Drones with cameras. They are nearly ubiquitous today and despite more than a few sensationalized news reports, extremely safe to fly. For those of us into photography and videography, drones offer a platform which used to be exclusive to helicopters.
Have you seen the price to rent a helicopter? Then there’s the whole strapping in to hang out the side. Yeah, I’ll pass. It’s cheaper and a hell of a lot less anxiety to stay planted on the ground with a controller and a tablet. Call it an easy button.
The question is which is the best drone for you? It depends. Yeah, I know. Who doesn’t hate hearing that? But this guide will walk you through the best drones for sale on the market whether you’re a professional, enthusiast or getting your feet wet.
Best Drones 2017
|DJI Phantom 4 Pro||For its price, the Phantom 4 Pro represents a near professional level aerial platform that retains the portability of its predecessors, but has all the latest in technology, including the 100Mbps bitrate and one-inch camera sensor. You can grab it from these retailers: DJI / B&H / Amazon||4.3 miles / 7km maximum video transmission range. Max is 30 minutes under optimal conditions. Real-world will hit 25-27 minutes.|
|DJI Mavic Pro||The Mavic Pro is the ultimate in portable drones. It will fit in an oversized pocket or a simple bag. Fold and go for professional results. It's in a class all by itself. You can grab it from these retailers: DJI / B&H / Amazon||4.3 miles / 7 km maximum video transmission range. 27 minutes under optimum conditions. 21 minutes on average with 15% reserve.|
|Phantom 4 Advanced||It's a baby Phantom 4 Pro. You get all the camera goodness of the one-inch sensor with a bit of a price cut. There are a few features missing, but nothing that's a deal breaker. You lose the 5.8Ghz band and a few of the rear sensors. Past that, it represents one hell of a value. You can grab it from these retailers: DJI / B&H / Amazon||4.3 miles / 7km maximum video transmission range. Max is 30 minutes under optimal conditions. Real-world will hit 25-27 minutes.|
|DJI Spark||The ultimate in beginner drones. DJI has finally entered the sub-$500 market with a camera drone packed with technology. While it gives up the three-axis gimbal and 4K, it makes up for it in usability and sheer portability. You can grab it from these retailers: DJI||Max range is 1.2 milies with the controller, over 100 yards with a smartphone and 10 feet with gesture control. Max is 16 minutes with the ability to charge the battery via a micro-USB port on the back.|
|Yuneec Typhoon H||Great value for a camera drone with a 360-degree gimbal. It loses out on battery life and range, but its Intel RealSense technology gives it safety features to rival top tier DJI drones. You can grab it from these retailers: B&H / Amazon||One mile effective range at a max speed of 43mph. Up to 25 minutes under optimal conditions. Shave off a couple of minutes in real-world conditions.|
|DJI Inspire 2||It's not cheap, but it's truly a professional drone and aerial platform. It is the first, true dual operator drone with its front-facing 720p camera for the pilot, while a second operator controls the 360-degree gimbal. You can grab it from these retailers: DJI / B&H / Amazon||4.3 miles / 7km maximum video transmission range. 27 minutes with the X4S camera attached.|
|DJI Phantom 4||If you're looking for a sub-$1000 drone that's complete, the Phantom 4 offers a compelling case. The issue is for an extra $300, you can have a fully kitted out Mavic Pro with better range and portability. You can grab it from these retailers: B&H / Amazon||3.1 miles / 5km maximum transmission range. 28 minutes under optimal conditions. Real-world tests have it around 25 minutes.|
|DJI Phantom 3 Pro||The old workhorse of DJI. It's showing its age but the drone can take a beating and still hit the sky. If you can snap up a deal, it's a great starter drone. You can grab it from these retailers: Amazon||3.1 miles / 5km maximum transmission range. 23 minutes under most conditions. It will depend on the weather, wind speed, etc., but the 23-minute advertised spec is nearly spot on.|
|GoPro Karma|| After suffering a complete recall, the Karma is back. It's value is in the multi-purpose functionality. Not only are you getting a drone, but it comes with a stabilizer and GoPro Hero5 action camera. It gets dinged for the lack of features seen in older DJI models. You can grab it from these retailers:|
Amazon / B&H
|Under two miles / 3km maximum transmission range. Up to 20 minutes of flight time, leaving it outside even the older DJI models.|
Best Drones With Cameras – Professional
It’s a space thoroughly dominated by DJI. Yuneec is making a play, but the recent additions to DJI’s lineup leave it as nearly the only game in town. From enterprise solutions to the P4P and Inspire 2, the company is solidifying itself as the dominant force.
