If you’ve followed the latest photo tech trends, you are no doubt aware of imaging drones. We decided to test one out to see if they really might replace the expense and hassle of renting a real helicopter or setting up a tricky crane shot.
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 per second. DJI claims a flying range of up to 980 feet and speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
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 four- 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.
The first thing you notice about the Phantom 2 Vision is that you have a 50-page manual to read through. That’s not surprising, considering 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 30 mph is going to take a little practice.
Getting ready for your first flight requires some initial setup. First, there are three 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. After that, you should be good to go for your first flight. Basic flying is surprisingly easy. Find a flat, open, grassy area and get started. Even given my limited experience with radio- controlled helicopters, I had the Phantom 2 Vision zooming all around a local park my first time out.
Takeoffs and landings take some practice to do smoothly. Give yourself an advantage by finding a smooth, flat spot for both. Speed can also be an issue. I ended up scraping 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 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 encourage you to practice before letting the Phantom 2 Vision get too far out of sight. But it’s really not as difficult as it seems.
In quality and angle of view, the Phantom 2 Vision’s camera is much like a GoPro. You get a wide-angle point-of-view shot with some amount of barrel distortion.
Keep in mind that there is no audio. As with a GoPro, video quality is generally excellent and photos are a little less so. However, still images captured with the Phantom 2 Vision 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 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-plus pound Canon 5D Mark III up into the air is a lot more expensive and 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 corresponding arrows on screen. However, this will also make you wish you had a third hand, as it’s virtually impossible to tilt while trying to execute a camera movement like a pan or a follow.
As a solution, DJI offers an “Accelerometer Sensor Mode,” which allows you to use the accelerometer in your smartphone to control the camera’s tilt and the panning rotation of the Phantom 2 Vision as a whole. Overall, the imaging output from the drone is usable for some assignments, but it doesn’t rise to 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.
For stills, the drone may not be able to shoot magazine cover-quality photos, but the unique angles and camera positions that 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 professionals a tool unlike anything previously accessible.
The Bottom Line
The Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter 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.
Pros: A fun, low-cost solution for aerial photography
Cons: Takes practice and draws attention.