Getting off the ground: Cheap drones for photography
I spent about two and a half weeks with each of the quads, flying them indoors and outdoors, sometimes aggressively and sometimes conservatively, usually with the aim of getting footage but occasionally just to get some flight time. Here's what I learned about each.
The Hubsan X4 could pass for a toy. It costs just $70, including a radio flight controller and a built-in 0.3MP camera that shoots VGA video.
It's the sturdiest and cheapest quad of the bunch, and a good way to get used to using a flight controller. It's small enough to fly indoors, and not big enough to do much damage. It ships with a propeller guard and a spare set of propellers, which will come in handy as it bumps into walls and furniture.
Flying it isn't quite the same as a more expensive quad, either. The main difference is that it doesn't hover on its own, so you need to keep your fingers on the sticks at all time. The throttle is very sensitive, and can send the X4 rocketing 60 to 70 feet in the air in a matter of seconds so it's easy to feel intimidated and to lose control.
No, the X4 isn't a tool for serious aerial work. but it is a cheap, fun, low-risk way to test out the hobby if you aren't ready to commit to a more capable quad and want at least a chance at capturing some birds-eye views.
HeliMax 1SQ V-Cam
The $130 HeliMax 1SQ V-Cam records 720p video, a bit cleaner and smoother than what the X4 can shoot. The camera angle is adjustable (pre-flight, at least), and it takes 1MP stills, which are basically frames plucked out of the video feed. It comes with a 2GB microSDHC card and a reader.
|The HeliMax 1SQ V-Cam, with a broken leg (lower right).|
The 1SQ also improves on handling. The throttle is subtler, making it easier to control - especially to land. Corrective steering still looks violent in the videos, but it's not quite as jarring as the X4. The flight controller has some extra functions, including buttons to trigger video mode, a still-photo shutter button, and a button to make the quad flip, which is pretty awesome.
On the downside, it's more fragile than the X4. Toward the end of the testing period, one of the legs broke while landing crooked on a soft, muddy baseball field. We got a few more flights out of it, but the injury just got worse with each hard landing. A dab of superglue could probably get the thing back in flying condition, but it just didn't hold up like the X4.
Even with its marginally better image quality and smoother flight, you can skip the 1SQ. The footage and photos are still rarely usable (a handful of our videos came back corrupted), and it's prone to damage. The X4 is a better way to learn to fly, regardless of price.
Parrot AR.Drone 2.0
The $300 Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 (we tested the Elite edition) is by far the most capable quad of the group. It hovers in place, which makes it much easier to fly smoothly and, in turn, to capture stable videos and well-framed shots.
|The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0, about 40 to 45 feet in the air.|
The AR.Drone is controlled via smartphone or tablet app over a WiFi signal (as opposed to a typical radio controller). This offers a huge upside, in that the pilot gets a first-person view. It's an immersive flying experience and also makes it easier to steer.
Image quality is much better than the cheaper drones. It's equipped with a 720p front-facing video camera, similar to what a Flip camcorder would've recorded in 2010, as well as a low-res, low-quality ground-facing camera. It also captures stills, which appear to be individual frames pulled from the video feed. Content can either record to the mobile device, or to a thumb drive inside the drone.
Even with its relatively steady flight, capturing smooth video with the Parrot can still be a challenge. The thrum of the motors and propellers is enough to set off a slight rolling-shutter effect when it hovers in place, and a gentle breeze exaggerates it even more. It's at its best when it's moving slowly, capturing panning or tracking clips, rather than trying to hold its position for a steady, head-on shot.
Stills are much easier to shoot than with the cheaper drones, though it's still tough to frame a shot when the camera is bouncing around at the mercy of gravity and air currents. The exposure settings are also completely automated and it only captures JPEG files, so set your expectations accordingly.
The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is fun to fly, and you'll be able to capture satisfactory footage, depending on your needs. It's still not a substitute for a quad like a DJI Phantom II with a gimbal-mounted camera - it doesn't fly as freely, and the image quality is about two cuts below what you see in all those viral videos circulating. But it's a solid place to start, and if you graduate up to a more serious drone, you'll still find some uses for your Parrot.
In short, yes, there's some value in buying a cheap quad before you commit to a more serious drone. You'll learn the basics of flying, which will save you some time and money on repairs to a higher-end drone down the line. You'll also be able to see first-hand how cool it is to put a camera in the air - even if almost all of the footage is too wobbly and low-res to share with anybody but friends and family.
Maybe, just maybe, with lots of editing and patience, you'll be able to get some cool angles on youth or community sports games, or new perspectives on landscapes. Flying cameras have potential uses for many kinds of photography, and with the hobby just getting off the ground (sorry, couldn't resist), we're likely to see innovative photos and videos for months and years to come. And at the very least, it's a lot of fun to get these machines in the air.