The best camera drones are far more than the simple toys they used to be. They’re now used widely by both amateur and professional photographers because they can reach areas and shoot from angles that regular cameras can’t. They allow aerial views of landscapes, buildings and events that previously required the use of a helicopter or a small plane.
A drone – also known as a quadcopter or multicopter – has four or more propellers which provide vertical lift from each corner, and an on-board processor to control the lift from each rotor and keep the machine broadly level. They are surprisingly quick and agile, with quick direction changes achieved by leaning the drone slightly off the horizontal, so a proportion of the props’ energy is directed sideways.
The best camera drones in 2020
There are some features to keep in mind compared to shopping for a regular camera.
Sensor and lenses: You will probably have to accept a smaller sensor size, and no zoom lens. Less glass means less weight, which means a longer flight time.
Vibration: this can be issue too; the fast turning props and sudden movements are not ideal for still or video photography.
Control: this is either via your phone’s limited Wi-Fi range or a separate controller using radio frequency (but probably your phone, too, to view the live video).
Collision detection: drone makers have sought to combat the risk of collision using sensors – partly to help you out, but also to head off criticism from governing bodies keen to avoid serious accidents.
Drone regulations: The UK has now joined China, the USA & Canada (among others) in requiring drone operators to register any aircraft over 250g (8.8oz) – all but two of the drones in this list. All drone pilots will need to cooperate with the common-sense regulations laid out in The Drone Code (UK) or the FAA website. It sounds very official, but it’s easier than you’d think.
1. DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
Weight: 905g | Dimensions (folded): 214×91×84mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 322×242×84mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K HDR 30fps | Camera resolution: 12MP (Pro is 20MP) | Battery life: 31 minutes (3850mAh) | Max Range: 8km / 5mi) | Max Speed: 72kph / 44.7mph
DJI’s Mavic Pro changed what was possible with the best camera drones back in 2016, making it possible to fold and carry a decent-quality lens without being overly heavy or bulky. It sold so well that perhaps the appeal of simple aerial imagery is waning, so DJI has added clever software features. One of the most stunning (on both the Mavic 2 Pro and the Zoom model) is Hyperlapse – an aerial time-lapse which can include motion and is processed in moments onboard. The Zoom model also gains a dolly zoom effect (ask a horror movie geek), which is great fun.
The airframe feels beefy for something that folds up so small, but it brings with it powerful motors and speed control systems, capped with surprisingly quiet propellers. This makes it nearly as capable as heavier drones in the wind – with a high maximum speed and very responsive controls (which can be softened for cinematic work). The omnidirectional sensors also make it very hard to crash at normal speeds, and even play a part in the excellent object tracking.
2. Parrot Anafi
Weight: 310g | Dimensions (folded): 244×67×65mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 240×175×65mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K HDR 30fps | Camera resolution: 21MP | Battery life: 25 minutes (2700mAh) | Max Range: 4km / 2.5mi) | Max Speed: 55kph / 35mph
Parrot wasn’t really a contender in the high-end aerial video market until the Anafi arrived in mid-2018, but it was definitely worth the wait. Rather than push up prices and weight with sensors of questionable use (and the processing power to handle their data), Parrot leave the business of avoiding obstacles very much to the customer. In exchange, though, it’s managed to keep the portability and price manageable, helped by the fact a great hard-fabric zip case is included so you’ll be able to shoot just about anywhere.
The carbon-fiber elements of the body can feel a little cheap, but in reality this is one of the best built frames on the market, and very easy to operate thanks to automatic take-off, landing, GPS-based return-to-home, and an exceptionally well-built folding controller with a hinged phone-grip, one that seems so much easier to operate, and so much more logical, than recent contenders from DJI.
The only niggles are that the gimbal is only powered on two axes, relying on software to handle sharp turns, which it only does quite well, and that for some reason Parrot charge extra for in-app features like follow-me modes that DJI include as standard. On the plus side, that gimbal can be turned all the way up for an unobstructed angle most drones can’t manage and the system even features zoom, unheard of at its price point.
