[UPDATE 9/10/2015 – See update in comments]
I think it’s futuristic – the drone that is. The camera, on the other hand, is another story.
For a guy like me who not only follows the commercial market for drones but is also an avid photography and multirotor enthusiast, the new DJI Inspire 1 is, well, inspiring. It’s chock full of features I wish I had four years ago when I first started mounting GoPro cameras on quadcopter kits — things like ease of use, a simple interface, controller ergonomics, telemetry, a 3D-axis gimbal, integrated HD video downlink, optical flow for indoor flying (how cool is that!?).
Much has already been written on the Inspire 1 T600 (like here and here) so I won’t repeat it. The question for this post is: Did DJI hit the mark for the target market? For that answer, we need to go beyond the drone itself and look at how professional photographers and videographers use drones and cameras.
As a primer, you may want to read what I have already written about this market in Film or Farm: Which is the Bigger Drone Market? and The Democratization of Aerial Photography.
Drone manufacturers understand photographers have longed for inexpensive ways to take aerial images, and DJI heralded the turnkey consumer-level camera drone with its DJI Phantom Vision. Some billed it as a toy. But it didn’t take long for professional photographers to notice its package of features and ease of use. Soon, every camera retailer, from Adorama and Amazon to B&H Foto, carried the Phantom line. Even photography software companies like Adobe tailored offerings to it. Product sales skyrocketed.
Concurrently, drone manufacturers like DJI and FreeFly Systems created larger multirotor airframes, controllers, gimbals, and componentry to satisfy the growing market for high-end aerial photography and cinematography. On these machines, users can mount their favorite (and heavy) Sony, Canon, and Panasonic DSLR – and even Red Epics. However, these drones do not arrive ready-to-fly (RTF). They require considerable assembly to get operational. This left the door open for savvy resellers like Aerial Media Pros, DSLR Pros, and Quadrocopter to do that work and offer high-margin RTF packages. Besides video and cinematography, these packages are used for the following photo applications:
- REAL ESTATE – showcase homes, marquee properties, commercial buildings, and structures
- LEGAL – support forensic investigations, insurance claims, and property assessments
- CONSTRUCTION – progress reporting for commercial, residential, and civil engineering
- LAND – landscape architecture, land development, and research
I think DJI correctly assessed the entry level and high-end camera drone markets and recognized the middle was open. Why not offer a better turnkey package that satisfies the demands of professionals but does not cannibalize their own high-end products?
For professional photographers and videographers, it’s not about the drone; it’s about the camera. The drone is just an extension of their reach. It’s a camera platform, a flying dolly, a zooming boom, a tripod in the sky. Mounted on a drone, a camera becomes a tool for better storytelling, and its unique aerial perspective broadens the possibilities for those stories and gives audiences a better sense of an object’s physical space and context to location. As a tool for this kind of storytelling, camera resolution matters.
But herein lies the rub for the Inspire 1 T600. The drone has very high-end features, but the camera (see specs here) may not satisfy all intended professionals. Clearly, 4K video meets the needs of a large population of aerial videographers, but 12-megapixel still photos will not meet the needs of aerial photographers involved in supplying images for the applications listed above. It will if the image is destined only for the web, but not if it’s used in print (think real estate brochures) or detailed investigative work (like construction exploration, legal investigations, and land surveying).
Two factors are unknown about the T600’s camera at this point: the resolving power of the lens and the dynamic range / image noise. These two issues matter greatly to photography professionals, who will surely scrutinize and vet these over social media. No doubt comparisons will be made between cameras of all types – including the one on the less expensive Phantom 2 Vision+. On the surface it looks like DJI may have got the lens right. Apparently gone is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ wide-angle distortion that professional photographers and videographers had to correct post production (same problem with GoPro). Low light sensitivity and noise is TBD.
It’s hard for me to believe DJI didn’t know that still image resolution didn’t matter for the target market and it’s quite plausible that a better or different camera is coming. And it should! I have talked to several existing Phantom owners who are professional photographers and many say they’ll wait to buy one when a better / more versatile camera is available. As DJI explained at its press launch, the Inspire 1’s gimbal and camera system is “modular and upgradable.” That’s important if the company wants to keep up with professionals who demand ever better sensor and image processors. Whatever the reason, it’s paramount that DJI get this right – especially if it wants to provision other commercial markets like GIS where the camera’s still resolution is king.
While the $2,900 price point is set right for a mid-tier turnkey camera drone system, it seems the camera spec is too skinny and the price just high enough to create a barrier for some existing customers, especially those who are professional photographers.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment or write me at email@example.com.
This post also appears in sUAS News ‘Multirotor‘ section.