The best camera drones used to be little more than novelty toys for gadget-heads, but it’s all different now. These days you’re more likely to find the best camera drones in the hands of photographers and videographers both amateur and professional. This is because they allow the user to shoot from creative angles and get unique perspectives that simply wouldn’t be possible with any other camera. Of course that’s always been the case with drones, so what’s changed?
The big difference these days is that the camera technology in drones has come a long way, with larger sensors, better video resolutions and improved stabilisation systems powered by on-board gimbals. Then there’s also the fact that intelligent flight controls are getting better and better, making drones so easy to fly that even a total novice can pick up the basics in minutes.
Of course, there are rules and responsibilities that come with drone flying. Before you take a drone into the air, it’s well worth checking out our guide to drone rules in the US, the UK and beyond. Rules apply to drones of different sizes depending on the country, so even if you’re using a tiny drone, it’s worth reading up.
Every drone featured in this guide will give you fantastic results for photos and video. Each one has a camera supported by a powered gimbal for stabilized shooting, designed to counteract the bumps and buffets that come with flight. We’ve included drones suited to a range of different budgets, each of which has different levels of intelligent flight control and camera technology. While there are cheap drones that will do a good job, the rule of thumb is that you get what you pay for. If your budget is tight, check out our guide to the best cheap drones you can buy right now.
The big launch of 2021 was the arrival of the DJI FPV Combo which brings sports drone photography using goggles to a much wider audience. There was also the arrival of DJI Air 2S, seemingly creating its own niche, and the long-awaited Mavic 3.
As 2022 starts the Sony Airpeak S1 has finally gone on sale, whilst Ring is promising an indoor security camera that flies around to keep an eye on your possessions. Also worth waiting for is the arrival of the Autel Robotics Nano and Evo Lite, which go on sale any day now. Everything below, however, is ready to go out of the box…
The best drones in 2022
Non-camera devices with cameras on them, such as drones, tend to be held back by having annoyingly small sensors. So congratulations are due to DJI for sticking a 1-inch sensor in the DJI Air 2S, providing a significant upgrade in image quality and dynamic range compared to a lot of other drones on the market. They’ve done it before, with the larger Mavic 2 Pro, but this is – theoretically – a step down the range. We’re not so sure.
The Air 2S is much more compact than that drone, or any other drone with a 1-inch sensor (sit it next to a Phantom 4 for a real comparison). The DJI Intelligence systems are also coming on apace, with Active Track and avoidance sensors giving the drone more nuanced control than ever over its own trajectory. It’s a huge achievement how much fits into this drone’s slim, redesigned chassis.
Read more: DJI Air 2S review
The Mavic 3 is a powerful machine, capable of lifting both a 24mm EFL main camera and a secondary camera which provides a “hybrid zoom.” This can be a little confusing at first, but it’s best thought of as an excellent 20 megapixel camera which brings the pro (at least in drones) features of adjustable ISO, exposure and, crucially, aperture . The zoom has a notably lower res 12-megapixel half-inch sensor attached at a fixed ƒ/4/4, so Is more of a scouting accessory and surveying tool than an Inspire 2 with the right lens.
Nevertheless, the Mavic 3 will do the job in a lot of situations, and it can do it for much longer too; hovering for up to 45 minutes. Some might see the folding form factor as belonging to consumer territory, but that’s an old-fashioned perspective in the drone world and amongst clients; this is an aerial camera which (while being over most weight limits) is more portable than most and certainly priced for professionals.
The Mavic 3 Cine is a variant exclusively for those requiring ProRes 422 HQ format video which also holds onboard a 1TB SSD to store the uncompressed video it can capture, and ships with a “DJI RC Pro” (controller with built in screen).
The best way to think of the DJI Mini SE in terms of quality is as a flying smartphone camera from a mid-range device. That, though, is a high standard these days, certainly far higher than toy drones and their shaky video because this drone can hover perfectly thanks to its onboard sensors and has a 3-axis mechanical stabilizer for its camera.
