Gimbal envy has been supplanted – or at least supplemented – by drone envy. In the first installment in our 5 part series this week entitled “Holy crap, now I need to learn how to do this other thing, too?” I’m handed two of the hottest drones in town, the 3DR Solo and the DJI Phantom 3, just long enough to put them through their paces as a first-time drone operator before returning them intact to B&H.
The thing about being a one-man band or very small/virtual production house is that you really do need to know how to do everything yourself.
Or at least know them well enough so that you can find people better than you for each respective function, from camera & lighting to audio, editing, grading, and more – and then manage all of the moving parts well.
Not easy in the best of circumstances, and to which we should now add yet another area of expertise: quadcopter videography.
What makes quadcopter videography so appealing?
For a fraction of the price of a Technocrane or helicopter rental and no one but yourself, you can – if you’re good enough – get very, very similar shots.
It was with this in mind that I offered my services as a UAV newbie to see how quickly and easily I could get up and running with the basics for videography.
DJI is the dominant brand name in quadcopters today for videographers, and with good reason: they’re really, really good – and while not an impulse buy, the DJI Phantom 3 Professional at $1,259 including proprietary 4K camera and 3-axis gimbal is within reach for anyone who has enough money to own a Canon 5D Mark III, a Panasonic GH4 or any of the Sony a7 variants . What’s especially interesting for videographers is that the Phantom 3 also has the ability to fly indoors with its Vision Sensor technology, potentially allowing shots unobtainable any other way.
3DR is the new kid in town, an American company based in Berkeley, California, founded in 2009. The objective of their brand new Solo ($999 for the base model without gimbal, the version used in this test ) might be summed up as “aerial videography for the rest of us.” Its Smart Shots technology is essentially pre-loaded, one button flight patterns labeled “Selfie” (a Technocrane-style pullback from the position of the controller); “CableCam” (you set two way points and the ‘copter will go back and forth at your command so long as there is battery power); “Orbit” (circling around the controller with the ‘copter constantly keeping the camera on the center point); and “Follow” (this is the one I really wanted to explore in greatest detail, as we had visions of having the Solo follow one of the RC aircraft. It’s innovative, clever and gets a newbie results within two minutes (literally, in my case) of firing up the Solo. Everything about 3DR’s ‘copter encourages you to get airborne and get the shots. The Solo also benefits from 3DR’s collaboration with GoPro and their decision to focus on the flying while leaving the photography and videography to the leading player in the action cam market.
You can argue that our particular samples yield an apples-to-oranges comparison: the Phantom 3 had a gimbal, the Solo didn’t. The Phantom 3 had a 4K camera; the Solo relied on my mostly-1080p Hero3+ Black.
I think differently: I think it gave us a chance to evaluate 4K vs 1080p, and with gimbal vs without. I’m guessing the implementation of 3DR’s gimbal is not going to be dramatically different from DJI’s (though DJI has a major head start), just as I’m guessing that DJI’s implementation of a 4K camera is not going to be dramatically different from GoPro’s (though GoPro has a major head start there). YMMV.
DJI Phantom 3 4K vs 3DR Solo for Newbies: Hands-on first impressions
As a very small production house with very large animal logo I want my UAV to be as simple to operate as a toaster, but of course aerial videography and remote control (RC) flying is vastly more complicated than that. The key really is: which device does a better job of shielding filmmakers from complexity – and themselves – in service of getting great footage?
All of which is a long way of saying that I did not attempt to explore the full range of features on either model, nor entertain the notion of going deep into RC boards to learn how I could tweak either bird to do things that don’t come on the bog-standard models or else aren’t obvious in the first hour of operation.
What I can tell you is how I did with them, with my limitations, my attention span, my reading of the setup guides, the short time I had with them… and help from people who know what they’re doing when it comes to RC aircraft.
With this written, I must confess that I did take a peek into a forum or two to better understand waypoint stuff, and looked at a couple of YouTube videos (who wouldn’t?). I wanted to see how to access the Solo’s advanced waypoint functionality, and if the Phantom 3 had it somewhere deep in its bowels.
Of course, that’s a little bit like learning how to use a steering wheel, brakes, gas pedal, and mirrors on the first day, and then thinking by hopping on the web for a few minutes I can figure out how to replace a chip to boost performance.
Really quite silly, and quite outside the parameters I set for the test: I really DON’T want to have to go to third party apps or programming to get to advanced functionality, as that defeats the whole raison d’ etre of the Solo.
Yeah, I’m an Apple guy.
So I took it no further.
And with that out of the way, let’s get on to the main event in Episode 2, scheduled for tomorrow (though of course if you watch the video above, you'll get my basic take).
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(cover photo credit: snap from the video)