The Best Camera Drones Selling Today: The Ultimate Buying Guide

DJI Inspire 1 - front view action shot

Best Camera Drones Selling Right Now

There are dozens of drones with cameras for sale today; which one is right for you?

New models and new features are hitting the market, every month.  The truth is, though, 

Not all camera drones are the same.

Some are well-engineered, fully integrated prosumer flying cameras that are ready-to-fly and shoot awesome images, without the need to calibrate or configure anything.

Other camera drones are basically toys. They’re great for learning how to fly and shoot but not really suitable for aerial photographers who care about image quality.

And then there are high-end professional flying camera platforms designed for professional filmmakers, journalists and serious photographers who need to customize their rigs.

A lot of camera drones are outdated junk, too.

This is why I published this in-depth buying guide to camera drones: so you can avoid making the same mistakes I and many others have made during the past couple of years.

This guide only recommends field-tested, reliable platforms from reputable manufacturers that are here to stay.

I’ve filtered-out the manufacturers and models that aren’t worth your money or your time (in my opinion).

The first half of this guide compares and reviews the best ready-to-fly camera drones selling today.

The second half discusses the features to look for in a camera drone and how to select the right camera drone for your needs.

After you’ve finished reading this guide, check out my in-depth reviews of the best camera drones to learn more about the specific drones you like best. I’ve recently reviewed Yuneec’s Typhoon H and DJI’s latest Phantom & Inspire models and their new commercial work horse series, the Matrice.

If you are looking for your first camera drone to capture high-quality aerial video and images, then this buying guide is for you. I cover everything from cheap starter camera drones to high-end prosumer drones that capture stable, super-high-quality 4K images.

If you are a serious aerial photographer who is looking to upgrade from the toy you bought a while back, then this guide will help you, too. I also cover the most popular professional flying camera platforms that are designed to carry professional camera rigs like the RED Epic and the latest Zenmuse setups.

In addition to this guide, I’ve published a few other buying guides for people interested in a specific applications of camera drones, including:

We’ll be publishing more like these in the future, so subscribe to my newsletter if you want the latest updates.

I hope this guide helps you narrow-down your short list.

I update this page regularly, and I’m always looking for input. If you notice an error or have a suggestion, then please let me know using our contact page or in the Disqus threads, below.

Happy shopping 🙂

Andrew

 


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My Top 3 Picks

If you want a quick recommendation, then you can’t go wrong with any of these three camera drones.

All are the latest popular models made by reputable manufacturers. They carry good warranties, are packed with the latest features and come out of the box ready to fly and shoot high-quality 4K images and video.

If you are looking for a cheaper camera drone, or for a higher-end professional flying camera platform, then skip past this table for my picks in these categories.

Typhoon H

$999w/ 4K CG03+ Camera Gimbal
    • With its stable 6-rotor design, optional collision avoidance and a bevvy of advanced trick shots, the Typhoon H is the cheapest way to take high-quality 4K aerial shots with a minimum of effort.

Phantom 4 PRO

$1,499w/ 4K camera & gimbal
    • Single-operator videographers will love the Phantom 4 for its outstanding 4K-60fps video, advanced object detection and collision avoidance system, and many automated fly-and-shoot modes.

DJI Inspire 1 v2.0

$1,999w/ Inspire 1 camera and gimbal
    • Designed for serious HD video professionals, the Inspire can be equipped with various camera systems from DJI 4K Zenmuse cameras to Micro Four-Thirds & RAW formats. For 1 or 2 operators.

Best Cheap/Starter Camera Drones

micro drone in hand lights on

If you’ve never flown a radio-controlled helicopter, multi-rotor drone or fixed wing drone before, then I recommend buying a cheap “starter drone” to learn on… before you end up wasting $1,000 on a weekend of misery.

I think that all newbie camera drone operators should start flying on a “starter” camera drone, for two reasons:

  1. You are going to crash. A lot.
    Replacement parts are cheap and easy to find for these drones.
  2. It takes time to learn how to fly a drone & to take good shots.
    Flying a camera drone/UAV is a lot like learning how to drive a car AND shoot good photos at the same time. More specifically, you need to learn:

    • the basics of multi-rotor flight
    • flight safety
    • operating checklists
    • aerial camera positioning
    • how to set up good shots
    • how to design good flight lines
    • and more

This all takes time to master.

Mistakes will be made…

The following starter drones are under $500, shoot pretty good quality HD images and video, and will teach you an awful lot about how to pilot an RC camera drone correctly… without costing you an arm and a leg when you make mistakes.

All of these choices will work fine for consumers but some are better-suited for serious photographers, because they lay the foundation on more advanced camera controls and flight planning.


Hubsan X4 H107D (About $80)

A palm-sized, full-featured camera drone that’s designed for fun. Great starter drone for FPV/racing enthusiasts.

Hubsan H107D X4 Quadcopter - white color

The Hubsan H107D X4 is a surprisingly small RC quadcopter with a integrated first person view (FPV) camera.

It packs an amazing amount of sophistication and features into an affordable starter drone that anyone can pilot.

The fixed-mount onboard camera faces forward and captures 720 x 240 resolution SD video and 0.3 MP still photos.

Obviously, with a fixed-mount camera, this is not the best drone to learn how to move a camera around on a gimbal. But it’s great for learning how to properly position a camera in the air, which is really important if you are the sole operator.

The camera transmits its video stream wirelessly to the controller via 5.8 GHz, and lets you to record video and photos onto a MicroSD memory card (up to 16GB) in a slot built into the transmitter.

The Hubsan H107D uses a 4-channel, 2.4 GHz transmitter that provides a flight range of up to 300 feet. But seriously, that’s fine – because this thing is so small you’d probably lose it from sight beyond that range.

The controller includes a 4.3″ LCD screen that lets you monitor real-time FPV video from the camera and see flight telemetry data to keep you on top of what is happening in the air.

Due to its tiny propeller size and overall light weight, the Hubsan X4 resists damage well, but it is very sensitive to wind and weather. It is perfect for flying indoors.

For best results outside, operate this little speed demon in light wind conditions or near ground level, where wind speed is minimal.

