When you think of a drone, you almost certainly think of a quadcopter or multicopter – with four or more propellers providing vertical lift from each corner and an on-board processor which keeps the machine broadly level.
These can move with surprising speed simply by leaning slightly off the horizontal so a small proportion of the prop’s energy is directed sideways. A whole community of racers who really push this to its limits has built up, but most of us can get a lot more out of a ‘copter with a built-in camera, and certainly the market has coalesced around the camera drone.
Given the photography industry hasn’t wholly outgrown the tripod in the 200 years or so that it’s had, what challenges – and what rewards – does sending the camera airborne bring with it? The obvious one is the ability to shoot from anywhere (aviation authorities permitting), get any angle on your subject and add slick aerial reveals to your videos.
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There are some features to keep in mind, especially compared to shopping for a regular camera. You will likely have to accept a smaller sensor size, and no zoom lens; less glass means lower weight – a vital trade-off for the flight time. Vibration is a huge issue too; the fast turning props and sudden movements are not ideal for still or video photography. The means of control is either your phone’s limited Wi-Fi range or a separate controller using radio frequency (but probably your phone, too, to view the live video).
On top of the basics, drone manufacturers have sought to automatically combat the risk of collision with sensors – partly to help you out but also to head off criticism from governing bodies, which are understandably keen to avoid a serious accident. New pilots of any drone should check out the Drone Code and some form of registration is on the way for all but one of the below.
1. DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
Very portable, but a powerful flying creative kit
Weight: 905g | Dimensions (folded): 214×91×84mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 322×242×84mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K HDR 30fps | Camera resolution: 12MP (Pro is 20MP) | Battery life: 31 minutes (3850mAh) | Max Range: 8km / 5mi) | Max Speed: 72kph / 44.7mph
DJI’s Mavic Pro (2016) changed the perception of what was possible with camera drones, making it possible to fold and carry a decent-quality lens without putting too much of a dent in either the volume or weight of your carry-on. It sold so well that perhaps the appeal of simple aerial imagery is waning – something DJI have sought to combat with software features. One of the most stunning (on both the Mavic 2 Pro and the Zoom model) is Hyperlapse – an aerial time-lapse which can include motion and is processed in moments onboard. The Zoom model also gains a dolly zoom effect (ask a horror movie geek) which is great fun.
The airframe is pretty beefy-feeling for something that folds up so small, but it brings with it powerful motors and speed control systems, capped with surprisingly quiet propellers. This makes it nearly as capable as heavier drones in the wind – with a high maximum speed and very responsive controls (which can be softened for cinematic work). The omnidirectional sensors also make it very hard to crash at normal speeds, and even play a part in the excellent object tracking.
The only downside to the Mavic 2 is the choice you need to make between the pricier ‘Pro’ and the ‘Zoom’. The Pro has a 1-inch image sensor (20 megapixel) at a fixed 28mm EFL but with adjustable aperture, 10-bit (HDR) video, and up to 12,800 ISO – great for sunsets and stills. The Zoom retains the still very decent 12 megapixels of its predecessor but has a zoom lens (24-48mm efl) which is more useful for cinematic effects. Sometime soon it’ll be possible to have DJI swap them for you, but for now you need to know what kind of photographer or filmmaker you are.
2. Parrot Anafi
Light, foldable, and able to turn its 4K camera anywhere
Weight: 310g | Dimensions (folded): 244×67×65mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 240×175×65mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K HDR 30fps | Camera resolution: 21MP | Battery life: 25 minutes (2700mAh) | Max Range: 4km / 2.5mi) | Max Speed: 55kph / 35mph
Parrot weren’t really a contender in the high-end video space until the Anafi arrived in mid-2018, but it was definitely worth the wait. 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, they’ve 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.
Although the carbon-fibre elements of the body can feel a little cheap, 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. 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.
