DJI Inspire 2 and Zenmuse X7 camera were a dream team for National Geographic Jordan documentary
Experienced drone pilot Oliver Sugars has just returned from a trip of a lifetime, capturing scenes for a National Geographic documentary in Jordan.
Oliver turned to Heliguy – his self-described ‘go-to UAV suppliers for a number of years’ – to sufficiently equip him with the tools needed for his two-week Middle Eastern adventure, where he got to shoot breathtaking footage of the world-renowned Petra and the protected wilderness of Wadi Rum.
Needing something reliable and high-quality – especially in the unforgiving environment of the desert – Oliver, of Leading Edge Films, added the DJI Inspire 2 with DJI Zenmuse X7 camera and lens set to his fleet.
Encountering plenty of sand and intense heat along the way, he admits to pushing the equipment to its limits. Yet, the gear delivered, with Oliver describing the Inspire 2 and the X7 as a powerful combination.
St Albans-based Oliver is now back in Blighty, so Heliguy Insider caught up with him for an in-depth review of his Jordan journey and how he used the Inspire 2 and X7 camera along the way. Here is his story in his own words.
TURNING TO HELIGUY FOR THE DJI INSPIRE 2 WITH DJI ZENMUSE X7 CAMERA – AND A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA
“Heliguy have been my go-to UAV suppliers for a number of years now, having previously bought the S1000 and Matrice 600. The latest addition to my fleet was an Inspire 2 with X7 camera and lens set. Both were pushed to their limits on my recent job in Jordan.
“I was interested in the Inspire 2 because it’s known to be a compact, maneuverable and reliable platform. However, until the release of the X7, for me the cameras were not of sufficiently high quality to justify the step down from heavy lifts.
“The X7 is the first integrated super 35mm camera with the same size sensor as most ground-based cinema cameras. It has the ability to record 6k RAW or UHD 16 9 ProRes 4444 and 422 and also provides good codec options when data limitations are a factor.
“At Leading Edge Films we are used to flying in all kinds of environments, but I jumped at the chance to travel to Jordan as part of a crew, making a documentary for National Geographic.
“I had never been to the Middle East before and was excited and apprehensive to see how my UAV and I would cope with the sand, salt and heat!
“I knew I would have to do sunrise and sunset shots, when time was of the essence, so I would have to get the craft back in the air as quickly as possible after battery changes.
“Before going on the trip, I asked Heliguy to create a tool to enable me to utilise the hot swoppable function of the Inspire 2. I put the tool on a retractable key ring (pictured below). It came in so useful that the tool has earned a permanent place on my belt when I’m working.”
FIRST STOP – WADI RUM
“Our first location was Wadi Rum (pictured below), with some vast open desert spaces. I was able to push the Inspire 2 to 60mph, adding some much needed movement to my wide vista shots. The X7 handled the speeds well and continued to hold a smooth steady shot throughout.
“The speed of the Inspire 2 also came in handy when we were filming a fast moving 4×4. I was able to do more than keep up, I could actually overtake, which added an extra dimension to the shots available to my director.
“During sunrises and sunsets, the desert acts as a convection cell, creating unpredictable high winds which can prove difficult to judge, particularly when flying in and around sheer rock faces.
“In spite of the Inspire 2 being a quad, with some stick inputs, it handled the wind well when in motion. However, it was much more difficult to hover and hold a static frame when the winds were high.”
CAPTURING FOOTAGE AT THE WORLD FAMOUS PETRA
“Our next location was Petra. In and around the Siq and Treasury, there was no GPS lock to help the Inspire 2 cope with the swirling winds.
“As a single operator, these were some of the most challenging conditions. Just piloting through the tight spaces was hard enough, even before attempting to get smooth, dynamic shots.
“The optical flow system was a great help in maintaining stable flight. The big drawback is that it restricts the height, as the optical flow system can only operate up to 10 metres.
“When my shots needed to be above 10 metres, I had to fly in ATTI mode. Having the vision sensors off but the readouts on, was a good way of having visual references on the screen of how close I was getting to the rock faces.
“One of the most magical shots was of the Treasury at night, lit with hundreds of candles (pictured below). This low-light scenario was a challenge. To obtain clean and usable images I shot the night-time sequences at 800 ISO, I found 1600 just too noisy.”
SHOOTING AT THE DEAD SEA
“Next location was the Dead Sea archaeological sites. To minimise the Inspire 2’s exposure to dust and salt, I ascended and descended vertically from the five-foot Hoodman launch pad.
“The heat was a worrying factor too, as it was 43 degrees Celsius in the shade with little shelter. I managed to keep the batteries relatively cool before flying, by, where possible, keeping my GPC flight case closed and in the shade.
“In the locations where I was truly mobile I decanted the shooting essentials in to my Lowepro backpack (pictured below). This was harder to keep cool, but it enabled me to carry all I needed to the remote hill-top locations that cars could not reach. The backpack is an essential bit of gear if you’re going to remote areas.
“The high contrast setting of the Jordanian vistas pushed the X7’s dynamic range and used all of its claimed 15 stops.
“After a few tests I noticed the highlight clipping increases with the increase of the ISO values.
“For example, you will notice clipping of the highlights at a lower luminance value in your waveform at lower ISOs, whereas higher ISOs will retain higher luminance values, but will increase and introduce noise to your images.
“Lower ISOs require more light and compress the shadow areas. High ISOs increase noise. For these reasons I suggest shooting at the sensor’s native ISO value (400) for best highlight-retention to noise-level.
“Dlog will clip at 85% at native ISO (400) and 95% with the rec709 internal LUT. If you are using the internal LUT feature in GO4 and the zebras exposure tool, there is not much more stop being recorded in the Log above the 92% rec709 zebras, so try and keep your scene within this tolerance.
“It’s important to arm yourself with the technical knowledge about how the camera handles different ISO values and how the Dlog integrates with their internal LUTs, so you can be confident in what is being recorded in the Dlog in a fast high pressure environment.
“The only real criticism I have is of the Crystal Sky Ultra Bright 7.8 monitor. The touch-screen sensitivity was lacking at times and it’s hard to fine-tune your settings.
“I also found some of the options differ to those of an iPad. For example, the image transmission settings 720 or 1080 are absent on the Crystal Sky.
“However, the ‘ultra bright’ brightness of the Crystal Sky is its saving grace. Even in the unforgiving midday sun of the Jordanian desert, I could get a clear view of my entire shot. I did have concerns about it over-heating. The Crystal Sky got so hot it was almost untouchable.
“But, in spite of my worries, the Crystal Sky ploughed away with no errors or shutdowns. It did its job, day-in day-out, notwithstanding the heat, salt and sand.”
REFLECTING ON THE DJI INSPIRE 2 WITH DJI ZENMUSE X7 CAMERA
“The Inspire 2 is a refined workhorse with little need for physical improvements. The X7 is a great compact camera, but I would like to see the ability to de-click the lenses to enable smooth iris controls (for example, doing iris pulls from shade to sun) as well as a wider lens option.
“I would like to see some tweaks to the software: better and more advanced exposer tools such as false colour; the ability to set the parameters of existing exposer tools, like zebras; extending the usable optical flow to a height more in keeping with aerial filming, for example 20-30 metres; and the addition of the ability to have smaller readouts from the vision sensors to aid spatial awareness.
“But, the Inspire 2 and the X7 (pictured below) are a powerful combination: small and mobile enough to take anywhere while packing enough punch to compete with much bigger ground cinema cameras. For the first time there is virtually no compromise for high-end productions.”