Hands On – DJI Phantom Flying Camera

What Photographers and Videographers can Expect from the DJI Phantoms

(Phantom image of the tennis facility at Fowler Park, north of Atlanta)

I immediately was captivated by the possibilities offered in the new crop of camera-equipped flying machines personified by the DJI Phantom line. In a relatively short period of time, I’ve owned three — the original Phantom, a Phantom 2 Vision and a Phantom 2 Vision+. They’ve all been great fun and are capable of producing spectacular aerial views. The cost is reasonable, as is the learning curve.

This is by no means a comprehensive review of the flying Phantoms or a comprehensive set of instructions. The basics of how to use a controller to fly one of these things and capture images with it can be found at www.dji.com/support and downloading the PDF manual of the Phantom of your choice.

Rather, my post is intended to give curious photogs a bird’s eye view (pun intended) of this technology. It merely reflects my own experience and from the perspective of a photographer and videographer. Also, I humbly offer some tips and suggestions with two goals in mind: Avoiding unpleasant mishaps (including crashes) and maximizing image quality. I’m no expert but I enthusiastically have pursued this technology and know enough to offer some advice.

(You’ll find some still image examples in my post at “The View From Above” at http://www.davidscottimages.com/?p=108), as well as this video clip – http://youtu.be/oQ37gAfxEaY)

Phantom Summary F.A.Q

1. What is a Phantom?

It’s a small, affordable, radio controlled flying machine that is powered by four motors with propellers. Most can be outfitted with cameras that shoot both stills and video.

2. Is a Phantom a drone?

Technically, yes. But the descriptor “drone,” thanks to the military, has a arguably disturbing connotation that Phantom-level hobbyists probably would prefer to avoid. More accurately, it is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and while not inherently lethal, Phantoms are capable of mischief, depending on the intent of the pilot.

2. Is a Phantom hard to fly?

No, and that’s part of the appeal. After a few minutes of instruction by an expert, I successfully was flying above a parking lot. No problem! It should be noted, however, that some practice and skill are required to keep from crashing or losing it.

3. How much does a Phantom cost?

List on the newest model, the Phantom 2 Vision+, is $1,299 and that includes a battery and a camera. Earlier models can be had for as little as several hundred dollars but a suitable camera will cost another $350 and a stabilizing “gimbal,” (to achieve smooth, professional-looking video) can add another six or seven hundred bucks.

Any Phantom, at any price, probably will generate additional expense in extra batteries, memory cards and various gadgets to improve the flying and photo/video experience.

4. Is it possible to build a camera-equipped quadcopter oneself, and save some money?

Apparently, yes. Recently I watched a guy flying his home-brewed UAV at a nearby park. He told me he had built five or six of them and the sum total of parts and materials was far less than an off-the-shelf Phantom. However, this guy knows electronics, computers, aerodynamics and is a craftsman. He’s always as interested in HOW the thing words as he is in using it. The one I saw had a GoPro Hero camera and was, to my ears, a little quieter than the Phantom’s I’ve flown. Also, maneuverability looked excellent.

5. Are Phantom pictures and video of high quality?

Most would say they are. Still files average about six MB and video is high definition. However, the camera angle is wide and most anything in a scene is in focus (no pleasing blurred-background, Bokeh effects). The cameras on Phantom-sized aircraft have to be small and light so don’t expect DSLR-quality and flexibility. Having said that, Phantom’s can provide spectacular views that heretofore simply have been unobtainable at this price point.

6. Where can I buy one?

There are many on-line sources but I highly recommend purchasing from a local, brick-and-mortar store from folks who can offer instruction and tips. Otherwise, a novice could watch $1,300 evaporate in a hard crash or a flyaway.

Atlanta Hobby, (www.atlantahobby.com), one of the largest Phantom retailers in the country, is just north of Atlanta. That’s where I’ve purchased mine. (I have no commercial tie or other interest in Atlanta Hobby. I’m just a customer.)

7. Are you saying Phantoms are fragile?

No. Actually, they’re built quite well and will endure a fair amount of punishment without serious consequence. In fact, nearly everyone experiences a crash or two when first learning. My third flight included a misjudgment of distance that resulted in my Phantom clipping a power line. I was shooting video at the time and was both astonished and relieved when it quickly righted itself and continued to fly. On another occasion, I flew it into some tree branches. I fished it out, wiped off some green scuffs and it was as good as new.

BUT, if overconfidence tempts an inexperienced pilot to see how high it will climb or how fast it will go, tragedy could result. Smacking a hard object at great speed will require repair, if not replacement. A dip in a lake can, at great expense, be survived but salt water is fatal.

8. Are these things legal to fly?

For the most part, yes. The FFA has jurisdiction over them and generally has permitted their operation, as long as they’re kept away from airports, kept under 400 feet in altitude and not flown for commercial purposes (i.e., being paid to fly one is prohibited). However, with their recent proliferation, more regulation is likely.

