What is the point of a drone? For many, a drone in the now-popular multi-rotor configuration, is an extension of a passion for RC aircraft. For others, a drone represents a way to put a camera into the sky. We are pretty passionate about the camera in the sky experience.
Whether for personal use of for commercial application, let’s take a look at a list of our favorites, some of the best camera drones in the sky.
CES 2018: Stay tuned, the largest consumer technology show of the year is a couple weeks away – DJI, Yuneec, Autel Robotics and many more of our favorite manufacturers will be on the show floor, we’re pretty confident this list will see an adjustment after the show.
Fly for fun
It is our presumption that most of you will be flying for personal reasons, just to have fun. If you are looking to fly for commercial reasons, that is, if you are going to be paid to fly, please remember that you require a Part 107 remote pilot’s license from the FAA in the United States.
Update: Dec 2017. You are once again required to register your drone with the FAA. The process is easy, it costs just $5 and you can be up in the air in a short time.
Update: May 2017. You are no longer required to register your drones with the FAA, not for personal use at least. Commercial pilots still need their Part 107 certificate and all laws still apply, it is just hobby drone registration that has been discontinued.
What to look for
There is much to discuss when we talk camera drones, what it really boils down to, what are you trying to accomplish? At the very bottom, you can buy a toy-class drone equipped with a 2 MP camera. This will be the kind of camera experience you don’t share with friends and family. No offense to the drone manufacturers that pump out these toy drones and market them as being “camera drones,” but they are misleading consumers into thinking they’re getting more than an adequate FPV camera for flying purposes. FPV is fine at this level, but HD is not in the cards here.
Stepping things up, you can get into a decent hobby drone for under $500, it may even pack a 4K sensor, but there is more to a sensor than the pixel count. Machines in this class can accomplish recording aerial video worth sharing, but just. At this level, you are at best on-par with a GoPro camera. Don’t mistake what I’m saying, I have high respect for GoPro cameras, they just are not optimized and tuned for drone footage.
Stepping up, you can get into drones up to $2000, many under $1000 still, but there are more than a few options between about $600 up to $1800 that produce the aerial footage you probably came looking for today. Sorry to say, if you want serious video from the sky, you’ll need to spend some money. The standout drone in this segment is the DJI Mavic Pro, you can read about it below, but it’s perhaps the best flying camera with a sensor below 1-inch in size, still capable of 4K video, it runs at least $999. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro is likely the best machine you’ll find under $2000, but just barely, as it packs a 1-inch sensor for 4K video capture and industry leading object avoidance to ensure clean autonomous flight and no accidents.
From there, we’d like to highlight the DJI Inspire 2, it’ll run you at least $3000 to get started, but bump that to $6000 if you want the camera with that. Inspire 2 is a monstrously capable drone, 60 mph, 5.2K video, hot swapping dual batteries, internal SSD storage, powerful video streaming up to Hollywood level, or at least for the local news. As far as buying a ready to fly camera drone, this is, perhaps, the very best that you can get.
Finally, getting well beyond the needs of any home use camera drone, there are many machines that can carry really high end cameras, like the 100 MP Hasselblad or a RED 8K camera. These machines range anywhere from $10K up to $250,000. Yes, you can spend a quarter of a million dollars on a drone, more even, but you’ll then be able to shoot commercials for car companies or get a job with a legit Hollywood crew. I keep talking about making movies, don’t forget there are plenty of opportunities in commercial inspection, zoom lenses, thermal cameras and more are ready to put drones into the air in place of helicopters.
If you are really interested in some of the high-end stuff, we cover a few below, but check out our visit to the NAB Show in Las Vegas in the video below. Fun Fact: Acecore drones were used to film in Iceland for the latest Game of Thrones season – sadly, we spent only a brief moment visiting them at the tradeshow. (Skip to about the 3:30 mark if that’s all you care to see.)
DJI Inspire 2
With an impressive launch event in November, DJI promotes the Inspire 2 as a one-stop-shop for videographers. Equipped with a selection of cameras, topping out with the Zenmuse X5S, a 5.2K micro 4/3 camera with RAW support and more. Basically, you’ve got a high-end DSLR-quality camera in hand before you even leave the ground.
A large and powerful drone, the Inspire 2 will keep your stabilized video shooting at up to 58 mph. Allowing for two person operation, one to fly and one to work the camera, this is one of the most advanced camera drones on the market today. With a starting price of about $2999, and a full setup cresting $4999, we can’t think of a better drone with built-in camera to recommend, if you can afford it.
