REVIEW: DJI's Zenmuse X7 is Hands Down the Best Camera for Aerial Cinematography Under $10K
For under $10K—including the drone—indie filmmakers can now create truly cinematic aerial images.
The Zenmuse X7, the latest camera from drone market leader DJI, puts cinema-quality image making capability into the hands of aerial cinematographers and filmmakers at more indie-friendly prices than previously available. The Zenmuse X7 is a 6K, Super 35mm camera designed and optimized for drone use (specifically the Inspire 2 platform). Boasting a 6016x3200 resolution (when shooting Adobe Cinema DNG RAW), 14 stops of dynamic range, and a set of four proprietary, DL-Mount lenses (16mm, 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm), the Zenmuse X7 camera system was certainly worth investigating to see just how much quality is now within reach of indie filmmakers who, until recently, have had to sacrifice footage quality to get their aerial shots unless working with a large budget.
For our review, DJI provided an Inspire 2, the Zenmuse X7, and all four of the DL Mount prime lenses. The goal of this review was to see what kind of images you can expect to get out of the Zenmuse X7 in real-world situations, rather than to compare the X7 to larger, more expensive cameras that are not purpose-built for aerial cinematography.
In order to explore the full potential of the Zenmuse X7, I decided to shoot all my footage in Adobe DNG RAW at 6K, 30fps. Videos posted below attempt to show you what the ungraded footage looks like straight out of the camera as well as how much control you have over the look of your final image by grading it and applying LUTs. Some of the videos begin with the ungraded version and then transition to the version with a LUT applied and others show it to you in split-screen fashion. So, without further ado, here's what we found.
The quality difference between footage from this camera and footage from the smaller sensors that we've gotten used to seeing from drones is astounding.
The Zenmuse X7 camera body is compact and well made. The attached gimbal arm feels solid and completely encloses any cables connecting the camera body to the processing engine in the drone. The connection terminal at the top of the gimbal arm is recessed and seems resistant to damage from frequent travel. The attachment points that lock into the drone feel strong and durable. The gimbal lock on the drone feels very secure, and the lens release button on the camera body feels equally solid.
Even though I knew that the lens bodies were constructed from carbon fiber, I was surprised at how light weight they actually are. Typically, better lenses feel heavier than less expensive and poorly made ones and so I felt a little cognitive dissonance when I first took them out of the case and they felt so light in my hand. Then again, these are not typical lenses. They're lenses designed for the purpose of being carried by an Inspire 2 drone while remaining balanced in flight and compromising as little flight time as possible, so weight reduction is a critical consideration and constructing the lens housings out of carbon fiber went a long way toward that goal. When they lock onto the body with a satisfying "click", the entire system appears well-engineered and reliable.
I had one friction point when attaching the camera to the body. After having attached and reattached the gimbal several times and flying the drone, I traveled to a new location and when I went to attach the gimbal, it wouldn't seem to line up. Finally, I realized that I had to turn the inside of the connection terminal on the drone to be perpendicular to the nose in order for me to be able to attach the lens (this caveat is spelled out in the Inspire 2 manual, by the way).
The terminal being able to rotate out of alignment with the mounting position is a side effect of one of the design innovations of the Inspire 2. The Inspire 2 is designed to rotate itself around the gimbal to prevent a stoppage in rotation in the event the gimbal reaches its rotational limit. To do that, the gimbal attachment point must be free to move independently of the drone. Taking a quick look at its position before attempting to mount the camera and rotating it into position if it has moved will avoid any hassles.
The Super 35mm sensor lends a more cinematic and shallow depth of field than is found in the majority of drone footage.
Because the Zenmuse X7 camera is mounted on the drone and controlled via the app, its ergonomics only really come into play when mounting it to and detaching it from the drone or while changing lenses, but its design makes all of those manual functions feel intuitive and easy. Adding & removing ND filters is straight-forward—just screw them on and off. A hood that covers the threads must first be removed from the front of the lens and it's easy to take off and put back on (a quarter turn counter-clockwise unlatches it).
All four lenses looked sharp edge-to-edge and the focus rolloff looked great. The Super 35mm sensor lends a more cinematic and shallow depth of field than is found in the majority of drone footage. Between the Super 35mm sensor and the 6K resolution, you can capture details in small, far-off and out of focus objects (like leaves, tree branches, bricks) that would look like dappled watercolors on a smaller sensor with higher compression.
