Landscape Photography With a Skydio 2 Drone

Landscape Photography With a Skydio 2 Drone

I've been an avid landscape photographer for many years, and I've been a drone flyer for almost 4 years. I liked the idea of getting landscape shots from angles I simply couldn't get to from the ground. Living in Arizona, there's a lot of opportunities to get some lovely images from the air.

My drone of choice when I purchased was a DJI Mavic Pro Platinum. It had pretty good flight time (30 minutes if winds and conditions are perfect) and a camera that could produce solid images. It uses a Sony sensor, 1/2.3” (CMOS), Effective pixels:12.35 M (Total pixels:12.71M). It's not unlike the sensor on current iPhones. 

The Mavic has been excellent, and while DJI has offered some newer, slicker drones with better cameras I did not find the differences worth the upgrade. My Mavic Pro has been reliable, and has done the job.

My main gripe with the Mavic was the constant feeling that a crash was right around the corner. While the FAA rules say you must keep your drone in visual line of sight, in the real world it's sometimes hard to see a drone against a landscape or a bright sky. My continual worry is that I'd hit something that the camera wasn't showing me and it was goodbye Mavic.

For the last year or so I've been following news of the Skydio 2. It's a U.S. made and designed drone, something of a rarity when most consumer drones hail from China. Skydio has been working hard on autonomous drones, and the Skydio 2 looked like a winner. The drones could follow people or cars and fly freely while avoiding obstacles using an array of 6 camera sensors that formed a sort of 360-degree protective bubble around the drone. I'd seen videos of the drone avoiding trees and other objects while the pilot simply monitors the flight. 

The Skydio 2 is not a folding drone, but it still packs small and has added rigidity.

I didn't really care a lot about selfies, but the idea of a drone that was more crash-resistant did appeal. I got hold of the basic Skydio kit, which retails for $999.00. I added the Cinema kit, which offers 2 extra batteries, an external battery charger, a larger case to hold the increase in accessories, a beacon (more about that later), and a more standard controller with joysticks. 

The Cinema upgrade added $900.00 to the cost, bringing the total to $1,900.

Setting up the Skydio 2

Out of the box, you need to download the Skydio 2 app, either for Android or iOS. Once that's done you connect to the drone via its own WiFi network. It will alert you if there are firmware updates. Then you connect the additional hardware, both the controller and the beacon by using the provided USB C connector to connect the drone and those devices. That pairs them.

Now you can fly with only a mobile phone. That's the way the basic package comes. You're only going to get a range of a couple of hundred feet, but that arrangement may work for many photographers. I opted for the package that included the controller as it would be similar to the way I fly my Mavic. The joystick controls work in a similar way, although you can reconfigure the controller if you like. There's a return to home button, an option to start and stop video or take a still image, and a switch to control the tilt of the gimbal that houses the camera. The range is stated to be 1.5 to 2 miles.

Video can be taken up to 4K 60 fps in HDR, which beat out the video spec on my older Mavic. I'm more interested in stills photography, and I was pleased to learn the Sony-built camera offered 13 stops of dynamic range and the sensor is similar in size to what was on my Mavic.

More details on the Skydio camera include a Sony IMX577 1/2.3” 12.3MP CMOS chip sporting a resolution of 4056 x 3040. The lens is an f/2.8 20mm (35mm format equivalent) with an electronic shutter. The ISO Range is 100-3200. Besides taking stills, the Skydio 2 offers an interval timer. It can take JPEGs or DNG raw images, which is what I use 100% of the time. 

Unlike the Mavic, the Skydio 2 does not automatically take HDR still photos, and won't automatically take panoramas for stitching, although I usually do the assembly in Lightroom anyway.

I found the quality of the still images to be excellent. I did not miss the Mavic HDR function due to the dynamic range of the camera. The details in images are very sharp, noise is low, even when shooting late in the day or early morning. It's a good time to add that because of the sensors needing light to see obstacles, the drone won't work for night photography. It won't even let you take off when it is dark. Golden hour imaging worked fine.

