DJI is now a camera company, and we should probably pay attention
When most people think of DJI, they think of drones – Phantoms, Mavics, and Sparks. Some may also know DJI for camera stabilization systems and gimbals, but it’s fair to say that most people probably think of DJI as a drone company.
Starting this week, DJI is also a camera company.
At an event in Hollywood, the company introduced its new Zenmuse X7 cinema camera, which includes some very impressive features including 6K Raw video. (You can find the full rundown of specs in our news story.) It’s a camera aimed primarily at the high-end motion picture market, but it sheds some light on DJI’s approach to the camera industry.
Part of what makes this interesting is the astounding rate at which DJI has been innovating over the past few years. I’m not suggesting that other companies haven’t innovated, but let's be honest – at times the camera market can feel a little bit predictable.
What sets DJI apart is that it seems to consistently push boundaries to create inventive products, which sometimes even surprise us a bit, as well as the rate at which they appear to be doing it. In fact, at the launch event for the X7 I felt a genuine sense of excitement about the new camera, not just from DJI employees but from those in attendance.
Although the X7 is undeniably aimed at cinematographers, it presents opportunities for photographers as well. It also illustrates that DJI is prepared to make its own imaging products if the company thinks it can build a better mousetrap than what’s currently out there.
A new system
DJI has built aerial systems with cameras for years, such as the Phantom series, and more recently, the Inspire series. Those models historically relied on either small sensor cameras with fixed gimbals, or adopted standards not originally developed for aerial use, such as Micro Four Thirds. (The original Phantom even used a GoPro camera.)
At the very high end of the market, however, photographers and filmmakers have largely been on their own to figure out how to rig pro-level cameras, such as DSLRs or cinema cams, on much larger drones like the S900 or Matrice 600, something that requires long set up times, provides less stability, and results in short flight times.
|The Zenmuse X7 camera was designed specifically for aerial use, with a focus on small size and light weight. The short 16.84mm flange distance of the DL-mount allows lenses to remain small.|
The X7 is primarily designed for this latter group, as well as users of the Inspire 2. By building its own camera, DJI had the freedom to engineer both camera and aircraft as a single, integrated system. The result is a very small Super 35 cinema camera that fits easily on an Inspire 2 drone without compromising the flight characteristics, and which can deliver professional cinema quality output. And, at a price point of $2699, it almost feels like a bargain.
Further, it’s not just a camera that DJI has introduced, but a full system that includes a new lens mount and lenses. The DL-mount has an extremely short 16.84mm flange distance, allowing for impressively small lenses that keep weight to a minimum. The four lenses available at launch are built from lightweight carbon fiber and have no external moving parts for improved durability. It’s a system that DJI can build on for the future.
In a sense, DJI designed the system because it needed to do so in order to continue innovating in other areas.
In my brief hands-on time with the X7 and the new lenses I was impressed with the hardware. It’s remarkably small for what it is. The one thing that caught me off guard was the weight of the lenses; they’re so light that they feel like inexpensive kit lenses. But then you remember that they’re built from carbon fiber in order to be as light as possible and it all makes sense. If the camera and lenses can deliver the level of quality that DJI claims (and indications are that it probably can), the company has a real winner of a product. It's a strong start for a new system.
|The Zenmuse X7 is the first camera in DJI's new system.|
Why should photographers care?
Although the X7 is clearly aimed at the motion picture community, there’s reason for photographers to be excited about DJI's new camera system as well.
All the press coverage describes the camera as having a Super 35 video sensor, which is a standard in the motion picture industry. That’s true, to a degree. It turns out that the X7’s sensor is actually a full APS-C sensor. When shooting video, the camera uses the full width of the sensor but not the full height, resulting in a cinematic aspect ratio.
When shooting photos, however, the camera uses the full area of its 24MP sensor, supports Raw capture in DNG format, and can even shoot continuously at 20fps. The result is that the X7 may be one of the most compelling options for aerial photographers available today. It’s a bit pricey once you include an Inspire 2 drone and a lens or two, but no more so than a Nikon D5 and a couple good lenses. If you’re serious about aerial work it’s inexpensive compared to helicopter time, and much easier to use than a homebrew system assembled from scratch.
|The X7's Super 35 sensor is really an APS-C sized sensor (23.5mm x 15.7mm). When shooting photos the camera captures the sensor's full 24MP resolution and supports Raw image capture.|
What’s probably more important than the X7 camera, however, is that DJI now has its own camera platform, complete with lens mount, around which it can develop additional imaging products, lenses, and accessories. This could include non-aerial tools, such as gimbal-mounted cameras, and maybe even other products the company has up its sleeve. Additionally, users will be able to buy lenses knowing that they won't be obsolete when the next camera is introduced, just as with any other system.
I’m not suggesting that DJI is going to radically shift focus and suddenly start making still cameras, but the company has shown an interest in the photography market, as demonstrated by its stake in Hasselblad. It’s not entirely clear where DJI is headed with this, but I suspect it goes beyond hanging a 100MP Hasselblad H6D off a M600 hexacopter with a Ronin gimbal. However, DJI does have the potential to be a disruptor in the imaging market, and now they have a camera platform with which to do it.
It’s not often that we see the introduction of a completely new camera system, so DJI’s announcement this week is notable. What I find particularly exciting is that DJI has a tendency to introduce and iterate products quickly. It’s also in a unique position of not having a legacy system to support. DJI doesn’t have to worry about ‘the way it’s always been done’, or making sure its lenses work with decades-old products. That won’t be true forever, but for now it gives them the freedom to be very creative in their product design.
|If you're going to launch a new cinema camera, you might as well do it in Hollywood. The Inspire 2 and Zenmuse X7 camera.|
I don’t imagine DJI is going to shift away from its core strength of aerial imaging, but if the company can keep up its current rate of innovation I believe we’re likely to see some very impressive imaging products coming our way, particularly now that it has committed to a full camera system with room to grow. If DJI can disrupt the market in the process, all the power to them.
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