Time for new cameras – Testing the Sony FS5 & A7sII

Shooting with the Canon C300 over the last few years has been a real pleasure, the form factor worked perfectly for my single op shooting style and I was rarely disappointed by the image quality. The C300 was always a little crippled by it’s recording capability though, it’s highest frame rate option of 50 fps at 1280×720 seemed disappointing even when the camera was released.

I generally like to shoot events at 50 frames per second because it allows me to record audio whilst retaining the option to slow things down a little in post if required. The C300 does this really well at 720p but while that was seen as just a smaller HD format three years ago, today it’s barely enough resolution even for web delivery.

During my final shoots of last year I decided that for 2016 I would need to invest in at least one new camera which offered the following options as a minimum…

  • Ability to shoot at least 50fps continuous at 1080p
  • Ability to shoot Super Slow Motion at 1080p
  • Ability to shoot 4K at 25p
  • Min 50 Mbps internal HD recording (with option to record higher to ext recorder)
  • Ability to autofocus when required
  • Ability to output better quality to an external recorder if required
  • Must work with Canon L Lenses (full frame capability via speed booster a bonus)
  • Small and light enough to carry all day whilst still offering professional features.

I won’t bore you with all the options I considered, there’s some great cameras out there and believe me I looked long and hard but the following are the ones that interested me the most.

 

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Canon C300 MkII

After shooting with Canon C series cameras for a few years the natural progression would be to the C300 MKII, there were however a couple of reasons why I eventually decided against it.

Firstly I was interested in trying a camera system that would allow me to use the full frame coverage of my Canon L lenses. I’ve often felt restricted by the wider end of the lensing options available for the C300 and liked the idea of using an adapter to get full use of my lenses whilst making them a stop faster. The body design of the C300 and the C300 MKII don’t allow for adapters to be used due to the distance between the mount and the sensor itself.

Secondly, the C300 mkII’s body alone costs over £12,000, add to that a brand new set of batteries and CFast 2 media and I’d be looking a £15,000 investment. While this isn’t dissimilar to the cost of the original C300 other camera manufactures are now offering similarly capable systems at much lower cost.

 

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Sony FS7

Looking at Sony alternatives my first thought was the popular PXW-FS7. Priced at around £8,000 the FS7’s feature set far exceeded my requirements and it’s powerful recording capabilities would definitely provide all I need for the next few years. My good friend Peter Naylor owns an FS7 so luckily I had chance to have a play with one.

The camera was bigger and heavier than I expected but with it’s detachable grip and adjustable arm assembly it’s designed to be operated on the shoulder and works really well in that format. I have to shoot with my camera in a lot of positions though and while the camera is adaptable to different shooting positions I found it a little cumbersome after shooting with the C300. I definitely couldn’t see myself carrying that camera round for 12 – 15 hours like I do the C300.

 Feature wise though the FS7 is a dream and I was very tempted to just buy one and see if I could get used to the form factor but I decided it would be prudent to do a little more testing first.

 

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Sony FS5

Being tempted by the Sony FS7 I thought it might be worth also trying out the smaller PXW-FS5. While the camera doesn’t offer the same level of recording features as it’s bigger brother it does provide a respectable 1080 / 50 option at 4:2:2, albeit restricted to 50 Mbps internally. It also provides the ability to shoot super slow motion up to 200 fps using a buffering record method which while not as useful as the FS7’s constant 200fps record rate it would be enough for me to capture what I need.

The FS5 is also a lot cheaper than the previous cameras mentioned, retailing at around £5,300 and shooting on cheap SDXC media the cost of entry is a lot lower than an FS7.

 

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Sony A7sII


I’ve heard a lot of good things about the little Sony A7sII, especially regarding how they perform in low light. Having seen some great footage shot with them and reading a lot of positive reviews I really wanted to try one to see if I could really go back to shooting with a still body style camera and all of the workarounds that go with it.

I get to film quite a few night time events each year, everything from band performances through to dimly lit bars and exteriors. These can present a real problem with noise so this little camera intrigued me and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. At £2,900 this is the cheapest of the bunch although it would require a lot of additional accessories in order to provide a complete solution for use as a main camera, if at all.

