A few months ago, Durban based photographer Emil von Maltitz acquired a drone from us. Most people buying up DJI’s hi-tech toys are using them exactly for that purpose and not much more – to play around and check out life from above. For photographers, however, it’s a bit more complicated than that and we all ask the same set of questions about image quality, ease of use and legality. Most photographers don’t want to make the investment if it’s not a practically usable tool that will deliver great images. In this review, Emil answers a lot of those questions and explains the complications of drone use as it applies to our species (photographers).
Hougaard I have had an ambivalent attitude towards drones for a while, at least since they first became accessible to the average consumer. In fact, I have been intrigued by the imaging possibilities of remote controlled aircraft since I first saw an article in a magazine in the mid-1990s where somebody had attached a simple point and shoot camera to a remote controlled glider to shoot aerial landscapes in the UK. Learning to fly an actual glider in the Free State in my late teens deepened my interest in aerial photography, although the images I shot tended to be snapshots rather than carefully composed aerial landscapes; concentrating on the controls of an old canvas covered glider seemed more important to me at the time to be honest. Fast forward a couple of decades and I would regularly find myself reading up about the latest drones, contemplating the cost and whether it would really be ‘worth it’.
An experience last year at the iconic Hole-in-the-Wall on South Africa’s Wild Coast is where my ambivalence towards the use of drones set in. We were shooting in the early morning during a photography workshop for Natures Light when another photographer launched a drone from the banks of the river and proceeded to fly up and down the river. The flying around the river wasn’t what put me off though. He also flew quite close to myself and the other photographers and even hovered directly over us, quite obviously using us as subjects in his frame. It’s one thing to be photographed in the street in candid photography. It is quite another to have a loud lawnmower hovering less than two metres above you when you are concentrating on your own photography.
Coupled to the above is the fact that drones have become persona non grata amongst the general public. They are noisy, intrusive and bothersome. Recent editorials and opinion pieces in magazines such as SA 4×4, Getaway and Go/Weg, are quite negative towards drones. Personally, if I were enjoying the quiet of the bush, the intrusion by a drone would be irksome to say the least. I can then understand why some people get practically postal when they see a drone hovering over their garden.
However, even the most crotchety and cynical of observers cannot but be impressed by some of the imagery and footage that has been captured by commercially available drones over the last few years. The imagery displayed through the now annual drone photography competitions of Dronestagram which is also backed by National Geographic) and SkyPixel are truly jaw-dropping. So, despite my reservations around drones, I have long been interested to see what I could create with one. The thing that has held me back though is the image quality. The video footage is truly impressive, but to be honest the stills quality has been decidedly lack-lustre. The only option for decent still imagery has been to invest enormous sums in the larger drones like the DJI SJ1000, Spreading Wings or even the Inspire 1. These large, heavy and complicated drones are then capable of lifting an actual DSLR into the air (with the exception of the Inspire which has it’s own purpose built cameras), which obviously means DSLR image quality. This is an extraordinary amount of money to invest, and not something you can dip into just to test the waters.
Right: A vertical stitch of Gudu Falls in the Drakensberg
Then DJI brought out the Phantom 4 Pro. From what I can make out, it essentially has the same Sony 1-inch CMOS 20mp sensor that Sony’s acclaimed RX100 camera uses. This is a far departure from the tiny 12mp sensor used in the original Phantom, Phantom 3 Pro and Mavic. I had seen the 12mp stills from the Phantom 3 and was underwhelmed to say the least. The stills from the Phantom 4, although now offering RAW capture, didn’t promise to be that much better either. In fact a colleague whose work I admire even said to me that I would be disappointed; basically no better than a GoPro. Again, great for video, awful for stills – particularly if you want to put those stills in print.
Then I received the usual monthly newsletter from Hougaard Malan at Landscape Gear, this time touting the Phantom 4 Pro. I had literally just watched another aerial video by Durban photographer Kierran Allan (who uses the Phantom 4 Pro), so intrigued and not actually considering buying a drone I emailed Hougaard. He promptly sent me two RAW files and I did a complete about turn. No, files are not the same or even close to the RAW files out of my D800e, but they were far and away the best image files I had seen from a consumer level drone, and by a long stretch.
