Drone PhotoSpheres Workflow
I recently started playing with the DJI Mavic Air 2 drone, whilst there are a heap of different uses for this drone in this post I am focusing on using the drone to create high resolution 360 degree panoramas. Under typical operation the drone will create and stitch a 360 * 180 photosphere however, for a number of reasons the resolution is not as great as it could be so this workflow makes a few tweaks to the setting to save the individual photos that you can stitch together yourself later on.
Whilst your mileage may vary, this workflow has worked out to be the best for me in terms of how to get the best out of the images. It should be noted that some of these images are fairly high resolution (150 – 190 MP) so it is fairly straining on the computer to create and process these. In my case the machine I am using has a Core i7 processor, 32GB RAM, 512 GB SSD (+ 4TB HDD), Radeon RX 580 – 8GB Graphics Card.
I have only looked at one type of drone, so this workflow focuses on the DJI Mavic Air 2. Within the settings section of the drone (from memory its in Settings –> Camera of the Fly App) there is a section called Panorama (or similar) with the option None / JPG / DNG. If this section is enabled under JPG or DNG it will save the individual images from photosphere captures into a separate folder on the drone or SD card to allow for individual images to be externally stitched into a higher quality panorama. It is worth noting that this seems to reset itself fairly often (at least when I used it, so before you launch your drone it would be worth checking it is still turned on).
When a normal photosphere is captured, typically the drone will spin and adjust the camera to capture individual images which are then stitched using the DJI Fly App into a Spherical Panorama. This mode works well however, the resolution of the image is somewhat limited (to approx. 8000px on the wide side). By changing the setting above this process still happens, however it saves the individual images onto the SD card so you can stitch these using an external stitching program separately to the automatically stitched version.
Because the drone saves the individual photos, you need to do your own stitching using software on your computer. Because I come from a PC world the software I know of is Microsoft Windows based however, there are a number of different packages that work on MAC and Windows. In my case, the first stitching software I used was called Autopano Giga, sadly this software is no longer made as the company was purchased by GoPro and I assume the IP was brought into the GoPro world and the software left to die. Needing a replacement tool I opted to look at PtGUI (which is paid software) which is another well known tool within the photography world. If you are looking for free options you could also try something like Microsoft Image Composite Editor however your mileage may vary.
In the words of the creator, “PtGUI is a panoramic image stitching software for Windows, macOS and Linux”. Whilst the software is very powerful, at its simplest level it takes the individual images and examines these to determine where there is overlap between the images. Once it works it this information it then aligns and stitches the pictures into a larger image whilst addressing the potential exposure differences between the individual images to create a seamless picture with even exposure and colors.
Whilst a full run-through of how to do this is outside of the scope of this post, basically you load the images within the PtGUI tool, you then need to align the images, and check for stitching and edits before you can then create and export the panorama. In my case to finish off I usually edit the image in Lightroom and potentially Affinity Photo.
These are some of the 360 Panoramas I have captured, you can see them on my Kuula profile or below:
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