Best Features

  • Best entry-level FPV drone on the market.
  • Small size (4 inch diameter) and light weight make it hard to damage.
  • 6-axis controller provides excellent control
  • CHEAP, especially for what you get
  • Great for indoor racing

Issues

  • Very sensitive to wind
  • Image quality is OK and a bit shaky (no gimbal)
  • Tiny: about the size of your palm
  • Limited range & flight time

Specs

  • 720×240 SD Video camera / 0.3Mp stills
  • Fixed mount camera (no gimbal)
  • RC Transmitter with built-in 4.3″ LCD live video FPV monitor
  • 2.4 GHz Transmitter
  • 5.8 GHz Video streaming
  • LED Night Lights
  • Blade Protectors and Rubber Feet
  • MicroSD Card Slot for up to 16GB Cards
  • 7 min flight time
  • 300 ft range (WiFi limited)
See Latest Price on Amazon

 

         Read MY Review


Yuneec Breeze (About $399)

A compact consumer-oriented 4K selfie drone that’s super-easy to operate. Not for serious photographers, though.

Yuneec Breeze - camera - camera drone buyers guide

Designed for consumers who mainly want to shoot selfies in 4K, the Yuneec Breeze is a unique rig that fits somewhere between the outdated Parrot BeBop and a Phantom 3 Standard.

The Yuneec Breeze isn’t a high-end camera drone that anyone would mistake for a Phantom 4 PRO, Typhoon H or even a Mavic Pro (see below).

The Breeze has no 3-axis gimbal, which prevents it from competing on image quality, especially in any kind of wind or rough conditions.

Range is limited to a few hundred feet due to its reliance on your smartphone for pretty much everything.

On the other hand, the Yuneec Breeze isn’t designed for serious photographers – it’s for consumers.

And I have to say, it does hit that mark: the Breeze is super-affordable, compact, portable and really easy to fly and shoots great selfies without a lot of work. It also comes with a bevy of automated flight modes and trick shots.

The Yuneec Breeze is also easy to fly indoors, thanks to its excellent Indoor Positioning System, which doesn’t rely on GPS for position.

Camera storage is limited to 16GB of onboard internal memory, which is not expandable. There is no microSD card slot, either. You transfer stored images to your phone or computer using the included USB cable.

To control the Breeze, you use the Breeze’s intuitive app on your smartphone. There is no separate controller.

The downside of using a smartphone for your controller is that useful range is limited to a few hundred feet.

Overall, the Breeze does a great job taking crisp 4K selfies and personal videos within close range, indoor or outdoor. It’s easy to fly and comes in a nifty plastic travel case with extra props and 2 batteries.

If you’ve been considering buying the Parrot BeBop, you might consider getting the Breeze, instead.

In fact, it might be the only camera drone you ever need.

Best Features

  • Inexpensive
  • 5 trick shots and pre-programmed flight modes
  • Super-compact, with foldable propellers
  • Easy to use
  • Takes surprisingly good 4K images and video

Issues

  • Lack of 3-axis gimbal delivers shaky images (at times)
  • Controlled by your smartphone, so range is limited
  • No live streaming (images stored in 16GB onboard memory)

Specs

  • 4K video
  • 13 MP stills
  • Indoor positioning system
  • Weighs less than 1 lb
  • In the box: 2 Batteries, Charger, Charging cord, Propellers, Propeller Guards, USB cable, Travel Case
See Latest Price on Amazon

DJI Phantom 3 Standard (About $499)

Best starter drone for serious photographers, journalists and filmmakers.

DJI Phantom 3 Standard - front view

The Phantom 3 Standard is an affordable, fully-integrated camera drone that includes an intelligent system that makes it easy to fly and stream live HD video up to 1 km away.

It will teach existing photographers everything they need to know about how to operate the more advanced features of a high-end camera drone – live streaming, flight planning, waypoint navigation and trick shots – without breaking the bank.

Minutes after you unbox it, the Phantom 3 Standard is ready to fly & shoot ultra-high quality 2.7K video.

Now that DJI has made good on their promise to offer waypoint GPS autopilot and advanced flight modes in their updated Ground Station, the Phantom 3 Standard offers hard-to-beat value for the serious aerial film maker.

Just don’t expect to make cinematic history.

The camera is good and the image stabilization is excellent, but the image quality is about the same as a smartphone, not a DSLR.

Best Features

  • Great range (1 km) & endurance
  • Easy to learn and use
  • Live HD video streaming up to 1km away
  • Automated flight modes & trick shots
  • EXCELLENT VALUE

Issues

  • Sensitive to foul weather/rain
  • Camera is not the best

Specs

  • Intelligent flight system
  • Auto Takeoff / Auto Return Home
  • Onboard GPS
  • Advanced Flight modes
  • Integrated camera and gimbal
  • 2.7K Ultra HD video (30fps)
  • 12 MP photos
  • Live Video Feed (720p HD) up to 1 km away
  • 25 minute flight time
  • 1 km range
  • Intelligent Battery reminds when power is running low.
  • 1 year warranty
  • 24/7 technical support
See Latest Price on Amazon

 

        READ MY REVIEW


Best Prosumer Camera Drones

aerial photography drone sunset

The ready-to-fly (RTF) multi-rotor camera drone – or prosumer drone, for short – is the most popular type of camera drone sold today.

There are dozens of models to choose from.

Prosumer camera drones are the right choice for people who want to shoot professional-grade aerial photos and video, without having to customize their rig.

The prosumer drone is a lot like the starter DSLR camera of the drone/UAV world, in several ways:

  • They come out of the box ready to fly & shoot, without requiring much training.
  • They emphasize ease of use, seamless systems integration & advanced features over camera settings, precision and flexibility.
  • You can get great shots with very little effort.

In fact, most prosumer camera drones offer no choice of camera at all, although many will let you swap lenses.

If you need to use a specific camera setup, then check out my top picks for Professional Camera Drones, further down this page.

The prosumer drones below are capable of shooting high quality 4.0K 30-60 fps video using H.264 and taking big, bright 13-20 megapixel stills at varying burst rates.

To keep prices reasonable, some prosumer drones compromise on something: advanced features, operating range and/or image quality.

There are a lot of choices in this category, and prices tend to drop fast – so shop wisely.


DJI Mavic Pro (About $999)

A portable, exceptionally easy way to capture high quality 4K video from almost anywhere.