A new Parrot Anafi FPV kit has been recently introduced, which combines this drone with head-up display (‘first-person view’) goggles for a fully immersive flying experience. While the addition of FPV might seem a novelty at first, the economical implementation means that anyone considering an Anafi can afford to sample it – and we genuinely believe it would be a shame to miss!
3. DJI Mavic Mini
Weight: 249g | Dimensions (folded): 140×82×57mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 2.7K 30fps | Camera resolution: 12MP | Battery life: 30 minutes (2400mAh) | Max Range: 4km / 2.5 miles | Max Speed: 47kph / 29mph
With the original Mavic in 2016, DJI created a new category of folding prosumer drone, small and light enough to take nearly anywhere but with a good camera. Back then the limit was technology; now a new artificial dividing line has been added by regulation. Most of the major markets for drones – China, USA, UK and more – now require the registration (for a modest fee) of any drone weighing more than 250g (8.8oz). A simple web visit will secure you approval to fly a larger aircraft, but those new to drones, or looking to try the experience with minimal fuss, are understandably reluctant.
Unwilling to see their market stop growing, DJI’s R&D team have performed miracles to shave as much weight as possible from their existing designs, and have managed to trim the price at the same time. The key sacrifice has been video quality – the Mavic Mini can “only” capture at 2.7k (about half the number of pixels as 4K) and at 40Mbps, so the video has slightly more compression artifacts than that from a Mavic 2 Zoom, for example. It has also dispensed with the collision sensing systems on its bigger brothers. These sacrifices mean lighter computing components on board, as well as the benefits from the overall miniaturization.
4. DJI Mavic Air
Weight: 430g | Dimensions (folded): 168×83×49mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 168×184×64mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K 60fps | Camera resolution: 12MP | Battery life: 21 minutes (2375mAh) | Max Range: 10km / 6.2mi) | Max Speed: 68kph / 43mph
The Mavic Air is a stunning technical achievement, an incredibly capable drone that – for most people – might look like the only flying camera they’d ever need. With front, downward and rear-facing distance sensors, the drone is capable of identifying obstacles and not just warning the pilot, but also plotting a course to avoid, say, a wall or a tree if needed.
All this computing power does come with a downside. The battery life is a quoted 21 minutes, and is somewhat less in real-world conditions. Unfolding the thing is also surprisingly fiddly. As with other DJI drones an extra “fly more” pack is available which bundles stuff you really need (case, spare batteries) but, of course, is even harder on the wallet.
The controller folds away beautifully (you can even unscrew the sticks), but it is actually a little fiddly, especially if you are using an iPhone X, as the grips that hold your phone in place also make it hard to swipe up to activate the phone. It’s also something of a compromise to put the screen below your hands (bigger RCs put it above), but the range is certainly impressive, and DJI’s app includes some cool effects.
5. DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0
Weight: 1375g | Dimensions: 350x350xmm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps | Camera resolution: 20MP | Battery life: 25 minutes (5870mAh) | Max Range: 7km / 4.1mi) | Max Speed: 72kph / 44.7mph
The Phantom was a revolutionary product, its earlier versions including the first drone to feature a gimbal-stabilized camera rather than requiring the user to supply their own. Its rugged body design means that while it’s no longer the obvious choice for beginners or consumers (for whom folding products offer at least the same practicality), there is a strong use-case for an occasional professional.
If you’re going to be putting the drone in the back of your car, and don’t mind it taking up most of a specialist rucksack (rather than just a side pocket like the Mavic Air), then the Phantom Pro 4’s latest update is very tempting. Redesigned props for quieter flight are definitely pleasing, and the new OcuSync radio system that makes 1080p video possible on the monitors is a plus (though it won’t work with the older controllers).
6. DJI Inspire 2
Weight: 4000g | Dimensions: 605 diagonal mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 5.2k @ 24fps | Camera resolution: 20.8MP | Battery life: 23-27 minutes (4280mAh dual battery) | Max Range: 7km / 4.1mi) | Max Speed: 94kph / 58mph
The Inspire 1 brought with it a jaw-dropping (and obviously Klingon-inspired) design that keeps the props comfortably out of most shots while allowing for a big, stable frame. The Inspire 2 cements that professional quality with a magnesium hull (careful where you grip it) and lots of dual redundancy for safer flight.
