DJI Phantom 3 Pro: Love at First Flight

Night Moves

When I got my DJI Phantom 3 Pro quadcopter (aka “drone”) two months ago, I had exactly one complaint:  I need more spare batteries!  The DJI Phantom 3 Pro is a game changer.  Going on a hike with trees that block the perfect shot?  No problem.  Want to get a new angle on a scene that’s been photographed to death?  No problem…

People have been asking me a lot of questions about it, so I’ll interview my self to recap the discussion…

Does that thing have a camera?

Yes, and no (as in “yes, a really good one” and “no, I’m not filming you”).

Can you see the video there on your iPhone?

Yes (and no, I’m still not filming you).

How much does it cost?

I consider it a bargain at $1300:  it costs less than half as much as my main camera, and this camera can fly.  You get a quadcopter with probably the easiest flying experience available, a very nice remote control, live video feed, 4k video, 12-megapixel stills, and a 3-axis gimbal for stable shots images.  It’s so stable you can take long exposures.  The photo above used a 2 second exposure!  It comes ready to fly (though I’d recommend budgeting $350-800 extra for a travel case and spare batteries).  It’s incredibly fun and opens up the ability to capture some really stunning photos and video from new angles.

How easy is it to fly?

Once it has GPS lock (don’t take off before you get a green light), it’s incredibly steady.  Even in 15 MPH winds, it will basically hover in a space smaller than my arms spread wide.  You can hit the throttle to go up a couple hundred feet, then come back down and it will be in the exact same spot.  You could take off from a picnic table, fly around for 20 minutes, hit the return to home button, and there’s a good chance it would land on the table (hey, I only said “good chance” – it goes without saying that this is still a bad idea).

So you could basically fly it blind-folded?

Are you that person from the 80s who put their van on cruise control and then went to the back to watch movies?  Look, the Phantom is very precise when the GPS or visual system has a lock.  But it isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of things you need to be prepared for (radio interference, loss of GPS near tall objects, etc).  You absolutely need to be fully trained/prepared to safely land the drone if things don’t go according to plan.  So, it really doesn’t mean that it has less of a leaning curve – you still need to be able to fly it safely under all possible conditions.  But in normal conditions, it makes for a very peaceful flying experience that makes it much easier to take high quality photos and videos.  I’ve done a lot of test flights in remote areas to figure out how to fly it safely manually, and would strongly encourage anyone else to do the same.  Be safe.

How good is the camera?

Short of paying a massive premium to put my D810 in the air, this is as good as it gets.  I find the propellers rarely end up in the photos (even when I’m pointing toward the horizon and moving the Phantom), the autoexposure tends to be pretty good, and the image quality is excellent when manually controlled.  I’ve been very happy with the dynamic range, as well as stability of the platform.  With low winds, you can take some very long exposures (I’ve read of many others reporting sharp images at 8 seconds, though I’ve strugged to get past 3 seconds with light winds).

Is it like having your own satellite?

Funny you should ask.  I have 3 friends who have really gotten into growing tomatoes… I’ll call them Larry, Moe, and Curly.  While I’ve never really understood the appeal of gardening (though I love benefiting from their work), Larry and Moe are super competitive about their tomatoes.  Larry and I recently helped Moe transplant his seedlings.  Unfortunately, it started to hail just as we were finishing.  When it stopped, we found they were pretty trashed and Larry hollers out “Yes!  I’ve got a head start!”.  A week later, I got the Phantom and brought it over for Larry to see it.  He asked me to fly it in his back yard to check his roof (he suspected storm damage, but couldn’t find anyone to go up and check – sure enough we found a broken shingle immediately).  While it was hovering, he asked me to take a quick shot of Curly’s tomatoes (Curly happens to be Larry’s next-door neighbor).  Meanwhile, Moe still had no idea I got a quadcopter, so Larry emailed him the photo and wrote “Hey Moe, have you seen the new Google Realtime?  Check out Curly’s tomatoes!!”.  Moe writes back, “Wow! They look great!!!  Much better than mine.  Never tried Google Realtime.”  So there you have it, the Phantom is passable for having your own Google satellite.  And for putting the smack down on your friends tomatoes.

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