I photograph a lot of architecture and landscape / gardens. Throughout the years I mastered my skills, learned to do panoramas, virtual tours, and so on. And I wanted to expand my possibilities. When I learned about the Phantom 2 quad-copter by DJI, available with a Zenmuse gimbal made specially for the tiny but nice GoPro camera, I decided to give it a try.
By now I own and fly this system for some 4 months, or a bit more. I totally realize that I did not master it yet, and still have lots to learn. However, I now use it for photography and video, I experienced some technical problems for which I had to contact DJI customer support, and I discussed various issues with several other Phantom pilots on-line. Therefore I think I have enough of general first experience to write my comments designed to help fellow photographers interested in flying a drone like this.
My setup is:
Phantom 2 with H3-2D Zenmuse gimbal and original remote controller (included in the kit).
GoPro Hero 3+ Black camera.
It basically is the original kit. My humble modifications are carbon fiber propellers, and carbon fiber protectors – all bought on e-bay.
Why Phantom 2?
I did lots of research on internet. I learned that a quad-copter offers good flight stability, and a company called DJI packs their Phantom 2 model with really advanced technologies. It has GPS, auto-pilot, and other sensors which make tit a novice-friendly and reliable device. I needed something affordable, yet quality built and capable of taking reasonable good photo/video. I had zero experience when I bought it, so – this being available as a „ready to fly” system was very temptiong (you purchase GoPro camera separately). I watched many video clips, reviews, and I decided that the image quality from GoPro is significantly better than from Phantom Vision with its integrated camera. The Phantom 2 is priced at around $900, and I found a deal on GoPro Hero camera on ebay. That was together just a bit over $1200, which for me had the right balance between the quality and price of my first flying camera system. There are amazing, much bigger systems able to use heavy bigger cameras and gear – such as Spreading wings 800 or 1000 – however, they are also in a different price range, and not so portable for travel.
You can’t learn to drive car by reading manuals, you need plenty of practice, and only with time you can become a really good driver. Same with flying these drones. I have to admit – I thought it will be much easier than it was. I did not install my camera right away, and it was clearly a smart move. I did have a few nasty crashes right away. Trying to fly slowly and do basic maneuvres, I still crashed from time to time – either by banging on a tree/bushes, or when trying to land. I have to say – Phantoms are VERY durable. I trashed the props very quickly, which made me order a set of prop protectors. They help a bit to spare props in case of crash or hitting something, and also protect everything/everyone – including you – as these props can inflict real damage. When ordering new props, I ordered carbon fiber ones, and noticed a more steady, a bit more precise flying. The original plastic ones gave a bit „soft” flight. Anyway, I was getting better at it, and able to control my copter reasonably well when doing basic tasks.
Customer Service experience:
After couple of weeks of practicing without camera, I decided to install the gimbal and my GoPro.
Installation was easy enough, but I discovered that the gimbal control on my remote did not work. I tried calibrating it as per recommendation in manual, but nothing helped. I was unable to control the gimbal’s position.
I tried to call US tech support for North America. Instantly, I noticed how bad it is. There is no toll free number. You pay for your call. That is OK if I can actually talk to someone. A machine announced that my waiting time will be… over 2 hours! Calling internationally from Canada! Pretty bad, eh? I decided to email them instead. After 2 days of silence I was getting really annoyed. Called again – only to hear about a similarly crazy waiting time.
Desperate, I searched for my problem description online, and found a few forums dedicated to flying various remote controlled copters. I signed up with one, http://www.phantompilots.com, and described my problem there. Helpful comments and suggestions from more experienced pilots quickly started to come.
