Airborne! Aerial Photography with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision

Garden of the Gods park from the air.
Garden of the Gods park from the air.

I mentioned in my Year in Review post that my holiday present was a DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopter, or as some people like to say, “drone.” I’ve seen quadcopters proliferating, but this one caught my eye as a complete out of the box solution for anyone looking to explore aerial photography. While most quadcopters, including the original DJI Phantom, were complex do it yourself projects with few instructions, the DJI Phantom 2 really simplifies things. And now that I’ve been able to use it for a few weeks (in between snow storms), I’m hooked. This baby is fun to use, easy to fly, and takes pretty decent photos!

Key Features

Integrated GPS System

The core of the DJI Phantom 2 Vision surrounds two great features. The first is a built-in GPS system that makes the copter incredibly easy to fly. As long as you allow the Phantom 2 to acquire 6+ GPS satellites (not too hard, really), it marks your home position and uses GPS to hover in place… even in a breeze! GPS lets you let go of the control sticks and hover the copter without having to do anything. The other great feature of the GPS is that it has a fail-safe mode. Should the Phantom 2 lose radio contact, it will return to your last known home position and land itself!

My DJI Phantom 2 Vision flying over Colorado Springs. The GPS system allowed me release the controls and hover in place while I captured this photo with my Nikon 1 V2 camera.
My DJI Phantom 2 Vision flying over Colorado Springs. The GPS system allowed me release the controls and hover in place while I captured this photo with my Nikon 1 V2 camera.

Built-in camera with FPV

The other great feature of the Phantom 2 Vision is the built in First Person View (FPV) camera. This is a 14-megapixel camera with a fixed f/2.8 aperture and a 140° angle of view. That’s kind of like a fisheye lens on a DSLR, so you’re going to see some curvature in your horizons. You can also use the camera to capture 1080/30p video at one of three different view angles; 140°, 120°, or 90°. That’s fun stuff, but the really awesome part is that with a built-in WiFi transmitter, you actually use your smartphone (iOS or Android) to control the camera and you can watch where you are going in real-time! Did I mention that this thing is COOL? The camera is mounted on a single-axis (tilt) gimbal, which holds the camera steady in the up/down direction when flying.

Here’s a video I captured in Colorado Springs, CO:

Battery Life

The Phantom 2 Vision uses a lithium-polymer (LiPo) battery that delivers 20+ minutes of flying time. That’s actually quite good; earlier models are limited to around 10 minutes of flight between charges. You’ll need AA batteries for the Remote Control unit, and the WiFi extender module charges via a USB port.

The DJI Phantom smartphone App is what sets this bird apart from traditional RC copters. In addition to the FPV camera, you can check battery status, GPS, and even locate your Phantom on your Maps app if needed. It also has options to control exposure parameters like EV compensation. Because you don’t need to constantly hold the control sticks of the RC transmitter, your hands are freed up to use the smartphone App. I’ve been able to hover 250′ up and take photos without fear of losing control.

I took the Phantom 2 Vision to Ashcroft mining town. At an elevation of 9600′ in the Rockies and sub-freezing temperatures, I had no issues getting 20 minutes of flight time.

Drawbacks

Right now, there are really only two negatives I can find with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision. First, the gimbal is single-axis. This means that you only get camera stabilization in the up/down tilt direction. That’s fine for stills and basic video, but serious videographers will want a 2-axis gimbal for super-smooth videos. Currently, there are a couple of third-parties developing gimbals for the Phantom 2 Vision, but they are still not mainstream.

The other drawback is lack of RAW support from the Phantom’s camera. The camera JPEGs have some sharpening artifacts that could be better. The good news here is that the camera does indeed produce a RAW file; Adobe is currently working on supporting it. So for still photographers, you’ll have the ability to work with RAW files soon (I can’t wait).

