DJI Phantom 3 Standard, Three Days In

When it comes to photography, I sometimes make big purchases. That’s partially because I am a little enterprising.

I have a goal to improve my work with the PineandLakes Echo Journal partially through the tools I have available to me. In one respect, that includes camera gear. That’s why I bought my own camera even though the company provides them. That’s why I bought a 10-18mm lens.

In addition, I have a couple side projects that would benefit from drone photography. Most specifically, by spring I hope to have an established real estate and commercial photography business to supplement my newspaper pay. Wish me luck.

My latest purchase was a DJI Phantom 3 Standard. In many blogs, this is noted as basically the best option for beginner drone pilots who want to sell their drone photos. Basically, this is the most affordable drone that still has the power to do that job and is simple enough for anyone to use. That’s the claim anyhow. After a couple days I can give a precursory review of how well I feel that the drone lived up to those expectations.

Cost: $530 after tax is about what I paid. I put it on a BestBuy card because they allow me 12 month financing, and I don’t have a lot of disposable income. Honestly, this is not a bad price for what it claims to be capable of (more on that). They didn’t offer me a protection plan, I presume because of the inherent risks involved with drone flight as well as the fact that there is specific drone insurance out there.

The drone came with a basic kit. Drone, controller, charger for both, stickers and four spare propellers. I was delighted to find an 8 gb class 10 memory card as well, though I upgraded to 32 gb shortly after. Not a lot of extras, but I guess that is fine.

Instructions: The instructions are very highly illustrated, but not particularly detailed or well organized. There are about four small booklets that come with the device. They are all tiny. One is for the “smart battery”. One is for safe operation of the drone. One is an instruction booklet. They really should have been just one book with a good table of contents and sections.

Some sections with important instructions actually look like part of an index, which doesn’t make them easy to recognize or navigate. The instruction booklet was perfected about 100 years ago, so I’m not sure why this one is so…poor.

Information is hard to find. I had to look online to figure out what the two levers on the top left and right corners of the controller were. When I did find it with some online help, the booklet isn’t particularly great at explaining how the levers work. I found simpler, better information online. A diagram here would have probably been way more helpful.

The instructions aren’t particularly comprehensive. In some cases there seems to be specific details left out, or maybe those details are just out of order so my brain isn’t making connections. The directions made me think that maybe I could fly this thing without my tablet connected by using a specific joystick positioning upon first start up. I never got it to work and I have no clue why, because this section of the instructions is well illustrated but not detailed.

I will keep studying the instruction manual. Maybe as my familiarity with the device grows, it might click. Until then, we will have to wait and see.

Set up: Set up was relatively simple. You start with charging the drone and controller, as you should do with basically any new technological item. The controller can take a couple hours if it is really low, so don’t expect to be flying in fifteen minutes.

I found the interface between the controller and the drone is a little incomplete. It requires a smart device in order to do anything. There is no flying whatsoever without a smart device, so I had to download an app in order to get off the ground. As it turns out, my ancient iPhone 4 can’t run the app necessary for this process, so I turned to my $50 kindle, which technically doesn’t run the app either…unless you side load it. I did manage to side load, and found that it paired well with the drone. Setup is a little complex.

The instruction booklet doesn’t really detail which functions in a tablet are necessary. I wasn’t sure if my tablet would work with it because it is virtually the cheapest on the market. The drone and its instructions constantly mention GPS, but I don’t think the tablet has GPS built in, so I’m not sure how my tablet works with it or whether I am losing functionality by using such cheap gear. Again, this is a fault of the instructions.

You are supposed to turn the drone on before the controller and then connect the tablet via wireless internet, basically using the drone almost like a hotspot or router. I don’t think this was explained well in the beginning of the instruction manual and I don’t remember the manual actually explaining why.

You control the camera and choose flying modes with the tablet. You generally even use the camera to take off and land as well, unless you like to do it manually. I suspect the professional versions might work differently.

You have to do additional set up in each new location as well. Sometimes your drone will find its setting all by itself. Sometimes you have to dance with it to get it to recognize North, South, East and West. First you spin the drone 360 degrees, holding it horizontal.  Then you spin it 360 degrees holding it vertical. This calibrates it. Calibrating helps the drone to recognize where it is, combat metal and electrical interference somewhat and supposedly sets a home base that it can automatically fly back to and land. More on that later

Operation: I can see why this is the best beginner drone.

There is a button with a square and an arrow rising up from the square on it in the tablet app. You press that and then use a slider to command your drone to take off. It then hovers at about 4 feet until you tell it to do something. Thanks to its GPS and other systems, it also resists drifting with wind and other forces.

I’ve even pushed the bottom of the drone to try to move it. As long as it had a good signal, it resisted my push. Really resisted, very very forcibly, this makes me feel good that the drone isn’t going to move much without my permission.

The hovering is also great. I know someone who bought a tiny little drone to practice with before investing a great deal of money into the real thing. It is my understanding that this drone was hard to fly partially because you had to constantly control the altitude as well as direction. If you weren’t telling it to fly, it would drop. That’s not the case with the Phantom. If you aren’t telling it to move, it just hovers. This means that you have a chance to focus on the gimbal or camera angle rather than always  toying with the elevation.

This is probably my favorite function. Since you control some functions and the camera with the tablet, which is supposed to clip above the controller, you will probably be one handed on a regular basis. If you had to control the height with one hand while controlling the camera with your other hand, this would make for trouble. However, with this hover function, you can fly to where you want to be, go hands free and take photos with no problem… for the most part.