Update: DJI has announced the new Zenmuse X7 camera. If you thought the 5.2K shooter of the X5s was slick, you’ll love this new 6K shooter. Available with various lenses and able to shoot the highest resolution video of any drone camera we know of.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro and Phantom 4 Advanced
More in the realm of affordability, as well as in the more well known form-factor of drones, the Phantom 4 Pro is currently the best in the Phantom line, and by far the most capable. Adding extra directional sensors for object avoidance, and a 1-inch camera sensor at 20mp, this is a 4K at 60fps shooter with wings.
The Phantom 4 Advanced is more recently announced, it packs the same camera and almost all of the same features as the Phantom 4 Pro. Lacking in some directional awareness, you can save a little money to get the slightly-less capable drone, but rest assured, you’ll not know the difference when you are enjoying your footage after the fact.
Available for $1607 as a full kit, it balances consumer drones with professional gear – we predict that the Phantom 4 Pro will take over from the Phantom 4 and Phantom 3 as the most popular drone for aerial video. Perhaps not the most used drone however, but we’ll talk about that next.
DJI Mavic Pro
Update: DJI has announced the new Mavic Pro Platinum. As far as the camera goes it’s the same drone, however, with longer flight time and quieter propellers your overall experience should be improved.
The compact size, folding design, excellent flight time and 4K video recording make the Mavic Pro the easiest quality camera drone to transport and take to the skies. It will be a while before we recommend a different drone as our top pick for non-professional fliers – the Mavic Pro packs in all but the very best that DJI has to offer for flight methods and securities, and does so in a package that is super fun and simple to fly with a reasonable price tag.
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the Mavic Pro, I hope you get the chance to check out our coverage.
Admitting that there are certainly better cameras available, the Mavic Pro proves our drone of choice every time. Grab the DJI Mavic Pro starter kit for $869, or the Fly More combo with extra batteries and more for $1092. (Again, sale prices, $999 and $1299 regularly.)
Yuneec Tornado H920 Plus
We almost put the Yuneec Typhoon H on this list today, as it is an exceptional hexacopter drone with Intel RealSense Technology, but we landed on the Tornado H920 Plus instead. Also a hexacopter, the Tornado H920 Plus is an update to the Tornado H920 that previously held this spot. It comes with either the latest CGO4 Yuneec camera, or mount up a Panasonic GH4 4K camera.
Promoting itself to the professionals out there, the Yuneec Tornado H920 Plus will start at about $3499 when it hits the market soon, for now, the regular Yuneec Tornado H920 can be had also for $3035 on Amazon today. Update June 2017: This purchasing option appears messed up. Please head to Yuneec or check back for an update.
Commercial and Industrial drones
Special note: In the United States you will need special licensing to operate a drone for pay. That is not to say that you need licensing to fly the following drones, the rule goes for any drone you fly for hire. We’ll be going more in-depth on the process at a later date, but for now, know that if you will be paid to fly, including getting paid for the footage you capture, you’ll need what they call the Part 107. Hit the following resource for more info:
DJI Matrice M600 Pro
Also see in our Best professional drones list
If you did not already know this, DJI has been servicing the high-end and professional aerial photography space for a while. Most consumers will not be familiar with the expensive offerings that are the Matrice and the Spreading Wings that you’ll see later.
Providing few, if any of the conveniences and safety measures of the consumer focused drones, the M600 Pro is a massive, six armed drone that takes six batteries and can handle the best of the best in DJI cameras or carry over 13 lbs of RED or other high-end camera rigs.
At around $5449 before you choose your camera, the DJI Matrice 600 Pro is a serious machine for serious video work.
Intuitive Aerial Aerigon MK II
We can’t afford to add this to any other lists
If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. A full blown rig from Intuitive Aerial can set you back $25000 or more, including Hollywood style monster video cameras. The idea of the Aerigon MK II is simple, put your camera in the sky. We’re not talking about mounting your phone, GoPro, point and shoot or even your DSLR, we’re talking about 15 lb professional camera rigs.
With an example rig costing a full quarter of a million dollars in hand, the media team at BrainFarm shoot 4K commercials and more, and you can too, if you can afford it.
DJI Spreading Wings S1000+
Also seen in our DJI drones guide
While the M600 Pro is designed to offer the best cameras that DJI has to offer, or RED and Hasselblad, if that’s your choice, the Spreading Wings line looks to put your camera in the sky. Eight propellers provide enough lift for about 14 lbs of your DSLR camera as this minimalist designed rig gets the job done without much flash.
Providing a basic flying experience with a powerful drone for your DSLR is actually quite affordable, you’ll need about $1499 to get the Spreading Wings S1000+ into the air today.
FreeFly offers two sizes of their drone, the Alta 6 and Alta 8. Aside from physical dimensions, the number indicates how many propellers are equipped. Size is the name of the game here: the DJI Mavic Pro is about a 335 mm frame, that is, 335 mm from the center of one motor diagonally across to the far corner motor. The DJI Inspire 2 is about twice the size of the Mavic, and the FreeFly Alta 8 is about twice the size of the Inspire 2. That’s a frame size of 1,325 mm. Good thing it folds down for transport.
