Drone Buyer’s Guide

New drones come onto the market all the time, and it can be difficult to know exactly which specs deserve your attention. We’ll go over the most important features to look for as you shop at the end of this article, but first, let’s look at our picks for the best drones for video production available now.

You’ll notice a bit of a monopoly on this list, but DJI truly dominates the marketplace with videographer-friendly drones at all levels. We look forward to testing out more drones from other brands as they are released. To the other drone-makers — consider this a challenge!

Best Beginner Drone

DJI Mavic Mini

DJI's Mavic Mini has been leaked

When it comes to video recording, the DJI Mavic Mini sports a 2.7K camera mounted to a 3-axis gimbal. DJI claims the drone can stay in the air for up to 30 minutes, and it supports HD video transmission at up to 4 kilometers.

Paired with the included controller, the DJI Fly app offers simplified flight controls, video recording and editing. Additionally, the drone’s Vision Sensor and GPS Precise Hover feature promise to make this new drone safe and easy to fly.

This drone is also highly portable with a similar folding design to other drones in the Mavic line. Another bonus? US owners won’t have to register the drone with the FAA to fly it. The FAA requires all drones above 250g to be registered. The Mavic Mini weighs just 249g.

The DJI Mavic Mini is priced at $399 for the basic package or $499 for the Fly More combo, which comes with extra batteries, propellers and other accessories including a carrying bag.

$500


Best Enthusiast Drones

DJI Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

Mavic 2 Zoom

DJI’s second iteration of their Mavic drone comes in two versions: the Mavic 2 Zoom and the Mavic 2 Pro. Both of these models shoot 4K footage at up to 100 megabits per second and have 8GB of onboard storage. Additionally, their top speeds can reach 44 miles per hour and both drones can stay in the air for 31 minutes before their batteries run out.

Even more, the drones each sport 10 sensors for obstacle avoidance in all directions. They also use a new image transmission system — DJI’s OcuSync 2.0 — that sends a live 1080p view to the remote. And like the original Mavic Pro, these new drones both fold up to a more compact size.

The Mavic 2 Pro has a 1-inch, 20-megapixel CMOS sensor, but it also has a f2.8-f/11 aperture. The drone can shoot 4K 10-bit HDR video in Dlog-M and features Hasselblad’s Natural Color Solution tech for more accurate color reproduction. The Zoom combines a 2x optical 3 24-48mm — and 2x digital zoom, creating an effect similar to a 96mm lens. It features a 1/2.3-inch 12-megapixel sensor. It also has a new “Super Resolution” feature that stitches nine zoomed-in photos together to make a 48-megapixel shot.

Both the obstacle avoidance and Advanced Pilot Assistance System have been improved, so there should be less risk of collisions with objects. There’s even a light on the bottom of the drone to make it easier to land in the dark.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro $1,500

Mavic 2 Zoom $1,250


Best Professional Drone

DJI Inspire 2

DJI Inspire 2

The Inspire 2 can be built in multiple configurations, depending on the camera you require. Plus, you can add in a second controller for independent gimbal and camera control. Depending on the configuration, the Inspire 2 can be bought for as low as $3,000. However, that’s without a camera or ProRes and CinemaDNG codecs.

The unit we reviewed in 2017 was configured at $7,795. Added from the base model are dual controllers, a 480GB SSD and the Zenmuse X5S camera and gimbal. If there is anything DJI does well, it’s a unified user experience. No matter if you fly the Mavic Pro or the Inspire 2, the user experience is almost identical. Sure each will have their individual flight characteristics, but overall DJI drones all feel similar.

Recording to an onboard SSD, you can shoot in Cinema DNG, 4444 ProRes and many others. It has a Micro Four Thirds image sensor and lens mount and the image quality is fantastic. You get ISO, aperture and shutter speed control, so getting the best exposure isn’t difficult. Neutral density filters will most likely be necessary on a sunny day, so make sure to know the size of the threads on your lens and save room in your budget to buy a few NDs. Your shooting will benefit from it. Additionally, you can shoot up to 60 frames per second when shooting H.264. It will even make proxy files on the fly to a MicroSD card.

$3,000 and up


How to Choose

Like with any new piece of gear, there’s plenty to consider when choosing a new drone for video production. That said, there are two key factors that will help you narrow down your options.

The first factor to consider is your shooting style and production needs. Are you looking for a super-stable drone, capable of supporting the best available camera, or do you need something light and portable that you can take with you on your next adventure? The answer will help steer you towards or away from certain brands and product lines.

The second factor, which is sometimes at odds with the first, is, of course, your budget. Once you determine the shooting styles you’ll need your drone to accommodate, you can start balancing the features you want with the price tag you can afford. The perfect drone for you sits at the point where these two considerations intersect. We’ll help you find it.

Camera Considerations

Many more drones now offer built-in cameras designed specifically to work with their particular drone. Thus, because of weight and balance restrictions, this is usually the easiest and most economical option. New camera designs mean these built-in cameras will also often give you a far better image than what you’d get by attaching your own camera. Like other kinds of cameras, most aerial cameras today offer UHD 4K video recording and high-res still image capture. More advanced camera drones offer DCI 4K, RAW and log recording. Plus many include higher bit rates, bit depths and frame rates. These high-end drones are ideal for times when you need a truly cinematic image.