As you can see in the pictures below by looking at the edge of the color checker against the white wall, there's hardly any apparent chromatic aberration. Looking at the table shows that the focus rolloff is shallower and more cinematic than is attainable from smaller Micro 4/3 sensors.
High ISO Performance
One of the most exciting promises of the Zenmuse X7 was that the Super 35mm sensor would yield superior low light performance to previous models. DJI claimed that we could expect to be able to get clean footage even at ISO settings as high as 1600. To test the claim, I achieved appropriate exposure at f/2.8, and then continued to stop the lens down while bumping my ISO up in full-stop increments. I began my tests at ISO 200 because that was the lowest ISO I could use to maintain an appropriate exposure (based on the exposure meter reading of +/- 0.0 EV) and continued stopping down until I reached ISO 1600 (1600 is the upper ISO limit when shooting in the new EI color mode. (Note that shooting in normal mode will allow for ISO settings up to 6400 but since the EI color mode is one of the improvements DJI has made with the release of the Zenmuse X7, I wanted to test it out to see how it handled.) No LUTs have been added in the video below because I wanted to show the unaltered video as it was captured.
Then, to get a more real-world sense of the kind of imagery we can expect from the X7 in low-light, high contrast situations, I took it on a little flight through the hallways of the Art Factory in Paterson, NJ to see what kind of highlight & shadow detail we'd have and how much noise we'd have to contend with. I shot the clip below on the DJI 16mm DL mount prime lens at 1/60th, f/2.8, ISO 1600 in EI mode. With nice highlight rolloff and details in both the shadows and the highlights and nearly no observable noise, I was impressed. In the video below, I've split the screen such that the ungraded footage is on the left, and the footage with a LUT applied is on the right.
Later on, I ran into some guys shooting a music video at the factory and asked them if they'd mind me shooting a bit of their session with the drone. I'm really happy they were game for it because I was able to see the the X7 in a real-world setting and application.
The frame below was shot with the 16mm lens wide open at 2.8 and I had the ISO set to 1600 (a touch over exposed IMO). I didn't apply a LUT to this because I wanted to show that I was starting to get some flare from the light in the back left and, though the lens hood helped manage it, you can start to see some of its effect manifesting as noise creeping into the darkest shadow areas in the upper left part of the frame.
While it's unrealistic to expect bokeh like you'd find in anamorphic lenses, the images below show the bokeh is soft and nicely shaped. While there is observable fringing in the bokeh areas, that's common for fast prime lenses and, being that there's hardly any in the in-focus areas (except for where the light is refracting through the front and back parts of the wineglass rim), these images are completely acceptable.
DJI 50mm f/2.8 DL Mount Prime Lens
DJI 35mm f/2.8 DL Mount Prime Lens
DJI 24mm f/2.8 DL Mount Prime Lens
DJI 16mm f/2.8 DL Mount Prime Lens
The Zenmuse X7 is a great choice for indie filmmakers and drone ops who don't have tens of thousands to spend on flying a high-end cinema camera and glass. The quality difference between footage from this camera and the footage from the Micro 4/3 (and smaller) sensors that we've gotten used to seeing from drones is astounding. In terms of cameras used in aerial cinematography, the Zenmuse X7 sits alone in a space between the smaller, Micro 4/3 sensor cameras like the X5/X5R/X5S and much larger cinema cameras like RED (the closest comparisons would be the 4.5k Raven or the 5k Scarlet-W Dragon) or ARRI's Alexa Mini (shoots up to 2.8k at 30fps vs 6k @ 30fps like the Zenmuse X7).
But with any of the larger cameras, you're looking at an investment that is exponentially higher than this setup. Could the X7 beat those other cameras in a shoot out? Probably not, and if you already have one of those cameras and an aerial platform to fly them, then you'd probably only be interested in the Inspire 2/Zenmuse X7 if you were looking to get aerial footage in spaces that might be too tight for your heavy lift rig (like inside a building).
If you are an independent filmmaker or drone operator who wants to be able to create truly cinematic images but doesn't have 20-60 grand to spend on a larger cinema camera, glass, a gimbal, and a drone to carry it all, the Zenmuse X7 is, indeed, the best cinematic drone cam on the market today.