Guide to Buying Drones and Top 10 Camera Drones

Introduction

Buying a professional-grade camera drone is a major financial investment and requires proper home work to ensure you get the best value for the money. While hobbyist and entry-level drones are available for as low as $50, capable camera drones cost a lot. Not all camera drones are created equal as each model is designed keeping specific needs in mind.

That’s why you need to consider your own requirements, the operating environment and of course your budget when investing in an expensive gadget. Professional drones are used in different industries and fields, including aerial photography, filming, real estate, agriculture, surveying and mapping and surveillance. This could be your one of your favorite essential camera accessories while you are on a travel adventure. This guide covers the basics of buying a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)/UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System)/quadcopter/drone and includes recommendations for some of the best camera drones money can buy.

Part 1: Things to Consider When Buying and Operating a Drone

Prospective buyers often get puzzled by the variety of drones currently available, especially beginners. Each drone falls into a specific category and while the basic frame work of most drones is almost the same (e.g. four propellers and a gyroscope), each varies in terms of features.

The first step (after planning the budget) in the drone buying process involves determining the kind of drone you should buy. Let’s start with different drone types and technologies.

Drone Types/Commonly Used Acronyms

Main types of drones include:

Multi-rotor drones: More than one rotor, quadcopters (most common) and even octocopters

RTF (Ready to Fly) drones: fully assembled, can be operated right out-of-the-box, work best for enthusiasts, hobbyists and non-technical users. Despite the name, you may still need to bind controllers and install propellers

DIY drones: You have to assemble and troubleshoot different components yourself

Racing drones: Build specifically for racing, mostly along a defined path

Large drones: Used by military and government agencies, very expensive, very long operating range, can fly miles high

Delivery drones: Commercial drones designed to deliver cargo, more capable of carrying a payload

ARTF: Almost Ready to Fly, you may have to buy transmitters, motors, speed controls, controllers, motors or batteries yourself

BNF: Bind-to-fly, come without controllers or binding software, you’ll need to purchase controller separately or install software on a mobile device yourself

FPV: First Person Video, these drones can stream first-person footage to another device, essential for racing and photography

Other not-so-common types of drones include single-rotor helicopters, fixed wing drones and Hybrid VTOL. Since this guide focuses on camera drones that anyone can buy, we’ll only focus on multi-rotor and RTF drones as these are the ones photographers and cinematographers usually need.

Budget

Your own budget plays a pivotal role in deciding which drone to buy. While you can find excellent deals for entry-level quadcopters in under $100, you need to spend a lot more if you are really serious about photography. We recommended avoiding dirt-cheap drones as they are mostly a complete waste of money, even if you are just getting started with the technology.

Cameras and Sensors

Camera is perhaps the most important feature photographers need to consider. It’s hard to predict how well a certain camera would perform in real-life, but user reviews can give you a fair idea about their performance. Read as many reviews as possible before buying a drone as it’s not just the number of pixels that matter. What matters the most is the quality of those pixels.

UAVs/UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) use different sensors to operate, including GPS and gyroscope, so make sure your UAV has everything you need to take stunning shots without compromising on stability.

Environment

You’d want a large and more stable drone if you plan on using it outdoors. Small drones don’t work well outdoors, especially in windy conditions. You can easily lose control of a lightweight drone even in slightly windy conditions. Mini drones are only suitable for flying in under 10 miles/hour winds, while larger drones can survive up to 20 miles/hour.

It’s also a good idea to fly drones during day as although drone lights would show you its location, you might not know if it’s on a collusion path to something like a tree. If you also want to shoot at night, make sure to invest in a drone with a headlight as most only come with brake lights.

Your Own Experience Level

Your level of experience with drones and technology in general matters a lot when buying a UAV. Cheaper and smaller drones usually don’t have the stability and features starters need for easy operation. Beginners should look for features such as auto-take off, auto-landing and headless mode, allowing them to operate the UAV safely and without smashing it on to the walls.

Flight Time

Flight time is one of the most important factors to consider, especially when you are buying a drone for photography and videos. Starters can get away with 4-5 minutes of flight time, but professional photographers and people who want to record videos need more in-air time.

Flight time is also directly related to the amount of money you are willing to spend. 20-30 minutes flying time is common even in expensive UAVs. It’s worth mentioning that most manufacturers advertise the flying time in perfect weather conditions and slow speed (usually around 15Miles/hr).

Purpose

High-end drones are designed to cater specific needs and serve different purposes. Drones are optimized for specific purposes such as photography and surveillance. Camera drones focus more on image quality and stability and make it easier for users to shoot great photos/videos.

DIY vs RTF

DIY drones are suitable for experienced users and people who want to get under the hood of how drones work. RTF drones work best for most users and save you from having to assemble everything and diagnosing issues yourself.

Availability of Spare Parts

Let’s face it. Drones are bound to get damaged and break at some point, making it very important to choose a brand that offers spare parts in your country. Make sure replacement parts such as propellers, batteries, motors and controllers are available locally or through an online retailer such as Amazon before making a thousand-dollar investment. Drones that use universal parts should be preferred over drones that use propriety parts.

