The DJI Phantom really is the most recognisable (civil) drone there is. Earlier versions have been seen in everything from South Park to The Big Bang Theory and for many who have never been near a flying camera this curving white fuselage epitomises the technology. Unlike the few earlier drones that might be seen as toys, the development of the Phantom has always put the image — video and then still photography too — at the heart of the device’s purpose, and its marketing.
The first Phantom, released in 2013, usually supported a GoPro between those rigid legs, and sported red stripes on its front arms. In a very rapid run of product updates (and a confusing array of edition names), DJI added a camera, 3-axis stabilisation, GPS (so the drone could hold position despite wind), better control range, 4K camera, collision sensors, and support for DJI’s FPV goggles.
At the same time, DJI were also providing the market with smaller aircraft with similarly stabilised cameras, and in the category above, the DJI inspire series with the option of a Micro-4/3rds interchangeable lens camera. With its larger bulk than the cheaper models, the Phantom had less obvious appeal to the enthusiast photographer as it used to, and a pro might feel they deserve the camera in the Inspire.
In all that time the Phantom’s basic shape hasn’t changed a great deal, simply looking a bit smoother (it’s gone gloss, and shed its taped on front-leg colouring in favour of the clean look and depending on the built in lights to help the pilot establish orientation).
The Phantom 4 was retired in April 2017 in favour of the Phantom 4 Pro or Phantom 4 Advanced; between them they answered that question with a 1-inch 20MP CMOS image sensor and five-directional collision detection & subject tracking. The video transmission system was updated to ‘Lightbridge HD’ which makes live broadcast at 1080p possible. Now, in 2018, when many had expected the Phantom 5, we have the new Phantom 4 Pro v2.0. In addition, with a built in screen on the remote, the Phantom 4 Pro+ v2.0, which is the version I’ll be testing here.
The Latest Phantom
The Phantom might not occupy all of DJI’s attention any more, but it is still a very visible product in their line-up. The physically larger size, which will still travel comfortably in a dedicated backpack, makes the drone more resistant to gusty conditions than some of the foldable alternatives, and makes that fully stabilized 1-inch R sensor possible too. Since I brought it up, from a portability standpoint, not only will DJI sell you a backpack for £190, but because the shape is so established, there are some great bags out there from leading manufacturers like Manfrotto or Think Tank.
The tech is without much in the way of compromise too. Admittedly DJI are maddeningly inconsistent with the positioning of their collision sensors, with none of their offerings yet avoiding objects when travelling in any direction, but this drone does add detectors on the sides as well as front, back & bottom, so the only way to fly into anything is upward. For comparison DJI’s Inspire 2 does have top sensors, but nothing on the sides. Underneath the Phantom 4 Plus 2.0 there are two ultrasonic sensors which are Unlike the earlier drones that might be seen as toys, the development of the Phantom has always put the image — video and then still photography too — at the heart of the device’s purpose used to detect the proximity to the ground, facilitating automatic landing, and two cameras, which help avoid drift when flying indoors with no GPS (assuming adequate light).
Other than the sensors, the fuselage remains simple in design, with a pop-in Micro SD card slot and a Micro-USB socket on one side and a slot for the intelligent battery at the back. In flight the battery status lights remain on, handy if you’re flying nearby, but their real utility is in charging, letting you know how long you’ve got to wait. They seemed quite quick to me, though I found the battery itself difficult to get out (it was warm when I was testing, but nonetheless this was the one quality weakspot in the case).
The camera’s gimbal has powered stabilisation on all three axis, and this works together with the drone’s software so that the inevitable movement in flight is dampened out, essential for good video (digital stabilization will do at a pinch for an Instagram-moment, but not video you edit into a pro production). The drone needs to lean into the direction of flight, or into the wind, so is constantly altering its roll (left/right lean) and pitch (forward/back lean), meaning these two axis are the most essential. The yaw (rotation or rudder) is also stabilized here, and the main benefit of this is softening out turns in flight, making a follow-the-subject video that much smoother.
If you’re looking at drones for the first time, I should point out that the control-scheme is a little different to the mechanical explanation. The pilot can tilt the gimbal up and down using a control wheel where the left index finger rests on the remote, but in every other respect the direction of the camera is determined by that of the drone which does, despite appearances, have a ‘front’. It would be useless for the camera to rotate any further than its yaw stabilisation since that would just put the fixed legs into shot (aircraft like the DJI Inspire and those from PowerVision retract their legs to offer the camera room to rotate, though there is no reason you can’t simply rotate the drone in flight).