Tech enthusiasts might feel that the 2.7K video resolution isn’t enough for them, but family members (and anyone watching socially shared versions) would be hard pressed to spot the difference against 4K. The drone also scrapes in beneath the 250g registration barrier and has a much more welcoming entry price than anything else DJI offers, making it a perfect gift. Software-wise the app is intuitive and includes auto land, return to home and some cool orbiting effects which will be sure to earn likes.
The EVO Nano has been a long time coming since it was first announced by Autel sometime before the Mavic 3. Whether it has made an effective spoiler for DJI’s new flagship or ended up starting to go sour because of that very launch tactic is a question for others, but what we can say is that pre-orders are now being seriously taken by trustworthy retailers.
That means it should very soon be possible to take delivery of a drone light enough to stay under the registration rules in FAA airspace, for example, while being equipped with a half-inch image sensor and front, back and base collision sensors. Filmmakers will appreciate that Autel’s investment in radio has gone into their Skylink tech, meaning the live preview is now 2.7K30 even at the full 10km. YouTubers will love the ability to record ambient sounds from their base microphone (i.e. the phone on their controller, to narrate their flight) and all creators will appreciate the SuperDownload feature; wireless transfer of images and videos to a nearby smartphone at 160 MB/s.
Like the Mavic 2, Autel’s second EVO is offered with different camera choices, in theory at least (supply has been erratic in its early months, but then 2020 hasn’t been an easy year). Both are built around a heavy, rugged-looking (but average feeling) orange airframe which eschews sleek consumer-friendly design for simple practicality. It’s a bit chunkier than the Mavics, but it can fly for longer and is bigger unfolded).
While Autel Explorer, it’s partner app, lacks some of the polish of DJI’s equivalents, it does bring all the tracking options you might want. Moreover it has the huge advantage of being optional: there is a 3.3-inch OLED screen in the remote meaning you can fly without connecting the phone at all. Another big plus is that the drone has omnidirectional collision sensors which it uses in normal fight (the Mavic 2 has side-sensors, but only uses them in some automatic modes). Intended for professional work, the drone also lacks DJI’s big-brother geofencing.
So far the ‘lesser’ 8K model is the one widely available – with the 6K ‘Pro’ model following and the dual infrared-enabled version to come. Why is 8K ‘lesser’? In fact it uses the same Sony IMX586 half-inch imaging chip as featured in the Mavic Air 2, while the 6K pro sports IMX383 1-inch sensor (that’s four times the area) and can output 10-bit footage and a variable aperture. It’s also worth noting that 8K is limited to 25fps; 6K to 50fps and 4K to 60fps.
Read full Autel EVO II review
Given DJI’s ownership of Hasselblad the camera branding of the Pro model might be seen as a gimmick, but the 20 megapixel stills from the 1-inch sensor are unquestionably far better quality than those from smaller sensors (including the Mavic 2 Zoom). Manual controls allow up to 128,000 ISO to be selected and video can be output in real 10-bit (great for pro colour grading) and in HDR, and there is a ƒ/2.8-ƒ/11 aperture – only the new Mavic 3 (and pro drones like the DJI Inspire 2) allow adjustable apertures. For stills photographers operating in daylight, a good deal on a Mavic 2 Pro might be better than a Mavic 3.
The range of automated flight modes in the DJI drones, like ‘Hyperlapse’ (timelapse) are all well-implemented and easy to learn, making the Mavics very effective creative tools when operated alone. These features are also on offer for the cheaper Mavic 2 Zoom, but it has the potentially more enjoyable zoom lens. Unlike the Mavic 3, it’s optical zoom (not a long one) and adds “Dolly Zoom” to the list of automated visual effects. It’ll stand out in your media feed if nothing else!
• Read DJI Mavic 2 Pro vs Zoom
PowerVision is certainly an inventive company – as its awards shelf will testament. It has been making underwater drones as long as flying ones, but the PowerEgg X is a white egg which can be used as a drone, a hand-held or tripod-mounted camcorder making use of the gimbal for stability and A.I. for subject tracking, and – in the optional ‘Wizard’ kit – a beach-ready drone which can land on water or fly in the rain.
