DJI’s Phantom line is well known as the standard for consumer level Camera Drones. In our recent “Slugfest” of popular 2016 models we gave it our highest rating – an opinion shared by most experts. However, consumer-level ($400-$1200) Camera Drones have some limitations, especially when it comes to Photo and Video quality. Drones at this price level are closer to “smartphone quality” than the level of what many expect from fancier “prosumer” mirrorless cameras. As an example, my Sony RX-100 takes stunning pictures and videos – so good that many Aerial Photographers have attempted strapping them to drones to get these high quality images from aloft!
DJI has now, in effect, put the Sony RX-100 level imaging into the new Phantom 4 Professional (P4P) model – ($1729) providing an unheard of level of Aerial Photography for a price that won’t break the bank.
Until today, the pilot who needed better quality than the Phantom 4 had to step WAY up in price and size to the DJI Inspire line with the X5 Camera. With the release of the P4P, the price for a somewhat similar setup has now been cut in 1/2 or more – and cut down in size to allow for easier portability.
Sensors, Bitrate and Quality
Hang on, my dear novice friends! You are about to learn something! In general the quality of a video depends on the camera sensor size and type, the lens – AND – even more – by the ability (speed, bitrate) that the camera sensor can send those images into memory (the sd card). After all, 4K video at 30fps (30 frames per second) is a LOT of data (memory, bits and bytes). All things being equal, the larger the sensor and the faster the rate…the better the potential quality of the final image and/or video. Technology also plays a role here – smaller sensors have gotten better and good results can be gotten from these new marvels by various tuning of both hardware and software.
The bitrate of a video camera is the speed at which it writes data to a storage device (usually an SD or MicroSD card). This is expressed in Mbps or MBits/s – both meaning “millions of bits (1’s or 0’s) per second. Another way to think of it is similar to your internet connection…often called “bandwidth”. This expresses how quickly data can download and upload from the internet to your computer.
Most consumer-level Camera Drones use bitrates of 20-50 Mbps with the Phantom 4 (plain) topping out at 60. Sports cameras such as the GoPro Hero are also in the range of 45-60 Mbps. All of these cameras shoot still photos in the range of 12MP – or 4000 x 3000 resolution.
In contrast, the new P4P features a video bitrate of up to 100 Mbps and a still photo resolution of 20MP. It uses a larger sensor – the well-known Sony Exmor 1″. This sensor is 4X the size (116mm vs. 29mm) of the 1/2.3 sensor used in most other consumer drones (as well as smartphones and GoPro cameras). This means more light hitting the sensor – and a better image quality. The combination of a better sensor and higher bitrate takes the Phantom 4 Pro to another level.
The improvements in the camera are the primary reason that that Phantom 4 Pro will become an Object of Desire for many photographers. However, DJI added a LOT more to the P4P – making it the most advanced– by far – in its class. Here are some of the improvements over the P4:
- Longer range – now up to 4.3 miles (7KM).
- Longer flight times – up to 30 minutes
- Improved Computer Vision System rear and front- more speed, more range, etc.
- New TOF Sensing System – Infrared Obstacle Avoidance on left and right side of Phantom
- Improved Intelligent Flight Modes and Options!
Note: The physical size and weight are quite similar to the standard Phantom 4.
The camera is slightly larger – but if you didn’t already know this it would be hard for the average person to discern.
Another difference is the choice of Remote (R/C controllers). DJI offers a package with a built-in device/screen (Android) for those who desire such a setup. This Remote also features a standard HDMI output as well as a GPS, microphone and speaker capabilities. They also offer a more standard R/C controller which accepts a phone or tablet of your choice. The inclusion of a screen is a first for a DJI product and is very important to certain buyers for various reasons.
While the additions and options are impressive, the #1 draw of the Phantom 4 Pro is the camera – so let’s get back to the subject of video and photos…
My Favorite Sensor – the Sony 1″
I’ve had a LOT of digital cameras since my first purchase of a Kodak DC50 in1998. These have included DSLR’s, mirrorless (micro-4/3rd) and “point & shoots”. The first digital camera that REALLY impressed me was my Sony DSC-F707 (2002). The pictures from that 5MP camera still impress….even today! Fast forward to 2012 and Sony released a new 1″ sensor camera (RX-100) which was quickly declared “the best point and shoot of all time” – and likely remains so today. I still have mine and am constantly impressed by the quality of the images. Here, for example, is an image I took with it the first day I owned it – just set it on auto and walked outside and “snap” (image cropped and resized, of course).
As you can see, the sensor is capable of very nice pictures – the higher resolution (20MP) is evident, giving the photographer some extra wiggle room to crop and still get a good image.
Phantom 4 Pro Camera Capabilities
To keep this review shorter – and to the point – here are the basics of the still camera capabilities of the Phantom 4 Pro.
The “takeaways” are these – the sensor is must larger and there are 20 Megapixels instead of the typical 12 found in other consumer machines. Focus is adjustable and automatic – as opposed to the “fixed focus” on most consumer grade machines. Making things even simpler – the P4P is capable of taking better aerial photographs than any previous machine up to $4,000+.
Advanced Video – The REAL Benefit of the P4P
The Phantom 4 Pro has video capabilities which are far above those of any machine in the consumer price range. There are a number of reasons why – but in the usual Droneflyers.com fashion, we will try to explain the technologies in an easy to understand format.