My terrible customer service experience had been confirmed by several group members – one saying he waited 2 weeks and still did not get a reply. Someone pinpointed my problem precisely, having the same difficulties with gimbal control before me. He suggested I open my remote and see if the controller knob is properly anchored, turning a dial inside – as in his unit it was not properly assembled. I opened my remote and could not believe it. Instead of properly fitting two parts together, it was badly assembled and the knob actually squished the dial, not turning anything. I used pliers to pull up the dial, carefully assembled it together, and – bingo! The knob worked! However, the fact that my problem was known before, points to very poor quality control at DJI factory. They let the badly assembled units out for sale! I thought it is not my job to fix assembly problems, and I would ask for the remote replacement – if not for the impossible technical support! I fixed my remote thanks to some helpful pilots – but I still did not receive any response from the support!
At last, an email response from support came in about a week time. I was told – to calibrate the unit! Clearly nobody bothered to read that I already did it several times, and that I mentioned the knob dangling losely, like nothing is attached to it. No other help suggestion was offered in this matter, except stating that if I still need support – I can call them! Damn! I say it is the worst tech support I remember. It is not a support, but quite an opposite. I now know that the real support can be found among fellow pilots – not from DJI company.
With gimbal and camera working, I started test flights using GoPro app for remote controling the camera. The Phantom is usually doing well, but sometimes it has dizzy spells and is hard to control. I found some comments on the forum that it is a programming bug, and DJI is working on a firmware update to fix it. Well, will see soon enough. Overall, it is quite an amazing tool, thanks to very advanced technology packed inside. Quality of GoPro Hero 3+ in video is stunning. However, I find photographs from that camera leaving much more to wish for. Firstly, these are jpg files, it does not shoot RAW. Lens distortion is quite bad, so is the chromatic abberation on many photos. You need lots of know how, to position your Phantom in a good way and have reasonably good photos. I wish Phantom could support a more professional camera. There are other drones, but they are bigger and cost much more.
Reading on the forum about different upgrades people do to their copters, I tried to figure out which remote control would work nicely with my Phantom (the original one feels very crude, not precise enough), and how can I see all flight data on a monitor, in order to fly out of visual range. That helped me realize that the DJI web site is quite badly done. There is no information which components can be used together for what effect. Each available upgrade part has only a brief description, and no effort has been made to really explain what users can achieve using differently upgraded and configured copters. Once again – your only option is chatting with other users on one of these forums and watching their instructive video clips.
I am impressed with strong durable materials of my quad-copter, and with possibilities and potential of my Phantom 2. And – thanks to poor manuals, sketchy information, and terrible customer support – I know I do not know all possible options. I have hard time to understand which components I should use if I want to do various upgrades. Still, as it is out of the box – the Phantom 2 is a great tool, lots of fun, and is priced reasonably. I only wish I did not have to fiddle with my remote and it was properly assembled. And I strongly hope no major problems will occur with my system – as I learned the hard way that it is impossible to count on their customer support. Once you buy it – they openly screw you as a customer.
Clearly, there are some brilliant engineers and programmers working in this company – but they did not learn yet about the importance of quality control, and have no clue what a customer support means.
If you want to start with aerial photography/video – this is a great unit, affordable enough to learn on it. But remember – if something happens, don’t count on any official support from DJI. Sign up with one of these forums, and ask for help there. Or ask your dealier- if you luckily bougt your unit from Canada Drones – my favorite dealer. After a bit of learning you will have great fun, and a new way of taking impressive videos. Good luck, and fly safe!
Ah, one more thing – if you are in Canada and want to order one, I highly recommend Canada Drones. I have nothing but good things to say about this dealer. Great customer support (totally unlike DJI experience), good advice – you just can count on this guy. Even if you are a seasoned photographer, I would buy it from this guy, NOT from B&H Photo or Vistek. Why? Because what you buy is the quad-copter and quad-copter parts. And this guy is a seasoned expert in quad-copters. He knows this stuff inside out. You buy camera separately, and GoPro camera is no gimmicks, anyway. So, in case of problems/questions about your Phantom, you will get much better advice from an experienced professional like him, than from a camera shop. As simple as that.
Here is my short video – hope you enjoy!
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