Getting Started: DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter

Getting Started: DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter

Ok, I admit: I've tried numerous times to attach an old camera-equiped phone to a toy helicopter. None of them came off the ground. I will also admit I've spent nights throwing sticks at the neighbours' tree because my toy helicopter had landed into its highest branches. Luckily for me, quadcopters like the DJI Phantom make controlling your own camera-equiped drone more affordable and easier than ever.

The DJI Phantom is equipped with a GPS system, which allows it to hover in place when you're not touching the controls, making for a much more pleasant experience than those small toy helicopters, that tend to crash-land when left unattended for a second ;) The GPS-system can also return the craft home when the transmitter signal is lost, or when battery power is low. All these little things make for a much more pleasant and stable experience.

Still, flying a Phantom 2 can be a little daunting, because when things go wrong, you're crashing a machine costing ten times that toy helicopter. Even more so once you have attached a gimbal and GoPro. It takes a lot of practice to get a good feel for the Phantoms controls, and a lot of reading up online. I'm still very much in the learning process, and have already made some costly mistakes...

Crashing the Phantom 2

On one of my first days I practiced in an open field, with just a single tree and a tiny little brook. It would take a skilled pilot to land the Phantom into that miniscule brook, but -as it happens- I flew my Phantom up against that single tree, it fell down, bumped, and slid into the brook :( Thankfully the gimbal and unprotected GoPro survived (after lots of hair-dryer treatment), but I had to replace parts of my Phantom... While I learned from this event that the Phantom is more water-resistant than I had imagined (the motors were still spinning, even under water), parts like the battery can become unreliable when in contact with water.

Based on the above and other events, here's my list of suggestions so far:

Which Phantom for aerial video?

DJI currently has a lot of models that only slightly differ from one another, and even within these product lines, DJI sometimes silently updates certain components. For anyone starting out this can be very confusing. Though the Phantom Vision+ (which comes with a built-in camera, gimbal and first person view system) might look like a very complete solution, for filmmaking purposes the Phantom 2 with the Zenmuse gimbal and a GoPro is still the most versatile option. While the Vision+ features a built-in 1080P camera, image quality and customisation is lacking compared to the GoPro 4. The image from the GoPro is much more detailed and allows for more control over exposure and color. With the GoPro 4 you can also shoot at higher resolutions (4K 25P, 2.7K 60P) which can be very useful for grabbing stills or adding some extra stabilisation or cropping in post, without sacrificing image quality.

My Phantom 2 setup with the Zenmuse gimbal and GoPro

Which GoPro settings for aerial video?

Gunther Machu over at Cinema5D found out that the field of view you choose (wide, medium, narrow) greatly affects the final image quality of your GoPro footage. In his excellent writeup he concludes that in 2.7K 60P mode you should use the "Medium" field of view for best results, and when doing 120fps in 1080P, you get the best results with the "Narrow" field of view. For drone shots, I personally found 2.7K 60P "Medium" the sweet spot, because it allows me to slow down the footage in post, crop, or add stabilisation without any image quality loss (when exporting to 1080P). That's a lot of options in post!

The GoPro Hero 4 also allows you to shoot with a flat profile called ProTune. When activated, you can manually set the maximum ISO, white balance, color (flat or GoPro color), sharpness and exposure compensation. Together with the choice of framerates and resolutions, it's easy to see how flexible the GoPro Hero 4 setup can be.

Aerial Lingo

Getting in to flying a quadcopter not only takes a lot of practice, but also comes with a whole new lingo and abbreviations. Here's some useful ones to remember when you're watching instruction videos or reading up online:

TX, RX - transmitter and receiver
FPV - first person view (system that allows you to see what your quadcopter is seeing)
NAZA - the 'brain' of the Phantom
ATTI - a mode of flight in which the phantom doesn't hold position through GPS

The Phantom 2 transmitter with gimbal tilt control

Learn to fly

When I searched for info on flying the Phantom 2 I noticed there's lots of information available, but it's scattered over lots of different sites. These are some YouTube channels I found useful:

Before your first flight, check out Matt Granger's First Flight advice, which will give you all the info you need to get flying condensed into a single 15 minute YouTube movie.

Another great resource is the Tom's Tech Time YouTube channel where Tom walks you through every step of flying the Phantom 2, from your first flight, to calibrating your compass, all the way down to setting up your GoPro and gimbal.

If you want to dive deeper into the DIY side of things, check out At the Kitchen Table where Simon Newton discusses subjects like building your own First Person View system, or the differences between different types of props.

Also check out the train-of-thought which is Scott Jarvies 200 tips on quadcopters. He talks about the Phantom 1, but still there are some great ideas in there and he's a genuinly funny guy.

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