It’s not a dream. Camera drones are everywhere. Gimbals. Bitrates. Camera sensors. It’s a never-ending release cycle that would make Apple blush. It’s information overload. Let’s cut through all the marketing and get you set with the best drone to fit your life and hobby.
There are choices for every user; budget-conscious, not so budget-conscious, videographers, photographers, beginners and of course, those who want a drone in their pocket.
There will be overlap between the categories, but you can easily find that happy middle we all want in our gear. Also, head over to our drone editing guide for the best YouTube channels to get you started on editing your videos or photos.
Choosing Your First Camera Drone
Two schools of thought here. Go ultra cheap, and you get what you pay for or stick with the $500-ish budget and get something worth having. There are two new options in this range and a couple of older drones that still stand the test of time. Let’s hit the two main options.
The newest entry to the market, it gets the headline number of $499. Yes, you can grab it right now for that price, but if you want to take full advantage of the Spark, it will set you back $699 for an extra battery, the remote controller, charging hub and prop guards.
Think of it as the ultimate selfie drone. DJI has been working on gesture control for a bit now, and the Spark seems to be the culmination of the hard work. And damn is it built for people rough with their gear.
The price point does give up some features we are used to in the more exciting drones. There’s not a three-axis gimbal. Instead, it relies on a two-axis gimbal with electronic image stabilization. Not a deal breaker because it can be smoothed out in post-processing or by thinking ahead on the use you want out of the drone. Something to pass off to your parents or nephew? It’s spot on.
DJI Mavic Air
The latest out of DJI, the Mavic Air is smaller, more agile and you can make the argument, better than the Mavic Pro. Expect that to change in the near-term, but for now, the Mavic Air boasts some serious upgrades over its ‘Pro’ predecessor. Its footprint is impossibly small, and DJI designed it to handle serious winds. Personally, I wouldn’t try it, but it’s nice to know a blustery day won’t equal a lost drone.
Why is it ‘better’ than the Mavic Pro? Both share the same sensor, but the Mavic Air enjoys 100Mbps bitrate over the 60Mbps of the Mavic Pro. It makes a difference in image and video quality. And considering the price point, it’s damn compelling if you’re looking for a solid drone to travel with. It also makes us wonder what the Mavic Pro II has in store for the masses.
It does get dinged in the battery life department, with a max in the area of 21 minutes. The quieter propulsion system also doesn’t make an appearance. DJI is pushing the Air as the answer for those who want the ease of use of the Spark but the quality of the Mavic Pro. And yes, it succeeds on both fronts.
The Mavic Air is sitting in that happy middle between two drones. Spend a little extra, and you get tons of extra features over the Spark. Don’t want to toss down over a grand for a Mavic Pro or Phantom 4 Pro? You have your answer.
For now, it’s the main competition for the Mavic Air. Recently announced, it has similar features as the Mavic Air, and even outstrips the drone in some areas. The new offering from Parrot sports a 21MP sensor and the camera is mounted forward. It’s here where the Anafi separates itself from the pack. It has 180-degrees of vertical movement, allowing the camera drone to look up and down.
What may be its downfall is DJI always manages to rain on the parade of camera drone announcements. I already expect to update this article in the coming days with a new Mavic.
The Spark’s competition is the [amazon link=”B01LANE77M” title=”Yuneec Beeze” /]. It comes in at $100 cheaper but lacks the battery life, relies completely on electronic image stabilization, and there’s no gesture control. What it does have is the ability to shoot in 4K, which the Spark lacks. Again, these are budget drones, so take the image capabilities of both with a major grain of salt. These are designed to get you into the drone market and flying. Doesn’t mean you can record or snap amazing images.
Both can, but if you want a few more bells and whistles, the Spark wins out for the extra $100.
DJI Phantom 3 Series
Remember the $500-ish budget? Sometimes buying into a generation older pays off. I own the [amazon link=”B00VSITBJO” title=”Phantom 3 Pro” /] and can attest to its ability to capture wonderful shots. Matter of fact, here’s a great lightning shot I grabbed directly from the 4K footage:
Why a previous generation? You are saving money, and you get the three-axis gimbal. It may not look the best or have all the advanced safety sensors, but you get the same quality video and still images of the Phantom 4. You’ll lack in battery life and other areas, but if you want to save money or you’re new to the market, don’t overlook the older drones.
Drones for Videographers
Here’s where it can get expensive in a hurry. Do you go all in with a Freefly Alta or head towards the Matrice platform? What about the Inspire 2? Or stick with an out-of-the-box drone with more than enough capability and won’t break the bank?
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
Let’s go with not breaking the bank first. At $1499, it offers a 20MP one-inch Exmor R CMOS sensor, 100Mbps bitrate and 4K at 60fps. Compare that to the 60Mbps bitrate of the Phantom 3s and the original Phantom 4. Side tangent – why can’t expensive DSLR cameras shoot 60fps in 4K?
For the price, that’s damn hard to beat. Video codecs include H.264 which gets the 60 frames per second at 4K and H.265 which limits the 4K fps to 30. Flight time is advertised at 30 minutes, but that’s perfect conditions. Those simply don’t exist, so count on 25-27 minutes depending on what you’re doing.
Not a fan of glossy white? The DJI Phantom 4 Pro now comes in an Obsidian edition. Sleek as hell and the same price point.