With my wife giving me a decidedly disapproving look, I ordered the Phantom 4 Pro along with a spare battery (buy an extra, if not two extra batteries as you are tied to how much battery you can carry with you for a shoot). Truth be told, I don’t think I have been as excited about a camera purchase since my first Pentax ME Super some 25 years ago. I literally couldn’t sleep that night. Two days later the courier van arrived and I practically skipped to the gate to meet it. All thoughts of other (very much more pressing) work were banished from my mind as I unwrapped the box and unpacked the drone for the first time.
Wow, what a thing! The Phantom 4 Pro shines in it’s hard white plastic casing. Eerily it looks like something out of the white and sterile environs of the Star Wars Empire. It looks purposeful! It was also, for a drone newbie such as myself, surprisingly small and light. The drone comes packaged in a hard grey polystyrene carry case. This is particularly useful as it turns out the drone is actually quite awkward to transport. The case also comfortably holds the remote control unit (under-engineered if you ask me as the camera clips against the remote control when you pack everything in), charger, cables and has space for two additional batteries. Sadly I couldn’t find space to store my iPad Air, although it’s possible that a iPad Mini might fit if you don’t pack the charging unit (or slide it in elsewhere). Out of the box are also four spare propellers (essentially a spare set as the drone requires specific propellers on the different arms – you cannot mix and match as the rotors obviously turn in opposing rotation).
It took me a while to get things into place in order to fly for the first time. One thing you cannot do is simply fly straight out of the box (unless of course you are already familiar with drones and already have a set of fully charged batteries to hand). First order of business is to get the batteries for both the drone and the control unit charged up. DJI state that you shouldn’t charge both the drone battery and the control unit at the same time, although the charger pack has plugs for both. Reading around on forums I came to the conclusion that there shouldn’t be a problem doing so, but be warned this is not what DJI recommend. DJI are quite explicit about the fact that both battery and control unit have to be at 100% before you attempt to fly the drone and also that they should not be charged at the same time.
To get everything started you also have to download the DJI Go app from Google Play or the iTunes Store. This loaded up quickly enough for me, and is basically the controlling brains for the drone. When you plug the tablet or phone into the control unit, it allows you to access various settings along with the actual drone. Immediately I was prompted to update the drone and control unit. The visual prompts on the app were easy enough to follow and I found that I was updated and ready to switch on the drone properly after about 20 minutes from first plugging in a fully charged battery and switching on (a quick note on the the power buttons for both the control unit and the drone. You have to use two presses to switch on or off any of the power buttons. First press to light up the LEDs, then a second longer press while the LEDs blip on and off in a row and the unit either powers on or off depending on what you are doing). On doing this for the first time, I also discovered that the app and drone required software and firmware updates (this is important enough that it is in the QuickStart guide as well as the DJI website). This was relatively simple. Connect the iPad directly to the drone via the supplied cable adapters and let it get on with it. After this you also have to calibrate the drone’s compass, IMU and gimbal. Again, follow the instructions as they pop up (so a thumbs up for the fairly simple to follow directions).
Usefully, the DJI Go app includes a flight simulator. I spent some time getting used to the controls in this app and am glad that I did. Although the drone is actually very easy to fly in Point Of View (POV) mode through the camera, it takes some practice to fly the drone without the camera’s view. This incidentally is essential as there is the possibility of a break in connection between the camera feed and the remote (it has happened to me briefly during one flight – on a second flight I lost full control but managed to press the home button and the drone returned…along with my elevated heart rate). If this happens, you have to pilot the drone without the aid of its camera. It’s for this reason that virtually every country that has legislation regarding drones insists that the drone be flown within visual line of sight. This is not made any easier by the fact that the drone is actually quite small, and very easy to lose sight of, even when it is relatively close by.
Scare tactics aside, the Phantom 4 Pro is actually really easy to fly and control – once you get used to controlling an object that is traveling in a different direction to the one you are facing (example: if the drone is flying toward you and you want it to move to your left, you have to make it move to the right on your controller). In some ways it’s almost too easy to fly, tempting the user to do something silly potentially, like fly it way out of line of sight.
