A few years ago, I watched movies like everybody else – just enjoying them. But this changed when I started to create my own family videos. My mindset shifted. I was still enjoying the movie but I was thinking much more about things which I wouldn’t before.
I thought about every scene – what filming angle did they use and why? What effect did it have on me? How a director created the right atmosphere or emotional moment in the film?
With these thoughts, I got an inspiration and tried these filming angles in my family videos. But of course, it is different when I shoot just a family video with zero budget. I have to be creative because I do not own the most expensive gear or team who would work with me. But I knew that some filming angles were simply out of the limits.
I dreamed about aerial shots which were often used in the movies, for example, for introducing a new location or following a hero from the air. I asked myself questions: did they use a helicopter, a crane or something like that? That must be super expensive… And there is no way how I could ever make these shots with my current gear and limited budget.
This has changed recently when consumer drones started to appear. These drones are more and more targeted to regular people, not only enthusiastic pilots.
Do you remember how excited I was when GoPro launched the sales of their first drone Karma? Well, the reality wasn’t that impressive at all. This drone was recalled after it started to fall off the sky and later again relaunched to the market. But it still lacks the necessary features to consider it as a good drone for family video. Hovering in space is unstable, the drone cannot avoid obstacles automatically and doesn’t have any automatic flying modes. And it is still too big. Even though GoPro advertises that it is foldable it fills the whole backpack and no space is left for other items. Useless for family hikes.
A few days after the GoPro’s launch, DJI company brought new drone Mavic Pro to the market. DJI is not a newbie in this industry. They actually produced several generations of drones over the years. DJI drones are popular among professional filmmakers and hobby video makers as well.
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It looked promising – the drone should have the features I needed. Small enough to pack it for a family hike and allowing to fly automatically without crashing into obstacles. But I was still quite hesitant. The price was high – $1000 for a drone and remote controller. I was wondering if it is really worth it only for purpose of family video.
When I told my husband, he liked the features as well but when I revealed the price his eyes significantly widened.
What? Isn’t it too much just for a toy?
Well, he didn’t actually ask that question, but I could see it in his eyes.
We were discussing and thinking about it for a few months. I was watching many videos on YouTube and reading detailed reviews. I didn’t want just a toy or become a drone pilot, I wanted to have endless options of filming angles and shoot better home video. Move it to the next level.
I couldn’t find any comparable drone so the decision was made. I bought my first drone – DJI Mavic Pro.
Was it worth it? This is NOT a classic Mavic Pro review, you can find thousands of these on the internet. Let’s look at this drone from a family point of view.
You got the idea, let’s dig deeper now…
The Size Matters
The size was one of the main factors simply because I couldn’t take a big drone to our family trips. We still carry a lot of baby stuff and sometimes even kids when they don’t want to walk. Mavic Pro is foldable to a compact size and leaves plenty of space for other things in a backpack. Perfect for family needs.
I bought a 2-parts hard shell case for it. The first piece accommodates the drone…
… and the second protects the remote controller.
The advantage is that both items could be stored separately in the backpack and don’t fill one bigger space.
As you have seen in my video above, I used a helipad (also foldable to a compact size) for taking off and landing. Here comes the first con of Mavic Pro. It is so small that also “the legs” of the drone are small. When taking off from an even solid surface like a concrete there is no problem at all. But on the grass, Mavic might start to beep and its rotating propellers basically serve as a lawn mover. Not good for the drone. That’s why I bought this helipad and take it everywhere – this eliminates the problem.
Autonomous Flight Modes
When having an adventure with my family it is hard to focus on something else, like flying a drone. Imagine, that you drive a car and at the same time operate a camera and talk with your kids. Plus you have 3-dimensional space when flying, instead just 2 dimensions. Very difficult right?
Professional drone pilots, who practice very often, might be able to fly and operate the camera manually at the same time. But I have heard that even these professionals often divide the job. One person is flying the drone and the other one is operating the camera. This is far beyond filming family video. I needed something much easier.
That’s why autonomous flight modes are very handy. How does it work?
At first, I choose a specific autonomous mode (there are several modes for different purposes). Then, I select an object on the screen of my smartphone which I want to follow. And that’s it, the drone starts to move when the object moves.
