The Case For Not Upgrading Your Current Drone

Published: August 8, 2022
There's an itch that all photographers are familiar with, that no cream can fix. It's not due to inadequate personal hygiene, risky sex with an exotic individual you just met down at the docks, or an unfortunate allergic reaction to a new brand of washing powder. It's upgradeitis and I'm here to tell you that there is no simple cure.

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.

It Was a More Innocent Time

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.

phantom 3 drone

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.

Turn Off Auto White Balance

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.

Get Off Auto

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.

Keep it Clean

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.

Buy Some Filters

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.

Seize the Day

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.

Work with the Wind

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.

Use Different Apps

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.

Fix it in post

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.

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
© 2021 Andy Hutchinson