Dual batteries give this monster machine upwards of 40 minutes of flight and a 20 pound payload can handle many Gimbal and camera assemblies. The only thing preventing you from using the FreeFly Alta to put your high-end camera into the air is the $17,495.00 price tag for the Alta 8, or $11,995.00 for the Alta 6.
Old, but still good
DJI Phantom 4 / Phantom 3 Pro
Looking to save some cash and still get great images from the sky? DJI’s older drones in the iconic Phantom line pack a serious punch for the money. Both the Phantom 4 and the later Phantom 3 Pro come with 4K video recording on a sensor roughly the same size as that of the Mavic Pro. Extremely popular drones, it is easy to find accessories, parts and more.
The Phantom 4 is now $829 and the Phantom 3 Pro will run you about $749. These are still fairly pricey units, for a casual flier, but offer a huge bang for the buck if you do not have a lot of money to spare.
DJI Inspire 1
Also seen in our Best drones list
As far as iconic professional drones are concerned, none stand out to me more than the DJI Inspire 1. A flying machine that morphs mid-flight to lift the landing gear out of the way of the camera, this was the standard of cool for drone buyers, and certainly screamed unattainable for most wallets.
With the Inspire 2 hitting the market, the price of the Inspire 1 has come down considerably. A starting point of now just under $1750 will put the Inspire 1 in your hands. A fully decked out kit with the latest Zenmuse X5 camera, however, will get upwards of $7000. Last generation flight with current generation camera technology may be an ideal solution for you.
Yuneec Typhoon H520
As seen in our Best commercial drones list
Yuneec announced the Typhoon H520 at CES 2017. This is a more ruggedized and feature rich flyer than the consumer focused Typhoon H drone, with a focus on modularity and swappable cameras for various professional and commercial needs. Infrared, high zoom and more capable cameras are the selling point here, not to mention the orange color for safety in the workplace.
Update: We’ve since seen the H520 in action, not to mention that Yuneec has put a price tag on the hexacopter and is now offering it for sale. This drone is more than just a drone, the part that goes into the air is just a portion of the full flight system that enables advanced aerial operations. The ST16s ground station allows you to pilot the machine like any other drone, or use the software to set a flight route, camera capture pattern and more. Once photos are captured, use the software to stitch it all together into a larger view and begin your task of analyzing the data.
You’re looking at $1999.99 to purchase the Yuneec H520 with all the bits required to fly, however, you’ll then need to add on your cameras at a little over $1000 each. We recommend you budget about three thousand to get started, a little over five thousand to get a well equipped flight package.
DJI M200 series
DJI has only just announced their new M200 series drones, including the M200, M210 and M210 RTK. Included are options for upward facing cameras, a dual hanging camera setup and the dedicated FPV camera for a dual pilot control option. In short, all the best features from the Inspire 2 have been molded into the Matrice line, then adding some weatherproofing to make the M200 series one of the best offerings from DJI to date.
As I mention, the M200 series is only just announced, stay tuned for more info, including price and availability into Q2 2017. While you wait, learn more about the M200 series here:
100 MP camera for the sky!
DJI recently unleashed a beast for your aerial capture needs. Utilizing the M6oo or S1000+ you’ve seen already, DJI’s stake in Hasselblad has resulted in a 100MP camera for the sky. The H6D-100C hangs now using the Ronin-MX, but you’ll be able to utilize the new Ronin 2 when it hits the market later this year. Read more about the new 100MP camera from DJI and Hasselblad here.
Serious equipment comes with a serious price, budget about $40,000 to fly this camera, or grab just the shooter for around $32,500.
Special consideration: DJI Spark
They say that the best camera is the one you have with you. In that regard, the new DJI Spark lends itself nicely to traveling with you, and if you can take it on the go, and have no better drone with you, I suppose that makes the DJI Spark the best camera. Aside from what sounds like over-justifying this inclusion on our list, the DJI Spark really is a solid camera experience. DJI has packed in all their smarts with new autonomous features that allow anyone to shoot aerial video like a pro.
With fun hand gesture controls and no need for anything other than your hands to fly, you can grab the DJI Spark for $349 as just the drone, $599 for the Fly More bundle with remote control and extra battery. (Sale prices usually drop to $399 and $599 or lower, watch for those. Regularly $499 and $699.)
That is the end of our list of best camera drones for now. There are many great drones on the market, some of which provide exceptional camera capabilities, for us, these few are the best of the best.
Is there a drone out there that you think deserves to be on this list? We can think of a few that as near as good as some of our recommendations, but we want to hear what you have to say in the comments below.
Looking for more drones?
Things to know before you fly