Construction Material

Drones are made using different materials and while most cheap drones are made using some kind of ordinary plastic, the high-end ones are made using carbon, fiber-glass and magnesium/aluminum. Aluminum drones might sound more durable, but that’s usually not the case when it comes to budget drones. Carbon and fiberglass remain a better choice when it’s about quality and durability.

Range

Device range is another factor to consider as it dictates how far a drone can go without getting disconnected from the controller. Photographers need long-range drones so they can shoot photos from different angles or higher altitude. A 30-meter range is common in most entry-level/hobbyist drones, but you’d want much more than that for great aerial photography.

Live Feed

A live feed into controller’s display/phone/tablet enables photographers to see everything in real-time. In addition to the convenience factor, live feed allows them to see what camera is actually recording and saves them from guesswork.

Mobile Device Support

Many high-end drones can easily be controlled using your smartphone. However, you need to make sure you are not using an outdated smartphone. Almost all current smartphones pack enough muscle, large displays and battery life for use as a drone controller.

Flight Controller

Most drone manufactures would want you to believe that their gadgets are the easiest to fly. But that’s not always the case as the flight controller (the internal computer) determines how easily and accurately you can fly a UAV. Some drones require you to control manually for better precision (not good for starters), while some offer better stability and require less user input. Features such as obstacle avoidance systems and modes such as follow-me make it easier for users to operate UAVs.

Local and Federal Laws

States and countries have their own laws and rules for operating drones such as flight timings, altitudes, timing and locations so make sure to educate yourself and follow them. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires you to register all UAVs that weigh from 0.55 to 55 pounds (~0.25-25 kg). The registration process is pretty simple and you only have to pay a nominal fee (around $5) for registration (valid for 3 years). You must be at least 13-years-old for registration and have to display the unique registration number on the drone.

Drone users may also need to get formal approval such as Remote Pilot Certificate (FAA) from the concerned authorities before operating UAVs. Professionals should seek certifications such as FAA Drone Pilot certification. Eligibility criteria for first-time pilots includes:

  • At least 16-years-old
  • Able to understand/read/speak/write English
  • In good physical and mental condition to fly a drone safely
  • Pass the initial exam for aeronautical knowledge

Some important FAA guidelines include:

  • You should be able to see the UAV at all times
  • Your UAV should stay well clear of manned aircraft operations
  • Should maintain a distance of at least 25-feet from vulnerable properties and unprotected individuals
  • Make sure to contact the local control tower if you plan on flying the drone within a 5-mile radius of an airport/heliport (not recommended to fly a UAV near an airport at all, some airports may have a larger no-fly zone area)
  • Avoid flying when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
  • Avoid flying in strong wind conditions

In addition to these common sense rules:

Be careful when flying a drone in urban/residential areas or near stadiums, power stations, prisons, churches, and busy roads

Respect privacy of others and try sticking to open fields and parks

Avoid flying recklessly around people, over their heads and following strangers

Part 2: Top 10 Camera Drones

Product
Visual
Where to Buy
DJI Mavic 2 Pro (For both professionals and enthusiasts)
DJI Inspire 2
DJI Mavic Air
Yuneec Typhoon H Plus
Yuneec Mantis Q
PowerVision PowerEye
Skydio R1
3D Robotics
PARROT ANAFI
Altair 818 Hornet

 

1. DJI Mavic 2 Pro (For both professionals and enthusiasts)

Key features and specifications

  • 1-inch Hasselblad L1D-20c 20MP CMOS sensor
  • Up to 31-minute flight time
  • Take-off weight 907 grams
  • 3-axis gimbal
  • SDcard support up to 128GB (8GB internal memory)
  • 4k video recording, H265 compression
  • Live view
  • 14- 104°F (-10°C to 40°C) temperature range
  • OcuSync 2.0 Digital Video Transmission, 40Mbps download speed, 120ms latency
  • Omnidirectional obstacle sensing system
  • Trajectory prediction
  • High-speed tracking in open environments
  • Enhanced HDR photos, 10-bit HDR video
  • F/2.8-F/11 adjustable aperture

2. DJI Inspire 2 (High-end model for Professional Photographers and Filmmakers)

Key features and specifications

  • Carbon fiber arms, magnesium-aluminum shell
  • Up to 6K RAW video recording @4.4Gbps, and 4K at 100Mbps (base model)
  • Support for 5.2K Apple ProRes video
  • H.264/H.265 codecs
  • Integrated HD video transmission
  • 360-degree rotating gimbal
  • CineCore2.1 image processing system
  • 0 to 50 mph (80Kmph) in just 5 seconds, 58mph/94Kmph max speed
  • Up to 27 minute flying time with X4S
  • Self-heating, dual battery technology
  • Obstacle avoidance system
  • Advanced tracking mode
  • Smart return-to-home
  • Up to 4.3mi/7km transmission distance