Depending on your use case, the best professional/prosumer drone for its value is the DJI Phantom 4 Pro.
Phantom 4 Pro
Photographers or videographers looking to add an aerial platform will not go wrong with the Phantom 4 Pro. We wanted a higher bitrate, and it delivered H.264 4K videos at 60fps or H.265 4K at 30fps at a 100Mbps bitrate.
The Phantom series had been languishing at 60Mbps through the series 3 and into the Phantom 4. DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro changed the game. It didn’t stop with bitrate. The P4P upgraded the camera’s sensor to a full one-inch at 20 megapixels. Compare that to the 12MP sensor on the 4.
And the sharpness is incredible in low light situations. When compared with the Phantom 4, the Phantom 4 Pro blows it out of the water:
It’s not even close. If you’re looking for usable video or stills in low light, the Phantom 4 Pro is an insane value at $1500. Other features on the camera include a mechanical shutter erasing rolling shutter issues when taking images of fast moving subjects or pulling a ‘me’ – flying at a high rate of speed.
The oops moments are taken care of with 5-direction obstacle sensing. A quick note on object avoidance. It’s there as an assist, not for us to play chicken with the side of a building. The building will win. Trust me.
Flight performance maxes out at 30 minutes, but that’s with you hovering in no wind. Hell, I know the weather picks ups when I grab my drone. Here comes a breezy day. Expect 25-28 minutes on average of flight time. The range is increased to 4.3 miles, but like battery life, understand it’s under optimal conditions. Bank on two miles and be impressed as hell when you stretch past it.
Livestreaming. It’s a nice touch and you have to wonder if wireless carriers knew what they were getting into with the unlimited data plans.
At $1500, there’s not a better deal on the market. Yes, you can opt for the dedicated screen on the controller, but most of us have a tablet lying around. The extra $300 can be used on batteries.
Where to get a Phantom 4 Pro
DJI Inspire 2
Here’s where you need some cash. The new DJI Inspire 2. Take the Inspire 1 and improve it in all areas and you get one sleek videography platform. The Inspire 2 is now a true dual operator thanks to a front-facing 720p camera for one operator, while another controls the 360-degree camera.
And it’s here where things get interesting. DJI has two cameras to add to the base $3000 drone. The X4S and the X5S. If you choose the X4S, the total hits $3600. Being honest, unless you need the 360-degree gimbal, paying double over the Phantom 4 Pro makes no sense. There’s not a lot of difference between the two sensors or capabilities.
There are a few benefits thanks to the processing power onboard the Inspire 2. Burst mode hits 14fps in both DNG and JPEG formats. The 4K video is oversampled to 5.2K, giving you more data to work with. Bitrates and the megapixel stay the same.
Where the Inspire 2 shines in regards to the camera is the X5S. It’s a damn monster, and its burst rate can hit 20fps stored on the CINESSD. 5.2K video. It drops the one-inch sensor for a micro 4/3. Same MP count, but 12.8 stops and 12-bit raw.
The Inspire 2 with the X5S can support eight M4/3 lenses (including zoom) with focal lengths hitting 9mm-45mm (the equivalent on a 35mm camera is 18-90mm). Stills can also be captured during flight – a feature drone enthusiasts have wanted for years.
Another benefit of the X5S is the optimized gimbal. If you want butter-smooth shots, the accuracy of the gimbal is within .01 degrees and powered by a dedicated processor.
Outside of the camera selection, the Inspire 2 is everything you want in a dedicated aerial platform. Top speed can hit 58 mph, so the car chase you’ve always dreamed of filming is within your grasp. Obstacle avoidance is covered on all sides, including upward avoidance.
Common sense says you’re looking at it when flying in tight spots, but you never know when your nephew grabs the control and sends it on a ride.
