DJI Air 2S twilight image of the Santa Fe building in downtown Amarillo at Sunset

Capturing Stunning Twilight Photos with the DJI Air 2S

Any doubts I had about the image quality of the 1″ camera on the DJI Air 2S were laid to rest last night 200 feet above the streets of downtown Amarillo. I burned through all three of my batteries flying the drone back and forth over a very small area of downtown because the sky was absolutely incredible. I captured nearly 600 low light images (in sets of 5 bracketed shots) with about 150 of those captured within about a 5 minute window when the light peaked about 8 minutes after sunset. In addition to the bracketed exposures, I was also capturing multiple pano frames to create vertical panoramas for many of the photos. In the end, I set up and captured about 60 individual scenes and came away with at least three portfolio-worthy images and a ton of ideas for future photos.

Aerial twilight photo of downtown Amarillo captured with the DJI Air 2S drone.
Downtown Amarillo at twilght. HDR merge of 5 base exposures, 22 mm, 1/10 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.

Air 2S Camera Settings

I put the drone in the air about 10 minutes before sunset so that I had a few minutes to explore the area, check for obstacles, and plan out some shots before the sunset light got good. Following my own recommendations, I was using 5-shot AEB at ISO 100 and started out with exposure compensation set to 0 EV since the sky was mostly overcast and there weren’t any strong highlights to protect. Once the sky started to light up and the ambient light was getting low, I dialed the exposure compensation back to -1 EV. This also reduced the base shutter speed from about 1/15 second back up to 1/30 second. About 4 minutes later, I had to manually set the base shutter speed to 1/10 second and left it there for the rest of the evening.

These settings gave a range of shutter speeds from 1/25 second for the darkest exposure in each bracket to 1/4 second for the brightest exposure. I haven’t checked every exposure but I have not noticed any that were blurred from the slow-ish shutter speed. Amarillo is typically windy but it was relatively calm with only about a 9 mph breeze, and the Air 2S had no problem at all holding the camera steady. One drawback to these settings that I had not thought of before is that flying at night with the camera underexposed means that the image on the phone screen is also very dark. I suppose this is further incentive to always operate the drone within visual line of sight (as required by the FAA).

Twilight photos of Hodgetown stadium in downtown Amarillo, DJI Air 2S
Hodgetown stadium in downtown Amarillo. HDR merge of 5 base exposures, 22 mm, 1/10 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.

Image Noise

My final images are all merged HDRs from the 5-bracket exposure sets, and for the most part they are noise-free. The two darker photos featured in this post do show a little bit of noise in the sky. There is virtually no noise visible in the stadium shot, and no noise reduction was applied in that image. The downtown twilight shot does have some slight noise visible so I applied +10 on the Luminance slider to the image and applied some additional noise reduction to the sky. The difference in these photos is that the stadium image needed a reduction of exposure (-1.40 EV on the Exposure slider) while the downtown image needed +1.46 EV. Similarly, the photo of the Santa Fe building needed -0.96 EV and has no visible noise. The 1″ camera sensor is truly impressive!

DJI Air 2S twilight image of the Santa Fe building in downtown Amarillo at Sunset
Santa Fe building in downtown Amarillo.

Pano Processing

In truth, having to always shoot in AEB mode creates a huge pain for image file management. Excluding the videos I also captured on this evening, the photos require more than 24 GB of hard drive space and not all of them have been merged into HDRs yet. And dealing with all those images in Lightroom is a nightmare. I’ve worked out a system to first auto-stack the images by capture time to create AEB stacks, then manually combine those stacks for panorama shots. I can then go into each of the larger stacks and merge the AEB exposures into single HDR images then merge those into HDR panoramas.

For vertical drone panoramas, the Perspective option in Lightroom seems to work best, and I never use Boundary Warp or Fill Edges with this option. After merging, the first step in processing the pano image is to use the Transform panel to correct perspective distortion which is often pretty severe for these types of photos. It’s often a balancing act between correcting distortion and maintaining a usable composition. I had several photos that didn’t turn out well because the composition was ruined by the perspective correction.

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Base HDR pano frames for the Santa Fe Building image. Only the top two were used for the final image.

I also found that sometimes it was better to use fewer of the pano frames to generate the final merged image just depending on the desired final composition for photo. For the Santa Fe Building photo, the original pano was created from a set of 3 HDR images (15 AEB exposures), but I found that only using the upper two frames produced a better final image for this composition.

Final Thoughts

The DJI Air 2S is an amazing aerial camera and can capture some truly stunning photos. After testing the camera at home and out in the real world, I’m now getting comfortable using (and flying) the camera and have a lot of confidence that I’m going to come home with some great images.

Although I didn’t have a chance to test out the HyperLight mode, I was inspired to go out and capture these photos last night by a video by Billy Kyle. I had a lot of fun flying the drone around downtown Amarillo, and I was absolutely ecstatic back at home when I saw the images in Lightroom. I’ll definitely be going out to do this again soon.

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