After about 20 minutes hovering around the old trestle and panning across the tracks, we finally hear the whistle of an approaching train. Taking the DJI Inspire 2 and its attached DJI Zenmuse X7 camera up to its maximum altitude, I put the drone a hundred feet or so above the tracks and off the train’s port side.
With no desire to get a drone in the way of a train shuttling passengers home from work, my camera operator and I had attached the 50mm lens to the X7 (effectively a 75mm on a full-frame camera) before takeoff. The camera operator turns the gimbal to a break in the woods where the train will emerge. The relatively long focal length (for a drone, at least) gives us a nice tight shot without having to be too close.
As the train grumbles slowly across the steel bridge, I steer the Inspire 2 backward while he follows the train. Midway through traversing the crossing, we turn the drone slowly 180º and follow the train as it disappears again into tree cover. Satisfied with the footage, we press the Return to Home button and wait for the Inspire 2 to come and land at our feet.
DJI Inspire 2 and DJI Zenmuse X7
Thanks to the simplicity of the controls for the Inspire 2, and the ability to use a second controller for camera operations, we get the shot we want on the first try, despite the fact that my camera operator (who is my godson, and is in no way trained in videography) hadn’t used the Inspire 2 before, and hadn’t ever held a drone’s controller.
Shooting in Apple ProRes 4444 XQ, I can take the footage directly from the Inspire 2 and start working with the 5.2K footage in Final Cut Pro. The Inspire X7 can also shoot in 6K when capturing RAW video, but my projects are already in Final Cut Pro, and 5.2K footage will be more than enough.
The simplicity of the system belies the sophistication of both the drone and the camera system we’re operating. I’ve flown a number of low-cost, low-tech drones, and they’re impossible to use. One of them, a present for my son’s 7th birthday, is hanging from a tree about 40 feet off the ground in my front yard, and it’s likely to stay there until the branch it’s on falls from old age.
All of DJI’s drones, from the humble (yet fun!) Spark to the expensive (yet sophisticated!) Inspire 2, use the same control interface, making it easy to go from drone to drone without a learning curve. In fact, after we’ve exhausted the batteries on the Inspire 2, we pull out another DJI drone and fly it around the field for another hour or so, with my godson taking the controls and making passes over obstacles so low and so fast that the footage looks like the pod racing scene in Star Wars, minus Anakin Skywalker.
Camera, Lights, Elevation
The Zenmuse X7 replaces the Zenmuse X5, itself only a few years old. The pace of innovation in the drone and related industries is staggering, largely thanks to DJI. The Chinese company has a development schedule that sees a constant stream of updates. Its partnership with Hasselblad has given it a particularly good perspective on the imaging space, and now DJI is trying to advance its camera development at that same rapid pace.
Where the Zenmuse X5 used a Micro Four Thirds sensor, and a few compatible lenses from Olympus, the X7 uses an APS-C sensor and a quad of new DJI-designed lenses. Lightweight (thanks to the sexy carbon-fiber construction), these lenses are variable-aperture (adjustable at the controller during flight) and come in 16mm, 24mm, 35mm and 50mm-all at ƒ/2.8, and all with aspherical glass. In full-frame equivalent, those lenses are 24mm, 36mm, 52.5mm, and 75mm. The 16mm lens has a built-in ND filter that can be turned on and off during flight. With an identical front diameter, all lenses can share the same filters. A kit of the four lenses costs (at press time, where a price drop has just occurred) about $4,300.
The truly amazing technology is found in the Zenmuse X7, an incredibly diminutive camera, considering that most of its mass is taken up with parts for the gimbal. The sensor and mount, which comprises the entirety of the camera-processing unit, take up less space than an Altoids tin, yet pack a Super 35mm sensor capable of 14 stops of dynamic range, 6K video capture at 30 fps and 60 fps at 3.9K, 24-megapixel still capture at 20 fps, and the ability to record different formats to both the internal SSD and internal Micro SD cards. (Shoot RAW video to the SSD and proxy media to the SD card, for instance.)
Video ISO ranges are from 100-6400, though, as with all APS-C cameras, the lower the ISO you can shoot the better. ISO for still images runs to 25,640-an impressive range for a teeny, flying camera. D-Log and D-Gamut curves and color spaces make for easier color editing and easier matching to existing footage.
The footage from the X7 is superb, period. I’ve shot stills and footage at 6K, at 5.2K, at 4K and in a variety of different codecs, and it all looks excellent. I’ve been able to compare footage of my neighborhood from the Zenmuse X7 to similar footage from my previous X5 tests, and the X7 has significantly more detail, and a wider dynamic range, plus the ability to re-crop in post and still have 4K.
It’s amazing that it’s possible to quickly and easily fly this much video and still photo technology when just a few years ago neither the cameras nor the drones were sophisticated enough to perform such high-level aerial cinematography.
I’m equally amazed at how free this area of cinematography and still imagery is from the competition. While there are a lot of production houses and studios shooting with drones, there are very few independent videographers and still photographers taking to the skies. Part of that is due to the confusing state of drone regulations.
For commercial work, you need an FAA Part 107 drone pilot license. For any use at all, you need to be aware of a myriad of state and local regulations as to the flying of drones. In New York, for example, you can’t operate a drone in a state park without permission (and good luck figuring out who’s in charge of permissions for most of the parks.) Where I live, the county parks are also off-limits but local parks are not, unless the locality has an ordinance against flying there.
Still, there’s so much potential for airborne photography and video work, and so few people competing for it. A photographer living in an area with a number of malls or tourist destinations could likely recoup the cost of a drone setup in a few jobs. (How many real estate developer websites currently have flyover videos of the projects they’ve completed, for example?) Even work that would previously have required renting a jib or using a tall ladder for the right perspective would benefit from a system like the DJI Inspire 2 and the Zenmuse X7.
Whatever the shoot, this drone and imaging system is a potent combination, one that stacks up against camera systems that are much more expensive and which are much more complicated to get airborne. It’s hard to think of a better tool for capturing video and stills from a birds-eye perspective, and hard to think of a reason to not use the DJI Inspire 2 and Zenmuse X7 for both video and still imaging projects.