Phantom 3 Professional field test: Western Mongolia on motorcycles

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Riders overlook Lake Tolbo in Western Mongolia ... as shot by the Phantom 3 Professional(Credit: Loz Blain/Gizmag)

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Expansive skies, mind-blowing scenery, a dozen motorcycles to follow and no pesky drone laws to stop us from publishing the video ... Loz spent two weeks in gorgeous Western Mongolia with a Phantom 3 Professional to give it a proper aerial photo and video test – and the results were pretty spectacular.

Technically, I'm an Australian licensed RPA pilot as of June. But due to a treacle-thick layer of bureaucracy at Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority, we need to wait until the end of February before we can legally use any aerial footage in our video or photo pieces.

That is, if the footage was shot in Australia. There's no drone laws at all in Mongolia. Not yet, anyway, so when I had the chance to travel there and film and shoot as a guest of Extreme Bike Tours earlier this month, I threw a DJI Phantom 3 Professional in its hard shell backpack and brought it with me.

Here's the video results:

This was my first decent shoot with the Phantom 3, and I noticed a few things I thought were worth talking about:

– It needs ND filters. Without a variable aperture, when the sunlight gets too bright, the camera shutter speed gets very high, and shadows from the propellers start being noticeable as they fall across the sensor. You'll notice a number of shots in the video above have a horizontal banding effect on them. This can't be fixed in post. Darkening the image with a screw-on ND filter should keep shutter speeds low enough that this kind of banding will disappear, but nothing will cure the bruise I've got from violently face-palming myself for this oversight.

– The usable range of the Phantom 3 is said to be 2 kilometers (1.2 mi). I flew it beyond 3 kilometers away in Mongolia, still with a strong video image back to my phone through Lightbridge. For all I know I could've gone significantly further, but I nearly hit a power line that I didn't see until the last moment and lost my nerve. Impressive!

– The firmware update that activates follow-me mode and circles around a point of interest didn't become available until I was out in the middle of nowhere, so I had to take all these shots manually. You really have to be infintessimally smooth on the controls if you want a shot to feel good. I'm considering editing the gain values on the controller, particularly the yaw control, to try to smooth panning shots out and give me a bit of leeway to be ham-thumbed.

– While video came out pretty well, photos were generally less impressive. Without the benefit of a sun shade or ultra-bright viewing screen, I left the P3 in auto mode for exposure. It tends to expose to save highlights, meaning that the sky often looks great but anything that's not in bright sunlight can be very dark. Some of this can be saved in post if you're shooting RAW, but I lost a lot of other shots where the shadow areas were just too dark and the sensor's dynamic range wasn't broad enough to save it.

– The standard 20 mm equivalent lens does suck in a fair bit of scenery, but at such a wide angle things tend to lose a sense of gravity. Following a motorcycle, you need to be very close, almost dangerously close, to get the thing big enough in the frame. Giant subjects like the Chinggis Khaan statue here and tall buildings like the Blue Sky below come up OK, but smaller subjects are lost in the frame. I can see where an interchangeable lens system would start to make sense.

– The hard shell backpack did a great job of keeping the Phantom in one piece through a bunch of airport and bus transit stages, and still let me get the thing in the air within a few minutes whenever we stopped.

In all, I'm pretty happy with this as an educational first field test. Cure the banding issues with an ND filter and get photography out of auto mode (which I was able to do for the above night shot of Chinggis Khaan Square), and my results should be plenty better next time.

Sadly, my next time is unlikely to be anywhere near as spectacular a location!

Loz travelled as a guest of Extreme Bike Tours. For a full write-up of the trip and a ton more photos, see our Western Mongolia trip review and its huge photo gallery!

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