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 photography and videography of landscapes, buildings and events that previously required the use of a helicopter, a small plane or a crane.
More on drones
The best drones have evolved greatly since the first ready-to-fly model went on sale ten years ago – and a decade on drones are now everywhere. Every drone on this list has a camera supported by a powered gimbal, which counteracts the vibration from the propellers. Sensor size is still an issue for photographers, but there are options depending on your needs.
Piloting has also become partly optional; Tesla-like A.I. is making collision avoidance, object tracking, and automatic quick shots a common feature. As a newer technology, though, implementation varies –?the Skydio 2, with 45-megapixels of cameras devoted to its artificial brain, promises much but is yet to have properly hit the supply chain. Some drones still lack any smart flying features (except for landing sensors). Just remember, that can’t all respond to obstacles in every direction 360-degrees, but they can all fly in any direction!
Also not quite shipping at the moment is the Autel EVO 2. It’s signature feature is 8K video, though interestingly the ‘pro’ version reduces that to 6K from a bigger sensor. Autel’s original EVO, however, still makes the list! Meanwhile, DJI has just announced the Mavic Air 2 - which looks a great update to the original Air, and which will go on sale in May.
Finally it’s worth accepting that drone rules and regulations have become part of the drone operator’s life, especially commercial users for whom insurance is likely a legal requirement. In USA, UK, Europe and China any aircraft over 250g (8.8oz) is subject to a compulsory registration scheme (and in the UK the rules will apply to any flying camera, whatever the weight, after June 2020).
The best camera drones in 2020
1. DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
The Mavic 2 Zoom is the all-round best drone for photography
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.
The only downside to the Mavic 2 is the choice you need to make between the pricier ‘Pro’ and the ‘Zoom’. The Pro has a 1-inch image sensor (20 megapixel) at a fixed 28mm effective focal length but with adjustable aperture, 10-bit (HDR) video, and up to 12,800 ISO – great for sunsets and stills. The Zoom retains the still very decent 12 megapixels of its predecessor but has a zoom lens (24-48mm effective focal length) which is more useful for cinematic effects.?
Best waterproof drone and best A.I. camera drone
Weight: 860g / 1.9lb | Dimensions (egg): 178 x 102 x 102mm | Dimensions (drone mode): 427mm diagonal | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps | Camera resolution: 12MP | Battery life: 30 minutes (dry mode) | Max Range: 6 km / 3.7mi | Max Speed: 65kph / 40mph
PowerVision is certainly an inventive company – as its awards shelf will testament – and it has been making underwater drones as long as flying ones, so the PowerEgg X shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. Their original PowerEgg was a stunning product, yet rather than revising it, PowerVision opted to go back to the drawing board. They created an altogether new egg which could be used as a drone, a hand-held or tripod-mounted camcorder making use of the gimbal for stability and A.I. for subject tracking, and –?in the optional ‘Wizard’ kit – a beach-ready drone which can land on water or fly in the rain.
Photographers will rightly worry that the 4K camera doesn’t have as bigger sensor as, for example, the Mavic, but in good light it’s capable of 60fps – double the frame-rate of the DJI, making it great for. It’s adaptability means it’s arms are completely removable but, thanks to the folding props, setup takes no longer than a DJI Phantom. The A.I. camera mode is good, but it would really benefit from a ‘record’ button like a traditional camcorder –?you need to use the app.?
The waterproof mode means attaching a housing and landing gear which does take a minute or two, and covers the forward-facing collision & object tracking sensors, but there is nothing on the market that can touch it so it’s hardly something to complain about. This is the drone that GoPro should have made.
Read full Powervision PowerEgg X Wizard review
The best drone for the beginner
Weight: 249g | Dimensions (folded): 140×82×57mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 2.7K at 24 or 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. The latest firmware update enables manual exposure on the Mavic Mini.
The drone nonetheless has a 3-axis camera stabilization gimbal, meaning footage looks super-smooth, and DJI’s usual software has?received a tidy-up to make it more vlogger/instagrammer friendly, so this can easily become your compact ‘FlyCam’ (as DJI’s?marketing team are desperate for you to call it). It features ‘QuickShots’ – pre-programmed selfie-friendly clips – so you can get?amazing shots without too great a learning curve. The resolution isn’t an issue for online sharing, though professionals will want to look?a little further up the chain for their work (but will still want one of these in their bag when they’re traveling). At 12 megapixels, stills are?broadly similar to a decent phone (but of course from rather more interesting angles!).
• See full DJI Mavic Mini review
The foldable Anafi is the best drone for travel
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!?
• Read full Parrot Anafi FPV review
4. DJI Mavic Air
If it's a foldable drone you want in 2020, this is the best
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.
NOTE The newer DJI Mavic Air 2 has just been announced - and will undoubtedly prove a better buy when it becomes available in May.
5. DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0
This is the best drone for serious photographers and filmmakers
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).
There were concerns that this drone was going to be discontinued, but DJI have now confirmed that the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is now back in production. That's great news for any drone pilot that has truly professional photographic ambitions.
6. DJI Inspire 2
The camera drone to buy when the optics are your priority
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.
The Inspire 2 also has sophisticated object tracking, (optional) multi-user operation and other pro features and isn’t really for casual use. It only lacks redundancy on the motors (six would be safer).
7. Ryze Tello
A great drone that proves size isn't everything!
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.
If you want to look cool flying, you can launch it from your hand, or even throw it into flight. Other modes let you record 360-degree videos, and the software includes some clever swipe-directed flips. Geekier pilots can even program it.
8. Autel Robotics EVO
Great for enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists
Weight: 863g | Dimensions (folded): 139×76×89mm | Dimensions (unfolded diagonal): 338mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K 60fps | Camera resolution: 12MP | Battery life: 30 minutes (4300mAh) | Max Range: 7km / 4.1mi | Max Speed: 72kph / 45mph
Autel’s drone might not have been launched with the quite the same fanfare as some of the others on this list, but it quickly cemented it’s place in this list, producing excellent video from its 1/2.3 sensor. It also has a good collision sensing system; binocular at the front to assist with tracking features, topped off with landing and even a rear
For convenience, many professionals prefer working with the EVO thanks to the inclusion of an OLED screen for FPV in the standard remote. If a bigger screen is needed, a phone can still be attached, but a color monitor in the compact controller is far more functional than the telemetry-only screen in the Mavic controller, and it still manages 3 hours between charges.
Better still, in early 2020, the announcement of the forthcoming EVO II (which brings all-round sensors and up to 8K video depending your chosen model), has knocked the already attractive pricing on the original Evo down still further. Why wait to pay more?
09. PowerVision PowerEye
A monster camera drone that takes interchangeable cameras...
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.
I was only able to test the drone on a very gusty day, and the system struggled to hold position at first, but it won out. The control app and remote are less complex than DJI’s, so there are fewer software features, but the FPV camera is of a high standard and dual-pilot flight is there for pros.?
10. Yuneec Typhoon H Plus
Six rotors and generous extras make this a capable camera drone
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.
The transmission distance is not as far as you might expect, though, and the construction and especially the controller might be felt to have an off-puttingly pro or RC-enthusiast aesthetic in comparison to the very consumer-friendly approach of Parrot or DJI.