Phantom Evolution

Below is my Vision+ for which I paid $1,299 plus tax. It is an all-inclusive, uncomplicated, fly-out-of-the-box path to excellent images in a short amount of time — after an appropriate amount of instruction and practice, of course.

It’s controller uses WiFi to receive a video signal of what the camera is “seeing” to an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad Mini. Very convenient. Besides clearly seeing where your craft is going, it displays flight info including altitude, air speed, battery life, etc. From the display, you also can change the pitch (up and down) view of the camera and switch between stills and video, on the fly.

That silver apparatus between the landing struts includes the camera, a vibration-reduction platform and a device called a “gimbal.” The gimbal cleverly ensures video stability, even in stiff winds and aggressive flying. For me, it’s a must-have feature and I invested a fair amount of cash tricking out my original Phantom with one. Adding up the cost of the original Phantom ($679), the GoPro Hero 3 Black camera ($349), the Zenmuse gimbal and its installation ($768) plus a video monitoring system got me to right around two grand so, to me, the $1,300 Vision+ is a bargain.

Video that bounces and jerks around difficult to watch. The gimbal can produce rock-solid, buttery-smooth moving pictures. Used close to the ground, the effect can simulate a big-time camera crane. Flying high yields fascinating vistas heretofore unavailable to most of us.

Speaking of my original, customized Phantom, here it is. Out of the box, it included a bracket that could accommodate a GoPro Hero camera (not included) but no gimbal. I had Atlanta Hobby install a the Zenmuse h3-2d gimbal  shown above and I added the required GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition camera, shown here.  The difference between gimbal and no-gimbal video is vast. Certain software can take the latter and improve it a bit but usually at a cost in resolution and, depending on the severity of the shaking, some of it can remain. A good gimbal eliminates it.

This is a terrific set-up that is capable of extraordinarily good stills and video. But, compared to the newer Vision+, it cost more to configure and required an external monitor and video link to use. All together, the experience was less compact.

I also briefly owned a Phantom 2 Vision. It was a terrific flyer that made superb stills and very good video but it lacked a gimbal. When the gimbal-equipped Vision+ was released, I purchased it and sold the other. I keep the original with its Zenmuse as a backup.

Some Initial Suggestions 

In no particular order, here are some observations and recommendations regarding acquisition, use, care and feeding of a Phantom:

1. Buy In-Person from a Brick-and-Mortar Store

I love Amazon but unless you are experienced with radio controlled flying or are not particularly concerned over the prospect of damaging or destroying your new toy, consider buying from experts who can help you get started. You might pay a premium but as easy as it is to fly these things, they can get away from you in a hurry.

The fact is, you likely will crash or otherwise screw up during the learning process. It’s usually no biggie since Phantoms are well constructed but there are crashes and then there are CRASHES. And fly-aways. The trick is to minimize the unpleasantness and the way to do that is to …

2. Read the User Manual

User manuals are anathema to some folks. Not me. I love manufacturers’ guides, even the bad ones. I almost always augment them with lots of Googling. (Caveat: As you know, not everything found on the Internet is factual so use your judgement. Lots of reports of problems are due to operator error, faulty modifications or extremists attempting to set speed and distance records.)

DJI’s manuals and instruction are available as links and downloads and include step-by-step videos. You can glean the basics from the DJI Quick Start Guide but it’s advisable to digest the full-blown manual to understand how all of this works.

For example, beginners should stick with the GPS flying mode. It (miraculously!) uses orbiting satellites to help keep your Phantom nearby, stable and within your control.  You must “calibrate” the Phantom before its first flight (by physically rotating it horizontally, then vertically) and re-calibrate it if you substantially change your launch spot. Honestly, I’ve never found recalibration necessary as long as I fly in the general area. But if I travel a good distance away (like another city or state) to fly, I recalibrate. The success of Phantom safety and “return to home” features depend on its locking onto six or seven satellites that require this calibration procedure. Fortunately, it’s easy.

Amazingly, there are several ways it will take control of itself and land on the spot from which it took off. These are useful if you fly out of range or lose power from the controller. But until you’ve flown a few times, I wouldn’t push altitude or distance to their limits to test this feature! I confess that I’ve tried killing the power to my controller and, sure enough, the Phantom returned to where I launched it. I did it while flying over a soccer field (reasonably soft) and well within my sight.

3. Those First Flights

When you’re confident you’ve grasped the fundamentals and are ready to go airborne, pick an open field with a soft surface. No or little wind is a plus, too, for those first flights.

Assuming you’re appropriately calibrated and are getting the green lights to “go,” pull both controller sticks down and inward until the props begin to spin. I then smartly push that left stick up to get well off the ground four or five feet. At this point, you can release any pressure on the sticks (they’ll bounce to their center, default positions) and you can admire your Phantom as it automatically hovers right in front of you.

