Until recently, drones priced within the reach of non-professional adventure photographers have had three major downsides. They were too unwieldy to pack for adventure. The still images they snapped were unsharable at bigger than phone-screen resolution. And their lenses couldn’t zoom or tilt skyward.
French drone-maker Parrot now says it’s solved the bulk of these issues with the debut of its Anafi folding drone, with a 21 megapixel (MP) sensor and tilting camera gimbal that can swivel 180 degrees, from directly down to directly up.
To understand why this might be a breakthrough, it’s important to get that Parrot is no, ahem, fly-by-night entry in the drone/tech space. Even if you’re less familiar with Parrot than China’s DJI, Parrot has been in drones since 2010 and they have deep pockets—they’re one of the pioneers of voice-over Bluetooth and of voice recognition. They know tech.
As for the Anafi’s specs, let’s first take the case of size—smaller is better when it comes to carting a drone into the wilds.
While the Spark doesn’t fold—instead, its props do, then unfurl when it enters flight mode—it’s still about the footprint of a mirrorless camera. The Mavic Air does fold and shrinks down to 6.5 x 2 inches. The Anafi is longer, at 10.6 x 2.5 inches folded, and like the Spark, its propellers fold. That long body makes sense, too, because it allows its arms to reach wider than that of the Mavic Air and create an unobstructed skyward view when the camera rotates up to snap stills of, perhaps, the full moon.
And that wider arm reach also makes the Parrot more stable: It can reportedly fly in up to 31mph gusts, compared to just 23mph for the Mavic Air. Also, despite the folded length, it’s a few ounces lighter than the Mavic Air, at .75 pounds.
Then there’s that 21MP sensor. This is nearly on par with a decent DSLR or mirrorless camera, the step we’ve been itching to see in drones. Because to date, though the Mavic Air’s HDR shots are reasonable, sandwiching several shots together to balance highlights and shadows, the resulting stills are only 12MP. You get RAW output, which the Anafi is also producing, but given that the Parrot can also snap HDRs, it promises something closer to what you get from a “real” camera.
Parrot also says its lens is a relatively bright, f/2.4 compared to the darker f/2.8 of the Mavic Air. It’s important to note, though, that Parrot’s using a smaller 1/2.4 inch sensor vs. the DJI’s 1/2.3 inch sensor, so we really want to test for ourselves to measure the quality of images the Anafi can capture.
Both the Mavic Air and the Parrot can shoot 4k video at up to 30fps, but the Anafi has both a hyperlapse mode (where the output is sped up to shrink, say, a five-minute flight run-time down to 20 seconds), and slow-motion mode. Slow-motion capture frame rate maxes at 60fps, so we’re curious about how fluid the output software makes the footage look, since Parrot says you won’t need to do any frame-rate fiddling after shooting in slo-motion mode. But can they make 60fps capture look as syrupy-dreamy as an iPhone’s 240fps slow-motion mode? If so, you can just imagine what you could catch from, say, an overhead follow of your pal hitting a kicker and diving into the steeps at Teton Pass.
Or, because this drone can shoot upwards, getting that same clip from beneath your pal as she leaps over the drone, a contrail of powder steaming off her skis, then the follow sequence diving into the charge downhill. Yeah, that would rock.
Also, the Anafi has a 2.8x “lossless” digital zoom, which in theory, could be great when you want to get the shot, but don’t want the buzz of rotors to annoy the crap out of your subject. Again, we’d like to see how well the zoomed shots look and what magic makes it work.
Parrot says the Anafi’s range is 2.4 miles compared to over six for the Mavic Air, but given U.S. regulations insist on visible contact with recreational drones, that’s likely moot. The Mavic Air is faster, though, with a max top speed of 42 mph vs. 33 mph for the Parrot. Both get roughly 25 minutes flight time per battery, but the DJI’s max ceiling is 16,404 feet vs. 14,763 feet for the Parrot. Again, U.S. regulations cap legal overhead to just 400 feet off the deck, but that lower ceiling could be an issue in some alpine environments.
What’s good, regardless, is that with GoPro dead on drones and promising competitors like 3DR bolting the recreational space, Parrot is still scrapping with DJI and pushing for higher resolution photography. It means that the billboard-sized shots Apple showcases in cities are viable for drone photos, too, and that we can all document our adventures more creatively, as well.
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