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Shooting Photos with the DJI Osmo Action

system 2019-08-03 65 times

Here's a detailed rundown of the DJI Osmo Action's features and capabilities for shooting still photos.

DJI Osmo Action Camera front face

Action cams like the DJI Osmo Action and GoPro HERO7 Black are best known for shooting video. But for many of the same reasons that they lend themselves to shooting unique and unusual video in places that cameras can’t usually go, they can also be fun and interesting cameras to use for capturing still photos.

Now that I’ve been out shooting with the Osmo Action, here’s a detailed rundown of its features and capabilities for shooting still photos.

Resolutions and Aspect Ratios

There are two aspect ratios available in the photo mode. The default is the 16:9 aspect ratio, which is the wide-angle look we’ve become used to for HD videos, HD TVs, and computer displays. It creates images that are 4000 pixels wide by 2250 pixels high. While there’s nothing particularly wrong about using that aspect ratio for photos, it doesn’t strike me as the most logical choice, especially to have set as the default. Although there is a good argument for using it: it’s well suited to images that are shared on mobile phones, where it will often fill the entire screen space.

But when using the 16:9 aspect ratio for photos, you’re only using part of the camera’s sensor. It’s cropped down from the full sensor size, which is in the 4:3 aspect ratio. That creates images that are 4000 pixels wide by 3000 pixels high. It’s a squarer image and is one of the two most common aspect ratios for images taken on digital cameras (the other is 3:2).

So if you want to take advantage of the full sensor size, you’ll want to switch the aspect ratio to 4:3. You can always then crop it down to 16:9 later if you want. There’s no quality loss one way or the other–it’s purely about how many pixels high the image is.

Image File Formats

When shooting photos on the Osmo Action, you have two choices when it comes to which file format the images are saved in. The default is JPG. That’s as close to a universal standard as you get in digital imagery. They can be opened on any device or application. The image quality is very good, but because it has compression applied you also get file sizes that are smaller than they might otherwise be.

In addition to JPGs, the Osmo action also lets you save RAW files. There are both pros and cons to shooting in RAW. On the positive side, you get the maximum potential image quality and the most flexibility in post-processing. On the negative side is that they’re less convenient–you really need to process the files through an image editing app before sharing them, so it adds an extra step. And RAW files aren’t nearly as widely compatible as JPGs, although in choosing to use the Adobe DNG format, DJI has at least chosen to use the most compatible of the RAW formats (unlike, say, GoPro, that decided to use their own proprietary variation of the DNG format that isn’t compatible with much at all).

But there’s a built-in safety net for that. When you choose the RAW option on the Osmo Action, you’re actually choosing a RAW+JPG option. What that means is that it will save both a RAW version (.dng file extension) and a JPG version of the same image simultaneously (there’s no option to save only the RAW version). So you get the best of both worlds, although you do pay a small price of using up a bit more storage space on your memory card and a little more battery power as it saves two files instead of one. When you’re in this mode, you’ll see J+R down in the bottom right corner of the screen.

If you want the simplest and quickest option, leave it on the default JPG option. If you want the best possible image quality and are prepared to do the extra step of processing the images in an image editing app such as Lightroom, choose the RAW option. I nearly always use the RAW option.

Something else worth knowing, though, is that not all of the shooting modes support the RAW option. Some, like the burst modes and the processed modes such as Dewarp, only output JPG files.

Another thing worth knowing is that the RAW files that the Osmo Action produces are much larger than its JPGs. The RAW files come out at 24.7 megabytes. The filesize of the JPGs varies depending on how well the tones and detail in the scene can be compressed, but they generally come out around the 5.7 to 6 megabyte range.

DJI Osmo Action Camera

Exposure

By default, the DJI Osmo Action is set up for fully automatic exposure. So when you take it out of the box and start shooting, it’s already set up to get good-quality results.

But you also have opportunities for taking control over some aspects of the exposure settings.

Aperture. The Osmo Action’s lens has a fixed exposure of ƒ/2.8. You can’t change it, so any adjustments to the exposure have to come from changing the shutter speed or ISO.1

ISO Range. ISO is a shorthand way of referring to the light sensitivity of the camera.2 The lower the ISO, the less sensitive the sensor is to the light hitting it. A higher ISO means that it’s more sensitive. So in bright, sunny conditions, you’d generally use a low ISO of, say, 100. In low light conditions, such as at dusk or night-time or inside, you might use an ISO of something like 800 or 3200. But an important consideration is that the higher the ISO the lower the image quality. While you probably couldn’t tell the difference between images shot at ISO 100 and 200, it does become more noticeable as you approach the upper limits of a given camera’s ISO range.

On most cameras, the exposure is calculated using a kind of triangle, with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (light sensitivity) as the sides, with changes to one side affecting the others. On the Osmo Action, the aperture is locked, so that never changes. So any changes to the exposure need to come from changing the shutter speed, the ISO, or both together.

