Now that DJI's Phantom 4 Quadcopter drone has been out for a month plenty of people have got their hands on it and a few have written reviews on it. Nearly all of the reviews I found when I was deciding on if I should get this or wait for the Phantom 5 (probably released a year from now) had the same type of example shots. A shot in a park. A shot of a house. A shot of some treeline in a neighborhood. All at midday when the sun is high in the sky, etc.
If you are like me and are considering one for filming and/or aerial still photography purposes those example shots mean nothing. How does it perform 400 feet above a desert? How does it perform in 20+ mph winds? How recoverable are the blown highlights out of a 4k video file or the RAW/DNG 12MP still files? How much detail can you pull out of those files? How is the sharpness? How is the distortion? I'll answer these questions below.
One of the biggest things I was worried about when I purchased the drone is how much detail could I pull out of the highlights and more importantly the shadows. The app control for the camera settings (when in Manual mode) allows you to change the ISO, shutter speed and exposure brightness but there is no Aperture control that I can find. The difference between f2.8 and f8 wouldn't really matter much as you so far from your subject when up in the sky.
Below is a shot SOOC (straight out of the camera)
As you can see after a little love in Lightroom bringing up the whites and playing with the curves and HSL controls you can have a really nice image. Start to finish processing the panorama was about 5 minutes of work. Built into the latest version of Lightroom CC is the lens profile for the quadcopter which i had to enable manually for some reason. It did fix some distortion but I honestly think I could go without using the correction in the future. It really is not bad at all.
Stability: The above images were taken at at altitude of about 350 feet above the Sonoran Desert just east of Phoenix, Arizona. It was fairly windy that night, enough that the bushes near my location were constantly moving in the breeze. I'd say the winds were probably 15-20+ mph on the ground and probably more higher up. In all that wind the Phantom 4 had ZERO trouble staying perfectly level and capturing sharp images and stable footage which is at the top of this post. I even had it hover above me for a minute or so and it never strayed more than a foot in any horizontal direction.
Battery Life: Its fine. Its not 28 minutes like DJI advertises but the quoted battery life is from a full charge to nearly a flat battery and if you have any sense you won't fly with a battery at 5% or less. I've been flying to 30% battery and then start flying back when I get to that percentage. I try to always land with around 25% or so just to be on the safe side. So far my longest flight (while landing with a quarter charge still left) has been 21 minutes. I think it also depends on how you fly it. If you fly like a nut, zipping back and forth, up down, etc you'll get way worse battery life than nice smooth controlled movements which make for better footage anyways. That being said, flying at nearly 50mph in Sport Mode is one hell of a joy.
Dynamic Range: Next, lets talk about highlights and shadows. Below is another set of images merged into a panorama. The first is a frame from the panorama.
Looking at the highlights in the left to the darker shadows of the hills leading down to the water, its easy to see that I have a decent amount of dynamic range to work with when editing. I should also point out that none of these images are bracketed and then edited like an HDR, they are single exposures. The Phantom 4 does have the ability to take up to 7 bracketed images at once but I haven't felt the need...yet.
Sharpness: In regards to sharpness, just look at the lower right corner or the upper left near the suns beams. Both areas (which are at the edge of the frame, usually the worst for sharpness) hold quite a bit of detail. Its not as good as my full frame Canon 6D but I wouldn't expect it to be. That is a $1600 camera where as this is a $1400 drone with a camera. I like to think that the Phantom 4 is a $900 drone with a $500 camera. It performs well, great even, but its no flying full frame DSLR. With the right knowledge of light and optics and other photography related things you can stretch its capabilities and end up with some great work.
Crash Avoidance: I tried crashing it into a tree, myself, a cactus, a wall, and a car and all those times it stopped itself from smashing to bits. The avoidance is very well designed. Of course the obstacle avoidance only works facing forwards and it also doesn't work when in Sport Mode as it needs extra braking time when going so quickly. As long as you don't fly sideways blindly up a hill you will have trouble breaking this thing. On the app you are shown in yellow and red bars how close it is to crashing, so when flying remotely you can get a good idea how close it is to something. I was amazed how well it picked out a single branch or a fence both of which I thought the sensor wouldn't see.
Overall Review: 4.5/5
The Phantom 4 is the drone for everyone. It can be flown by tapping and letting the software fly itsself, or by manually using the thumbsticks. I have been asked a lot over the past week how hard it is to fly. My best response is that if you have ever played a video game, and have had mild success at controlling your onscreen character, then you can fly this drone with the smallest bit of practice. Both my parents flew it last week in mild wind and after just a couple minutes were flying up to the tree line and getting the view they wanted. I think your grandma could fly this even if she is not "tech savvy". I think your 5 year old could fly this as long as you are ready to stop him from flying backwards at full speed. My only complaints are that the battery life should be longer, and I really wish they included sensors on the sides and back. Of course that is probably what the Phantom 5 will have so they can sell more next year.
All in all I'm happy with it, and I purchased it mostly with the intention of using it in Australia at the end of this month through the summer during my road trip through the Outback. I'll be bringing my other two DSLRs, a 6D and 7D MK II but I thought having an aerial perspective could be a nice bonus. In the future I also plan on getting more into time lapse and videography in general and this will be another great tool at my disposal.
Any questions please comment below. I'll be updating this post with links to future projects with the Drone so stay tuned. ;)