Review: DJI Phantom 4

Introduction and features

DJI has been a major innovator in the drone market with its ready-to-go Phantom series. Since the Phantom 2 Vision this line has been equipped with a high-quality camera alongside ‘smart’ flight controls that make it possible for anyone to fly one with no prior experience, making it popular with hobbyists and professionals alike.

Introduction and features

DJI has been a major innovator in the drone market with its ready-to-go Phantom series. Since the Phantom 2 Vision this line has been equipped with a high-quality camera alongside ‘smart’ flight controls that make it possible for anyone to fly one with no prior experience, making it popular with hobbyists and professionals alike.

It’s been less than a year since the release of the Phantom 3 Professional, but drone technology is advancing rapidly, and now DJI has introduced the Phantom 4. It’s a refinement of the Phantom 3 Professional, with a beefed-up design, improved intelligent flight options, and a new and very clever object-avoidance system.

All this makes the Phantom 4 an appealing option for jobbing photographers who need a solid, easy to use drone that will enable them to capture great aerial shots (subject to them obtaining the required commercial licence).

Being able to see what you’re filming is essential, and this is one of the areas in which the DJI Phantom has excelled. The live stream can be viewed on a connected phone or tablet via the DJI Pilot app for Android and iOS.

The Phantom 4’s new stockier design sees the old plastic body replaced with a sleek magnesium alloy, finished in glossy white. The camera and gimbal design are improved, and are better integrated into the body, making the whole setup feel more robust.

Essentially the camera remains much the same as on the Phantom 3 Professional. It has a 1/2.3-inch sensor and an f/2.8 lens with a 94 degree field of view and an equivalent 35mm focal length of 20mm. However, the specifications of the 4K camera bring a few resolution and frame rate improvements.

At 1080p the camera takes a leap from a maximum of 60fps to 120fps. There’s also a change to the top end resolutions and frame rates, with an additional 3840 x 2160 (4K) option alongside the existing 4096 x 2160 (4K), and a new 2704 x 1520 (2.7K) option.

As with the 3 Professional, the 4 features the ground-facing positioning cameras that help to stabilise the flight of the drone. These cameras are now joined by two front-facing sensors that are able to detect objects in the drone’s flight path.

Short battery life has been an issue with previous Phantoms, and DJI has moved to address this in the Phantom 4 with a battery that extends flight times by a quoted 25%.

Build and handling

Previous Phantoms have been constructed from plastic, and while this makes them lightweight it also makes them susceptible to damage if crashed. The Phantom 4 features an ultra-lightweight magnesium alloy body finished in a brilliant white. It feels far more solid than the Phantom 3 and weighs 100g more, tipping the scales at 1,380g.

The physical design of the camera has been refined, and part of the 4’s bulk can be attributed to the partial integration of the gimbal into the body of the drone and the new larger battery.

The other big change is in the design of the propellers – they’re now of the quick-release style, similar to those on the Inspire range of quadcopters. Preparing the Phantom for its first flight requires the battery and propellers to be fitted, but this takes less than a minute.

The final step before take-off is to connect the Phantom to a mobile device. Unlike drones such as the 3DR SOLO, the Phantom uses a physical wired connection between mobile device and handset. This has the advantage of a fast, secure connection, and doesn’t require a Wi-Fi connection to be made out in the field.

Once the drone is assembled and your mobile device is connected the controller can be switched on, followed by the Phantom 4. It’s then just a case of waiting for 6 GPS satellites to be picked up before you take to the air.

The time taken to make the GPS connections varies between a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the conditions, but I never had to wait more than a couple of minutes.

Return to Home (RTH) mode is enabled automatically when the drone takes off, but it can also be set manually. This is one of the most important features you need to be aware of, as if it all goes wrong it will help to avoid ‘flyaways’.

On both the handset and app there are RTH buttons that can be pushed to automatically bring the drone back to the take-off point. Another button on the controller, the pause button, is used to stop the drone and make it hover, which can be very handy, especially if you lose depth perception and/or orientation.

You also have the option to set the maximum flight distance and height, which is useful in all sorts of situations, especially if there are flight restrictions.

The Phantom 4 is powered by a single battery which slots into the rear of the craft. The battery features a set of lights that indicate the amount of charge left, giving a handy visual guide to flight times.

As mentioned, the battery has a slightly larger capacity than the one that shipped with the Phantom 3, and enables 28 minutes of ‘average’ flight. Older DJI batteries are not compatible with the Phantom 4, however, which is a blow if you’ve recently invested in batteries for the 3.

It’s advisable to never let the battery drop below 25% charge, and from fully charged I found that I could get 15-20 minutes of flight before falling to that level, compared with 12-15 minutes with the Phantom 3.

Using the Phantom for image capture is extremely straightforward, with direct controls available on the handset and in the app.

The gimbal and camera are controlled through the app, and some camera options can be adjusted by using the scroll wheel on the right of the handset; clicking down on the wheel enables you to toggle between the sensitivity (ISO) and shutter speed settings.

Other settings, including frame rates and resolutions, can be changed through the apps interface, and it’s easy enough to quickly switch between stills and video.

There are Auto and Manual options for both stills and video, which can also be selected through the app. Manual mode enables you to adjust settings such as sensitivity, from ISO100-3200 in video mode and ISO100-1600 for stills. The shutter speed can be adjusted from 8 seconds to 1/8000 sec.

As the controller design is the same as the Phantom 3’s the camera can still be tilted up and down by the left-hand scroll wheel on the handset. Panning is, of course, controlled by rotating the craft in flight.

The app offers direct access to all flight features, manual, assisted and automatic, and these can be selected by tapping the icons on screen.

