Those looking for innovation in the photo market need only look up. Flying cameras have seized the public’s imagination and ushered in a new era of aerial photography and filmmaking. And we largely have DJI to thank for that.
With the Inspire 1, DJI created a more powerful quadcopter than the Phantom drone, the model that did so much to popularize the category. We paired with New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño and Ashley Patiño, owner of the production company Generic Brand Human, to test the Inspire 1. Both had operated Phantom 1s before stepping up to the Inspire 1.
While the Inspire 1 is considered “ready to fly” out of the box, it’s a more advanced quadcopter than the Phantom series. We tested the original 4K camera (X3), which is capable of delivering multiple resolutions and frame rates, including 4096X2160p30 and 3840X2160p30. Full HD recording is also available up to 60p. It also snaps 12-megapixel images in both JPEG and RAW (DNG). The camera’s f/2.8 lens has a 94-degree field of view.
This camera is upgradeable to the new X5 camera, released shortly after our review concluded. The X5, which requires the Zenmuse X5 gimbal, is significantly higher quality than the X3. It features interchangeable lenses via a Micro Four Thirds lens mount and a 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds-sized sensor that’s eight times larger than the X3’s GoPro-sized imager. The X5 can also record 4K video but an X5R version of the camera will record 4K RAW video (CinemaDNG) too. But upgrading an existing Inspire 1 to the Zenmuse X5 won’t come cheap—the X5 camera costs $1,699 (without lens). The price wasn’t set on the X5R but presumably it will cost even more. You can also now buy an Inspire 1 with the X5/R camera out of the box.
The Inspire 1 positions itself via GPS and the Russian GLONASS satellite system, providing much greater outdoor accuracy compared to earlier Phantoms, which relied solely on GPS. It also uses what DJI dubs a “Vision Positioning” system to allow it to safely navigate indoors, when GPS access is lost, using a combination of visual and sonar sensors and a dedicated CPU to crunch the data.
The Inspire 1 can fly up to 72 feet per second in windless conditions and stay aloft for 18 minutes, though this spec varies significantly depending on wind conditions and how you’re flying. The remote control incorporates DJI’s HD video downlink technology, dubbed Lightbridge, which feeds a livestream from the Inspire’s camera to your mobile device. You can fly the Inspire 1 alone or use two remotes to establish a Master/Slave connection—the Master flies the quadcopter, the Slave controls the camera.
New firmware, which was released shortly after our tests concluded, gives the Inspire 1 even more capabilities. You can now program way points so the Inspire 1 can fly to destinations on its own, plus lock your home position for when you want the drone to return to your starting point (or wherever you want “home” to be).
Where the Phantom series of drones look approachable, almost toy-like, the Inspire 1 is angular—even a bit intimidating. Outside of a hard plastic shell and snap-on plastic propellers, the Inspire 1 uses tough carbon fiber components. When loaded with battery, the Inspire 1 weighs 6.5 pounds—heavier than the Phantom but still light enough that it’s easy to transport. DJI provides a rugged case for the Inspire 1 that’s not quite a hard case but strong enough for long car rides and field work. Upon takeoff, the landing gear retract, leaving the camera free to rotate 320 degrees without an obstruction in the camera’s field of view. The Zenmuse gimbal can also position the camera straight down, for sweeping ground views.
The remote control is similarly well designed and intuitive to use. There’s room to mount a smartphone or a small tablet. Given the abundance of features in the DJI Go app, it’s far easier to use an iPad Mini or 7-inch Android tablet. One quibble David Patiño had with the remote was camera operation—you can pan the camera with one scrolling wheel or reprogram that same scrolling wheel to tilt the camera, but both functions don’t have their own dedicated space on the controller.
Ashley and David Patiño use the Inspire 1 primarily for video and both tell us they’re very happy with the video quality from the Zenmuse X3. The max bit rate of any of the video recorded from the X3 camera is 60Mbps, which is on the low-side for 4K, though we didn’t notice any glaring artifacts when reviewing the camera’s footage. The X3 maintains a fairly balanced exposure with consistent color reproduction in daylight and moderately hazy conditions.
The ISO range is fairly limited: from 100-1600 when shooting stills. In video, you’ll be able to push ISO to 3200. In bright sun, the lens will pick up some flaring. You won’t enjoy a wide dynamic range, David Patiño tells us, but the files hold up well enough in post production for online deliverables. JPEGs pulled from the Inspire 1’s 4K footage required the normal amount post-processing before they were useable, David says. The X3 has a narrower field of view than a GoPro, so there’s not as much distortion at the edge of your frame.
The Inspire 1 set-up is very straightforward if you’ve even flown a quadcopter, David Patiño tell us. While the drone supports two pilot operation, the drone is easily flown solo. Once it’s in the air, it’s “rock solid,” he adds. Whereas the Phantom 1 would sway and produce jittery footage under a light breeze, the Inspire 1’s footage remained stable even in the face of stiffer winds, Ashley Patiño tells us.
Battery life is an issue, though. The unit ships with a 4,500mAh battery but the Patiños knew it wouldn’t be sufficient for their needs and wound up purchasing four of the higher capacity, 5700mAh batteries, which retail for $199 each. Ashley tells us that the battery life seemed to drain faster from 50 percent to depletion than from 100 percent to 50 percent. This rapid drawdown has serious consequences. At 15 percent, the drone automatically heads to its home position. While it does beep a warning that it’s at 15 percent and about to fly off, it was so quick that by the time it registered during the multitasking frenzy of a solo shoot, the drone had already headed home. Unfortunately, it did so under a canopy of trees. While the Vision Positioning system is reliable for navigating around ground-based obstacles, it’s unable to steer around threats from above.
The resulting damage was severe enough to ground the drone, though DJI did repair it fully at no cost.
While the remote’s battery life is considerably longer than the aircraft’s, it’s not removable, so if you’re out in the field and it dies, you’re out of luck. Another performance issue David cites is the firmware updating policy. DJI gives drone owners three days to update firmware. Failure to do so results in grounding the device, rendering it useless. Obviously, there are safety issues to contend with, but he tells us that this three day limit can potentially interfere with a shoot, especially if you’re traveling somewhere with poor to non-existent Internet connectivity.
The Inspire 1 is a vastly more capable platform for serious aerial photography and cinematography than the Phantom quadcopter without being orders of magnitude more difficult to operate. The Inspire 1’s new firmware helps DJI close the gap with some of the more automated drone platforms hitting the market, while the X5 camera will give a major boost to cinematographers looking for higher quality files and more optical options. Indeed, while there have been a lot of entrants in the sub $1,200 market where the Phantom competes, the Inspire 1 occupies a niche with vanishingly few competitors. The next step up brings you into more expensive, more complicated platforms that can hold much heavier cameras.
While it seems churlish to complain about price when we’re talking about a flying camera it’s worth noting that the price of Inspire 1 ownership does quickly add up. The drone will need extra batteries at a minimum. You’ll want a true hard case if you’re checking the Inspire 1 in as luggage. Throw in the Zenmuse X5/R camera and gimbal and you’re talking a significant investment, on par with purchasing a full frame DSLR and lens That said, if you’re serious about aerial photography and cinematography, the Inspire 1 is an excellent investment.
PROS: Excellent handling; stable footage; straightforward solo flying; good 4K footage quality.
CONS: No removable battery for remote control; gets pricey with needed extras.