Left unchecked, upgradeitis can turn into full blown GAS … that's gear acquisition syndrome incidentally, not the old raspberry tarts.
And while upgradeitis affects all geeks, drone users seem to be particularly susceptible. No sooner have DJI announced a new model, than the Facebook groups, subreddits and forums are full of people looking to offload their current drone.
There seems to be this reality distortion field centred on Shenzen and which activates whenever DJI release a new drone. This distortion field sweeps around the world, faster than a new far-right conspiracy theory, and instantly makes all drone owners feel like their four-rotored friend is now somehow inferior.
Every time a new drone with more megapixels, a bigger sensor, a better lens comes along, folks stress that the camera on their current drone is suddenly not up to the job any more. All it takes is an extra three minutes of flight time on the new model and another cheesy intelligent flight mode that will probably never get used and those critically infected with upgradeitis are reaching for their credit cards.
I encourage you to get you off the old upgrade treadmill.
Cast your mind back to a more innocent time, seven years ago, in 2015. That was when DJI released the Phantom 3 range of drones.
Seems like longer than that to me, but maybe it's because we've all aged about a decade in the last 24 months?
Anyway, the Phantom 3 Pro had a 12.4megapixel sensor and could shoot photographs in RAW using single, burst or auto-bracketed modes. It could shoot 4K video at 60mbps and HD video at 60fps.
Here are some samples images from the P3 that I found on Flickr. As you can see, there's a variety of lighting situations here from full sunlight to night-time. The camera appears to be coping well in demanding low light situations and has plenty of detail in the images.
Does the P3 have a bad camera simply because the Phantom 4, Mavic, Air, Spark and Mini have subsequently been released? No.
Am I suggesting you hit up Craigslist and buy one? No.
I am merely suggesting that your current drone, even if it's Phantom 3, is probably perfectly adequate for pretty much all use-cases.
Drone cameras have been good for the last decade and excellent for the last five. My suggestion is that instead of spunking your money up the wall on the latest DJI drone, you invest that cash in experiences instead.
Spend the cost of that shiny new drone on a few trips to the country or down the coast, or perhaps on a big holiday. People become susceptible to upgradeitits due to the hard work of the DJI marketing machine, and partly because enthusiasm for all technology fades slowly over time.
I'd also suggest that if you don't fly as much as you used to, then the drone is probably not your problem, it's more likely to be your creative spark.
Going somewhere new and interesting is a great way to get the old creative juices flowing once more.
So travel and explore. And while you're planning where you're going to go, here are some practical suggestions for getting the most out of your current drone and its current camera.
When you stick that old SD card in your PC and import your photos, do they all look like they were shot over the course of a year, instead of a single afternoon? If they do, it's undoubtedly because you have auto white balance enabled and your drone is making all the decisions about how cold or warm your photographs should be.
This isn't as big of a deal if you're shooting photographs in RAW mode because you can change white balance in post. However you may prefer to save yourself some time and choose one colour temperature for the conditions you are shooting in at that precise moment.
If you're shooting JPEGs than setting the right white colour balance is crucial, because it will be baked into the image.
It's also important when you're shooting video because while you can grade the footage afterwards, particularly if you have one of DJI's more expensive drones and can shoot in a log profile, but white balance is still effectively baked in and there are limits to what can be fixed in post.
If you manually set the white balance then you will have a much more consistent colour grade on your footage, straight out of the gate. It will save you time and your edited video will look all the better for it.
If you've always wanted to wean yourself off the automated modes on your drone then manually setting the white balance is a great starting point and you can expand your skill set from there.
There's no doubt that the cameras we use can do an excellent job taking photographs or shooting video in auto mode. However the photos and video you end up with will look how the camera wanted - not necessarily how you do. And those automated systems are not infallible. They make educated guesses about light and sometimes they get it wrong and you end up with a photograph that looks like you shot it down a mine.
So take your drone out of auto mode and experiment with the manual modes.
One great way to begin with as little stress as possible is to fire up your drone, but keep it on the ground. Put it down somewhere in the back garden and experiment with the manual mode settings as if you were using a normal camera. This way you can concentrate on understanding the techniques without having to worry about flying your drone into a tree.
As you teach yourself with your grounded drone remember not to simply rely on the preview on your phone. Import the images you take into your photo editor of choice so that you can see the full impact of changes to aperture, exposure or ISO.
Looking at those full size images will enable you to build up safe operating parameters for all your future shots - for instance how far you can safely push the ISO before the photo turns into some impressionist fever-dream of an image.
