You might have heard the phrase of Joe McNally (one of the photography icons of this century):
“Face it, everything’s been seen and everything’s been shot. So how do you make a different picture? Get your camera in a different place!”
And this is arguably the trickiest part of modern photography, or at least it used to be.
Because indeed, how do you get an interesting, distinguishing shot other than by going where no photographer has gone before?
The answer is: you can't.
And that's what drove many photographers in search of the shot to climb enormously tall buildings, go concur mt. Everest, submerge into deep underwaters, survive tropical storms, chase tornadoes or rent out helicopters.
But it seems today that life is about to get easier, thanks to technology once again.
And the piece of technology we’ll review today is drones, also known as quad-copters.
They are relatively small, portable, remotely controlled flying machines that are able to get your camera well above the surface without you doing anything, but pressing buttons on a joystick. And that is pretty mind-blowing, if you ask me.
But on today’s market there’s a boom of new entries, as companies quickly realize that this new product category is gaining popularity with the masses, so they all want to jump in on it. But not all drones are created equal, and some of them are suited for photography needs better than others. So, let’s take a look at what the best drones are for aerial photography, no matter what budget you're on!
When creating this list we (and you should too) mainly took into account (in order of importance): the camera and its gimbal, ease of use, flying time, range of communication link, features, max. speed and altitude as well as controller’s design.
Drones around $1000:
DJI Phantom 4
As DJI is the oldest and most reputable name in the drone industry, this is your safest bet if you want to get into drone photography. As in popular culture, it has the slick shape of Phantom drones that’s being associated with drones themselves:
And that is for a good reason. Years of expertise and improving upon past versions, has resulted in the ultimate value product represented by Phantom 4 (spoiler: now beaten by Mavic Pro).
Its magnesium air frame allows for a durable and light construction, while four motors provide enough power to soar 6 km above the sea level and get there in 16 minutes from 0 altitude (although it is just a theoretical case, as transmission distance is lower than that)! That is a lot of power! And with 81.3 Wh quick changing battery it can offer up to 28 minutes flight time, so the time you have to spend on the ground is minimized.
But power and raw performance is probably the smallest contributors to the Phantom 4's success. It’s the other features that make it special, such as, it has smart in-flight assistants which allows for high accuracy hovering with only +/- 0.3 meters error due to a Vision Positioning System (similar to that found in autonomous vehicles), among other things. These features allow the drone automatically avoid obstacles during the flight and return to the launch point with a click of one button. This will be handy because should some anomaly occur and the signal from the controller gets lost, the drone will automatically proceed to its take-off point. Under normal circumstances the range of remote reaches 5 km while keeping 720p live-feed to your connected device at all times.
As for the camera – one of the most important components of a photo-oriented drone – it excels as well. By offering 1/2.3” 12MP image sensor with 20-mm equivalent f/2.8 lens with low distortions, it makes for a descent capturing device up in the sky. In addition, it has several bursting modes (3/5/7 fps), 3/5 exposure bracketing, in camera HDR and Timelapse.
As for the video recording, it can capture good quality UHD 4k @ 30 fps and 1080p @ 120 fps.
Another cool feature that will be familiar to all users of modern DSLRs is subject tracking which allows the drone to lock on specific subject and follow it, wherever it goes.
The camera is paired with the best in class gimbal, that offers 3-axis stabilization and pitch range from -90° to +30°, which in practice translates to incredibly smooth footage.
So, the DJI Phantom 4 makes for a powerful and good value conventional drone, albeit its form-factor cannot be called compact and optimal for transportation by modern standards.
Recently released first GoPro drone drew a lot of attention for a good reason. In the early days of the drone industry, camera and drone manufacturers (such as DJI) made partnerships: one supplied the flying platform and the other the capturing device. But those days gradually came to an end when DJI started producing and integrating their own cameras into drones, starting with Phantom 2 Vision back in 2013.
And now, 3 years later, GoPro is finally ready to compete. Their brand new drone is called Karma, and it’s more than just a drone, it’s a system.
