Despite all the controversy about consumer quadcopters/drones – and whether or not people will actually be allowed to use them in the future – as of today they’re the #4 holiday gift this Christmas season.
There are a gazillion drones coming into the marketplace, from independent Kickstarter inventions to GoPro-produced versions rumored for 2015. But right now, DJI rules the game.
The DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ – the friendliest drone for hobbyists
If you want to start droning right away – or gift someone one this Christmas – and don’t want to mess with a bunch of complicated additional purchases, then you can stop reading and just get the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+.
For $1099, it has everything ready-to-go, including a camera, a remote first-person-viewer system so you can monitor the flight from your smartphone, and it has a 3-axis gimbal to stabilize the camera. And with the Phantom 2‘s easy flight controls, battery life, and tons of other users sharing tips and tricks on Youtube, it’s a no brainer.
(There’s an updated version that has a few upgrades, for a total price tag of $1299. Still a good deal, but the original Vision+ is good enough). And even though there are cheaper older versions of the Phantom, they are not as fool-proof.
If you don’t want to go with this simple (but limited) drone, here is the drone system that I believe is currently your best bet for aerial filmmaking. There are of course more complex, bigger and more expensive models, as well as drones that are coming out eventually but not available yet, but this is a system you can start using right away.
1. DJI Phantom 2 / GoPro Combo – the affordable drone for filmmakers
For more dedicated video producers who want a better image out of the camera – and don’t mind getting their hands a little dirty with accessories – it’s a better idea to get a DJI Phantom 2 (not the Vision+ model with a camera included), and add a GoPro to it. The Phantom 2 is under $800 right now, and with a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition ($400), it’s a pretty affordable combination for 2.7k stabilized video. (You can now go for the 4k GoPro 4 for not much more).
I’ve been shooting with this combo since early this year, and it’s been a hugely fun (and educational) experience. We’ve shot in all sorts of conditions, even holding the drone handheld out of a car sunroof or inside an office.
But unlike the Vision+ model, this combination requires a few important accessories and tips to really make it work. And after spending too many nights trying to navigate RC Forums for tips and tricks, I’ve learned a few solid lessons that you can benefit from (without spending the countless hours).
2. Zenmuse H3-3D 3-axis Gimbal
First and foremost, make sure you get the Phantom 2 model that comes with the Zenmuse H3-3D 3-axis gimbal, rather than the H3-2D 2-axis older version. It works wonders, even in bad wind. And it’s really durable – after a couple crashes in trees, my gimbal column was bent and the horizontal axis was off, but it just took a little hand force to bend it back, no problem.
See that little plastic, black strap down the middle? That holds the GoPro to the gimbal. But if you happen to use your GoPro for anything apart from droning, then screwing and unscrewing this plastic strap can get annoying (especially if you lose the little screws while you’re out in the middle of nowhere). So just use a couple rubber bands to hold it in place, it’ll be fine.
A couple other tips for the Zenmuse gimbal: the standard white rubber dampers are fine, don’t worry about trying to fit a standard or skeleton housing on the GoPro (just fly it naked), and in the photo above you’ll see a GoPro lens protector. Don’t get that. You’ll need the following on at all times.
3. GoPro Neutral Density Filter
I wish the Polar Pro Neutral Density Filter Frame 2.0 would just come standard with a Phantom 2, because it pretty much lives on the GoPro. If you don’t use it, you’ll have jello-cam – or jelly-cam, whatever you prefer. Even on cloudy days, even with no winds, even with a 3-axis gimbal, without the ND filter, your video will wobble.
And no matter how much stabilization you apply in post-production – with Warp Stabilizer, FCPX, Lock ‘n Load – you won’t be able to really get rid of the jello. So do yourself a favor and get two of the ND filters, in case you lose one or break one.
I could go into the mechanics of how the ND filter slows down the GoPro’s automatic shutter speed so it doesn’t record tiny little motion (thus the micro vibrations), but there’s no need. Just get it.
Because the ND filter will add a little weight to the gimbal, you might want to velcro a couple quarters to the side and back of the Zenmuse. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.
4. Phantom 2 and Accessories Hard Case
Although I normally prefer soft cases for my filmmaking gear, to better move things around as needed, having a single case for all your drone stuff is a godsend. So unless you plan to hike somewhere with only your drone (and leave the camping, eating, clothing stuff at home?), a drone backpack isn’t really necessary.