DJI have thought of this though. There is a very handy little button, the ‘return-home’ button, that when pressed sets the drone into an auto-pilot mode to return back to the last place that it recorded as ‘home’ (just make sure that you have gone through the settings for this so that the drone will lift above the highest obstacle, otherwise it may fly smack into it).
All sorts of things went through my mind when I first started flying the drone. There was a nagging sense of ‘is this really legal’ (for the most part yes, but with some serious caveats), coupled to the odd sensation of not being entirely comfortable with launching what really does sound like an angry lawnmower into the sky. Shooting on the street (with a DSLR), which I occasionally do, can be done quietly and without bothering people. It’s also very easy to walk up to someone and ask if you can take a photograph of them. These niceties and the subtleties of discreet shooting fly out of the window when you launch a drone. It’s noisy and obvious and a lot of people do not like having one in their vicinity. But, there is also something extraordinarily exciting about flying the drone in the first place.
So far I haven’t had anyone get angry with me for using the drone. Quite the opposite actually. Most people are curious and want to know more about it. That said I have tended to fly the drone in places where there aren’t people to object in the first place, so this probably accounts for the lack of complaints. I imagine it would be very different if I launched the noisy Phantom in the middle of a rest camp in the Kruger (which isn’t allowed anyway). The only times I have flown the drone where people would notice was to shoot a video for a local kayak club as a favour to show a cleanup they were doing on the dam they use to train on (see video here), and to shoot some images – again as a favour – for the school my kids go to for their swimming gala.
During the recent protests in South Africa I was also curious to see that drones were in attendance (the sign of a middle-class protest perhaps). At the Durban event there were at least five individual drones that I counted (Two Phantom 4s, a Phantom 3 Pro and two Mavics). People around didn’t seem particularly angry or phased by their presence. Although, I did overhear one conversation where the speaker commented on the illegality of the drones (more on that below).
Getting past the unnerving – at least for me – nature of the noisy and intrusive drone, flying the Phantom is in fact a lot of fun. It brings a host of new angles and vantage points that I had only dreamed of before. However, it’s arguable as to how much fun the drone really is. It’s not the same as flying a remote-controlled aircraft. There really isn’t that much ‘playing’ that you can do. This probably accounts for the the fairly high number of used and relatively inexpensive models in the classifieds. I suspect that a lot of buyers get hold of the drone thinking it’ll be a lot of fun, and after a short period of time the novelty wears off and they flog the thing. Seriously, if you are just flying the drone, a remote-controlled helicopter is probably going to be more ‘fun’.
Unless you are into the imagery of course! This is where the experience of the drone is phenomenal. As a photographer I was spell-bound with the opportunities presented from the first launch from a nearby school sports field.
The Legal Bit
South Africa has recently put in place some quite far-reaching laws governing the use of small drones. Essentially you are free to use a drone for non-commercial purposes in pretty much any outdoor space with a couple of provisos:
Hobby use of drones does not not require a Remote Pilots Licence or RPL, Likewise hobbyists need not register their drones, and do not need an aviation medical. Hobbyists can fly drones up to 7kg in weight (that’s heavy considering that the Phantom 4 Pro only weighs 1,4kg) without a licence, can fly up to the height of the highest object in 300m of the drone (up to a max of 122 metres), and can fly up to 500m away from the pilot, while maintaining direct line of sight. What hobbyists are not allowed to do is fly within 50m of people without their permission, nor fly within 50m of roads and buildings. More importantly hobbyists are not allowed to fly within 10km of any airport and may not fly in any No Fly Zones (DJI even builds this into their apps and devices now). As a result there is an awful lot you can do with a drone as a hobbyist.
So the strongest limitation to the drone is really that it has to be 50m from people or buildings that you have not gotten permission to be near. Hence the comment above during the recent protests. The drones that were being flown over the protesters were well within the 50m mark that the legislation stipulates.
The legislation is also pretty explicit in that any commercial venture done with a drone requires not only a Remote Pilots Licence (RPL), but also an Aviation Operators Licence from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). This complicates things no end for any photographer thinking that they can buy a drone and quickly start making money out of it. Legally, you can’t. The fact that the necessary licensing comes to several times more than the cost of the drone means that the CAA have probably created something of a headache for themselves. Couple this to the fact that a RPL (Remote Pilot’s Licence) is not sufficient for being able to operate commercially. You also have to be a registered and licensed aviation operator. Theoretically this law applies whether you are flying the drone in the middle of farm in the Karoo, inside a warehouse in a city, or anywhere. Hence the outcry by many photographers who want to use drones for commercial photography.