DJI Mavic Pro - camera drone buyers guide

The Phantom 4’s portable cousin, the DJI Mavic Pro, is perfect for anyone who needs a small, lightweight, highly-portable 4K camera drone that’s super-simple to fly and shoot.

This cool little drone really is portable. The lift arms fold-in so you can easily place it in a backpack, and the controller fits in your front pants pocket.

It’s packed with advanced automation, too. The Mavic Pro comes with the same tap-to-fly, obstacle avoidance and advanced navigation features as found on the more expensive Phantom 4 PRO. It also has a cool tap-to-focus feature that works on objects as far as 25 meters away.

The Mavic Pro is slightly faster and more maneuverable than the Phantom 4 PRO, to. Top speed is 40 mph, with a range of 4 miles. You can fly it using the included compact controller or your smartphone.

That said, the Mavic Pro does have a couple of issues/drawbacks.

First: the camera. Image quality is about as good as a latest-gen iPhone or Samsung smartphone.

Which is still very good, but DJI admits that the Mavic Pro’s included variable-focus 4K camera is not as good as the Phantom 4 PRO.

The Mavic’s camera has a narrower field of view; and, if your target is less than 25 meters away, you’ll have to use the tap-to-focus feature to get a good shot.

Second issue: durability. Some owners complain that the Mavic’s rotating arms and overall construction are noticeably flimsier than the Phantom’s.

Aside from these two quirks, the Mavic Pro offers compelling value and extreme portability.

It’s arguably the best value for a high-quality 4K camera drone, right now.

Best Features

  • Foldable chassis fits in a backpack
  • ActiveTrack, TapFly and many other automated features make planning and taking shots a breeze
  • True 4K image capture
  • Object Detection and Collision Avoidance

Issues

  • Image quality not as good as Phantom 4 PRO
  • Somewhat flimsy construction

Specs

  • Variable-focus 4K camera
  • 3-axis mechanical gimbal
  • Up to 4.3 miles (7km) of 1080p live transmission
  • 40mph (64 kmh) max speed
  • 27 min flight time
  • 1.6 lbs
  • Vision positioning
  • Dual GPS and GLONASS navigation
  • 16GB Memory card, controller, battery, and AC Charger included
See Latest Price on Amazon

DJI Phantom 4 Pro (About $1,499)

The most advanced ready-to-fly 4K camera drone in the world.

DJI Phantom 4 PRO - flying with directional beacons lit

The DJI Phantom 4 PRO is the most intelligent, easy-to-operate flying camera drone available for less than $2,000.

Like its highly successful predecessor, the Phantom 3 Pro, the Phantom 4 PRO is designed for professional high-resolution aerial photography and filmmaking.

The Phantom 4 PRO comes complete with a 4K camera (1 inch CMOS), gimbal, controller and integrated software. It’s ready to shoot, right out of the box.

The new Phantom 4 PRO is also equipped with dual-mode GPS+GLONASS receivers for autopilot redundancy and DJI’s unique vision navigation system, which makes navigating close to the ground and inside buildings a breeze – without the need for GPS.

The Phantom 4 PRO offers a set of advanced features you won’t find in any other prosumer camera drone, including:

  • Built-in Obstacle Detection and Collision Avoidance
  • A Wide Range of Automated Flight Modes
  • Unique Tap-to-Fly and Tap-to-Follow camera modes
  • Fail-Safe mode brings the drone home on low-battery alert
  • Can be operated indoors without GPS

Best Features

  • Smallest Portable Aerial Video Platform
  • Best Automatic Collision Avoidance / Object Detection
  • Easy to use by anyone
  • Live HD video streaming – from a mile away
  • Excellent flight range & endurance

Issues

  • Sensitive to foul weather/rain
  • Expensive (for a prosumer drone)

Specs

  • Accepts any size phone or tablet for FPV video display
  • 20 Megapixel Photo Camera w/ 1-inch CMOS
  • Shoot 4K Video at 60 fps
  • Take burst-mode stills at 14 fps
  • Integrated 3-Axis Stabilization Gimbal
  • Easy to Fly, Intelligent Flight System
  • Live HD View
  • Dedicated Remote Controller
  • DJIGo Mobile App w/ Auto Video Editor
  • GPS-free Positioning for Indoor Flight
  • 30 min flight time
  • 45 miles per hour top speed
  • 7 km range
  • 1-year warranty
  • 24/7 technical support
See Latest Price on Amazon

 

         READ MY REVIEW


Yuneec Typhoon H (About $999)

A safe 6-rotor design, lower price and configurable controller set this 4K rig apart from its nearest competitor, the Phantom 4 PRO.

Yuneec Typhoon H - flying

Nipping at the heels of DJI’s most advanced pro-am camera drone yet, the Phantom 4, in June 2016, Yuneec released the Typhoon H, a sophisticated flying camera that has several unique advantages over competing quadcopters.

Both drones are priced about the same, but the Phantom 4 differs from the Typhoon H in several important ways, including:

Phantom 4 Advantages over the Typhoon H

  • the Phantom 4 (P4) uses a better, longer-range live video downlink technology (Lightbridge)
  • the P4 batteries charge 2X faster and include convenient built-in indicators
  • the P4 is a little faster and a bit more stable in high wind and ground turbulence
  • the P4 has superior object detection/tracking

Typhoon H Advantages over the Phantom 4

  • the Typhoon H is a 6-rotor design, which makes it more reliable in the case of a motor or prop loss and makes it safer for use over crowds
  • the Typhoon H’s ST-16 controller doesn’t require a separate phone or tablet. It is also more configurable and is easier to use
  • the Typhoon H has a full 360 degree unobstructed camera
  • the Typhoon H’s landing gear retracts, making unobstructed shots easier
  • the Typhoon H takes longer to startup (1-2 mins)

Honestly, though, on features & price these two drones are very evenly matched. Camera quality is about the same.
If you need live video feeds beyond 1000 meters, then the Phantom 4 PRO is the better choice.
If you want a safer, more configurable flying 4K camera, however, then the Typhoon H is the way to go.

