I have been a photographer since the 1970s and I have been a printer of my work from the beginning. In that era, a physical print was almost the only way to share your work with anybody else and ever since, I have never stopped learning how to most effectively make a print that would best convey my intent, meaning and emotions to other people looking at my work. I am still learning those skills and expect to never have all the answers.

The ultimate goal of mine when printing is to make a print to the best of my ability, one that satisfies the print quality standards I have set for myself. I like to make as sharp a print as I can. I like resolution in my large prints but I realize that this is a personal choice and not everyone needs or even wants sharp prints, but I do.

My Best Practices for Printing Drone Images

This choice for resolution and detail has been a major motivating decision in the cameras I have used over the decades. In my career I have used an 8×10 view camera, then with the transition to the digital process I used a Phase One medium format camera and now I use a Canon 5DSr. Several months ago I bought my first drone, a Mavic 2 Pro.

Most of these camera systems have been industry leaders in either the size of the film or size and resolution of their sensors and the Mavic 2 Pro sensor is the largest at the moment given the caveat of my needs of portability.

I am a still photographer, not a videographer, so everything I will be discussing is geared to making still images and prints to the best I and my Mavic 2 Pro are able to do.

How Big Can You Print With a Drone?

It is not possible to talk about print quality without discussing a critical factor in this equation – how big will the print be?

The camera system needed to make a 5×7 inch print to a sharp and high-resolution standard can be a lot more forgiving than the camera needed to make 16×21 inch and larger prints to the same standards.

My personal choice is a standard print size of 16×21 inches. This is the size of the majority of prints I have hanging in my studio and that I make for sale. I also make 24×30 inch prints which is the largest size I can print in my studio without sending files out to a lab.

The Mavic 2 Pro was my initial foray into photography from this new vantage point and I initially looked at it as a learning experience and a way to gain experience for the future.  However, I have been very pleasantly surprised at the excellence of the files from this 20mp camera with its one-inch sensor. The Mavic 2 Pro’s image files ability to make prints that meet my personal standards of sharpness and resolution has impressed me and have exceeded my expectations.

My Best Practices for Printing Drone Images

Optimizing the Images for Bigger Prints

I have always made a point in my personal camera work to attempt to use my cameras to their full potential to the best of my ability. For years I have emphasized these principles in lectures and the workshops I teach. Careless camera work and techniques waste the quality that a camera can deliver. This is not a trivial matter and these are my practices for getting the most out of my camera. The bigger the print the more important these practices are.

This list is meant for non-drone camera systems but most of these items apply to my drone also:

  1. Highest quality lenses to fully realize the potential of the newest excellent sensors
  2. Use a tripod. I admit this is now more of a choice in this era of excellent high ISO/low noise sensor capabilities
  3. Make exposures with the mirror locked up and use a cable release or timer – don’t touch the camera during exposure if on a tripod
  4. Lowest ISO as practically possible
  5. Use Live View for critical focusing if available
  6. Use RAW instead of jpeg unless there is a specific reason for jpeg
  7. Set camera to capture maximum quality when using jpeg
  8. Pay strict attention to the histogram
  9. Expose to the right (ETTR)
  10. Aperture control to manage diffraction concerns
  11. Focus slices or focus bracketing for maximum depth of field and resolution – if needed and desired.

When I began gaining experience with my drone, my goal was certainly to also learn how to use that camera to its full potential and then to also discover what I might need to do in the printing of these files to give me the level of print quality I desired.

How to Get the Best Prints from Drone Photography

So, here are my best practices for my drone photography captures and also, what I have found that allows me to make the best prints I can so far from those files.

It is not my intention to tell you how to fly a drone or how to compose aerial images but I will talk about how I basically use the camera and what settings and parameters I have found that work best for me. There were factors in my drone camera that I discovered that were at first very counter-intuitive to me but made perfect sense when I thought about them more carefully and gained experience.

My Best Practices for Printing Drone Images

Print quality in terms of sharpness and resolution is a balance between the amount of information a piece of film or sensor can hold and the size of the print that finite information is spread out over. That is why in the film era, a piece of 35mm film may contain the same information as a piece of 8×10 film  but if a 16×20 inch print is made from both, the print made from a 35mm film will never have the same sharpness and resolution as a print made from the 8×10 film because the information has to be spread out or enlarged so many more times to get to that sized print than that from the 8×10 film.

In the digital world, sensor size is also very important but this size analogy is not as clear-cut as film was. There are now many other factors besides mere sensor size that impact image and print quality.

When thinking about image quality, I want to make a distinction between a digital media image like a web image and a physical print. Frankly, an excellent web-based image can be made from a very basic digital camera with very modest megapixel numbers. The same can be said about making a small print. One axiom that still holds true is that everything matters more in direct correlation to print size.

My Best Practices for Printing Drone Images

From a printing perspective, my goals are identical in both the film and digital era. I want as sharp a print as I can make given the inherent capability of my source and the larger the print, the more careful and precise I have to be in every step of the process. I have learned this the hard way more often I want to admit. Occasionally I have spent a long time carefully editing a file and finally starting to print it and was delighted with a 7×9 inch test print only to discover a fatal flaw that became obvious at 16×21 inch size that wasn’t apparent in the smaller print. So, I have learned to approach every step in the capture process as if I will end up making a very large print. I may never make a print of that size, but the potential for it will be built into all my digital files.