Conclusions

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision is an amazing piece of technology at a fairly reasonable price. I purchased mine from B&H Photo along with an extra battery and extra set of rotor blades. Considering that you really have a turnkey solution for aerial photography, this is a really amazing device! If you are interested in a more custom solution, like mounting your own GoPro camera and gimbal, you can also consider the non-vision version of the Phantom 2, which doesn’t include a camera. You’ll need to purchase and install one yourself at additional cost, and install the necessary FPV software to get real-time video. For me, the Phantom 2 Vision was just the right thing to dabble in aerial photography and video, because it is an integrated system. I’m having a great time learning to fly it and by the time spring rolls around I should be pretty good with it! I highly recommend the DJI Phantom 2 Vision to anyone who wants the thrill of flying without having to get a pilot’s license!

Pricing and Availability

I purchased my DJI Phantom 2 Vision from B&H Photo for $1199. The non-vision model with a gimbal mount, runs $869, but you’ll need to add a GoPro or similar camera yourself.

10 thoughts on “Airborne! Aerial Photography with the DJI Phantom 2 Vision”

  1. This is so sick! Congratulations on the purchase. Thought is just read about this in the NY Times. Are there any local laws banning flights in residential neighborhoods? Can you fly one in Briargate? 🙂

  2. Hi Jason,

    Thank for an excellent review of the Vision. As a photographer you have answered the questions I had about the camera and RAW, which DJI said it would support.

    I think you have up my mind on getting one.

    Finally would you put any money on a D400 this year? We are going to Central Florida in March and I would love to have one to take otherwise it will be the D4 and D800 like last year.

    Regards,

    John

  3. Unfortunately, the FC-200 camera on the DJI Phantom 2 Vision suffers from serious quality control problems. Many owners have reported extreme softness on one side of their images (usually the left).

    Aside from that, my own research and testing has shown that images from some examples of the camera are acceptable (provided one’s expectations aren’t too high) whilst images from other examples are about what you might have expected fifteen years ago from a cheap compact. It is certainly NOT what DJI describe in their advertising as a ‘High End Camera’ and any photographer expecting to get decent prints from this is going to be sorely disappointed.

    You can read more about this on my blog – http://www.peter-evans-photographer.com/blog

  4. Peter-
    My camera seems to work fine, especially now that DNG support has been added. Of course, I didn’t expect it to rival a DSLR, but it does work fine for me.

  5. Well, I’m pleased to hear that you’re one of the lucky ones, Jason because, from the feedback I’m getting and the research I’ve done, it’s clear that it really is a bit of a lottery. There are many reports of extreme softness down one side of the frame (often, but not always, the left) and in the worst examples (like the one I received) the image lacks definition over every part of the frame. It’s a lens placement and focus issue.

    If these cameras were coming from a mainstream camera manufacturer the situation would be completely unacceptable and there would be some sort of recall or swap out program in progress.

    It’s a shame because the Phantom 2 itself is an incredible machine. I sent my own Phantom 2 Vision back to my dealer and, as I write, I’m awaiting delivery of a Phantom 2 plus a Sony RX100 platform and FPV kit, from Dronexepert.nl, fitted with a DJI-iOSD-mini flight telemetry transmitter so as to comply with French CAA regulations for commercial use.

  6. Great post and congrats on the new Phantom! Is it “legal” to fly over populated areas? The laws have not caught up to technology yet so it is technically not illegal. However, if you have a flight failure and cause damage you will be liable … not to mention adding fuel to the legislative fodder looking to ban the recreational use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – in other words, you’re ruining it for the rest of us. The FAA forbids commercial use of any UAS. Yes, youtube videos abound like the one of the beer delivery drone to local dock workers – the FAA sent them a nice cease and desist. Currently, there are no laws, per se, that explicitly governs the use of UAS other than extremely vague FAA guidelines of flying no higher than 400 feet and “staying away” from “any airport.” Legislation is slated to be passed in 2015. As an aside, the FCC is involved as well as soon as you start transmitting video back to your groundstation. This is in violation of federal spectrum usage unless you have a Technician Class HAM radio license (which in fairness is ridiculously easy to get). There’s tons of info for Phantom owners over at http://www.djiphantomforum.net/

  7. This aerial photo of yours are really astounding! Thanks Jason for letting us see this lovely images. I was really impressed by your skills in making one of these things! Great choice on selecting a drone to abide with making aerial photography also. Keep it up mate! Kudos to you!

    Daniel-TerraServer

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