Give me a camera and I’m happy. Toss a 4K setup on a quadcopter and it’s heaven. Especially because getting me into a plane or helicopter with a camera comes with enough anxiety to make Pfizer blush. It’s the whole takeoff, cruising altitude and landing part.
Drones solve the issue by keeping me on terra firma and not ‘that guy’ you see in the window seat of the plane furiously flipping through a magazine while taxiing down the runway. Alex gives me hell, but whatever. Hit an air pocket flying into the Aleutian Islands and let me know about your love of flying.
Before drones or quadcopters, aerial footage was cost prohibitive for 99% of us. But companies such as DJI have smashed the barrier of entry, and now we all have access to incredible footage that is only limited by our imagination. And the National Park Service.
DJI was kind enough to lend us a Phantom 4 recently. Don’t worry; we won’t bore you with a list of specs. It’s about having fun and getting airborne. Here’s how we fly.
We already own a Phantom 3 Pro, so I knew what to expect when I opened the box. Speaking of the box, it doubles as a carrying case. Sure, it looks ridiculous scrambling across rocks and down trails – but it keeps the drone nice and secure. It would have been nice if the Phantom 4 had the same footprint as the 3 so I could have used a backpack, but money has to be made.
Cracking the DJI Phantom 4 Case
Design is one of the biggest improvements to the Phantom 4. At first glance, the drone is gorgeous. You can’t dislike the gloss white finish. It’s still plastic, but it loses the plastic look of previous generations. If a drone is meant to turn heads, the Phantom 4 accomplishes it.
Hauling it out of the box, you’ll notice a weightier feel over previous Phantoms. It feels more substantial – mostly thanks to the new battery that increases flight times by around four minutes over the Phantom 3 Pro.
Two nice touches accompany the new Phantom 4 out of the box. The biggest is the new propeller system. Instead of screwing on props, it’s the snap and twist system borrowed from the Inspire line. I was sad just from this when I had to pack up the Phantom to send back to DJI’s Burbank office.
It’s not a necessary feature, but damn if it isn’t a quality-of-life improvement. It’s easy to see why DJI brought the feature over from the Inspire 1.
Next is a gimbal guard that isn’t evil. Owners of a Phantom 3 will know what I’m talking about. The weird plastic gimbal mount that takes forever to put on. Now? It’s a simple guard that snaps onto the struts and protects both the gimbal and the camera lens. Alex hates putting it on, but once you’re used to lining it up, it’s a breeze.
With a battery slapped in and the propellers snapped on, we were ready to fly. DJI touts many beginner-friendly features with the Phantom 4 – collision avoidance, tap to fly, visual tracking and more. Great for beginners. Phantom vets like us? We couldn’t wait to click the Phantom 4 into ‘Sport’ mode and see what it’s made of.
Never tout a top speed and then send us a review unit. Of course, we are going push the throttle to its stop. And DJI is spot on with the listed top speed of 45mph. We hit that mark with ease. While the speed difference doesn’t seem like a huge leap over the Phantom 3, side by side flying showed off the maneuverability and sheer speed.
Is ‘Sport’ mode meant for filming? It depends on the look you want, but for our use, leaving it in normal mode was perfect. Plus, cruising around at 45mph drains the battery in a hurry.
Getting in the air is simple. You can opt for the app-assisted takeoff or use the remote yourself. Both work equally well and after one or two remote takeoffs, you’ll ignore the assisted takeoff function.
Once up in the air, DJI has a myriad of options to control the drone. The new ‘tap to fly’ function works as described. Did we use it much? No, but I can see it being incredibly useful when letting inexperienced operators use the drone.
A perfect example would be our nephew. At six years old, control sticks serve one purpose – push or pull to the max. The ability to let him touch on a tablet where he wants to go is easier on the drone and wallet over letting him loose with the controller.
The collision avoidance system is a great function, and we tested it to make sure it worked as described. No issues with it, though we weren’t going out of our way to smack it into the side of our house. It’s a common sense feature. It’s there for an ‘oops’ moment and not meant to see if it can throw on air brakes at 45 mph to avoid a rock.
Object tracking is a great feature. In a perfect world, it would be able to track at higher speeds. But once you’re a pro at the controls, you can get it out on the water or track various high-speed objects with the safety features disabled.
One issue we ran into that was different from the Phantom 3 Pro was a high pitched whine from the motors. I checked other YouTube videos to see if it was a demo unit that had seen one too many people, but the whine was present in plenty of hobbyist videos and unboxings. Not a big deal, but don’t expect to sneak up on anyone with a Phantom 4.