If you have a Mavic 2 Pro or Mavic 3 then you can make full use of manual aperture settings. All the other DJI drones (professional drones excepted) only allow for manual changes to shutter speed, ISO and white balance. However manually controlling these settings still gives you a substantial degree of flexibility in how a photograph or video clip eventually looks.
When was the last time you cleaned your drone's camera? Have you ever done it, you dirty so-and-so? Think about the environments you've been flying that drone in and picture for a moment all the little bits of dirt and dust that it has come into contact with.
It's highly likely that at some point an insect of some kind has hit your drone and yes, while the last thing that went through that bug's mind was its arse, the second last thing was probably how bleeding filthy your lens is.
It's not just so-called dust-spots that can ruin your shots but a microscopic film of grime and grease that builds up on that lens and which mutes colours, depresses detail and can cause light flares. Don't believe me? Remember the last time you cleaned your sunglasses and were suddenly like, "oh shit, I can see through time"? It's like that.
So get into the habit of cleaning your drone's camera before every flight. Most drones have a removable clear filter on the front that you can slide off in order to clean it properly with micro-fibre cloth. If that filter is looking a bit worse for wear, then replace it, they're not expensive.
Most consumer drones have a fixed aperture camera lens which means you can only control the amount of light hitting the sensor by changing exposure and ISO. And sometimes, just exposure and ISO are not enough to shoot properly exposed photos or video.
The best way to work around this unfortunate limitation is to buy yourself a set of neutral ND filters for your specific model of drone. These filters will enable you to fly your drone no matter how bright the sun is and still be able to shoot at an exposure setting that gives you that cinematic look with some motion bleed between frames.
I've always bought the Polar Pro filters for my drones and have found them to be excellent. I usually opt for a pack that includes a combination of ND filters and circular polarisers so that I can work around sun glare, haze and reflective water too. Before purchasing, check the reviews to make sure the filters don't have colour cast issues, because these can be a pain in the arse to correct in post.
Also make sure you buy a pack of ND filters with sufficient variety to cope with all light levels - four strengths at a minimum.
Understanding the limitations of your drone's camera is as important, probably more important, than understanding its strengths.
So if you have got a Phantom 3, for instance, then you need to work around the capabilities of the drone. Low light capabilities on that drone were not as good as the current range, so be sensible about the time of day you choose to fly it.
There isn't a drone that's been released in the last eight years that takes a crappy photo in broad daylight, so use that to your advantage.
Above all, don't assume that your drone is going to suck in a particular situation, give it a go.
There's no doubt at all that the gimbals on drones are a huge benefit when it comes to photography. They insulate the camera from the movement of the drone and make the chances of pulling off a nice sharp image much more likely.
However they're not perfect and obviously the further back in time you go, the less perfect they were. So understand that if it's windier than the quality assurance room at a baked bean factory, you're decreasing your chances of getting a sharp shot.
If it is windy then you should shoot with a faster exposure to minimise the amount of time the sensor is open and therefore reduce the time within which the camera can move during the exposure.
If one of the reasons you're looking at upgrading your drone is because it's missing the latest features of the current drones, then consider looking at third party apps.
My old Phantom 4 didn't have a panorama mode and I was jealous of the folks with Phantom 4 Pros and Mavics who did have a pano mode. So I used a third party app called Dronepan to shoot panos and bloody good it was too.
The best known third party app for drones is Litchi. The developers of this app are well known for bringing features only available on the most recent drones to older models.
It has an advanced waypoint and mission system for flying and then videoing or photographing along pre-defined routes. It has its own active tracking system. It has an excellent panorama mode. It has a follow mode that can track a mobile device. It has a VR mode and it even has a video feed option that can stream direct to a nearby device. It's the mutt's nuts and I strongly suggest you look at it, if you're missing more advanced flight modes.
You can also use specialised mission software such as Drone Deploy, Dronelink, PIX4Dcapture and Drone Harmony to run professional automated flight missions for commercial mapping or surveying purposes. And for this kind of work an older drone will be every bit as good a more recent one - better in some cases because it will have rock-solid firmware and therefore be more reliable.
You can make up for many of the deficiencies in drone cameras by leveraging the power of software. And let's face it, spending a couple of hundred bucks on good software is a lot cheaper than getting DJI's latest and greatest.
There are three main areas that software can definitely help with - those are noise, detail and dimensions.
And when it comes to all three of those areas, the software that I recommend, and which I use every day is the Topaz suite. And I should add at this point, that this isn't a sponsored recommendation in any way. I have the three main Topaz applications - Sharpen AI, Denoise AI and Gigapixel AI - because I bought them with my own money.
The AI based processing that this software is capable of is often miraculous in terms of its results. The software is well coded and has some truly useful features.
