September 1, 2023
Change has been great
My journey in photography has closely coincided with my adventures. I picked up my first "real" camera - a Canon 80D - on a whim a year or two before I started exploring, but I never used it until I went on that first trip with a bunch of guys I now call good friends.
At the time, I assured them that my Google Pixel (yeah, the very first version) was just as good as their DSLRs, if not better. Its lack of zoom was a benefit as it required more attention to framing the shot, turning me into a better photographer.
Not four seconds after The De-Tour - when I started processing the photos - I realized two things: (1) just how wrong I was and (2) I'd just picked up two expensive hobbies.
The Canon 80D was a great camera, but I eventually ran it over with the Tacoma, necessitating an evolution in my camera gear. Since then, I've been shooting with a Canon R6, a fantastic system that I've enjoyed immensely.
Probably doesn't work anymore.
I hate change
There's no denying it - I'm getting older. Sure, there are the little things - injuries take a bit longer to heal, there's more than a bit of gray hair on my body, and I find myself saying things like, "I remember when candy bars used to cost 45¢." But surely the biggest indicator of my age is my resistance to change - a trait that I've called my own since I was twelve.
Anyway, I'm that guy who is constantly looking to fix things that are broken. To make things I've come to love last just a little longer. I'm the guy who found my favorite pants in 1999 and bought enough to last a lifetime. Seriously though, I love my pants. And I've done the same with shorts. And sunglasses. And I should probably stop typing now.
I'm also the guy who keeps writing down stories and publishing "still videos," when everyone else has moved on to InstaTube and TokTics. The guy who goes "car camping" in a vehicle older than his kid. The guy who hasn't tried to score sponsorships to enjoy the outdoors. I can assure you, @mini.turbodb thinks I'm crazy. And old. She assures me that "#" is pronounced "hashtag" and not "pound sign."
It's strange really, given how much I've ended up enjoying the changes that have been forced on me in the photography department.
Obviously, I can change. And I'm here to prove that by taking my photography to a whole new level. Literally.
Waiting for change means no change at all
For a long time, I've wanted a drone. Sort of. I've always liked the idea of flying one - sort of like an adult remote controlled car - but I've also kept my distance given my desire to live life rather than edit videos all day.
Because seriously, processing photos and writing stories takes time, but videos... those take forever.
Anyway, the first drones - the DJI Mavic ones - they were just too big and too expensive, so I never really felt like I was missing anything. Lots of other people probably felt the same way, and eventually the DJI Mini series were released. Those minis were cool - I could see taking one on a hike for some #epic #instalander #pound-sign shots - but I convinced myself that the flight times (around 15-20 minutes), and the relatively small camera sensors, would make them more trouble than they were really worth.
Then, the DJI Air2S came out. As a medium sized drone, it had a bit better battery life and would definitely be more stable in windy conditions than its tiny brethren, but most importantly, it had a great - for the time - camera sensor. I was intrigued for a minute, but life got in the way and nine months later I figured that the Air 2S was last years tech and I'd better just wait for its replacement. Ahh, sweet lack of change.
Turns out that there was no replacement "right around the corner," and it took more than two years for DJI to replace the Air 2S with the DJI Air 3. And when they did, I wasn't as jazzed as I thought I would be.
Yay, no change?
This thing shoots pictures, right?
The thing I liked most about the Air 2S was the large - 1 inch - CMOS sensor capable of shooting 20-megapixel photos. That was unheard of on drones in that size/price range, and I was sure that the successor would be even better - perhaps sporting a micro four thirds sensor at 24-megapixels or more.
The Air 3 however went another route. Rather than increasing the sensor size, it decreased the size of the sensor to 1/1.3 but added a second sensor and lens, sporting the ability to shoot both 24mm and 70mm shots, the latter allowing for fantastic background compression rather than the usual "wide angle" that drones are known for.
Ultimately, that optical zoom - along with two additional years of hardware and software improvements - were enough for me to look at the output of the Air 3 next to the Air 2S and decided that yep, it was time for change!
Look, it hovers!
After picking up the DJI Air 3 Fly More Kit with the RC-2 Controller, I promptly left it in the box for two weeks so I could "life." This turned out to be a great thing, because in that time I was able to talk to the only other person I know who has a drone - Mike @mk5 - and after drooling over the specs of this flying camera, he shared this sage advice:
I forget what it's called, but it's essentially an insurance program where you can send in your crashed and mangled drone for replacement at little or no cost, within the first year or two. I recommend this not because I think you'll destroy your drone, but because I want you to be able to fly it without being terrified of destroying it.
Buy the insurance, then fly it like it's insured. You'll get better shots.
Turns out, this "DJI Care Refresh" is only available within the first 48 hours of powering up your little beast, so by postponing the maiden voyage, I could be sure to fly it like I stole it. Or something.
