Introduction and features
Quadcopter and multirotor drones are rapidly growing in popularity, and it’s easy to see why. They’re relatively simple to operate, and many come equipped with small high-definition cameras, making aerial photographer accessible and affordable – a few years ago you couldn’t have captured such footage without hiring a plane or helicopter, or learning to fly a microlight.
The DJI Phantom has become the consumer drone of choice thanks to its affordable price, small size, ease of use and stylish design, and it’s available in many high street stores. We took a look at the original Phantom back in 2013, but there have been big advances in drone technology since then, and despite having almost identical looks the latest incarnation the Phantom 3 is a very different beast to the original.
The Phantom 3 is available in two versions – Professional and Advanced, with the only difference between the two being the camera. The Professional, which we’re reviewing here, has a camera capable of shooting 4K movies, whereas the Advanced is limited to Full HD (1080p).
DJI has kept the style of the body visually the same as the Phantom and Phantom 2, but there are some small changes to accommodate the new technology and performance enhancements. These include a new battery, tilted motors, wider landing gear and a smaller remote control handset.
Owners of the Phantom 1 upgrading to the Phantom 2 required new and very different battery packs. The Phantom 3 also sports a new battery pack, which despite looking identical to the Phantom 2′s battery is again all new, so if you own spare batteries for a Phantom 2 these won’t be compatible with the 3 if you upgrade.
The new pack is rated at 4480mAh at 15.2v, and powers between 15 and 20 minutes of flight depending on how you fly. The new pack is also considerably more expensive, at around £124/$xx, as opposed to around £90/$xx, which is something to bear in mind as additional batteries are an essential.
The four brushless motors have been reset with a slight tilt to aid stability and smart braking controlled by the new intelligent flight controller. The wider landing gear is also a welcome improvement, and helps to prevent the gear from appearing in footage.
The remote control handset has gone through a more major overhaul than the drone itself. It has been reduced slightly in size compared to the one that shipped with the Phantom 2, and it features a built-in rechargeable battery rather than using AA’s.
On the front of the handset is a line of LEDs that indicate the unit’s power level – one charge should last for a good ten or more flights, although it’s sensible to charge the unit after each session. On the back is a USB connection for your phone to enable Live View from the camera to the DJI Pilot app, which is a major improvement on the Wi-Fi connection used with the Phantom 2 Vision+ and uses DJI’s own Lightbridge technology.
Lightbridge enables iOS or Android devices to connect directly through USB to the Phantom 2.4Ghz handset, and transmits the footage from the camera to the mobile device. This live stream comes through at HD (720p) and has a workable range of up to 1.2 miles, although in our tests using an iPhone 6 we were unable to test this distance in flight.
The handset also features direct control buttons to start and stop recording, take photos, adjust camera settings and tilt the camera; some of these buttons can be customised using the app, but even without the app you’ll still have plenty of control over the camera.
The DJI Pilot app is the same one used by DJI’s prosumer quadcopter, the Inspire 1. It’s compatible with iOS and Android devices, gives you access to all of the Phantom 3′s settings and features. When you launch the app you’re presented with four options: Camera, Director, Store and User Centre.
The Camera section of the app enables you to control the camera to shoot video, take photos, and adjust the gimbal and camera settings such as exposure compensation, shutter speed and sensitivity.
The app’s interface is initially a little daunting, with the live view feed surrounded by icons and settings that can be adjusted. It takes a few minutes to check out the basic features that the app offers, and it’s well worth familiarising yourself with it before you venture out for a flight.
The app is the window into the Phantom’s settings and features, and is roughly split into GPS, Phantom diagnostic, direct control and camera.
Once calibrated, the GPS settings enable the Phantom to pinpoint its location, and has handy features such as the ability to set your location as the home point, so if you lose sight of the Phantom, or more commonly lose all depth perception, you can hit the home button on the interface or handset and the craft will come back to you.
There’s also a handy take off button on the interface which helps you to launch if you’re new to flying. The interface features a map that can be enlarged and shows the location of the quadcopter.
The app’s General settings enable you to configure the customisable buttons, check battery charge and (more importantly) flight time, adjust the gimbal and setup advanced features such as YouTube Live streaming.
The 4K camera is the big selling point of the Professional, and DJI has really addressed the needs of both the videographer and photographer with the scope of settings and adjustments.