The Osmo Action has an ISO range of ISO 100 through ISO 3200.

By default, the Osmo Action adjusts the ISO automatically as part of its automatic exposure calculations. But it’s also possible to take some control over it. The first way is to set the maximum ISO that can be used when you’re shooting with the Auto ISO enabled. So, for example, if you wanted to make sure the camera never went above ISO 800, you could set that in the Max. ISO setting.

It’s also possible to take full manual control of the ISO and, using it in tandem with the shutter speed setting, specify a particular ISO value to be used.

Shutter Speed. The electronic shutter has a range of 120 seconds through 1/8000 of a second. So if you want to freeze the blades of a helicopter or the wheels of a race car, you have the option of freezing the action at 1/8000 of a second so long as there’s enough light to support an exposure that quick. Or if you’re using a tripod or other fixed mount and want to shoot night scenes or get motion blur, you can keep the shutter open for up to 2 minutes. And you’re not limited to just a few intervals between those time–the scrolling menu option has numerous increments for you to fine tune. And a nice touch is that the view screen updates with a real-time preview of the exposure, so you don’t need to keep going back and forth if you’re using trial and error to get the exposure right.

Exposure Compensation. The exposure compensation option is a way of affecting the exposure of the image, but it does it differently than traditional manual control. It’s a partial override and is relative to the automatic exposure calculation.

What I mean by that is that rather than set a specific, concrete value for exposure, it lets you apply changes relative to whatever the automatic exposure algorithm calculates. Some examples of where that might come in handy are if you’re shooting people on bright snow and their face and bodies are coming out too dark (set an EV in the + side) or if you’re shooting in low light conditions with some bright highlights and the camera is trying to exposure for the dark areas rather than the subjects in the bright light (set an EV in the – side).

Metering. By default, the exposure is calculated automatically from across the screen. If you’d rather that it use a specific point in the scene you can switch to spot metering and select which small point in the scene you want it to use.

You enable spot metering using the main menu (swipe down on the back screen) and choosing the icon that looks like a circle with a small dot in the middle.

You can tap and hold on the screen to use spot metering. If you tap again, it will lock the auto exposure (and you’ll see a small lock icon now in the middle of the circle) so that you can then recompose the image without changing the exposure setting (tap again to disable the AE lock).

White Balance. By default, the Osmo Action is set to calculate the white balance automatically. And for many uses, that’s a good place to leave it. It will do its best to make snow in bright sunlight look white or people in the shade not become blue.

But it doesn’t always get it right, whether because the lighting is tricky or it’s just not the look you’re going for. If you want a cooler, bluer look, you might want to use a high white balance kelvin value. If you’re shooting in the golden sunlight or a morning sunrise, you might want to emphasize that warm light with a lower Kelvin value. Or maybe you want to try to match the photos to others from a different shoot.

The white balance setting is mostly relevant to JPGs. If you’re shooting RAW, you can easily change the white balance in post-processing.

White balance values are expressed in temperature measured in Kelvin. Rather than limit your options to some common presets, the Osmo Action lets you choose anything from 2000K to 10,000K in 100K increments. And in a nice touch, it shows a live view of the effect even as you’re scrolling through the options.

Face-Oriented Exposure. This prioritizes any faces that are detected in the scene when it comes to calculating the exposure. Most of the time, it means that it will lighten the exposure so that peoples’ faces don’t end up being far too dark in shadow.

Burst & Timed Modes

The standard (and default) option for taking photos is to take a single shot at a time. That is, one press of the shutter takes one photo. But there are various other ways to create sequences of shots or on a timer.

Burst Mode. Burst mode is useful when you’re taking shots of fast-moving action and want to get a quick sequence of images.

The way the Osmo Action refers to burst mode isn’t as intuitive as it could be. Rather than referring to, say, 30 frames per second or 15 frames across 3 seconds, it refers to it as 3p, 5p, and 7p. These refer to rapid sequences of 3, 5, or 7 photos. That might sound quick, but it’s really not when you compare it to other cameras these days–the GoPro HERO7 Black, for instance, can take up to 30 photos per second, and some other cameras can go up to at least 60. Another consideration is that the series isn’t relative to a duration–it’s purely a number of shots setting. So the 3p, 5p, and 7p settings will all take shots at the same speed–it just refers to how many shots are taken.

Overall, the burst mode (or drive mode) options on the Osmo Action are surprisingly limited, especially considering that fast-moving action is such a common thing to use an action camera like this for. But it’s possible this might be something addressed in a future firmware update.

Something worth knowing is that the burst mode photos are saved only as JPGs, not as .dng files.

Time-Lapse Photos. The Osmo Action has two options for shooting time-lapse. One of them is to shoot the sequence and have the camera put them together and output a video file (it’s what GoPro calls, logically, Timelapse Video). The other is to shoot and save a sequence of still images that you can then compile on your computer into a video (ie. what GoPro calls Timelapse Photo). When shooting in this mode, you can select from among these intervals between shots: 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 15, 20, 35, 45, 65, or 125 seconds. And you can choose between the 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.

