Buying Guide: The best drones
Last updated: June 7, 2018
Until recently, aerial photography (and videography) was an expensive proposition requiring helicopters or airplanes. Thanks to inexpensive drones this is no longer true, and it's not surprising that so many photographers have discovered drone photography and the unique perspectives it can provide.
All of the products in this guide fall into the 'buy and fly' category, meaning they require no extra components or customizations. Options range from personal 'selfie' drones to advanced models capable of producing professional-grade photos and video. Very high end models, such as those designed to carry DSLRs or cinema cameras, are not included as they typically involve some level of custom or modular design to meet the needs of a particular user.
Our pick: DJI Mavic Air
The DJI Mavic Air is our top pick for most users, from beginners to enthusiasts. This ultra-compact model is small enough to be a true 'take anywhere' drone, but has advanced features we've come to expect from more expensive models. Notably, it includes DJI's Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS), which utilizes vision and infrared sensors around the drone to create a 3D map of the environment around the aircraft, allowing it to bypass or go around obstacles in its path.
It can record 4K/30p video using a 100Mbps codec, generating very pleasing video footage, and supports Raw image capture for photographers. DJI's QuickShots settings, including 'Asteroid' and 'Boomerang' modes, make it easy to replicate cinematic camera moves and special effects, and the camera can create 32MP spherical panoramas by stitching together 25 individual shots in just a few seconds.
Between its compact size, advanced feature set, and very pleasing images, the Mavic Air should meet the needs of just about any user, from families on vacation to adventure athletes shooting a film. If getting the absolute best image quality possible is your top priority, however, take a look at our alternate pick with a larger image sensor.
Alternate pick – best for photography: DJI Phantom 4 Advanced
The DJI Phantom 4 Advanced offers the best image quality photographers will find in a prosumer drone. Based on DJI's proven Phantom platform, the Phantom 4 Advanced includes a camera built around a 20MP 1"-type sensor, similar to those found on high-end point-and-shoot cameras like the Sony RX100 series. As a result, it's able to capture photos and video at a level of detail not found on other consumer drones.
In addition to the larger sensor, it captures Raw photos, video up to 4K/60p, and a choice of H.264 or H.265 codecs with a 100Mbps bitrate. Of course, there's also a plethora of intelligent flight modes, making it easy to get very cinematic shots as well.
We considered all of the drones below when selecting our winners. Choosing the right drone is a very personal choice that depends on the specific combination of factors that matter most to you, so take a look at all the drones for a detailed breakdown of their strengths and weaknesses.