3. DJI Spark
HD selfie-drone you can control with hand gestures
Weight: 300g | Dimensions (folded): 143×143×55mm | Controller: Optional | Video resolution: 1080p 30fps | Camera resolution: 12MP | Battery life: 16 minutes (mAh) | Max Range: 100m | Max Range with controller: 2km / 1.2mi | Max Speed: 50kph / 31mph
In terms of value for money, the Spark offers a lot. Although it doesn’t actually fold – giving it a reassuringly rugged body – the propellers do, so it isn’t actually that chunky. Videographers have to settle for “standard” High Definition – 1080p – which is certainly more than adequate to share your exploits on YouTube. Not only is the quality exemplary, but the ability to track subjects works well too.
Where the Spark really shone (especially at launch when it was a real novelty) was its gesture recognition. You can launch the drone from the palm of your hand, and have it capture a few predefined shots of you with simple gestures. It’s not perfect, but still surprisingly good.
For once, DJI’s tendency to make the initial offer bare bones doesn’t seem quite as frustrating – you’re clearly getting a lot of tech here for your investment – and it’s nice to know you can pick up a controller later if the range doesn’t feel sufficient. For many it won’t though, so perhaps look for a machine with the controller built in if you can.
4. DJI Mavic Air
This is the foldable drone you want in 2018
Weight: 430g | Dimensions (folded): 168×83×49mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 168×184×64mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K 60fps | Camera resolution: 12MP | Battery life: 21 minutes (2375mAh) | Max Range: 10km / 6.2mi) | Max Speed: 68kph / 43mph
The Mavic Air is a stunning technical achievement, an incredibly capable drone that – for most people – would seem to be 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.
All this computing power does come with a downside. The battery life is a quoted 21 minutes, somewhat less in real-world conditions. Unfolding the thing is also surprisingly fiddly. As with other DJI drones an extra “fly more” pack is available which bundles stuff you really need (case, spare batteries) but, of course, is even harder on the wallet.
The controller folds away beautifully (you can even unscrew the sticks), but it is actually a little fiddly, especially with the iPhone X as the grips that hold your phone in place also make it hard to swipe up to activate the phone. It’s also something of a compromise to put the screen below your hands (bigger RCs put it above), but the range is certainly impressive, and DJI’s app includes some cool effects.
5. DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0
Evolutionary not revolutionary, this is still a high-end camera drone
Weight: 1375g | Dimensions: 350x350xmm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps | Camera resolution: 20MP | Battery life: 25 minutes (5870mAh) | Max Range: 7km / 4.1mi) | Max Speed: 72kph / 44.7mph
The Phantom was a revolutionary product, its earlier versions including the first drone to feature a gimbal-stabilised 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).
If you’ve already got a Phantom Pro 4, then there’s little reason to upgrade, to be honest – but it’s definitely a contender, especially if you have truly professional photographic ambitions.
6. DJI Inspire 2
When the optics are essential
Weight: 4000g | Dimensions: 605 diagonal mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 5.2k @ 24fps | Camera resolution: 20.8MP | Battery life: 23-27 minutes (4280mAh dual battery) | Max Range: 7km / 4.1mi) | Max Speed: 94kph / 58mph
The Inspire 1 brought with it a jaw-dropping (and obviously Klingon-inspired) design that keeps the props comfortably out of most shots while allowing for a big, stable frame. The Inspire 2 cements that professional quality with a magnesium hull (careful where you grip it) and lots of dual redundancy for safer flight.
One of those duplicated parts is the battery; you need both to fly and they buy you about 25 minutes of power depending on the camera you choose. Great, but a spare pair of batteries is an eye-watering £360, and the X4S camera is comparable to the Phantom. The X5S (to which you can attach a zoom lens from a Micro 4/3rds camera) is rather better with its big image sensor, but flight times come down, making the phenomenally expensive Zenmuse X7 more appealing.
The Inspire 2 also has sophisticated object tracking, (optional) multi-user operation and other pro features and isn’t really for casual use. It only lacks redundancy on the motors (six would be safer).