Self-heating batteries power the Inspire 2 in less than ideal temperatures, and nearly every system has double redundancy. Dual batteries. Redundant IMUs. Two Barometers. You get the idea.
Flight time with the Inspire 2 is rated at 25-27 minutes and the range is the same as the Phantom 4 Pro. Those not needing an Apple ProRes or CinemaDNG license can put together the X5S and Inspire 2 for $4800. The premium combo including the two license keys hits $6198.00
Where to Get an Inspire 2
DJI Mavic Pro
Here’s where I’m diverging a bit from the upper reaches of drones with cameras. The Mavic Pro. And there’s one glaring reason. Portability. It fits in your (oversized) pocket. It may not have the camera tech of the Inspire 2 or the Phantom 4 Pro, but damn if it doesn’t punch above its weight class.
When folded, it has a footprint of H83mm x W83mm x L198mm. The wish of a drone that fits in the palm of your hand is now a reality. For a size comparison, it is a sixth the size of a Phantom 4, yet it can stretch out to a 4.3-mile range.
It shoots 4K video with a 12MP sensor. You’re thinking 12MP and 60Mbps bitrate. How is this pro-grade? You cannot overlook the portability factor. Inspire 2 owners could have a Mavic Pro to scout locations before unpacking the inspire 2. What’s easier? Unpacking the behemoth to fly around, or literally taking a Mavic out of the bag, unfolding it and you’re in the air.
It may not have the same bitrate or megapixel count, but the images and video are just as stunning. Here’s a video with zero editing or color grading:
At $999, the Mavic Pro is a steal with its feature set. Especially for those who want to lighten their pack. Landscape photographers have a brand new tool in their arsenal.
Where to get a Mavic Pro
DJI Phantom 4 Advanced
Think baby Phantom 4 Pro, and you’re on the right track. The Phantom 4 Advanced will replace the Phantom 4, which ends its life cycle. It knocks a couple of hundred dollars off the price and keeps the vast majority of the features. The one-inch, 20-megapixel camera is there from the Phantom 4 Pro, as is the range, battery life and most of the sensors. What you are losing in the price difference are the 5.8Ghz band and the rear vision sensors.
Like the Phantom 4 Pro, you have two options. One is a regular remote controller where you supply the tablet or smartphone. The other is the Phantom 4 Advanced+ which comes with an integrated, ultra-bright screen. Its loss of the 5.8Ghz band does hamper it when it comes to a professional drone, but it’ not a deal breaker. The rear vision sensors or more for indoor flying. So, buy accordingly.
Where to Get a Phantom 4 Advanced
First teased in 2016, the DJI Goggles are finally seeing the light of day in preorders. Made for those wanting an FPV (first-person view) experience. Control the camera via head movements or get into the racing drone scene. If you’re ok with a VR-like experience, you’ll love the accessory. It can be a bit trippy for those with vertigo, but there’s no denying the wow factor of a true bird’s eye view of your surroundings.
As of May 19, the limited presale is showing them out of stock, but the release date is around the corner. At $449, they are fun as hell and shows the company is serious about pricing out the competition.
Matrice 600 Pro
A bank account buster. The Matrice 600 Pro is for the professional that wants their own payload. Slap a Sony a7s2, RED EPIC, or any DSLR on it and go. It takes everything about the Matrice 600 and improves upon it. Better flight performance and loading capacity complement the modular design. The arms of the hexacopter come pre-installed along with the antennas for quicker deployment.
What about the camera? Here’s where you need some spare cash. The platform itself retails for $4999.00. The camera is extra and can handle anything from DJI’s Zenmuse X5S up to the RED EPIC. Those owning a RED EPIC or perhaps a 4K-capable DSLR can opt to add the Ronin MX. At $1599.00, it can attach to the Matric 600 Pro and can handle a variety of payloads.
It also serves a dual purpose. Need cinema quality stabilization on the ground? The Ronin MX has you covered.
As an example, say you went all in with the Ronin MX + RED, the flight time you can expect is a max of 16 minutes. It’s a scenario like that when having a Mavic Pro would come in handy. Six batteries power the Matric 600 Pro and all six can be charged at once via a charging hub.
