“Cheap” Aerial Photography with the DJI Phantom

DJI Phantom quadrocopter with GoPro Hero 3 mounted underneath.
DJI Phantom quadrocopter with GoPro Hero 3 mounted underneath.

Tomorrow, Improve Photography is going to take delivery of a DJI Phantom.  It's a $700 remote controlled helicopter that is capable of lifting a small camera in the air to take aerial photos and video.  Needless to say, I'm not going to be sleeping much tonight, knowing that a new gadget is in a box waiting for me somewhere.

Often, when I'm shooting landscape photography, I see patterns or areas on the ground that I think would make for an amazing aerial photo.  Aerial photography has always intrigued me, but it's not exactly practical to rent a helicopter for my photo shoots 🙂

In the last few years as technology has advanced, more and more RC enthusiasts are finding that some remote controlled helicopters are now capable of lifting cameras.  As soon as I saw this possibility, I went out and bought an RC helicopter to begin learning how to fly.  I started with small Walmart helicopters, which I crashed into oblivion, and eventually stepped up to much more feature-packed helicopters, such as the Blade 120sr.

Now, I'm taking my aerial photography to the next level by moving up to a DJI Phantom.

Why Should Photographers Care About the DJI Phantom?

Most RC helicopters have only one rotor.  While single-rotor helicopters can be very fast and lift a heavy camera, the vibrations caused by the one rotor destroy the sharpness of the photos or steadiness of the video.  The DJI Phantom, however, is a quadrocopter, meaning it has 4 rotors.  Having 4 rotors makes for a MUCH more stable flying experience.

There are certainly other quadrocopters available on the market, but the DJI Phantom is powerful enough to lift a GoPro Hero 3 camera.  The new GoPro camera, which I bought a few months ago, is significantly sharper and does better video than previous versions.  In fact, it's good enough that the footage or photos from a DJI Phantom are actually quite good.

In fact, this is the first RC helicopter that is practical for photographers to use for aerial photos and videos.

Why Choose the DJI Phantom Over Other Quadrocopters?

The Phantom includes many features that make it practical for newer RC helicopter pilots.  For example, it comes with GPS built in.  In fact, you can even fly the Phantom so high that it's just a tiny speck in the sky and then simply turn off your remote control.  When the copter loses connection with the remote, it automatically flies itself back to where it took off and lands itself.

Also, the Phantom is reasonably steady in the air.  While some quadrocopters couldn't dream of lifting the weight of a camera and flying steadily, the Phantom is made for use with the GoPro camera.  It does take some tweaking to get rid of the jello effect in the video, but with some minor tweaks, the Phantom can produce jello-free video and sharp stills.

One of the main draws to the Phantom is that it uses many standardized RC parts, which means you can add on and tweak the Phantom as much as you like.

Here goes nothing….

I'm anxious to try out the DJI Phantom for aerial photography.  I really think this will open up a new set of possibilities for my landscapes and provide me with a fresh way to see the world around me.  As I test out this new technology, I'll periodically update the site with the photos I get and my results.

If you're interested in the DJI Phantom, Amazon is currently selling it for $680.

Have any of you tried aerial photography?  Interested in the DJI Phantom?  Leave a comment below and let me know about it.

31 thoughts on ““Cheap” Aerial Photography with the DJI Phantom”

  1. On a recent episode of This Week in Photo, they mentioned that it was against FAA regulations to use these for commercial purposes. Just keep that in mind if you were planning on selling any photos taken with it.

  2. George F Kremer

    I’ve had mine now for about a month. Mostly learning to fly and to getting rid of Jelly-Cam! Get a blade balancer and you will be amazed at how much of the vibration you can get rid of. Extra batteries, too, as here in Aspen at 8,000′ in winter I can only get about an 8 minute flight. You can also get an oil damped gimbal from Infinity Hobby that can also help with getting smooth video. Love the video here!

  3. Pierre in CHeeseland

    You wrote “Needless to say, I’m not going to be sleeping much tonight…”.

    I just have the feeling that you will not get much sleep during the subsequent nights either….. 🙂

  4. I’ve got the Parrot AR Drone and have ordered the Phantom. Once you fly one of these machines, you’re hooked. The Phantom is not for beginners. They have a lot of great videos on their web site which new users must view. There is a whole video on calibrating the copter to GPS. However, I’m just a beginner and have had no problem getting used to the technology. This is the “Man Toy” of the century. Best of luck to you.

  5. As Tim said above, beware that is illegal to sell any photography done with RC aircraft.

    About 6 years ago I found myself jobless for the first time in my adult life (I’m a career pilot.) I had decided to combine two of my (many) hobbies, RC aviation and photography, and start an aerial photography business. The RC airplanes and helicopter that I already owned would suffice, but I needed some extra equipment to do it right–and so used much of the last money I had to order it. Wanting to do FPV (First Person View) so that I could compose rather than blindly take photos, I’d ordered the necessary equipment–video glasses, receivers and transmitters, antennas, cables, gimbals, etc. Within a week of receiving everything–and excited to actually be starting my own business–the FAA came out with a mandate saying that any RC aircraft from 6 oz. to 600,000 lbs. was considered a UAV and absolutely could not be used for commercial purposes–and selling aerial photos falls into that category. It grounded a great many businesses around the country, and certainly squelched my fire. There are some hoops you can jump through, but it is a political quagmire designed to make it very costly and difficult.