7. Ryze Tello
The drone that proves size isn't everything
Weight: 80g | Dimensions: 98x93x41 diagonal mm | Controller: No | Video resolution: 720p | Camera resolution: 5MP | Battery life: 13 minutes (1100mAh) | Max Range: 100m | Max Speed: 29kph / 18mph
This microdrone – well below the likely minimum weight for registration – proudly proclaims that it’s “powered by DJI.” To back that up, it isn’t just a little pricey for the size; it has a great array of software features and positioning sensors. With surprisingly good image quality and straight-to-phone saving it could give your Instagram channel a new perspective.
Price has been kept down; there is no GPS, you have to charge the battery inside the drone via USB, and you fly with your phone (a charging station and add-on game controllers can be used – Ryze offer their own). Images are recorded directly to your phone, not a memory card. The camera is stabilised in software only, but the 720p video looks good given that handicap.
If you want to look cool flying, you can launch from your hand, or even throw it into flight. Other modes let you record 360-degree videos, and the software includes some clever swipe-directed flips. Geekier pilots can even program it.
8. Skydio R1
The ultimate selfie drone and flying supercomputer
Weight: 4000g | Dimensions: 330x406x38mm (unfolded) | Controller: Phone App | Video resolution: 4K @ 30fps | Camera resolution: 8MP | Battery life: 23-27 minutes (4280mAh dual battery) | Max Range: 100m (300ft) | Max Speed: 40kph / 25mph
Object tracking and collision avoidance systems are a nice boost to most drones, but are just a fall-back. The R1, on the other hand, features two cameras on each corner, two pointing up, two more down and the main 4K camera, combining to give its NVIDIA TX1 256-core processor a very full view of its surroundings.
The R1 uses this data to build a detailed 3D map of its environment, and even to predict the movement of the subject it is tracking (probably you), so that it’s able to get the best shot while avoiding lampposts, trees, leaves, and more. The system is of a similar standard of a self-driving car.
Video is recorded to a built in 64Gb, and you can get it – and stills from that video – straight from the app. If you’re doing something awesome, this is the automatic selfie-drone to beat and, right now, no one is close.
9. PowerVision PowerEye
Interchangeable camera monster
Weight: 3950g | Dimensions (folded): 340×285×296mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 513×513×310mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 30fps | Camera resolution: 16.1MP | Battery life: 29 minutes (9000mAh) | Max Range: 5km / 3.1mi) | Max Speed: 65kph / 40mph
The PowerEye is a great example of the benefits to consumers of being in a market dominated by one brand (DJI, in case you were in any doubt). It really makes new contenders look for ways to impress, and by carrying a Micro-4/3rds camera this drone is firmly putting itself against the Inspire 2 with a Zenmuse X5S.
Impressively it makes it case well; there’s no showy 5k mode but the 4k is good, the two batteries supplied each split into two for shipping (so it’s not too big for carry-on rules), and the manually folding down arms allow for a surprisingly compact traveling position in the (included) travel case.
I was only able to test the drone on a very gusty day, and the system struggled to hold position at first, but it won out. The control app and remote are less complex than DJI’s, so fewer software features, but the FPV camera is of a high standard dual-pilot flight is there for pros.
10. Yuneec Typhoon H Plus
Has six rotors and a generous extras package included with a capable camera drone
Weight: 1995g | Dimensions: 520×310mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps | Camera resolution: 20MP | Battery life: 28 minutes (5250mAh) | Max Range: 1.6km / 1mi) | Max Speed: 49kph / 30mph
With a one-inch sensor the Typhoon H Plus has a camera that can take on the Phantom. Better still it is supported by a big and stable six-rotor frame, which is capable of returning if one motor is lost. The retractable landing legs allow for 360-degree lens rotation, unlike the Phantom.
Add into the bargain features like Intel-powered collision avoidance and object tracking software (including Follow Me, Point of Interest and Curve Cable Cam), the 7-inch screen on the controller, and the extra battery that Yuneec bundle and it feels like a great deal.
The transmission distance is not as far as you might expect and the construction and especially the controller might be felt to have an off-puttingly pro or RC-enthusiast aesthetic in comparison to the very consumer-friendly approach of Parrot or DJI.