I am biased. Since I began flying drones about two years ago, I have been flying DJI products the entire time, and because of that, I am only going to write within my scope of experience (because we’ve got enough clowns out there writing about things that they know nothing about!), which is to say, I am going to write about DJI cameras only. While I am not very stoked about their customer service, DJI offers an incredible package for the price, and their cameras are just getting better and better. Here is the question: How do we as photographers and videographers know which one is the right tool for the job?
I have completed approximately 107 drone jobs since founding Southern Oregon Drone (I am not counting the ~40 or so I did working for a real estate agent when I first started out) and I have never been turned down for a job because my camera was insufficient (save one time when a competitor showed up to my paid gig with a drone much bigger and ‘cooler’ looking to my client, but that story is for another day) . When I first founded Southern Oregon Drone, I saved up and bought a DJI Phantom 2 Vision + (the same model I had used while working for the real estate agent) and used that for a few months. I used the Vision + camera to film a variety of interesting videos, including a collection of stock footage filmed around Oregon for a customer I found through Reddit, the Gorge Flyboard tutorial video, a collection of videos filmed over Shasta Lake, and a video of a mountain biker riding all over Roxy Ann Peak. In fact, the mountain biking video was featured on the Medford Parks and Rec website, and led to some pretty big contracts later down the road!
The Vision + camera did an OK job, but I never took photos because of the fisheye lens, and all my videos had to be rendered within a black box to fit regular video players at 1080P. I would not recommend offering any kind of drone photography or videography services with this camera, though I doubt that will be an issue since that drone is no longer in production. I only used this one for a handful of jobs, and every cent I earned went towards upgrading to something better as fast as I could.
After the Vision + I moved onto the Phantom 3 Pro. I am still of the opinion that the DJI Phantom 3 Pro is THE best drone for the money that DJI has ever made (disclaimer: I have yet to try a Phantom 4/Mavic). The image quality is virtually the exact same as the X3 on the Inspire, and I truly believe the gimbal system is better on the 3 Pro than the Inspire. The 3 Pro gimbal always kept the horizon flat when flying full-speed sideways, unlike my Inspire X3 which ends up tilting a bit. I have since had to change my shooting style to avoid high-speed sideways flight, and I have thought more than once about picking up a Phantom 3 Pro again just for those types of shots. I don’t operate with a backup as of now, but if I ever do, the 3 Pro will be a main contender for the spot. The 3 Pro is also MUCH more compact and easy to transport into challenging environments than the Inspire. All work on the Jones Bikes videos was filmed with the 3 Pro, and I had to bike that drone in a backpack all the way up into the mountains. All work done between August 2015 and May 2016 was done using the 3 Pro.
Understanding Your Market
Before selecting a camera, it is important to understand who it is that is providing the most revenue NOW (you may be seeking to serve other markets which may require different equipment, but focus on optimizing your current check writers first). The majority of my work is in real estate, with various jobs here and there in other industries. I work with producers from time to time as well, and admitedly they are a little more particular about equipment. But when they contact me, they have always already looked through my portfolio and have deemed my work to be of high enough quality. Which leads me to my next point…
Which DJI drone camera do I currently use?
Today I use the Inspire 1 with a regular old X3 hanging from it. DJI has since released a variety of new cameras, including the Z3, X5, X5R, and now the X4 and X5S for the Inspire 2. Could I afford to upgrade to an X5, X5R, or even to the new Inspire 2? Yes. Will I? No. At least not right now.
This is what this article boils down to. The vast majority of my clients – excluding some hollywood and national TV level producers – will not care if I am using an X5 or an X3. In fact, most of them couldn’t even tell the difference. The X3 currently costs between $450 and $500 online. The X5 is more than 3x the price at $1800. As a business decision maker, the cost does not justify the benefits.
Think you need the X5 in order to be competetive? Think again. Here are some clients that have hired me, and for whom I filmed with the X3:
–HGTV on 4-day shoot for an episode of Beach Hunters in Seaside, Oregon
–Garmin on a 2-day shoot for a series of web-based lifestlye videos for their fitness watches
–Lexus on a 12-hour shoot filming their cars along the Oregon Coast
If these national and international brands were happy with the X3 footage, is an upgrade necessary? Too often I see amateur and professionals alike using the excuse that their equipment is holding them back. This is just that – an excuse. Heck, if these clients were happy with the X3, the camera on the Phantom 3 Pro would have provided the same image. We all know a professional photographer could do some pretty incredible things with a Canon Rebel and a kit lens, just like an amateur could take some bad photos with a Canon 5D. DJI cameras are no different.
I want to clarify: the X5 IS a better camera and if you have it already or can spare the $1800, you should get it. Photos are larger, low light settings are much better, and the image quality – especially to a professional eye – is improved. But this will cost you flight time due to increased weight, and you’ve essentially doubled your financial risk by flying the X5 on your Inspire. Watch out for the trees… for real!
(If you are wondering why I have not brought up the X5R, it is because that camera is truly overkill for what I do, and what most commercial drone operators do. Even the documentary and TV commercial filmmakers I work with wouldn’t need Cinema RAW. It is extraordinarily expensive, as is the solid-state memory needed for it. I would only ever go with the X5R when filming for a Hollywood-calibre piece)
I do, in fact, offer an upgrade option to clients who want the benefit of a Micro 4/3 camera and lens options. I usually just pass along exactly what the rental company is charging me for the rental, plus a little hazard fee if I am flying over water. My Inspire 1 is fitted with the adapters for the X5, but I have yet to have any client take me up on this offer. Some have expressed interest, but at the end of the day they elect to have me use the standard X3 because they just don’t find the X5 upgrade worth the money. And yes, every firm that has asked about the X5 has had the financial ability to upgrade.
Truth be told, I will probably upgrade to the X5 at some point this year, but it has more to do with my own desire to have a micro 4/3 camera in the air than it does to please clients. Put another way, there is still not a great demand for the X5 from my client base, so investing in one really won’t provide any greater of a return than my current X3. The reason I want to acquire an X5 is for its improved low-light capabilities and 16MP photos, as well as for ground-based shooting with my Osmo.
At the end of the day, professional drone photographers need to think of their operation as a business, because it is a business. Don’t get caught up in the flashiest, coolest, newest, bestest gear if it is not the right tool for the job. Determine your clients’ needs and invest in the equipment that will satisfy them.
Guest Contribution by Michael Carlini – Founder of Southern Oregon Drone, Remote Pilot, Commercial Fixed-Wing Pilot