  6. Thanks for sharing this article, its been a really interesting read! I have a buddy who is really big into this stuff, I would love for him to give this a try and succeed at it, its what makes him happy. Thanks for sharing!

  7. What in the world would the FAA care if a photographer uses a $680 quad-copter to take (and sell) videos and stills? I could understand limitations about size and flight capabilities of a “UAV” and having restrictions about airspace, etc., But the Phantom? C’mon. Photographers are always looking for different angles and perspectives, and the Phantom will fit this bill nicely in a LOT of situations.

    This isn’t the place for a political argument, but, honestly, are they really going to come after every photographer who has one of these and uses it? I guess time will tell. I’m willing to take my chances and push the limits of such a stupid “mandate.”

  8. Yes, indeed, the FAA has ruled on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), including RC aircraft. Links to FAA literature on this topic as follows:

    FAA AC 91-57 Link: http://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/91-57.pdf

    FAA Fact Sheet: Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)
    Link: http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14153

    FAA Unmanned Aircraft (UAS) Questions and Answers
    Link: http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/uas_faq/

    However, as the Fact Sheet states, “the FAA is working on a proposed rule governing the use of a wide range of civil unmanned aircraft systems.” Stay tuned, because all is not lost for those wishing to use UAS’s for commercial purposes. I believe the FAA has a mandate to open up avenues for civil commercial use by 2015.

    In the most recent ruling by the FAA (2007) to clarify AC 91-57, though, the FAA has stated that UAS cannot be used for compensation or hire, and that AC 91-57 applies only to modelers and excludes commercial uses.

    Hope this helps to clarify things.

  9. Im a cinematographer based in Australia…the Governing body here is CASA…i have to sit a fixed wing exam…have public liability…a medical…two days flight training with a manufacturer of drones…and much more….its also the same legal situation here for this type of photography…Dont sell the photos…give them away….and charge for something else…?……this situation is a metamorphis…the governments are just thinking out HOW they..contol us…

  10. Hi, I’m in the same boat as you. I’m looking at getting a DJI.phantom. You can ask me about camera and filters but phantom…I have no clue. With phantom, in order to get a good photo you need a balanced props, good stabaliased gimbal. I’m thinking about fat shark goggle. In your experience, can one control the gimbal with the fat shark so that you can see where you are going? Or do you need a seperate control? And what’s the best gimbal to get….thank you very much.

  11. I am so sad that we have lost most of our liberties and still going strong on loosing more. Dont sell the aerial pictures, trade them. give them as a gift. There will come a time when it will be illegal to look at your next door neighbor, so sad. I wonder who elects our congress man and woman, upps we do. so elect one that conforms to our wishes not the fascist and socialist and the ones that in the name of terror security, are cutting off our freedom.

  12. This government is totally out of control!
    DC is in bad need of a massive overhaul and fumigation.
    And if you’r listening, Eric Holder, or Obama, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnel, John Boehnor, people are waking up.
    We are a free country, or used to be…

  13. Alongwith helicopter what other accessories are included in the price.? What typ of monitoring system is there…? and How long battery lasts.. What is the price for extra battery. Full details will be highly appreciated THANKS

  14. “Stay tuned, because all is not lost for those wishing to use UAS’s for commercial purposes.”

    If you think the gov’t want anyone but themselves to have the use of “drones”, you are dreaming. Restriction on these will INCREASE, not loosen up. Keep in mind, they are already confiscating CAD drawings of pistols for fear they will be used with 3D printers. They will forever be trying to control every aspect of our lives if it remotely (no pun intended) makes them or their precious laws feel threatened.

  15. Are you able to ‘gift’ the photos, and charge for their: packaging & processing; & freight/postage/delivery?
    Doesn’t the USA Govt’s actions amount to ‘a restriction of trade’? (I thought the USA was ‘the home of the free!) What has happened to ‘free trade’ and ‘free enterprise’?
    Seems like the USA Govt. has you in ‘a squirrel-grip’. Could be that the NRA could mentor you through the process of getting what you want by applying your own ‘squirrel-grip’ to the politicians. (As it so very effectively seems to do!)

  16. i think i’ll wait till the chinese copy this fine product and flood the market at199. and hey order now and they’ll double the offer . just pay additional shipping and handling

  17. A lot photographers using these for commercial purposes aren’t selling the photos.. they’re just selling their time, or a consultation, and the photos are free.. It’s a loophole, and a gray one at that.. but that’s what’s going on with a lot of them.

  18. I’m about to but one for areal photography use, but I’ve heard of problems where they just “fly away” and the auto-return function never kicks in. Have you had any problems like that?

    1. The newer 2015 phantom.3 model flys great
      Just follow instructions to calabrate the quad and you will have no problems with flyaway

  19. I just bought a Phantom and I am in the process of doing test runs. I make surfing and wakeboarding videos and still shots. Will the GoPro Hero 3+ Black’s remote effect the Phantom’s flying? Will I be able to switch from video to photo while its flying and click to take a picture or will it cause the Phantom to go crazy and crash?

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