Drone Video: How to Control Light – Tips for Correct Exposure

Users often ask me how to control light conditions, whether to use manual or auto exposure, how to avoid overexposing or under-exposing. Mastering the correct exposure is crucial for drone footage quality

To control exposure in drone video I suggest planning the moves in advance and maintain the orientation of the camera away from the sun. Choosing the best lighting conditions is crucial, avoiding the central hours of a sunny day. The use of keyframes while editing helps in scenes with noticeable shifts of luminosity

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If you prefer to watch this as a video, you will find my YouTube version at the end of this article

Tools for exposing

The Exposure Triangle

In videography there are three parameters to set for exposure:

  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • Shutter speed

They form the so-called Exposure Triangle

Most prosumer drones like the Mini 4 Pro and the Air 3 have a fixed aperture, so there are only two values to take care of. The only model of the current DJI line offering variable aperture is the Mavic 3

Being able to control the aperture gives some extra flexibility, but it is still possible to get good results with a model with fixed aperture

The Histogram

In the Camera tab of the Settings there are some tools to help exposing. The only one I use is the Histogram

It is a graph that represents the luminosity of the pixels in the scene with the darkest ones on the left and the brightest ones on the right

By simply looking at the histogram we learn interesting things about the scene:

  • If the bars are bunched up against the left edge, the image is underexposed
  • If they touch the right edge, the image is overexposed, and this is something to avoid
  • If the bars touch both the left and right edge, it is the case of a high dynamic range scene, the most challenging situation
  • If the bars are mostly in the middle and there is some space to the left and to the right, it is a low-contrast scene, which corresponds to friendly conditions for exposure
EV value for Auto Exposure

When using Auto Exposure it is possible to use the EV value to modify the overall luminosity in the scene. I prefer to set it to a slightly negative value between -.3 to -1 for two reasons:

  • Most models tend to slightly overexpose
  • It is easy to adjust a slightly underexposed image while editing, while nothing can be done to correct an overexposed one

This is why when exposing I suggest to leave a gap between the last bar to the right and the right edge of the histogram

Position of the sun

Camera Orientation

When filming it is important to plan the moves in advance to reduce the differences in luminosity within a clip. In daylight it is strongly suggested to maintain the sun behind the aircraft

After setting the exposure values it is better to avoid orbiting or rotating movements toward the direction of the sun, as the dynamic range (which is the difference between the brightest and the darkest areas) will be too strong and some parts of the clip will be overexposed and others underexposed

I wanted to show the width of this red fjord in Iceland with a sliding rotating move, so I waited several hours to have the sun behind me before filming

On social media we often see clips like these, with the sky burnt beyond repair, while trying to get some light on the elements on the ground

The result is in my opinion unwatchable, we never see this in movies or in works by professional videographers

I suggest avoiding shooting footage in the direction of the sun in daylight, unless when the sun is heavily covered by clouds

These conditions are very challenging even for professionals and require the use of flat color profiles and heavy computer post processing

Changes in Luminosity

Another situation that requires planning is when starting a move with the camera facing down toward the ground and then progressively turning the gimbal upward

These moves are often interesting revealing shots, but the difference in luminosity will be very high once the sky enters the frame

It is crucial to always always have the sun behind the camera when performing these moves

Best light conditions

It is often said that the middle hours of the day is when videographers and photographers sleep

The results obtained in the central hours a sunny day are always disappointing as the shadows are very harsh and the difference between brightest and darkest areas too strong, in other words there will be too much contrast

The best results are obtained around sunset and sunrise, the time known as golden hour and blue hour. These are very favorable low-contrast conditions, as it easy to increase the contrast while editing 

If we must shoot footage in the central hours of the day, it is preferable to wait for the sun to be hidden behind clouds that act like a big soft box reducing the contrast and softening the shadows

Manual vs Auto

Beginners generally start by using Auto exposure for video

Good results can be obtained in several situations if following the suggestions given in this article, but there are two main reasons why it is preferable to use manual exposure

The first one is to control the individual exposure values, ISO and Shutter Speed. To dig deeper on this topic, I suggest reading my articles about Exposure Settings with the Mini 4 Pro and How to use ND filters

When using auto exposure, in case of changes of light intensity in the scene, the software reacts by adjusting the exposure values. This translates in an abrupt delayed shift of luminosity that is a clear indication of amateurish footage

When using manual exposure the exposure values remain constant during the clip, it will then be possible to adjust the change of luminosity in a smoother way while editing, as we will see later    

Post processing

When editing footage two main adjustments are performed most of the time

Adding Contrast and Saturation

It is used with most clips taken in favorable light conditions to spice up footage that looks just a bit flat.
I am using Premiere Pro, but the process is very similar with other editors

First of all we adjust the overall luminosity if needed

Then we push the contrast slider to the right. If the scene needs even more contrast we can lower the shadows and increase the highlights

Finally we adjust the white balance and add some saturation if needed

Using Keyframes

A more dynamic adjustment is performed when there is a difference of luminosity within a clip taken in manual exposure. The use of keyframes is required

A good example is a revealing shot starting with the camera pointing to the ground and progressively tilting the gimbal upwards. The luminosity increases as the sky enters the frame and the brightest point will be toward the end of the clip

We expose for the brightest part. The first part with the camera facing down will be too dark, with the luminosity progressively increasing as the gimbal is tilted up

In the video editor we scroll to the point where the overall luminosity reaches the maximum value, at the end of the tilt of the gimbal

We tap on the stopwatch icon for Exposure to set a keyframe. The value is stored in memory for that point. It is 0 as we have made no changes

We move the cursor back to the end of the darkest part of the clip, just before the sky enters the scene. We increase the Exposure value for that point as needed. Since we have already created a keyframe for Exposure, another one will be automatically added when we modify the value. The value entered is +0.5

The beginning of the clip until the first keyframe will have a value of +0.5. From the first keyframe to the second one the Exposure adjustment will progressively decrease from +0.5 to 0. After the second keyframe the value will remain at 0 until the end of the clip

In the resulting clip the difference in luminosity between the ground and the sky will be reduced in a smooth way without abrupt or delayed adjustment. The whole sequence appear to be well exposed  

If You Prefer to Watch This as a Video  


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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