The most notable difference compared to conventional form-factor drones like the Phantom 4 is the foldability and low profile that should make transportation a less miserable experience, despite the fact that the footprint of Karma is actually bigger than Phantom's.
As for the “more than a drone” part, it means that Karma, which is compatible with the new generation of GoPro cameras as well as Hero 4 Black and Silver, sells with backpack case and gimbal stabilizer that can be used both in drone and in hand. And that is great thing in terms of convenience, compactness and value because you get all at once, which isn’t the case with Phantom where you need to spend an additional $650 for the Osmo hand stabilizer with an additional camera. The Karma's stabilizer is also compatible with all current GoPro mounts, so you can attach it to any place where you would attach GoPro and get smoother footage than ever before possible.
However, as nice as this detachable gimbal is, it’s not quite as good as the one found on the DJI’s drones: it has a pitch range of only -90° to 0° degrees, whereas DJI is capable of going as far as +30°.
As for the flying capabilities of Karma, they also yield to those of the DJI drones, but still are on pretty level playing field for the most scenarios. In terms of raw power, Karma can get as high as 4500 meters and reach the max speed of 15 m/s (54 kph, 35 mph) with the transmission range of only ~1 km (0.62 miles). The flight time also can’t match that of DJI’s products and is only 20 minutes.
When it comes to smart features, Karma has several footage assistant options, that can help you capture epic shots without the advance knowledge of aircraft piloting . It also has a built in GPS, so it can hover in one place compensating for the wind and come back to a starting point and land with a push of a button. Although this is similar to the latest DJI drones, the Karma is not as environmentally aware and can’t see and avoid obstacles, or lock on and follow the subject.
But the bad news ends and the good begins as we come to the video footage quality. This is because it’s limited not by the drone itself, but by the GoPro camera you have on it. And as we know, GoPro cameras are quite good. HERO 4 and HERO5 Session will most likely produce video that is at least as good as Mavic's, whereas HERO 5 can likely surpass it and Phantom 4.
I have only two concerns camera-wise:
1) The fact that the camera protrudes from the body a lot. On one hand, it makes sure that your propellers will never get in frame (something that often happens with the Phantom at high speeds), but on the other hand the camera's ability to withstand a rough landing or crash is a big question.
2) Since it’s the same GoPro camera on the drone as everywhere else, you will get the signature fish-eye-like curved look that I personally don’t like. Of course, you can fix this in post processing, but this requires time and sacrifices some of the footage quality.
So, even though Karma cannot keep up with similarly priced competitors from DJI, do not forget that you can take out both the stabilizer and the camera from the drone and use them separately, which is something that DJI users can only dream of. So in terms of value this is an absolute winner.
When it was announced I was blown away as this seems like the ultimate product that will kill GoPro’s Karma in the cradle.
It matches in most specifications to the Phantom 4, but has a footprint 3.7 times smaller (16.43 cm2 compared to 61.25 cm2 of Phantom 4) when folded! In fact, it’s not much bigger than iPhone 7 Plus which is just crazy and makes it incredibly easy to take this drone with you wherever you go.
Another advantage that the Mavic has over the Phantom is that it has an assisted mode that allows it to follow terrain in flight, thus staying at a constant height above the ground even if it's steeply elevating terrain. Another feature absent from Phantom is Capture me mode, in which drone can read your gestures and perform specific functions, such as take a selfie, for instance.
The only areas where smaller and lighter Mavic Pro succumbs to its older brother is maximum speed, altitude and camera performance.
The camera isn't bad by any means, sporting the same sensor as Phantom, but real life tests show slightly higher noise and color cast. However, this may have to do with the fact that the units tested were pre-production models and DJI will improve IQ on final product.
There was an early misconception that Mavic's camera isn't as sharp as Phantom’s. This myth was caused by improper use of the camera, as those reviewers assumed that Mavic camera has a fixed focus like the Phantom, whereas in reality you need to tap the screen of your connected device to focus. When focused, the sharpness of Mavic is the same as Phantom’s.
