In much the same way that I am always being asked about video, there are always questions about how to use and edit stills and what do the different formats mean.
There are loads of tutorials available on the web which will tell you how to take beautiful photographs, so I’m not going to focus on camera operation, but rather what to do with the captured data – ie the photos!
Types of photo files
Probably the most common question I get is: “what’s the difference between JPEG and RAW?”. Once you get a handle on this one, it will make your later decisions a lot easier.
JPEGs are compressed image files and are the most common type of photo files. All camera drones that shoot stills will be able to shoot jpeg files and on most it is the default setting.
The photo data is crammed into a small file and some of the original photo data is lost in the process, so the more squashed (or compressed) it is the lower the quality of the image. To the naked eye, standard jpeg compression provides a good, clear photo, but at high compression ratios (typically above about 10:1), the pictures can become blocky or less defined in areas, especially when blown up in size. But the real downside of jpeg files becomes apparent when they are being manipulated in editing software. A large, lower compression ratio, jpeg may seem to work quite well in post, but certain elements are not easily worked with. EG, exposure has very little wiggle room in a jpeg and areas that need exposure adjusted can deteriorate badly with only the tiniest amount of adjustment applied. For this reason, if you are shooting jpegs, it is really important that your exposure is set correctly to start with, so the better the lighting situation, the easier it will be.
The bottom line is that JPEGS are simple to use, do not require (but often benefit from) extra processing and are relatively small files. As we will see, RAW is rather different …
If you are lucky enough to have a drone which shoots RAW photos, you will have a big advantage over JPEG.
RAW photos are uncompressed and retain all of the original image data. They are larger than any equivalent jpeg file and allow much, much more latitude in post production. In particular, you will be able to adjust the exposure AFTER the picture is in your computer – this is AWESOME! They come with a whole host of file extensions, but the most common are .DNG (generic), .CR2 (Canon) and .NEF (Nikon). DNG is used in DJI and other drones and is almost the new standard, but as shown, some major camera manufacturers don’t yet use it.
Importantly, RAW photos need to be processed in an appropriate app before you can print them or make them available for publishing online, so you will need to have an idea about what needs tweaking. Happily, that’s what I’m just about to tell you!
The critical tools you will need to use when opening a RAW image file are the following:
White Balance – this is the setting that adjusts the colour of light in the image. To a camera, daylight appears blue (cold) and artificial light tends to range from purple to orange (warm). This needs to be compensated for, or else the colours look odd. That’s what white balance does. It’s often referred to as Colour Temperature too and is measured in numbers on the Kelvin temperature scale.
Exposure – in the real world, when flying and photographing art the same time it is difficult to get exposure absolutely right. This is where RAW really comes into its own, as you can fully adjust your exposure after the fact (within some limits, obviously). This is an enormously powerful ability and can make the difference between an unusable shot and a masterpiece!
Contrast – this is what can really make a photo ‘pop’. It’s sort of a creative decision what you do here, but it should never be ignored.
Once you have addressed these elements, you will be able to use the image file in different apps and post or print it. Of course, there are plenty of other tools you can use to make desired changes to the image, but these three are the essentials.
The next thing is to look at what software is available to you to do all this.
Photo editing software is significantly different to video editing software, despite using more or less similar tools. Because photo apps are only dealing with a single image at a time (unlike the 24+ images per second typically faced in video apps), they tend to offer many more options for detailed adjustments, so they can become incredibly complex. For basic manipulation, providing decent results, the process is relatively simple and the tools are very similar to those found in a video app. As with video apps, the choices here are very much dependent on personal taste and, as ever, budget.
The Big Guns
Adobe Photoshop – Mac & PC, subscription $9.99pm to $82.99pm – the daddy of all photo editing software. So iconic, it has become a verb! There is no question as to the market leader and the choice of professional users and it is certainly the default option for most. However, it can be daunting and is certainly complex. That said, a little knowledge goes a long way here and many users will never need more than the basics, but if you have Photoshop you will have the tools to do anything possible in a photo app.
Adobe Lightroom – Mac & PC, subscription $9.99pm to $82.99pm – available in both ‘classic’ and ‘CC’ versions, Lightroom is a photo library manager, packed with detailed image adjustment tools. Where Photoshop is designed for creative manipulation of images, via layering, Lightroom is all about managing and enhancing photographs. It does not need any other app to bring the very best out of standalone images. All the RAW processing is done in-app, whereas Photoshop-type apps require an extension to the main app (built-in in Photoshop) to process RAW prior to being able to open it in the main window. For pure photography, Lightroom is hard to beat.
Cheaper but fully featured
Corel Paint Shop Pro – PC only, $99 or less – really good and almost as fully featured as Photoshop. For a hobbyist, who has no intention of building to pro level, but is keen to invest in serious tools, Paint Shop Pro has been a great option for about 30 years. I first used this app back in the early 1990s and it has continued to impress over the years. Don’t expect a dead simple application, but do expect to be able to do almost everything you would be able to achieve in Photoshop. However, there is a built in tutorial system, which should get newcomers up to speed pretty quickly. The really great thing about Paint Shop Pro is that it includes photo library management as well as editing, so that alone may be enough to sway you in your choice.
Serif Affinity Photo – Mac & PC, $50 or less – Very similar in capability to Corel’s offering, but with the advantage of being available across platforms (there is an iOS app too). The latest version is particularly fast and light on computer resources too. This really is a Photoshop alternative and well worth checking out.
Apple Photos – Mac & iOS, bundled with OSX and iOS devices – More of a library management tool, but with all the essential editing tools. As with all Apple in-house software, it looks gorgeous and does its job really well. However, it does rather force you to follow the Apple protocols (eg how your files are categorised etc), so you don’t have much liberty to work in exactly the way you want. If you are happy with that, you have a complete toolset for photo enhancement, along the lines of Lightroom, but without the full scope. Most hobbyists are likely to find this application covers all their needs and more. It syncs with your iPhone too.
Windows Photos – PC only, bundled with Windows. Very similar to the Apple offering, just not as elegant. Loads of options for enhancing photos and nice gallery space too. This has recently been merged with Windows Movie Maker, so you can now conduct basic video editing in the same app.
GIMP – Mac & PC, free – A true, free alternative to Photoshop. GIMP is open source, so it has had input from a vast number of developers over the years. It works slightly differently to the other similar applications, so the tools and interface take slightly longer to get used to. It’s not a massive difference, but enough to require some extra familiarisation. If you already have a slight knowledge of photo editing apps that will be useful in getting to know GIMP. Certainly worth a whirl!
Of course, there are a great number of other apps available and it may well be one of those that best suits your needs. Check out your preferred app stores and look around for alternatives, but make sure that whatever software you choose is capable of meeting your particular requirements. For users who are only interested in JPEGs, just about any software is worth trying. However, if you want to take your photography up a gear and use RAW files, you will need a fully-featured RAW capable application.
Let me know what your preferred software is and if there are any that I really must add to this post!