Trying out the cameras


The biggest test for any camera in my shooting year are the events I shoot for Harley-Davidson as they are gruelling on both me and my shooting kit. I’m usually out filming for over 15 hours each day in conditions that range from burning sunshine on dusty beaches through to filming from the back of a bike in the pouring rain. I generally have to carry everything with me that I’m going to need for any given day so building a kit that’s adaptable, portable and doesn’t restrict me creatively is important.

I decided to test both the A7sII and FS5 at Harley events by hiring them and spending a week working with each. I’m not planning to write full reviews of the cameras as neither are particularly new now and there’s plenty of in depth reviews on the web if that’s what you need. What I am going to do though is describe the things I was surprised by after doing my own reseacrh, any issues I had and any features that stood out as being a big reason to choose or not choose that camera.

Sony A7sII – Harley-Davidson Euro Festival, May 2016

First up was a Harley rally in St Tropez, France and for that one I decided to try out the Sony A7sII. I hired a kit from Cameraworks which included a Metabones adapter, a Movcam cage and the Sony XLR-K1M audio adapter. I really wasn’t sure if the little A7 would work for me at all but I also had the C300 with me just in case.

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Using the A7sII that week was really interesting, paired with a Canon 16-35 f/2.8 on the Metabones adapter most of the time I found myself really enjoying the additional sensor real estate and rediscovering what those focal lengths really offer. I did of course have to fit an ND filter to the lens for the daytime shots but rather than mess around with a variable ND I opted to use a HOYA ND64 and then adjust shutter speed to get me the rest of the way to correct exposure. Whilst I like to stick to 180 degree shutter where possible I’m not precious about changing that depending on movement in the shot.

The A7sII has a really good OLED EVF, actually way better than anything I’ve used on a video camera to date, although the eye piece itself is far from comfortable and doesn’t block out external light fully. The LCD is a bit too small for my liking and I found that using the focus magnification feature was a must. In direct sunlight however the LCD was unusable so when it came to filming anything other than head height it was a struggle. I had to use the EVF to focus and then watch what little I could see on the LCD to frame the movement in my shots, a little to ‘spray and prey’ for my liking.

The big drawbacks of the A7 for me were the fiddly menu system, the button layout and the general handling. This it to be expected though and wasn’t really a surprise. I programmed the user buttons on top for record start/stop and zebra toggle and then used the fiddly buttons on the back for everything else. 

The other feature that I was really looking forward to was the five axis stabilised sensor and that proved to be quite useful. There is a little caveat though as in certain situations it also rendered a few shots unusable do to the image visibly warping with certain camera movement.

As expected the low light capabilities of the A7sII were it’s real party trick. I was filming some people on a beach one evening and couldn’t believe how clean the images looked with ISO levels I wouldn’t normally dream of using. After the event I felt that while I managed to shoot the entire thing with the A7sII I’d prefer something a little and better designed for the job. I really wanted one for those night time shots though!

Here’s the video I shot with the A7sII, please note that it also contains footage from the DJI Osmo for the crane style shots and riding shots.

 

Sony FS5 – Harley-Davidson H.O.G Rally, June 2016

When the rental Sony FS5 arrived prior to leaving for this shoot I was shocked at how small and light it was. I’d seen pictures of it beside the FS7 and it was obviously smaller but sitting there without it’s top handle or side grip it looked like a handycam. The first thing I did was fit my 50mm 1.2 via the supplied Metabones Speed Booster and then spent an hour just wandering round in awe of this tiny package capable of shooting almost full frame at f/1.0!

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Once fitted out with it’s rotating hand grip and top handle however the FS5 is actually a really nice size to use, it compares well to the handling characteristics of the C300 and certainly ticked the portability and handling box and .

I found the small OLED EVF on the back of the FS5 to be quite good, it’s not as nice as the one on the A7sII but it’s as good as the EVF on the C300 and I found I could hit focus quite easily. The way the EVF pivots up and down is useful however I did find it to be a little loose and struggled to keep it in the position I wanted when shooting. 

I was disappointed by the LCD though, it seemed too small and again was almost impossible to use in daylight conditions, the one on the C300 is much better. It’s okay indoors or in the shade but I did feel frustrated by it shooting during the day and much like the A7s I relied on the EVF most of the time.