But, if all you want to do is make photographic art, then in theory you are bound only by the hobbyist rules. These, as can be seen, are actually pretty lax.
Personally, I wanted the drone for personal projects, so the above legislation doesn’t really concern me, although in future if I actually wanted to do ‘real’ work with the drone it might. The reason I was excited about the Phantom 4 Pro was entirely due to the onboard camera. To me, the Phantom 4 Pro is really a camera with rotors attached.
The camera itself is a 1-inch 20mp back-side illuminated CMOS sensor with a 24mm equivalent f2.8 lens and coupled mechanical shutter. Basically it’s about as good as you currently get in the 1-inch format. Think Sony RX 100 series or the latest Nikon V3 in terms of image quality. No, it’s not the same as shooting with a Full-Frame Nikon or Canon, or even one of the 24mp APS-C cameras. It is, however, leaps and bounds over the images produced by any previous drones of this size. With careful massaging of the file I can comfortably print to A3+ without any serious issues (with the proviso that the image is shot at 100 ISO and is properly exposed using the ‘expose-to-the-right’ rule of thumb). I did find though that noise gets pretty obvious as soon as you start shooting at anything above the base 100 ISO. Even at 100 ISO the shadow noise needs some work. Still, I have managed to get useable shots in near twilight lighting at 400 ISO.
The camera has a range of shutter speeds between 8 seconds and 1/8000th of a second and an aperture range from f/2.8 to f/11. The controls themselves are identical to any other fully manual controlled camera giving 1/3 stop increments through the various controls. It took me a little getting used to the actual operation of the controls through the remote, but with very little practice you can change the settings on the fly with the control wheel which also operates as a button (press to change parameter between ISO, Shutter and Aperture and rotate to change the setting). Like any mirrorless camera, you get a live-view feed on the mobile device you are using to assist with controlling the drone. The live-view gives you decent enough resolution (although I turned mine down as it seemed to affect the transmission strength) and comes with the option of zebras for the highlights and a pop-up histogram. I did find though that the camera’s histogram errs on the side of underexposure. I found I could happily clip the edge of the curve against the right hand wall of the histogram and still have detail in the highlights on the image once viewed on a computer.
The camera’s full resolution at 3:2 ratio is 5472×3648 pixels. When I first started using the drone I erroneously thought that the 4:3 aspect ratio might give the largest file size (I was confused between the way that the 1 inch and MFT sensors cropped the ratios). If you are wanting to get the best possible size out of the camera I firmly recommend sticking to the 3:2 aspect ratio and cropping in post. Then there is the huge advantage of the Phantom 4 Pro in that it shoots RAW dng files. I was very surprised at how much latitude I could get out of the RAW images. Again, this is not to say that the camera is the same as shooting with one of my Nikon D800s, but what it does get, has consistently surprised me.
There are a few things that make me realise that DJI are primarily a drone company and not a camera company. Serious bugbears that I have had with the camera have been the focusing and the buffer when shooting with exposure bracketing switched on. One of the things that surprised me was the ability to shoot low light stills with the Phantom 4 Pro. The stability of the drone has meant that I could get sharp images all the way down to a 1/4 of a second (some users claim getting image exposures of multiple seconds but I have yet to get that). This has meant that shooting at predawn and dusk is possible. The problem is that the camera needs to focus in these dark conditions and it struggles to do this. You autofocus by tapping on the image and get a ‘confirmation’ – which isn’t always accurate – of a green rectangle. Then, bizarrely, if you switch to manual focus the scale indicates infinity when you are actually focused on the foreground and vice versa for when you try to focus close-up. It made me wonder whether the DJI designers actually ever tried to shoot an image in manual focus.
