This is the first post of a serie of tutorials to help you make great quality videos and cinematic imagery with your DJI Phantom 3 or DJI Phantom 4.
In this serie, we will not go into « how to use your DJI Phantom », but we will only talk about « how to make great videos », and how to get real cinematic look with your DJI Phantom footage.
First part : Camera settings – the basics
There are some basic rules and principles to apply to get the best cinematic look to your drone videos. The camera inside your DJI Phantom works like any other camera, and uses the sames photography rules that every camera use. So the first step to produce great looking cinematic images with your drone is to understand the basics principles of how the camera works, and to apply these simple basic principles when you take the shots.
One of the first thing to understand is that it is really important to take the cleanest and best image possible, right out of the camera. We will see in another article that you can modify your footage in postproduction, to improve it, and we will see how to do it. But the videos you are going to take with your DJI phantom 3 or phantom 4 are compressed (with the h.264 codec), and your phantom will deliver a 8 bits compressed video. That means that you cannot do many changes in postproduction to the image, without altering the image quality. This is due do the low compression bitrate (40 mbps to 60 mbps), and the 8 bit codec. On 8 bits compressed footage, the more you will modify in postproduction, to an extent, the more quality you will loose in your image. That’s why you need to keep in mind the importance of having your footage « shot right », that means with the correct exposure, the correct white balance, and in the correct format. If your video is « the best it can be » right out of the camera, then the change you will make in postproduction will enhance the quality of the video. If your footage is somehow messed up, due to bad camera settings, then the changes you will make in post could enhance a little bit the final image, but you will loose a lot in term of quality.
So let’s go through the camera settings.
The first setting you want to choose is your image resolution. To go right to the point :
DJI Phantom 3 standard & DJI Phantom 3 advanced : you want to shoot in 1080p. The 2,7K resolution with the Phantom 3 advanced is not really good, and you will loose more details and image quality that anything else.
DJI Phantom 4 : choose one of the 4K resolution. It will give a crisp images, with many details. That is what is needed to shoot landscapes.
Frames per second : to obtain a true cinematic look and feel, you want to shoot in 24 frames per second. This is the film standard, this is the more natural motion that is close to our human eyes. Either choose 24p or 30p. Now, if you want to do slow motion, you can use 60p or 120p with the Phantom 4.
First of all, the aperture of the lens is one of the factor that will determine how much light is hitting the sensor. The more light comes in, the more « bright » your image will be. With the DJI Phantom 3 and DJI Phantom 4, the camera has a fixed aperture of f/2.8, so you cannot change this. The aperture is fixed, and thus is not a setting we can modify. Now, knowing the aperture number can be important when choosing the right ND filter, and you that you want to refer to charts. We will see that later.
The ISO setting is the « sensitivity to light » setting of your sensor. The more your ISO is high, the more light sensitive your sensor will be when shooting your video. It is another factor that helps you set your exposure right, alonside with the aperture and the shutter speed. By increasing the ISO number, you will be able to get a correctly exposed image, even when there is not a lot of ambient light, like after the sunset for instance. Most of the time, in daytime, you will want to stay as 100 ISO, because that’s the ISO value where the image will look the best, and where it will have less noise. The more you go up into higher ISO numbers, the more your image will loose quality. Personnaly, i suggest never go up more than 400 ISO if you want to have a nice image quality. Now if you really need to shoot at night, cranking up your ISO might be the only way to still see something. But remember, this is not a low light camera. If you want to obtain high quality imagery, and cinematic footage, you should avoid to shoot at night with the Phantom 3 or Phantom 4.
The shutter speed is another factor that determines how much light will come hit your sensor. Here we can modify it. Without going deep into what does the shutter speed mean, you need to know that it will directly affect the « look and feel » of your video footage. A high shutter speed will make your footage looks very « fluid », it will give a « video feeling », and not a cinematic feeling. To get a video footage that looks like hollywood movies, you need to understand that an important element of film look is what we call the « motion blur« . If you wave your hand very fast in front of your eyes, you will see that the movement of your hand is « blured ». This is the motion blur. Film directors want their movies to look as natural as it can be to the human eyes, and thus try to reproduce this natural « visual motion blur » when shooting a movie with a camera.
