We’re used to capturing panoramas using the handy preset modes on our smartphones and cameras, but the unique drone perspective adds a vertical dimension that allows for impressive bird’s-eye views. True, this approach is associated with a more complex process of capturing, processing and exchanging images. In this article, you will learn how to do this and what tools you will need for this. In this case, the legendary DJI Mavic Pro was used as an example, but the process itself will be almost identical when using other drones.
Shooting a 360-degree panorama with a drone
First you need to optimize your drone’s camera settings. Use as low an ISO as possible, while still providing a fast enough shutter speed to reduce or eliminate image blur in the scene. Empirically, it was found that even a speed of 1/60 of a second is quite suitable for landscapes. If you’re shooting in bright light conditions, it’s also worth seeing if adding a circular polarizing filter like the one from PolarPro improves the look (CPL will filter out a lot of reflected light and will often warm up an image shot in bright/excessive light conditions). Why filters from PolarPro, you ask? Because they are light enough, which means they do not load / kill the drone’s gimbal, and at the same time remain strong enough.
This 360-degree panorama of Red Rock Canyon was captured using the Mavic Pro, the Litchi mobile app, and the workflow described in this article (click to navigate):
Just as smartphones got panoramic modes, drone manufacturers have added automatic 360-degree panoramic modes. DJI, for example, has added a One-Click Panorama feature to the latest versions of its DJI GO app. The new mode allows a supported drone to take a preset series of shots and stitch them together for you. If you’re looking for a quick way to get a decent panorama shot, this is the perfect option. It has four modes, of which the Sphere mode is used to create 360-degree panoramic images. Sphere mode captures 34 images and automatically stitches them for you into a composite JPEG.
As with any other photography, you can get the best quality from your drone’s camera by shooting in RAW mode. For the Mavic Pro, this means 12 megapixel DNG files. One interesting trick with DJI’s panoramic mode is that if you set the camera to RAW before using it, you’ll get both a stitched JPEG and all the original RAW files that you can later process yourself.
Setting the exposure is probably the most difficult part of setting up a camera. Ideally, when shooting a panorama, you want to choose one exposure that will cover the important elements of the entire scene, and then lock it using manual mode. However, due to the limited dynamic range of conventional drone cameras, there is often no single exposure setting that works in all directions. In our particular case, surprisingly, success was achieved simply in the automatic exposure mode, allowing the post-processing program to deal with stitching on its own in the future. You can also set the drone’s camera to AEB mode and take multiple shots from each position. This approach will provide the best image options, however, the process itself will take much longer.
Fly a drone to take a panorama
In the event that you do not use the preset panoramic modes, you have a couple more options for controlling the drone. The first is to manage it manually. Start from the horizon (if there are interesting clouds or mountains, then you can start shooting by holding the drone higher) and capture images at intervals around a full circle. For best results, you’ll need about 50% overlap between images. For the Mavic Pro, this means about twelve images around the horizon. Then lower the gimbal about 1/2 of the height of the frame and repeat the process. Do this until you’re looking straight down, then take a couple of shots while rotating around the end point (also called Nadir). Now everything is ready!
This panorama of the countryside of Shan State in Myanmar was not only exciting to shoot, but also aroused great curiosity among the locals. One farmer even offered to trade his chili crop for a Mavic Pro (click to navigate):
If you want the drone to do it for you, you can use a mobile app that supports preprogrammed panoramas. Based on practice, the best option for today is the popular Litchi hobby app, which is available for both Android and iOS. Of course, it’s not free, but it quickly pays off. In Litchi, you can set where you want to start shooting, how many images you want to play in each line, and how many lines you want to capture. You can even set a delay between frames in case your drone or mobile device performs too much.
If you shot in RAW, then before you start stitching, you will need to batch process the resulting images. A plugin like “Camera Raw” in Photoshop or Lightroom is the best tool for this process. Of course, to ensure a consistent look, you can apply the same settings to all images. For maximum quality, save the results as TIFF files if your stitching software supports it; otherwise, in JPEG format.
Quality stitching is the most demanding part of the post-processing workflow. Luckily, there are some really good tools out there. One of the most impressive due to its powerful simplicity is ICE (Image Composite Editor) from Microsoft Research. You can almost always just throw your images into it and it does a great job of organizing and stitching them. Unfortunately, this software does not add all the metadata required to display correctly on some social sites, so if you use it, you will most likely have to add some metadata yourself.
You can add your own metadata, but the process is a little painful. Facebook provides some guidance on this, but it’s not a very user-friendly set of instructions. In general, you’re probably better off with a current application that has automatic support for the necessary tags. It is also recommended not to crop the panoramas, as this complicates the metadata, and the only negative is that there is some black area (or possibly an artificially filled blue area) above the horizon.
Stitching panoramas with Hugin
PTGui is a paid application that is quite popular in the hobby, but if you are not considering a paid option, then the best free alternative is the free cross-platform program — Hugin. It may not be the most straightforward to use, but it does have an “Assistant” interface that walks you through the steps step by step (in the new 2018 version, it’s accessed by selecting Interface ⇒ Simple). First you will need to upload images by drag and drop or using “File Open”. Hugin supports JPEG or TIFF files, so it’s quite flexible. You will also need to specify the focal length of your drone’s camera. For Mavic Pro, it is 28mm.
Once you are in the “Assistant” interface, just click on Step 2, “Align…”. Hugin will start a background task that will try to align and stitch the images using the control points that are defined in their overlap. If all goes well, all you have to do is fix the horizon by dragging it up and down in the Layout view. Hugin will also show you all the links it has made between images. If you see gray lines, then some of them failed to connect. You can fix this by clicking on the links and defining the appropriate points between the images that Hugin can use.
Sharing 360-degree panoramas
Facebook is the first goal of most people for photo sharing, and panoramic photos are no exception. If your image covers all 360×180 degrees, has the correct metadata, and is no larger than 10,000 pixels wide, you simply upload it like any other photo, and Facebook marks the uploaded image as “360” and allows users to interact with it with the mouse or by moving your mobile device. YouTube doesn’t support 360-degree photos yet (although it does support videos), but it does support Google Street View.
Also, Kuula.co can be attributed to high-quality hosting for 360-degree images. Their free subscription provides enough features for most users and they have really good browsing tools. Kuula also assumes that all uploaded images are panoramas, so you don’t even need additional metadata for full spherical panoramas (360×180). Kuula also supports the unusually popular “Tiny Planet” view for your spherical panoramas. Finally, Kuula supports higher resolution panoramas up to 16,384 pixels — nearly double the amount you can upload to Facebook. For professionals, a paid version of Kuula Pro is available (starting at $8 per month) that allows you to use some advanced features such as virtual tours and batch downloads.
Key Aspects Affecting Drone Panoramas
Creating quality drone footage requires a lot of work and preliminary location research. But panoramas from drones are easy to shoot, they can be taken anywhere, and in automatic mode, the process does not require any manual intervention. You don’t even have to go far from the takeoff point to capture it. Often just getting up is enough. Be sure to experiment to see what height works best for your location. In most cases, 50–60 meters will be enough. If it’s higher, then you’re losing ground detail. However, if tall buildings or mountains are visible in the distance, as in the image of Red Rock Canyon in this article, then flying higher will allow you to capture them in the best possible way.