DJI’s Phantom 4 drone: Worth the upgrade?

Almost a week after the US announcement, DJI presented the Phantom 4 to the Chinese press in their home city of Shenzhen. They were clear from the start no one was going to get their hands on the controls but it did give me a chance to ask some of the key questions I was interested in as a news cameraman.

The Phantom 4 is not cheap at $1,399 US and there is only one model. The batteries have also changed, so if you are used to carrying several, as I do, you need to factor this into the upgrade price. On the plus side there are lots of new features to make it easier to fly more safely and create better images.

The camera has a new lens design that is said to be improved.
The gimbal is integrated into the body of the Phantom 4 and the camera has had a modest upgrade.

First off, DJI claim an improved camera lens that delivers less chromatic aberration and a sharper image but retains its f2.8 aperture. It feels and looks more sturdy and is on a redesigned gimbal. The sensor is the same as the Phantom 3 professional, delivering a 12 megabit still image, 4K video and a variety of profiles including their own D-Log and D-Cinema modes. The 4 also uses the same Lightbridge system for sending the signal back to the device which stays at 720P for a range of 5KM in good conditions (I rarely get much more than 1 KM before the signal starts to break up though); so no improvement over the Phantom 3 professional.

The good news is DJI have added 60 & 120 FPS at 1080p for slow motion which I presume they won’t offer with a firmware upgrade to the 3. Unfortunately I was not able to test the camera, so can only judge it off the sample footage handed out which unsurprisingly looks very clean.

The sample footage looks great. It always does, doesn't it?

Most of the main new features are aimed at the novice, making the new Phantom 4 a good option for first time droners. A collision avoidance system will detect objects ahead and below the drone, and then either steer a course around or stop depending on what mode you are in. This is not entirely ‘fool safe’ as I tend to fly the drone in all directions. Backwards, sideways or up movements are not covered by the new protective net.

A tap fly function allows you to control the direction of your flight by simply tapping on the viewing screen at the place you want to fly to. A sports mode allows you to fly fast and a new battery increases flight time to 28 minutes. Though useful, I can’t see any of these advancements making much difference to news cameramen who tend to put the drone up for a short period of time for a particular shot.

Sensors under the drone allow it to avoid collisions.
Sensors under the drone allow it to avoid collisions, and redesigned propellers aim to reduce the likelihood of them getting into your shot.

There are two new functions I can see being useful. Raised propellers that will reduce (though not banish) the props getting in low angle forward motion shots and the active tracking mode. This allows you to pinpoint an object or person on the screen; the Phantom 4 will then start tracking it, keeping the object in the middle of the frame and avoiding anything in its path. This is a big upgrade to the ‘follow me’ mode in the Phantom 3 professional which essentially just made the drone follow the controller without any camera adjustments. Active tracking also allows you to circle a subject even while it is moving which is a very difficult move with the sticks.

The Phantom 4 kit
The Phantom 4 kit: good news for first time fliers, a harder decision if you’ve already invested in a drone and accessories.

Overall I would say buy it if you were thinking of starting to use a drone in your video or stills work. It’s a good drone to learn with. If you are a regular user of the Phantom 3 Professional, then you may need to consider if it’s worth it. The jump in picture quality from the Phantom 2 to the Phantom 3’s built-in camera was a deal breaker but for now if you want to get another big jump in quality you are better to go for an Inspire with one of the new lenses they offer.

The Phantom 4 is available for preorder at Apple and DJI stores now, and will be shipping March 15.

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