Just under a year ago, before I got the Phantom 4 Pro, I invested in my first drone, the DJI Phantom 3 4K. I spent plenty of time learning not only how to fly it but also how to get good imagery from it. However, like many of you, I strive to get the best quality from my cameras and the P3 4K was just not doing it for me. The image in decent light was ok but in lower light or, if you pushed images and clips in post production, the quality soon started to dissipate.
The problem is that nearly all consumer/prosumer level drones use a 1 2/3rd inch sensor, pretty tiny by today’s standards. In November 2016 DJI announced a new quadcopter, the Phantom 4 Pro. Its specifications suggested that this was the “photographer’s” drone that we had been waiting for. But it was at a cost. $1500 in the US, about 30% more than the Phantom 3 Pro and newly released Mavic. I waited to see a good selection of reviews before deciding to buy one but last week I finally pulled the trigger.
Build Quality of the Phantom 4 Pro
The first thing that struck me upon opening the box was the nice grey styrofoam carrying case it was supplied with. Whilst this would not stand up to daily professional use, it works well for normal occasional use. It also fits nicely inside cabin sized suitcases with room to spare. This makes it useful for airline travel.
The Phantom 4 Pro itself seems a step or two up in build quality over its predecessors. The form factor is identical to older models but the rotor arms are much sleeker, more aerodynamic. The body shell is made of high quality glossy plastic but it is reinforced with titanium and magnesium alloy. Overall it feels a very sturdy and futuristic machine.
The Camera in the Phantom 4 Pro
The primary reason I, and any photographer, would buy the P4P over other models is for the image quality and there it does not disappoint. The new camera is a huge step over previous models. It features a 1′ 20MP Sony Exmoor Sensor that is believed to be the same as the Sony RX-100 premium compact. The sensor is 4 times the size of previous models. It also features a much higher quality lens with built in mechanical shutter. The lens is a 24mm f2.8 with eight elements, two of which are aspherical. The mechanical shutter not only drastically reduces rolling shutter in video, but also allows the lens to have aperture control. You can now stop down the aperture from f2.8 to f11.
Still images support JPEG and Adobe DNG RAW files whilst the video capabilities allow for 4K at 60p/50p/30p/25p/24p as well as the lower res formats. It also records Cinema 4K at 30p and lower.
So what does that mean to us photographers and filmmakers? From my initial tests, the image quality is significantly higher than previous DJI Phantom Drones. The 20MP RAWs as well as being much bigger, show better tonal range, less noise in low light and much better sharpness across the full width of the image. Pushing the RAWs in Lightroom shows that there is much better dynamic range and less image destruction when pushed beyond the histogram.
The same is true of the video quality. The P4P can record in H264 and H265, the latter giving a better quality in a smaller file size. I have not tried H265 yet but the H264 4K video is superb quality. Its output is not far off the quality I get from my Panasonic G7. Again when pushed in post production the video files stand up to much greater punishment than previous models.
What About Safety Features on the Phantom 4 Pro?
The other headline in the P4P specs is its wealth of sensors. It now has sensors facing forward, backwards, to the side and downwards. These sense obstacles in the direction of flight and will stop the drone before it reaches them. They also display indicators on the DJI Go app to show how close you are getting to objects. I think this is an excellent feature for photographers who need to have the confidence to manoeuvre the drone in tight spaces to get shots. One caveat is that the side sensors only work in certain modes such as tripod mode.
Range and Battery Life
Although I rarely fly beyond line of sight, the P4P is capable of flying 4.3 miles (7km) and sending an HD video feed back over the full distance. In sports mode it can reach speeds of 45mph (72kph).
I have only flown out around 800m, the limit of my eyesight but even through trees the video signal was rock solid. This was the case even when turning the drone at higher speed, something that often causes the video feed to cut out in other models.
Battery life is deemed to be 30 minutes but as I tend to bring the drone home at 30% battery I have not really tested it. However compared to my P3 4K it does seem to fly for a significantly longer time. One caveat is the price of the batteries. The P4P uses the same battery as the P4, but uprated. This makes them expensive at $169 each in the U.S. I bought one spare with mine which gives me a little under one hour flying time. I find this enough for my needs. The P4P will also accept the older Phantom 4 batteries but with reduced duration.
One disappointment in an overall excellent package is the stingy 16GB microSD card that DJI supply. This will only record about 22 minutes of 4K/30p which is less than the duration of one battery. Although extra SD cards are not expensive it would have been nice to have a card that covered at least one full battery.
Just over a week in and I am very pleased with the Phantom 4 Pro. Its a solid quadcopter, with excellent safety features. The headline for photographers and filmmakers though is the new camera. It is significantly better than previous models and is getting close to APS-C and mirrorless quality. This is perhaps the first prosumer level drone with a camera that will truly satisfy photographers. Yes it is expensive, but $1500 will not give you much change from the purchase of a decent lens. With the Phantom 4 Pro you have a very decent camera and the ability to get unique and engaging shots that would be impossible with a ground based equivalent.