Since I’ve been paying attention to the fast-moving developments surrounding Unmanned Aerial Systems – UAS or UAV(ehicles), more commonly called drones — I wanted to know what other photographers are thinking about the current state of drone photography and how it’s impacting their business, good or bad. I sent five questions to two other photographers who are using drones for aerial photography and asked their opinions, then I answered my own questions too from the perspective of a drone skeptic. The whole thing was written up for a guest blog post on the APA/EP website and the full-length Q&A, along with some photos from the three of us, can be found here.
An excerpt may be read below the graphic.
Spoiler alert — I’m still a drone skeptic 😉
Do you have a preferred drone platform? Why that one? Positives and limitations?
Cameron Davidson: DJI is making great strides and I’ve been pretty happy with my Inspire 1. It seems to be the best of the lot and offers good support, too. I also own the P 4 Pro – which is a pretty nice little ship. I am considering the Inspire 2. I bought a 3DR Solo and promptly returned it when the software would not function properly. The ALTA system looks incredible as does the larger DJI ships. For now, the DJI integration works well. Since DJI purchased a majority share in Hasselblad, I may wait a generation to see if there is a 30 meg plus ship in the future. As for plusses and minuses, everything works 99% of the time but I’m still dealing with small chips that get noisy above ISO 200. With the Inspire 1 you need to test your lenses.
Rob Miller: My first UAS was the 3DR Solo and while I love the way it flies, the GoPro was a big limitation for me due to the fisheye effect and mediocre image quality. I have been very impressed with just about everything that DJI has released however. In addition to the Solo, I now own an Inspire 1 and will probably get a second one as a backup. After that I will consider adding the Mavic for its portability.
Andrew Buchanan: First let’s be clear that there’s a huge range of drones available, from inexpensive beginner drones to large aerial platforms with cinema-quality cameras that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mostly what we’re talking about for these purposes are those made by DJI, Parrot, and other similar sellers and run from $500-2500 dollars, altough the new DJI Inspire 2 with the Zenmuse camera that Cameron mentions below is listed at $6200 on B&H. Most have their own on-board cameras, but the less expensive ones are designed to carry a GoPro or similar small action camera. In either case, the lenses tend to be a fixed wide angle, or ultra-wide angle, and the image resolution is good, but not great — typically maxing out around 4000 pixels. Lenses on cheaper drones don’t accept filtration and the file format for still photos is typically limited to jpegs, although nicer drone cameras are starting to shoot in .dng. Some have pivots for independently controlling the camera in one or two axes (rotating, or tipping up and down), but many cheaper ones require framing of these ultra-wide angle shots simply by re-positioning the drone. And have you ever seen a vertical image shot from a drone? For me, the creative and photographic limits of this caliber of aerial photography leave a lot to be desired.
How do you feel about the technical limitations of still photos from drones? Are the smaller camera sensors and fixed lenses limiting, or have they achieved a technical and quality level whereby it’s irrelevant for most clients?
CD: The small digital chip is the biggest problem. A 35m size chip with 30 + megs would go a long way to making work easier and significantly better quality. Quality, for my clients, is never irrelevant. I’m finding Capture One does a good job with the Inspire 1 Zenmuse X5 chip and with the Phantom P4 Pro (the 1″ chip).
RM: The technology has matured fairly well. DJI now has the Z3 camera with zoom capability and the X5 series cameras have 16 MP micro 4/3 sensors with interchangeable lenses. In addition to DJI’s proprietary offerings, the category of “heavy lift” drones can carry your full size DSLR or even a cinema camera such as a RED or Black Magic series with relative ease. The Inspire 2 now offers what was previously only available in high end aerial cinema equipment including obstacle avoidance, separate cameras for pilot and camera operator, 5.2K CinemaDNG RAW footage, flight time of 27 minutes, and a top speed of 58 MPH. My architectural photography clients still love traditional ground images shot by cameras with larger sensors but have also begun to add aerial shots too. I have not yet heard any complaints when this combination is delivered.
AB: The technology involved in flying, positioning, and navigating these drones is pretty awesome. Combined with cameras capable of full-HD and even 4k video, they offer incredible opportunities for aerial video. But when it comes to the higher resolution needs and the motion-less nature of still photography, the cameras on these platforms still seem pretty primitive to me. When shooting from a helicopter, I can use the same cameras and lenses I use for ground-based shoots; I change lenses from super-wide to telephoto as often as I want; and I’m shooting in RAW format on a full-frame sensor for maximum post-processing and output options. Basically, I’m putting my very same gear, experience, and workflow to work making great, creative images just as any of us would on the ground. For me, the technical limitations of still image files shot with a drone camera don’t justify the cutting-edge platform of the drone itself, not when there’s a good alternative. Now that DJI owns a majority of Hasselblad as Cameron mentioned, we might be in for a welcome technical revolution. Until then, I have yet to see a drone platform that offers comparable still image quality, gives me the same creative control as a handheld camera from a helicopter, and that’s affordable for what my clients are comfortable paying.
- Please read the complete drone photographers interview on the APA/EP website here.