Drones first came to market nearly a decade ago. And today’s camera drones have evolved from simple toys to formidable force in a photographer’s arsenal. Drones let you reach heights and angles regular cameras can’t match. And it presents a unique challenge to expand your creative skillset. Thankfully, you can now do so without the hassle of renting a small helicopter or crane and risking your life.
Today, you can find many great options, thanks to technology advancements and declining prices. And it doesn’t cost a small fortune and custom modifications anymore to configure a drone to capture aerial photographs. Plus, gone are the days where you virtually had to be a seasoned pilot to avoid a collision. No. Instead, they’ve taken off, and they’re now widely accessible and incredibly affordable. And they’re even easier to fly than ever. So there’s been no better time to invest in one if you want to add aerial imagery to your lineup.
But with all the advancements, finding the best camera drone is tricky. There are many options with bold claims. So it’s essential to understand the factors truly relevant to drone photography, as not all options are equally capable. To help in that quest, we’ve compiled a list of the best camera drones on the present market. We’ve also outlined some considerations to bear in mind. But, you can also review our buyers guide for an extensive breakdown of all the relevant factors.
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5 – DJI Mavic Mini 2
DJI’s Mavic Mini 2 substantially improves the original model and continues dominating the ultra-portable drone segment. It has a 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor and a 24mm equivalent F/2.8 lens that shoots 12MP still photos. It also features bracketing, 180º panorama, time-lapse, and RAW.
The Mini 2 continues the miniature design optimized for portability. And it’s 1g shy of the 250g limit that mandates a drones registration. Yet, it obtains several higher-end features from DJI’s mid-range drones. Namely, class 5 wind resistance, letting it fly stable at 23 mph winds, perfect for windy coastlines and high forests. It also obtains the 180º panorama mode, allowing you to create ultra-wide panorama images, a somewhat unique feature in this class.
Overall, DJI’s Mavic Mini 2 is the ultimate companion for newcomers. It obtains a good selection of core features from DJI’s higher-end Mavic Air series, but without its price, bulk, and weight. And it’s the ultimate compact drone for traveling creators.
4 – Autel EVO II
The EVO II is Autel’s latest release, but one that sets the new de facto standard amongst foldable drones. It has a 1/2-inch CMOS sensor and a 25.6mm equivalent F/1.8 lens that shoots 48MP still images. It also features omnidirectional sensing, 5 FPS burst, bracketing, internal storage, time-lapse, RAW, long exposures, and HDR.
This second-generation release debuts 8K recording to consumer drones. But, that addition helps it provide class-leading resolution to make prints that are 100 inches wide. It also now features a 4x lossless zoom, letting you get closer to subjects without danger. But, with its 12-sensor obstacle avoidance system and machine learning, the drone can autonomously navigate to ensure you avoid collisions—all combined in a product with a 9000m range, 45 mph (20 m/s) top speed, and class-leading 40-minute flight time.
Overall, the EVO II shows Autel Robotics can deliver the broadest feature set around and a high-end specification set that outshines rivals. And it brings unseen power to an aircraft of this size.
3 – DJI Mavic Air 2
DJI’s Mavic Air 2 is quite an improvement and a powerful all-rounder. It has a 1/2-inch CMOS sensor and a 24mm equivalent F/2.8 lens that shoots 48MP still images. It also has obstacle avoidance, landing sensors, internal storage, 7 FPS burst, bracketing, 180° panorama, RAW, and HDR.
The Mavic Air 2 obtains the new SmartPhoto intelligent scene recognition feature, which combines HyperLight and HDR into a single-mode. These combine to let the drone automatically create dynamic and accurate sunsets, skies, snow, grass, and tree scenes by intelligently changing the camera settings. It also obtains their most advanced panorama mode, HDR panorama, which increases the colors’ dynamic range and vividness. Plus, it boasts APAS 3.0, their mapping technology for obstacle avoidance and automatic flight planning, to ensure flights are safe and the drone recognizes incoming obstacles when pushing the limits. And you can do so with a 10,000m range, 34 minute flight time, and at speeds of 42.5 mph (19 m/s).
Overall, the Mavic Air 2 offers a wealth of new features yet keeps the same friendly starting price. And it’s an excellent mid-range option for photographers wanting both ease of use and pro-level features.
2 – Parrot Anafi
Parrot’s Anafi is a real challenger to DJI’s ongoing dominance. It has a 1/2.4-inch CMOS sensor and a 23-69mm F/2.4 equivalent lens that shoots 21MP images. It also has landing sensors, RAW, and HDR.
The Anafi is one of few drones offering a 180º tilting camera. This lets the drone take photos 90º upwards for a unique perspective that remains unmatched by rivals. But, it’s also one of few drones in this class with a variable zoom lens. In this case, it offers a 2.8x penalty-free zoom, letting you get closer to the action without adding danger or reducing quality. And it also offers a 4000m range, 25 minute flight time, and top speed of 33.5 mph (15m/s).
Overall, the Anafi is a highly competitive option at this price point that challenges DJI brilliantly. And it provides a vastly similar feature set as their higher-end Air lineup, at a fraction of its price.
1 – DJI Mavic 2 Pro
DJI’s Mavic 2 Pro is their current mid-range flagship. It has a 1-inch CMOS sensor and a 28mm F/2.8 equivalent lens that shoots 20MP images. It also features omnidirectional sensing, collision avoidance, 5 FPS burst, bracketing, RAW, internal storage, time-lapse, panorama, and HDR.