Best Features

  • Excellent 4K video camera (30fps or 60fps in 1080p)
  • Dual-operator Team mode using ST Ground Station + 2nd controller or Wizard (not available on Phantom 4 PRO)
  • Hexacopter design = redundancy + safety
  • Excellent ergonomic transmitter w/ built-in 7″ display and a great touchscreen interface; adjusting camera settings and controls is a snap
  • More stable than the Typhoon Q500
  • Automatic Collision Avoidance & Object Detection

Issues

  • Long startup time
  • Batteries can take 2 hours to charge
  • Cannot identify & track objects on-screen like the Phantom 4 PRO

Specs

  • Live streaming: 720p at 30 frames per second over a 5.8 GHz channel with HDMI mirrored output
  • Video: 4K (3840 x 2160) at 24p, 25p, 30p
  • Still Photos: 12MP (not geotagged)
  • Carbon fiber construction
  • Wingspan: 410 mm / 16.1 inches
  • Weight: 1,850 grams / 4.1 pounds
  • Max Speed: Angle mode: 30 mph 13.5m/s; Follow Me: 43.5mph 19.4m/s
  • 17-20 min flight time
  • 1km range
See Latest Price on Amazon

 

         READ MY REVIEW


Best Camera Drones for Professionals

best drone for professional film and video

Do you find prosumer drones too limiting for your needs?

Then take a look at the professional camera drones listed below.

These serious – and expensive – flying camera platforms are designed for professional aerial photographers and filmmakers who need a custom camera + gimbal system to achieve the image quality their jobs demand.

Professional camera drones are designed to capture images in a wide range of cinematic-quality formats including:

  • RAW
  • Micro Four-Thirds
  • H.265
  • Apple Cinema Pro

To do this, they provide more lift power to carry heavier, professional camera systems such as the popular RED Epic. Most pro camera drones support a wide range of camera and gimbal choices.

One caveat: unless you really need the payload capacity and/or the additional control over your images, then definitely go with a prosumer drone.

Also: if you don’t already know how to operate a camera drone safely, then make sure you train on a cheaper starter drone before you spend big money on one of these rigs. I recommend buying the Phantom 3 Standard for professionals to train on.

I say this because professional camera drones are typically far more expensive to buy, repair and to find replacement parts for.

Finally, compared with a prosumer model, learning to fly and shoot using a professional camera drone takes a bit of time, for several reasons:

  • Less automation. Because you are mixing-and-matching components, you don’t the same automated flight modes and camera tricks as you find in prosumer drones.
  • Flight and camera controls are harder to master and may require calibration before each flight.
  • Lack of advanced features like object detection and collision avoidance… without modifying your basic control systems.
  • You may have to re-balance the rig for each camera setup.

But all of this extra work and expense pays off in the form of far better image quality.

So, if you really need the best – and your budget and schedule have room for it – then here are my top picks:


DJI Inspire 1 & 2 (Starting about $1,999)

The preferred flying camera for many professional aerial photographers and filmmakers around the world.

DJI Inspire 1 - front view action shot
DJI Inspire 1

The DJI Inspire 1 v2.0 is a revolutionary HD camera drone that makes it easy for 1- or 2-person teams to produce extremely high quality 4K HD and Micro Four-Thirds video from up to 2 km away.

The NEW DJI Inspire 2 ups the game by adding CineCore 2.0 5.2K image processing, a 7km live streaming range, more features, a ruggedized chassis and more powerful motors.

DJI has packed a ton of new technology into the Inspire platform to improve reliability, safety and video quality.

Using DJI’s new PC Ground Station, GPS Autopilot and Advanced Flight Modes, taking great commercial shots just requires a bit of flight and shot planning plus one skilled operator on the camera.

If you’re looking for a camera drone for professional-quality film making, surveillance, inspection, law enforcement or broadcast-quality event coverage, then the Inspire platform is tough to beat at anywhere close to this price.

Best Features

  • 1- or 2- operator configuration
  • Advanced automated flight modes and trick shots (unlike most other pro-level rigs)
  • Optional RAW, Micro Four Thirds, CineCore 2.0 image capture
  • Touch screen controller integrates flight path monitoring and FPV/live streaming
  • Easy to use by anyone (not just hobbyists)
  • Live HD video streaming up to 7km away
  • Excellent flight range & endurance

Issues

  • Relatively large size
  • Expensive
  • Limited camera choices

Camera Options (Inspire 1 v2.0)

  • Detachable DJI 9-Lens 4K Camera with no fish-eye effect
  • Record 4.0K in H.264, H.265, RAW and Micro Four Thirds
  • 4.0K @ 24fps
  • 1080p @ 60fps
  • H.264/H.265 at 100 Mbps

Camera Options (Inspire 2)

  • DJI Zenmuse X4S, X5S
  • CineCore 2.0 image capture
  • Record 5.2K in CinemaDNG RAW, Apple ProRes and more
  • 5.2K @ 30fps
  • 4.0K @ 60fps
  • 20 fps continuous burst
  • H.264/H.265 at 100 Mbps

Specs (Inspire 1 v2.0)

  • Professional DJI flight control system
  • RC Controller displays camera, telemetry and flight path all in one screen. Accepts most mobile devices.
  • HDMI Monitor ($500) available for second camera operator
  • Dual GLONASS + GPS for greater precision, redundant tracking and faster satellite acquisition.
  • Live HD video streaming up to 2 km away
  • Full camera control with manual setting adjustments
  • GPS-free indoor stabilization
  • Spare set of props
  • High-quality carrying case
  • 58 mph top speed (Inspire 2)
  • 18-20 minute flight time
  • 2 km range
  • Travel case included.

Specs (Inspire 2) – all of the above plus:

  • Ruggedized chassis
  • Object detection and collision avoidance system
  • Advanced tracking & automated flight modes
  • 58 mph top speed
  • 2 kg per rotor lift thrust
  • 27 min flight time w/ second battery option
  • 7 km range
  • live 1080p video streaming up to 7 km away
  • Self-heating battery system
Learn More at DJI.com

 

         READ MY REVIEW


DJI Matrice 100 (About $3,000)

A flexible, programmable flying workhorse suitable for a wide range of aerial imaging missions.

DJI M100 Matrice Commercial Drone - front view

Unlike prosumer drones, the M100 was purpose-built to be modified by its owner.

Using its hardware expansion bays, the Matrice 100 can be configured to carry any set of cameras, sensors or devices (up to 1kg) that you want to put into the sky.

