By Brady Betzel
I’ve been trying to get my hands on a professional drone to review for a few years now. My wife even got me a drone from a local store that was a ton of fun to play with but was hard to master. For years, I’ve been working on television shows that use drone footage and capture incredible imagery, but it always seemed out of reach for me as an editor. Finally, after much persistence (or pestering, depending on who you ask), DJI agreed to send me the Phantom 4 to test out, and boy is it awesome!
By now you’ve probably made your way through the ubiquitous reviews, including the endless supply of YouTube reviews, but in that small chance you are reading this without much prior drone knowledge and work in production or post production, I have some ideas for you.
When reading this review, think about how you could take a drone, run outside and maybe grab some b-roll for something you are working on. If you create opening titles or sizzle reels, you could grab some great aerial shots or fast-paced shots to use as transitions. The possibilities are really endless, as long as you get your video picture settings dialed in.
Before I started as an online editor (which, for those who don’t know, focuses on the technical side of editing — color correction, grading, transcoding, outputting, exporting, anything that ends in “-porting” or “-linking” basically), I worked my way through being a post coordinator, post production supervisor and all the way to offline editor. One thing I noticed in many of the non-union live-to tape shows (like late night comedy or talk shows), is that the editor has a lot of freedom to be creative and can push the envelope a little.
Maybe the editor needs some b-roll for an edit that isn’t in the system, so as the post supervisor you might run out and shoot it yourself. Why not with a drone? If you need a quick aerial of a house from directly above, you might be able to get away with footage from your own drone, saving the project money while showing some talent that may get you more jobs in the future!
I really love the idea of people acquiring as much knowledge in different job positions as possible, whether you are in the craft service or executive producer, if you can do things like operate a camera, hold a boom mic or fly a drone, you will probably make a lasting impression and be known as someone who is hungry to work and to create a great end product, regardless of your position.
Not to be a total wet blanket and put a huge wrench in your drone flying, but there are some laws that recently have been passed (more like clarified) to standardize drone use between hobbyists and commercial fliers (basically someone who wants to make money from their footage). You should definitely check out the Federal Aviation Administration’s Getting Started page for more info.
If you are flying your drone for fun and as long as it is has the weight and footprint size of the DJI Phantom 4 — the weight is about 3lbs and it measures about 14 inches diagonally without propellers, which can add a couple of inches — there is minimal work that you need to do. However, if you are planning on making money from your drone footage, there are many steps you must take, including taking an official test. There is a a lot you need to know that is beyond the scope of this review, so definitely check out the FAA link above for more.
Easy to Use
Since I hadn’t flown a professional drone before I had nothing to compare it to, but I can tell you that I picked up the Phantom 4 and was flying it within five minutes. It really is that easy to get up and running.
Step 1, charge your remote and battery; Step 2, plug in your phone or tablet via USB to the remote; Step 3, attach propellers; Step 4, fly! You should probably boot up your Phantom before you go outside to check to make sure it is functional, and to update your firmware. As a side note, I’m not sure if I was up and running so quickly because the Phantom 4 I was loaned for review had been charged and used before, or if it was really that easy.
For this review, I really wanted to see how easy it was to get shots like wide sweeping pans and tilts or tracking shots, and it was relatively easy. Obviously, you will need to practice your camera work with the Phantom 4 to get nice shots that aren’t boring and have substance, but it’s pretty simple. I brought the Phantom 4 to an open field where I had tons and tons of space. I immediately turned on the Phantom 4 by pressing the power button once and then holding it down until it powered on, I forgot to download the DJI Go app to my iPhone 6, so after I downloaded it, I connected the USB to lightning cable from my iPhone 6 to the controller. While the iPhone 6 worked great, you do have minimal screen real estate with so many controls available, so I would suggest you use an iPad if you can or an iPhone 6 or 7 Plus. I tried using an iPad mini, but had trouble getting the Phantom 4 and the iPad to connect, so I stuck to the iPhone.
Once my propellers were spinning, I flew it straight up into the sky, I felt like a little kid with my first remote control car, except that the handling and precision that the Phantom 4 offers is exceptional. You can even take your hands off the joysticks and the Phantom 4 will hover. I noticed that once I got the Phantom 4 high in the air, I could hear it battle the winds. It really stuck to its position in the air even with some decent-strength gusts.
When I took the Phantom 4 out for a second time, I wanted to test out its upgraded collision avoidance system. I also wanted to test out my camera moves. The collision avoidance was awesome! Not only does it sense the ground beneath it, but objects in front of it. I started flying toward a basketball hoop and it caught it in its sights and maneuvered to the right. Then, with just one prior flight, I noticed I was really getting the hang of long shots while tilting and panning the camera — a real testament to how easy it is to control.
Keep in mind that the DJI Go app has a built-in flight simulator to help you get your moves and techniques down before you go outside. Unfortunately, you have to be connected to your drone while using the flight simulator, but still it’s pretty handy for practicing — something you should definitely use before you fly, even if your pride is telling you not to.
