Phantom 3 Advanced Photography Assignments

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It really helps that, in the Phantom 3's camera, DJI has eliminated nearly every pain point that plagued the Vision series. I already mentioned the landing gear has been widened to prevent it from getting in shot. To further help with this, the camera now has a narrower field of view -- 94 degrees, down from 140 (with a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 20mm and infinite focus). One bugbear remains, though, which is that it's still easy to get the propellers in shot when flying forward at speed -- but that's a harder problem to solve. The Phantom 3's FOV also helps with something else: fisheye distortion. The Phantom 3 barely has any.

For the technical fans, DJI tells me this is because "it is a 9-element rectilinear lens which is designed specifically for aerial and long distance shooting." This is also why the close up focus isn't so good (see samples in the gallery), it was designed for aerial, and not general purpose. The color balance also seems much improved from the Vision+, and the gimbal it hangs from keeps it steady as a rock. When you factor in a bunch of new shooting modes (burst, time-lapse, etc.) and manual exposure settings (via that app), you've got a really comprehensive photography tool.

Talk is one thing; the video should speak for itself. And it does. Watching back the 4K video clips on a 55-inch UHD TV is a delight. I had my technophobe, hard-to-impress parents-in-law slack jawed as I showed them their own (metaphorical) backyard as seen from the sky, and in pin-sharp resolution. Below is a short edit of some footage obtained over a weekend. The player won't show it in 4K, but I've uploaded one of the unedited clips here so you can download it directly and see for yourself.

The question many people might have right now is whether to get the Phantom 3, and the proprietary camera. Or, go for a Phantom 2, and use a GoPro instead. That's a good question, as by far and away, right now, most people fly with a GoPro. I really expected to prefer the GoPro over DJI's own camera, but actually I'm torn. With the GoPro, you have many more video settings, so if you need something exotic like 960p at 120fps, then you need a GoPro, you can, of course, also use that GoPro for other things, too. If, however, you want 16:9 cinematic shots in high resolution it's a tough call. When you factor in the other benefits of using the DJI camera (first-person view, native controls, no-fuss setup), the case for a GoPro doesn't seem so strong. For most users, it'll come down to whether you want a more versatile camera, or, the extra features, and ease of use that DJI's provides. Below are two clips for comparison. One is shot on the Phantom 3 (top), the other on a GoPro (bottom), both originally at 4K.

In use

I've been flying Phantoms for a while now, but it's still exciting every time. Nothing changes with the Phantom 3. That includes the annoying four "bleeps" when you switch it on, which lets everyone know you're about to creep on them from the sky. The first time I try it is inside my apartment. This thing has sensors to help it keep position; I have to test them. I'm nervous taking off, and my cat doesn't like it at all, but to my surprise it works well. I manage a lap of my modest front room without incident (typically a regular drone would have drifted into a wall in seconds). It also does an incredible job at stirring up all the dust/loose papers in your house!

I don't really want to fly indoors, though, so I spend the rest of the time outside, in the hills and coastline. Ya know, things worth seeing. I'm used to taking off manually, but I try the auto-takeoff out of curiosity. It works well, but I don't really feel much benefit. By the time I've pressed and held the button on the app, I could have taken off the usual way with the sticks. Once up in the air, the first thing that strikes me is the app, and the quality of the live feed. So much better than before, especially on a large display like an iPad Mini. I'd tried the app on several Android phones first, but I couldn't get any to work very well. DJI told me you need to close all other apps, but that didn't make much difference for me.

The live video feed is good enough that you can get much closer to landmarks or objects in the distance than would be possible using eyesight alone. That's not recommended, though, as you could easily miss some power cables, or other hard-to-see object. The real joy of the video stream is just knowing I got the shot. One time, I was flying over a lake in a small canyon. On top of one side is an old, disused building. I flew, or thought I flew, to a position with it in the center of the camera. When I checked the video stream, though, I was quite a way off. I also found it improved my general depth perception (and, in turn, my flying). Later on that same day, I took the Phantom 3 up into the hills. There was an interesting rock formation that I was able to fly to directly because I had a better perception of where the drone was thanks to practice with the video stream.

DJI gave the Phantom 3 a new flight controller, tweaked the moto tilt and added smart speed control. These improve the performance compared to previous Phantoms considerably. The whole flight experience feels tighter, more responsive, and this all feeds into better stability and battery life. A much improved beast.