DJI’s new SDKs let developers build custom mobile apps and advanced flight controls for any requirement. The M100’s combination of flexibility and programmability opens new doors to develop reliable and inexpensive aerial photography solutions for many vertical applications.

Unlike most commercial drone platforms, however, the Matrice 100 is not a kit.

It’s an honest-to-goodness ready-to-fly fully integrated flying platform, complete with a flight controller, propulsion system, flexible cargo bays, GPS, dedicated remote controller, a great mobile app and a rechargeable battery.

Priced at about $3,000 without camera or gimbal, the M100 offers compelling value for anyone who needs a custom-built flying camera solution.

Which is to say: most of the professional drone/UAV market, today.

Best Features

  • Excellent value for its class
  • Ready-to-fly and fully tested
  • Expansion bays support almost any sensor/imaging setup up to 1kg
  • Great range and flight time

Issues

  • Vision/proximity sensors sold separately
  • Camera and gimbal sold separately
  • Assembly and calibration required

Camera Choices

  • Any, up to 1 kg total payload

Specs

  • Powerful new DJI 3510 motors
  • DJI 1345s propellers
  • ESC: DJI E SERIES 620D
  • Flight Control: DJI N1
  • Remote Controller: C1
  • Video Transmission: 2.4GHz Lightbridge
  • Camera: recommend Zenmuse X3 Camera + Gimbal (additional cost)
  • 1 kg payload
  • Flight time: up to 40 minutes (no payload, two TB48D batteries)
  • Range: up to 2 km (outdoors / unobstructed)
  • Max Speed: 17 m/s or 20 m/s (depending on navigation, ATTI or GPS)
  • Wind resistance: up to 10 m/s
Learn More at DJI.com

 

          READ MY REVIEW


DJI Matrice 600 (About $4,599)

A flexible, powerful six-rotor workhorse that’s perfect for professional filmmakers, news teams and industrial customizers.

DJI M600 - hex rotor design

With its 6 kg payload capacity, 36 minute flight time and centimeter-precise navigation (with upgrades), the M600 can meet the most demanding needs of almost any aerial imaging job, including:

  • professional filmmaking
  • live HD video (news broadcast, live events)
  • thermal imaging & inspection (oil-and-gas, wireline)
  • and more

The M600 exploits DJIs new A3 Flight controller, which works synchronously with Lightbridge 2 advanced video transmission allowing it to produce HD live streaming from as far as 5 kilometers away. And, as anyone close to the industry knows, DJI’s live video transmission technology is second-to-none.

The Matrice 600 can handle most camera setups weighing up to 6 kg, which means you can easily carry any of DJI’s latest Zenmuse cameras, DJI’s Ronin MX gimbal – or even a RED Epic.

Best Features

  • Massive 6 kg payload
  • Broadcast-quality Live HD Video Streaming
  • Super-flexible design: expansion bays support almost any sensor/imaging setup (up to ~1kg); suitable for many commercial applications
  • Excellent range and flight time

Issues

  • Expensive
  • Assembly & calibration is required

Camera Choices

  • Up to 6 kg total payload
  • RED Epic
  • Ronin MX gimbal
  • Zenmuse X3, X5, XT, Z5 series

Specs

  • Powerful new DJI 6010 motors
  • DJI 2170 propellers
  • Video Transmission: 2.4GHz Lightbridge
  • Dry Weight: 9.6kg
  • Payload: up to 6 kg
  • Flight time: up to 36 minutes (no payload) or 16 minutes (max payload)
  • Range: up to 5 km (outdoors and unobstructed)
  • Max Speed: 18 m/s or 20 m/s (depending on navigation, ATTI or GPS)
  • Flight ceiling: 2500m
  • Maximum Ascent: 5 m/s
  • Max Angular Velocity: 300 degrees/second (pitch), 150 degrees/second (yaw)
  • Wind Resistance: up to 8 m/s
Learn More at DJI.com

 

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What Is A Camera Drone?

DJI Inspire 1 - front view action shot

DJI Inspire 1 Camera Drone

A camera drone is a radio-controlled aerial flying platform (fixed-wing or multi-rotor configuration) designed to carry an HD camera that shoots high-quality videos and still photography, vibration-free.

Most camera drones today are multi-rotors like quadcopters, because multi-rotors are exceptionally stable and maneuverable flying platforms.

The most popular camera drones today either come ready-to-fly – with an HD or 4K camera installed – or, they can be easily fitted with a popular 2-axis or 3-axis gimbal capable of carrying a camera of your choice.

Many leading camera drones also come equipped with advanced software-driven features that simplify the planning and production of a video shoot, for example:

  • pre-flight planning software: create your flight plan by drawing waypoints on a map using a tablet or touchscreen interface
  • GPS autopilot: execute your flight plan hands-off, via autopilot, so you can focus on getting a great shot
  • automated trick camera shots: follow-me (3PV), region of interest (ROI) targeting and circle-me are some of the newer automated camera modes making life easier for filmmakers
  • safety features: Auto Return Home (RTL), Low Battery Return, and Pause-and-Hover modes are now available in many models. These will help you avoid damage to your aircraft and injury to others.
  • flight simulator: learn how to fly before risking your equipment
  • video editing and publishing software
  • and more

While it may take a little time to master all of the features of your camera drone, today’s best-selling drones are exceptionally easy to fly and take crisp, stutter-free HD video and still shots.


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Why Buy A Camera Drone?

Because you can produce awesome aerial images like these:


Compilation


1080p shot from a DJI Phantom


1440p shot with GoPro Hero 4 on Phantom 2

As you can see, drone-based aerial videos can be really cool.

But there are far more important reasons so many people and companies are investing into camera drones: flying cameras are helping us work smarter, see better and work more efficiently in dozens of industries.


Camera Drones At Work

Every day, hundreds of thousands of camera drones perform jobs that people, pilots and satellites have been doing for decades.

jobs performed by camera drones
Jobs performed by camera drones today

Which camera drone is right for your job?

To help you narrow-down your short list for a particular application, I’ve published a few more buying guides on this site for people interested in a specific use of camera drones, including:


Professional vs. Amateur Filmmaking

best drone for professional film and video

Many popular camera drones are used by both amateur and professional filmmakers.

However, serious cinema professionals sometimes require flying platforms that can carry heavier, custom camera systems, like the popular super-high-resolution camera, RED Epic.