Without doubt one of the best features of the FS5 for me is the variable electronic ND. Being able to smoothly dial in exposure without messing with your shutter speed or aperture is extremely useful and having the ability to choose an aperture and have the ND work around you automatically is amazing. I’m surprised Sony haven’t been shouting more about this technology and I expect it won’t be long before we see it appearing on many of their other cameras, (A7sIII with variable ND anybody?).

I really enjoyed the FS5‘s Super Slow Motion recording feature, the buffering can be a pain but once you master how the start and end trigger system works it’s a lot of fun and I used it way too much on this shoot as you will see in the video below! The trouble with the buffering is not so much that you can’t capture the shot you need, it’s that you have to wait while it does it’s thing afterwards! It’s good fun watching the slow motion buffering after your shot but when something is happening in front of you that you really want to shoot it’s also frustrating. This is where the FS7 would be more capable but for me the smaller form factor is more important and I can make the buffering work with careful timing.

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Another thing that I found useful was the ability to quickly switch to Centre Scan Mode, I programmed this feature to one of the buttons on the hand grip and being able to quickly select between using the full sensor or a crop was great. The camera will also do a digital zoom up to 2x which feels quite bizarre if shooting with primes as you can use the rocker switch on the handle to make it feel like a powered zoom lens! Sony say they preserve the image quality using special technology and to be fair the results did look pretty good but I was a little cautious of that one and didn’t use it.

There were a couple of things that disappointed me though. The first is the fact that every time you format a card in the FS5 it starts the clip name as Clip_01. This seems like a small thing but I’d expect to be able to set continuous file naming in any camera that expects professional use.

Another thing that caught me out was the dual card recording. I like to shoot to both cards at the same time just to provide some redundancy in case of a card error and while this works really well on the FS5 there is a gotcha waiting to catch you out! When shooting Super Slow Motion the camera only records to card 1 and if you’re not paying attention to which card you’re importing footage from you can easily use the wrong one and lose all of your slow motion shots. I discovered this to my horror after losing all of my slow motion shots from a morning so it’s something to be very careful about.

Here’s the results… again this one contains DJI Osmo shots as well.

Conclusions

After trying both the FS5 and The A7sII I was impressed by both of them for different reasons. If I could only choose one it would definitely be the FS5 as for me things like the built in variable ND filter, bigger batteries and on board XLR audio far outweigh the better low light performance and ultra compact format of the A7sII.

I decided to get both though! The FS5 works great as a main walkabout camera for event work and is also more than capable of performing the various other corporate shoots that I work on. The A7sII takes over in low light at events. I’ve recently starting using the A7sII on a PilotFly H2 Gimbal which works great and it also makes a very good B camera for 2 camera interviews with the FS5.

Here’s one more Harley video shot with my own FS5 and A7sII. There’s also footage from the DJI Osmo in this one as well.

I’m sure there’s loads I haven’t covered but this post has become way too long already. Please ask any questions you might have in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

 

 

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Coming back soon

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll know that I’m not the most consistent blogger in the world, in fact having not posted for nearly 10 months I’ll be amazed if anybody even see’s this post!

I feel like I should be apologising for this sheer mistreatment of my readers but alas it’s just the way I am when it comes to creativity, inspiration and expression. Over the last year music has once again become my main creative outlet and I tend to be quite monogamous when it comes to satisfying my creative needs and all of my other outlets tend to suffer somewhat.

With that said, I do plan to start posting more in the coming weeks as i have a lot to write about. Many things have changed kit wise over the last 10 months, the Canon C300 & C100 have been replaced by Sony cameras and all the accessory purchases and workflow changes I’ve been making will hopefully be of interest to others considering the same move.

As I’m also now operating my drones with all the paperwork in place I’ve been doing a few aerial projects as well, more on that soon but for now here’s a little snippet of a job I did a few weeks back.

Trying out the DJI Ronin-M

I recently had the opportunity to do some shooting with a DJI Ronin M stabiliser system and thought I’d share my experiences with the device. I don’t really want to call this a review as my time with the Ronin was quite limited due to work commitments so it’s more about initial thoughts.  I’ve owned and operated some small Steadicam units in the past and while I did get to grips with my Steadicam Pilot to a degree I barely used it due to the hassle involved with transporting it, setting it up and maintaining a sufficient skill level to get great results.

