The 4K camera on the DJI Phantom 3 Pro has been the subject of a lot of comments and reviews since it was first released two years ago, some of them not very complimentary. We’ve been flying one around for some time now, mostly for the 4K video which seems to give excellent results once we managed to tame the exposure/shutter speed/rolling shutter problem, but it hasn’t been used much for still images, so we decided to have a look at what it can do.
It has to be said, that neither the DJI Phantom 3 Pro nor GoPro cameras are up to decent DSLR standards, and frankly compared to the 5Ds we operate, they are truly pitiful, in almost every department. Having said that, though, even interpolated 12mp images such as those produced by these cameras should be good enough to use for most internet purposes, so there is a value in comparing their output.
Both the DJI Phantom 3 Pro and GoPro Hero 4 Black cameras have fixed focus wide angle lenses with wide apertures, 2.8 in both cases. This creates obvious depth of field problems which the GoPro seems to handle far more effectively in still images, with distant backgrounds being substantially sharper and a lot less noisy. Although the Phantom 3 Pro camera is supposedly designed specifically for aerial filming and photography, the images are surprisingly unsharp at distances at or close to infinity. In other words, the very areas you want sharp when shooting, say, a landscape 50 to 100 metres above ground level, are out of focus. The lens is obviously set to provide sharp images of objects like vehicles, buildings, chimneys etc. somewhere between 10 and 20 metres away, leaving the background to look after itself.
The DJI Phantom 3 Pro camera gives flatter horizons and full control of EV settings, but struggles with sharpness at long range. Nowhere on this image is properly sharp, but it’s still quite usable below 4K
DJI Phantom 3
Using the DJI Go app on an iPad provides excellent control of the camera functions, with auto and manual modes available. We tested it mainly in manual mode, to try and get the benefit of the raw DNG images which were post processed in Photoshop, but while it was possible to easily manipulate saturation, exposure and colour temperature in the normal way, attempting to push exposure even by small amounts sent the noise factor through the roof. Also, working to the histogram seemed to produce consistently under-exposed shots in high contrast situations (bright sunlight, contre jour etc.) which all required ‘pushing’ to correct the exposure.
The good news is that once you get the exposures right and make sure to pick your subject carefully, you can get very usable still images from this camera. At 4K the sharpness isn’t great, but at most smaller sizes they are easily usable on the web. Just don’t plan on using them for a double page spread in your next brochure!
The GoPro Hero 4 camera seems to provide sharper images, particularly of closer objects, but still struggles to maintain sharpness beyond 30 metres.
Using the GoPro Hero 4 Black on a Phantom 2 with a third party FPV setup is a bit of a shock after the smooth, effortless DJI Lightbridge and iPad combination. With the DJI Phantom 3 Pro you can take photos to order, as and when you want, set up the drone exactly where you want it, alter shutter speeds, ISO settings as you go, and obviously there is a histogram to give you basic guidance in manual mode. With the GoPro, all settings have to be done on the camera in advance of take off, which can be a bit fiddly if you suffer from ‘fat-finger syndrome’ and it’s very easy to forget something, which you won’t know until you finally get to review the images, usually back at the office.
Another uncomfortable trip down memory lane was the appalling quality of the feedback on the FPV monitor once beyond about 250 metres. It struggled to keep up with the changes of angle, lighting and speed and eventually blacked out at 400 metres.
The bendy verticals resulting from the fish eye lens on the GoPro Hero 4 can be controlled with the GoPro App, but it’s best to avoid them altogether if possible and make the most of the effect.
Having said all that, though, the stills (when you finally get to see them) are undeniably better than the output from the P3. It’s true that a significant element of control is removed by the GoPro, which comes hard when you are used to having full manual control of your photography, but most of the time the GoPro gets it right and is surprisingly good in high contrast situations. Using the GoPro Protune function still gives you some post processing control, but exposure values are controlled by the camera on the fly, so it’s hard to trick it into doing anything unusual.
A major issue with the 117mm wide angle lens on the GoPro is the quite horrific fish-eye effect it creates, with bendy lamp posts, doorways and horizons, but this can be relatively easily removed by processing images and footage through the GoPro App. It’s a very memory-hungry process, though, and caused some of our slower macs to simply overheat and fall over when applied to longer video clips. Thankfully it didn’t seem to be much of an issue with stills.
One factor to bear in mind in a review like this is that both these cameras are remarkable in their own way. Neither is much larger than a matchbox, but both are quite capable of delivering superb 4K video results (with quite a few options in the case of the GoPro) and quite usable still images, but neither will equal the clarity of even a mid-range DSLR. The DJI Inspire 1 sports a very similar camera to the DJI Phantom 3 Pro, so it’s no surprise that the results are little better. We have yet to road test an Inspire Pro, with the X5 camera, but hopefully the improved Olympus and Panasonic optics will make the difference, it just remains to be seen whether those 16megapixels are genuine sensor pixels or just more fake software tweaking.
As always, the overriding factor in determining image quality is the quality of the glass, no amount of digital enhancement or interpolation will make up for an indifferent lens, and in truth, the still output of these cameras is closer to 6mp than 12. At that size the quality and definition begin to make sense on a 27 inch monitor, so it’s fair to say that the images are quite adequate for web use, but not good enough for print except at sizes below A4.
There is no upgrade path for these cameras as the lenses are not removable, so what you see is what you’re stuck with. It’s worth remembering, though, that the next real step up in still image quality mostly involves strapping a very expensive (and heavy) DSLR like the Canon 5D to an even more expensive (and even heavier) drone like the DJI S1000. Apart from the cost (including insurance!), you would be struggling to keep within the 7kg CAA limit in the UK, and above that weight even hobbyists will require CAA permission and registered operators will need to upgrade their permissions. In our view, the more sensible course is to keep flying these cost-effective units as long as possible and wait for the next DJI Inspire camera upgrade in the hope of a lens/sensor/pixel enhancement to provide a genuine aerial landscape capability at reasonable prices. Certainly, our current GoPro/Phantom/Inspire inventory provides easily enough quality for the foreseeable future in every other department.