Professional Results from the Phantom 2 Vision?

January 19, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

About a dozen years ago I learned to fly ultralight airplanes in the hopes of having my own aerial photography platform.  Gerry Charlebois on Kauai gave me my first ride and Michael Globensky taught me to fly.  But ultralights are a full-time occupation.  Powered aircraft that can take a pilot 10,000 feet up are expensive, and carry all of the risks of amateur flight.  I gave it up out of fear and a desire to responsibly start a family.

DJI’s Phantom and Phantom 2 Vision have brought convenient aerial photography to the masses and my excitement for the bird’s eye view has returned. Since May of 2013 I’ve used the Phantom to make aerial images with a GoPro Hero 3, an iPhone 4, a Canon S90 and a Canon S110.  And I bought a Phantom Vision 2 as soon as they became available in the fall of 2013.

A recent email from Ian in Scotland prompted me to answer a few questions about my experience to date:

  • Is the platform good enough to yield professional results?
  • Is the Phantom a worthwhile investment?
  • Are the Phantom 2 Vision images sharp and clean?
  • Are spectacular images possible?

The short answer is that while the perspectives can be unique and stunning, the only camera I’ve used on the platform that has delivered professional results is the Canon S90 or the S110.

Eternity's Golden GateEternity's Golden GateRising up to better peep through the gateway. Berkeley Pier on San Francisco Bay, looking towards Golden Gate Bridge. Image made with DJI Phantom 2 Vision FC200 camera.

My primary interest in the Phantom 2 Vision was its advertised ability to shoot raw images. Since DJI is at least six weeks late delivering support for raw image processing, I can only evaluate the jpegs the unit produces.  They are suitable for web quality imaging and hint at the potential of the small sensor.  But the jpeg algorithm is noisy and over-compressed.  Detail such as trees, walls, fences, and boat masts emphasize the relatively low image quality produced by the jpeg algorithm in the camera.

To my eye, the Phantom 2 Vision FC200 camera produces greater tonal range than the GoPro Hero3.  I do expect that when raw support is enabled, it will be a game-changer for landscape photographers like me.  If you want to use the embedded camera for simplicity, I’d suggest waiting for the raw support to arrive, and to read what photographer users say about it for a few weeks before plunging in.

Beta-testers of the Phantom 2 raw photo option report very exciting news about the image quality they are seeing in the DNG raw files.  Here are links to two discussions online.  Maui (Hawaii) photographer Randy Jay Braun posted comparison images in the Facebook post and Eric Cheng has posted a sample image conversion on Skypixel.org with his assessment that the raw images clean up nicely using the noise reduction tools in Adobe Lightroom.

Still though, I do think the P1 and P2V are good investments:

  • They are great training craft for serious amateurs and still photographers.  Simple to assemble, easy to get the gist of and just plain fun, they’ll give the safety-minded pilot a great intro to flying and imaging.
  • Aerial imaging is different from terrestrial imaging in that the compositions are inherently 3-dimensional.  These craft are relatively low-barrier ways to learn to see in 3-D, and to begin to understand what can possibly make a great image from the air.  The desirability of perspective, a vertical element, a strong foreground and a line of sight that ties the elements together is far more difficult than when standing on the ground.
  • Until 8 months ago, this type of imaging wasn’t conveniently available to non-hobbyists and specialists.  We’re still at the very beginning of the start of something new.
  • Your learning curve can be shortened by joining and participating in online user groups such as Phantompilots.com, Facebook’s many DJI Phantom user groups, DJIguys.com and other sites promoting shared knowledge.

These craft are durable, strong and easy to modify.  The number of potential mods is increasing weekly.  There are already a number of articles online from users who have found ways to opt out of using a GoPro or the Vision camera and use a stock craft with a Canon S90/S100/S110 compact camera that shoots raw, the Ricoh GR with built-in intervalometer, or the top-of-the-line Sony RX100 Mark II.

In sum, to deliver professional results today, I would follow the work of others who are pursuing the adaptation of professional compact cameras to the Phantom 2 (non-Vision model.) The lift and flight time make that craft suitable for lifting 250 grams of pro compact camera payload for 15 minutes at a time. The platform is capable and the modifications and upgrades are coming.  I’ve tried to adopt the strategy of remembering that I never imagined that I’d have this capability in my lifetime, and it’s here and available without any special skills for around $1,500.


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