3. DJI Mavic Air (Foldable 4K Drone)

Key features and specifications

  • Lightweight and compact
  • 4K recording @ 30fps/100Mbps, 12MP Camera with DNG RAW support
  • 32MP sphere panoramas
  • 3-axis gimble
  • Up to 21 minutes flying time
  • Up to 6562 feet range (~1.24 miles)
  • Dedicated remote controller (foldable) with smartphone holder
  • Allows using smartphone to control the drone
  • Slow-motion recording
  • HDR photos
  • Folds flush against the chassis
  • Magnesium allot brackets
  • 8 GB internal storage
  • Active Track system, up to 16 subjects

4. Yuneec Typhoon H Plus (Pro features at an affordable price)

Key features and specifications

  • Supports Intel RealSense technology, intelligent navigation and obstacle detection
  • Sonar collision avoidance system
  • 7-inch touch screen (Android-powered)
  • 4K camera (CGPO3), 12MP still images
  • 98-degree field of view
  • Smart flight modes
  • Up to 25 minutes flight time
  • 5 rotor fail-safe, 6-rotor safety
  • 3-axis gimble, 360-degree operation
  • All-in-one Android-powered controller (ST16 ground station)
  • OrbitMe, Point of Interest, Journey modes

5. Yuneec Mantis Q (a great foldable drone for budget-conscious users)

Key features and specifications

  • Portable and lightweight (around 1 pound)
  • Face detection and voice control
  • Up to 33 minutes flying time
  • 4K recording, DNG support
  • 20-degrees upward and 90-degrees downward tilt
  • Automatic/intelligent flight modes, return-to-home
  • Max speed 44 miles/hr (70.8 Kmph)
  • Less than 200ms latency
  • Up to 4,921 ft radio range
  • 1/3.06 inch CMOS sensor
  • 3-axis stabilized
  • 117° FOV
  • Apps for Android and iOS

6. PowerVision PowerEye (Reasonable price, professional-level features)

Key features and specifications

  • 4/3″ CMOS Panasonic Lumix G (F/2.5, 14mm) or Olympus M.Zuiko (F/1.8. 17mm)
  • 4K video recording
  • Folding-down arms
  • Weighs under 9lbs/4Kg
  • Up to 30 minutes flight time
  • Compatible with multiple lenses
  • Max control range 3.1 miles
  • Intelligent obstacle detection system
  • 40 miles/hr (64kmpr) max speed
  • 3-axis stabilization
  • Max video bit rate 60Mbps
  • Up to 64GB MicroSD card
  • Apps for Android and iOS

7. Holy Stone HS700D FPV Drone with 2K HD Camera Live Video and GPS Return Home

Key features and specifications

  • Easy to operate, fully autonomous
  • Advanced 5G 2K FHD Camera with 110 FOV lens for panoramic recording
  • 5G 1300FT transmission ensures high-quality real time video – ideals for selfie.
  • Simple control
  • GPS Assisted flight
  • Live video up to 1300 feet
  • Quite brushless motor
  • Auto-Return
  • Customized flight path with app control to draw path

8. 3D Robotics (3DR) Solo (designed for surveying, creating maps and construction, GoPro sold separately)

Key features and specifications

  • Dual 1 Ghz computers (one on the drone and the other on the controller)
  • Compatible with GoPro Hero 3/3+/4
  • Computer assisted shooting
  • Video-game style controller
  • Live-to-mobile video streaming
  • Follow-me for hands-free operation
  • Orbit mode with adjustable radius and altitude (puts the drone on a circular track)
  • Cable cam (locks onto a virtual cable)
  • Up to 25 minutes flying time without payload
  • 0.5miles/0.8Km operating range
  • Max speed 55mph/kmph
  • 400 feet max altitude
  • 2.4 Ghz Wi-Fi communication
  • 0° to -90° pitch controllable range

9. PARROT ANAFI (portable, affordable and capable 4K drone)

Key features and specifications

  • 4K HDR camera, 21MP SONY CMOS sensor, 4K HDR videos @ 100Mbps
  • Wide-angle f/2.4 ASPH lens
  • Supports 17:9 video format
  • 180° vertical tilt
  • 3-axis image stabilization
  • 2.8X lossless digital zoom
  • Compact and foldable form-factor
  • Foldable controller
  • USB-C charging, compatible with Power Delivery chargers for fast charging
  • Up to 25-minute flight time
  • Lightweight Carbon fiber structure
  • Weighs only 0.7lb/320 grams
  • 3-second folding system
  • Wind resistance up to 31mph/50kmph
  • 33 mph/53kmph max speed
  • Up to 2.5 miles/4km range
  • Geofencing/virtual parameters
  • Return to home, Find my Drone
  • Dolly Zoom effect and Cineshots
  • Slow-motion and hyper-lapse modes

10. Altair 818 Hornet (Entry-level drone for beginners and budding photographers)

Key features and specifications

  • An affordable option for beginners and budget-conscious enthusiasts
  • Up to 30 minutes flying time (15 minutes per battery)
  • Easy to fly, 3 skill settings on the controller
  • 720p. 120-degree wide angle camera
  • Up to 150 meters flight range
  • Up to 60 meters line-up range using a mobile device
  • Automatic orientation adjustment
  • Altitude hold
  • Automatic emergency landing
  • One-touch takeoff/landing
  • Can be controlled using the transmitter or mobile devices
  • Headless mode