Eye in the Sky: Our experience with the DJI Phantom 2

July 7, 2014 Jeff Garriock

At G Adventures, showing you the world is kind of what we do. Now, we’re taking to the skies. Meet Otto, the G Adventures remote unmanned aerial vehicle, and find out how we earned our wings from Creative Video Producer Jeff Garriock.

We finally did it! We went out and bought a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV for short—we’ve named it “Otto,” obviously), the DJI Phantom 2, and we’re pumped. Until recently, it was tough getting anything larger than a GoPro in the air, but now that quad-copter technology has become cheaper, you can finally do it yourself.

DJI Phantom 2, or Otto as we prefer to call it.

DJI Phantom 2, or Otto as we prefer to call it.

The DJI Phantom 2 is a game-changer. It is equipped with everything you need, and ready to fly once you remove it from the box. Plus, the Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal helps steady your camera in flight, so that no matter which way the copter is tilted, the camera is level.

Meet Otto, G Adventures’ New UAV Camera

I decided to put Otto through the wringer by taking it to Wheatley Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I wanted to fly it higher, and after some YouTube research, I noticed that people were flying the Phantom 2 at 900m (2,953 ft) high. (Side note: In Canada you can only fly up to 500m (1,640 ft) high.) We equipped the Phantom 2 with a GoPro HERO3+ and shot 2.7k @ 24fps, to see if I could lose the protective cushion of slow motion.

I got low over the water, managed to take off and land from the narrow bridge, and flew as high as 250m (820 ft) to get some shots looking over the lake and the channel. There was a bit of a breeze at those heights, which was definitely taxing on my battery.

Into the Weeds

I decided to film a few shots walking down a sheltered path. For the first minute or so, everything seemed to be going well, but then the Phantom 2 started sinking like a sad balloon. As it wobbled off the path and started cutting the grass at the side of the road, the rotor finally got caught up in a tree. It fell about 1m (3 ft), and the foliage stopped it from a hard impact. Lesson learned – low battery means low battery.

The next day, I took it out of the campground and along the road into town. The land stretched out in all directions, and big lumbering wind turbines swiveled slowly in the breeze. There was a pretty constant wind, but the Phantom 2 made it through.

I’d spent a lot of time focusing on shooting people, but wanted to follow something faster. I was curious to see how I’d do shooting aerials of cars, boats, and wildlife. So after capturing some sunset shots and farm scenery, I started chasing cars down the road.

The Phantom is quick, and although I certainly couldn’t keep pace with the cars, I was able to track alongside long enough to create a nice cinematic follow shot. These aren’t all framed as nicely as I would like, as l wanted to stay away from the power lines on the far side of the road. (Remember, safety first, kids!)

The last test I wanted to take the Phantom 2 out at night and decided to capture some Canada Day fireworks. This test was short, because sadly, the GoPro doesn’t really hold up at night. However, the Phantom 2 is great as there are two sets of lights underneath, so that you can see which way you’re going. It really helps with orienting yourself as you’re looking up in the sky and not down at your screen.

Conclusion: An All-Round Fantastic Solution

All in all, the Phantom 2 is fantastic. It’s light and little, fairly easy to use, and costs less than the day rate of a rental octo-copter. You’re not going to be lifting a Red Epic anytime soon, but with a few tweaks in post you can get a pretty cinematic look out of the GoPro. In fact, Philip Bloom has an excellent tutorial on some AfterEffects tweaking that’ll remove the barrel distortion, and really pull the colours out of your GoPro footage.

Also, legality is something to consider, and also check to make sure that you’re not in any no-fly zones. In Canada, you submit an application to Transport Canada for a document called an SFOC, which is basically a flying permit for a UAV. Once they’ve approved your flight path, flight time, etc., you’re good to go. This only applies to people using these copters for commercial use. If your company owns it, or you will in any way profit from it, it becomes a UAV. If you’re just up there flying for fun, it’s a model airplane, and as long as you fly under 152 m (500 ft) and stay away from any major crowded areas, you can more or less do as you please.

Further Reading

The Phantom 2 is unbelievably easy to fly—it’s light, rugged and perfect for travel. It requires the Zenmuse H3-2D or H3-3D (as reviewed), video downlink and monitor. Interested in more information? Check out DJI’s site. We equipped the Phantom 2 with a GoPro HERO3+. Combined with 30% longer battery life, 4x faster Wi-Fi, a sharper lens and compatibility with all GoPro mounts and accessories, the HERO3+ Black Edition is the most advanced GoPro yet. Check out GoPro’s site.

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