Parrot Bebop Drone Image Quality Review

posted on: March 23, 2015

As an architectural photographer, I occasionally get requests for aerial views of properties.  The only problem is that most of these requests are coming from individual property owners or small businesses who can't afford the highest quality imagery that comes from a helicopter or cherry picker option.  In some cases, even if they could afford it, certain tightly constructed urban areas make it very difficult to get a specific elevation with either of these methods.  Enter: drone photography.  Depending on the model, drone photography becomes a more affordable, albeit slightly lower quality option for aerial photography when in the hands of a skilled drone operator.  For the purposes of this post, my tests fall under recreational usage on family private property.

In order to see if drone photography would be a solid option in my service offerings, I decided to pick up the Parrot Bebop Drone while browsing the Apple Store.  The salesperson was actually pretty knowledgable in drone options, which helped me decide to give it a try at what I would consider to be a very inexpensive investment of $499 for this particular model, which is also a great price point if you're a tech geek and want to play with something until breaks, but not feel too bad about it.

Build:
The quadricopter craft is surprisingly lightweight, mostly made of light plastics and styrofoam, with the heaviest components being the battery and camera elements.  At first it feels a little flimsy, but after you've used it a few times, you realize how robust and durable it actually is.  The construction alone feels like an inexpensive build, but when you consider the materials science that must have gone into finding the right plastic, testing of different materials for durability, and various trials needed to achieve this design, it's worth so much more than that.




Battery:
Huge praise to Parrot for including 2 batteries in the box.  Each one has about 11 minutes of flight + image capture time.  They knew the limited scope of the battery life and didn't force you to buy a second battery after you've exhausted your first 11 minutes of learning how to fly.  They also created a battery charger that can do a fast charge of around 1 hour until full, with international adapters already included.  The lithium-ion batteries are very durable and powerful and should last at least 1-2 years with this fast-charge cycle.  The element for plugging in the battery to the craft is a little tricky and took about 10 minutes to line up properly, but once I gained more confidence with just pulling the plug out from the nose with a little embedded nylon string, it became much easier to switch out batteries.

Controls:
I started with just using the iPhone App for controls.  It provides a live view of what the camera sees during flight, with the option to move the image capture around quite a bit within the fisheye lens view.  The live view and controls are all done over a Wi-Fi network established by the Drone itself.  This also means that the range of controls is limited by the Wi-Fi range and any interference that your smart phone or iPad would pick up on.  Obviously, a wide open farm field or park is going to give you much more control than an urban area where any number of interferences can occur.  This interface is actually really robust and advance (not that I have much to compare to at this point), but I was impressed with the quality of controls.  I would probably prefer to use an iPad so that the accelerometer wouldn't be so sensitive, but thankfully, the app has built in controls that allow you to mitigate the speed of the lift, turns, and directional movements, which helps make it easier to control with something small like an iPhone.  The YouTube Parrot Bebop instructional videos were very informative on how the controls work for more info on what all these buttons mean.


Stabilization:
This is probably the most impressive feature of this craft.  It has AMAZING stability for its lightness and controls.  I shook that thing a lot and the video imagery refused to budge on the horizontal plane.  Where it suffers a little is the left to right stability which can more easily be affected by wind or changes with operator controls.  The stabilization differences are less noticeable when the craft is flying forward,  backward, or panning to the side, but much more noticeable when hovering the craft in one spot.  View one of my test videos posted on Instagram to see an example of this:


Image Quality:
My biggest concern as a photographer is image quality.  As a professional photographer, I have a VERY high image quality standard that is based on over a decade of looking at images in great detail and depth.  That being said, I allow for concessions regarding imagery depending on use- for example, I'm extremely satisfied with the quality of imagery from my iPhone cameras since the 4s model, considering how small, lightweight, and easy they are to use.  Unfortunately, what the Parrot Bepop gains in all other areas of drone technology, it still has a way to go in image quality considering the entire design is for image capture.

