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Review: DJI Inspire 2 with Zenmuse X5S Camera

The DJI Inspire 2 sets a new bar for drones, and the Zenmuse X5S camera is on par with much pricier models. It might be overkill for live streaming, but combined with the drone and DJI's gimbals, it's well worth the price.

As for the radio link there were only a couple of brown outs (green bars and artifacts), most likely caused by rain fade. The fog was pretty dense and starting to precipitate so we were up against it not only with the 4G signal, but also with the DJI radio/video link from the drone to the controller and phone.

So the entire very quick test provided a few interesting learning experiences, and gave us the result we were looking for, straight out of the box.

The SSD Master Video

Of course, the much more basic Phantom 4 can do exactly what we just did. I have done this a number of times with mine, and I am familiar with this capability.

But where the Inspire differs greatly is in the optimum image quality it is designed to capture. The Phantom 4 uses a standard SD card to record to. The Inspire 2 replaces this with a much higher-grade SSD system (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The SSD system supplied with the DJI Inspire 2

This SSD needs its own external reading device, which is included with the Inspire 2 and works on USB 3 directly with your laptop, in my case a MacBook Air.

It popped up as an external drive on the desktop, and when I opened it it took several minutes to update. For a moment or two I thought I had failed to press record; then the window updated and I discovered an absolutely vast array of .DNG files.

I hauled the images into BlackMagic's free DaVinci Resolve Lite tool, slighlty tweaked the color balances to try to compensate a bit for the low light and fog, dubbed an audio track, and rendered.

It was going to take 4 hours to render a full-length cut of the usable video I had.

So far I have rendered a clip at 4K and a clip using BlackMagic's "YouTube ready" settings at 2K. The 4K version is here, and the 2K version is here.

The DNG files themselves are spectacular. Other test and reviews have graded the DJI Inspire 2 camera as essentially cinematic quality, comparable to ARRI Alexa.

You can really see that in the masters, and even in the versions above, the detail (look at the grass and the brickwork) is superb.

Good Enough, or Too Good?

For a webcaster, I would think that given the typical compression rates we target in the streaming industry there is a significant overhead of unused quality in the Inspire 2, at least as a direct shoot device. All the higher-end capability will be crushed out by the video compression and the transmission speed limitations.

The Inspire 2's talkover feature poses some intriguing possibilities. If it can be used as a source for a Skype call or a Google Hangout dialog, then I can see things getting quite interesting: The director could be on talkback, watching the pilot's live video and listening to the pilot (or those standing near him) live. This could allow a director in a remote studio to give broad direction to the shoot in a two-way live setup.


While the use of that for live broadcast may be a little limited, it becomes more useful for remotely guiding what a pilot is recording (locally) at high resolution in real time. Where I think this becomes very interesting at scale is for various industrial, search and rescue, and security applications.

The YouTube stream may lack the super-fine quality, but the content is available live (perhaps with a few second delay), and was available immediately as an archive. That's a handy workflow.

By comparison, the archive of the high quality final content from the SSD took (in my case) 4 to 5 hours to transfer and render from DNG into something usable in an editor, plus subsequent upload and transcoding turnaround. Obviously these are two entirely separate workflows for completely different reasons and purposes, but I was suitably impressed with the optimum quality that I found on my YouTube channel when I got home, and this low time-to-air is impressive.

Summary

The Inspire 2 is a top-notch device. Undoubtedly it benefits from the very highest end of the latest video technology in its optics, sensor, electronics, stage, and gimbal, as well as the capabilities that the DJI GO app offers. With full control over almost all aspects of the image processing workflow, even the most demanding cameraman will find all the flexibility they require. 

For the purist webcasters among the Streaming Media audience it is possible that if you are thinking about production you do not need to shoot your source material with a camera capable of cinematic quality. Obviously there is always value in ensuring that your source is of the highest quality, but in all the direct-to-air streaming configurations available, the encoding is performed by the CPU (or GPU in some cases) of your IOS or Android device, and the resulting compression will unarguably crush some of the quality. So for this particular scenario the higher video quality capabilities of the Inspire 2 are potentially overkill.

For projects that are targeting only streaming at perhaps 1080p video at 2Mbps, the optics and sensors in lower-end, lower-cost DJI systems will likely be more than good enough. If, however, you want to use streaming to augment the process of locally archiving cinematic quality, or if your aim is to use the streaming capability to share the content in real time, but to later post process the content at higher quality for broadcast or other industrial applications, then the Inspire 2 is not just ahead of the game; it is at the very front of the pack and setting the standard, if not raising it considerably.

Videographer's Notes by Michael O'Rourke: DJI Zenmuse X5S

DJI occupies an interesting space with its optics. Not so long ago, DJI made GoPro-style cameras, and it was their stabilization and integration with the airframe that set them apart. Now, as evidenced by their investment in Hasselblad, DJI seems bound, like that other upstart camera company RED, to rewrite how to make movies, and who can make them.

On paper, the X5S specs are impressive, which coupled with its very able airframe, makes a very compelling package. Is it a replacement for your trusty ARRI (or RED)? No, it's not; it's a different tool with attributes deserving of attention and perhaps a place in the camera truck when you shoot your next production or, if you're new to filmmaking, a viable system to get your first few productions down. Let's not forget too that for a lot of production houses, the bread-and-butter jobs are low-budget commercials, corporate training videos etc., where the look, cost, and complications of the dedicated high-end cameras are not needed.

Comparing the X5S with the ARRI Alexa, or more likely the Alexa Mini, is perhaps unfair. The Alexa SXT costs about $120,000, the Alexa 4K around $62,000, and the Mini will set you back in the region of $50,000. For about $8,000 you can pick up an X5S with the Inspire 2, gimbal, SSD, batteries and charging station, all the cables, a slate—even a lens. That someone has compared this camera to the Alexa range is compliment indeed. They are though, different tools. It is not perhaps a question of "can the Zenmuse replace the Alexa?" but "can it supplement it?"

For the startup film maker, the DJI product offers a number of compelling features, but while it is undoubtedly a great little camera, it is not so much its specifications that make it so interesting as the fact that it comes with the Inspire 2 and DJI's range of gimbals.

Well-known for camera stabilization, DJI have, in skilled and creative hands, packaged a turnkey filming solution that, while probably not the ultimate at any given task, does so much that it perhaps should be stashed in the back of every DP's car.

With the Inspire 2 plus stabilized gimbal, an amazing camera, and a handful of reasonably priced lenses, you have at your fingertips sliders, dollies, jibs, and cranes—all in one. It is a Steadicam that can be programmed to follow a very precise course over and over, and it is of course a helicopter. It can also combine all of those movements, for instance flying sideways at knee height to give you the scale of a building; the hero comes into the shot and the drone smoothly lifts to shoulder height, follows the star through a door and along winding corridors into the great hall where it passes the actor, rising to 20 feet while tracking his movement. All this is achievable with conventional rigs, but at a much higher cost in planning, hardware, talent, time, and crew. For the price of an extra Alexa, you could have 5 or 6 Inspire 2s covering every possible angle in one take.

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