The buffer also frustrated me as I became more and more confident with the low-light abilities of the camera. As I became more adventurous I started shooting multiple exposure panoramics. This allowed me to create exposure blends which were then stitched into a pano (above is an example where I tested out the camera’s abilities at low light on a nearby sugar mill. I selected the brightest and darkest frames from each position, did a very simple exposure blend in Photoshop and then stitched the resultant three blended exposures into a panoramic. The problem is that I found myself practically shooting blind in terms of camera settings and the ability to review the image while in flight (to make sure I had actually captured the series of images). Once you start shooting the sequence of bracketed images all the other camera controls just freeze up. You can access the camera settings, but you can’t change them. So, trying to open up the exposure a touch is just impossible. I found that it took a full two minutes after shooting a set of three 5-exposure brackets in manual mode (so fifteen shots) before I could adjust settings on the camera again. Two minutes is a long time when the light is changing fast.
The lens probably isn’t as crisp or sharp as a 24mm prime on a full-frame camera, but it’s pretty good for what it does. The thing that surprised me the most, was really the ability to shoot panoramics, thereby increasing the field of view and the resolution. I can’t do that in a helicopter. Sure, you can shoot with a Canon 5Ds, or one of the new medium-format digital cameras, but the cost is exponentially greater, plus you’d need a helicopter to shoot it in the first place (or an a much larger and more expensive drone like the DJI Speading Wings). The image of the mill above came out to a 8244×3207 pixel image after cropping. That’s more than enough for a quite sizeable print. Similarly, the cropped image of the Amphitheatre skyline in the Drakensberg is 7350 pixels on the long side. These are impressive resolutions for something this small.
I haven’t posted a bunch of pixel peeping images of brick walls as I don’t usually find myself photographing brick walls. To console anyone needing that 100% pixel fix, here are a couple of crops showing sharpness and noise at 100% view. Yes, there is noise. The lens could be better.
The shadows are far from perfect. To put this into perspective, I’ll go back to my first digital camera, the Nikon D200. To me this was the first camera that could compete against the 35mm film that I was used to. The D200 was a game changer. It wasn’t the best camera out there, but it was the first relatively affordable digital Nikon SLR (had I been a Canon shooter I probably would have switched with the original 5D) that could produce images that met the quality requirements that I had (and which incidentally allowed me to continue submitting to Gallo and Getty Images).
I suspect that the Phantom 4 Pro is similarly a game-changer, at least for my photography. The recent news that drone sales have increased 117% in the U.S since April 2016 (link), is I suspect in large part due to the increased usability of the image files as well the increasing miniaturisation with added professionalisation of drones like the DJI Mavic. For what is essentially the same price as a mid-range semi-pro SLR you get serviceable images from an aerial perspective. For some this is a bargain.
I have now had the Phantom 4 Pro for just over two months (as of this writing). This isn’t even close to being enough time to really get to grips with the drone and the attached camera. In fact, in that time, DJI have even launched a new Phantom 4 in the series. The new Phantom 4 Advanced replaces the original Phantom 4 and adds the same camera as the Pro, but without the additional flight sensors. No doubt in 2018 the Mavic will also be updated, potentially with the same camera as the Phantom 4 Pro (considering DJI’s usual trickle down through the models which they seem to pop out like breeding rabbits at the moment).
Every time I use the Phantom 4 Pro I get more excited about what I can create. This in itself makes it worth the expense in my mind. Yet, I was asked by a friend just a few days ago if he too should consider it. Oddly, my answer was no. If you want a drone for portability, fun, and ease of use the Mavic probably makes far more sense. If you need the image quality though, then the Phantom 4 Pro is the obvious answer. Although I keep hinting at the ‘good enough’ nature of the camera as opposed to the excellent image quality that everybody really wants (again think cutting edge DSLR), that ‘good-enough’ really is extremely capable. The camera on the Phantom 4 Pro is really in my mind the game changer. It makes small affordable drones suddenly serious imaging tools. They are no longer play-things in the sky.
This isn’t so much a review (there are plenty of geeky number reviews on the internet where you can pixel peep and oggle over specs) as a commentary on where we have gotten to with drones as photographers. The Phantom 4 Pro marks the first ‘affordable’ drone with good enough image quality to produce professional imagery. That ‘good-enough’ continues to surprise me.
Emil von Maltitz is a professional landscape and commercial photographer who spends most of his time photographing industry and agriculture for clients like Tongaat Huletts. You can find his incredible body of work here.