How do you choose a camera drone? What should you look out for? Get great tips for beginners in this article (plus infographic) from videographer and drone enthusiast Paul Archer.
This week Skytango hosts a special guest post by Paul Archer, photographer, drone enthusiast and founder of DronesGator.com, on how to pick a camera drone.
There are many ways to get yourself into the hobby of flying and taking beautiful imagery along the way and then graduating to flying and shooting professionally.
But if you want to do it right and not lose a bunch of money in the process…you better take some notes.
I’ve not only been in your shoes but also made a lot of mistakes along the way! But what’s more important is that you know the basic principles of what makes a good camera drone.
The infographic below will illustrate in more detail what I’m talking about (you also have the option of checking out my top 10 camera drones right away).
Before taking a look at the infographic, here’s a brief rundown on what I find most important of all:
Obviously important for staying long enough in the air to capture the shots you want.
The battery life of 20+ minutes in some good camera drones listed below is usually good enough, but if that’s not enough, you can always get a second battery.
In my experience as a wedding videographer, I had to just wait in the air a couple of minutes for everyone to gather for a picture or for the brides to get out of the church. Having enough battery life was life-saving.
These are a great help if you are a novice pilot and will allow you to do very precise flight programming that will turn out amazing videos.
As underlined in the infographic, my favourite modes are
Point of Interest
The image you can capture simply rotating around an object is way more impressive than it sounds.
Camera quality and resolution
The drones we’re talking about are really flying cameras, so this should be a very important topic.
Image stabilization is of great importance, be it in the form of a gimbal or electronic stabilization (I prefer gimbal)
In the recently released Zenmuse X7, DJI offers a lightweight, compact unit that delivers an impressive quality product for a camera of any size, but the quality of image it can produce is enough to make the mouth of even the most demanding editor water.
So how have they done it? I’m going to have a look through the specs of the Zenmuse X7 and try to translate some of the science in a relatable way and hopefully walk you through the highlights:
Impressive specs for its size to performance ratio
Let’s start with an overview of the specs of the Zenmuse X7:
Dimensions: 151 × 108 × 132 mm
Weight (Body only): 449g
6k video, up to 24mp stills
Built to work in harmony with the Inspire 2 drone, the camera comes in at only 631 grams (1.4 lbs) when fitted with the 16mm 2.8 lens, giving you a flight time of approximately 23 minutes.
This is quite a lightweight body in comparison to most offerings in this category, but admittedly not as light as some of the compact action cameras on the market. However, there is a huge difference in image quality when you account for things such as the lens for a start, but we’ll get on to the lens in a moment.
Hi resolution recording
“The Zenmuse X7 offers everything professional content creators need to make their aerial footage as stunning and vivid as they demand,”
says Paul Pan, senior product manager at DJI.
The Zenmuse X7 uses a Super 35 CineCore 2.1 sensor that has amazing sensitivity, giving you an impressive 14 stops of dynamic range and really smooth shadow details when shooting in low light conditions.
It’s capable of capturing up to 6k video, and a new DJI Cinema Colour System (DCCS) renders stunning tones & depth across the spectrum.
6K resolution is pretty phenomenal visually. Now, I know you’re thinking that the consumer market is still trying to fill out with 4k screens and it might take a while before 6k becomes mainstream.
Realistically, however, many productions are already shooting in 6k with Netflix for example, producing some of their ‘Originals’ in 6k keeping up with box office features such as The Avengers, The Revenant, and Transformers who also chose this format but even they are playing catch up with features like Guardians of the Galaxy Vo. 2 shot in 8k using RED’s Vista Vision Camera.
As a stills photographer who has been shooting RAW files for as long as they’ve been available, I can firmly attest to the saying that “It’s better to have & not need than to need & not have”.
Even if you’re not outputting your product in 6k the benefits of having the information there to draw from and to manipulate are nearly endless.
The extra dynamic range is certainly visible when comparing the colour saturation and noise in the upper and lower ranges when shooting in 6k.
Versatile Zenmuse X7 colour space
Zenmuse X7 is an ideal camera for cinematographers and professional photographers alike from a colour perspective.
“For the Zenmuse X7, we took our colour science to the next level, we consulted the world leading authorities in colour science, Technicolor. With their guidance, our engineers developed an optimized gamma curve for the X7 allowing more latitude without sacrificing image quality.”
says Paul Pan, Senior Product Manager at DJI.
DCCS features a new D-Log Curve and D-Gamut RGB colour space to give more flexibility and colour options during the post-production process.
The D-LogCurve further extends the dynamic range, while the D-Gamut RGB colour space preserves more colour information to support the most demanding filmmaking scenarios, providing accurate colour for quick and easy post-processing.
To meet the rigorous requirements of professionals, the Zenmuse X7 captures the highest image resolutions ever for an integrated drone camera.
It is capable of shooting 6K CinemaDNG RAW or 5.2K Apple ProRes at up to 30 FPS, as well as 3.9K CinemaDNG RAW or 2.7K ProRes at up to 59.94 FPS to integrate seamlessly into industry-standard post-production workflows.
There are four prime lenses available for this body. 16mm, 24mm, 35mm & 50mm, all F2.8 Aspherical lenses and offering resolutions of up to 8K. Made of ultra-lightweight carbon fibre, having this range of lenses in your bag should have you covered no matter what you’re shooting.
Another nice feature is the impressive range of sensitivity. The ISO ranges from 100 – 25600 for stills, and 100 – 6400 for video at its maximum 6k setting.
