Getting off the ground: Cheap drones for photography
Aerial photography is booming. Putting a camera up in the air offers new opportunities in familiar types of photography and videography, like sports, landscapes, and more. Even better, it costs less than $1,000 to get started with the DJI Phantom II and GoPro Hero3+ - widely considered to be the gold standard setup for drone photography.
While that buy-in price is reasonable for such a new hobby, it still costs about as much as a mid-level system camera plus a decent lens. But is there a cheaper way to try it out?
There are a handful of truly affordable quadcopters out there, as cheap as $60, ready to fly and equipped with built-in cameras. In camera market terms, these low-cost drones are might be compared to point-and-shoot cameras while the serious flying rigs (like the one mentioned above) are more like DSLRs. Obviously there are some tradeoffs in terms of handling, control, and image quality, just like there would be for a budget compact. So is the low cost enough of an upside to offset performance? Find out.
We picked three affordable quads to test out, each at a different price point.
At the low end, there's the Hubsan X4. This palm-sized quad is available in a few different configurations, but they don't all come with a camera or a flight controller. We found a ready-to-fly model (meaning that it comes with a controller) with a built-in video camera (no stills) for about $70.
Stepping up, we chose the Heli-Max 1SQ V-Cam, which cost $130. It's not much bigger than the X4, but the transmitter offers more control, including triggers for the video camera, stills, and a button that makes the 1SQ flip mid-air.
And then there's the semi-serious drone that you may have heard of, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 (The Parrot AR.Drone 3.0 - sold as the 'Bebop' was launched after our testing was completed). It's much more sophisticated than the other two tiny quads we tested, more similar in size and capabilities to the Phantom. It's also $300, which is a pretty significant investment. But going back to the camera metaphor, it's like a travel zoom, whereas a Phantom is like an entry-level DSLR. The AR.Drone 2.0 doesn't come with a controller - instead, you use an iOS or Android app.
|An aerial photo shot with the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0|
Flying is much tougher in real life than in video games
As with most endeavors, my expectations for aerial photography before I started flying ultimately didn't end up matching my experiences. The biggest surprise? Flying is not at all intuitive.
Quadcopters can fly freely in all directions: not just up and down, but front, back, sideways, and any direction in between. But when the device is 60 feet in the air, and not much bigger than a sparrow to begin with, it's easy to lose your orientation. Pushing the directional stick forward might send it rocketing off sideways. Cutting the motors too abruptly will usually send the quad plummeting. The controls are sensitive, and gravity is an unconquerable force. For the first week or so, you're going to crash fairly often.
So step one is to practice flying. I only started to feel comfortable after about a week, and I'm still not skilled. It's fine to start by practicing indoors, if you have the space (I live in a four-room apartment and it was fine). You'll bump into walls and ceilings, and hit the floor pretty hard from time to time, but you won't lose the quad and can't hurt it too much. I've taken to flying one of the small quads around my apartment once or twice per day for about 10 minutes at a time, which is about as long as the batteries last. It's enough time to build a little bit of skill, without crashing so often that I get frustrated.
Flying outside is obviously more fun, mainly because the ceiling is 400 feet high (per FAA guidelines). It's also where you'll end up getting almost all of your worthwhile footage. But when you're starting out, it's easier to lose track of the quad, and crashes tend to be more catastrophic.
Expect to spend extra on spare parts, because parts break all the time. Luckily, they're fairly easy to fix. The manufacturers know for certain that your quads will take a hard fall at some point, so replacement parts are readily available, and not all that expensive. Replacement gears and parts for the Parrot cost $19 for a set, and the repair took 10 minutes and no tools. Replacement parts for the smaller quads are dirt-cheap - I got a set of replacement propellers for the X4 for about $2, and a replacement prop guard for $6. It's probably a wise idea to keep a tube of superglue handy, in case parts of the small drones crack.