At the heart of this camera is the Sony 1/2.3-inch Exmor sensor, from a sensor family that has already proved itself with many action cameras. The small camera features an f/2.8 lens with a 94 degree field of view, which equates to a 35mm equivalent of 20mm. Unlike an action camera, the Phantom’s camera controls distortion well, and avoids the usual fish-eye look that you would associate with the likes of the GoPro Hero4, a camera often used with quadcopters.
This small camera is mounted under the body of the craft and is suspended from a motorised gimbal. Although known for its quadcopters, DJI is also in the camera market, and produces motorised gimbals for the broadcast and the film industry. This expertise is evident in this very small and impressive gimbal.
The job of the gimbal is to keep footage as level and steady as possible, and it does an impressive job. Panning footage is level, and looks like the camera is on runners rather than mounted on a flying craft. Launching the Phantom above the tree line shows the steadiness of the camera, capturing footage that would usually require a telescopic camera pole.
If you’ve ever flown a quadcopter then you’ll know it’s not quite as easy as it looks, or at least that was the case before the Phantom 3.
Start-up is much the same as previous versions – wait for the four beeps and the variety of coded light sequences as it runs through its setup, then pull back on the two sticks to start the props and you’re ready to fly.
In the past this is where a quick blast of power to launch would be needed to ensure that the quadcopter became airborne. With the Phantom 3, however, push and hold the launch button and auto launch is activated. Push up on the stick and the Phantom 3 goes up; release the stick and it stays where it is; push the stick hard to the left and it shoots off as expected; release the stick and it automatically brakes – the original would just keep on going.
The whole flight process has been updated, and the new flight controller at the centre of the Phantom 3 is incredible, even if you have never flown a quadcopter before you’ll be able to get the basics of flight in minutes, whereas it took a good few hours of flight to skill the original.
The Phantom uses a series of sensors to stabilise the craft in flight, so alongside the GPS it also has two sensors on the underside. These work when GPS is lost or when you’re flying indoors, and enable the Phantom to read and keep its location.
Out in the open the GPS and the new flight controller make controlling the Phantom easy, with the left stick enabling throttle and rotation and right stick tilt to make the quadcopter fly in the direction you want. Letting go of the sticks at any point holts the flight, and the Phantom will hang in the air until you’re ready to take control again.
The live view stream is a great help when the craft is at a distance from you, as it enables you to gauge which direction the Phantom is travelling in – something which is more important than it sounds, as a small craft in the distance quickly becomes a dot, and it’s almost impossible to tell which direction it’s going.
The new flight controller, motor position and smart speed controller makes the Phantom 3 far more responsive and stable than previous generations.
The live view stream would also enable you to fly using a point of view perspective from the quadcopter, but in the UK this is outside of the CAA guidelines for flying these craft.
Controlling the camera
It’s best to control the camera using the smartphone app and the controller unit in combination. Once a mobile device and handset are connected by the USB cable and the DJI Pilot app is loaded, you’re ready to go. Then video recording can be started by just hitting the red button on the interface.
The camera can be used in two modes: still or video, selected through the app. If you do decide to fly without the aid of the app then the handset can be used on its own to control a limited set of the camera’s functions. There are dedicated video record and photo shutter buttons on the top left and right of the handset.
Using the app in Photo or Video mode you have the option to shoot in Auto or Manual mode. The Auto Mode is the best one to get started with, and it handles the sensitivity (ISO) setting and shutter speed for you, but you’re still able to adjust the exposure by means of the scroll wheel on the top right of the handset.
Manual mode is activated by hitting the manual settings icon in the bottom right of the app. Once activated you can then either touch to adjust the settings on the mobile device’s screen, or use the right hand scroll wheel on the handset; clicking down on the wheel enables you to toggle between sensitivity (ISO) and shutter speed.
Sensitivity can be adjusted from ISO 100 for bright conditions down to ISO 3200 in Video mode or ISO 1600 in Photo mode for lower light. Shutter speed can vary from 1/30 to 1/8000 sec, enabling plenty of flexibility over exposure.
Hitting the camera options button on the screen switches back to auto mode. In auto mode the camera handles sensitivity and shutter speed, but you can still adjust the exposure compensation using the top left scroll wheel on the handset.
Before a flight it’s always worth checking the camera settings with your mobile device, because settings such as exposure compensation are remembered, so you can easily find yourself shooting footage in auto mode that’s underexposed or over exposed.