For instance if you are using the Sharpen AI tool then you only want to sharpen the land, not the sky - clouds do not have sharp edges. The Sharpen AI tool has an AI based selection tool - just like Adobe Lightroom's tool to select the sky. So you just turn on the sky mask and apply your sharpening only to the landscape. Easy peasy lemon squeeze.
The Denoise AI tool has several modes to cope with the type of noise present in your image. In terms of drones the noise preset you'll probably use most often is the low-light option. This preset gets rid of most of that horribly randomised RGB pixelisation you get at high ISOs and greatly improves the image without making it look like you tripped and fell onto the gaussian blur slider.
Then of course there's the size. The old Phantom 3 shoots at 4000x3000 pixels which is a bit of the short side, particularly if you want to print an image. GigaPixel AI can upscale your image in an intelligent way so that the end result is clean and undistorted.
I spent my money on Topaz but there are some excellent alternatives out there. In particular On 1's professional plugin suite is well worth a look. Their NoNoise AI tool is as good as Topaz Denoise and they offer a competitively priced bundle including Includes NoNoise AI, Effects, Resize, Portrait AI, & HDR - for $166 Australian dollars.
I guess there are several reasons why people do upgrade their drones, some perfectly logical, some not so much. The most obvious one is that some people just have to have the current model of whatever consumer device they own. So they stand in line for the latest Google Pixel or Apple iPhone, they switch out the graphics cards in their PCs like Chinese Bitcoin miners and they put their current DJI drone on eBay the second the release date of a new model is announced.
I don't understand this behaviour, but it's their money and if they want to bleed a few grand every year, that's their choice I suppose. And actually if you think about it, they're almost functioning as a kind of charitable enterprise. Folks who regularly update their devices (whether they need to or not) lower the cost of entry into drone ownership. People who aren't bothered about owning the very latest DJI drone and might not able to afford a new one snap up their old, perfectly good ones for a bargain price.
Another reason people upgrade their drones more regularly than they really need to is our old friend FOMO - fear of missing out. Global technology companies like Apple, DJI, Sony and Samsung are masters at seducing us all with the amazing new features that can only be found on their latest device. More memory! Faster! Smaller! We then start worrying that our perfectly good existing device is somehow lacking, when it almost certainly isn't.
These days the legion of photography and film-making YouTubers do most of the hard work for companies like DJI and those channels loyal subscribers eagerly watch their visually splendid but often unreliable reviews. And I'm certainly not taking the high ground here or suggesting that I'm immune to the marketing efforts of these companies - I feel that FOMO pang every time DJI release a new drone or Apple a new iPhone.
There are of course plenty of perfectly valid reasons to upgrade your drone. I think my reasoning for switching from Phantom 4 to Mavic 2 Pro was a sensible and measured one. I was shooting a lot of photography and video out in the national parks and it was a royal pain in the arse lugging that bloody huge suitcase sized Phantom 4 case with me. I did get a P4 backpack but there was no room for the rest of my kit, so I reverted to lugging that foam case around with me. When I got my Mavic, I could put it inside my main camera backpack with everything else and it was convenient and practical. I've made some dubious decisions over the years but upgrading from Phantom to Mavic certainly wasn't one of them.
All of which brings me round to the recently released Mavic 3. I was interested to see what exactly DJI would come up with this time around and what new features and improved technology they'd add to the Mavic range. I am in no way dissatisfied by the quality of the images and video my Mavic 2 Pro produces and I knew that DJI would have to do something particularly innovative to have me even considering upgrading.
And fortunately for my bank account and for the on-going harmonious relationship with my good lady wife 'er indoors, there was absolutely nothing in the Mavic 3 that had me checking the prices online. This is probably just as well as I when I did find out what DJI are charging this time around I felt a painful tightening in my chest.
When I was looking at the specs of the Mavic 3 I wondered to myself how far we've actually come in terms of the technology. Now I should preface this by saying that my interest in drones relates purely to the photos and the videos they produce, not to the speed, the range, the various feature modes or the styling. But did you know that that the Phantom 3 had 4K video, a stabilised three axis gimbal, collision sensors and 25 minutes of flight time, back in 2015? Have a look at this video - remember to watch it in 4K. Gorgeous right?
That was shot on Phantom 3 Pro nearly 7 years ago. Is the footage produced on the Mavic 3 really that much better? Sure dynamic range might be better and there may be better low light performance but the vast majority of people, the folks who sit at home and watch videos on YouTube are highly unlikely to notice any difference whatsoever - particularly since far and away the most popular resolution on YouTube is 1080p and also since the vast majority of people watch those videos on their smartphones. Us camera dorks and drone geeks might buy into DJI's bullshit about Hassleblad colour science, but nobody else gives a flying fuck. All the punters care about is content.