I received the Ronin-M just before leaving for  shoot for Harley-Davidson in Austria so decided to drop straight in to the deep and end try using it on the shoot without any practise. The only thing I did before packing for the trip was to unbox it and check I could mount my Canon C100.

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The nicely designed box seemed to want me to read the manual before proceeding, I’m afraid I didn’t oblige and opted to use my manly construction instincts instead!

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Once down to the next layer things look a lot more fun. If I’d actually read the manual I would have realised sooner than the big item on top was not actually part of the Ronin itself but rather a clever fold out stand.

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Looking at the remaining contents i couldn’t help being reminded of the Mechano set I opened on Christmas day when I was eight years old. The gimbal assembly itself actually folds down fairly flat which is much better for travelling than the huge case my steadicam required.

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Building the handle was straightforward, a centre handle is attached to the top of the gimbal and secured with a locking lever. Carbon rods then attach to each side of the centre handle and the whole thing can be positioned on the fold out stand.

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The supplied Li-Po battery attaches to the back of the gimbal and secures with two locking knobs. Much like DJI’s quadcopter batteries, the Li-Po on the Ronin-M is charged with a supplied charger and indicates current charge level when the power button is pressed.

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The Ronin-M is supplied with a mounting plate along with various bolts and a couple of allen keys. Fitting this to my C100 was easy and I was able to secure it with two bolts.

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With the camera mounted I finally gave in and referred to the manual for advice on how to balance the camera. Sliding the camera plate forward and backwards in the reciever adjusts the forward pitch balance and side to side tilting is balanced by sliding the receiver unit left and right on their rods. I found I had to remove the side handle from the C100 and lower the mounting bar fully in order to make the camera balance correctly.

There’s one further adjustment to make which moves the whole gimbal forwards and backwards in relation to the top handle, this is done with an adjuster wheel and locking clamp built in to the top of the gimbal unit. Getting everything to roughly balance only took a few minutes which is a world away from working with a steadicam, I remember spending days trying to balance my Steadicam and I’m still not sure I fully achieved it.

With the camera balanced I switched on the Ronin-M, I was half expecting it to start testing all the axis like my Inspire 1 does but none of that here, you just feel all the motors suddenly go tense and the device is ready to go.

With that I switched it off, packed it in to a peli case and flew out to Austria. I’m sure I should have gone through some kind of calibration and fine tuning process but it seemed to work well enough out of the box so I just left it all default.

I used the Ronin a few times whilst at the event and what impressed me the most was how easy it was to use. For the most part the gimbal tries to remove any unwanted movement you apply to the camera but if you do want it to pan or tilt it does a good job of recognising what you want to do and follows accordingly. I found the seemed to work slightly better for side to side panning than tilting up and down but I’m sure the sensitivity can be adjusted if desired.

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I opted to keep things really simple and used the screen on the back of the C100 to monitor the shots. I could have mounted an additional HDMI monitor to the top handle if using it more but for this job ease of setup was the key.

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One slight problem I did run in to was that the Ronin-M seemed to develop a droop to the right over time. When initially switched on the camera would be perfectly level but as I started to use it the level somehow seemed to drift off as can be seen in the shot below (0:38 in the video). I actually left that one in the edit as I liked it anyway.

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I fired up the DJI assistant app on my iPhone which allows adjustments to be made to the Ronin vie Bluetooth and found that I could bring the camera level again but it still continued to drift off again once levelled.

I found that lifting the Ronin-M could produce fairly convincing jib type shots, one example is the shot where I was standing in the audience below (1:00 in the video).

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If I’d had more time with the Ronin I would have looked in to this issue further but I highly suspect it’s due to me not doing any form of calibration. If you’re familiar with the Ronin then please feel free to leave a comment and tell me what I missed.

I really enjoyed the time I spent with the Ronin-M. Unlike the Steadicam I’ve used in the past it’s very portable and easy to setup on location. Much like a Steadicam it can be a bit of a hassle putting the thing down as it really needs to be placed on it’s stand when not being held.

