar, DxO Optics Pro and Capture One Pro, to name a few.

Download our personal pre-flight checklists for:

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

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

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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.

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