Flight itself is controlled using two sticks defaulting to the standard “Mode 2” operation familiar to most drone pilots, though you can change it in software. The [left stick] pushes the drone in any direction at the same altitude, the [right stick] either rotates the craft or climbs/descends. It all comes surprisingly naturally after a while and the aircraft itself will do all it can to make the process easy. Assuming you’re outdoors, the combination of GPS and GLONASS sensors and air pressure (altitude) sensors mean the aircraft will simply hover in place when you let go of the sticks.
Behind the scenes there are also attitude sensors and a compass inside the drone that tell it whether it is level or not too, so flying should be the least of a photographer’s worries. More than that the Phantom handles like a dream. It looks like some kind of high-tech cow, but push the stick all the way and its 1388g will shoot across the sky at a frankly astounding 45mph (72kph) with cat-like acceleration.
But what makes the V2.0 special? Well less than you might imagine; most of the features discussed are shared with the Phantom 4 Pro. This offers props with winglets for a supposedly quieter flight, but this is still a pretty noisy drone compared to most. Also new to the Phantom is ‘OcuSync,’ the video system which reduces transmission latency (though not by too much) and makes wireless use of DJI’s FPV goggles possible. Oh, and its 13g lighter than the previous Phantom 4 Pro at 1375g. Still not going to get you under the 250g weight at which you need to register though!
The Pro and Pro v2 Phantoms are capable of recording at a superior 100Mbps, rather than the (still very good) 60Mbps more common on older drones, and in a generous range of resolutions topping out at Cinema 4K (4096 x 2160) at 60fps (but also including 24, 25, 30, 48 (for cinema slow-mo) and 50. Super slow-mo can be achieved at 1080p at a whopping 120fps. Video can also be captured in H.265 (or the more standard H.264), which means that data-rate is doing even harder work — no bad thing given the amount of detail in aerial videos.
The mechanical shutter definitely shows its worth for stills when the drone is in motion too, with rolling shutter not an issue I spotted. If the camera does have a flaw it’s the fixed focal length 24mm EFL lens. Wide shots are obviously a big and important part of aerial photography, and pleasingly DJI cameras are amongst those that Photoshop Camera RAW includes presets for, but with significantly cheaper aircraft (like the Parrot Anafi) starting to offer zoom (albeit digital) and the leaked Mavic Pro 2 seeming to have an optical one, it seems strange that this most recent Phantom update didn’t at least include a version with a zoom camera. Zoom on a drone makes for great orbiting shots, which is why it’d be nice to see more than anything.
That aside, shooting 4K in Auto looks great, though one thing irritated me slightly; that I wasn’t able to nudge the exposure up and down while recording. My preference would be to never stop recording when flying. The number of times I’ve missed something because I got mixed up as to recording and otherwise is frankly embarrassing, and having another reason to stop and start is annoying, especially as in auto mode the exposure is adjusted automatically during flight, so clearly there’s no technical reason why not.
Shooting in 1080p and the other formats also looks good; some other drones create some unforgivable pixel patterns at lower resolutions than their preferred maximum making lines of contrast (for example suspension bridge cabled) look especially bad.
I flew in some quite challenging light, overflying shiny white boats near light-coloured apartment buildings and forcing the aircraft to choose between exposing for the fiberglass or the dark sea below. The machine nevertheless manages some impressive detail and it has to be said the 1in camera sensor outshines the Mavics with their smaller image sensors. That advantage really shows in RAW editing too, with 4 stops of EV adjustment available in Photoshop RAW without any serious loss of quality.
Stills photographers are not short of menu options either. Sometimes in fact the array is somewhat bewildering, but that’s hardly a problem unique to DJI – what SLR user hasn’t encountered the same problem. The issue is slightly heightened by the time limit the battery enforces, though the “30 mins” is at the top end of flight times available. If you’re not used to drone flight times, the generally accepted comparison time is based on hovering in no wind, and are reduced by fast movement, especially climbing and descent, though I found I still got over twenty minutes flying quite aggressively. DJI’s software is very good at letting you know how long you’ve got left, and representing it graphically against how long you need to get back. This is adjusted after each bit of battery-draining high-speed flying, and worst case scenario the machine will decide to head home (to the take-off point) if there is only enough power for that left. A great feature well implemented.