First, we have already discussed the larger sensor and the faster bitrate – these are the foundation for what comes next. “Next” refers to a more modern standard for better video called H 265 – (High Efficiency Video Coding or HEVC). Up until now, most consumer video is processed and compressed (made smaller in file size) using the H 264 standard. While the higher standard (H 265) has been available for years, it is not in common use in consumer products due to the large amount of computing power needed to process it. DJI has built this required power into the Phantom 4 Pro and made it available at an unheard of price point.
So what can HVEC do for you? Opinions from experts indicate that it improves video quality (at the same bitrate) by about double – or, looking at it another way, a file 1/2 the size would have the same quality as H 264. Add in the increased 100Mbps bitrate and we can see the possibility for MUCH better video – not just a small step up, but a revolution in what is available in this level of machine. This will be true no matter what the final destination of the video is – whether the web or corporate/commercial use.
Whereas the video from a plain Phantom 4 might satisfy 90% of needs in the consumer price range, the Phantom 4 may bring that figure up to 97% or higher. Only those doing very high end work (Major Motion Pictures or Cable-Broadcast work , National Geographic Specials, etc.) would need more. Those photographers would likely step up either the new Inspire 2 or the Matrice..and/or semi-custom setups. These range in price from 5K to 50K+. If you need that level of machine, you are probably not a regular reader of this blog…you know what you need and where to get it!
Basic Video Specification
The basics are as follows:
H 264 (existing popular video encoding)
4K – up to 4096×2160 24/25/30/48/50/60p @100Mbps
2.7K – up to 2720×1530 48/50/60p @80Mbps
HD –1920×1080 48/50/60/120p @80Mbps@65Mbps
(of note – the 120 frame rate could be very good for slow motion)
H 265 (new, higher quality video encoding)
4K – up to 4096×2160 24/25/30p @100Mbps
2.7K – up to 2720×1530 48/50/60p @80Mbps
HD –1920×1080 48/50/60p @80Mbps@65Mbps
Many additional formats are supported – see the full specifications at the link above or at the DJI Phantom 4 Pro product page.
Additional Intelligent Flight Modes
The intelligent flight modes of the Phantom 4 Pro have been upgraded and added to as follows:
- NEW – Draw: Easily create a flight path by drawing on paired device display
- ActiveTrack: New Circle, Parallel and Spotlight modes within ActiveTrack allow the Phantom to “dance” or position itself around the subject in various ways.
- NEW – Gesture mode: Wave to take a selfie
- TapFly now works backwards and comes with a new Free mode and AR route feature.
- Precision landing
- RTH with (NEW)route planning, environment mapping and maximum 300m long-range obstacle sensing
These features give you more chance of getting your Phantom back in unexpected situations. You can choose various scenarios such as having the Phantom follow the same outbound course – or, having it return in the most direct fashion.
Sample Pictures and Video
Note – these are from a pre-production unit and software – and also unedited or selection – just posting to give an idea of color reproduction, etc.
Here is a Youtube video with some sample cuts – here is a vimeo video with same.
Here is a dropbox file with some RAW still pics in it.
Youtube Video below – quick video clips along with a demo of the front, rear and side Obstacle Avoidance System (beta software & pre-production unit)…
Summary – First Look Conclusion
Note – we are still flying and testing a “pre-production” Phantom 4 Pro – however, most of the new bird is based on the P4 Platform, our highest rated consumer camera drone. Therefore, we are fairly confident that it will meet the published specifications. This review will be updated during the next 10 days as we fly the P4P and learn more.
The best technology is that in which all the parts come together in such a way to provide a usable tool for the purpose intended. A fancy smartphone with poor reception or a substandard camera is not going to be satisfactory just because it has a fast CPU. A new car will be safer and more useful if it has numerous systems for enhanced driver information and control – implemented in a way that makes the entire system “one”.
The Phantom 4 Professional is, in our opinion, worth the title “Pro”. It is arguably the first true Proumer Camera Drone in the under $2,000 price category. The combination of a proven foundation (the design, propulsion system, gimbal, app, remote, etc.) combined with the vastly improved camera, range and avoidance enhancements make it second to none for both the prosumer and the true video and photography professional.
Our rating, of course, takes into account the price point, portability, reliability and other factors. Those with larger budgets who make their living doing higher end work might want to consider the upscale Inspire 2 line.
In our case – Droneflyers.com has always been a site dedicated to the consumer end of drones. We loosely define this as being entire packages up to approx. $2500 – a niche which the P4P fits perfectly into. That being the case, we are placing an order for a Phantom 4 Professional to be our main machine for 2017 photos and videos. The Mavic Pro will remain in our stable for travel and stealth – but the idea of getting “Sony 1″ Sensor” photos from aloft fulfills yet another of our “drone dreams”.
Those who don’t need this level of machine can rest assured that our previous pick of Best Consumer Camera Drone, the Phantom 4, will more than satisfy more budding aerial photographers. In fact, even the Phantom 3 line (Advanced and Pro) are more than good enough for a majority of consumers.
Here is our short “unbox and intro” Video made on launch day – also some comparison to the regular Phantom 4.