It’s amazing to think that a few years ago camera drones were little more than novelty toys for gadget-heads; now they’re a creative tool few photographers or filmmakers want to go without.
There are choices for amateur and professional, offering a choice of creative angles and unique perspectives that simply wouldn’t be possible with any other camera. Of course, the possibilities have always been exciting – what makes it practical, and what is the right choice?
When we look at a camera drone, we're looking for the right balance of price, camera capability, and practicality. That last category is affected in most countries, including the UK and USA, by laws that make it easier to operate drones under 250g (0.55 pounds).
If you're looking for high-quality results, you'll need to look for larger image sensors and perhaps even the ability to record using cinema-grade codecs like ProRes. These can be hard for most people to work with though. More important are the essentials – a gimbal to keep the camera stable and a good battery life.
AI is also a key factor for shooting, with many drones having different levels of subject tracking that can greatly ease getting a good flowing shot, while safety is a factor bolstered by collision sensors, though these can come at a price.
Best drone overall
A high-spec camera in a drone small enough to be used safely (and legally) in most places makes this an ideal first drone and often the only one you'll ever need.
Best for flexibility
A still-compact 4K drone with two cameras (1x and 3x) and 200fps slow-mo makes this a good choice for serious imaging without breaking the bank or your back.
The best drones in 2023
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Best drone overall
The DJI Mini 3 Pro arrived in May 2022 and redefined what DJI was doing with the ultra-light category, with some collision sensors and a 4K 60fps camera which could physically rotate to vertical mode. Under 18 months later, the Mini 4 Pro finished the job, making the collision sensors omnidirectional and adding 10-bit D-Log M video and waypoint programmable flights while keeping under the magic weight. It can also do HDR at a full 60fps rather than the 30fps limit of the Air 3 Pro.
The Mini 4 Pro also sports DJI's updated O4 radio system which offers up to 20km (over 12 miles) of theoretical range or, more importantly, top notch reception in sensible operational distances. The updated DJI RC 2, as seen with the DJI Air 3, is an option, which feels very pro in hand, giving the choice of a model with a screen to save the (fairly minimal) fuss of connecting a phone). In some markets (start chanting "USA, USA...") there is also a choice of batteries if you don't mind pushing the weight limit, meaning you can go from the already decent 30 minutes to over 40 (again, always take these with a pinch of salt – it depends on conditions and flying style).
The message of the Mini 4 Pro is that DJI is not going to let the weight restriction prevent creatives from achieving their goals. The inevitable downside is the pricing, which is quite a lot closer to the company's higher-end models than the other ultralights. If you want to save, there is the less-expensive DJI Mini 3, which lacks the collision sensors and some of the output options, but will capture similar video and stills for the average user.
Read our full DJI Mini 4 Pro review for more details
Best for flexibility
The DJI Mini 3 arrived in May 2022 and redefined what DJI was doing with the ultra-light category; prior to that point neither of their offerings had any collision sensors but with this launch, they not only added sensors in three directions but created a new camera gimbal capable of turning to capture portrait images.
At the same time, a new ‘DJI RC’ remote control became available, giving customers the choice of a model with a screen to save the (fairly minimal) fuss of connecting a phone). There will also be a choice of batteries, with a heavier long-life battery available in some markets (though this will push the take-off weight over the magic number).
The message is clear: we’re not going to let the weight restriction prevent creatives from achieving their goals. The only downside is the pricing is, inevitably, broadly comparable to similarly capable aircraft (like the old Air 2, which came in at 570g). If you want to save, consider the newer less-expensive DJI Mini 3, which lacks the collision sensors.
The DJI Air 3 has a lot to recommend it at price which – while certainly not pocket money – is less of a stretch than others on this list. Some can't look past the slightly smaller image sensor than the Air 2S, but the new image sensor is a modern stacked CMOS and – more importantly – there are two of them. One with a 24mm EFL (wide) lens and one with a 70mm EFL (what DJI call a medium telephoto) lens.
Since both have equally good 48-megapixel sensors, both can produce 100fps 4K slow-mo (or 200fps at 1080P) and all the other promised features, making the drone much easier to use than others which mix-and-match the sensors and lenses. In other words this isn't hard to come to from, say, an iPhone.
We see this as a slightly cut-down Mavic 3 Pro which, in the trimming, has actually become that bit easier to use, though it still gets all the cool features like AI subject tracking and even Waypoints, plus excellent battery life,not to mention weighing a bit less. Why spend more?
Read my full DJI Air 3 review for more details and flight experience
Best for AI
Skydio, an American firm, was founded by MIT graduates who had also been involved in Google’s ‘Project Wing.’ As that heritage implies, it focuses on autonomy which makes it a different beast to many on this list; in its cheapest configuration, it doesn’t even come with a radio controller, relying instead on the excellent phone app and wi-fi. This limits it to a 200m (646ft) range, but that is plenty for the aircraft to follow or even orbit someone, keeping them in the frame, and avoiding anything in the way.
The Skydio 2+ can be extended with a radio beacon and traditional radio controller for a longer range, too, though even with just a phone one of the most impressive features – the keyframed flights – can be planned and put into operation. This device, and its app, are truly built around the cinematography rather than the process itself, and that has a lot of appeal. It’s even smart enough to remember to record a video for you (easily forgotten, trust us).
Sadly, however, as of August 2023 Skydio no longer supports the consumer market so these smarts aren't quite as easy to get hold of.
Read our full Skydio 2+ review for more details
Best drone for beginner
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 (but ones whose budgets can’t manage 2022's DJI Mini 3 Pro).
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 in 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, are features that’d please a serious user, while the DJI app is easy to get to grips with and has handy sharing tools 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).