There are a good variety of shooting options and alongside the 4K video, with other resolution and frame rate combinations including 4K at 25fps(NTSC) or 24fps (PAL), 1080p Full HD at 50fps (NTSC) or 48fps (PAL) and 720p HD at 50fps (NTSC) or 48fps (PAL). This doesn’t give as much scope as the GoPro Hero4, which enables 1080p at 120fps, but for a proprietary camera it’s impressive.
A nice feature on the handset is the ability to tilt the camera up and down, which is controlled by the left hand scroll wheel on the handset. Panning is of course controlled by rotating the craft in flight.
The speed of the live view link is excellent, and during our tests proved to be essential for checking composition and exposure, as well as checking the direction the Phantom was headed when at a distance. The speed and reliability of the connection was consistent, and although there is a very slight delay the connection was never lost.
One feature that really stood out during our testing was the YouTube Live View streaming, and this is really going to appeal to many event photographers. Initial setup through YouTube and on an iPhone 6 took about 10 minutes, but was relatively straightforward. Once done it enabled a pretty good live stream at 720p HD over a 4G network.
A good connection is essential, and out in the countryside where 3G signal is weak, the results of streaming become pixelated or are lost completely, although this is to be expected due to the quality of the mobile network coverage.
Video quality, colour, tone and contrast are good, with colours looking bright and the level of contrast just giving the footage the punch and crispness it needs. Playing back footage on a 4K Sony TV, despite the lower frame rate, the Phantom 3′s 4K video is perfectly smooth, and the overall quality is good.
There are exposure issues when the Phantom is headed towards bright areas, and the propellers do occasionally appear in footage, but these are minor quibbles.
Note that these are hosted on YouTube and won’t display at their full size by default – use the YouTube Settings pop-up to change the resolution.
Flying high this footage shows the Phantom at it’s height limit of 120m. This limit can be programmed in by the app.
Through the trees, it doesn’t take long to skill the Phantom 3 – it does most of the difficult work for you, so crashing into trees should be a thing of the past.
The new flight controller, motor position and smart speed controller makes the Phantom 3 far more responsive and stable than previous generations.
Both overexposed and a touch of propeller in this footage – always check your settings before venturing out.
It’s always a good idea to check the settings on a connected mobile device, as it’s easy to forget that exposure compensation has been used – this footage is overexposed by a massive two stops.
This footage shows the DJI Phantom 3 shooting while panning backwards.
Despite looking much the same as the previous generation, the Phantom 3 is a big step forward. It’s easy to fly, and offers unparalleled control over the capture of stunning video footage and video at a decent price.
It might not have some of the autopilot features, such as 360 selfies, that exisiting users of Phantom’s were hoping for and which will appear on the upcoming Hexoplus, but the auto take off and land, as well as home recall, are great a start.
In the past anyone wanting to fly a quadcopter might have liked the idea, but once in possession of the controls they would likely have found that it wasn’t as easy to fly as they’d thought. The Phantom 3, however is, and with the support of live view to check on the direction of flight, anyone should be able to fly the Phantom 3 in little or no time.
The standout feature is the small camera’s 4K video capability, which is excellent with just enough options over resolution and manual exposure to satisfy both photographers and videographers. The camera produces stunning footage, and once you’re familiar with the app and its settings it’s incredibly easy to use and control.
The addition of direct control for starting and stopping video recording on the handset, and the ability to tilt the camera along with the live view for composition, make the Phantom a quadcopter that’s easy to recommend to videographers and photographers.
The Phantom 3 has everything you need for hassle-free flying and high-quality video capture, the integration of flight and camera control make this a complete package that is easy to understand and use.
Drones, multirotors, quadcopters or whatever you want to call them have been causing a fair amount of controversy over the last couple of years, and as their popularity increases there are more incidents reported about the misuse. If you are thinking of buying one, read the guidelines and check the rules with your aviation authority. For more details in the UK, see http://www.caa.co.uk/.
The Phantom is the easiest drone to fly to date, and offers an all-new advanced flight control, high-quality 4K video and a set of GPS features that ensures the Phantom 3 delivers on more than just specs. Photographers and videographers will be impressed both the video and stills, and with the iOS and Android integration that enables live video to stream direct from the drone’s camera to the ground. Anyone new to drones will find that they’re able to fly the Phantom 3 within a short time, and the app and DJI Phantom community provide a vibrant and exciting network.