Monday, April 14, 2014

Review of the DJI Phantom 2 & GoPro 3+ Black Edition for Still Photography

After seeing some amazing images taken with quadcopter (like this one of AT&T Park), I realized that drones were going to be a real game changer in the world of commercial photography.

So, I bit the bullet, whipped out the credit card, and spent about $2000 on a kit that includes:
  • Phantom 2 quadcopter
  • Zenmuse gimbal camera mount
  • GoPro 3+ Black Edition camera
  • KumbaCam FPV unit (transmitter and monitor)
  • GoProfessional hard case for the Phantom 2
  • Spare batteries and such.
Here's a short video about my kit:

The Phantom 2

First, I'll start off by reviewing the quadcopter, FPV unit, etc.

My biggest fear was setting up the equipment. Some of the videos I'd seen of the Phantom 1 showed people opening it up and soldering bits. That's not for me; I'm a photographer, not a hobbyist.

Fortunately, setting it up is a no brainer. There's a bit of attaching things when you first get the Phantom (the gimbal and the camera), but there are plenty of videos out there on the Web covering that. And none it's at all challenging. The FPV transmitter simply velcros to the bottom of the Phantom, and you plug it into the USB port on the GoPro. Easy, even for a non-gearhead like me.

There is a bit of a start up check list you need to go through before you actually fly the Phantom. Here's mine:
  1. Make sure all batteries are charged
  2. Make sure SD card is in camera
  3. Attach FPV monitor to Phantom remote
  4. Turn on Phantom remote
  5. Turn on FPV monitor
  6. Plug in FPV transmitter battery
  7. Turn on camera
  8. Check camera mode
  9. Start recording (I should do this later to avoid getting video of the start up, but I always forget if I don't do it at this point) and verify monitor is working
  10. Turn on Phantom 2
  11. Calibrate compass (this should be done before each flight to assure that the Phantom's GPS is working correctly)
  12. Take off

Flying the Phantom 2

If you don't have experience with RC helicopter controls, I strongly recommend you spend $40 before you buy the Phantom and pick up one of the tiny quadcopters on the market. I bought this little guy from A-Main Hobbies. They are much harder to fly than the Phantom since they lack any stabilization, so by the time you master the little guy you'll have no problems flying the Phantom. It's a relatively cheap way to learn which way is up and down and which way is left and right. Beats learning by crashing $2000 worth of camera and drone into a tree. Smartest thing I did in this whole process.

The Phantom has a couple of systems that stabilize it in flight: an accelerometer that detects motion, and a GPS unit that pinpoints it's location in space. 

Without the GPS, the Phantom, like most other quadcopters, will drift when you are not on the controls. This is problematic in a number of ways, but particularly if you are trying to get several images from the same spot to stitch together. Fortunately, this isn't a problem unless you turn off the GPS (NOT recommended) or are in a spot (like a forest) where it can't pick up a GPS signal.

In the open, with a good GPS signal, the Phantom will hover exactly in one spot. This is great both for making panoramic images, as well as when you get confused or turned around at the controls (happens a lot). All you have to do is let go of the controls and the Phantom will stop and hover. 

The GoPro 3+ Black Edition

So flying isn't the real question here (though I still hyperventilate when $2000 in gear leaves the ground). The real question is: is this a good tool for commercial photography?

And the answer is: it depends.

Let's break down the pros and cons.

  1. You're flying in the middle of the air and have a unique POV.
  2. Great quality video.
  3. Did I mention flying in the air?
  1. 12 Megapixels. And that's the top of the line 3+ Black Edition. You're not making murals of these images. You can stitch images to give you a bit more pixels, but because of the fisheye lens (below), it doesn't add that much. 
  2. Fisheye lens. The GoPro has an essentially fisheye lens. 15mm equivalent, I believe. So there's lots of distortion. Things look farther away than they really are. Tilting the gimbal gives you that tiny-world curved horizon (see below). Yes, you can correct for some of the distortion in Lightroom or Photoshop, but it makes it difficult to stitch images at the very least.
  3. Noise. The GoPro is really a tiny video camera; stills are a sideline. And it shows. There is a lot of noise in solid color midtone areas like the sky. Again, yes, you can correct for some of that in Lightroom and Photoshop, but at a cost in image quality. 

So, is it worth it? Depends on what you shoot. I think it can be a boon for real estate and architectural photography, with the unique POVs. The severe distortion and fisheye limit it's use for any sort of people photography. Maybe a gimmick shot here or there, but not much else.

I do a far amount of agricultural and commercial photography, and I think it can be a great additional tool, but it has very real limits.

The GoPro has a still image mode that takes a 12Mp image every second or so (this is adjustable). Unfortunately, the GoPro does not send video to the FPV unit in stills mode. That means you're flying blind when shooting stills. The solution is to set the camera to video+stills mode. It only takes a still image every 5 seconds, but that's better than nothing, and it will send live video to the FPV unit. If you want the full 12Mp, you have to shoot in 1920x1440, instead of the normal 1920x1080. Many video players will not play 1440 video, so if you want the video as well, you'll have to convert it. The GoPro Studio software will do this for you.

Other Thoughts

I do worry about all the societal issues surrounding drones - issues that I guarantee will be in the news a lot this year: privacy, safety, people not wanting to be recorded, etc., etc. But this isn't the place to go over those. I just don't want to be the guy who crashes into a crowd or onto the infield at a Giants game.