I thought the Skydio 2 still images had slightly better quality than my current Mavic, but the differences were not dramatic. In Lightroom, I could see that the dynamic range was excellent, and colors were accurate. 

I tried a quick panorama in low light by shooting 3 overlapping images and assembling them in Lightroom. I thought the results were quite good.

The two optional control devices have their plusses and minuses. The controller has all the controls you will need, but I found the joysticks not as precise as the controllers DJI offers on the Mavic. In fact, the Skydio 2 controller was adapted from the Parrot Anafi drone. Skydio should make their own controller. The drone is so well built the subpar controller reflects badly on the Skydio 2 ecosystem. Still, I could position the drone as I wanted using the controller. The camera can tilt straight down, and almost straight up. It gives a photographer a lot of flexibility. 

Skydio also provided what they call a Beacon as an optional controller. It's a clever idea, and useful for tracking people or vehicles. Instead of fooling with your phone or a controller, you can carry the beacon and the drone will find you. There are also controls for taking off, landing, changing altitude, and even bringing up some of the built-in tricks like orbiting and following you. Of all the Skydio accessories, it's probably the least useful for a landscape photographer.

Like most drones, all your images reside on a micro-SD card. After your flight, you can plug a provided USB-C cable into your computer and the drone, and the drone acts as an external hard drive on Mac and Window computers. Or you can remove the battery, and slide the SD card out to get to the data. 

What I Like:

  • The Skydio 2 has excellent build quality at a reasonable price
  • Given the sensor size, photographers can get good raw images that support post-processing
  • The Skydio 2 is easy to fly
  • The Skydio 2 really can protect you from accidental contact with branches or outcroppings that other drones would likely hit. It's a big advantage for the Skydio
  • The autonomous follow modes are really amazing, but landscape photographers won't be using them much

What Could Be Better:

  • The controller feels flimsy and the joysticks are not the highest quality
  • The return to home functions works well, but it is not quite as accurate as the DJI Mavic drones
  • Flight time is 23 minutes, the DJI competition can stay in the air for about 30 minutes

Final Thoughts

As a landscape photographer, I find having a drone a real plus. There are simply places I can't easily hike to or climb to. Having a drone makes that easy.

The Skydio 2 is not crash-proof. I've seen plenty of online videos of Skydios that get entangled in thin, leafless branches. But with a reasonable amount of caution, the Skydio will get you out of or avoid trouble more than any other drone you can buy. 

The Skydio is a fairly recent entry to a field dominated by DJI. It can do most of the things a Mavic drone can do, and its autonomy and object avoidance is far superior. I've heard people say the Skydio 2 is basically a selfie drone, and dismiss it as that. It is a selfie drone, and an amazing one, but it is also an excellent and easy to use platform for still photography, and of course I'm often tempted to shoot some 4K/60 HDR videos as well. The video is terrific, and it outperforms my Mavic. I just don't have a professional reason to shoot video.

If you haven't thought about adding a drone to your photographic tools, I think it is worth considering, I'd certainly survey the options, but take a close look at the Skydio 2 as it may meet your needs. You can get a look at the Skydio 2 details here.




 

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6 Comments

Chris Fowler's picture

I got the Mavic Air 2 in a Christmas raffle, and I can see the potential of a drone as a landscape photographer's tool... as long as you are not in a restricted area! Seriously, I had no idea there were so many of those!

Steve Powell's picture

I also have an MA 2. I enjoy flying it.

Chris Fowler's picture

Its a great drone, so far I've just been chasing the perfect sunset. Been flying over some residential lakes recently now that my confidence is growing.

Ed Sanford's picture

Thanks... well written article.

David Sutton's picture

Any provision for exposure bracketing in the current Skydio software?

Mel Martin's picture

Not in an automated way, but I hear it may be coming. As it is, you can set exposure compensation, ISO and shutter speed from within the app when you fly. I found the camera had enough dynamic range to not require bracketing. Hope this helps.Mel