Shutter speeds from 8s – 1/8000s using the electronic shutter, and 8s – 1/1000s using the mechanical shutter allows you to play with either end of the scale, either dragging your shutter or capturing fast-moving action without motion interference.
Price & availability
DJI began shipping the X7 in November, with a $2,699 price tag in the U.S. The lenses will be available for $1,299 each, with the exception of the $1,199 50mm lens.
A complete prime lens kit will also be on offer for $4,299.
This is a well-built piece of equipment that deserves to be considered for that list of things to buy when you feel you’ve earned a treat or need to upgrade. The price range is not unreasonable for the spec on offer.
It is compact and comparatively lightweight, and the range of available lenses will satisfy most creative visions.
It is, however, the quality that swings it for me. It feels a little like the first steps from the old digital sensor in SLRs to the world of full frame sensors.
The richness of colour and depth of detail and clarity in both the highlights and shadows paired with phenomenal optics, promise to deliver a quality product that will satisfy the most demanding of clients.
I’ve been flying a drone commercially since 2013. It was a heavy lift Cinestar and we flew Alexas, BlackMagic cameras, 5D’s, Gh4’s, and any other box we could strap to our Movi gimbal. At the time, the equipment, peripherals, licenses and insurance were a huge financial commitment. From the beginning, we struggled with other drone operators who weren’t licensed or insured and had less overhead as a result, quoting on jobs at half the standard day rate. It was difficult to compete and incredibly frustrating that nobody seemed to be doing anything about it.
To this day you can go to nearly any pilot forum and read their rantings (rightly so) of how hard it is to compete with illegal operators… always searching for the proper enforcement tool to prosecute them and protect the industry.
In my opinion, it’s not only about illegal operators but also about illegal operations. On more than one occasion I have been tempted to break the rules at the request of a client in order to get paid for my day’s work – so let’s be honest – even licensed operators can flaunt regulation and limits and put their insurance and their client at risk. So everyone has been searching for the right ‘stick’ to beat back this multifaceted problem.
I don’t think the ‘stick’ is the way to go. What we need is a ‘carrot’ approach. Steven Flynn, Skytango CEO
I’ve worked in film and television for 30 years, and I’ve spent a lot of my time in edit suites making sure music, photos, location releases and talent releases were always in order before a show went to air, or I’d have the legal team on my back. So after a career of risk mitigation (for want of a better description) I never understood why, as a drone pilot, clients would expect me to rock up in the streets of Dublin City Center and launch my heavy lift drone without permissions from the local land authority as well as having ATC clearance.
It seemed obvious to me that if a broadcaster or video client would care about having the rights to use a music track or a stock photo in their piece for fear of litigation, they would care if the drone footage they were using was legally acquired too – right?
Well, they do now! Partly because they are more educated around drone use and partly because of changing laws around privacy and data protection. So – buyer beware! It is as important for you to think about the legality of the drone operation as it is for the pilot to be aware. It won’t be long before authorities chase after the demand to corral the supply.
Last year we approached several large stock libraries highlighting a problem we saw coming down the tracks and while they concurred that it would eventually be an issue – none were willing to leap into that space of certified drone footage, as it seemed a slow train, laden with uncertain regulation and lack of enforcement.
Pond5 were the first to acknowledge the need for certified aerial footage, amid rumblings of drone output being audited by authorities and the buyers of illegally acquired content facing fines (monitoring the demand to control the supply), they called us back and said they had begun to see a change in their customers’ needs. They wanted to offer aerial footage they knew was legally acquired (in other words that the pilot followed all the rules), and were willing to sell at a higher premium for that assurance. Why? Well, we’re back to my old edit suite friend – risk mitigation! They partnered with DJI and took the step of promoting footage supplied by Part107 pilots.
The end user needs to be protected, especially if said end-user has deep corporate pockets if you catch my drift. No longer is it enough to fly your drone anytime, anywhere and sell those stunning aerials to anyone who’ll buy them or post them on social media channels (in many cases with illegal music)… you also want to prove that they were legally acquired.
I’ve traveled the world in the last 14 months speaking at drone conferences and events and everywhere I’ve listened to the same story from angry pilots who are still competing with illegal operators pushing rates down and making it hard to earn a living doing a highly skilled job in a regulated space.
‘DRM’, or ‘Digital Rights Management’ (the licensing of music, movies and images for broadcast across multiple channels) is needed in the drone asset space and it is what Skytango has been working toward since our inception. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving that way.
Incentives or ‘carrots’, like insurance breaks and hardware discounts is a step in the right direction. We have always believed that the best way to advance this industry is to offer incentives – where everyone benefits, rather than regulation and policing alone.
So, slowly I am seeing a sea change. Broadcasters and content buyers alike are becoming more and more educated about the process and complexity of flying drones. They are beginning to ask the right questions and are starting to see the inherent risks in using content that wasn’t legally obtained. Technology is advancing so fast that safety concerns around flying these machines are being addressed on a constant basis.
The bigger issue today is around Data Protection and Privacy. The approach of GDPR in Europe will make audit trails a necessity in this industry and I have no doubt the rest of the world will follow suit.
Thank you to everyone who has supported us and stayed with us on this journey. We are here for the long haul and look forward to working with you in the future.
Steven Flynn Licensed Drone Pilot, Skytango Founder & CEO
Steve Flynn is a multiple Emmy Award-winning Director of Photography, Director and Editor. He has worked with many major broadcast companies including PBS, CBS, HGTV, Discovery, BBC, RTE and even spent time working with Prince at Paisley Park. He has been a licensed drone pilot since 2013 and is the Founder and CEO of Skytango