One of the automatic modes allows tracking the object when the drone goes sideways.
Here is another example – we walked and the drone automatically followed us from behind.
It practically works for the shots made from any height or angle. Options are endless.
As you have seen in my video above, I was running and doing wild turns and the drone blindly followed me, like a faithful dog. The best thing about these examples mentioned above is that I didn’t have to control neither the drone nor the camera. Everything was done completely automatically, without my interaction. However, I kept my hands on the remote controller, just in case (read below).
Some of the autonomous modes allow to partially operate the drone or the camera if you want. This is more advanced because the movements must be as smooth as possible. Otherwise, the shot is ruined.
One of the nice looking shots is placing a hero and action in the middle and letting the drone rotate around. I push one stick of the remote controller and regulate drone’s speed only. The drone automatically moves around in the circle and keep the direction of the camera pointed to the object. This shot is very hard to perform manually. I tried many times and it never looked as smooth as with using automatic mode. And of course, I couldn’t keep the family in the middle of the frame during manually performed rotation.
Another advanced shot is flying up (or down) while keeping an object in the middle of the frame. Again, this is very hard to do manually because you would need to move the drone up and at the same time tilt the camera down to keep the object in the frame. With autonomous mode, I select the object and the camera tilts automatically. I have to control only drone moving up or any other direction.
I would summarize these automatic features as a MUST for family video. It is for people who don’t want to practice often and who want to make nice smooth shots the easiest way.
Here comes the but…
You Have to Watch it All the Time!
As I mentioned above, you can easily make shots completely “hands off”. But I strongly recommend to keep your hands on the sticks of your remote controller. Be prepared to act immediately and think ahead about your “escape move”. You have to deal with unexpected situations like a car or a kid going through your flight route. Static obstacles might be a problem too even it has an obstacle avoidance system (details below).
You might think that the drone will fly above all these potential obstacles. But I discovered that action shots with the heroes are best looking from a low height and from a close distance. This becomes dangerous especially when kids are around. I never leave my drone unattended in these situations even when flying with the help of automatic features.
Obstacle Avoidance System
Mavic Pro drone can sense the obstacles and will not crash into them. But the vision sensors are only on the bottom and on the front side and the detection range is limited.
This is especially important to be aware of when flying with automatic modes. You might think that you don’t have to manually operate the drone while it is following you. But if it goes sideways, backwards, around the object or simply flies up it can easily overlook the obstacles and crash. This is the reason why you should be very careful when using automatic modes.
Another thing is that the vision system might not work properly when flying in dark conditions or above surfaces like water. Don’t get a fake feeling of absolute safety!
Endless Filming Angles
This is what I love the most. I have so many options how to shoot one action. Like with a traditional camera – from the hero’s eye level. But also from the top or from several different heights. Moving sideways, backwards, around, from the ground to the top. Alternating these dynamic and static shots. The variety is huge and this makes the family video richer and interesting for the viewer.
I just stand at one place, stare at the drone and display of my smartphone and move a pair of sticks. No jumping around like crazy to get multiple shots from different filming angles.
On the other hand, the drone shouldn’t be considered as a substitute for a traditional camera. You will never get as close to a hero to capture his emotions. It is a bigger challenge to fly that close and in lower height level.
In opposite, you will never be able to make real aerial shots with your DSLR, GoPro or any other handheld camera. I like to use the drone for an opening scene when I want to introduce a location. I find the foreground first – anything related to the location, like a tree, house, car but something that doesn’t say everything right away. This keeps the audience more curious. Then I move around or above this foreground and slowly reveal the bigger picture. Finally, I am able to do these shots which I have seen in the films and dreamed about!
Following of a hero is another shot which beats the one from a handheld camera. The drone has a 3 axis gimbal which means the image is stabilized. If I would follow a running kid it is impossible to keep the image smooth and steady unless I use external stabilizer. The drone makes the image perfectly stable. It even works when you don’t fly. You can just grab a drone by your hands, switch on the camera and run after your kid.
Moving shots are very attractive and when done slowly and smoothly, it looks cinematic. From my experience, the best looking dynamic shots of heroes are from a low height level and from a close distance. But as I already mentioned – you must be extremely careful not to crash into the ground and avoid the crash with a hero.
