10 basic and easy steps in Lightroom to improve your drone photography

My name is Johan and I’m a professional drone photographer. I’ve been traveling around the world for the past 2 years taking the most beautiful and creative drone shots. Today – because of Covid-19 – I’m back in Belgium and I want to help you by sharing my 10 steps to edit your drone photos in Lightroom. If you have more time and you want to read all the PRO tips as well, have a look at my Drone Adventurer’s Masterclass or check out the full post on my website.

01. HDR merge your AEB shots

AEB stands for Automatic Exposure Bracketing. In short, this will take 5 photos instead of just one with different exposures. Now Lightroom has this handy option to merge those 5 photos together into one HDR photo. It samples the best areas from all 5 photos. Meaning you’ll end up with a photo that has all the detail you want in the highlights and also in the shadows. That’s what they call having a maximal dynamic range.

02. Crop your photo for that perfect composition

Now the next step in my workflow is usually to look at the overall composition. Activate the ‘Crop overlay’ tool and a new workspace will open. Depending on where you want to use your image, you can select different aspect ratios. I’ll use the example of Instagram here. The original format for Instagram used to be square (so 1:1 ratio). Nowadays they allow more formats. Generally speaking, I would advise the portrait mode (4:5 ratio) because – as mobile screens are portrait orientated – it allows your photo to take up more screen-space and it looks more pleasing.

03. Use Lightroom Auto Settings to stretch your histogram

The next step in my workflow is to sort of reset the image to its maximum values. I open the ‘Basic’ panel and click ‘Auto’. This usually does a great job. It will adjust your exposure, lower the highlights, and move up the shadows to reveal more details. Look at your histogram while you do this. It will stretch out the histogram all the way to the left and right.

04. The S-curve will add back some contrast

Your image is already looking pretty good, but still a bit flat. Let’s add in a basic S-curve for more contrast. Go to the ‘Tone curve’ panel and make sure the RGB channel is selected. Click the little drop-down menu below the graph and select ‘Medium contrast’. You’ll notice right away this really brings out your image and gives it a lot more depth. If you’re feeling lucky, you can try to move some of the points on the curve a bit higher or lower to find the best values.

05. Use Lightroom’s HSL panel to bring out those colors

This is where the fun stuff starts.  Usually, you’ll want to accentuate a certain set of colors in your photo. To make them stand out, you’ll use the HSL panel. It’s a very powerful tool, so definitely check it out.

HSL stands for Hue-Saturation-Luminance. I usually start with the Hue, then move to the Saturation and finish it off with the Luminance, which is synonymous with the Brightness of a color. A great way to learn this is by dragging one slider all the way to the left and then all the way to the right. Keep your eyes on the image and see how the color changes.

06. Split toning is great for some personal style

Split toning adds a specific color to the highlights and another specific color to the shadows. You can use this to define your personal style. The way I use it is to add a light orange color to the highlights (I use the 3rd option from the suggested colors) while adding a light greyish blue to the shadows (I use the 5th and the last color suggested there). Now toggle the Split toning panel on and off. It’s more subtle than the HSL panel, right? But it still has an impact on the overall mood of your image.


07. Remove some unwanted elements

Next in my workflow is the ‘Spot removal tool’. This really does wonders sometimes. Imagine you have a super cool beach and there is just too much stuff laying around on the beach. And you think it would look so much better without that towel in it. No problem. The Spot Removal tool can take care of this. Lightroom will automatically try to find a spot it can use to replace that towel with. And it usually does a great job.


08. Use the right sharpening settings

In the detail panel, I usually set my sharpening amount to 75. Don’t be afraid to push this one a bit further than what you’d initially think. I bump my radius up to 1,2 and my masking to 50%. This last one is important. Usually, you’ll want to sharpen the edges, but not the inside of objects. Because then you actually introduce more noise on a surface that does not need sharpening in the first place. Masking takes care of this.

09. The finishing touches

Take a step back and look at your image. I bet it’s already day and night compared to where we started. For the finishing touches, I like to apply 3 graduated filters. The first one creates a sort of vignette by darkening the edges, so the viewer’s focus will be focused on the center/subject. The 2nd one will add some light + dehaze to add even more focus to our subject. And the 3rd one will add light + warmth to enhance the sunlight coming in from the side.

10. Export from Lightroom with the right settings

So now you have made a killer edit. Great! Sometimes, it still goes wrong at the export phase. I’ll give you some advice for Instagram. Click resize and put 1080p width and 1920p height, resolution at 96dpi and limit the file size to 1.500kb.

Now you’re ready to export and upload to Instagram. And your image will still look amazing at only a bit more than 1Mb. You’re welcome 😊

Ready to learn more? 

Check out our blog page for more tips and tricks you can implement today! Interested in taking your drone photography game to the next level? Check out the Drone Adventurer’s Masterclass.