Beyond my pure joy at flying the Phantom 4 there are some fancy tech specs that you should know about. For my money, the DJI Phantom 4 really shows its worth in its camera, a 4K capable 1/2.3-inch CMOS image sensor, ISO range between 100-3,200 for video (100-1,600 for photos) and a shutter speed between eight seconds and 1/8000 of a second.
There are many different recording modes, including 4096×2160 (true 4K resolution) at 24/25 progressive frames per second, 3840×2160 (UHD) at 24/25/30p, 2704×1520 (2.7K) at 24/25/30p, 1920×1080 (HD) at 24/25/30/48/50/60/120p and 1280×720, for some reason, at 24/25/30/48/50/60p. All these resolutions are recorded at a max bit rate of 60Mbps, which is decent, but really should be higher in my opinion (probably more in the 100Mbps range).
In terms of image quality, the Phantom 4 is amazing for being a flying ship that captures video. However, it isn’t going to match cameras like the Sony a7S II, , Panasonic GH4 or Blackmagic Cinema Cameras, exactly. The Phantom 4 definitely rivals the GoPro Hero 5 Black in video quality, or at least gives them a good run for their money. The only problem is that the camera isn’t removable from the gimbal on the Phantom 4. I would really like a removable camera from the Phantom 4, much like the new GoPro Karma drone with its connection to the Karma Gimbal.
So after flying the Phantom 4 a few times I began to realize how volatile and important the picture and video profile settings are. The first time I recorded video I simply hit record. I was in Vivid mode, presumably at the baseline of Saturation, Sharpening and Contrast: 0,0,0. It looked great at first glance and for anyone who just wants to pick up the Phantom 4 and shoot you should probably just leave it at this or maybe knock the sharpness down to -1. If you plan on color correcting later or adding a creative LUT on top of your footage, then you are going to want a more flat-in-color image.
I thought the D-Log setting would be the way to go, as that should give you the flattest image in terms of saturation and exposure to pull the most life out of your image. Unfortunately, I found out that is not the case. I tried many variations of Saturation, Sharpness and Contrast from 0,0,0 to -3,-3,-3 and wasn’t really happy with any of them. After running through the usable color profiles (I’m omitting black and white and any other filters like that because you should really just go ahead and apply those looks while color correcting or editing since all NLEs have an easy way to add them), I found that D-Cinelike and None were the profiles I should really stay in, and I started to like Sharpness: -1, Contrast -2, and Saturation -2.
Before I go on about D-Cinelike and None, I think anyone buying a drone should consider ND filters (short for neutral density filters). When shooting outdoors you will get a lot of contrasting light values, such as dark shadows and blown out highlights. To get around having to pick your favorite, you can knock the exposure down on your camera externally with an ND filter while allowing you to keep your shutter speed and ISO values at more appropriate levels.
Without ND filters, you are going to have to ramp up the shutter speed on your Phantom 4 when filming using an ISO, such as 100, to properly expose your image, lending your footage to look a little choppier and less cinematic (I hate using the word cinematic to describe this, but essentially cinematic = motion blur in this instance).
If this sounds interesting to you, you should Google shutter speed techniques and rules, but be careful. It is a deep rabbit hole. From my simple research, I found ND filters ranging anywhere from $20 to $99 or more depending on quality and where you buy them. Polar Pro looks to make some sweet ones, including the Vivid Collection in their Cinema Series of polarized ND filters at $99 for a three-pack — another rabbit hole, be careful not to get G.A.S., Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
Moving on… D-Cinelike and None are flat color profile shooting modes that allow for decent color grading in post production but with less midtone muddiness like the D-Log seemed to produce for me. D-Cinelike seemed to warm up the shot a little with more orange and yellow tints and possibly less shadow detail. In None, I felt like I got the flattest color profile possible, which allowed for the best color correction and grading scenario with the Phantom 4 footage. Don’t forget to dial in your custom picture profile settings. Personally, I liked the picture best when I knocked Sharpness down to -1 or -2. Contrast and Saturation could also be knocked down a little, but this is something you should test when you buy a Phantom 4, since it is definitely a personal taste.
If you go on YouTube and search Phantom 4 color settings you will find a lot of videos. You should probably sort by upload date and watch the more recent videos that might take into account firmware updates. I really liked watching Bill Nichol’s YouTube Channel BillNicholsTV. He has a bunch of great and practical reviews.
You should still try out the Phantom 4’s D-Log mode. Hopefully, it works for you better than it did for me. If you use Blackmagic Resolve, you can check out DJI’s D-Log to sRGB LUT instructions and find the LUT under the software downloads here.
While I didn’t want to get too deep into the technical side of the Phantom 4, I did fall down the picture profile settings abyss and still want to highlight some automated flight modes that the Phantom 4 excels at. Some of the new features that separate the Phantom 4 from previous Phantom models include Active Track, TapFly, Obstacle Sensing System, Sport Mode, easier-to-use push and release propellers, up to 28-minute battery life (although I only got between 20-22 minutes with the Phantom 4 automatically returning to home when the battery was running low), improved camera with less chromatic aberration, and much more.
