Aerial POV shots are the new rage and many videographers are trying to figure out what the best gear is to invest in and provide the flexibility and professional results they really need to stay competitive without a huge capital investment. When the DJI Phantom for the GoPro Hero3 was introduced late last year, there was a buzz about this new method of getting creative POV shots from above, and a lot of people have been coming up with DIY designs for stabilizing the camera and smoothing out the controls of the multirotor aircraft. The folks at DSLRPros have been designing the best professionally-engineered and configured packages of upgraded components and aftermarket gear that turns the Phantom into a real contender in the UAV photo/video market and the Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit is the best I've seen in the quadcopter category.
What's included in this kit:
DJI Phantom Quadcopter (upgraded with 8″ Carbon Fiber CF Props, DJI Propeller Guards for 8″ props, antiGravity motors)
DJI Zenmuse H3-2D Gimbal – pre-installed and tested
GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition Kit
Futaba 8FG Radio Transmitter with SBus Rcv (Pre-programmed)
Integrated 5.8Ghz FPV System (Custom selected and matched for Phantom – others can cause problems with GPS operation – our FPV selection is tested and guaranteed to work with the DJI Phantom)
5.8Ghz Transmitter with diversity band (i.e., can add multiple field monitors or goggles)
5.8Ghz Field Monitor with integrated receiver
DSLRPros – High Quality FPV Goggles
6 High Performance LiPo 2400mAh Batteries
Q1 QuantumPro Lipo Charger AC / DC (Charge from your car battery or in your studio)
Digital LiPo Battery Capacity Tester
2 LiPo Fire Protection Bags
Special Edition Tough Case with pre-cut foam
While this kit has been customized for most of your remote aerial photo/video needs, it may be overkill for the beginner/hobbyist looking for a kit that has solid performance but fewer features and accessories. DSLRPros has designed a few other packages as well. Refer to this chart to compare the different kit options and check out the updates on their website.
First Look: what makes this kit so unique?
I've had the opportunity to fly the DJI Phantom since it was first released back in January, 2013 and have been following all the updates that DJI has been making along the way – with published updates here on ProVideo Coalition. DSLRPros has been providing me with test units to review and the upgrade/replacement parts I've needed along the way. But I've never had the experience in flying the Phantom as I have with this package. Everything from the upgraded antiGravity motors and Carbon Fiber props, the FPV (First Person View) system and enhanced transmitter with the Futaba controller – make this a much more enjoyable and professional flying & shooting experience.
As noted by DSLRPros on their website, this is a professional-grade system – providing technical & performance capabilities well beyond that of the stock DJI Phantom and all components are matched and tested before shipment. Check out the “under the hood” section below for more details on the upgrades and contents of this kit.
Ease of use:
PLEASE NOTE: while the DSLRPros Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit has been upgraded and modified for a smoother action and superior performance over the stock DJI Phantom, YOU WILL need to master your flying skills with a great deal of practice!
In GPS mode, the Phantom is quite stable and forgiving, but pilot error accounts for more than 90% of all crashes and “flyaways” that you read about. This comes from my own personal experience as well. In most of my many crashes or control issues with my original Phantom, I can trace back to either bad piloting skills, misjudgment of battery time or failed pre-flight & equipment checks. You must make sure that everything is fully charged before attempting a flight. This means the Phantom batteries, the Futaba controller, the FPV receiver/monitor and the GoPro. DSLRPros has provided all the chargers and a battery checker to test your LiPo batteries to make sure they are fully charged. Furthermore, you must be sure to follow all the protocol for pre-flight calibration and setup, including learning what all the feedback LED lights mean on the Phantom itself. Just because this kit comes ready to fly, it doesn't mean you can just forego learning how the equipment functions or some basic flying skills.
Since I'm new to advanced gear like the Futaba radio controller that ships with the Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit, it took me a while to wrap my head around it all. With the stock DJI Phantom controller, you had an on/off switch, a couple controllers and a couple of mode switches – designed to be very simple. The Futaba is an advanced programmable controller that allows you to set up for multiple aircraft if you wish – but it comes pre-programmed for your paired Phantom and tested by DSLRPros before it ships.
The FPV system was an entirely new concept to me as well and took some getting used to flying with both line-of-sight and the FPV screen. This takes some practice to master but once you get it, you'll wonder how you ever flew before you had it! I know that I've spent a lot less time “guessing” at if I got the shot I needed or not with the standard Phantom configuration. The FPV system removes all doubt and allows you to see and fly in real time!
It has taken me about 50+ flights to get really comfortable with the controls and wean myself off of the GPS mode in flight. With the FPV system it makes it much easier to see what the GoPro sees in the forward-facing mounting and I tend to fly my Phantom more like a helicopter in forward motion most of the time. This gives the video more of a sensation of flight. However when making sweeping panoramic spins or side panning movements, the limitations of the 2-axis gimbal tend to create more of a jarring to the image – which is further magnified by the auto-correcting nature of GPS mode on the Phantom. By switching it to ATTI mode, the Phantom continues to move smoothly in the direction you last instructed it and greatly reduces this effect. Many hours of practice will undoubtedly make it smoother and you, a more confident and successful pilot!
In this compilation video, you'll see some of my first flights with the DSLRPros Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit and some of the advantages of having the FPV have given me – including navigating a low-flying row in a vineyard near Santa Cruz. Notice how some of the footage is a little jerkier than others – those were shot in GPS mode primarily (and sometimes it's just wind buffeting) but given some time and experience in flying in ATTI mode and smoother controls of the sticks on the controller, you can achieve very smooth motion with this setup. Note that while I did apply some color grading and filters to some of the video clips in this compilation, all the footage shown at the 1:1 speed and not slowed-down to smooth out the shots. These shots are all real-time playback.
