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DJI’s Phantom 4: A Photographer’s Take

At least as much as anyone, I’m intrigued by drones. I’ve always wanted to be a pilot, I’m reading a book on the Wright Brothers right now, I fly every chance I get, and if I ever have a first born son, I’m torn between naming him Bernoulli or Orville. I’m crazy about flying, but I don’t own a drone. However, the newest announcement from DJI certainly has me considering it more than I ever. I have three concerns that have kept me back from buying a drone, but the Phantom 4 seems to address them pretty well.

1. The Camera

As much as I like flying, I think I actually like photography more. If I’m going to drop hundreds of dollars on something, it should be capable of making a pretty good picture. The Phantom 3 had a decent camera, and I’ve worked side by side with film crews using it and they made very fine films with the footage.

Phantom 4

The Phantom 4 appears to have the same 12-megapixel sensor as the 3, but I understand the lens is new and has markedly less chromatic aberration. Also, even though it’s the same sensor, I’m hearing that it performs much better in low light and long exposures. Photographs can be recorded as DNG’s, which I love. The camera films in 4K, which can yield an 8-megapixel still on its own, but a big improvement is the ability to shoot 120fps at 1080p, which will make excellent slow motion footage. At US$1,399, It’s cheaper than a slider and a jib, and may just make some excellent moves.

Speaking of long exposures, the flight and gimbal are more stable than previous models, allowing better results for longer exposures in breezier conditions. I consider a drone to be a camera on a flying tripod, so greater picture quality and being more stable are features I can understand and quantify, and they are very appealing.

Ryan McMaster shoots film and photos as a full-time pilot, and the Phantoms have been some of his workhorse tools. This sample of the kinds of photography that can be made really get’s me excited about flying drones.

2. Safety & Reliability

Every drone pilot I know has had a crash. Whether the pilot flew it into a tree (or rock), or the system had a problem and it flew away until the battery died, everyone has crashed their drones. A crash may put you back a few bucks for new propellers, or it may total the camera. Either way, I’m not rich enough to throw money into the sky and hope it comes back.

0_2more_6-ddb9c339bcda16de9d7db5065da0a52fThe Phantom 4, however, addresses this concern by including cameras and ultrasonic sensors that allow it to automatically avoid obstacles. Furthermore, it’s got a dual flight system so that if there’s a problem with navigation it’s far less likely to completely lose contact with the pilot. Also, a new battery boasts longer flight times. If you do break a prop (when you break a prop) they’ve got a new tool-less bayonet mount for the prop so it’s easy to change on the go.

Ok, I’m being swayed.

3. Ease of Use 

As much as I’d love to learn to fly a drone with great finesse, I simply don’t have time to become a skilled pilot–I’m trying my hardest just to become a skilled photographer. Learning to make good video footage and stills while also watching out for power lines and fiddling with joysticks just doesn’t fit my schedule.

phantom 4 3The Phantom 4 beats this by utilizing those sensors and allowing me to give the drone one-touch directions on the display. I can look at the video on the controller, see a place I want it to fly to, and simply touch the screen and it’ll start flying that direction. I can still practice as I find time and learn to make complicated camera moves…but I don’t have to to get started. Plus, it follows a subject around with one touch, or I can map waypoints for it to follow a path automatically. It sounds like I can focus on making creative imagery while the drone does the technical flying. I’m kinda convincing myself that I should buy one.

What do you think? Do you want a drone? Do you already have experience flying one? Tells us about it in the comments.

Phantom 5Lastly, the best thing about the Phantom 4 may be that the prices of the Phantom 3’s have dropped. The Phantom 3 may be like a good car that works well, whereas the Phantom 4 is the upgraded trim of the same model: it’s got the sweet stereo and the turbo, but it’s fundamentally the same car. Still, it’s little things like the self-driving features that might push me over the edge.

Phantoms 4’s will start shipping on March 15th, and you can preorder from DJI.com, or, interestingly and exclusively, Apple.com; other retailers will be selling it later. US$1,399.

(All photos from DJI.com)

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