New Features That Editors Will Like
I now want to touch on the upgraded features that would get me, as an editor, interested in the Phantom 4. Active Track is an amazing feature that can track objects specified through the DJI Go app. You simply click the object or person you want to track and bam! The Phantom 4 will follow them from what DJI calls a “safe distance,” and it really is.
TapFly is another great feature that will help pilots who aren’t as comfortable flying in tight spaces to fly in a straight line. Simply tap the remote icon on your phone or tablet, tap TapFly, click on a visual point you want the Phantom 4 to fly to, and it will basically move into autopilot. You still have control over camera and even the Phantom 4, but it’s basically a coached flying system.
Again, there are a lot of technical specs I didn’t go into too much detail on, but if you want more info you can find it on DJI’s Phantom 4 page. For some simple and short videos check out: http://www.dji.com/edu/edu_videos or download the DJI Go app.
In the end, I really, really, really loved flying the Phantom 4! One of the easiest parts was installing the propellers — easy turn and lock. If you find yourself getting frustrated when filming or flying the Phantom 4, remember that it takes people many hours to get good at shooting with a camera, let alone a drone, with a camera and gimbal to control all at once. I spent many nights watching YouTuber’s reviews wondering why I couldn’t get a great picture out of the D-Log setting until I found Casey Faris’ video on the Mavic Pro, which described the same problem I was having with the Phantom 4. With some more tests, I was able to fail and succeed in the different picture profiles.
When reviewing products, I try to break them, and I did that with the Phantom 4. Really. I accidentally crashed it while in Sport mode and only one of the propellers caps flew off in that yard sale — a real testament to the sturdy construction of the Phantom 4.
Once back online, I tried to fly it into a tree but the Obstacle Sensing System and the Forward Vision System prevented the Phantom 4 from crashing. It’s like an extra layer of insurance.
I really like how the Phantom 4 has very advanced controls and features, but is also “dummy” proof. If I you’re editing a project and it begs for a tracking shot of a car that just isn’t in the dailies, you can grab a Phantom 4 and run out and film something. Even if it doesn’t make it into the final edit, it will give the producers and director a greater sense of what you are trying to convey. You could really help sell your vision, and your future job prospects.
I haven’t been able to get my hands on the recently announced MavicPro foldable drone from DJI, but I was able to get the recently announced GoPro Karma (you can see some of my in-flight footage on my YouTube page.
In my opinion, I really don’t think these drones compare to one another, so I won’t really be going into a “tit for tat” comparison, but with so much drone competition it is an exciting time in the UAV world.
One thing I did notice when I went out to test out the Phantom 4 was how many people were ready to become FAA/police authorities and tell you that you can’t fly. It was almost laughable. In fact, every time I think about it I laugh. Moral of the story is to keep that in mind that before making a purchase like this, if you live in a city you probably live within five miles of an airport, helipad, etc., and technically you can’t fly your drone. It is a conversation starter whether or not you want it to be.
Definitely check out the FAA’s website to get the rules on where and when you can fly drones, otherwise you might have an awesome grey box in your room with nowhere to fly. On the flip side, I’ve been reading people’s comments on forums, and if you are a hobbyist flyer, have registered your drone and want to fly, you can contact your local airport and let them know you want to fly at a certain altitude or below, and they usually will say it’s fine. Those aren’t my words but a summation of what I have been reading — of course do your own research please!
The only criticism is that the Phantom 4’s 60Mbps data rate isn’t high enough to get the best quality footage from your drone. If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately or my Twitter: @allbetzroff, you may have seen DJI’s latest reveal of the Phantom 4 Pro, Pro + and Inspire 2, which can film at a much better data rate of 100Mbps. Maybe this is a simple firmware update to the Phantom 4 (but it’s probably not). Nonetheless, 60Mbps is acceptable for 1920×1080 or maybe 2.7K video (2704 x 1524,16×9 aspect ratio) or below, but once you get up into the higher frame sizes, you can really see the video footage breakdown. If you zoom into the footage, the compression becomes noticeable and the color fidelity begins to fade.
While writing this review, the DJI Phantom 4 retailed for $1,199 on the DJI online store without any accessories. More like $1399 with two extra batteries and an external battery charger. I even just found a refurbished Phantom 4 on DJI’s site for $899. The Phantom 4 Pro starts at $1,499 and Phantom 4 Pro + $1,799. Oh yeah, don’t forget a few 64GB MicroSD cards at $20-$35 a piece. A pretty expensive investment if you ask me, but If you find yourself being a major gear nerd like me or editing and needing to shoot your own footage, the DJI Phantom 4 is a must-have. Once you fly the Phantom 4 you will be hooked.
Watch some of the video I shot with the Phantom 4 on my YouTube Channel:
Brady Betzel is an online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. Earlier this year, Brady was nominated for an Emmy for his work on Disney’s Unforgettable Christmas Celebration. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.