A quick search on YouTube will prove that flying quadcopters is much more difficult and dangerous than it may appear. I highly recommend doing some serious research and consider taking my online course: Aerial Videography and Photography with Drones. This page lists some basic recommendations for getting started in aerial video and photography.
It’s only been in fairly recent history that the convergence of hobby quadcopters and high quality, lightweight cameras has made aerial imaging accessible to the masses. Not too long ago and you would have had to hire a helicopter or airplane at major expense to get the kind of imagery that you can now get yourself for a fraction of the cost. Below I will list my my current recommendations for getting started taking photos and video from the sky. Note that this market it rapidly developing. I’ll continue to update this page as new products come out or as my recommendations change.
I’ve built and flown larger multirotors but have found that the cost to build, maintain, and repair those heavy lifters plus the risk of crashing and damaging a much more expensive camera (DSLR) is just is not worth it for the marginally better image quality. GoPro’s are getting pretty dang good as far as image quality is concerned and will only get better. The Phantom holds up much better in a crash than a larger, heavier lifter. Add all those benefits with the fact that the Phantoms are easier to travel with, and safer if it did happen to crash into property or a person and it’s a easy decision to go with them over getting into a rig that can lift a DSLR.
I did the math once. If you add up all the necessary parts and equipment to build a multirotor large enough to cary a DSLR or larger camera, you can easily spend $15,000 to $20,000. So in a single crash you could be out $15,000 -$20,000. If you crash a Phantom you’re only out about $1,300. For most purposes, the image quality is good enough, and a marginally better image doesn’t justify the extra cost and risk.
For Aerial Stills and Video – Here Are My Recommendations:
For most beginners I now recommend the Phantom 3 series of quadcopters from DJI. They have done a very nice job in this version of integrating all of the most wanted features in an aerial photography/videography platform.
The Phantom 3 has a built in video downlink which connects to your smartphone or tablet so you can get a live view of what you are shooting. There are dedicated record and photo buttons on the transmitter. Future software updates promise to add waypoint functionality for automated flight. For the price, you simply can’t do much better than the Phantom 3.
If for some reason you want a platform that makes use of the GoPro camera instead of the built in DJI camera on the Phantom 3, then the Phantom 2 is still a very solid platform and the one that I’ll still be using until I upgrade to the Phantom 3 or Inspire 1.
1. Phantom 2 – For the price and ease of use, you really can’t beat the Phantom 2 in my opinion. No, you won’t be flying a DSLR under one, but GoPros are getting so good nowadays that I really don’t think that’s a problem. If the first generation of the Phantom was good, the Phantom 2 is great! If you are careful, practice, follow all of the rules, and get comfortable with the fail safe features it’s possible to never (or rarely) have a crash (knock on wood). The Phantom 2 has several safety features that make it fun and easy to fly. If you get a GPS lock before you take off the Phantom 2 will automatically return to the launch location and land in the event it loses contact with the controller or the battery gets too low. It has a minimum prop speed safeguard that ensures that the quadcopter doesn’t drop out of the sky too quickly.
2. Zenmuse H3-3D three axis gimbal – This little part deserves most of the credit for getting usable footage out of the Phantom platform. The older 2 axis gimbal helped, but this new 3 axis gimbal for GoPro really delivers silky smooth video and helps when taking pictures to keep motion blur out of your shots. The new Phantom 2 controller has a lever that allows you the adjust the tilt of the camera while you are flying. It’s easy for a single operator to frame and execute a shot while the gimbal does the work of keeping the camera level, stable, and free from vibration.
3. GoPro hero 3+ – There is a great review on the GoPro lineup over on Cnet, but suffice it to say that these little action cameras are only getting better and better. The hero 3+ black edition has impressive video recording capabilities. For most purposes on Phantom flights I recommend setting the GoPro on 1080p at 60 fps. This will allow you to slow the footage down in editing and get smooth slow motion. This version of the GoPro has a wifi connectivity feature which allows you to control the camera via your smartphone or a remote. It’s extremely important that you turn the wifi feature OFF while flying your Phantom 2. The wifi signal has been known to interfere with the Phantom 2 signal and can cause your quadcopter to fly away or crash.
4. Goprofessional Case – Once in a while a product comes along that is simply perfect and I can’t stop raving about. The Goprofessional Case for the Phantom 2 is one of those products. They’ve simply thought of everything. It’s the perfect size to accommodate a Phantom 2 with gimbal, GoPro, and propellors attached. They have laser cut slots for spare batteries, the transmitter, charger, spare propellors, fat shark FPV goggles, and even a screwdriver. I can’t recommend them enough. To order four cases I called their headquarters and received quick and friendly customer service. I’m not sure how you could make a better case for this setup. I believe it is small enough to carry on an airplane, although I have yet to test that theory.
5. Fat Shark FPV Goggle System – First person view, or FPV for short has been around in the RC world for quite some time. It was only natural to start using it on aerial video quadcopters to help the user line up and execute the perfect shot. A HUGE side benefit of FPV is that it makes controlling the Phantom 2 even easier. If you are flying without FPV, you have to maintain a visual orientation on the quadcopter to keep and maintain control. With FPV you get to sit in the pilots seat and it makes it super easy to keep orientation, just like a video game. I highly recommend upgrading the two stock antennae with these higher range Clover Leaf antennae. For serious video or photo work, FPV is a necessity.
6. Spare Phantom 2 Batteries – Yes, they are terribly expensive but two or three extra batteries are essential, especially if you will be flying in a remote area with no ability to recharge. I find you can get 20-25 min of flying time out of a charge, but I usually don’t like to push it past 15 min to be safe.
7. Ground Station Hardware – This hardware installs under the shell of your Phantom 2 and allows you to program autonomous flights with the use of iPad.
Learning to Fly
While the Phantom 2 is pretty easy to learn how to fly, if you’ve never flown quadcopters before I highly recommend you practice on something much smaller and less expensive. The most difficult thing about flying quadcopters is the fact that it can be easy to lose visual orientation on which part of the multirotor is the front and which is the back. When that happens, it can be incredibly difficult to get your bearings again and you end up crashing.
Seriously. You might be thinking that you’re a pro at video games and you’ll have no trouble. I’ve flown RC airplanes for years and I thought the same thing. Flying multirotors is different and difficult. Spend the $50.oo or so and get one to practice with. They are fun, you can fly them indoors, and they could potentially save you from crashing or destroying your Phantom 2. Build up some muscle memory and confidence and you’ll be glad you did.
There are several good options for a practice quadcopter. Just about anything that says it has four channels will work.