Drone Sunset Time Lapse Tutorial

Shooting timelapses or hyperlapes of sunset is great fun, but it is one of the most challenging techniques in photography and videography. In this article, I will show how to make one with a drone

I have done plenty of timelapses of sunsets of all kinds with my Nikon D850, even the hardest ones, the ones against the full setting sun. But it is a professional full-frame DSLR camera mounted on a solid tripod

I have done an in-depth article showing how to make Sunrise time lapses against the sun with a ground-based full-frame camera

I have also done specific hyperlapse tutorials for the different models of the current DJI line

If You Prefer To Watch This As a Video

Why Sunset Time Lapses with a Drone Are More Challenging

Sunset time lapses with a full-frame camera on a tripod

Battery Life

With drones, there are several hurdles to tackle. First of all battery life

The time needed to shoot a full day-to-night timelapse varies according to the geographic location. As an example in London, the whole process lasts for about two hours, in Iceland 3 to 4 hours. In Southern Europe, where I am based now, it is much faster, about 45 minutes

With previous models of the DJI prosumer line battery life was too short to reproduce a day-to-night transition. But the Mavic 3 has a battery time of about 40 minutes, and considering the time for setting up and return to home, we can easily shoot a time lapse of 30 to 35. The Mini 3 Pro has an optional premium battery for an even longer flying time

The length of sunset varies according to the distance from the equator

In locations further away from the equator, capturing a smaller portion of the process is still possible, focusing on the most interesting according to the scene. If it is a cityscape the ideal one is when the city lights take over from twilight

Camera Quality

Another limitation of drones is the much smaller sensor size compared to ground-based full-frame cameras, as day-to-night time lapses require extreme dynamic range capabilities

The Mavic 3 is a big improvement with the very respectable 4/3″ sensor and with a dynamic range never seen before in the DJI prosumer line

In the current line, DJI and Hasselblad have put a lot of effort into the quality of the lens. The performance in photos in the direction of the sun has greatly improved, the horrible flare of previous models is a thing of the past

With a full-frame camera on a tripod, it is possible to shoot time lapse against the full sun

When shooting with a traditional camera sitting on a tripod we also have no drifting and the possibility to use an ND filter at the beginning of the shooting and to take it out or replace it with a different one during the process

For these reasons, I would not go for the most challenging of sunset time lapses, the one against the full sun, at least this time

Settings up the Time Lapse

The scene

This is the scene: Mount Etna in Sicily with some interesting clouds and a small village in the foreground. The sun is to the left of the frame at about 9 o’clock position with strong reflections in the clouds over the mountain

Time Lapse or Hyperlapse?

The first choice to make is between a time lapse with a static point of view, in other words with the aircraft hovering, or a hyperlapse with some drone movement. I would not consider a fast-moving hyperlapse, as it would distract from the main subject, which is the sunset. For more details about the differences between Timelapse and Hyperlapse, refer to my dedicated article

Choice between time lapse and hyperlapse

I decided to go for a static timelapse using the Free mode in the hyperlapse menu of the Mavic 3. When hovering, a drone tends to drift more compared to when it is in movement but hopefully, it will be possible to stabilize it in post-processing

I have done a Step by step tutorial for beginners on how to shoot a drone time lapse, and another Step by step guide on drone hyperlapses, I suggest them as a starting point for beginners

Focus Ramping in Time Lapses

Another choice to make is whether or not to do focus ramping, in other words modifying exposure values during the time lapse to increase the amount of light hitting the sensor while the sun disappears and the luminosity decreases

Focus ramping

There is a trade-off: using focus ramping the dynamic range is reduced and it is possible to optimize the exposure throughout the time lapse. On the other hand, there will be noticeable jumps in luminosity that must be adjusted in post-processing

Without focus ramping the luminosity during the time lapse will be perfectly smooth, but the last portion might be too dark. In this case, I decide to do without focus ramping, hoping that the lights from the village will brighten the scene towards the end

Exposure Settings and Motion Blur

Another major strength of the Mavic 3 for time lapses is the variable aperture, for much more control of exposure. With the Mini 3 Pro and Air 2s the only exposure values available are ISO and Shutter Speed

Setting ISO, aperture and shutter speed

The ISO can be set to the lowest value, 100. I prefer to keep the aperture at the minimum value of f11, to get some nice star effect in the lights. The resulting shutter speed for best exposure is 1/20 of a second

In most time-lapses, I prefer to set the shutter speed to around 1 second to optimize motion blur, but in this case, there are no moving elements, so the shutter speed value is not so crucial

Another possibility is to use an ND 64 filter to reduce the luminosity and dial in a longer shutter speed of about one second, but for the first test let’s try without filter

Motion blur is the single most important factor to address in time lapses and hyperlapses, More details about Motion blur, the crucial element of time lapses, in my dedicated article. For time lapses and hyperlapses a good set of ND filters is needed, More details about the use of ND filters for time lapse and hyperlapse are in my dedicated article

Interval Between Photos

The next choice is the interval between photos. In this case, the main movement is in the clouds, an interval of 5 seconds will make the clouds move faster, the downside is that the resulting movie will be shorter, about 13 seconds

Drone Sunset Time Lapse

For editing and color grading all the photos I have used the excellent Luminar Neo, the tool I use for editing and managing all my photos. Click on the link for an in-depth analysis of this program.

I then export the images in JPEG format and import them as a sequence in the video editor, Premiere Pro 

The drifting is fixed after stabilizing

There is a bit of drifting in the timelapse, which is normal with the drone hovering in a static position. But after applying Warp Stabilizer in Premiere Pro, the clip is nice and stable

The cloud movement around Mount Etna is interesting and after color grading, the transition of the colors in the sky and the clouds is pleasant. I was expecting more artificial lights to turn on in the village for a nice shift in luminosity, but it did not happen, so the final part is much darker than expected

Due to the chosen interval of five seconds, the cloud movement is nice and fast, but the resulting timelapse is quite short, and the transition from day to night is slightly too fast

It is worth trying an interval of 3 or 4 seconds and comparing the results, I have tried different intervals and techniques in my follow-up article: Drone sunset hyperlapse ramping exposure

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I am Vittorio Caramazza, aka Vicvideopic, the founder of this website and author of all the posts. I am a videographer and photographer contributing to several stock agencies. I am an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and Lightroom. I have 10 years of experience with dron videography and photography. I was struck by drone syndrome in 2013. I have owned and tested in depth the following drones: Phantom 3, Phantom 4, Phantom 4 Pro, Mavic 2 Zoom, Mavic 2 Pro, Mavic Mini, Mini 2, Air 2, Air 2s, Autel Evo Nano Plus, Mavic 3, Mini 3 Pro, Mini 3. My home has turned into a breeding ground for drones. I am the owner of two YouTube channels specializing in Videography and Photography, with a focus on drones My main channel is VicVideopic (in English): https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgaBlrFDONJ4BSEUHa2cLKg My other channel is Drone Mitico, the Italian version.: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkeoY8rPPj-fypUKHckTtwQ I am currently based in Sicily (Southern Italy), but I tend to move quite often. After all, this is one of the main benefits of being a digital nomad…

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