The lens is actually not that bad for a small fisheye lens, it's more that the sensor quality and depth is much more limited than mobile phone cameras- the quality is similar to what you'd see in a ten year old point and shoot camera.  To the untrained eye, this isn't that much of a problem, but to an imaging professional, I can see the image limitations.  The biggest limitation is the exposure depth.  The color quality is actually really decent, but the highlight to lowlight range shows a strong preference for detail in shadow, which is fine as most people don't care about detail in whites, but it is limiting if you're photographing a white home or white roof, which I did during my tests.  If I had reduced exposure to favor highlights, I would have lost most of my shadow detail, so it's most likely a restriction of the compression to JPEG or DNG from the original capture.

Here are a couple more examples I shared on Instagram of the image quality in both a still image and in video mode:

In this video I'm testing the Parrot Bebop metering response, auto white balance response, autofocus, indoor exposure, and video image detail. The drone isn't in flight-mode for this test- all of the movements are from me holding it in my hand- but again, you can see that it holds the up down movements very steady despite my manipulation of the craft. The first few seconds demonstrate how long it takes to transition exposure from outdoor sunlight to indoor lighting, and how much of the scene needs to be of similar exposure for the metering to catch on and make adjustments. At 50% of the scene, the camera held to the first exposure, and it only transitioned exposure when about 70% of the scene had changed exposure levels. The first few seconds also demonstrate that you have great detail and clarity in a sunlight exposure whether the subject is 3ft or 300ft away as observed by the detail in the lace curtain as well as the detail on the building outside. In the second half of this video, I'm looking for white balance adjustments between sunlight and tungsten light, as well as indoor lighting detail. You can see a very slight white balance adjustment as @alexruthmann's white shirt enters the frame. It seems to compensate a little too blue for my tastes, but the scene with wallpaper and wood is a heavy yellow tone rather than a neutral white tone, so it's doing fine for this test. I did prefer to set the white balance in advance when I had a specific still image in mind. In the white shirt you can see the white clipping happening- which is much more difficult to control in video than a still shot. Most people don't care that much about white detail if it needs to be sacrificed for a better overall scene detail, but it would probably appear slightly less obvious if there were a few more chromatic-abhorration corrections built into the image compression. At the very end of the video, you see me bring the camera very close to the stack of books to see how detailed the short focal range is indoors. There's definitely some focal detail sacrificed in lower-lighting conditions, however, the fisheye lens has great detail even inches away.
A video posted by Anne Ruthmann (@anneruthmann) on



An example of the highest resolution still image possible with the Parrot BeBop. Without distortion correction applied, the image is around 3000px, after the image is corrected for perspective, max image size is around 1800px. Because this camera is almost entirely automatic exposure, the best image quality is in daylight. The metering appears to be full frame metering, so it's easy to blow highlights and lose shadows depending on the image. There's minor exposure compensation controls, but because the output is either DNG or JPG, they are compressed and processed files straight out of this camera. I had to customize a lot of the default settings in order to take this image successfully, but I found them quick and easy to find and manipulate after watching the YouTube help video tutorials. It took at least 20minutes of practice navigation time to figure out how to get it at the height I wanted and positioned with the camera angle I wanted, while avoiding things like trees and power lines. Still not sure if I'm sold on this particular model, though I do think it's a really solid investment at its price point for everything it can offer. With enough experience, you'd be able to customize it's controls to suit your needs and help you get the imagery you need within the limited battery life and wifi control range. The images still wouldn't be much use beyond web-usage and I still need to view them much larger on my laptop for a true quality comparison. I do give high praise for the app development team who created a very robust control, capture, and documentation system with this particular drone. It would be great for anyone who needs to cover specific plots of land with documentation mapped out of that coverage. #anneruthmannphotography #testpilot #aerialphotography
A photo posted by Anne Ruthmann (@anneruthmann) on



*This review is completely independent and I have not received any compensation or product to provide this review... though, if you feel like sending me more drones to try in exchange for a review, I'm all for it since I'm still looking for the right model to use professionally.

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