Getting off the ground: Cheap drones for photography
It's hard to get good photos or videos
This problem is two-fold. For starters, the cameras on quads are basically a toss-in feature. They have iffy sensors and cheap lenses. The front-facing camera on the Parrot AR.Drone is the best of the bunch, and is comparable to the iPhone 4, released in 2010. It shoots 720p video, though the rolling-shutter 'Jell-o' effect is prevalent. Stills are about 1MP, and appear to be frames plucked from the video feed. As you'd expect from a small sensor, details are soft, colors are muted, and low-light situations prove to be very challenging. Given the wide-angle lens, barrel distortion is obvious in most scenes.
The HeliMax 1SQ V-Cam also captures at 720p, with 1MP stills, though the optics appear to be a bit lower quality. Details are even less defined, colors are desaturated even in good lighting, and chromatic aberration is an issue in many areas of transition.
|A typical still photo, taken with the HeliMax 1SQ V-Cam. The image quality is rough. Since it has no live view monitor framing a decent shot is tough.|
As for the Hubsan X4 - why do they even make such low-quality sensors? It can't capture stills, but expect heinous streaking, obvious color fringing, and brutal artifacts in all your footage.
Stabilization is a major issue. The two small quads, the X4 and 1SQ, cannot hover in place. This means the pilot needs to keep his or her fingers moving because the quad is constantly rising, falling, or drifting. Every little corrective steering input - they happen every few seconds - is like shaking the camera.
The Parrot fares better because it maintains its position mid-air. But the motors and propellers add shake, and when conditions are windy, it shakes even more - from the wind itself, and the corrective maneuvering the quad does on its own.
Most viral aerial clips are filmed by quads with cameras mounted to a gimbal. It's a crucial piece of equipment for truly steady video, but none of the quads in this roundup have a gimbal, and they can't support an add-on gimbal. So shaky video is inevitable. Your best bet with any of the entry-level quads considered here will be to focus on tracking and panning shots, but even then, it's hit or miss. So set your expectations accordingly.
Battery life is measured in minutes, not hours
It takes a ton of power to push back against the unyielding force of gravity - exponentially more than it does to keep an iPhone running for a day, it turns out. A larger battery doesn't necessarily yield more flight time, either, since the added weight offsets some of the gains. Denser batteries are a great solution, but they're expensive. And then there's the simple truth that the folks who design drones don't make actually make the batteries - they generally have to choose from what's available.
So while we wait for battery technology to slowly evolve and trickle down to the hobby-aircraft segment, flight times for quads will remain short. The small quads squeeze 6 or 7 minutes of flight time from their small lithium-polymer batteries, while the Parrot can manage about 17 minutes with its high-capacity 1500mAh LiPo battery. (By comparison, the Phantom 2 gets about 20 minutes of flight time from a fully-charged battery.) It won't hurt to buy some backups.
Some onlookers are curious, others skeptical
Among the friends and neighbors I talked with about drones, a handful brought up the concern that they'd find flying cameras hovering outside their bedroom windows. But anyone who actually saw me flying the quads thought they were pretty cool, and really got a kick out of the birds-eye-view footage of our neighborhood. It's still uncommon to see quads in public (maybe not for long), so be patient and considerate as attitudes develop.
Speaking of people, be safe
We've covered how quads are tough to steer, easy to crash, and might run out of power within a few minutes. Be smart! Don't fly recklessly near people! Don't fly near people, period, if you can avoid it! You'll run out of space faster than you think, so be conservative when there are others around. Use your common sense, and if you don't have any of that, don't fly a quad.