If I buy one I may even have a go at using it on a Harley instead of doing my reverse shots like this!

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I’ve highlighted the Ronin-M shots in the video below to give some examples of where I used it. I’m sure it would have been perfect for that closing shot of the harley’s pulling away down the road as well but that was actually me holding my Phantom 3 out of a car’s sunroof!

Pricing wise I think the Ronin-M offers good value. If buying in the US the I’d highly recommend buying from B&H, they currently retail the Ronin at $1,399. Click here to find out more.

For other countries where shipping costs increase it may be cheaper to buy direct from DJI.

Here’s the video…

 

As always, any questions or comments are welcomed.

Paul

 

 

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Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 Art lens for video

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For a few years now I’ve been using the Canon EF-S 17-55 f2.8 as a general walk around lens when shooting events with my C300. Over that time I’ve become quite frustrated with it, mainly due to it’s nasty plastic construction and the way the horrible rear mounted focus ring feels in use. Lets also not forget the fact that it can cause vignetting when used with the C300.

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Canon EF-S 17-55 f/2.8

Most of my other Canon lenses are L series which tend to have a better build quality and feel much nicer to use. When I purchased the 17-55 the only real alternative from Canon was the 16-35 f/2.8 but when I tested that lens against the 17-55 the image stabilisation in the 17-55 won me over and I opted to live with the horrible feel for the advantages the IS provides.

During  the next couple of years I was generally happy with the images produced by 17-55 but I never really got past the nasty feel of the lens, it also has a habit of sucking dust inside the barrel which can be annoying. Earlier this year something broke inside the lens during a shoot causing the zoom mechanism to get stuck, the 17-55 found it’s way unceremoniously thrown in to my spare parts box!

Over the next few event shoots I swapped between the Tokina 11-16 and Canon 24-105 but I missed the flexibility of having a fast mid zoom so eventually decided to look for a replacement. I visited the Wex Store in Norwich with my C300 to try out the Canon EF16-35 f/2.8 II and also have a look at the Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 Art series lens which I’d been hearing good things about online.

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Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L II

I tried the Canon 16-35 first. At £1064 it’s not a cheap lens but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s sometimes better to swallow the cost in favour of reliability and performance. The 16-35 II felt very familiar, the zoom and focus rings have the same loose but solid feel as my other L series lenses. I tested the dual pixel autofocusing on the C300 and the 16-35 responded extremely quickly. I didn’t feel I needed to worry about image quality from a lens of this standing, i was more concerned about feel and operational performance.

Next up I asked to try the Sigma 18-35 Art Series lens. At £610 it’s a lot cheaper than the Canon 16-35 but unlike the Canon it’s not a full frame lens. Much like the Canon EF-S range the Sigma is designed to work with APS-C cameras like the 7D but at f/1.8 throughout it’s entire zoom range the Sigma is faster.

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Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 Art Series

As soon as the sales assistant passed me the lens I was surprised at how heavy and solid it felt, it had a cold metal feeling that reminded me of holding my old Nikkor lenses.  Once fitted to the C300 I was immediately struck by the feel and responsiveness of the zoom and focus rings, they have a heavy yet extremely smooth travel which responds more like a cine style lens than a stills lens. Unlike the Canon L series lenses it’s really easy to perform a smooth zoom on this lens if required as well.

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Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 Art Series

I’d read reports that the Sigma lens would only work with the dual pixel autofocusing feature on the C300 with it’s fully open at f/1.8 but that wasn’t the case and the lens focused successfully throughout the aperture range. The focus speed was slower than the Canon lens however I found that to be an advantage as a slower focussing looks more pleasing if used within a shot than a snap focus.

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Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 Art Series

I found that both pulling focus and running the zoom on the sigma produced extremely fluid results that far exceed what I could produce with my Canon glass. Just to be sure I fitted the Canon 16-35 again and in comparison it actually felt clunky and nowhere near as nice to use. I was sold and purchased the Sigma there and then!

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Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 fitted to Canon C300

Two days after purchasing the Sigma I filmed an event for Harley-Davidson and the Sigma performed flawlessly. It’s a great walk around lens for the C300 and having the option to shoot at f/1.8 makes it great for low light shots and shallow depth of field work during the day.