As far as the remote controller of Mavic goes, compared to Phantom 4 it’s definitely smaller, especially in it’s folded form. It still feels nice in hand and the layout of controls will be very familiar to Phantom users, even though the buttons themselves are smaller and a shorter distance apart.
But unlike Phantom’s remote, you also get a neat display that shows you the most important info like speed, mode, signal strength, etc. There’s also a nice addition of a 5-way thumbstick that is used to zoom in on phone’s display and tilt the camera up or down. Also if you tap it you’ll get into the menu of selecting intelligent flight modes. And just like with Phantom, all buttons are customizable. On the other hand, you can’t attach a bigger tablet to the Mavic’s remote; the biggest thing that will fit there is the iPhone 7 Plus.
Also the Magic charger is smaller and designed with traveler’s needs in mind, so in addition to drone charge cable it offers 2 USB ports allowing you to charge Mavic, the remote controller and your phone at the same time.
Drones below $1000:
It's the cheapest drone in our review that’s still pretty capable. Unlike the previously mentioned drones it doesn't come with its own camera but relies on coupling with GoPro, namely Hero 4 Black, so it’ll be a great budget-friendly option if you already own a GoPro or a similar action camera.
It accurately matches specifications of Phantom 3 Standard but outperforms all drones in raw power, offering highest max accent speed (10 m/s) as well as speed (89 kmh/55 mph) and has a better controller with a nice screen for displaying crucial information. It also has assisted film modes, just like DJIs and Karma which will make it easy for you to capture the shot you want.
On the other hand, it can’t match DJI in terms of accuracy of positioning and gimbal also performs slightly worse. Another question has to do with GoPro camera itself due to fish-eye distortion, which won’t be big of a deal with nature shots but may ruin your creative vision for the footage of human made objects with straight lines.
Phantom 3 Standard
This is another budget friendly option. Currently retailing for about $350 it’s now the entry-level drone by DJI. It shares many features with pricier brothers but lacks 4K capabilities, has a simpler camera sensor and guidance unit. So, should you get it instead of 3DR Solo?
We recommend getting whichever one will end up costing you the least. That’s because those two drones are very close to each other in terms of abilities and if you’re looking at them you’re probably wanting to save money. At the time of this article they both cost around $350 dollars, but 3DR Solo does not include the camera for this price. So, if you already have an action camera you can put on it go with 3DR Solo as it has better flying characteristics but if you don’t – buy Phantom 3 Standard as it’s the best value option out there.
Phantom 3 Professional/Advanced
Getting one of these will be dependent upon whether your needs include the ability to shoot 4k video or can be satisfied with 2.7k only. This is the only difference between these two. Even the actual optics and image sensor inside the camera are the same.
As for the features and specifications, they come very close to Phantom 4 but for a 30-40% lower price. Things that will be taken away for these savings ($400-500) are mostly of the software nature: obstacle avoidance and subject tracking as well as shorter flight time (23 minutes). All these things are no doubt good to have and will help with effortless flying, but if you are on a tight budget this is the drone to get due to its high all-around performance and functionality.
Drones above $1000:
If you want to step up your game and be able to get truly professional quality footage from air for further advanced post-production there options for you as well.
DJI Inspire 1
Inspire is an extremely capable machine with specifications similar to the Phantom 4 but coupled with a more capable cameras. Most prominent of those are the ZENMUSE X5 and X5R both of which offer 16 MP Micro 4/3 sensor! Given the fact that sensor in them is only ~40% smaller than APS-C sized sensor found in many DSLRs and has a dynamic range of 12.8 stops you can expect nearly matching image quality. Furthermore, these cameras offer an interchangeable lens mount, so you can take advantage of brilliant lenses made for Micro 4/3 cameras. X5 R takes it even further for video oriented professionals, offering video recording in RAW (JPEG-Lossless) format to its internal 512 GB storage.
In short, if you need more than what the 1/2.3” sensor size can deliver, DJI Inspire 1 will be your best value, both in term of value, even though the price per se is a little more.