It’s a Camera First, Drone Second
For all the talk of people owning drones and quadcopters, it is the camera that has grown the industry. RC aircraft remain a niche market, but slap a camera on it, and suddenly it’s the must-have gadget.
DJI is the leader of the pack, mixing the right balance of simple controls and a camera that takes amazing video and stills. Video, the options start at HD and head north to full 4K.
While there’s not a big leap in camera tech from the Phantom 3 Pro to the 4, I did notice the AWB performance far outstripped our 3. It’s impressive. I could leave the color profile alone and still get great footage. Those looking for the best performance will want to set the video in D-Log to make life easier in post production.
Zero video jello was present that would require ND filters. With the Phantom 3 Pro, you are always grabbing at least an ND8 to strip out the jello and help with shutter speed. On the Phantom 4, I didn’t have to do that, and it was a nice improvement.
Yes, there will be situations where ND filters will be needed, but those buying one and just want to get going? It’s ready to go from the first charge.
For a market that demands quality video, the camera is great for the price. Sure, I’d love a Zenmuse X5R too, but $1400 only gets you so far. Still, let us all dream…
Still photos take on new meaning with a drone. Gone are the days of hiking to a spot and discovering the perfect vantage point is just out of reach. The Phantom series has had the ability to shoot in RAW, and it’s where you want to keep the settings. Life is easier in Lightroom with RAW files over a JPG.
Nice features in the Phantom 4 include bracketing and HDR support. The images you will find on Facebook groups and enthusiast forums are awe inspiring. It will have you keeping the batteries charged when a storm comes rolling in or traveling the states.
I won’t trade my DSLR for it, but I’m more than happy to add a drone to my photography collection.
To Little River Canyon (Almost)
It can be tempting to take a drone to your favorite spot. For us, that’s Little River Canyon. Only one problem. Federal parks are a no-go zone for drones. But not all was lost. There’s a bridge just south of where the park ends. After a short hike, we captured some fantastic footage.
**We purposefully left the camera on AWB with the color profile set to auto (we did adjust the levels slightly to dampen the haze). In the coming days and weeks, we will release color graded footage, but we wanted to show out of the box performance.**
Yeah, the hit and miss nature of thunderstorms this time of the year isn’t great for the water level – but Little River Canyon is still one of the most incredible places to visit no matter the time of year.
From nearly 400 feet up you can see right where the water continues to cut through atop Lookout Mountain.
But I wanted to get some footage of a waterfall. With Little River Falls not happening, we had to think of something else. Lucky for us, Yellow Creek Falls is right on the way to Little River Canyon. All that was in the way was a quick kayak paddle. After placing the Phantom 4 in a black trash bag (hey, we live in Alabama, don’t judge) we set out to Yellow Creek Falls. About 10 minutes later we were there.
We all dream of capturing that birds’ eye view. With drones like the DJI Phantom 4, those views are just minutes away. Each time we took it up, we were blown away by the images and videos I was able to capture.
Wrapping Up the Phantom 4
My first question to DJI after it arrived was ‘can I keep it?’ That’s when the company knows it has a winner. For those looking to upgrade out of an older Phantom 2 or 3 series, the answer is a definite yes. The price point is solid and cheaper than I would have expected.
It makes me think a Phantom 4 Pro is lurking somewhere in the halls of DJI HQ. Those new to quadcopters will enjoy the myriad of safety and beginner features. Tap to fly is great, and anything that helps prevent people from crashing a $1000+ gadget is a good thing.
Those that want to make the leap from hobbyist to professional? The Phantom 4 isn’t that. You would want to step towards the Inspire 1 or DJI’s custom sUAV platforms. A Phantom 4 fills that niche of hobbyist to prosumer. That’s not to say you can’t get amazing, professional quality footage and stills off the camera. You can and will.
Overall, if I were buying my first drone, I’d want the Phantom 4. It’s simplicity and camera sell me on the platform. The features to help beginners fly cannot be understated. When you have experience flying, it’s easy to dismiss the options out of hand. But to the new owner snapping on the props for the first time? They are the ultimate safety switch to avoid crashing $1400.
For the experienced users, it’s a hell of a videography and photography platform for the price tag. For the budget conscious consumer, sticking with the Phantom 3 Pro is a great deal. It lacks the new features of the Phantom 4 but provides a more wallet-friendly introduction to DJI.
I have to ask DJI again. Can I keep it?
**The Phantom 4 demo unit was provided courtesy of DJI for the purpose of this review. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to keep it.**