I mentioned before that this drone resists drifting, but it can drift a little, particularly with interference. I’ve noticed that the closer I am to power lines or power boxes on a property, the more my machine tends to drift, so be careful.

The system that prevents drifting also seems to have other quirks. As I flew my machine around the outside of my home, I found that it would not go forward more in one corner. I was just moving forward and then it came to a stop and went side to side a bit, but not forward. This is where I tried to lower the machine to my height and push it forward and it refused. This corner is where my home connects to the power grid. It is also where my propane tank and septic are and I have a satellite dish there. I’m not sure which of these my drone is frightened of, but I will respect its wishes not to go into that zone.

Control is probably as simple as it can get. The left controller tells the drone to fly up or down, or to turn left or right. The right controller makes it move forward, backwards or sideways. This only gets confusing if you are flying the drone towards yourself and not looking through the first person perspective of the camera.

I have not gotten to the point where I am a smooth operator. Not by a long shot, so the videos I have taken thus far are somewhat jerky and full of coarse corrections and panning and tilting, almost all of which required me to stop the drone, look at where it is, look through the camera, then adjust. There is a learning curve, but that will eventually fade.

The concept of a drone is complex, but I think this is probably the pinnacle of simplicity for this industry. You can take off and land hands free. There is even a function to land in the exact same place as where you took off, though when I tried it, it almost landed on my truck. My guess is this might be tied to the lack of GPS in my tablet. This isn’t a big deal so long as I don’t let the controller lose power. It turns out that if the signal from the controller is interrupted, the drone will return to its launch pad and land by itself. A good function…if the positioning is working right.

Battery time: Battery time isn’t too impressive. This is a new technology, so that is forgiveable. I don’t think you get an hour out of the drone itself. The controller goes a little slower, but my tablet was draining almost as fast. This requires apparently a not insignificant amount of power to run the app.

I want a new battery, but DJI official batteries are more than $100 each, so maybe if this device becomes profitable I can justify it.

Camera/Photos: The photos are beautiful. The video is stunning too, though it doesn’t run well in VLC, and some computers don’t seem to process it as well as others.

The gimbal on the bottom of the drone does a good job of stabilizing the camera mid flight. you don’t see any shaking and you get the impression, basically, of floating.

I have mixed feelings about the amount of controls in the app. Some of them seem like they would work as well or better built into the controller. They could have taken some cues from video game controllers. I would love to have a trigger style button to shoot photos on the back of the controller. A switch to change from photo to video would work well also. In general, I don’t like that I have to have three devices with full batteries in order to practice flying my drone.

I wish the drone had more capabilities sans app. Though having the app control things like exposure, focus and whatnot works well. It is my understanding that there is a way to program a flight plan or route, but the instruction booklet sucks so I will have to learn more about this later.

Conclusion: As a new-ish technology, I am impressed by this drone. It is intuitive, safer than you might expect, good for beginnings. The camera is mounted brilliantly, powerful and virtually anything you could want. I have hardly any gripes with this product.

I cannot express enough how disappointed I am with the instruction booklet. The tamagotchi probably came with better instructions. It is like they decided to make it short and sweet at the expense of actually giving instructions.

When you own such an expensive toy like this, you want to have instructions on how to use all its functions and how to avoid breaking it. You don’t get that here. The instructions are strangely arranged with repetition and even some poor translations, this is disappointing. Without good instructions, it will take a while to learn this machine, and I prefer print over web when it comes to instructions.

Pros:

• Easier to use than expected

• High quality.

• Great photos and video.

• Great gimbal.

• Avoids mishaps and accidents.

• The price is reasonable.

Cons:

• Instruction booklet is insufficient.

• Too much dependence on tablet app.

• Batteries are too expensive.

• Not enough functions controlled by remote control.

 

Reccomendations: Not that the company is asking me for my input, but I have a few suggestions for making this product even better than it is. First, improve the instruction manual. This is really the one thing they could probably do without adding much cost to the drone.

Next, move a few more of the functions onto the controller and off of the tablet. While you can operate this basically hands free if you don’t want it to move or take photos, operating it even one-handed has some down sides. You only have control of half of the motion controls if you are going one handed, so if more complex maneuvers become necessary, you can’t really be toying with the tablet. A trigger control for the camera shutter alone would have made shooting photos on the go easy. It’s like using the N64 classic controller where you actually have to let go of the controller, move your hand to a different part of the controller and then continue operation. You do not have continuous control over all of the major operations of the drone at all times. Maybe voice control would help too, but simply moving a few controls to the controller would have been good enough.

This would also reduce dependency on the app a little. I wish I could just practice flying without connecting my tablet. It is a major inconvenience to keep three quickly draining batteries powered up in order to operate this device.

Make batteries more affordable. This drone has removable batteries. They also don’t last super long. It is a no brainer that owning more than one battery will improve your user experience, but the cost is prohibitive, almost more than the initial device purpose.

Conclusion: If you are going to own a drone for photography, this is the one you want. All problems aside, I am very satisfied with this device thus far. I will have to consider another review once I have some more field experience with this, which will take at least two months.

Until recently it cost thousands of dollars to legally fly a drone commercially. Starting in August, it will be possible to get certified for $150. Sadly, it isn’t entirely clear what to study for the test, so for $300 or more you can take a class, which I’m not excited about, but if I get in on drone photography at the “ground floor” then ownership could be very lucrative.

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