Once weary of that, do a little flying but EASE the sticks rather than jerking and holding them. Hopefully you will have read enough of the manual to thoroughly understand how to operate each stick to make your Phantom go up, down, left, right, fast or slow. The first time out, it is highly recommended to use restraint.

Landing is slightly — but only slightly — trickier. I descend slowly and with a little movement to one side or the other so as to minimize the effects of disruptive “prop wash” beneath the craft. I like uneventful landings! If you bounce or try to land too aggressively, you could tip one way or the other and jam one of the props into the dirt. If this occurs, not to worry. The Phantom is very sturdy and it takes a real whack against something hard to incur damage. You’ll quickly get the feel.

4. Don’t Panic!

As mentioned above, the Phantom, can be made to simply hover in place. If you sense something is going wrong, simply release the sticks and it will float there as long as its battery lasts. If after taking stock of its demeanor,  you’re still concerned, land it. For example, red lights instead of green, weird sounds or erratic response might suggest you bring it in for examination.

When flying, if you stray too close to an object, sharply push that left stick upward and you’ll shoot skyward. Part of the fun is the adrenalin rush when you suddenly realize your Phantom is perilously close to something it might strike. The farther I fly my Phantom away, the more I lose perspective of proximity to objects. Distance also can make it difficult to tell which direction it’s heading. After spinning a far-away Phantom around for some cool pictures, make sure you know which direction it’s facing before you move. You could be sending it even farther and possibly out of range. Yes, it might come home but if its battery is low, it might land, out of sight and inaccessible. Not good.

Improving Your Image

Assuming you have flown enough to be comfortable, you can turn your attention to maximizing the quality of the captured stills and video. Frankly, I’m still learning the capabilities and experimenting and not prepared to declare an IQ “winner” between the Hero and the Vision+ cameras. In the meantime, though, here are some observations on the road to getting the most out of this gear:

1. For Video, The gimbal is good.

If you’ve read this far, it should be obvious that I believe a gimbal is crucial for pleasing video. Whether outfitting an older Phantom with a Zenmuse-like stabilizing device or buying the new gimbal-installed Vision+, you will be much happier if video is your primary objective. However, this probably is the  part of the Phantom this is most vulnerable to damage if an object is struck or a landing goes bad. In the case of the Zenmuse, repair or replacement is possible but the cost likely will inflict pain. As for the Vision+ camera/gimbal assembly, some on-line posters regard it as even more fragile and suggest fixing one might be complicated as well as costly.

To date, I’ve had absolutely no problem with my mine but I tend to be a conservative flyer and lander.

Vision+, high definition video is quite good given that the diminutive size of the package. The recording choices are:

1920×1080, 60i, 16:9

1920×1080, 30p, 16:9

1920×1080, 25p, 16:9

1280×720, 60p, 16:9

1280×720, 30p, 16:9

640×480, 30p

Depending on your choice of the above, several angles-of-view are available — 110 degrees (called “Medium”) and 85 degrees (called “Narrow”). The manual says there is another one, presumably “Wide” but I’m still trying to figure it out and will update this post once I do.

The GoPro Hero 3 cameras are, I think, more flexible and offer a greater range of options. I have not done definitive comparisons of IQ between the two but, for me, the Vision+ results are plenty good. But as good as the Hero 3? Too soon to tell but my clip at http://youtu.be/oQ37gAfxEaY was shot with the Hero 3/Zenmuse Phantom and I’m liking it — a lot.

2. To Combat Ugly Video “Jello,” Balance the Props

Out of balance quad copter propellers produce a really annoying visual phenomenon on-line folks call “jello.” The picture more-or-less undulates like a plate of the dessert when it’s shaken. You can find tons of examples of it on YouTube and it’s not pretty. This was a real problem with the first Phantom and it led to lots of experimentation with vibration-absorption techniques that tried to isolate the camera from the Phantom body. Some worked better than others but almost always dramatic improvement resulted when props were balanced. This requires an inexpensive balancing gizmo, sandpaper, practice and patience and seemed necessary for most every one of the “old style” Phantom props.

However, I’ve found the newer, Vision propellers are pretty much balanced as manufactured and, so far, have not had to adjust them.

3. With Stills, Shoot Now, Crop Later

The Vison+ camera offers three still photo sizes but all are the same width in pixels:

Large — 4384×3288 (4:3), 14.4MP

Medium — 4384×2922 (3:2), 12.8MP

Small — 4384×2466 (16:9), 10.8MP

As best as I can tell, the only difference is how much of the image is shaved off the sides. Therefore, since my 32GB memory card is more than enough for my needs, I shoot “Large” and crop later. And I apply the nifty “lens correction” tool in Lightroom 5 to eliminate the curvature-of-the-earth effect produced by the wide angle lens. Photos are extremely sharp and will endure significant enlargement before resolution begins to suffer.

(This post may be updated from time-to-time, as appropriate.)