Confusingly, you’ll see this referred to on the camera as the timed photo. That’s not wrong–it is a timed photo–but the more common name for what this feature is is time-lapse.

By default, the file format is set to save the images as JPGs. That will work with all of the available intervals. You can also choose to save both JPGs and RAW files simultaneously, but that option is only available for intervals from 2 seconds and longer.

Self-Timer. Having a self-timer seems pretty old-hat, but it wasn’t until the most recent models that GoPro came with one. It comes in very handy if you’re taking selfies with the camera, especially when you have the Osmo Action’s front screen available.

The Osmo Action has a self-timer built in, but rather than self-timer, it calls it countdown. The options for the countdown are 1, 2, 3, 5, or 10 seconds.

Exposure Bracketing. The Auto Exposure bracketing feature, or AEB, takes a rapid series of images at different exposure settings. It’s useful when you want to maximize your chances that will have the right exposure but still need some trial and error to get there. The options for this setting refer to the size of the exposure steps and how many shots are taken in the sequence. So, for example, 1/3EVx3 refers to a sequence of 3 photos with a 1/3 of a stop exposure step between them. And 1EVx5 refers to a sequence of 5 shots with a full stop of exposure step between them. The available options for the AEB drive mode are: 1/3EV×3, 2/3EV×3, 1EV×3, 1/3EV×5, 2/3EV×5, and 1EVx5. Something worth knowing is that the sequence is just that–a rapid series of photos taken very quickly one after the other. So it’s not precisely the same image with different exposures, which might make a difference when shooting fast-moving action.

Further Tweaks

Dewarp. The Osmo Action has a single field of view, or FOV. It’s a very wide fisheye look that covers 145° perspective. But that also adds quite a lot of distortion. It becomes extremely obvious when lines that you expect to be straight are near the edges of the frame. So the horizon ends up curved or vertical walls get bulged or bent.

You can’t switch out the lens for a less distorted one, but you can have the camera electronically correct for that distortion. This uses the camera’s built-in software to straighten those lines and correct that bulging fisheye look. It’s available using the Dewarp option (it does what GoPro calls their Linear FOV).

Here’s a practical example of what it does, side-by-side with the regular view.

DJI Osmo Action Regular FOVDJI Osmo Action Dewarp Example

Because it has to process the image, the Dewarp option isn’t available with RAW files, only JPG. If you have the camera set to shoot JPG+DNG, you can still switch to Dewarp, but when you do that the camera will automatically switch to JPG-only.

Color Mode. The normal color mode is bright and contrasty. The images look good right off the bat, making it well suited to sharing the images without any further processing (unless you’re shooting RAW).

There’s also a color mode called D-Cinelike, which retains more of the color and tone information. That will make it look flatter and duller when you view it, so it’s less suited to sharing as is, but it also means that it gives you more data to work with in post-processing. So it’s a good option to use if you know you’re going to processing the images later in something like Lightroom or Photoshop and then share those processed versions.

Anti-Flicker. The anti-flicker mode is useful if you’re shooting in artificial lighting conditions. Many indoor lights actually flicker very quickly. It’s so quick that it can be imperceptible to our eyes, but it can cause problems for photos when camera shutters are only open for a fraction of a second. The anti-flicker setting is designed to address that, with options for Auto, 50 Hz, and 60 Hz. You can set this in the main camera settings menu.

Sample Images

Here’s a small sampling of some images I’ve taken with the DJI Osmo Action. I’ll post some more soon separately.

DJI Osmo Action Sample Image

DJI Osmo Action Sample Image

DJI Osmo Action Sample Image

DJI Osmo Action Sample Image

DJI Osmo Action Sample Image

Shooting Helpers

There are also some tools to help with composing and exposing the shot. These are on-screen displays that you can turn on (they’re off by default). They don’t show up on the saved photo–just in the live view screen.

Grid. The grid is a screen overlay that gives you vertical and horizontal lines that divide the screen into thirds.3 It’s particularly useful as a guide to try to get horizons level (although it’s not a true level indicator as some other cameras have) and if you’re trying to apply the rule of thirds when composing your shot. You can set this in the main camera settings menu.

Overexposure Alert. This is an onscreen helper that highlights the parts of the scene that are being overexposed and that will come out as washed out highlights in the resulting image. The overexposed sections show as a flashing zebra-pattern warning. This is a feature only available when using the mobile app–it doesn’t show up on the camera’s screen, and you can’t access the option using the onboard settings menu.

Histogram. A histogram is a visual graph of the light intensity of the image at given frequencies. Typically, the brighter areas are at the right of the graph, with darker areas at the left. This onscreen helper is only available when using the mobile app–it doesn’t show up on the camera’s screen, and you can’t access the option using the onboard settings menu.

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