How to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a droneHow to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a drone


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.

How to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a droneHow to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a drone

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.

Image post-processing

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.

How to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a droneHow to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a drone

Noth­ing is eas­i­er than stitch­ing a panora­ma using Microsoft­’s Image Com­pos­ite Edi­tor soft­ware.

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.

How to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a droneHow to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a drone

The first time images are loaded into Hug­in, they will all appear unsort­ed, but the pro­gram will sort them if there is suf­fi­cient over­lap.

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.

How to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a droneHow to create and share 360-degree panoramas with a drone

Here you can see some gray lines show­ing that Hug­in could­n’t find match­ing points. If nec­es­sary, we can add them man­u­al­ly.

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, 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.


By Yara