The A3 Pro flight controller features triple redundancy from three sets of GNSS units. Its compatibility with D-RTK GNSS enables the Matrice 600 Pro to withstand magnetic interference – making it ideal for industrial uses. While it doesn’t come cheap, the Matrice 600 Pro platform is the top of the line solution for professional videography along with industrial and enterprise customers.
Where to get the Matrice 600 Pro
Best Enthusiast Drones With Camera
Stepping away from the professional/prosumer drones comes the enthusiast category – those new to the market but with some experience. There is a bit of overlap with the Phantom 4 Pro and especially the Mavic Pro but introduces other manufacturers who are battling it out with DJI for a piece of the consumer drone market.
The number one value in the category is the Mavic Pro. Its price point of $999 is a sweet spot, and you can’t argue its pros over other drones in the category.
Mavic Pro as a Starter?
What makes the Mavic Pro intriguing is you’re getting most of the benefits from the upper tier of DJI drones in a package that fits in a small bag. The camera is the same as the Phantom 4. Bitrate is the same.
Yet, it can stretch its legs with a range double that of its competition. Where it falls a bit short is the FOV difference with the Phantom 4 and others. It’s a tradeoff which had to be made to fit the Mavic into a footprint that small. And now that DJI has ironed out the shipping issues, the Mavic Pro is getting into customer’s hands quickly.
For photographers, the 12MP sensor supports Adobe DNG RAW, so we get to have all kinds of fun in Lightroom. Videographers have 3-axis stabilized 4K footage at 30fps with a bitrate of 60Mbps.
The selfie generation will be pleased with gesture control, which allows the Mavic to snap a picture of you from any angle you can imagine. Somehow DJI baked in FlightAutonomy tech to allow the Mavic to sense objects and reduce accidents. It’s not on the same level as the Phantom 4 and up, but those also don’t fit in your pocket.
Those looking for a drone that’s portable and has high-end capability should look to the Mavic Pro.
Yuneec Typhoon H and Beyond
Another major player in the market is Yuneec. Some will make the argument the upper tier belongs in the Pro category with its Intel RealSense object avoidance, but this is about the camera. Sticking with a 12MP sensor holds it back, though expect that to change soon.
What makes it a standout is for under a grand, you get a capability found in the Inspire 2. A full 360-degree gimbaled 4K camera. It records 30fps with a 60Mbps bitrate. A 98-degree FOV captures plenty of action.
Where it falls short is the range. The 720p downlink drops after a mile, keeping you fenced in. The ST16 is a dedicated ground station and offers a 7-inch display. A nice addition to those who may not want to use their phone as the display.
Protip? Turn on ‘Do Not Disturb.’ Getting a phone call while flying between two cliff faces is a recipe for disaster. Personal experience.
The Typhoon H is a solid enthusiast drone as long as you realize you won’t be setting distance records. Having the 360-degree gimbal is a nice touch along with Intel RealSense object avoidance. Now, the company needs to up the camera specs.
Where to Get a Yuneec Typhoon H
DJI Phantom 4
While DJI is trending towards a black color pattern, I’m a fan of glossy white. The Phantom 4 belongs in this category, but just barely. You have to make the call on whether you want to spend $1,199.00 on this unit or $1,499.00 on a Phantom 4 Pro. That’s a hard choice considering the amount of upgrades you garner for $300 more. Still, the Phantom 4 is quite the workhorse drone.
It was the first from DJI to introduce high speed to the forefront, pushing top speeds of 44 mph – it actually goes faster. Object avoidance really came out to play in Phantom 4. We tested it, and it worked like a charm. Again, the idea is to assist you, not try to ram it into a tree.
The ‘Tap to Fly’ was a nice addition to users who wanted something easy to use.
This guide is all about the camera. 12MP on a three-axis gimbal.
Range on the Phantom 4 is advertised as 4.3 miles. The best we could get was a touch over two miles out, and we are rural on a hill. Still, it’s more than enough to grab excellent footage.
Here’s a lightning strike frame grab off the Phantom 4. It was perfect setup with a storm building off to our south. And this was after I learned you do not want to place a drone in front of a storm. Talk about a pain in the ass getting it back when the outflow hit.