DJI Mavic Pro
I might catch heat for this because the camera specs are nothing like the Phantom 4 Pro and above, but can you match the portability of it fits in an oversized pocket? It was DJI’s most portable offering before the Spark, but it punches way above its weight class when it comes to image and video quality.
First, let’s note the YouTuber knows how to color grade like a champ. Toss in the cinematic music and perfect storyboarding of the video, and it’s damn impressive.
Another notch for the Mavic Pro is the price. The Fly More combo is $1,299 and comes with two extra batteries, a shoulder bag, extra props, charging hub and car charger. You’re set, and it’s below the $1,499 price of the Phantom 4 Pro. Where it lacks is the bitrate is stuck at 60Mbps, and you don’t get 4K at 60fps. The sensor borrows from the older generations of Phantoms, so no one-inch 20MP Exmor R CMOS sensor.
But, it’s portable, and you can see above, if you know what you’re doing, it’s a beast.
If you want an escape from the DJI motor whine, the Mavic Pro Platinum is where you want to be. Reworked motors and sound dampening props help eliminate the whine. You can still hear it, but you won’t be left wondering if you Mavic is has internal issues. The Platinum edition also ups the battery life to a max of 30 minutes. The new features do tick up the price to $1099 or $1399 for the combo.
Yuneec Typhoon H
Think on the scale of the Mavic Pro in terms of video quality, but it adds the 360-degree gimbaled 4K camera the Phantom 4 Pro lacks. It just doesn’t have near the same sensor quality or bitrate performance. [amazon link=”B01MQDQ7WR” title=”The Yuneec Typhoon H” /] also sticks with a 12MP sensor, though for the $1500 price point, having Intel’s RealSense tech makes it compelling.
Welcome to the bank account busters. The Inspire 2 is the videographer’s dream out-of-the-box solution. Add in the X5S camera, and you have an aerial platform with a 360-degree gimbal. Dual operator mode allows for a pilot via the 720p front-facing camera, while a second operator controls the gimbaled camera.
For video, it over samples 4K to 5.2K at 30fps and 4K at 60fps. Both H.264 and 265 are at 100Mbps bitrate, and the X5S accepts a variety of lenses.
Think $6K is bank account busting? Meet the Matrice 600. The aerial platform alone is priced at $4,999.00 without a camera. But, that’s not necessarily a bad feature. It opens up the payloads from everything from the X5R from DJI to a RED EPIC. Let’s use the Panasonic GH5 as an example. You’ll need the camera ($1997 – body only), the gimbal ($999.00) and of course, the Matrice Pro ($4999). The price is $6500, and you don’t have a lens for the camera.
While it gets expensive, it’s the versatility of the system that offers the rewards. Its payload capacity is 34 pounds, allowing videographers a range of options.
Want to really go wild? Check out the FreeFly Alta 8 with a starting price of $17,495. And that’s with no camera. Why the Alta? You’re a filmmaker and need the best gear. Or you want to hook lighting systems for interesting photo effects. It’s a bank account buster, but if you’re snapping one up, you already know the rationale.
And here comes the overlap. What makes the drones great for videography also extends well into the photography category. It comes down to needs and wants. The 20MP sensor on the Phantom 4 Pro wins out at $1500. It adds a mechanical shutter with a speed 1/2000 of a second and 1/8000 using the electronic shutter. Burst shooting hits up to 14fps, and AEB bracketing is 3 or 5 frames at a 0.7 EV bias. If you don’t want to break the bank, you’re not going to get a more well-rounded camera drone. ISO ranges from 100-3200 in Auto and 12800 in manual.
The Mavic Pro lacks the mechanical shutter and burst shooting is capped at seven frames. Still photography ISO ranges from 100-1600.
Next up is the Inspire 2. Great video quality translates into amazing stills. The price is up there, but it can handle 20fps in burst mode, so hammer away. Bracketing modes are similar to that of the Phantom 4 Pro. If you’re going for still photography only, it’s hard to recommend the Inspire 2 unless you really want payload options.
You need something to travel with. Do you want to lug around a Matrice platform or an Inspire 2? Nope. You already hate checking luggage, why add another bag fee?
If you want the perfect balance between portability and capability, the Mavic Air wins that fight every time. While it shares the same sensor as the Mavic Pro, the 100Mbps bitrate gives it the edge in video quality. Its footprint dings the battery life, but considering it can fit anywhere, it’s worth the tradeoff. At least until the Mavic Pro II.
It folds into a shoulder bag or can be tossed in your suitcase. It checks all the right boxes in terms of specs for video and photography. And it’s the king of portability. Yeah, I wish it had the same sensor as the Phantom 4 Pro, but compromises have to be made. And this is the happy middle.
Phantom 4 Pro
Need the extra tech and don’t mind the extra bag fee? You can’t go wrong with the Phantom 4 Pro. We’ve been over the specs, and while you’ll need a dedicated backpack, it’s hard to overlook the P4P.
Best Drone For Sale?
If you’re a hardcore traveler and value portability and want a happy middle on features, the Mavic Air without a doubt. If you don’t mind the extra weight and few hundred dollars more, the Phantom 4 Pro punches way above its class. Almost absurdly so considering the alternatives on the market. Sound off below in the comments on what you use and link those YouTube or Instagram accounts.