One of those duplicated parts is the battery; you need both to fly and they buy you about 25 minutes of power depending on the camera you choose. That’s great, but a spare pair of batteries is an eye-watering £360, and the X4S camera is comparable to the Phantom. The X5S (to which you can attach a zoom lens from a Micro 4/3rds camera) is rather better with its big image sensor, but flight times come down, making the phenomenally expensive Zenmuse X7 more appealing.
7. Ryze Tello
Weight: 80g | Dimensions: 98x93x41 diagonal mm | Controller: No | Video resolution: 720p | Camera resolution: 5MP | Battery life: 13 minutes (1100mAh) | Max Range: 100m | Max Speed: 29kph / 18mph
This microdrone – well below the likely minimum weight for registration – proudly proclaims that it’s “powered by DJI.” To back that up, it has a great array of software features and positioning sensors. With surprisingly good image quality and straight-to-phone saving it could give your Instagram channel a new perspective.
The price has been kept down; there is no GPS, you have to charge the battery inside the drone via USB, and you fly with your phone (a charging station and add-on game controllers can be used – Ryze offers its own). Images are recorded directly to your phone, not a memory card. The camera is stabilised in software only, but the 720p video looks good given that handicap.
8. Skydio 2
Weight: 775g | Dimensions: 223x273x74mm | Controller: Phone App or extra | Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps | Camera resolution: 8MP | Battery life: 23 minutes (4280mAh dual battery) | Max Range: 3.5km / 2.1 miles with controller (200m with wifi only) | Max Speed: 58kph / 37mph
One of the “nice to have” features of newer drones, like the DJI Mavic 2 series, has been object tracking and collision avoidance systems. These have typically been focused on directing the aircraft away from harm more than taking on piloting duties, but Skydio – based in Silicon Valley – have come at the problem from the other end. The Skydio 2 is on sale now (the previous Skydio R1 was in reality a pricey beta), and it has extensive subject tracking abilities meaning it might not need a pilot at all, except for its artificial intelligence.
This software is powered by the Nvidia Jetson, a purpose-built AI supercomputer which is more powerful than two core i7s but small enough, and draws little enough power, to put into the airframe. The main camera is a 12-megapixel stabilized 4K model (offering up to 60fps which is great for slow-mo). The real unique addition, though, is that there are 6 more camera on its extremities, adding over 45 megapixels of live data for the AI system, which is capable of following a runner, cyclist or ATV driver down a forest path, avoiding trees and obstacles in a way nothing else can match. Certainly the Mavic 2 can’t compete in a similarly complex environment.
9. PowerVision PowerEye
Weight: 3950g | Dimensions (folded): 340×285×296mm | Dimensions (unfolded): 513×513×310mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 30fps | Camera resolution: 16.1MP | Battery life: 29 minutes (9000mAh) | Max Range: 5km / 3.1mi) | Max Speed: 65kph / 40mph
The PowerEye is a great example of the benefits to consumers of being in a market dominated by one brand (DJI, in case you were in any doubt). It really makes new contenders look for ways to impress, and by carrying a Micro-4/3rds camera this drone is firmly putting itself against the Inspire 2 with a Zenmuse X5S.
It makes it case well; there’s no showy 5k mode but the 4k is good, the two batteries supplied each split into two for shipping (so it’s not too big for carry-on rules), and the manually folding down arms allow for a surprisingly compact traveling position in the (included) travel case.
10. Yuneec Typhoon H Plus
Weight: 1995g | Dimensions: 520×310mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps | Camera resolution: 20MP | Battery life: 28 minutes (5250mAh) | Max Range: 1.6km / 1mi) | Max Speed: 49kph / 30mph
With a one-inch sensor the Typhoon H Plus has a camera that can take on the Phantom. Better still it is supported by a big and stable six-rotor frame, which is capable of returning if one motor is lost. The retractable landing legs allow for 360-degree lens rotation, unlike the Phantom.
Add into the bargain features like Intel-powered collision avoidance and object tracking software (including Follow Me, Point of Interest and Curve Cable Cam), the 7-inch screen on the controller, and the extra battery that Yuneec bundle and it feels like a great deal.