Insurance in hand, I attached the propellers, charged the batteries, and pressed the button for takeoff. Even knowing that there was nothing to worry about - even if something went horribly wrong - it was terrifying. Of course, nothing went wrong, and three minutes later - with the battery at 93% full - I was landing again. I'd taken two photos.
My first photo. Our backyard.
Our front yard. This guy can really think outside the box.
Frankly, I was pretty happy with my first flight. The perspective was completely new and different, and while I had no idea what I was doing, I was relieved at how well the "Return to Home" functionality worked. Even if it just returned from the front yard to the back.
Having not flown the drone much at all - I've now putzed around the neighborhood a bit, constantly nervous that I can't see my expensive little toy as it navigates the airways - I figured it would be good to share my first impressions, since I'll never have them again. Already there are things I love, things I don't really care about, and things I wish were different. I'm sure there will be more as time goes on.
- The controller is great. I really like the RC-2 controller, with the screen built-in, rather than the controllers that use a phone as a screen. There are a few reasons for this so far - I don't have to worry about my phone battery being charged, I don't have to worry about dropping my phone, and I feel like the entire controller just "feels better" - but I'm sure I'll come up with even more reasons in the future.
- Battery life. Naturally, the drone doesn't stay airborne for the full 46 minutes that's advertised, but I've already had it up in the air for 30 minutes at one go, and had a few minutes remaining on the battery as it alerted me to critically low battery levels and a need to return to home immediately. That 30 minutes was a long time to be airborne, so right now it feels pretty awesome.
- Return to Home. This is a lifesaver feature for those of us who have no idea what they are doing. It's super cool to press a button and watch as the drone beelines it for home and then lands perfectly in the spot from which it ascended.
- The 70mm lens. I was really worried about not liking the cameras, since the sensor was smaller. However, the 70mm lens - effectively a 3x optical zoom when compared to the normal 24mm lens - is amazing. While I don't yet have enough experience to really have an opinion on RAW file quality, the compositions it enables are fabulous, and it's likely to be my main mode of shooting.
I thought two lenses was going to be a gimmick, but I really like the 70mm.
Whatever / Not sure yet
- OMG, there is so much to learn about how to fly. I have no idea how to use 80% of the controls at this point.
- How long it takes batteries to charge. On the one hand, battery life is awesome, but I initially tried to charge the batteries with a standard USB charger - something in the 10W range - and it took a day to charge a single battery. I've now purchased a high-power charger which seems a lot better, so I'll see if this problem is resolved.
- The noise. I knew the Air 3 wouldn't be quiet, but it is louder than I expected. There's no sneaking up on wildlife or taking candid photos from a distance. I'm not sure if I won't care about this over time, or if I'll feel like it's always intruding on the landscape.
- Photo quality. I just haven't done enough photo processing to know what I think here yet. Initial impressions are that the photos are great if you don't zoom in too much, but as a device that's hovering and vibrating, things aren't super-sharp when you get down to the pixels.
- Video anything. I have nothing more to say about this, due to #1.
- The size of the Air 3 itself. At 720g, it's definitely not small. (What the #$@% even is a gram? if we're not talking about illegal street drugs then #$@% grams.) Whatever, let's call it a fat pound-and-a-half with a battery installed. Add the remote and another battery and we're pushing 3 lbs. Not light - about the same as carrying around a second Canon R-series body and large lens.
I'm going to need a new fanny pack to cart this thing along on hikes.
Each of these are the size of a 16oz bottle of soda, but heavier.
- The propellers when the Air 3 is folded up for storage. The propellers sort of flop around (they don't store nicely) when the drone is folded up and I feel like I'm more likely to break them in this state than when I'm flying. Unless I'm flying like I bought the insurance.
- The range. I know I'm in the city and so there's probably lots of interference, but it seems that I can only get about a mile away from our house before I hit the limits of communication. Obviously I wasn't going to get the 12-miles (20km) that were advertised in a situation like this, but I sure hope the range is better when I get out and about with the drone.
Where to from here?
If there's one thing I'm sure about with this new toy, it's that I have a lot to learn. Frankly, it feels much more complicated than learning how to shoot with a real camera instead of my cell phone, but it's probably similar.
I've never been one for playing modern video games - so the two-stick setup of the controller is very foreign to me. Making sure the drone is flying the correct direction (which is up and down and forward and back and side-to-side, while simultaneously rotating the gimbal to point at the subject, all while making sure I'm not about to hit anything or go out of range is daunting to say the least. But hey, thanks to Mike, I bought the insurance!
So, stay tuned. I'll surely have more thoughts as I put this thing through its paces.
Thoughts on the DJI Air 3 Drone