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Improving the Image Quality of Your Drone Maps

A Photographer’s Top Three Tips for Taking Better Aerial Images

By Justin Moore of Airborne Aerial Photography

If I could give one piece of advice to commercial drone operators looking to start or expand their mapping services, it would be this: Blow people away with great image quality. This is an emerging technology, and most potential clients don’t really know the true power — or capabilities — of drone-based imagery. Your job is to show them how indispensable your services can be to their business by providing them with the best possible product. Cutting-edge mapping technology is a big part of this, of course, but I’d encourage you to also spend time on the fundamentals — namely, that camera hanging on the bottom of your drone. As a professional photographer who found his way to drones, I can attest to the fact that being familiar with the fundamentals of photography is a great way to set yourself apart in the drone mapping market.

I’ve been a professional photographer for the past seventeen years, working in nature and landscape photography, as well as portraits. Before drones came along, I captured a lot of nature photographs from my late model Cessna 172 Skyhawk SP. In 2016, I launched Airborne Aerial Photography, and now provide drone photography and mapping to the construction and real estate development industries, as well as to several nature conservation groups. For the past ten years, I’ve also taught a Fundamentals of Photography class through an adult community education program.

Take your drone mapping services up a notch. Being familiar with the fundamentals of photography is a great way to set yourself apart in the market. — Justin Moore [click to tweet]

Justin Moore of Aerial Airborne Photography

In the quest to provide the best possible mapping imagery, DroneDeploy already does a great job of helping drone pilots produce high-resolution maps. But I’ve found that by adjusting the camera settings manually, I can really dial things up a notch. On that note, I have three simple tips any drone service provider can take to further improve the image quality of their maps:

  1. Use Your Histogram to Adjust Shutter Speed
  2. Adjust Your ISO for Crisp Images
  3. Customize White Balance for a Consistent Map

How to Adjust Your Camera’s Manual Settings in the DJI GO App

Since all of my tips involve manually adjusting the settings of your camera, it’s important to first understand how to do this in your DJI GO App. You can get more in-depth instructions from DroneDeploy’s support documentation, but here’s a basic overview:

1. In DroneDeploy’s flight plan mode, toggle the automatic camera settings to the off position. Then close the DroneDeploy app. (Only one app can be connected to the drone at a time.)

2. In the DJI GO app, select the bottom right icon to manually adjust the settings. A little later, I’ll give more detail about each setting.

For Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 1: Make sure to choose S Mode (Shutter Priority Mode) instead of fully automatic mode. This will allow you to manually adjust all of the camera’s settings, except for aperture. The ability to make changes to aperture is a new feature, but this is a more advanced photography concept, so I don’t recommend adjusting it unless you already have a working knowledge of photography. Choosing S Mode will keep your aperture safely set to automatic, while still allowing you to make changes to your other camera settings.

Now that you are ready to customize your settings, here are my top three tips for improving the image quality of your drone maps:

Use Your Histogram to Adjust Shutter Speed

View the histogram on the DJI GO app in order to adjust shutter speed | Image: DJI Support

The first setting you can adjust is the shutter speed. Shutter speed, otherwise known as exposure time, is simply the length of time the shutter is open when taking a picture. A fast shutter speed can freeze action — think sports photography. A slow shutter speed, on the other hand, creates motion blur. Faster shutter speeds are your friends, they ensure that even though the drone may be flying 15–25 mph through the sky, each snap of the photograph will result in a sharp, finely detailed image..

To do this, launch your drone in your area of interest and pan the camera straight down. Now that your camera has its sights on the landscape you’ll be mapping, set the shutter speed by adjusting the histogram in DJI GO until the “mountain” which represents your image data is in the middle of the chart (as much as possible). .

Map of real estate development taken after manually adjusting the camera settings on a DJI Mavic. Explore the map

Set Your ISO at 100 for Crisp Images

Remember the old days of photography, before the digital era, when you had to buy camera films of different speeds? ISO is the digital equivalent. It indicates the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. In automatic mode, DroneDeploy will select a fast enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur — to do this, however, it may have to bump up the ISO. The problem is, if the ISO increases too much, you run the risk of excess “noise” in your images. In other words, you’ll lose some of the detail and get that overly pixelated — or grainy — look. DroneDeploy’s automatic settings already do a good job of managing the balance between the shutter speed and the ISO, but if you want to bump up the quality of your images even further, I suggest setting your ISO manually.

Manually adjust the ISO in the DJI GO app

To set your ISO manually, simply move the ISO dial in the DJI GO app until it gets to 100. It will then stay there for your entire flight. I’ve found this to be an ideal setting for taking consistently crisp pictures across an entire map.

Customize White Balance for a Consistent Map

Finally, I’d suggest customizing the white balance of your images. The white balance is the temperature of the image — how much yellow or blue cast is present. In the automatic settings, your camera will adjust the white balance continuously throughout the course of a map, making an individual decision for each photograph. For mapping, because consistency across all of your images is so important, I’ve found it’s best to set the white balance beforehand and keep it there for the duration.

picture (left) pre-processing and (right) after adjusting the white balance

To do this, keep your camera panned down toward the ground and set your white balance within the DJI GO app so that the image looks the most natural. Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect. In the case of the white balance, it’s less about getting just the right color cast and more about setting your camera so that the color stays consistent throughout the entire map. By keeping the white balance in one fixed setting — you will reduce the variation between the individual images that make up that map. And as any drone service provider who has had the misfortune of mapping on a partly cloudy day knows, consistency is crucial for producing a high-quality map.

Set a custom value of white balance by selecting “Custom” at the bottom of the list and select appropriate temperature.

Take the Next Step: Learn More About Photography and Post Processing

Congratulations! You’ve graduated from automatic mode and taken the plunge into your camera’s manual settings. I think you’ll find these three steps make a difference in your image quality, but I also highly recommend any commercial drone operator invest the time to take an introductory photography class. You don’t need anything fancy. A fundamental photography class, a few hours a week for a month or so is a great way to get a handle on the basics.

I also recommend getting a basic skillset in terms of post-processing your images. Invest in Photoshop or Photoshop Lightroom. Because as we all know, when you map for a customer, mother nature doesn’t always play nice. Rolling cloud cover can ruin a map by creating inconsistent images. But with Photoshop and some basic post-processing skills, you’ll find there are fixes you can make to create greater consistency across a map, even on days when mother nature hasn’t been kind.

Use Adobe Lightroom and other post-processing tools to further improve your images

Where to Learn More

To hear Justin and other drone service providers talk about how they’ve found success in the industry, make sure to watch our recent webinar, How to Build a New Drone Business.

And for more information on making successful maps, check out our support documentation:

Get Started with DroneDeploy

Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.

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