For example, professional-grade camera platforms like the DJI Matrice 600 can carry 5-10 lb payloads – but they typically cost more than $4,000 and sometimes introduce complexities and choices that most amateurs and semi-pro filmmakers would rather avoid.

In addition to a heavier payload, some of the more advanced features that a professional filmmaker may need in a camera drone include:

  • 2-operator mode: one person flies while the other directs the camera; most commercial films are produced this way
  • custom gimbal/camera mounts to hold professional video or film cameras & to stabilize the shot
  • redundant lift power: professional filmmakers often prefer dual-motor and 6- or 8-propeller lift systems to protect their expensive cameras from damage in case a motor fails.
  • advanced GPS-based flight planning & control systems to plan and execute complex, time-synchronized flight paths & automated camera shots in 3 dimensions
  • object detection and collision avoidance systems, like the ones offered in the DJI Phantom 4 and Yuneec Typhoon H
  • advanced camera controls to adjust the camera’s aperture, shutter and other settings while in flight
  • more precise GPS autopilot positioning, using redundant GPS/GLONASS receivers and inertial sensors like the centimeter-level precision available in the DJI Matrice 600.
  • more durable construction, like the magnesium-aluminum frame used in the new DJI Inspire 2
  • cinema-quality 5.2k video capture with Apple ProRes / CinemaDNG compatibility, also available in the DJI Inspire 2.

Live Video Streaming

The vast majority of camera drones are used for recording HD video for playback later – not for live broadcasting.

While news stations continue to experiment with live drone video feeds, the resolution and reliability of live HD streaming from drones is not quite there yet. This is because there are lots of technical issues involved with trying to stream live 4K video at 30-60fps.

That said, DJI claims their new M600 hexacopter can deliver reliable broadcast-qualitry HD video from up to 5 km away.

With the FAA’s recent approval of the NFL using drones for live video, I expect more drone manufacturers to follow in DJI’s footsteps.


Ready-to-Fly vs. Building Your Own

DJI Inspire 1 - travel case

For most amateurs and professionals just starting out, a ready-to-fly (RTF) camera drone is by far your best option.

RTF camera drones like the ones made by DJI, 3D Robotics and Parrot have worked-out the bugs and inconsistencies among their onboard and ground station systems. This integration makes taking high quality shots on every flight as easy and stress-free as possible.

RTF camera drones do sacrifice some flexibility in camera & payload choices, but most amateurs and semi-pro filmmakers won’t notice.

Building your own camera drone from scratch is another option, but it isn’t realistic for most people. Instead, most hobbyists prefer to mount a camera and gimbal of their choice to a proven commercial-grade flying platform like the DJI Matrice 600 that meets the minimum requirement for film making and photography – features such as:

  • accepts professional gimbals and cameras (mounting space and payload capacity)
  • includes an onboard GPS with an integrated flight controller and autopilot
  • comes with integrated flight planning & control software
  • has been proven in the field for camera work.

Custom-mounting a gimbal and camera to a drone requires care due to center-of-gravity and possible equipment interference issues.

In addition, custom-built camera drones may lack advanced camera control and direction such as follow-me (3PV) and region of interest (ROI) targeting.

Finally, warranties may not cover a DIY flying camera.

If you need a camera drone for specialized jobs such as data acquisition, agriculture or surveillance, then you may want to consider purchasing a special-purpose work drone, instead.

Industry-specific drones tend to be more expensive and more complex to operate, however. This is why many professionals opt for “prosumer” drones like the Inspire 1or Phantom 3, whenever they can.


What Does It Cost?

If you’re willing to settle for less range and less than 4K video quality, then you can get a decent RTF camera drone for about $500. A great choice in this price range is the Phantom 3 Standard.

Complete, ready-to-fly camera drones capable of shooting 4K video usually cost between $1,000-$2,000. Most flying cameras in this price range offer a LOT of features including: flight planning software, a ground station controller with integrated touchscreen, GPS autopilot, advanced trick camera shots, a 3-axis professional gimbal, and a GoPro 3/4 or similar-quality camera. The most popular RTF camera drones in this price range are the Phantom 4 PRO and the Typhoon H .

For more professional demands – for example, if you need to film in Micro Four Thirds or need a drone that allows 2-person operation – prices generally start at around $2,500 and can go much higher.

The leading RTF flying camera in this price range is the DJI Inspire ($2,000-$8,000) which offers many different camera packages including a professional-grade Micro Four Thirds camera system.

If you need to fly a heavier camera rig like the RED Epic, then you’ll need to upgrade to a higher-payload multi-copter like the Matrice 600 ($4,500), which is capable of carrying a massive 6kg of gear. But heavy-duty flying camera rigs like this cost $6,000-$10,000 after you add a camera and gimbal.

 

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Features To Look For

The rest of this guide explains the features that matter most when selecting a drone for aerial photography and filmmaking.

Camera

DJI Inspire 1 - camera

Arguably, the camera is the most important feature of any film maker’s drone.

Most leading camera drones use proprietary camera systems these days, for lots of practical reasons. The most important advantages of using the drone manufacturer’s camera include:

  • better control over camera positioning
  • control over more camera features like shutter speed and zoom
  • camera features can be be planned, automated & synchronized w/ your flight plan, and executed with the manufacturer’s flight control system

The biggest downside of using a proprietary camera is obvious: most can’t be swapped out, as technology advances. For most consumers, a proprietary camera system isn’t a big deal.

Many professional film makers prefer camera drones with pro gimbals that can accept many different cameras.

Popular third-party cameras used in aerial film and photography include:

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • Panasonic Lumix GH4
  • Sony NEX 7
  • RED Epic
  • GoPro Hero 4
  • BlackMagic Pocket Cinema

Camera Mount & Gimbal

DJI Phantom 3 Professional - gimbal with camera

The best-quality camera drones like DJI ‘s Phantom 4 are equipped with a high-quality professional 3-axis gimbal to control camera positioning and to provide a stable image in all conditions.

The quality of your gimbal will make or break the quality of your video image. A camera gimbal takes care of two critical jobs in film making:

  1. camera positioning: a gimbal controls the direction of the camera in 2 or 3 axes using a series of high-precision electric motors; and,
  2. image stability: a gimbal ensures that normal vibrations and sudden movements of the drone do not impact the quality of the image. It does this by using its high-speed electric motors to compensate for motions detected by an onboard gyro.

