DJI announced today that its popular line of Quadcopters will have a new camera option: the Zenmuse Z3, with built-in optical zoom.

Digital zoom, where the lens remains fixed and the image is digitally magnified, has long been a staple of consumer-priced drones, but for a true optical zoom, the options have become much more expensive and out of reach for most indie filmmakers. The ability to reframe an image without the image quality compromises of excessive digital zoom has been something customers have pushed for, and this combination of the 3.5x optical zoom with a 2x digital zoom moves the platform forward and gives filmmakers greater flexibility in creating high-quality images from the sky.

Zenmuse Zoom comparisonSide by side comparison of the framing ability with the 7X zoom available with the Zenmuse Z3.Credit: Courtesy of DJI

The two biggest technical hurdles that stand in the way of affordable optical zoom in UAVs are the increase in weight that comes with most optical zooms—which also moves the center of gravity for a camera—and the increased need for stability. As you zoom in with a lens, your field of view gets narrower, which means that the lens has to be even more stable in order to create a smooth result. Since a drone has to stabilize not just the vibration created by the motors, but also wind and momentum from flight, most consumer/prosumer level drones have stuck to wide lenses, where the wider field of view provides a more naturally stable image.

With an optical zoom built into the camera, DJI is promising that the whole zoom range will be stable.

Previous models with digital zoom, of course, suffered from the same stabilization issue when going to a tighter field of view, but with an optical zoom built into the camera, DJI is promising that the whole zoom range will be stable.

To overcome this obstacle, the Z3 has a new reaction wheel which, working in conjunction with the yaw motor, adds stability to the yaw control to keep longer lens shots smooth. Currently, DJI is mainly focusing the marketing on industrial and security applications, but filmmakers will no doubt also enjoy having the ability to choose different focal lengths and framing on the fly without having to lower the drone to the ground for a lens swap.

Zenmuse Z3Zenmuse Z3Credit: Courtesy of DJI

The Z3 is compatible with the Inspire 1 and the Matrice 100 and 600 drones. Unfortunately, it looks right now like there will be a separate version to work with the Osmo, which will come out later this year.  

One aspect to note is that the maximum F-stop changes as you zoom in by almost two full stops, which is a common compromise when it comes to engineering small, lightweight zoom lenses, but might come as a surprise to those more accustomed to cinema style zooms which typically maintain a consistent maximum F-stop through the zoom range.

The camera is capable at up to 30FPS at UHD resolution and shoots full cinema 4K up to 25fps.

Here are the tech specs:

  • Weight: 262g
  • Sensor: CMOS
  • Sensor Size: 1/2.3”
  • Max Pixels: 12.76M
  • Optical Zoom: 3.5x, 22-77mm Equivalent
  • F-stop: 2.8 (wide) - 5.2 (Tele)
  • Max Video Resolution: 4k 4096x2160 24/25p
  • UHD 3840x2160 24/25/30
  • ISO Range 100-3200