Best for narration
Autel does like to make people wait, announcing the EVO Nano months before it shipped. Nevertheless, they beat DJI to the punch when it came to collision sensors on an ultra-light drone, and the subsequent arrival of the Mini 3 Pro will no doubt keep pricing under control too; good news for those who want light drones with good feature lists!
Autel has also chosen to offer the Nano in two versions – a cheaper one with a 12.7mm sensor and the Nano+ with 19.8mm; you’ll pay for the larger sensor but also get 48-megapixel images. In either case, the drone is light enough to stay under the registration rules in FAA airspace while being equipped with 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 a rich 2.7K30 (newer DJI drones are typically 1080P). 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; the wireless transfer of images and videos to a nearby smartphone at 160 MB/s.
Read our full Autel EVO Nano+ review for more details
Best for cinema
The Inspire 3, with the required accessories, will set you back the same amount of money as a small car, but for the cinematographers it is aimed at it'll be worth it. It could even save a bit compared to jibs and dollys, though it does have a bit more downdraft! The accuracy of repeatable routes can be centimeter level thanks to built-in RTK compatibility.
As for cameras, the detachable unit has its own name: the Zenmuse X9-8K Air camera. Perhaps more will come later? It can rotate 360 degrees beneath the drone's airframe, and can be operated by one pilot – with the assistance of AI subject framing if they choose – or a pilot and one or two camera operators.
This is serious professional stuff, which will only record to DJI's own costly SSD cards (the same as used with their Ronin cinema cameras), and editing will require crunching a lot of numbers, but the results are spectacular and the dual-native ISO full-frame imaging sensor certainly gets the results you'd expect for the investment.
Read our full DJI Inspire 3 Review with sample clips
Best camera drone
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 that 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 telephoto lens, so is more of a scouting accessory and surveying tool – the secondary camera cannot produce the image quality, or ProRes video, as an Inspire 2 with the right lens could.
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 that (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 video needs to be downloaded directly from the drone as the SSD is fixed.
Read our full DJI Mavic 3 review for more details
Best cheap camera drone
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.
Note: This drone has been effectively replaced by the Mini 2 SE, which is similar but with a remote control.
Beat drone for cheap 8K
Like the Mavic 2, Autel’s second EVO is offered with different camera choices, in theory at least. Both are built around a heavy, rugged-looking (but rather an average feeling) orange airframe which eschews sleek consumer-friendly design for simple practicality, demonstrated by its long flight time more than anything else.
While Autel Explorer, its 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 a 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 an 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 our full Autel EVO II review for more details
Best of the rest
The Mavic 3 is a powerful machine and priced accordingly, but while its “hybrid zoom” is a handy tool for surveying, it isn’t a feature that will excite a lot of photographers. This “classic” version ditches the relatively low-resolution zoom camera and retains the 4/3 Hasselblad camera on more or less the same airframe (including C1 certification). 10-bit D-log and all the low-light benefits of the large sensor are retained.
That means creators who would only have used the 24mm EFL camera can pay a little less to get the 15km range, advanced return to home (avoiding and re-routing around objects), and the excellent battery life of the Mavic 3 without really losing out. In fact, compared to the original’s launch, there are some advantages – the subject tracking, panorama capture, and other functions are all working from day one, and are pretty high-end.
Read our full DJI Mavic 3 Classic review for more details
Best older model drones
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. Bigger, even, than DJI decided to keep when the newer DJI Air 3 came along in July 2023 when the firm opted to switch to a dual camera arrangement.
That means the Air 2S – while it's still available – is a very cost-effective (and portable) way to access a large sensor. The Air 2S is much more compact than either Mavic 2 or 3 or any other drone with a 1-inch sensor (just sit it next to a Phantom 4!). The DJI ‘FocusTrack’ intelligent subject tracking 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.
PowerVision is certainly an inventive company – as its awards shelf will testament. It has been making underwater drones for as long as flying ones, but the PowerEgg X is a white egg that 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 a bigger sensor than, 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. Its adaptability means its 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.
If you're looking for a cinematography drone, the new Inspire 3 flew off with the crown, but the Inspire 2 also has the ability to swap lenses (and indeed cameras) and – unlike its more expensive replacement – is available in an edition which records to MicroSD cards keeping the system in financial reach for more.
The size and weight are part of the problem in these more regulated times, and the necessity of attaching the camera to the base of the Inspire 2 before every take-off doesn't make for a quick deployment. All that being said, the drone – despite a few years under its belt – the machine is capable.
There is a niche of smaller commercial operators for whom the Inspire 3 will be unnecessary, or unaffordable, but whose client's might be rather impressed by the size and shape of this drone. In practice, a Mavic 3 Pro might offer better value (certainly a better battery life) but sometimes clients need to be impressed!
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 an 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 (everything on this list) make use of proprietary radio systems (DJI alone have come up with names like Lightbridge, OM3, O3, O4). Their range is measured in 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 do the means of vibration reduction. At the lower end, cushioning or some kind of digital image stabilization works, but the best systems used motorized 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. Drones are at their most efficient when flying forward at an average speed, so right out of the gate, you should assume the hover time for each drone is a little less than the given flight time. Maneuvers draw more power too
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 to use the drone 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 that includes things like spare propellers, extra batteries, ND filters, and a bag. Spare propellers, 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 – the gimbals tend to have one-off lens mounts, all worth bearing in mind.
How we test drones
How we test drones
Our drone tests are carried our in the field, allowing us to assess the quadcopter for its flight performance, easy of use, and its image quality. All our drone reviews are overseen by Adam Juniper who is one of the UK's leading experts in drones, and who has written several books on flying drones, including The Drone Pilot's Handbook. He ensures that the tests – most of which he does himself – cover any notable features thoroughly in real-world scenarios.
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