Much of photography and video work is about being in the right place and getting the shot that you (or your client) is looking for. To accomplish this, we sometimes use dollies, jibs, ladders, cars and, occasionally, even aircraft. While useful, these items are heavy, limited in range, difficult to use properly, and most of all very expensive.
The digital revolution has changed the dynamics of most professional photography gear, but the same cannot be said for something like a jib arm. On the one hand, if you want to get street level footage from a speeding race car, you can now strap a slick little GoPro camera underneath it. On the other hand though, if you were want a panning shot from 25 feet in the air, you’re probably employing the same basic tools you used 30 years ago.
Now, imagine a device that would let you capture shots that previously would have required a crane, but without the crane. Or a device that would allow you to take aerial images without the need for an airplane or helicopter?
What about a device that gives you a completely unique angle of view for event or sports photography or video? Sounds pretty good, right? Now, let’s take it one step further, and say that this device would be easy enough for almost anyone to use, fit in a Pelican case, and cost just $1200.
You’d jump at the chance to have that in your arsenal, right? That is exactly what the folks at DJI are aiming to give you with their Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter, an aerial drone designed for shooting photos and video.
More Than a Toy
The Phantom 2 Vision is a radio-controlled, four-rotor, mini helicopter (quadcopter) carrying an integrated, stabilized 14-megapixel camera that also shoots full HD 1080i video at up to 60 frames a second. DJI claims a flying range of up to 300 meters and speeds of up to 30mph.
Should you inadvertently fly beyond the controller’s range (or lose connection for any reason), the Phantom 2 Vision is capable of using GPS to return to its launch point and land safely on its own. Operated via a 4-channel, 5.8Ghz controller, the drone uses a WiFi repeater to stream live “first-person-view” video from the camera to your smartphone while also displaying flight metrics such as altitude, speed and distance.
This piece of equipment is nothing like the toy quadcopters that you may have seen advertised in in-flight magazines. Swift Xie, CMO of DJI, describes he DJI Phantom 2 Vision as “more than a copter.”
“It is a flying camera that has a fully integrated high-performance camera, which delivers beautiful aerial photos and aerial videos,” Xie says. “Furthermore, the DJI Phantom 2 Vision’s camera can be easily controlled using the DJI Vision Mobile App.”
Out of the box, the first thing you notice about the Phantom 2 Vision, is that you have a 50-page manual to read through. That’s unsurprising, since you are holding a fairly sophisticated piece of flying hardware in your hands. Anything that can zip around, hundreds of feet in the air, at 30mph is going to take a little practice.
Getting ready for your first flight requires some initial setup. First of all, there are 3 different batteries to consider: the flight battery for the quadcopter itself (removable and with a dedicated charger), the batteries for the controller (four AA), and the batteries for the WiFi range extender (non-removable and charged via USB cable).
Once you’ve got those all charged and installed, you’ll need to go through a few steps to install the propellers, set up the mobile app, bind the camera and range extender, connect the WiFi, and calibrate the compass. Once you’ve got all that done, you should be good to go for your first flight.
Basic flying is surprisingly easy. Find a flat open grassy area and get started. With no radio-controlled helicopter experience to speak of, I had the Phantom 2 Vision zooming all around a local park my first time out.
The hardest part for those new to flying may be remembering what the different control stick motions do. For example, it’s easy to mix up the “forward” control with the “up” control. However, if you are able to play a video game on the Xbox, you’ll probably have little trouble getting started with the Phantom 2 Vision.
Takeoffs and landings in particular take some practice to do smoothly. Give yourself an advantage by finding a smooth flat spot for both. In addition, speed can be an issue. I ended up scraping up the propellers on one side after coming in a bit too fast for one of my first landings (DJI thankfully includes a replacement set in the box).
Initially, you will tend to fly while looking directly at the Phantom 2 Vision drone itself. After a while though, you’ll start to feel more comfortable flying further away from your control position.
That is when the video streaming to your smartphone comes into its own. Using the smartphone as your only view takes some getting used to, and I would encourage you to practice before letting the Phantom 2 Vision get too far out of your sight. But it’s really not as difficult as it sounds.
In quality and angle of view, the Phantom 2 Vision’s camera is much like a GoPro. You get a wide angle POV with some amount of barrel distortion.
Do keep in mind that there is no audio. As with a GoPro, video quality is generally excellent and photos are a little less so. Don’t get me wrong, still images captured with the Phantom 2 are still very usable at 14MP with the option of a RAW image format, but at the end of the day this is still a small sensor camera. It isn’t going to be able to match up to a mirrorless system camera, to say nothing of a full frame digital SLR.
On the other hand, a gyrocopter powerful enough to take your 4+ pound Canon 5D Mark III up into the air is a lot more expensive and more difficult to use. The Phantom 2 Vision’s manual controls are nothing like a DSLR, but they are better than a GoPro and on par with your average point-and-shoot camera.
You can adjust the white balance, metering, ISO, image format/quality, and video size/shutter. The most important camera control you have from the app is the ability to tilt the camera up or down, which you do by pressing the up or down arrows on screen. However, this will also make you wish you had a third hand as it’s virtually impossible to do this while trying to execute a camera movement like a pan or a follow.
As a solution, DJI offers the ability to use what they call “Accelerometer Sensor Mode” which allows you to use the accelerometer in your mobile device to control the camera’s tilt and the panning rotation of the Phantom 2 Vision as a whole.
Overall, the imaging output from the Phantom 2 Vision is definitely usable for some assignments but it doesn’t rise what you’d get from a GoPro. If that’s the expectation of the client though, you should be fine with aerial video from this drone. Check out my sample clip below:
For stills, this aerial drone may not be able to shoot magazine cover quality photos, but the unique angles and camera positions the Phantom 2 Vision creates make it a tool with a surprising number of commercial opportunities. I could envision it being used in real estate, advertising, youth sports, wedding/event photography, and even something as specialized as structural inspection videos. The Phantom 2 Vision gives you, as a professional, a tool unlike anything you’ve had access to previously.
While the Phantom 2 Vision is surprisingly easy to fly, getting proficient enough to use it professionally will take some serious practice. It is fully capable of making all the pan, jib, and dolly shots that I mentioned earlier in the article. But doing so with confidence and, particularly, smoothness will take some “seat time” as pilots say. One can easily imagine a beautiful wedding portrait video shot circling around a bride and groom as they embrace, but an accident in that situation could be a real nightmare for everyone involved.
On that note, there are a few general drawbacks to the quadcopter-camera concept that are worth mentioning. First off is the noise. If you think that the Phantom 2 Vision looks a little like a flying weedeater, it sounds a lot like one also. There is nothing particularly stealthy about flying it around. People will notice you.
Speaking of the attention you get, when onlookers notice the Phantom 2 Vision, you tend to get one of two responses. Some people think you’ve got a really clever gadget in your hands. Others, however, alarmed by news stories about police drones and Jeff Bezos’s future plans to deliver Amazon packages, tend to be suspicious about your intentions.
Now, in a professional setting this wouldn’t matter. If you were filming a surfer or taking aerial images of a corporate farming operation, nobody would look at you twice, but in other, more public situations, you will need to be aware of the attention. In that vein, you should be mindful of any local or state regulations that may apply to devices such as this, particularly in regards to privacy or commercial use.
At the end of the day, the Phantom 2 Vision is a truly amazing device. It’s easy enough for a beginner to use and powerful enough to serve as a professional tool, it opens up a whole new world of creative possibilities. Plus, flying it around the neighborhood on a sunny afternoon is just plain fun.