The Mavic 3 has a claimed 45 minutes of flight time, but the real-world tests I've seen would suggest it's actually not substantially better than the Air 2s. It also has a claimed range of 15km - but so what? If I fly legally here in Australia then I'm supposed to keep drone in my line of sight at all times. So the range I can legally use it is actually about 200 metres at best. If you have a full licence and a beyond-visual-line-of-site certification, then you could legally use it, but otherwise it's all a bit pointless if you're a law-abiding drone flyer.
Of course I'm taking the piss a bit - we all know full well that most drone owners fly beyond visual line of sight pretty much every time they put the drone in the air - you know it, I know it, DJI know it and you can guarantee that CASA (or the airspace regulator in your country) knows it too. And me? Oh I always keep my drone within visual line of sight … always …
I'm a pretty nervous flyer anyway but if I was legally able to fly beyond visual line of sight then, purely theoretically speaking, the maximum I'd ever have the nerve to send my drone would be about 2 kilometres. Over the ocean. Probably only about a kilometre over land. Theoretically speaking. In all honesty, it seems to me that the massive transmission ranges on drones are good for just two things - for farmers checking on their cattle and for gadget-heads making range videos on YouTube.
So the Mavic's got improved range most people can't legally use and better colours nobody will notice, what else is there?
Well, it can shoot 4K at 120fps. This is a nice feature for sure and definitely useful for filming action stuff like surfing or moody b-roll footage. My Mavic 2 Pro can do 4k at 30fps, 2.7k at 60fps and 1080p at 120fps all in 10-bit. And you know what - the only video mode I've ever used on my drone is 4k at 24fps. I dare say I'm not alone in that regard either - slow motion's great for producing wank-tastic marketing footage for drones - and maybe for rap videos - but other than that I suspect most people just shoot at 24, 25 or 30. While we're on the subject, that DJI fan-favourite - the Mavic Air 2S can do 5.4K at 30 fps, 4K Ultra at 60 fps, 2.7K at 60 fps or 1080 at 120 fps also in 10-bit which seems like a much more compelling package to me. If, and I hope I'm not tempting fate by saying this, my Mavic 2 ended up at the bottom of the Pacific and I got an insurance pay-out the Air 2s is undoubtedly what I'd get in preference to the Mavic 3.
So I guess in terms of video modes, it's a nice incremental upgrade, but not the sort of thing that's going to get me waving wads of cash in front of Mr DJI's face screaming SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!
Then there's that zoom lens and if anything ever screamed - unfinished bodge job - this is it. I have to assume that the engineers at DJI ran into technical difficulties they couldn't resolve before the Mavic 3's hard release deadline rolled around. The footage produced on that weird little second camera is awful at anything other than the default optical 7x zoom and you have no control over the camera beyond some basic exposure tweaks. Oh and in picture mode, it only shoots JPEGs, not RAWs.
You have to hand it to DJI though - turning their obvious development failure into a feature and christening their unfinished zoom camera 'Explorer Mode' is a fabulous bit of creative marketing. It's a bit like if GoPro had called the catastrophic mid-air failures of their Karma drones 'Sudden Descent Mode'.
What else is new on the Mavic 3? Well, there's a greatly improved collision detection system, APAS 5 which, ermm, won't be available until some time in 2022 when DJI release a firmware update. Oh and all of the Quickshots and Mastershots - those gimmicky modes that only seem to get used by travel influencers on holiday in Bali - those are missing too until the firmware update. So I guess the software engineers stuffed up as badly as the hardware engineers. Don't suppose there are going to be too many Christmas bonuses floating around Shenzhen this year. But if ever a product reeked of 'unfinished' and 'rushed to market' the Mavic 3 is it.
Like the Mavic 2, the Mavic 3 comes in two flavours - your basic model and the Cine version. The basic model is $600 more expensive than the Mavic 2 here in Australia at $3100 or $4200 for the Fly More combo which comes with two spare batteries and a backpack you'll probably never use. And the Cine version is an eye-watering $7200 here in Oz.
So let's talk about that Cine version. In terms of drone hardware the one and only difference is internal storage capacity. On the basic version you get 8Gb and on the Cine you get 1Tb - that's it for the hardware - no improved cameras, no larger batteries, just a larger internal SSD. The Cine package does come with the swanky RC Pro remote controller which has a lovely bright 1000nits display. Which sounds great, but it's bloody expensive value-added feature. Most people use their smartphone with their drone controller and so by way of comparison my iPhone 12 Pro's display is 800nits, the new iPhone 13 display maxes out at 1200nits and the Galaxy S21 goes all the way up to 1500nits, so screen brightness isn't a huge advantage even if convenience is. All of which brings us around to the last point of difference between the basic and Cine packages, which is ProRes 422.
