HDR Drone Photography: A Guide for Real Estate Photographers

Most real estate photographers today utilize high dynamic range, or HDR, photography to enhance interior shots and balance contrast outdoors.

Likewise, many professionals use drones to capture an aerial perspective. Put the two together and you have HDR drone photography.

This can be a match made in heaven, resulting in stunning views from above. But how exactly do you capture multiple images from 100 feet below your camera and blend them together? This guide is here to help.

Why we use drones for real estate photography

Real estate photographers have been capturing homes from an aerial perspective for decades. With a remote-controlled eye in the sky, there are many ways to frame a property.

At a low altitude, you can capture the façade of the property and its immediate surroundings — this might include a swimming pool or spacious backyard. This kind of elevated perspective is often quite flattering.

Send your drone higher, and you can show where the property sits within the neighborhood. This technique is particularly useful if there are amenities nearby, or the surroundings are attractive.

Coming back down to earth, it's even possible to use a drone to frame human-height compositions that are inaccessible. For instance, you can use a drone to capture a balcony from over the edge, or line up a shot above carefully manicured flower beds.

How does HDR benefit drone photography?

Just as HDR photography helps to draw out detail from bright highlights and dark shadows at ground level, the same applies in the sky.

In some cases, the effects of HDR processing are even more beneficial for drone imagery.

High-altitude shots often encompass both a sunlit sky and the shadows around the property. The contrast becomes even more extreme if you choose to shoot in the midday sun or at twilight.

To keep both parts of the image properly lit, HDR processing is essential.

At a lower elevation, drone HDR becomes more like the DSLR equivalent, helping to lift the areas of deep shadow beneath overhangs.

How do I use HDR with my drone?

There are several ways to utilize HDR photography with drones.

Each quadcopter provides different options, so the first step is to identify the capabilities of your model.

For instance, the popular DJI Phantom 4 has both a dedicated HDR mode and the option to use drone auto-exposure bracketing (AEB). You can find both options under the Photo menu in the DJI app.

The same goes for the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, the DJI Mavic Pro series, and DJI Inspire drones. Even the tiny DJI Spark has these features.

Owners of Parrot Anafi and Yuneec Typhoon drones will find similar HDR and AEB options within the companion camera app for each respective brand.

But here is the key question: which of the two shooting modes is the better choice for real estate photography?

HDR vs AEB for Drone Photography

In essence, the difference between these two modes is control.

If you set your drone to HDR mode, the camera will capture several bracketed frames and automatically blend them together.

This is a very easy way to increase the dynamic range of your images, but professional photographers are likely to be disappointed with the results. Worse still, automatic HDR sometimes fails badly in low light.

In contrast, AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) outputs all the bracketed shots as individual exposures. This means you can put them together yourself in HDR software, and thus retain full control over the process.

Most drones also allow you to select how many bracketed shots you want to take.

Here are some top tips for taking the best possible bracketed shots:

  • When shooting HDR or AEB images, turn on Tripod or hover mode to reduce movement between exposures
  • Set AEB to five frames or more to maximize your options at the editing stage
  • Try to find the best midway exposure for the scene; using HDR to "rescue" lazy shots will result in diminished image quality
  • If your drone supports it, shoot in RAW to retain the maximum amount of detail from each frame

What if my drone doesn't support bracketing?

Some budget drones and older models have neither a dedicated HDR mode, nor automatic exposure bracketing. However, this does not prevent you from attempting some HDR drone photography.

You have two main workarounds:

  • do the bracketing manually
  • or take a single RAW image and create several copies for HDR processing

Both options have advantages. Bracketing manually will give you a greater dynamic range to play with and better image quality.

Taking a single RAW is quicker and more likely to produce a clean final image in windy conditions.

Manual bracketing

To bracket manually, place your drone in Tripod or hover mode first. Then, take individual shots with different exposure compensation.

To mimic the results of drone AEB, capture the same composition at each of the following values:

  • EV  -4
  • EV  -2
  • EV   0
  • EV  +2
  • EV  +4

Single RAW shot

If you plan to go down the single-shot route, be doubly careful about how you expose the scene.

Before you commit to this option, it’s advisable to study the amount of contrast in your composition. If you see dark shadows and bright whites, you may need to switch to manual bracketing.

How do I edit bracketed drone images?

Your ability to edit your HDR drone photos will be heavily influenced by the approach you took during the shoot.

Any scene captured using the HDR mode on your drone will come out as a single JPEG. Essentially, the drone did all the editing for you.

Other than cleaning up the details with the cloning stamp, you won't be able to make any adjustments without degrading image quality.

Shooting with AEB or manual bracketing in JPEG format will allow you to craft the HDR scene yourself using HDR merge. Specialist HDR software such as Photomatix do the heavy lifting, allowing you to concentrate on the details.

The software will automatically align your images before merging to HDR. You can then adjust the HDR image with a preset or using individual sliders.

How do you use HDR with a single RAW file?

The main advantage of shooting in RAW is that all the detail captured by your drone remains in the file, untouched and compressed.

As a result, you can mimic bracketing by creating several copies of the image and adjusting the exposure of each version.

There are a number of ways of doing this.

Specialist HDR software Photomatix includes an option to automatically create the exposures when you load a RAW image.

In Lightroom, you can right-click on the image and select 'Create Virtual Copy' from the menu. Once you have exported multiple versions, you can load the files into your HDR software and begin creating your HDR image exactly as before.

"Stretching" a RAW file in this way can introduce noise into the finished image, but less so if you exposed the original shot correctly.

To learn more about this topic, check the HDR with a single photo tutorial.

Troubleshooting HDR drone photography

By far the most common problem encountered by real estate photographers attempting HDR is ghosting.

This effect happens when objects in the scene move between one bracketed exposure and the next, or the overall perspective changes slightly. When you then come to blend the images, you will see both outlines.

On the ground, this usually occurs when leaves blow past or a door swings open. With your camera fixed in position, the only change between exposures will be individual objects moving.

But with drone photography, the camera is mounted to a quadcopter. While most drones are good at hovering, they do not always remain perfectly still in the air — especially on windy days.

Fortunately, most HDR software include an option to correct ghosting automatically. The option is often called "remove ghosts" or "deghosting".

Automatic ghosting correction isn't always perfect, however. It can miss part of the ghosting in some cases, and it can even suspect ghosting where there isn't any, reducing the overall quality of the merged image as a result.

Photomatix includes a tool to select "ghosted" area manually for cases when automatic ghosting correction doesn't work well.

But there is still a workaround to prevent ghosting, which is to use HDR from a single-shot method for creating HDR images. When you take only one frame, ghosting is impossible.

This approach is particularly useful if you need to shoot in strong wind, when your drone may struggle to maintain the same aerial position between exposures.

How to switch to HDR drone photography

Whether you want to capture stunning sunset photos or simply improve the lighting of your aerial shots, HDR drone photography is worth practising.

To produce the best possible images, remember to follow these key points:

  • Use Tripod or hover mode
  • Choose auto-exposure bracketing (AEB) for better control
  • Use Photomatix to resolve ghosting issues
  • On windy days, considering taking a single RAW shot