Another benefit of an all-in-one setup like the Phantom 3 is that everything is designed to work together. The camera, the gimbal, the radio link for the video stream, et cetera. The result of which is longer battery life and flight time. With the Phantom 2, a gimbal, GoPro (taking its power from the drone) and a video downlink, vital minutes are shaved off your air time. Under the same conditions with the Phantom 3, I was getting 20 mins in the air, whereas the Phantom 2 was nagging me to (urgently) land it after 15. When the Phantom 3 wants you to land, you can probably keep it up for a few minutes more; it just plays things safe.

The competition

Drones, it seems, are big business. If you browse the dedicated RC web stores, you'll find more brands and models than you'd know what to do with. For a newcomer, it can be quite daunting. Then, of course, you could build your own. It's analogous to buying, or building a PC. You'll almost always get more for your money if you do it yourself. But, shock, some people don't want that hassle, and just want to open a box and go. It's for those people that the DJI Phantom 3 exists. But it's not the only one.

Perhaps the most obvious rival for your attention is 3DR's Solo. It was announced just days after the Phantom, and offers a lot more in terms of flight features (a follow-you option, exotic camera angle modes and so on). But, it also costs $140 more (with a gimbal) and you need to have your own GoPro (another $400-plus). This makes it a chunk of change more expensive, even more so if you don't want/need 4K, and can get by with the Phantom 3 Advanced. But, for those that already own a GoPro, the decision could be a lot harder, we're reserving judgement until we've tested the Solo ourselves.

If you really want something simple that'll do basic video, something like Parrot's BeBop is even cheaper still. But, it lacks the range, power, quality and control the Phantom 3 offers. If action sports are more your thing, then it may be worth waiting for AirDog, which is scheduled to launch in August, with a host of features specific to all-weather activities.

Wrap-up

I was a little underwhelmed when the Phantom 3 launched. I was hoping for a more radical redesign, and a few killer autopilot features (DJI say's these are in the works, just they're insistent on them being safe). Instead, DJI played it a little safe, opting instead for practical, functional improvement all round. Now that I've flown one, I get it. The Phantom 3 is a refinement. A huge one. That said, its proprietary design makes it hard to upgrade; it doesn't have some of the more intelligent features its rivals do; and the software is designed for simplicity over anything else. It's also pricier than alternative products of similar specification. But in exchange, it's accessible, reliable and excells at its core tasks of flying and video. Oh, and it's a heck of a lot of fun.

It's the quality of the camera and the controls that makes the Phantom 3 worth buying. If you want a hassle-free quadcopter that will shoot high-quality video, it's very easy to recommend this craft. You may not be able to (easily) program its flight path, or win a drag race through the woods, but you'll have a drone that grabs great video, and is a joy to use every single time.

There are plenty of reasons that you might be considering getting into aerial photography. You might’ve been inspired by some epic drone footage – of which there’s plenty – fancy yourself a professional pilot in the making, or just want an excuse to get out of the house. Whatever your motivation, the idea of actually buying a drone and getting started can be pretty daunting. That’s why we’ve put together a quick list of top tips for aerial photography beginners for you to take away, think about some more and use to help get your new hobby off the ground.

Tips for aerial photography beginners

Find the right drone

This is a pretty obvious one to start with. There’s a huge range of drones available on the consumer market, from small toys to professional-grade photography equipment. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. If you want grainy footage and a flight time more easily counted in seconds than in minutes, that’s easy enough to find. But you probably don’t want that. Even beginners to the field of aerial photography would be well advised to stick with the established manufacturers who have earned their reputations as the go-to providers of aerial photography drones. Most of them have products to suit a range of budgets.

The GoPro Karma: There are plenty of drones out there to suit all budgets and aspirations.

The market leader is by far and away DJI, whose Phantom range has set the standard for consumer drones. Going back a couple of years, DJI’s Phantom 3 Standard is now available for under $500, while the Chinese manufacturer’s new, vastly superior Mavic Pro is retailing at double that. For a beginner, the Phantom 3 is, on the face of it, the perfect place to start. It’s a great balance between price and quality. But bear in mind that things have moved on incredibly quickly in the industry since it was first released in the summer of 2015. In fact, while a newer drone such as the Mavic Pro may be more expensive and appear more complex, the increased sophistication of the latest drones arguably makes them a whole lot easier to fly straight out of the box. They are generally easier to control once up in the air as well, and can of course produce higher quality results.

The right drone for you will depend on two things: 1. What’s your drone really for? And 2. How much are you willing to spend to make this happen? The point of your drone is the first thing you should be considering. What are you going to be using it for? What level of image quality are you expecting? How much hands-on flying do you want to be doing? Are autonomous flight modes important to you? Are you bothered about built-in safety features, or do you want to don a pair of FPV goggles and just leave reality behind? Consider the answers to these questions when choosing your first drone.