3DR Site Scan
It utilizes the same drone chassis as the 3DR Solo but you can hook up a Sony APS-C camera to it. Even though its targeted audience is the construction industry, nothing gets in the way of using this amazing camera in the sky for aerial photography, except probably the price. With 20 MP and interchangeable e-mount lenses this solution will deliver you the best stills quality possible out of the box. However, for video you will be better off with DJI’s X5 R camera as it’s capable both of RAW recording and has 3 axis gimbal, compared to only 2 axis on Site Scan.
It is another option is to build yourself a drone capable of lifting the camera you want. For instance, if you want to have Full-Frame in the sky, this would be the only solution available now. Building a drone from parts will not be easy and nor will it end up being your most portable and user-friendly solution, but it might be the best value for the price. I won’t go into details about this as it’s meant to be an introductory article, so if you want to know more I’ll let you do your own research.
Things to keep in mind
The drone industry is just realizing its concept, similarly to what smartphone industry did before the iPhone 3GS. DJI's Mavic Pro seems like the first truly mature product that combines unprecedented user friendliness and performance in one package. Compared to it all other drones seem like relics of the past, similar to how Blackberries stack up against Android and iOS. Foldable, more compact drones with better cameras and interesting design are yet to come, and among those there are several interesting options:
GDU Byrd and Ultimate flying platform
Chinese manufacturer formerly named ProDrone has a foldable drone the size of Phantom for sale already, but it is nothing special. What is going to be special is their new product: an Ultimate flying platform that will allow you to put your Mirrorless camera on the drone’s gimbal (sorry folks, DSLRs are to heavy). They’ve announced compatibility with several cameras already (Sony: RX100 IV, A6000, A7RII, Ricoh GR2 ), but the actual release of the product is yet to come.
Xiomi Drone – is also an interesting alternative to Phantoms spec wise, but it’s not a next generation drone and nor is it foldable. But it matches the Phantom in terms of specifications for the half of the price. However, we couldn’t confirm if it’s as good in real life as it is on paper, which is the reason why it wasn’t included in main review. But if you’re shopping for an affordable drone, it will be worth investigating yourself.
DJI Phantom 5 – now when the smaller and cheaper Mavic that can match all capabilities of Phantom 4 is out, it's hard to picture Phantom 4 having a big demand. That's why I think DJI will release Phantom 5 quite soon and it will have a foldable construction, 360-degree obstacle avoidance system, significantly better camera and other cool things. The logical step would be to put a 1-inch sensor in it, so it will sit comfortably between most portable and consumer oriented Mavic and professional Inspire 1.
Which one should you get?
There may be more interesting drones yet to come but if you need one today it all will depend on what you value and need the most.
Let's imagine we have the graph where on the X axis we have image quality and on the Y axis compactness and ease of use. Then it'll look like this:
So, in the bottom right we have different do-yourself flying platforms that are capable of lifting and operating DSLRs. Those will give the maximum possible quality, as virtually they can lift any camera. But the convenience and ease of use are practically non-existent.
On the other hand, on top and slightly to the left we have the Mavic Pro. It’s very compact and easy to fly, but incapable of handling the bigger sensor of DJI Inspire, 3DR Site Scan or DIY flying platforms.
Karma and Phantom 4 offer almost the same level of Image Quality but with bigger shortcomings in usability.
For this graph we took only Photography worthy drones, so that’s why the left side of the graph representing poor Image Quality is blank.
If we take the same graph, only with Value (comfort + price + features + IQ) on X axis, we’ll see how it all changes and that affordability doesn’t solely represent the value:
Here, DJI Phantom 3 scores the most because it has virtually the same specs and camera as Phantom 4 and Mavic but costs up to 40% less. Karma comes in second due its versatility and rich accessory package.
Mavic Pro and 3DR Solo share the 3rd place but for very different reasons. Mavic is extremely easy to use and packed with useful features, whereas 3DR Solo climbs high because of its price – the cheapest drone in this comparison ($380 on BestBuy as of the time of writing).
Here’s the final Spec table to help you make the right choice (from low price to high):