The Go Professional Case for the Phantom 2 ($200) is perfect for keeping everything you need in one, ready-to-go kit that you can check at the airport, carry for long walks, or throw in the car. There’s enough room to hold a few extra Phantom 2 batteries - and I thoroughly recommend carrying at least 1 spare, preferably 2 with a second charger, all of which fits in the case). Each battery is good for about 20 minutes of flying – with a safe amount of power leftover to return home.
I also recommend getting a simple $20 power inverter, so you can charge the Phantom batteries in your car in between destinations.
The case also fits some of the bits and pieces that come with the Zenmuse and Phantom – so you don’t leave anything behind when you travel. I keep an extra microSD card, and an extra GoPro battery and charger - though that’s not as important, since the Phantom battery actually provides power to the GoPro when it’s connected (cool huh?).
5. FPV transmitter/receiver/monitor – a complex techie addition (but a must have for aerial filmmaking)
The final piece necessary to make the Phantom 2/GoPro combo shine is an FPV – a first person view system. Without it, you never really know what the GoPro is shooting. But the complicated nature of this system (you have to solder something? what?) is why many first-timers go for a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ model that has it all built in and works with your smartphone. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple for the GoPro users.
I actually flew without an FPV for about 6 months – partly because I wanted to get good at flying before adding another piece of tech to distract me – but also because it’s simply difficult to know what the heck to get. There are lots of different transmitters, receivers, and booster antennas, which work with all kinds of quadcopters, RC helicopters, sending a signal to all kinds of monitors, goggles or TV screens. And there are lots of kits that supposedly have it all packaged together (for a premium price of course).
Let me save you the headaches and recommend the FPV pieces of an affordable system that works for the Phantom 2/GoPro combination…no soldering necessary.
DJI AVL58 transmitter ($95) – you don’t have to get the full Avl58 transmitter/receiver package because the monitor you’ll use already has the receiver. This transmitter connects between your Phantom 2 and the Zenmuse/GoPro, so it’s powered by the Phantom battery, and sends whatever the GoPro sees to your screen down on the ground.
DJI iOSD Mini ($69) – although this piece is optional, I recommend it. It adds flight information on your monitor screen, such as your flight height and distance from home, how much battery the Phantom has left (so important), whether you’re in GPS mode or not, and horizon level. Just knowing how high you are (remember to fly under 400ft), and how much battery life you have left makes this piece a must have.
DJI Phantom 2 FPV Cables and Hub ($13) – these are the cables and little circuit board that connects everything together – no soldering necessary. You can clean everything up by taping electrical tape over exposed parts, or keep it all exposed, up to you. Just try to avoid flying into water.
FlySight Black Pearl 7″ monitor with built in battery ($229) – this monitor works out of the box as a receiver/monitor for this particular FPV system. It’s nice in that you don’t have to invest in another portable battery system, but if the battery goes dead (like mine did eventually), you have to get a specific replacement battery.
Cloverleaf Antennas ($80) – although the Black Pearl monitor has a built in receiver and antennas, their reception is pretty poor out of the box. You have to get better cloverleaf antennas for both the transmitter – one on the Phantom itself, connected to the AVL58, and one on the receiver/monitor. I chose this FatShark set because each antenna can be used for either transmitter or receiver (so I can’t mess that up). The monitor has two antenna connections actually, so you can also add a second receiver antenna for a better diversity reception, but I just keep the original antenna on one side and it works fine.
Monitor bracket for the DJI Phantom remote - there are lots of options for mounting the Black Pearl monitor to the Phantom remote, and this one is a cheap and popular option. The dumb thing is, you’re supposed to bring a screwdriver and screw in the monitor to the bracket every time you take out or put away your drone – it won’t fit in the case if you leave it connected.
So as a little bit of a DIY solution, I screwed on a cheeseplate to the top of the bracket, and attached some heavy duty velcro to that and the back of the monitor. And now the monitor, sunshade, and remote (with the attached cheeseplate) all fit into the case.
What else? There is a huge community out there with lots more options for gear, tips on flying, post production workflows… too much for this post alone. You can experiment with carbon props or prop guards, various gimbal settings, different remotes, all kinds of GoPro settings (I use 2.7k / 30fps / Wide or Narrow view / ProTune and manual white balance / max 1600 ISO)…
But with the pieces listed above, I think you’ll be set for a long time of flying. At least until it’s outlawed. Good luck and have fun!…