Some Numbers for Geeks
To make this review complete here I provide a few more technical details:
|video||max 4k @ 30 fps|
|stabilization||3 axis gimbal|
|flight time||27 minutes (depends on conditions: my experience is a little bit less)|
|flight distance||4.3 miles / 7km (note: fly only to the distance where you can still see the drone)|
Laws and Restrictions
Every country has different drone laws and you should check them before buying a drone. You might realize that limitations are so huge that it restricts your flying in most of the situations.
I live in the USA and it is not the worst here so far. For a hobby flying it is not necessary to have a license anymore. But I am really sad that drones are not allowed in US National Parks and most of the state parks in Texas where I live. Even in a regular city park, some authority guy came to me and said they don’t allow drones in that particular park. It might be hard to find a place where you can fly.
Some of the other rules given by FAA in the USA are:
- fly below 400 feet
- never fly near other aircraft
- keep your drone within visual line of sight
- keep away from emergency responders
- never fly over stadiums, sports events or groups of people
- never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- never fly within 5 miles of an airport without first contacting air traffic control and airport authorities
If you want to fly a drone commercially (having any income from the photos / videos or use it for any business), you have to obtain a commercial license. Which means you have to pass an aeronautical knowledge exam (FAA Part 107) and pay the fee $150.
I plan to do this soon so you might read about it here on the blog. Let me know in comments below if you are interested in the details about obtaining the commercial license and earning money with a drone.
Other Drones for Family Video
What else might be considered as a good drone for filming the family video? There are even smaller drones on the market. But I didn’t find any small drone with high-resolution 4K camera, stabilized on 3 axis gimbal, with an automatic following of objects as Mavic Pro. As a long term faithful fan of GoPro, I have to sadly admit, that GoPro’s drone Karma is not close at all.
DJI has just announced their prototype of new drone Spark which is even smaller. As I have seen the first reviews it isn’t foldable. Which means there isn’t a huge size difference between Spark and folded Mavic. Also, the maximum resolution should be only 1080 and image will be stabilized by 2 axis gimbal (i.e. worse than Mavic).
But I am impressed how DJI pushes easiness of controlling the drone and usability by regular people like families. On the launch event in New York, they showed controlling the drone just by gestures of a palm. Also safe taking off and landing directly from and on your palm, controlled by hand gestures, is a step forward. And it will be cheaper – $499 for a drone only, $699 for a drone and remote controller.
But we are still quite far away from a real product used by real people. Let’s wait how this will work in reality. In the past, there were long waiting lines and delays in delivery of Mavic. I expect it will be similar with Spark.
Anyway, I am going to use my Mavic Pro until someone develop a drone with at least the same quality of video and stabilization.
DJI is a Chinese company, manufacturing the top quality drones, probably the best in the world. But what they don’t do well is a customer service. I am really happy that nothing was wrong with my drone yet.
But buying experience wasn’t as I expected. When I ordered my Mavic directly from DJI eshop they promised to deliver it to my door in 3 business days. 5 days passed and nobody contacted me. So I logged into my account and saw that other parts of my order weren’t in stock and they plan to deliver them in 4 weeks! I freaked out because I didn’t care about spare propellers. I just wanted to receive my new drone and take it for our vacation.
I tried to call them. But there is no chance to speak with any live person. They have only automated messages redirecting to a live chat. I chat with multiple people there and nobody was able to confirm that my drone will arrive sooner than spare parts. In addition, it should already be at my home for couple days but their staff wasn’t able to tell me where it is and when it arrives. They only assured me that it will come. Luckily it came two days after it and I was able to take the drone for our vacation and made amazing shots.
I have heard other people describing similar experience with delays and not very good customer service. After my experience (which wasn’t that horrible after all) I just pray I don’t have to deal with them again. From that moment, I order all my spare parts for the drone directly from Amazon. So far everything arrived as promised. And it is better to deal with Amazon customer service if anything doesn’t go according to the plan.
At the end, I summarize my overall experience with this drone as very exciting opportunity to capture our family adventure from a different perspective. Simply, I just love it!
What do you think? Is this for you or would you rather stick with a traditional camera? Let me know in comments below. I wish to know your opinion!
I appreciate you, thanks for reading our blog post. Take care and see you next time!