Long exposure photography is an under-appreciated tactic that can be used by drone photographers and can add an artistic twist that will impress your clients. In short, long exposure photography is the practice of shooting photos by using longer exposure times than necessary to capture a properly exposed photo. Exposure time is the length of time when the digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light, also when a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. Long exposure photography is perfect for many of the subjects typically shot by drone photographers, including landscapes, architecture, and bodies of water.
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Neutral Density (ND) Filters
Now in order to take these shots, you need what are called neutral density filters. These filters are like sunglasses for your drone; they filter out the light and allow you to take longer exposures even when it is still bright outside. We recommend using filters by Polar Pro, as these are high quality filters that produce very clear images. They offer a variety of options, including some for the Phantom 3, the Phantom 4 series drones, the Mavic Pro, and the Spark. These filters are super easy to use, as they just slide over your drone’s camera and stay in place with friction. Make sure you put on and remove the filters when your drone is off to avoid accidentally damaging your gimbal.
We recommend Polar Pro’s ND filters, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter which brand you choose. What’s most important is that you get at least an ND 16 filter, as this reduces the amount of light by 4 stops and is ideal for getting these long exposure shots. You can also get an ND 32 or 64 filter if you like, which could potentially allow you to capture long exposures in broad daylight instead of closer to sunset.
Choose the Right Settings
So to achieve the long exposure effect, you will want to wait for around just before sunset and before taking off with the filter installed on your drone. Within the DJI Go application, you should adjust your camera settings to make sure you’re shooting in manual mode to manually adjust the ISO and shutter speed. Keep the ISO set to 100, and adjust the shutter speed until you can see an image on your screen. You can see shooting with typical shutter speed of 1/60th of a second yields a completely dark image with the ND 16 filter on, and I was able to actually decrease the shutter speed all the way down to 1 second before I getting an image. Like with all drone photography, we recommend shooting in the JPG + RAW mode, and we also recommend experimenting with shutter speed to see what time looks best for you. For these waterfall shots, I found I was using anywhere from a 1 to 4 second shutter speed to get these results. Also be sure to take lots of images, as sometimes the drone can drift in the wind and cause blurry photos. You really need the drone to be quite still to capture this effect. You can also experiment with shooting moving vehicles and attempting to do light writing, although these effects may require an ND 32 or 64 filter to get even longer shutter speeds of 4 to 8 seconds. Remember, as a drone pilot, you are not allowed to fly past civil twilight (about 30 minutes or so after sunset) without a waiver from the FAA.
So that wraps up this tutorial on how to take long exposures on DJI drones. Again, pick up an ND16, ND32, or even an ND64 filter, wait for around just before sunset, and then take to the sky. While you’re shooting, just remember to stay in manual mode, keep the ISO at 100, and experiment with shutter speed to see what looks best. Feel free to share this tutorial if you found it helpful, and consider subscribing to our YouTube channel for video tutorials like the one above.