BYOC (bring your own camera)

Though aerial cameras today are significantly more advanced than they were even a few years ago, there may still be times when you need a certain feature on a particular camera to get the shot you want. For these instances, you can find drones built to support action cameras, mirrorless cameras, DSLRs or even cinema cameras. Most of these pro-level drones will necessarily be larger and more expensive. Plus, there are often strict limits as to which cameras and lenses the drone actually supports. Pay attention to supported camera models and weight limits when considering a drone without a built-in camera.

Thus, the more options you need in terms of resolution, frame rates and exposure controls, the more you are likely to pay.

Again, let your shooting style and production needs be your guide here. Thus, the more options you need in terms of resolution, frame rates and exposure controls, the more you are likely to pay. In the end, we recommend that you avoid mounting your own camera and that you instead shop for a built-in camera option that suits your needs. The cameras available on drones today are more than adequate in most shooting situations.

Getting a Stable Image

Likewise, you’ll also need to look at the gimbal, if one is included, and note how far it can rotate. A good gimbal will allow more flexibility in the air and provide a smooth, vibration-free image.

While shopping, you’re likely to encounter fixed-position cameras embedded into the body of the drone itself, in addition to 2- and 3-axis gimbal options. That said, 3-axis gimbals will give you the best performance in shake and vibration reduction, so we recommend sticking with this option for the smoothest, most cinematic results. Fixed-position cameras are still workable, but they undeniably give you significantly less freedom in your camera movements, since the camera’s perspective will be tied to the trajectory of the drone. 2-axis gimbals sit in the middle ground between these two options and are a viable compromise in most situations.

Consequently, for the most flexibility in your camera movements and compositions, look for a drone with a 3-axis gimbal that allows for an unobstructed 360-degree pan. This will give you separate control over the drone’s direction of travel and the camera’s perspective, allowing you to perform more complex camera moves.

Staying Aloft

Drones designed for video production are most often equipped with four rotors and are therefore labeled quadcopters. Hexacopters, or drones with six rotors, are also available, though less common.

That said, hexacopters are typically able to travel higher and faster, carry a larger payload and provide additional safety and stability over their quadcopter counterparts. As a result, this makes hexacopters a better choice if you plan to fly heavier or more expensive cameras. However, they also typically cost more, are larger and are more difficult to transport. Plus, they can cost more to repair.

Aside from rotor failure, the other factor that may force you to take your drone out of the air early is battery life. For each drone on your shortlist, consider the anticipated flight time per battery. How much does an extra battery cost? How long will you need to be in the air? These are the questions to answer before making your final purchasing decision.

Design and Construction

When it comes to the physical build of the drone, there are a few different factors to consider. For example, size and weight are important for portability, but these will also impact flight characteristics and flight time. As a result, lighter drones with smaller payloads can often stay in the air longer relative to battery size and capacity, but they may also be more susceptible to wind. That said, there are also more folding drones on the market than ever before. These drones fold down to a more compact size for transport between flights, easily fitting into a backpack or small carry bag.

Speaking of folding, you’ll also want to consider whether or not you need retractable landing gear. This will affect how wide your field of view can be and how far you can rotate the camera before the drone interferes with your shot. More and more affordable drones now feature retractable landing gear, but depending on the shots you plan to capture with your drone, this may be higher or lower on your wish list. For the most part, you can get away with rotating the drone itself to get that epic panning shot.

Moreover, most drones are constructed from hard plastic or carbon fiber, both of which are light yet durable. Especially for larger drones, check to see if a travel case is included with your purchase. Keeping your drone safe during travel is one of the hidden costs of drone ownership.

Recording Media

Recording media is another hidden cost that may influence your purchasing decision, based on your budget and current workflow. The majority of drones use affordable microSDs, but some higher-end drones will require more expensive SSDs.

So, as you shop, check the video recording format and bit-rate to give you an idea of much video footage can be stored on the accepted media and plan accordingly. Also, factor in an extra battery or two. There’s a chance you’ll want to have some extra media on hand for drone shoots.

Monitoring and Control Options

We’ve spent a lot of time going over the must-have features for the aircraft itself, but what about that vital piece that will never leave the ground? Drone controllers come in a few different form factors, but they typically look like modified RC controllers.

Most often, you’ll need to mount your phone to the control as a preview monitor and to expand the controller’s functionality. Thus, some models have the preview monitor built-in, but this is somewhat rare. When considering monitoring and control options, also look at latency, maximum control and video transmission distance — 1 mile is typical.

Aside from manual control, most drones today also offer automated flight modes like track, follow, orbit, waypoint flight and more. Obstacle avoidance is another important flight control feature, especially if you’re controlling both the flight path and the camera angle.

More futuristic still are drones that can be controlled through gestures. This feature is still more or less a novelty, but there are some situations where gesture control may come in handy. Just know that you like won’t be able to rely on it for any professional work.

Fit for Flight

With so many options, it helps to narrow down your search criteria. As you search out your new drone, keep in mind both your production needs and your budget. There are plenty of drones to choose from at a variety at price points, so be sure to select one that fits your production style — whether you need a drone to follow you down a hiking trail or one that will bring back high-quality cinematic images.

Disagree with our picks? Think we missed something great? Tell us about it in the forums.