Initial Thoughts on the DJI Mavic Pro—Our First Drone

We’ve been saving a long time to buy a drone. We finally got one, the DJI Mavic Pro. If you read the interwebs, it feels like everyone agrees this is the drone to own for most people. This is our first drone. I thought flying would be hard (it wasn’t). I thought the camera would operate like most other consumer cameras (like an iPhone or GoPro—it doesn’t). Here are things that have stood out to me while learning how to operate the drone.

Easy to fly

As I prepped for the first flight, I was really worried about crashing the drone. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to fly and control. If you’re careful, it seems like crashes should be easily avoided.

This video shows my first experience using the drone. The maiden flight was in the mountains (American Fork Canyon, Utah). I was able to use Active Track flight mode to follow our Jeep, and manual control to capture some other shots. The movements are a bit rough, but overall not bad for a first attempt.

After a bit of practice, I’ve been able to pull off some cool movements using manual controls. The shots of Corona Arch in the video above were fully automatic. At this point, I still had less than 5 hours total flight time logged when I did these shots.

Flight modes

I wasn’t prepared for all the different flight modes offered with the drone. The in-app controls aren’t incredibly helpful or descriptive, so I had to turn to Youtube to figure out what they are all used for.

So far, besides manual control I use the Active Track mode the most, which has the drone follow a subject. I’ve used it successfully to track the Jeep several times. I still haven’t figured out the optimal following distance to use so it doesn’t lose the subject.

I’ve also used Tripod mode and Cinematic mode a few times. Tripod mode slows everything down to make it easy to create nice, slow shots. Cinematic mode allows near full speeds but smooths everything out, so you can’t have abrupt stops and movements.

But, for the most part, I just use the manual flight modes (unless I’m driving the Jeep).

Robust software

I’ve been very impressed with the DJI iOS app. I suppose this should be expected for an app used to fly a drone, but nonetheless, it’s impressive. They do a great job with presenting helpful flight information, and allowing for configuration of the drone. Well done.

Fly home setting

The drone has the ability to set a home location, which it can return to automatically. I’ve never used it. It makes me nervous, especially when I’m flying around trees, hills, or anything else which the drone might decide to fly into. Also, since I’m often part of the (moving) subject being recorded, I don’t want the drone to return to home, but to my new location. Maybe I’ll use it one day but, for now, I fly the drone in manually.

Form factor

The size of this drone is remarkable. I had a professional video camera in high school that was larger and heavier than the Mavic. It’s light but doesn’t feel cheep.

It’s remarkable how easy it is to pack the drone around. I bought a hard case for the drone and controller that are just bigger than each device. It’s easy to throw them in my backpack, or under the seat of our Jeep.

I feel like setting up the controller is a bit cumbersome, only because I don’t want to leave my phone in the controller all the time. Getting it in is a bit of a wrestling match. I did purchase a holder that would let me use an iPad in the controller, but so far the portability of using the phone has won out.

Image settings—This is no point and shoot camera

I was expecting the drone to behave similarly to a point/shoot device. It technically can be used that way, but the results are mediocre at best. The drone also has strange behaviors in auto mode. The auto exposure is wacky, and the white balance will change at random times. In addition, the image is uninspiring. I didn’t play with every color profile, but I discovered online that the photographers with the best results don’t use any of the special color profiles.

This is a professional tool. In order to get decent results, you have to shoot full manual. This means setting the shutter speed, ISO, and white balance to all be manual (there is no aperture setting—it has a fixed aperture, which I also didn’t realize). I leave a histogram visible on the screen so I can quickly make exposure adjustments on the fly.

In addition, the best results come from shooting in D-log mode, which is a very flat, grey shooting mode. This mode is intentionally drab, and intended to make color correction and color grading more successful. After shooting in D-log and doing some color correction, the resulting images are fantastic. However, I didn’t anticipate needing to add color correction to my workflow.

Shutter speed and ND filters

I’ve learned the ideal shutter speed for 30fps video is 1/60. The primary reason is that this optimizes the amount of motion blur in your images. You may be asking, “Why do I want blurry video?” The reason is that our eyes see motion with blur, and this shutter speed/frame rate combo is close to how our eye sees things. If a video is too sharp (not enough motion blur) the video looks sort of…jumpy. Check out this video to see the difference. So, for this reason, videographers aim for a longer shutter speed than photographers. In photography, you often use a faster shutter speed to increase the chance of a sharp image.

The problem with the drone is that the aperture is fixed. This limits the options you have for controlling exposure. You want to set your shutter speed to be 1/60, but you can’t adjust the aperture to compensate for the additional light. You can change ISO, but on a sunny day, the lowest ISO setting won’t do enough.

So, it seems that everyone uses ND filters on their drone. These are little attachments that you stick on the drone lens to darken the image. This allows you to correctly expose shots at or near the ideal shutter speed.

It’s so awesome.

Having drone footage is so awesome. By no means am I an expert yet, but I’ve been able to capture some shots I’m very happy with.