To obtain that look, there is rule, called « the 180 degree shutter speed rule« . To read more about it, you can go the red.com website, they have a good article here. We will not get into details here, but to sum it up : you need to set your shutter speed to the double (or very close) of your « frames per seconds » video format setting.
If you shoot at 24 fps, you will set your shutter speed to 1/50. If you shoot to 30 fps, your shutter speed should be 1/60. If you shoot for slow motion at 60 fps, then your shutter speed will be 1/120 to obtain this cinematic motion blur.
Now there is a downside shooting at a slow shutter speed (1/50 is called a slow shutter speed) : it will let more light coming on your sensor, so your image will be very bright, and probably over exposed if you shoot during day time. That is why every professional add some new piece of equipement on the lens of the DJI Phantom camera when shooting in day exterior : a neutral density filter.
A « ND filter », or neutral density filter, is a must-have if you want to obtain cinematic, movie-like footage with your drone. It’s the « secret sauce » every pro cinematographer use. On every hollywood movie, you will see some ND filter set on the camera lens when shooting exterior in day time. The filter will allow you to reduce the amount of light coming into the sensor, and thus allowing you to use the slow shutter speeds that give the cinematic look in movies. In other words, it will bring down the exposure, to compensate the slow shutter speeds. If you want to obtain a real film look with your Phantom, you will need a ND filter. Don’t try to spend hours tweaking your camera settings or filming techniques, or color grading your footage in postproduction without an ND filter, this will not work. The result will not be there at all.
So their are a few different options you have to buy and use a ND filter. Polar pro is a good brand that make and sell ND filter for DJI Phantom. This set of 6 ND filter « Pro » on amazon, is a really good way to start. You can as well buy only one filter. If so, i would recommand buying a ND16 if you plan to shoot in bright sunny day light most of the time, or a ND8 if you plan to shoot when it’s cloudy essentially.
I will explain in another full article the differences between the filters, and how to choose the right one.
Once you have set your exposure correctly with the ISO, shutter speed, and with the correct ND filter, you want to make sure you white balance is set correctly. Many times, you can leave it on « Auto white balance », and this will be good. But there are times when the auto white balance will not be able to render correct colors, like during a sunset for instance, where the white balance of your image will change if you face the sunset, of if you shoot in the opposite direction. Be sure to set your WB correctly, because you won’t be able to correct it very well in post, without altering the whole spectrum of colors and degrading image quality. Remember, you video will be 8 bits, and won’t give you a lot of lattitude to change colors in post.
A final word on the bitrate. All the Phantom series have a low bitrate. 40 mbps for all the Phantoms at 1080p, and 60 mbps for at a 4K resolution. This is not very high. That means that pretty often, all the information that is captured by the sensor will not be in your images. Some details in the shadows for instance will be crushed, and some details when moving fast will be crushed as well. You need to live with it, and we will see in another article how to get the best out of the DJI Phantom 3 and 4 regarding this bitrate limitation. But rest assured, even if the encoding bitrate is rather low for professionnal quality footage, it’s still very good, and will still allow you to make stunning cinematic footage, when done right.
In the next article, we will be talking about picture style, and why you should shoot using the D-LOG picture profile.
And keep tuned for the next coming articles, in the days to come, we will discuss:
- Why you should soot using D-LOG, well, most of the time
- Everything about ND filters, with deep testing of the Polar Pro ND Cinema serie filters
- The basic drone shots and drone moves that are used in Hollywood movies, and why those are used
- An introduction to the basic post production process : hardware, software, workflow
- Color grade your drone footage like a pro, and make it outstanding with a few simple steps
- Sharing your footage in very high definition : how to post your video on facebook, youtube, instagram so it will look as good as like the last Marvel trailer
- Advanced : advanced flying techniques to shoot outstanding cinematic footage.
- Advanced : understanding the power of natural light in landscape shooting, and how to use it to get that cinematic look
- Advanced : Dji Go functions, Litchi and Autopilot, your way to stunning cinematic shooting
- Advanced : advanced color grading techniques for aerial footage on Premiere Pro, Final Cut X and Davinci Resolve
If you have any question, please post in the comments.
Thanks for reading !
Below you can check this music video. All the aerial shots were done with a DJI Phantom 3 professionnal.