How to photograph a sunset using a drone

The landscape photograph above was taken at the beautiful White Park Bay in Northern Ireland. It was a late April evening and when the golden hour started I knew that the sunset was going to be really spectacular.

Photographing a sunset is very technically demanding, especially with the compact camera sensors and lenses found in drones. A particular challenge is dealing with the high levels of contrast typically found in a sunset scene. You will have to contend with the brightness of the sun and the deep shadows in the areas of the landscape silhouetted as it sets.

In order to try and control this contrast I would suggest using the exposure bracketing mode on your drone. My DJI Mavic Air 2 drone has a bracketing mode which allows you to bracket either 3 or 5 shots in a sequence. The 3 shot bracketing mode captures the following range of exposures, -0.7, 0, +0.7 EV. The 5 shot bracketing mode captures -1.4, -0.7, 0, +0.7, +1.4 EV. In essence, this captures a range of photographs with different brightness values, from dark to light, as shown below. When using bracketing mode, or indeed when taking any still photograph using a drone, I recommend putting into into low speed/tripod mode to get as sharp a landscape photograph as possible.

Exposure bracketing mode on the the DJI Mavic Air 2 is a great way to take aerial landscape photographs at sunset.

These are 3 of the shots from a sequence of 5 and it shows the darkest and brightest exposures along with the standard exposure in the middle. The -1.4 EV shot captures lots of detail in and around the sun, whereas the +1.4 EV shot captures details on the land and on the beach. These shots, along with the other 2 in the sequence, need to be combined into a single photograph to show the best of each.

5 exposures from a drone combined in Adobe Lightroom HDR. This allows you to retain detail in the shadow and the highlight areas.

You can see that when using the Lightroom ‘Merge to HDR’ tool, the 5 shots have been blended and there is lots of detail in all parts of the landscape photograph. The HDR tool creates a DNG file which you can then edit just as you edit a standard RAW file.

The photograph feels a little bit bright to me using the automatic settings as shown above. After merging them I reduced the exposure which darkened the photograph and made the sunset colours a little more intense and true to life.

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