Last month, I picked up a new DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ drone, or rather UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). I’m still on a fairly steep learning curve when it comes to aerial imaging, but thought I would share some of my initial impressions of this equipment as a photography platform.
While UAVs have taken off (sorry, couldn’t resist) in terms of their popularity over the past 5 years or so, DJI remains the market leader and their most recent offerings represent a significant jump in terms of both video and still imaging quality. The bad news for anyone just tuning in to the UAV storyline is that you still have some waiting to do before it’s remotely affordable to get your full-frame sensor DSLR airborne. However, the Phantom 4 Pro is the first consumer drone from DJI to sport a 1″ sensor. In fact, the sensor used is a 20-megapixel Sony Exmor R that is essentially the same sensor as in their RX-100 lineup. So, not DSLR territory yet, but this gives us an airborne high quality compact mirrorless camera, complete with mechanical shutter and capable of ISO 12,800 in a (rather noisy) pinch. Previous Phantom iterations were stuck with significantly smaller sensors, and were perhaps comparable to having a high quality cell phone camera sensor in the air.
To be sure, the optics of the Phantom 4 Pro are still not quite up to par with what you would get with a Sony RX-100 since its lens elements are mostly plastic to save weight. Also sacrificed is the ability to zoom. The Phantom 4 Pro’s lens has an 84-degree field of view, or about the equivalent of a 24mm lens on a full-frame sensor. This means the camera is suited to landscape and other medium-wide angle shots. Which is perfectly fine with me. While an aerial 500mm would be a blast to play around with, the weight and challenges with optical stabilization would be significant to say the least.
My original objective with exploring the world of drone-based photography was simply to expand my creative options for capturing the beauty of my backyard here in the Yukon. How many times have you stopped to take a picture and wished you could be *just* a little bit higher up, to see over those trees or power lines that are blocking the view? The Phantom 4 Pro does just that for me.
The objective isn’t to fly up so high as to compete with Google Earth’s satellites or even pretend you’re in a commercial aircraft, but just enough to open up the composition. When you’re up those critical few extra metres above the ground, your camera’s perspective changes and the foreground unfolds in front of you instead of being compressed by looking straight forward from ground level. This is especially true if you use the gimbal on the drone to aim downward slightly, placing the horizon line higher in the frame. You don’t normally climb a mountain or stand on the roof of a building in order to get a better view *up* after all.
With the Phantom 4 Pro+ sitting at the top of DJI’s consumer range, it’s not a small investment. I think after the last decade plus of digital camera advances we have become used to thinking of improvements in terms of megapixels, frames per second and ISO. What UAV-based photography does is unleash an entirely new set of capabilities that have nothing to do with the specs we’re used to scrutinizing. It really changes where your camera can go, and what you can capture. So far, I’m feeling that the investment in opening up these creative possibilities has been well worth it.