Photographers will rightly worry that the 4K camera doesn’t have as bigger sensor as, for example, the Mavic Pro, but in good light it’s capable of 60fps – double the frame-rate of the DJI, making it great for action. It’s adaptability means it’s arms are completely removable but, thanks to the folding props, setup takes no longer than a DJI Phantom. The A.I. camera mode is good, but it would really benefit from a ‘record’ button like a traditional camcorder – you need to use the app.
The waterproof mode means attaching a housing and landing gear which does take a minute or two, and covers the forward-facing collision & object tracking sensors, but there is nothing on the market that can touch it so it’s hardly something to complain about. This is the drone that GoPro should have made.
DJI defined compact quality camera drones as something which could appeal to and be understood by everyday consumers with the Mavic in 2016, but price and, more recently, weight limits kept some consumers away. Drones over 250g (or operating them) now require registration and a small fee in most countries. The Mavic Mini solved the weight issue in 2019, but the latest Mini 2 has taken that already miraculous design and souped it up so it can now attract more serious users too.
The airframe is stunningly light, yet is also the charger (via the USB-C socket at the back) so that’s one less thing when traveling light. It feels strong, and the camera is mounted on a 3-axis gimbal that absorbs nearly all twists and turns in flight, and can be tilted smoothly. Control is simple, via the excellent new remote – the range is no longer a worry (unlike with the predecessor) and the controller’s battery can even top your phone up too.
Video is better in 4K and 100Mbps, or vloggers happy with 1080P might be more interested by the useful (but lossy) digital zoom. The automated ‘QuickShots’ (the drone keeps the camera on you and performs a cool pre-planned swoop) are also very handy; beginners can look like pro pilots and get dramatic video. Still photos are excellent for the price, though can be a little noisy in anything less than good light. Having the option to process in Raw, and shoot Auto Exposure Bracketed shots, plus automated panoramas, all makes this drone a solid step closer to a heavier drone. The DJI Fly App has good safety features and is clear and easy to read, without being overbearing. It is also excellent for sharing with useful image processing features – in fact with a 12-megapixel camera and 4K video your creations will easily mix with those from a high end smartphone (but add a more interesting perspective).
Rather than push up prices and weight with sensors of questionable use (and the processing power to handle their data), Parrot leave the business of avoiding obstacles very much to the customer. In exchange, though, it's managed to keep the portability and price manageable, helped by the fact a great hard-fabric zip case is included so you’ll be able to shoot just about anywhere.
The carbon-fiber elements of the body can feel a little cheap, but in reality this is one of the best built frames on the market, and very easy to operate thanks to automatic take-off, landing, GPS-based return-to-home, and an exceptionally well-built folding controller with a hinged phone-grip, one that seems so much easier to operate, and so much more logical, than recent contenders from DJI.
The only niggles are that the gimbal is only powered on two axes, relying on software to handle sharp turns, which it only does quite well, and that for some reason Parrot charge extra for in-app features like follow-me modes that DJI include as standard. On the plus side, that gimbal can be turned all the way up for an unobstructed angle most drones can’t manage and the system even features zoom, unheard of at its price point.
A Parrot Anafi FPV kit is available (and the version we recommend), which combines this drone with head-up display ('first-person view') goggles for a fully immersive flying experience.
• Read full Parrot Anafi FPV review
The new DJI Mavic Air 2 is a stunning technical achievement, an incredibly capable drone that – for most people – might look like the only flying camera they’d ever need. With front, downward and rear-facing distance sensors, the drone is capable of identifying obstacles and not just warning the pilot, but also plotting a course to avoid, say, a wall or a tree if needed.
This drone offers much longer flying time (an impressive 34 minutes) and better range than the original Mavic Air. But the real appeal to photographers and videographers is the new 4K 60fps camera, which packs a 48 megapixel half-inch sensor.