Now if you're not someone who shoots a lot of video with mid to high-end camera equipment you might not have heard of ProRes. It's a video codec, like MP4, H264 or HEVC, and it was developed by Apple for use with their video editing software. It's been widely adopted by camera manufacturers all over the world and is a high quality, lossy video compression format. ProRes comes in various flavours with varying degrees of compression, and bit rates and therefore quality. ProRes 422 is the most commonly used variant and this comes in vanilla 422, 422HQ, 422LT and 422Proxy flavours. The version that DJI decided to endow the Mavic 3 Cine with is the highest quality variant - 422HQ.
The problem is that 422HQ produces massive video files and that is why DJI had to stick a 1Tb SSD inside the drone - SD cards are not fast enough to cope. So it's not like they sat around at a planning meeting and made the measured decision to stick a shit-tonne of internal memory in the Mavic 3 Cine - they did so only because of the honking great video files that 422HQ produces.
The use of 422HQ is an interesting choice, particularly since DJI decided to only offer 422HQ. If you're charging $4000 more than the base model for a glorified controller then I don't think it's unreasonable to include standard 422 or the more compressed 422LT formats particularly since they're marketing this Mavic as a tool for professionals. Why not give people the choice?
In reality the big upgrade to the DJI consumer drone range's video system came with the transition from 8-bit to 10-bit. 8-bit gives you millions of colours and 10-bit gives you billions. And you get 10-bit video in the Mavic 2 Pro (but not the 2 Zoom), the Air 2 and the Air 2S. The Mavic 2 Pro has a honking great 1" sensor in it, as does the Air 2s. I know we're talking about the Mavic range here, but the Phantom 4 Pro has an ultra 4K mode and shoots in 10-bit at 100Mb/s.
The thing is - as I pointed out earlier - most people will not have a clue that you shot your footage in ProRes422 on your Mavic 3 Cine, or in 10-bit D-Log H265 on your Mavic 2 Pro or indeed in good old 8-bit MP4 on a Phantom 3 Pro.
Are you shooting wildlife specials for the BBC Natural History unit? No? Then you probably don't need ProRes422HQ.
I sell b-roll video footage as a side-hustle and 8 of my 10 most popular video clips were shot on my old Phantom 4. In fact there's a bit of footage I shot on my Phantom 4 at nearby Jervis Bay which has been used by the National Geographic and Travel channels, Channel 10 (here in Australia), Tourism Australia, Visit NSW and countless other companies and agencies. It's a 4K clip and I didn't even shoot in log format because the P4 didn't have log - it uses DJI's own Cinematic format.
The new Mavic does have some other improvements such as a supposedly improved vision system. Clearly they are trying to take away Skydio's single point of difference which is AI based computed collision detection. How successful they've been in that regard nobody knows because as we know, the new APAS 5 isn't coming out for a few months.
And how important is collision detection anyway? I don't know. I can only tell you that I've never flown any of my drones into anything. What I do - and feel free to use this technique yourself, is - I look at the drone in the sky or on the screen in the controller and (this is the clever bit) if there's something in the way, then I fly around or over that thing - rather than into it. Try it yourself - it works every time.
The seven grand price tag of the Cine version puts it firmly in pro territory and not far short of DJI's Inspire 2 with a Zenmuse X5S on it. Admittedly the Mavic 3's a much more portable package, but we're talking about professional film-makers here and portability is usually not their main consideration. Given the choice between a Mavic 3 with its shonky zoom lens and an Inspire 2 with a Zenmuse camera on it, complete with interchangeable lens system, 5.2K CinemaDNG RAW, Apple ProRes, a dual battery system and a master/slave controller setup for separate pilot and camera operator - I know which I'd go for.
So are you thinking of upgrading your drone to the new Mavic 3? Did you win on the scratchies or something? Are you afflicted with a terminal case of gear acquisition syndrome? I think the Mavic 3 looks like a fine and lovely drone - of that there is no doubt. But even if I was buying a drone for the first time then I'd still probably opt for the Air 2s. And as for upgrading, I have seen nothing that offers a really compelling reason to upgrade from a Mavic 2 Pro, Air 2, Air 2S or from the Phantom 4 Pro for that matter. Not hardware, not firmware and certainly not price tag. Let's revisit this subject next year when the Air 3 comes out!