The camera offers full manual options, burst modes and so on, and it’s possible to screw on a ND filter – not a bad idea at all though I’ve not done so in the examples shown for a fair test.
The ‘Plus’ built in 5.5-inch screen, tested here, is an option – you can also pick up the Phantom with a bracket to clip your phone or iPad mini in. I say iPad for a reason – it’s not that DJI’s software is Apple-specific, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Android users do not have as straightforward an experience with their DJI apps as Apple users. The built in screen in the Plus Phantoms is basically a stripped down Android phone, but one that DJI won’t be able to blame problems with on the manufacturer! The result is very good; sure 5.5 inches is a bit disappointing compared to the iPad Mini, but the screen is very bright — no faffing with fold-out shades—and everything powers up in under 20 seconds with no recourse to cables or disabling your phone.
Despite the relatively small screen, the caution and warning messages (i.e. ‘too much wind’) didn’t seem as intrusive as on Mavics on my phone. The menus still occupy the whole right-half of the monitor, so it’s best to set what you can before take off, but in general I was pleasantly surprised what could be achieved in 5.5 inches of screen space and the brightness was well worth it.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though; I actually found it surprisingly tricky to get images from the device. My MicroSD card reader wasn’t working, so I thought perhaps I could put the card in the slot in the controller, and it turns out I could, for viewing, and even sending to Facebook or Instagram. But not, weirdly, to a MacBook, via cable or any other means. Eventually I had to put the card back into the drone and connect that via cable to my computer. This is all great for the video and stills, but not any of DJI’s clever panorama stitching features.
In fact on that note I thought the software design here was especially weird. When you capture a panorama, the photos are stored in a separate folder. If you’re patient, the drone will turn itself and its gimbal and capture all the necessary shots (getting and then fixing an appropriate manual exposure takes practice). In order to actually view stitch that panorama, you need to press the “Play” icon while you’re flying the drone, or at least if is powered up, from the flight screen, then initiate the stitching. The images don’t appear at all if you’re viewing the card through the album section of the app which seems ludicrous. All of this seems slightly connected to DJI’s efforts to get you to post through their own site (SkyPixel) but in any case isn’t logical.
There are also a huge number of flight modes to contend with, some more useful than others. The ability to track a subject you simply outline, like a person, so they’re kept in shot is great. Personally I’m less sure about the ability to follow a line you draw on the screen but it is undoubtedly technically impressive. DJI have also included their gesture controls. With all of this they’re nice to have but ultimately of limited utility and there is definitely a law of diminishing return as I need to remember more and more trademarked flight modes and what they actually do. Active-track aside, in most cases you’d simply be better off practicing flying. More personally I really don’t like going in and out of menus as the time ticks down, but at least the Phantom has a generous battery life compared to some.
It’s a shame that the V2.0 has only really brought improvements to the radio system that are of little use to most. The range was more than good enough before (especially if you follow the law), though OcuSync will make it possible to hand an on-site client the DJI Goggles if you want to impress. The live view is also enhanced to 1080p but the 720p on the Phantom 4 Pro still looks very sharp and is already beyond adequate. Given the limited value of quieter props in most operations (and the fact they can be picked up separately for the non-V2 Phantom too), there might well be a bargain to be had. V2.0 or not, Plus or not, the Phantom 4 Pro’s camera – comparable to a flying Sony RX100 – is a real stunner and if you’ve only experienced smaller drones with smaller image sensors then this will truly blow you away.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ V2.0 final verdict
The Phantom 4 Pro+ V2.0 is a truly stunning piece of technology, although it still feels a bit like a stopgap simply because of the other arrivals from DJI. Set aside the additional nagging feeling that a Phantom 5 will be along, perhaps with an optical zoom soon-ish, this machine remains incredibly capable. The intelligent flight modes and collision detection are nice to have, but the star of the show is the camera with 1-inch CMOS sensor, f2.8 lens, up-to 1/2000 sec mechanical shutter, 11.6 stops of dynamic range and 100Mbps 4K recording. Of course the same camera was present in the non-plus and V1 versions, so it’s worth checking prices on those models if image quality is your key concern over the radio improvements on the latest models. V2.0 or not, Plus or not, the Phantom 4 Pro’s camera – comparable to a flying Sony RX100 with a fixed lens – is a real stunner and if you’ve only experienced smaller drones with smaller image sensors then this will truly blow you away. Despite a few niggles, the fuselage is also solid and steady and the balance between portability and quality is one that’ll appeal to many. Recommended.