I’ve been flying drones for about five years, treating them like another lens in my landscape kit. My current drone is a DJI Air 2S, which has a one inch sensor to give me an excellent 20MP image. I like the drone as a tool because it can get me views I would never otherwise see so on most trips I get an equal amount of footage from my DSLR and my drone .
My processing has evolved over the years as new tools have been developed that can greatly help my editing. I used to be a Lightroom/Photoshop only editor, but now that has changed.
For starters, and I probably don’t need to say this, but just in case, I always shoot raw. I need all the data I can get, and luckily DJI and most other drones offer raw files straight from the camera from the built-in microSD card.
For this tutorial, I pulled an image from a recent trip to the Alabama hills near Lone Pine, California. It’s a wonderful place for landscape photography, and the Alabama Hills have been the location for many great movies, including How the West Was Won, Tremors, Iron Man, and hundreds of Westerns and Hollywood movies. science fiction. It’s drone friendly, and usually you can have the place pretty much all to yourself.
In capsule form, my workflow looks like this. Raw image in DxO PureRaw -> Adobe Camera Raw -> Photoshop -> Topaz Sharpen AI as PS plugin -> Luminar Neo as PS plugin -> then back to PS for final save and render to 16-bit TIFF and 8-bit JPEG for the web.
Let me go over the steps I take in depth.
My first stop is always DxO PureRAW 2. It’s a great essential utility to start any image editing session. The folks at DxO have data on just about any lens/sensor combination and can correct any abnormalities in your optical path, including light drop off at corners, fringing, optical distortions, etc.
Fortunately, recently DxO added the DJI drone family, so it automatically recognizes my optics and sensor and corrects them. The process is automatic. It gets the camera/lens information from your metadata in the image and applies the corrections. The result is always good geometry fixes, vignette removal, and some sharpness. The results are so striking and so positive that I would not process any drone image without first stopping with DxO PureRAW. My screenshots really don’t represent the change in quality as well as if you could see the original file, but in split screen you can see the improvement. I zoomed in 2x on this photo, so you can’t see how DxO PureRAW handles the thumbnails in the corners, but they’re gone.
The DxO software stores the image in DNG format, so the image is configured to open automatically in Photoshop, which necessarily opens Camera Raw on launch. My first workflow item is to select the Adobe Landscape profile, which on most of my images enhances the default camera profile.
I can also use a slight bump with the Dehaze tool, as the Sierra Nevada mountains are quite a distance. From Adobe Camera Raw, I open the file in Photoshop.
Without touching the image at this point, I almost always add Topaz Sharpen AI. You might be wondering why another round of sharpening after DxO PureRAW is necessary? The answer is that it is a different type of sharpening. DxO does some optical sharpening, but Topaz automatically detects motion blur. It’s almost impossible to avoid if it’s windy, and of course the drone’s propellers create motion blur. The topaz corrects the blur and I almost always get a sharp image.
Next, it’s time for Luminar Neo’s contribution. I mainly use it as a Photoshop plugin. Neo is a fairly new offering from Skylum, and just recently they added AI masking, linear and radial gradients, and a few other improvements. I use the AI enhancement tools sparingly, but they make a big difference. Where Neo outclasses Adobe is with the sky replacement. I often encounter what I call “very clear” skies, which don’t offer much to a landscape photo. Sometimes I adjust my composition to avoid the sky, but here in this wide drone view I replaced the sky. I always use my own sky and adapt the weather and time of day, so I think the change helped.
I also used the Neo color controls to bring the color of the rocks closer to what I saw when I was there. It was a slight but useful adjustment. Here is a before and after.
If you look at both images, you can see that small changes add up. PureRAW gave me a very clean DNG file. With Camera Raw in Photoshop I could thaw effectively and Topaz Sharpen AI fixed any motion blur caused by winds and drone. Luminar Neo gave me some nice color and contrast enhancements and fixes and allowed me to add one of my previously photographed skies which I think made for a better image.
Drone cameras have come a long way, and some newer offerings from vendors like DxO PureRAW and Topaz AI Sharpen as well as Luminar Neo can have a visible impact. And I always use Photoshop and Lightroom in my edits. It’s a great time to be a landscape photographer, and drone photographers have better tools than ever. All the software and tools I use are available for Mac and Windows computers.