Unlike rivals, the 2 Pro offers both a large 1-inch sensor and a variable aperture lens, reducing the need for neutral density filters and improving its versatility. DJI’s also installed low-noise propellers to make the aircraft incredibly quiet, removing any worries about disturbing the nearby surroundings. And with the improved FlightAutonomy system, you can fly safely and confidently, but discreetly too. It also obtains HyperLight, a custom low-light setting designed to enhance images while reducing noise. Yet, the drone remains extraordinarily compact and still offers a 31-minute flight time and 8000m range.
Overall, DJI’s Mavic 2 Pro is an excellent option if you want a premium drone that’s also incredibly compact and capable. It’s a powerful alternative to the Inspire series. And it remains one of the most impressive drones released thus far.
Do I need a license to take photos from a drone?
The short answer is it depends. If you’re flying your drone for recreational purposes, you can capture aerial photos and videos without issues. However, if you plan on selling those photos and earning compensation for your flights, you’ll need a commercial license to do so. Compensation also includes monetizing your photos on YouTube videos. But in either case, if you plan on earning money with your photos, you’ll need a part 107 certification and a drone pilot’s license to cover your bases.
Can I attach any camera to any drone?
Well maybe. You could attach a camera to some drones if there’s a way to remove the included camera attached to its gimbal. But, doing so raises a few critical concerns. Namely, you’ll want to ensure your drone has enough power to support the new cameras’ weight. Next, you’ll also want to find a solution to stabilize this new camera as you won’t get the best experience without it.
The included camera on each drone is engineered to manage vibrations and keep the camera stable during flight. Its gimbal corrects for airborne movements and helps reduce any bumps caused by air pressure. Additionally, these cameras also have integrated gimbal pitch control and remote shooting functionality built-in. With both, you’re able to control the gimbal remotely, start and stop recordings, take photos and do much more. But with a third-party camera, you’ll have to find another solution to control the camera remotely. Alternatively, you’d have to put the camera into a time-lapse shooting mode, takeoff, and hope the settings are correctly configured. So, overall, while it’s possible, it’s going to be quite difficult in practice.
What to look for in a camera drone?
There are many factors to look into when deciding the best camera drone. But what ultimately will separate two similarly capable options is your goal and what you are trying to accomplish.
While shopping, you’ll realize that there are many camera drones on the market. Some of which are in the sub $100 price point. But with low-resolution cameras and a limited toy-like experience, these drones won’t provide the image quality or flying experience you’re likely seeking. But they’re still technically classified as camera drones, nonetheless.
But stepping things up a bit to the mid-range hobby drones is likely the better choice. These drones have smartphone-sized sensors with similar image quality. And they’ll offer the type of imagery you seek and an easy but comprehensive flying experience too.
From there, you can find professional-level drones with much larger sensors and better features. Even so, for most, getting a higher professional-level drone is unnecessary. That is unless you want to do aerial photography professionally. Then yes, it will be a significant consideration in your decision process. Otherwise, consider getting a beginner drone instead with similar capabilities as a smartphone. Here you can at least experiment with aerial photography to see if it’s the right fit.
But regarding what to look for, consider looking at our drone buyers guide if you want to see a comprehensive guide outlining all of the factors to consider with drones. There you will find all of the individual factors discussed in great depth. But, below is a quick synopsis of the primary considerations.
Sensor Size & image quality
Sensor size is key for photography. And generally, the bigger the sensor, the better the image quality. For most, a drone with a 1/2.3-inch sensor is good enough. It’s not outstanding though. Even so, the images are on par with today’s flagship smartphones. So, for casual pilots, the image quality is excellent.
Hoerbrt, for professional photographers wanting the best, that would be a 1-inch sensor. And 1-inch sensors are the best you can get in the consumer space at the moment without stepping to interchangeable camera drones. But, we’d argue most photographers would find a 1/2-inch sensor perfect for what they need. And it provides the perfect compromise in image quality and affordability.
The next consideration here is the camera’s lens, which determines the versatility of the images you’ll capture. Most drones offer fixed focal lengths and zoom digitally, which reduces image quality in most cases. But, you can find ones with variable zoom lenses too. Those would provide more flexibility in how you can compose without having to pilot the drone. And those are generally the better options for photography.
Object avoidance is critical if you plan on taking photos in urban areas. And obstacle sensors combined with smart scene recognition will help you avoid crashing the drone accidentally from unseen objects. As such, look for drones with some form of collision avoidance, landing sensors, scene recognition, or real-time object detection. Not all drones have a full set of sensors in all directions. But, if they have any, front-facing sensors are the most important. And it’ll remove much of the stress when flying in tricky areas.
GPS helps your drone hover in place consistently and remain stable. And it prevents it from moving with an incoming breeze. It also enables automatic return home, which helps prevent heart churning landings as the battery dies.
GPS is mostly standard in the upper entry-level and mid-range drone segment. But, many toy drones will lack this feature. As such, they won’t have automatic return home and will likely be unstable at higher altitudes.
Ideally, you want a drone with redundant GPS, which uses both GPS+GLONASS, to prevent a catastrophic loss in signal in congested network areas. But, even a single GPS drone will be sufficient for most pilots.
The main autonomous mode to consider for photography is a fail-safe automatic return home mode. This brings the aircraft back to the take-off location when it loses contact with the controller or battery becomes critically low. For new pilots, it’s a must to prevent emergency landings and remote recoveries.