Thanks to RC Geeks for supplying the Phantom 4 for this review.Performance

The Phantom 4 has several features to help new pilots, including auto takeoff and landing, and you can set features such as beginner mode, which limits the Phantom 4’s flight speed and distance from the home point. You can also find a comprehensive set of videos and tutorials on the DJI website.

There are several flight features that will appeal to photographers, including the ActiveTrack flight mode. This enables a subject to be selected on the screen, which the drone will then follow automatically – it’s ideal for extreme sports such as mountain biking or water skiing, as the drone can film without the need for an additional pilot.

Intelligent flight options also enable you to set points of interest – once selected the drone will circle that point. There are also more common commands, such as Follow Me and waypoints. Waypoints have been around for a while in drones, and enable you to plot your flight route from one point to another.

If you’re using one of the new intelligent flight modes – TapFly, ActiveTrack or Smart Return Home – the object avoidance feature will cause the Phantom 4 to either stop or fly around the object; all very clever.

Another nice touch within the Object Avoidance options is Backwards Flying, which makes the drone literally back up when approached from the front – although we obviously wouldn’t advise approaching a drone from the front to try this out.

TouchFly is another new feature, and enables you to fly the Phantom by just tapping the screen; this takes a while to get used to, especially if you’re used to using a handset and control sticks, but it enables you to concentrate on getting your shots or footage, rather than keeping the drone in the air.

I found that object avoidance worked well, with the Phantom 4 stopping short of objects in its path. It should be noted that before the test I was warned not to test the object avoidance through trees early in the year, as the system has issues with trees without leaves.

When an object is detected the controller first sends out an audible warning before the drone stops mid-flight. There are several different object avoidance options, which can be switched between quickly by touching the sensor icon at the top of the apps interface.

As with the Phantom 3, standard flight is incredibly easy, even in gusty conditions. This means that anyone, even if completely new to flying, should be able to pick up the handset and successfully fly the Phantom 4, although again you should familiarise yourself with the regulations issued by the aviation authorities in the country where you’re flying, and we’d also recommend taking an approved training course.

Video capture

The small mechanical gimbal that stabilises the camera in flight is impressive, and even when the drone is being battered by wind, the footage captured by the camera remains steady.

Photographers will find the Lightbridge live view technology a real benefit. This is capable of beaming a 720HD video signal across a distance of 1.2 miles, although 500m (or less – you must always be able to see the drone) is the maximum legal distance allowed between you and your drone under UK law; different regulations apply in other countries, so be sure to check.

The live view stream between the drone and app is virtually instant, with only the slightest delay noticeable.

Video quality is excellent – colours are bright, and the contrast level gives footage punch and crispness. In bright conditions the image is clear and sharp at all resolutions; however, as is common with cameras of this size, when the light falls the quality of the footage quickly deteriorates, and noise starts to become apparent.

When the light dipped I found it was well worth switching the video to manual in order to improve the quality of footage, rather than relying on the auto settings.

Footage at 1080p at both 60fps and 120fps is smooth, as long as the light is good. As the frame rate increases the bitrate for each frame reduces and definition drops. At 30fps and 60fps the quality of the video is exceptional; however once the frame rate is upped to 120fps quality drops dramatically, especially in overcast conditions.

DJI has worked on the lens to ensure distortions are kept to a minimum, so footage doesn’t exhibit the fish-eye look that’s common with action cameras such as the GoPro Hero4 Black.

Flying qualifications

If you’re looking to fly any drone for commercial use you need a licence, and this is applicable in all countries. In the UK this licence is issued through the CAA and called a Permission for Aerial Work (Pfaw).

There are several National Qualified Entities (NQE) such as Aerial Motion Pictures (AMP) where you can train to obtain the licence. Information on AMP and other entities can be found on the CAA site or equivalent aviation authority site for your territory. Failure to obtain a licence could land you with a large fine and even a custodial sentence.

Verdict

The Phantom 4 is a steady evolution of DJI’s design, and as with the Phantom 3 Professional the intelligent flight features and ease of control make it an ideal choice for anyone new to drones.

Photographers will welcome the more robust construction, materials and new object avoidance sensors, although there’s little between the Phantom 4 and Phantom 3 in terms of video quality or general flight performance.

We liked

When you turn up at a job you want your kit to be ready in as short a time as possible, and the Phantom 4 fits this brief perfectly; simply click on the props, fit the battery and power up, and within a minute or two, GPS connection permitting, you’re ready to fly.

The new object avoidance system works well, intelligent flight features such as Follow Me mode and ActiveTrack work well, and the waypoints feature has loads of potential if used professionally, as well as just being great fun.

We disliked

Yet another change in the design of the battery means anyone upgrading will need to buy a whole set of new batteries, and they’re not cheap. The video quality at 120fps isn’t great compared with the excellent quality that can be captured at all other resolutions and frame rates.

The app is fully featured, enabling access to all of the drone, handset, gimbal and camera settings; however, some of these settings aren’t always responsive, and it takes a while to get used to the different approaches for accessing the various options.

DJI is constantly updating the firmware to improve features, and while this is done with the best of intentions it can become annoying when you’re frequently prompted to download and install the latest version.

Final verdict

The DJI Phantom 4 is the most complete aerial imaging solution out there at the moment. It features an impressive 4K camera that has plenty of options and, most importantly, delivers excellent image quality. Video and stills footage can be tailored to your needs with auto and manual adjustments.

DJI’s LightBridge technology enables a smooth, uninterrupted live view feed direct from the Phantom 4 to your smartphone via the app. The feed is clear and fast, enabling you to easily compose your shots and get a good idea of exactly what’s being captured. The intelligent flight features, including object avoidance, bring another level of interest.

Building on the success of the Phantom 3, the Phantom 4 is exceptionally easy to fly and captures stunning footage, making it a great all-round choice for any photographer or filmmaker.

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