Here's a compilation of some of my test flights over the past few weeks with the DSLRPros Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit:
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The FPV system has a transmitter attached to the underside of the Phantom with a separate antenna that communicates with the receiver/LCD screen module that clamps to the handle of the Futaba controller. From my testing, outside of a little occasional static from radio or electrical interference, I always maintained a good signal even at long distances. This actually helped me with my Phantom's orientation when at higher altitudes or far off into the horizon – so I could more easily pilot the Phantom back home. It's easy to switch the channels on the transmitter and the receiver if you are experiencing too much static or interference.
The DSLRPros Ultimate Cinema Edition Aerial Kit also comes with a pair of FPV goggles with a built in receiver/antenna, however I haven't had the opportunity to experiment with them fully as it's best to utilize them with a second operator or at least a spotter so you're not “flying blind”. I have seen others operate with them and with experience you may manage quite well pulling them down once you're airborne. Hopefully in my next installment of this review series, I'll have some time to spend with the goggles and share my experience (and results) with you.
The kit also comes with a LiPo battery checker to make sure you never try to use an undercharged battery in your Phantom. This is probably the most common cause for failure in flight. However, the Futaba controller does have a warning alarm that tells you when the battery voltage drops below a certain point and I've found that to be some where around the 50% flight mark – so if I hear it go off, I return to home to avoid any issues. Having 6 LiPo batteries in the kit does give you plenty of flight time to explore and shoot quite awhile.
The kit comes packed completely in a foam padded hardshell case, but the prop guards are not installed when you receive the kit. The Phantom will not fit in the case with the prop guards installed, so you will need to install them when you first unpack the kit and either remove them when you replace the Phantom to the case or carry the Phantom separately when you go out to fly and shoot. I've left the prop guards on during my first entire review period but more advanced fliers will remove the prop guards to reduce weight and have more agility in flight. This way the Phantom will still fit inside the case for easier and more protected transport.
This is my field setup with charged LiPo batteries and the FPV receiver/monitor attached to the Futaba controller with the case. I always carry my hex wrenches and a small crescent wrench to assure all my components and props are securely fastened before each flight.
I've been flying the original Phantom for about 10 months now and have written about my experiences starting out as a new flier here on ProVideo Coalition and highlighting the improvements that DJI has made, including the introduction of the Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal at NAB 2013. But the combination of the advanced third-party components and upgrades that DSLRPros has provided in this kit have brought not only my flying experience and confidence to a new level, but my ability to obtain better shots from the GoPro Hero3 & Hero3+. It does enable you to take incredible POV footage and breathtaking panoramic photos.
With that said, do know that there are still a couple of limitations with the DJI Phantom design you should be aware of, that only a substantial investment in a larger hexcopter multirotor with a 3-axis gimbal might resolve. One consideration with a quadcopter, should an engine fail or you throw a prop, your Phantom will come crashing to Earth like a lead balloon. With proper maintenance and good preflight checks including tightening your prop nuts, this shouldn't be a big issue for concern. With a hexcopter you can lose up to two engines/props and still safely land your aircraft. The other issue I've pointed out already is the 2-axis Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal. While it does an amazing job of stabilizing your footage in both rock and tilt (X & Z axis) it does not have any compensation for pan/rotation (Y axis) – which becomes evident when turning your Phantom or it's buffeted by the wind. This is exaggerated when flying in GPS mode and the Phantom tried to correct its position. Flying in ATTI mode will substantially reduce this effect, as will a great deal of flying practice. I'll cover more about this in my next installment in this review series.
And lastly, the mounting position of the Zenmuse H3-2D gimbal on the bottom of the Phantom – while somewhat balanced (though still a bit front-end heavy) allow the occasional “dip” from the front props/prop guards down into frame when the Phantom is correcting itself (GPS mode), buffeted by wind gusts or when you're accelerating/turning in a forward direction.
Two things I've found that lessen the effects of this are to fly in ATTI mode as much as possible and not on strong windy conditions. Also, I shoot primarily in 2.7k 24p mode on my GoPro Hero3 which gives me some head room for cropping in a 1080p video production. Much more if I'm editing in 720p. Again, more experience in flying and multiple passes will give you the best results in this platform.
Check out this promo video currently on the DSLRPros website, highlighting some of the features of this kit, though many of these components have been upgraded since this video was produced, so it's even better.
So if you're looking for a more professional quadcopter aerial cinematography setup that's not just a “toy with a GoPro attached to it” – then I can't recommend the DSLRPros Ultimate Cinema Edition Kit enough. I'm going to literally shed some tears when I have to pack this kit up and send it back to them when I'm done! Luckily, I've got some more hours of flight time scheduled in the weeks ahead, so look for Part 2 in this review series for updates and more advanced features and capabilities. *UPDATE: DSLRPros is offering a special limited time offer for the Pro + DP Aerial Kit (doesn't include the GoPro and a couple other items) at a -$250 discount off the regular price with code PPZXR
*Action shot photos by Ellen Johnson & Barry Blanchard
Jeff Foster is a published author of several how-to books and training videos in the motion graphics, animation and video production industries and is an award-winning video producer and artist. Visit his web site to learn more about his training methods, tips & tricks at PixelPainter.com