I haven’t found any negatives to report so far. I do miss the image stabiliser from the 17-55 a little so it would be great to see Sigma add IS to the mix in the future.

I used the Sigma for most of the shots shown in the video below and would highly recommend it for video use. In fact, I’m now keen to replace some of my other Canon L zooms as well!

Buy the Sigma 18-35 at B&H

New X5 Inspire 1 Cameras from DJI

DJI have been pushing out so many new products lately it’s getting hard to keep track! One of the most interesting for Inspire 1 pilots is this new Zenmuse X5 camera.

The new X5 camera features a micro 4/3 sensor and much like the existing X3 camera on the Inspire 1 comes complete with an integrated 3-axis gimbal.

 

 

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Two versions of the X5 camera have been announced. The standard X5 retains most of the recording specifications of the existing X3 camera but the larger M4/3 sensor which improves stills resolution to 16 MP and has a reported dynamic range increase to 12.8 stops. As with the smaller X3, the X5 records to Micro SD cards and retains similar bitrates which max out at 60 Mbps for 4K (UHD) recording and less for 1080 (HD) recording.

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DJI makes the X5 available either without a lens or with it’s new 15mm f/1.7 Prime. As shown in the image below DJI also recommend two other lenses in the form of the Olympus 12mm f/2.0 and the Panasonic Lumix 15mm f/1.7. Whilst other M4/3 lenses will likely work with the X5 DJI has based these recommendations on weight and balance for the integrated gimbal.

Click here for the latest pricing on the X5 Camera

X5 lenses

The second variant of the X5 camera is the X5R. The R version uses the same gimbal and sensor but the camera uses a different design which removes the recording block from the camera body. The X5R adds the ability to record lossless 4K RAW CinemaDNG files to an SSD drive. Whilst the recording resolutions and frame rates remain the same as the standard X5, it’s capable of recording at bitrates up to 2.4Gbps which is a huge leap from the standard version.

Click here for the latest pricing on the X5R Camera

 

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So what are the advantages of this new camera over the standard X3 camera? Without testing the camera myself it’s hard to judge how the two compare but in theory the much larger Micro 4/3 sensor should provide a lot more exposure and focusing flexibility than the little X3 camera. The ability to set lens aperture and focal distance from the ‘Go’ app running on the remote means that more creative control can be achieved. Being able to set depth of field and finding correct exposure becomes less about shutter speed manipulation and more about the balance between ISO, aperture and ND filtering as it is with most full size cameras. Here’s a graphic that shows just how much bigger a Micro 4/3 sensor is compared to the one in the X3 camera.

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Early demos and footage releases have revealed that the X5 is certainly capable of improved dynamic range and certainly for stills use it should prove to be a lot more capable than the X3. With video however I’d estimate that it’s likely to be more about gaining control of the image and using that control to achieve the best results from each location. Having proper lenses and aperture control also brings with it a much greater risk of getting bad results so to make the best of the X5 a greater knowledge of shooting will be required than with the little X3 which is very forgiving indeed.

Both of the new X5 cameras require an upgraded vibration absorbing board to be fitted to the Inspire 1 to enable them to be attached. The new mount pushes the dampers further out sideways to provide better lateral support for the camera.

Find out more about the X5 Vibration board here

X5 mountBecause the X5 cameras hang lower than the X3 the Inspire 1 needs to have it’s feet extended to stop the camera hitting the ground. Stick on feet extenders are included with both cameras.

DJI have also announced released a version of the Inspire 1 which can be purchased with an X5 already mounted. Names the Inspire 1 Pro, this new version comes with the new vibrations board and feet extensions as well as a newly developed quick release prop mounting system which as yet is unavailable for existing Inspire 1 Owners.

Inspire 1 Pro

Click here to find out more about the Inspire 1 Pro 

 

Also announced is a new wireless follow focus device called the ‘DJI FOCUS‘.  Allowing focus to be controlled remotely by a dedicated focus puller.

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As well as working with the X5 camera this new device can also be used with other lens systems both air and ground based and is supplied with various data interconnect cables, the remote focus motor, lens gears and removable marking rings.

Find out more about the DJI Focus here.