I’m new to the world of good drones, but I’ve owned a few of the cheaper offerings as well over the past few years. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is currently a serious bang:buck winner for anyone looking to add a camera drone to their arsenal. For less than $500, you can have a full-featured flying high-def video camera and 12MP still camera (that shoots RAW!) at your disposal.
It’s All About the GPS
The main thing that separates quality drones with a high photographic utility from the cheap stuff is GPS capability. All DJI drones are equipped with GPS, and there are many other brands/models with GPS as well. Without GPS, a drone cannot hold a steady position consistently and accurately, or “return to home” reliably, or several other critical capabilities of the nicer drones. GPS drones are currently not in the cheap price bracket, but prices are definitely coming down to the sub-$500 level.
In other words: GPS matters. A lot.
Who Should Buy the Phantom 3 Standard?
I bought the Phantom 3 Standard from the perspective of a photographer who wanted to expand his set of tools. I am not in any way a drone expert or even remotely good at flying these things. In fact, I’m pretty bad at flying the average cheap drone, like the best-selling Hubsan X4 (my review is here). The Phantom 3 is so so stable when simply hovering that you can literally set down the controller and be assured it won’t stray more than a foot or two, even in mild to moderate breeze. That’s actually how I shot the header photo of this post.
If you’re not experienced with drones or other RC vehicles but you want the capabilities of a camera drone, this is the just about the cheapest option you have that’s truly a quality product.
There are hundreds of amazingly good reviews of this drone out there, so I’m going to distill it down to what a budget-minded photographer needs to know (in my opinion, of course).
Position Hold: When you stop touching the controls, the drone stops moving and resists changes to position and altitude. If a stiff breeze moves the drone more than a foot or so, it will move back to the hold spot.
Return to Home: If contact between controller and drone is lost, the drone will land itself from where it took off. If battery power gets low and you push it too far, it will override your control and land itself (back to the spot where it took off) to avoid a crash.
Auto Landing: If you don’t feel comfortable landing the drone for whatever reason, let the software use GPS to guide it in for a very soft touch-down. It can auto-takeoff as well, but this is less useful in my opinion.
Follow Me Mode: The drone will track/follow the movement of whoever /whatever is holding the controller. This could be walking, running, on a bike, in a kayak, on a snowboard, etc.
Point of Interest Mode: You set a point of interest and the drone will orbit that point at a defined distance and speed. Great for shooting video of landmarks, towers, castles, etc.
Waypoint Mode: Record waypoints so that you can have the drone “re-play” the recording. This allows for pre-scripted flight path (direction and altitude), which is very useful in videography.
RAW + JPEG Photos: RAW image format capability is huge. Plus, you can shoot RAW and JPEG simultaneously, a feature usually only found on dSLR bodies. Resolution is 12.4MP, which while not huge, is still quite respectable. Sensor size is 1/2.3″ or 6.17 mm x 4.55 mm. The full-frame equivalent focal length is 20mm. It’s wide, but not fish-eye distortion wide. Additionally, recent versions of Photoshop have a lens correction profile for this drone camera.
2.7K Video: 4K video might be the hot stuff now, but the average computer will have trouble editing/manipulating super-high resolution video. 2.7K is a nice middle point between 1080p and 4K. Also, the quality is exceptional.
3-Axis Gimbal: The camera is assisted by a gimbal, which serves to keep the camera level to the horizon, regardless of how the drone itself is positioned. This equates to super-stable video capture. Other than GPS, this is the biggest differentiator between cheap drones and good drones.
Amazing Sound Quality Recording: Just kidding. The onboard camera, like most drones, records no audio because it would all be annoying buzzing sounds.
For the photographer who wants to bring aerial perspectives to his/her repertoire and keep the budget in check, the DJI Phantom 3 Standard is a compelling option. It’s relatively cheap, performs at a professional level in all aspects, and is easy to operate even for total drone noobs.