This drone gets a completely redesigned controller, which we rather like – with your smartphone slotting in above the controllers, just like you would find on top-end drones.
As with other DJI drones an extra “fly more” pack is available which bundles stuff you really need (case, spare batteries) – this costs more, of course, but is often a wise investment.
Do note that the more recent DJI Air 2Soffers significant advantages, albeit at a higher asking price.
The Inspire 2 is a powerful drone if you need the ability to swap lenses (and indeed cameras), and has the real party piece of being able to lift its legs from the lens’s rotation so the computer – or a second controller – can turn it freely. This flexibility comes at the expense of, well, some more expense but also significantly less portability than every other drone on this list, even the Phantom. The size and weight are part of the problem, but also the necessity of attaching the camera from the base of the Inspire 2 before every take off. All that being said, the drone – despite a few years under its belt – the machine is very capable when it comes to tracking subjects and, if you’re looking to shoot 5.2K onto SSD, there is much to be said for the swappable SSDs.
The Phantom was a revolutionary product, its earlier versions including the first drone to feature a gimbal-stabilized camera rather than requiring the user to supply their own. Its rugged body design means that while it’s no longer the obvious choice for beginners or consumers (for whom folding products offer at least the same practicality), there is a strong use-case for an occasional professional.
If you’re going to be putting the drone in the back of your car, and don’t mind it taking up most of a specialist rucksack (rather than just a side pocket like the Mavic Air), then the Phantom Pro 4’s latest update is very tempting. Redesigned props for quieter flight are definitely pleasing, and the new OcuSync radio system that makes 1080p video possible on the monitors is a plus (though it won’t work with the older controllers).
There were concerns that this drone was going to be discontinued, but DJI have now confirmed that the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is now back in production. That's great news for any drone pilot that has truly professional photographic ambitions.
What to look out for in a drone
Toy drones generally don’t feature GPS, but if you’re composing photos it’s nigh-on essential. The positioning technology was developed with guided missiles in mind, so ideal for drones. Unlike a missile, though, the aim is to stay very much in the same place, rather than be pushed away by the breeze. Not only is piloting easier, but it enables automatic return to the take-off point should the drone lose contact with the pilot, a useful backup.
Not all controllers are created equal. Most feature the twin sticks but at the lower end they’ll use standard Wi-Fi with a range of around 100m control and video feedback with a clear line of sight. Higher-end drones make use of proprietary radio systems, like DJI’s Lightbridge, with a range of 4000m (2.2 miles), support for master & slave controllers (enabling separate pilot & camera operator) and first-person-view goggles.
Camera & gimbal:
Like any camera, sensor size and megapixels matter, but so too does the means of vibration reduction. At the lower end, cushioning or some kind of digital image stabilization works, but the best systems used motorised gimbals to steady and level the camera on 2- or 3-axis.
Battery capacity is the key limit in flying drones. Higher capacities don’t always make for longer flight times since overall weight (not least the battery’s) and efficiency are a factor. The much more useful measure is simply minutes of flight time. Lithium batteries store a lot of power, but “Intelligent Batteries” are safer and include built in monitors so you can easily check their charge.
The quality of the manufacturer’s free app is a big part of the experience, since many features, especially on higher-end drones, will require you to dig down through menus. Taking the camera beyond auto is certainly done this way. Cunning developers have also found ways using the drones sensors and the app’s processing abilities to create easier flying modes and awesome visual effects like DJI’s Tiny Planet selfie clip, just one of the “Quickshot” options.
A lot of drones are sold on their own, with a controller, or with a kit which includes things like spare propellers, extra batteries, ND filters and a bag. Spare propellors, well, sad to say but you’ll probably need these early on. Batteries are expensive, and it can be a long walk to charge them from where you use them, so these should be seriously considered a factor in the price of a bundle. A well-designed bag can protect all of these (even if you just stuff it inside your preferred bag). Don’t forget, too, that you can’t just get ND filters to fit most drones – they gimbals tend to have one-off lens mounts, all worth bearing in mind.