The Parrot Disco is fantastic for FPV flyers.

The latest tech from DJI, Yuneec, 3DR, GoPro or Parrot might do a whole bunch of things you’re never going to need or even appreciate. You might even be the kind of person who lets the latest gadgets gather dust in the attic after an hour of use. If either of these is ringing true, then the above manufacturers – with the exception of GoPro – offer drones across the price spectrum, so you can find the balance between cost and reward that best suits your expectations and expected use.

If you’re in the enviable position of having zero restrictions when it comes to budget: GoPro fans will enjoy the Karma and its seamless integration with the camera company’s other products, pilots looking for a first person view experience should try out the Parrot Disco, and aerial photographers keen on an all-round package should look no further than DJI’s Mavic Pro or Phantom 4, along with Yuneec’s Typhoon H.f all the top tips for aerial

Of all the tips for aerial photography beginners that we can think of, choosing the right drone has to be number one.

Harness the power of autonomous flight

While the idea of putting a high-quality camera in the sky sounds like a dream come true for keen photographers, it’s not always been straightforward to pilot a drone effectively and shoot great footage at the same time. A focus on one can often be to the detriment of the other. Fortunately, manufacturers across the board have made great strides and are now much closer to solving this fundamental issue.

Essentially, autonomous flight modes mean that you’re only ever a click away from becoming the Steven Speilberg of the skies. With most of the manufacturers mentioned so far, you can draw custom flight paths, have your drone orbit a certain location, and perform classic aerial photography maneuvers to mimic a cable camera or slowly zoom out or into a location. With the top-end drones you can be both pilot and star of the show; why not have your drone track you and keep you in shot?

Yuneec’s Typhoon H is one drone that takes autonomous flight to the next level with built-in obstacle avoidance.

Autonomous flight is one area of drone photography that’s fast becoming both an essential and an assumed feature of any new consumer model. These manufacturers want to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. As a result, the latest drones are a lot less daunting to fly and get great results with less input than you might think.

Several manufacturers, such as DJI, offer the ability to control the camera separately from the drone itself. The GoPro Passenger app for the Karma is a perfect example of this burgeoning concept. You can pilot the drone while your ‘passenger’ takes control of the camera and handles the photography independently. Most of the latest drones can also be used with FPV goggles, so your or a copilot can enjoy an immersive view while you fly.

Check for no-fly zones

There’s no doubt that a significant percentage of the general public remain skeptical about the rise of consumer drones. As a new pilot, you owe it to yourself, your fellow citizens and the wider flying community to fly responsibly and well away from established no-fly zones. Typically, these are anywhere near airports, at altitudes above 400ft and in National Parks – You can check your nearest no-fly zones through a number of apps, or on the FAA website. Manufacturers are also starting to introduce software that stops you from flying where you shouldn’t, such as DJI.

There are also plenty of applications and growing communities dedicated to sharing tips on great flying locations, such as Where2Fly.

Think about insurance

Next in our rundown of top tips for aerial photography beginners is something you might not have thought of yet. Your drone is probably going to set you back a few bucks, so it’s probably a good idea to sort out some insurance. Crashes happen, and with new pilots it’s often a case of when, not if. Insurance is also a good idea if you’re flying anywhere near others (which you shouldn’t really be doing) or their property. With providers such as Verifly you can arrange cover on a flight by flight basis. It’s not a legal requirement, but it might be a good idea for peace of mind, keeping you covered in the worst-case scenario that something does go horribly wrong.

Check out Verifly for on-demand drone insurance.

If you’re piloting skills really take off and you end up flying for a living, insurance is highly recommended.

Don’t forget about post-production

The last point in our list of tips for aerial photography beginners concerns what you do once all the excitement is over. Having spent a day taking to the skies and shooting video in a way you’ve never been able to before, it’s easy to forget that there’s an end result here: the footage itself. Whether you just want to watch it back with friends and family, capture a special occasion or share it on social media, editing and polishing your footage is an absolute must.

We recently featured a range of software to get the best out of your aerial photography. Many manufacturers, such as GoPro, offer a suite of services to help with post-production. With a few clicks you can add backing tracks, cut out the boring bits and generally make your videos a whole lot more professional.

Editing footage is a great way to relive the moment, but it’s also vital to making the most of what you’ve captured. Check out the links above and search around to find some video editing software that suits your needs and ability.

Malek Murison

Malek Murison is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for tech trends and innovation. He handles product reviews, major releases and keeps an eye on the enthusiast market for DroneLife.
Email Malek
Twitter:@malekmurison

Tags: aerial photographyautonomous flightDJIEditingFPVGoProInsurancetop tipsYuneec

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