If it were me, I’d wait for it to go on sale for under a grand. Being that close to the Phantom 4 Pro screams ‘what’s another $300?’
Where to Get a Phantom 4
Yes, it was recalled. But GoPro insists the problems are ironed out and is now shipping. The issue I have with the GoPro Karma is it lacks a lot of the safety features you find in DJI and Yuneec. Object avoidance isn’t there and the camera is a GoPro. Luckily you can make the switch to the flat profile, but the company isn’t having the best of runs.
When it was launched, it was supposed to be the hyper-portable drone we all wanted. Then came the Mavic Pro which stomped all over the GoPro roll out.
What the Karma has going for it is if you don’t have a GoPro, you’re getting a drone, action camera and a stabilization stick similar to the Osmo. Hell no it doesn’t work the same in the marketing videos. You’ll need a deft hand to iron out the shaky cam. But in flight, it handles itself quite well.
Assuming you have a GoPro Hero5 Black, the Karma will have 4K video/12MP stills. It can capture in RAW and has exposure control. Best part is you have a completely waterproof action camera when you’re not flying.
The concern with it is GoPro is floundering on the stock market. Action cameras have plateaued, and the company was pivoting to the Karma. Still, those looking for an all-in-one package and have plenty of GoPro accessories, it’s a deal.
Where to Get a GoPro Karma
Best Beginner Drones With Camera
Looking to save money and still have a solid platform? The Phantom 3 Series is a clear winner, while Yuneec and GoPro’s Karma (assuming you own a GoPro) round out the beginner class. Deals abound, especially with DJI’s Phantom 3 Series and the new DJI Spark.
DJI finally entered the beginner drone market with the DJI Spark. It’s tiny and at $499, a steal considering the onboard technology. You are giving up some features with the low price point. There is no 4K or three-axis stabilization. It makes up for it with intuitive gesture control, and incredible 1.2-mile range and solid battery life for a camera drone that’s smaller than the Mavic Pro and weighs in at around a soda can.
For the drone market, it’s DJI’s show and everyone else is a distant second. If you’re looking for more power, look towards the upper tier of the Mavic, Phantom 4 Pro or Phantom 4 Advanced. Especially if you want quality stills and video.
DJI Phantom 3 Pro
Our first drone and if the Chinese company doesn’t mind me borrowing a Ford Motors line, it’s built to take a beating. A few ‘scrapes’ with pine trees had the house smelling great for weeks. Our dad managed to front flip it after he had landed it. Chasing my nephew ended with a tap on a branch that sent it spiraling.
All of that and it still flies today. Not bad but DJI is phasing out the 3 series to push the 4 and beyond. Manufacturing has ceased on on the 3 line, but deals can be had elsewhere. At $800, the Pro is a hell of starter drone. 4K video and 12MP stills. The Phantom 3 4K (confusing name) is an even better deal at $580.
The problem with the Phantom 3 Series is they are like your smartphone. The manufacturer is moving on, leaving you with little to no firmware upgrades. It’s a move to push you towards the Phantom 4 and at that point, why not the Phantom 4 Pro?
Where to Get a DJI Phantom 3
The ultimate in starter drones. $400 for 4K video, though it’s electronically stabilized. No three-axis stabilization to be had on this bargain, but it will keep the kids happy. I’d happily hand this off to my nephew before any other system. It won’t knock your socks off in the quality department, but that’s not the point.
It is designed to get you in the market and see if drone photography/videography is for you. I’ll go ahead and answer that question. It’s a yes with a side of hell yes.
Where to Get a Yuneec Breeze
What is the Best Drone For Sale?
A few companies have been left off the list but should be mentioned – Parrot and 3DR. Both have suffered significant layoffs in recent months, and DJI has laid claim to 50% of the US market, while others languish in single digits.
What’s the best drone for sale? Strictly from a value proposition, it’s the Phantom 4 Pro. At $1500, it’s damn hard to find a better deal. Its camera nearly mirrors the X4S and for less than half the cost. Sure, the Inspire 2 or Matrice 600 Pro with a RED EPIC would be grand, but based on value and features, the winner is the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Until the Phantom 5. We know it’s coming sooner rather than later.