Your Best 360 Photo Camera Might Be Your Drone

Your Best 360 Photo Camera Might Be Your Drone

While many drone owners focus on aerial video and photos, there’s one often overlooked item on the spec sheet that your shiny new Mavic can also do: 360 photography, from the sky.

Out-of-the-box 360 modes (called a “sphere panorama” in DJI apps) generate a 360 file automatically for you. I’m flying a DJI Mavic Air that sports a 12-megapixel sensor, and I get a file of 8,192x4,096, which is the same for the Mavic Air 2, and that one has a 48-megapixel sensor. Clearly, there is some downsizing going on. While that’s respectable (even my current favorite consumer 360 camera, the Kandao QooCam 8K, takes 7,680x3,840 images), there’s a lot of potential for more with a little manual legwork. In many cases, it's actually necessary, as the stitching and exposure done straight in the drone is incredibly bad. Just take a look at what it came up with automatically for this shot:

Versus what I was able to pull out of the source files from the drone with a little manual processing:

Same shot, but more than double the resolution and much more uniform stitching and color. The file out of the drone has several “blotches,” and this isn’t uncommon no matter how many tests I did. It's all very dependent on your lighting circumstances. In many cases, I can even spot shadows from an AI-airbrushed propeller blade in there with the automatic processing. Creating the higher-resolution version is a lot of work, but the end results are worth the extra effort for detail that rivals much more expensive 360 cameras.

What You’ll Need

  • The raw files (25 DNG in total from a Mavic Air)
  • Microsoft Image Composite Editor (PC-Only, unfortunately)
  • Photoshop/Bridge or Lightroom or another photo editor

The DNG files from the camera are key. With a Mavic Air and up, DJI's apps can capture all the necessary files for you at the angles you need. The drone does all the work of spinning around and shooting. With something like a Mavic Mini, you're going to have to work the camera and spin the drone and gimbal yourself (and you won't be able to get raw files either).

The secret sauce is in Microsoft Image Composite Editor. Though it hasn’t been updated in a few years, it does a surprisingly good job of interpreting the files from the drone and stitching them together. As long as it wasn’t a windy day, which causes trees and leaves to move about, the software will create a reasonably good starting point from the 25 files that you can then finish in Photoshop. Any movement in the image, though, and the stitch becomes much harder, if not impossible, though it seemed to deal reasonably well with ocean waves, if not tree leaves.

The Steps

Once you have the 25 DNG files in a folder, process them all exactly the same way in your file management software. I use a combination of Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw, so I make the changes on the main part of the scene to get it exactly the way I want and then highlight all 25 files and apply the changes, finally exporting them all to TIFF files (or JPG) via the “Image Processor” function in Bridge. This similar processing helps avoid the exposure differences that are apparent in the out-of-the-box file.

Once you have those processed files available, you can drop them into Microsoft Image Composite Editor, running it through a “simple panorama setting” with auto-detection enabled. The software takes a minute or two to stitch the images, depending on how fast your computer processor is. Your near-finished product should look something like this in Image Composite Editor:

A 25-image stitch from a drone in Microsoft Image Composite Editor.

You can then position the starting point in the image by dragging it left or right until what you want as the first view is in the center. You’ll also want to make sure it’s set to “spherical” on the left, though it should have auto-detected that.

On the next screen, you click “autocomplete” to fill in the few gaps at the top, and you have a decent-looking start to a 360 panorama. Export as a TIFF file to maintain quality, and then fire up your image editor, which for me is Photoshop.

Once you are in Photoshop, you need to make the dimensions of the image the 360 standard ratio of 2:1, meaning the width is double the height. For most Mavic Air spherical panoramas, the end result is an image with a resolution of 20,480x10,240; just make the vertical number half of the width using the “canvas size” tool in Photoshop with the anchor at the bottom. Sometimes, Image Composite Editor will cut off a few pixels, but you can use this handy calculator to figure out the numbers if math isn’t your thing. You need to do this step, as Image Composite Editor doesn’t have sky information with drone 360 images and creates a less-than 2:1 image.

Your image should now look more or less like this, with the top filled in by whatever color you chose in the "canvas size" window:

I extended the canvas in Photoshop to add some more "sky" to make this the 2:1 ratio needed for a 360 spherical image.

This brings up the one major issue with shooting a 360 with a drone: you can’t get the sky directly above the drone, because the gimbal can't point up. The stitched panorama from Image Composite Editor doesn’t have the dimensions of the information to “finish” the spherical image.

This can be rectified in a couple of ways. Once you expand the canvas, you can try to color match, you can use a gradient or take a few pictures of the sky with your phone or camera on the scene and composite it in that way. I do that and liberally erase with a soft eraser to get a seamless look where the canvas previously ended.

Finally, though your image will now look finished, you’ll want to fix one last stitch line in the sky that you probably won’t know is even there until this step. Use the “Offset” filter in Photoshop (it’s under the “other” option) and shift the entire picture horizontally. You’ll immediately see the seam in the sky and can clone it out as well. Be sure to set the offset back to what it started at, so your 360 starts in the spot you intended it to.

After filling in the sky, I used the "Offset" filter in Photoshop to shift the image horizontally so that I could clone out the stitch line in the sky. I made sure to move it back the same amount horizontally so the starting point of my image didn't change.

Clean up any lingering stitching errors using the clone stamp and/or copy and paste, then check out the view in the 3D menu by making the layer a new spherical panorama from the finished layer. If you like what you see, you can export from that same menu. Exporting from the 3D menu is crucial for the file to maintain the 360 metadata. You can see the finished product from these images here.

While it’s a lot of work to go this route (and really, DJI should probably offer original resolution 360s out of the box), the proof is in the output. For about an hour’s work per image, you now have a super high-resolution 360 spherical panorama created entirely with your drone, and once you’ve seen the difference, you’ll never want to use the files straight out of the camera again.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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