Aerial Photography with the GoPro Camera

By Andrew Trice

It seems I see GoPro cameras everywhere I go. These small, lightweight cameras are great for action sports — like following someone’s crazy ski jump off a mountain — but I have found that they’re great for taking some really interesting photos from unique vantage points not previously (or easily) available. Having a stable, remote-controlled aerial platform from which to shoot your photos gives you perspectives you’d never be able to achieve otherwise. You can get above the reach of a ladder and below the altitude of normal manned aircraft.

Video 1. See how you can use the GoPro camera and a remote-controlled helicopter to take amazing photos that can be fine-tuned in Adobe Photoshop CC and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.

This article explains how Adobe Photoshop CC and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 can help you get the most out of images captured with your GoPro camera attached to a remote-controlled helicopter. Video 1 shows you how I set up my GoPro camera and take it out for a spin. I then bring the aerial photos into Photoshop Lightroom to organize them, adjust exposure and clarity, apply lens profile corrections, and crop images to highlight a specific area of interest. Next I apply nondestructive changes in Photoshop to straighten any curved lines in these 170-degree wide-angle images and make color corrections with the Camera Raw filter to bring the most out of the images. Finally, I create a single panoramic image from multiple photos taken with the copter.

GoPro camera attached to the DJI Phantom helicopter.

Figure 1. My GoPro camera attached to the DJI Phantom helicopter.

Aerial photography basics

Getting started with remote-controlled aerial photography is easy and a lot of fun. The helicopter I use is the DJI Phantom (see Figure 1). This very stable, quad-rotor helicopter is designed especially with the GoPro HERO3camera in mind. You can purchase larger copters or build your own but the DJI Phantom is easy to start with. It comes with a GPS stabilization system, making it a cinch to fly, and there are many aftermarket add-ons you can purchase to customize your setup. I’ve added a camera gimbal and first-person view (FPV) system to mine:

  • The camera gimbal is a gyroscope-based stabilization system that keeps your camera level no matter the orientation of the copter — essentially a Steadicam in the sky.

  • The FPV system enables you to get a first-person view of what the camera is seeing, which is great for framing shots accurately.

Sounds like fun, right? It is.

GoPro photo settings

The GoPro camera has multiple modes for capturing photos. Just set the camera to a time-lapse capture mode, attach it to the copter, and start flying. Not having an FPV system requires a little guesswork to make sure that the camera is actuallypointing where you think it’s pointing, but in either case it’s a blast to get into the air and start photographing the world from above.

I normally set the camera’s time-lapse capture interval to either two or five seconds. This means that the camera automatically takes one photo every two or five seconds. Assuming you’ve installed the latest GoPro firmware, you should pay attention to whichever time-lapse interval you choose because it can greatly impact the images you capture:

  • One second or shorter: The camera uses the same exposure setting for every image captured.

  • Two seconds or longer: The camera adjusts the exposure setting for every image captured. If you aren’t careful, you could end up with greatly overexposed or underexposed photos.

Creatively massaging your photos

Since you’re capturing an image every couple of seconds, you will end up with many, many images. This is where the tools available to all Adobe Creative Cloud members become essential.

Use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 to import and organize all of your images, browse them quickly, correct the color, crop an image, correct any lens profile distortion, and apply some general retouching. You can publish your images directly to social media streams without ever leaving Lightroom.

For more extensive image editing needs, switch over to Adobe Photoshop CC, where creative limits simply don’t exist. Of course you can correct lens profiles, flatten wide-angle images, perform advanced color correction, and add tilt shift blurs. What I particularly like to do is stitch multiple images together to create large aerial panoramas (see Video 2).

Video 2. Create a panorama in 10 easy steps with Photoshop CC.

Stitching photos together

To capture an aerial panorama, point the camera at your target area and rotate 90 degrees counter-clockwise. Then slowly rotate your copter 180 degrees clockwise, covering the entire subject area. Since the copter captures a photo every couple of seconds, rotate the copter about 20 degrees, wait five seconds, rotate the copter another 20 degrees, wait five seconds again, and so on until you’ve covered the entire area. You want to wait in between rotations long enough for the camera to take at least one picture before you rotate the copter again. Make sure that each new image overlaps the previous one by at least 40% so you can stitch them back together later in Photoshop.

Once you pull the collection of images into Photoshop, place each one on a separate layer in the same Photoshop composition. Flatten the images using Lens Profile Correction (there is a preset for the GoPro HERO3 models), and then choose Edit > Auto Align Layers to align all of the images for the final panorama.

Once everything is aligned, choose Edit > Auto Blend Layers to merge all of the layers into a seamless composition (Figure 2). You can then flatten the blended layers or turn them into a smart object and apply consistent color correction to the complete panorama, or use Adaptive Wide Angle to flatten any panorama distortion.

Three aerial photos stitched together into one panoramic photo of San Francisco’s City Hall.

Figure 2. Three photos are stitched together into one panoramic photo of San Francisco’s City Hall.

Safety tips

Be safe out there!

Fly responsibly. Radio-controlled aircraft may look like toys but people can get really hurt if you don’t fly responsibly. Always observe the flight area before you fly, avoid obstacles, and never fly over people. Use common sense so nobody gets hurt.

Turn your GoPro camera’s Wi-Fi signal off. The GoPro’s own Wi-Fi signal can interfere with the Phantom’s GPS signal, the radio-control transmitter, and possibly the onboard compass. All of this interference may affect flight performance.

Install the latest firmware updates on both your copter and camera. The latest firmware versions fix issues in older versions and add new capabilities.

Know the rules and regulations. In the United States, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are legal for hobbyists as long as they stay below an altitude of 400 feet and are flown responsibly. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricts commercial use of UAVs. Pay attention to FAA rules and regulations before embarking on any commercial UAV endeavor. Other countries have their own rules; make sure you understand the rules that apply where you live.

Where to go from here

To learn more about specific techniques for working with aerial photos, check out Russell Brown’s Take Flight into the Adobe Creative Cloud series on Adobe TV, which covers everything you need to know to get started in remote-controlled aerial photography.

Read the article titled Create panoramic images with Photomerge in the online documentation for Photoshop to learn another way of combining several photographs into one continuous image.

In the February 2014 issue of Adobe Inspire Magazine I explain how to use the GoPro camera to get great video footage from the air and then use Adobe Creative Cloud tools to do some really creative things with it.

Thanks to Tony Weeg Photography for the photos of me and my GoPro setup.