The Two Components to Optimize and Control

There are two components in printing that I want to optimize and control. The first is to use my drone camera to its full potential. For me, that means I want to make the sharpest captures I can which means controlling the depth of field, keeping noise to a minimum and also keeping diffraction to a minimum.

I have tested my drone camera and these are my best practices to make the cleanest and sharpest captures:

  • I shoot at a wide open aperture of f2.8 as the focal length of the lens is small and the lens to subject distance is great so I have no depth of field issues at all using the wide open aperture and my tests show f2.8 is the sharpest aperture
  • To keep noise to a minimum I always shoot at ISO 100
  • I use various neutral density filters to keep my settings within the ranges I want
  • I always photograph in raw format and then keep the image file in 16 bit during the editing process

Sharpening & Editing for Printing Drone Images

The second component is careful editing, sharpening and enlarging the file to my desired print size.

I edit these files in Lightroom and in Photoshop exactly the same as I always have with any digital file and I don’t have to treat drone files any different in the editing process. I have no sizing issues when using my DSLR as the native resolution of those files is larger than my standard 16×21 inch print. However, my drone files do need to be enlarged and there are two software programs I find to be of great benefit when enlarging and sharpening these files: Focus Magic & Topaz A.I. Gigapixel

I have long been using Focus Magic to sharpen many of my DSLR files but now use it for all my drone files and it does an excellent job. Most sharpening actions are unsharp mask based to increase edge sharpness and they work well and I use them also. Focus Magic uses advanced deconvolution, a totally different method to increase sharpness and I have found it is especially effective with my drone files.

My Best Practices for Printing Drone Images

The traditional way I have always enlarged files is to use Photoshop and for my DSLR that is still the way I do it, if necessary. But for my drone files, I am using a new stand-alone software program from Topaz called Topaz A.I. Gigapixel. This is an amazing tool for enlarging files and when I compare using it against the Photoshop upsizing algorithm, it is clearly superior. One drawback is that it does use a lot of computing power and even with my fast iMac Pro desktop, it takes a couple of minutes to do the job.

Finally, there is an important difference between a horizontal and a vertical image when using the Mavic 2 Pro and that is this camera cannot be turned to make a portrait mode capture. You are limited to the landscape format. So, if a vertical composition is needed, there are two choices. The first is a vertical section that is cropped from the horizontal capture. This has the negative effect of resulting in an even smaller file. The second is shooting a vertical panorama, using one of several methods. I can do this manually by taking a series of horizontal shots, tilting the camera up a little more with each succeeding shot and then assembling them into a vertical composition. An alternative option is to use the pano mode on the drone. The two I have used are the vertical pano mode which takes three horizontal images from low to high and merges them into a vertical image. I have also used the horizontal pano mode which takes nine images around a central point. I merge these in Lightroom and end up with a large horizontal composite which I then crop to my desired vertical composition. All three of the multi-capture modes work well and I end up with a significantly bigger file than a single horizontal image and a very much bigger file than simply cropping from a single horizontal capture. Since my goal is to maximize my file size so I can print large with the resolution I desire, any of these other than cropping a single horizontal capture work well.

I certainly have ended up cropping a vertical image from a single horizontal capture but it means I rely on the Topaz A. I. Gigapixel software even more. I have learned to try to plan compositions carefully when flying so if I decide a vertical is needed, I will shoot for a vertical panorama.

Example Images Using Sharpening Software

Let’s take a look at a few examples comparing enlargement methods in Photoshop, Focus Magic, Gigapixel and a combination of the above:

My Best Practices for Printing Drone Images

The first image was enlarged by using the standard enlarging method within Photoshop and the second image had sharpening applied using Focus Magic to the Photoshop enlarged file

The first image was enlarged by Topaz A.I. Gigapixel and the second image had sharpening applied using Focus Magic to the Topaz A.I. Gigapixel enlarged file

My Best Practices for Printing Drone Images

The first image was enlarged by using the standard enlarging method within Photoshop and the second image had sharpening applied using Focus Magic to the Photoshop enlarged file

The first image was enlarged by Topaz A.I. Gigapixel and the second image had sharpening applied using Focus Magic to the Topaz A.I. Gigapixel enlarged file

So these are the conclusions I have come to in these few months that I have had my Mavic 2 Pro that helps me capture and then print these drone files to the best of my current ability. I don’t claim that my methods are the only way to do things, but they are working well for me.

Daniel Anderson is a Door County Wisconsin photographer living in Ellison Bay. He has photographed widely throughout the United States and Europe. He has taught many workshops since the 1980’s. He also leads photographic tours to many exciting locations in many parts of the world. He is primarily a landscape photographer and maker of fine art prints who began his photographic career after studying with Ansel Adams. He has evolved into digital printing using the latest digital equipment and technologies and now is able to produce both color and black and white prints to even higher standards than were possible in the film era. His work also includes images of Cathedrals and Abbeys, Antarctica, Chile, Door County barn interiors, Greek architecture, Italy, Iceland, Ireland, Norway and a multi-year project of a single Door County farm. His work has been widely exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe and his images are found in many public and private collections. He can be contacted by email dba54210@gmail.com