The best camera drones are far more than the simple toys they used to be. They're now used widely by both amateur and professional photographers because they can reach areas and shoot from angles that regular cameras can't. They allow aerial photography and videography of landscapes, buildings and events that previously required the use of a helicopter, a small plane or a crane.
The best drones have evolved greatly since the first ready-to-fly model went on sale ten years ago – and a decade on drones are now everywhere. Every drone on this list has a camera supported by a powered gimbal, which counteracts the vibration from the propellers. Sensor size is still an issue for photographers, but there are options depending on your needs. In general, the bigger the sensor, the better the low-light performance.
Piloting has also become partly optional; Tesla-like A.I. is making collision avoidance, object tracking, and automatic quick shots a common feature. The Skydio 2, with 45-megapixels of cameras devoted to its artificial brain, promises to be the most intelligent of them all but is still almost impossible to find in the shops.
Some drones still lack a full set of smart flying features (even if fitted with landing sensors). You need to remember not all drones can see obstacles in every direction – even if they fly in any direction! Nevertheless to make this list drones feature technology allowing them to hover in place, so photographers can view using them as more as like positioning a tripod without legs than going to pilot school.
In 2021, the major excitement has been with the arrival of the DJI FPV Combo - which brings sports drone photography using goggles to a much wider audience. And then there was the arrival of the DJI Air 2S, which proves to be much more than update. To come, we are also expecting Sony to arrive with its first Airpeak drone, whilst Ring is promising a home security camera that flies around to keep an eye on your possessions.
Oh, and while we’re talking drones, it’s worth accepting that drone rules and regulations have become part of the drone operator’s life, especially commercial users for whom insurance is likely a legal requirement. In USA, Europe and China any aircraft over 250g (8.8oz) is subject to a compulsory registration scheme (and since the start of 2021 in the UK the rules now apply to any flying camera, whatever the weight).
The best drones in 2021
DJI’s Mavic Pro changed what was possible with the best camera drones back in 2016, making it possible to fold and carry a decent-quality lens without being overly heavy or bulky. It could capture 4K (at a maximum of 24fps) and introduced a handy fold-out controller that seemed to have more in common with a PlayStation than bulky radio controllers from their hobby era.
By 2020 the folding Mavic series is split into four. From cheapest to most expensive that’s Mavic Mini (and its replacement the Mini 2), Mavic Air 2, Mavic 2 Zoom & Mavic 2 Pro. The final two have identical airframes but radically different camera units. The Zoom is our favorite because it features a 2x optical zoom lens (with an effective focal length range of 24-48mm). This gives real creative options in terms of lens compression. This is highlighted by the drone’s unique feature, the Dolly Zoom quickshot, in which the aircraft simulates the Hitchcock classic camera move.
There is a price to pay though; the zoom sits infront of a 1/2.3” 12-megapixel camera which tops out at ISO3200. Even at launch this was a little disappointing, though 4K video at up to 30fps and 100mbps are great quality, and DJI’s app provides a great balance of functionality and power. The only real complaint about the Mavic 2 is the lack of 60fps at 4K, and the fact the side sensors don’t really do much except give a false sense of security.
• Read full DJI Mavic 2 Zoom review
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
2020 saw the arrival of the Mavic Air 2 with a host of improvements to the Mavic line which make the Mavic 2 Pro more of a speciality aircraft than before, but whichever way you look at it the stills and, in lower light, the video remain unbeaten (without spending a good amount more and throwing portability out of the window).
Given DJI’s ownership of Hasselblad the camera branding might be seen as a gimmick, 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
Each pixel on the sensor is still bigger than on all but the EVO II Pro from this list, so low-light stills and video look gorgeous, and the higher detail is also useful for surveyors and 3D mapping, both of which the Mavic handles easily thanks to integration with Drone Deploy (in fairness similar integration is available with other drones). 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.
PowerVision is certainly an inventive company – as its awards shelf will testament – and it has been making underwater drones as long as flying ones, so the PowerEgg X shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. Their original PowerEgg was a stunning product, yet rather than revising it, PowerVision opted to go back to the drawing board. They created an altogether new egg which could 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, but in good light it’s capable of 60fps – double the frame-rate of the DJI, making it great for. 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.
The Explorer is a stripped down version of the PowerVision PowerEgg X Wizard – losing its magical waterproofing powers, but in the process saving you a chunk of money that may well be a sensible move if you are into fair weather flying. The specification is the same however when it comes to its flying skills. You still get the drone, controller, case, a single battery, camcorder grip & tripod mount – but you don't get the extra battery, weatherproofing components or canvas bag that you get with the Wizard.
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).
Parrot wasn't really a contender in the high-end aerial video market 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, 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 new Parrot Anafi FPV kit has been recently introduced, which combines this drone with head-up display ('first-person view') goggles for a fully immersive flying experience. While the addition of FPV might seem a novelty at first, the economical implementation means that anyone considering an Anafi can afford to sample it – and we genuinely believe it would be a shame to miss!
• 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.
NOTE Just released is a substantial update to this drone, in thee shape of the DJI Air 2S. Also be aware that the older Mavic Air can still be found on sale, and is now found at reduced prices.
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.
The Inspire 1 brought with it a jaw-dropping 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. That's great, but a spare pair of batteries is an eye-watering $360/£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).
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.