Digital gimbals like the one used in the Parrot BeBop improve image stability for fixed-mount cameras, but only so much.

Avoid fixed camera mounts if image quality is your priority.


Flight Controller

Hubsan H107D X4 Quadcopter - hands on controller

There are many different types of flight controllers available today, from simple 6-axis RC flight controllers to sophisticated tablet-based controllers that integrate flight status, map overlay, waypoint control and live streaming video into a single display.

Some flight controllers are touch sensitive, allowing you to pinch and squeeze status and video stream windows while you fly.

Drone manufacturers today compete on the differences in their flight controllers and associated software. Every day there’s an announcement of some new feature.

That said, take care to ensure that your controller has the following basics covered:

  • battery life: how long does your controller operate without a battery swap? if it only lasts 30 minutes and the unit reboots on a battery swap, then you may be really frustrated in the field.
  • manual flight control: make sure you have 6-axis control over your drone using twin sticks. Don’t go for novel or fancier designs.
  • flight control frequency: most camera drones use the 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz frequency band for flight control. If yours is switchable, then great, because either spectrum can get crowded in a suburban or urban area.
  • telemetry data streaming: does your controller provide equipment and flight status to you in real time? telemetry data can be a life saver if your drone flies out of view and has an accident
  • first person view (FPV) video streaming: does your camera drone provide a live video stream from its onboard camera? is it in HD, so you can see the shot as it will appear on film? can you attach FPV glasses via an HDMI port?

GPS Autopilot

ubsan X4 Pro waypoint mode on screen

GPS autopilot is a standard feature on the most popular camera drones sold today.

There are three types of GPS systems used to control drones today:

  1. standard GPS: uses a single GNSS receiver chip: accurate to within a meter or two; used on most consumer drones
  2. redundant GPS: uses 2 or more redundant GNSS receivers, typically a standard GPS plus a GLONASS receiver; this is a good choice if you’ll be flying over populated areas or any space where losing GIS positioning could be catastrophic.
  3. parallel GPS: two or more GNSS receivers working in conjunction to deliver sub-meter precision; useful where highly precise location accuracy is required, such as covering stadium sporting events.

Most people are fine using a single GPS system to operate a camera drone, but if the speed of satellite acquisition, safety or location precision are critical to your job, then you may want to upgrade to a more sophisticated solution.


Flight Planning & Control

AR Parrot Bebop - app waypoint control

If you want to produce a professional quality film or video, then solid pre-flight planning is essential. This can be done with or without software.

That said, integrated flight planning and control software is an essential part of flying a camera drone today, because it frees the operator to focus only on capturing great camera shots.

The best camera drones for sale like the Phantom 4 include integrated flight planning & control software that lets you visually plan your flight path ahead of time by overlaying waypoints onto a visual map of your flight region.

Later, the waypoint flight plan used to drive the drone’s GPS autopilot system to fly the drone with little to no interference from the pilot.

In general, amateur and semi-pro videographers and photographers should avoid camera drones that do not come equipped with this vital capability.


Advanced Camera Control

outdoor sports drone skiiing

The drone market continues to release new automated camera control features.

The most popular of these are Follow-Me (3PV) and Region of Interest (ROI) camera modes.

Follow Me camera positioning (sometimes called third person point of view, or 3PV for short) lets a single operator direct a drone to maintain camera focus on the operator while the drone executes an autopilot or manual flight plan.

Follow-Me makes it easy to take an HD “film selfie” of you enjoying your favorite extreme sport and outdoor activities, without needing a second person to operate the drone. In Follow-Me mode, the drone will follow the operator wherever s/he goes using a location beacon that is typically worn on the wrist or as a pendant.

Region of Interest camera positioning maintains the camera’s focus on a GPS-defined region, rather than a moving person.

ROI mode is useful in building and construction monitoring, event and tourism marketing, real estate marketing and other applications where the center of action is a fixed location.

Using the right drone, a filmmaker can program a flight path and add a Region of Interest to do a complete sweep of an area or event, all without touching the controls.


Real-Time Object Detection

DJI Phantom 4 - four optical sensorsThe latest innovation in the ready-to-fly camera drone market is real-time object detection, which is the built-in ability to “see” the drone’s surrounding terrain in 3D and to recognize objects within it, in real time.

DJI’s prosumer drone, the Phantom 4, is the first ready-to-fly camera drone equipped with this ground-breaking capability. The Phantom 4 does this using a set of forward- and down- looking cameras & sensors that monitor its environment constantly.

Object detection adds another level of intelligence to a camera drone that enables really cool, useful new features such as advanced “follow-me” & “follow-that” navigation, new trick camera shots and automatic collision avoidance (described below).


Automatic Collision Avoidance

Collision avoidance is a feature that drone operators & manufacturers have been dreaming about, for a long time. And now, it’s finally here!

DJI Phantom 4 - optical sensor sense and avoid collisionsEnabled by real time object detection, the newest camera drones like the Phantom 4 can literally see objects in their flight path and automatically route a new course around them.

This feature offers a number of important benefits. First off, you reduce the chance you will crash and damage your drone due to unexpected obstacles.

The second advantage is flight planning can be simplified without increasing risk. With intelligent re-routing around objects, you don’t need to worry as much about unseen object like small trees and light poles. Just let your drone take care of it.

Of course, this sounds a lot simpler than it is in practice. If there is an object in your drone’s way, then you may not get the camera shot you were after, and you’ll need to re-plan and fly the shot again.

But at least you didn’t destroy your aircraft!


Streamlined Video Editing

Don’t overlook the software provided by the drone manufacturer.

Specifically, apps that streamline video editing and publishing sequence. After all, editing video usually takes more time than shooting.

After capturing that great trick shot, wouldn’t it be awesome if you could review the clip right on your flight controller – and even edit it?

Well, with the newest popular camera drones, you can.

For example, DJI offers a free mobile app, the DJI Video Editor, with every Inspire and Phantom drone. The app runs on the same device you use for flight planning, GPS tracking, live video feeds and telemetry.

This sort of integration makes fly > shoot > edit a breeze.

DJI Video Editor


Flight Time

Flight time is critical, obviously, for any filming or photography job.

Most quadcopter-style flying platforms have a useful flying time of 10 to 25 minutes.

But some of this time is eaten up flying to and from your camera target, so the majority of ready-to-fly camera drones will deliver 10 to 15 minutes of useful camera time before having to return to base.

If more time is required, a fixed wing drone may be used. Fixed wing camera drones are capable of flight times up to 1 hour. However, due to the speed they operate, the quality and flexibility of film making is reduced.

Alternatively, you can use multiple drones to shoot specific sections of your shot’s flight path.


Flight Ceiling

Flight ceiling is usually not an issue with most camera drones, because the shot is almost always focused on the ground or on a building.

But if you are filming wild geese flying, parachutists or base jumpers, then be aware of the limitations.

Flight ceiling is almost always artificially imposed by the drone’s software, a line of sight limitation or the wireless radio’s range, not by the flying platform itself. By replacing the controller with a more powerful unit or by upgrading your software, you may be able to dramatically improve the ceiling of your drone.


Speed

Most ready-to-fly camera drones cannot fly much faster than 50 miles per hour in a straight line, with zero wind resistance. That’s OK, since the typical speed used on most video shoots less than 20 mph.

If your camera target frequently moves faster than 30 or 40 mph, then you may need to look at a fixed wing camera drone or you may want to attach a gimbal to a racing drone (up to 100 mph).


Range

Many camera drones are capable of operating up to 1 km away from the controller, sometimes as far as 7 km with wireless boosters.

That said, weather conditions and radio interference in the environment can reduce effective range by as much as 90%.

A camera drone’s effective range is a function of the quality of the wireless connections used for the radio controller unit, the video streaming channel, and the telemetry channel (if separate from video). The less crowded the frequency band, the more chance you have of flying a long distance and streaming HD video when you arrive.

If you need long-range operation, then make sure your drone & controller use the latest wireless/radio frequencies & technologies approved for drone use, such as 5.8GHz or 5.0 MiMO.


Safety Features

AR Parrot Bebop RED - prop guard
AR Parrot Bebop: prop guards

There are two kinds of safety to worry about when operating a camera drone: the safety of the drone and the safety of people it could fall on.

The most important safety features to get in a camera drone include

  • Prop Guards to protect people from being injured by sharp propeller edges, and to protect your drone from trees.
  • Return Home: automatically return the drone back to launch location, using a single button.
  • Emergency Landing: if problems are detected by the drone such as low battery life, automatically attempt a safe, controlled landing or execute the return home mode.
  • Auto-Hover: sometimes called a “Panic Button”, hover mode immediately stops all forward motion and hovers in place. Important when wind or weather conditions temporarily ruin a shot; or, if you lose sight of the drone and no longer have video stream or telemetry data to confirm its position.
  • Flight Tracker: monitor and log your aircraft’s GPS position throughout its flight. Important if you fly beyond line-of-sight. The Flytrex 3G is a great choice (about $180).

Wind Resistance

The vast majority of camera drones are used outside. So, wind resistance is important to understand.

The truth is, every quadcopter is at least somewhat wind sensitive and will be impacted by winds greater than 20-30 miles per hour.

If your environment experiences regular high gusts of wind, then consider using a fixed wing drone instead.


Water Resistance

windsurfing drone outdoor video

This is one feature where drones differ dramatically.

If you’re taking shots of any sort of outdoor sports, then you will want your camera drone to be water resistant (IP5 and IP6) at the very least. You can’t control the weather, after all.

If your video flights are over open water (chasing boats or skiers), then you also need your drone to float – and to identify its location if it splashes down.

Most camera drones today DO NOT FLOAT.

The few that do are water resistant enough to continue operating, which means they will continue to identify their location – until the battery dies.


Warranty

Warranties for most ready-to-fly camera drones like the Phantom 3 generally last 1 year and cover all parts including the camera and gimbal.

If you custom-build a camera drone, then only the flying platform is warranted – your camera & gimbal are your problem.

Replacement Parts

This is where the brand you buy can make a big difference. There are thousands of drone manufacturers today, but most of them are really custom job shops who assemble other company’s parts.

Replacement parts are easier to obtain and often cheaper for the most popular camera drone manufacturers. DJI, 3D Robotics and AR Parrot, produce 80% of the camera drones sold today, so if their products can meet your needs you’re probably better off.


Get Trained

Most drone buyers today are first-time flyers, and taking great shots from the air is not easy to do. It takes a lot of practice to fly, point and shoot in 4 dimensions (x, y, z and velocity) using a remote camera.

If you don’t want to destroy a few drones ($$$) and cameras ($$) and waste weeks learning how NOT to fly a camera, then I recommend you get trained by experts.

Even if you have a pilot’s license, then I recommend getting trained on the following techniques and topics:

  1. how to fly a drone safely
  2. how to get legally certified to operate a drone in your country
  3. how to fly a drone on GPS autopilot
  4. how to get great aerial shots: aerial photography and videography
  5. how to edit and process high-resolution images and video using the latest software tools

The good news is there are many options today for getting trained, either in person or online.

Check out my new list of The 50+ Best Online and Ground Training Programs to see a comprehensive list of education, certification and training programs available today.

Online Course Picks

I prefer online courses, because they are self-paced and flying a camera is a hobby for me.

Here are a few courses I can recommend:

  1. How to Take Great Aerial Shots & Edit Them (using FCPX or Adobe Premiere): Stunning Aerial Videography and Photography Using Drones by Bruce Geddes, Aerial Videographer, Photographer and Expert. This is a hands-on 7 hour course that teaches you how to plan your flight and your shots together, how to take shots and how to edit and add effects to your images and video. Cost: $99 on Udemy.com (5-star rating with over 1,000 students to-date).

  2. How to Fly a Drone Safely: for a school or class near you, check out this comprehensive list of UAV training courses on DroneTrainingHQ.com. Also check out the $3500 UAV Certificate course offered by Unmanned Vehicle University.

Learn More

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Andrew Nixon
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Andrew Nixon

Owner/Editor at Best Drone for the Job
Avid drone/UAV enthusiast for many years.
By day, I design websites and mobile apps.
Andrew Nixon
Follow Me

Andrew Nixon

Avid drone/UAV enthusiast for many years. By day, I design websites and mobile apps.