This is going to be a very short list this year. Why? Because the raging camera drone industry is collapsing on itself and very few manufacturers can seem to deliver. The bottom line is: making drones is hard! And this is what I would recommend to anyone calling or emailing me to ask what I think they should get if they’re looking to do aerial photography or videography – for hobbyists and professional use.
I’ve been involved in this industry since 2012 with the first DJI Phantom that you could attach a GoPro to and get aerial videos and photos almost anywhere. Since then, I’ve seen most every manufactured drone made for photography and videography come to market and have even flown most of them – some before they’ve gone to market. But the list of recommended camera drones has been shrinking, in stead of growing, as technology has advanced so rapidly that few manufacturers can keep up in this industry – let alone, lead in it.
Yes, there are lots of drones out now, ranging from the “Tiny Whoop” micro FPV class all the way up to huge heavy-lifters, capable of carrying a RED Weapon 8K. But there is also a lot of crap out there to sift through and more noise than someone just getting into drone photography/videography can navigate without some guidance.
And no, I’m not going to get into the FPV (First Person View) Racing Drones or DIY maker/builder solutions. Nor toys – there’s tons of ’em out there and easy to find, so don’t ask. Folks who are into that won’t be looking here on ProVideo for those anyway. Move along.
So, being the curmudgeon that I am, I’m going to cut to the chase and start with the eliminations this year. I’m sure I’ll not make many new friends here… and quite possibly piss-off a few as well… but this is my no-bull, experienced opinion. Feel free to rage away in the comments section below. lol
First, let’s thin-out the herd:
We knew all the Kickstarter and Indiegogo camera drones were going to fail as soon as they went up. Lily Drone, Ghost Drone, Zano, FlyBi, ONAGOfly, and the list goes on for even smaller projects… and all failed to deliver any useful production models that actually worked (or even shipped). Sorry if you wasted your money on one of these albatross. Chances are if you did, you may be able to at least claim a tax loss this season.
What we didn’t expect to see was GoPro’s Karma drone would (A) be so incredibly late to market, (B) lacking in many features that the competition has had for the last two years, or (C) be completely recalled within the first two months of it’s product launch. No word on Karma’s future at this point, or any subsequent replacement craft from GoPro. I was really hoping that this would be a real winner for GoPro enthusiasts but sadly, this horse never left the gate.
We also saw 3DR fall from the sky this year as well with the Solo and the company has downsized considerably, while stacks of the unsold Solos are still collecting dust on the shelves of many big box retailers. You can now pick up a 3DR Solo at Best Buy now cheaper than a new GoPro HERO5, if you’re so inclined. But also not a recommendation from me at this point as the product is dead.
The next largest manufacturer in the camera drone industry would be Yuneec, but I really can’t recommend them at this time. While they’ve failed to provide me with any hands-on stick time with their latest Prosumer mini-Hex drone, the Typhoon H, I really don’t need to see more than the less-than-savory video footage and photos that several colleagues have shared, and the large amount of units I see posted every day from people wanting to unload theirs in disappointment as they move on to another platform. Based on my own experience with the Typhoon Q500 4K ActionCam, I’m really not impressed with Yuneec’s image quality or video stabilization to date – regardless of their craft design/stability/controls or claims of ease of operation. Maybe they’ll up their game in future camera designs (I really hope they do!) but for now, they’re a non-starter for recommendation in any prosumer/professional imaging use at this time.
While Parrot has made great strides in their commercial and industrial SenseFly fixed-wing product line for surveying and mapping, they’ve stayed pretty close to the consumer end for recreational drones such as the BeBop/2, which is not recommended for prosumer/professional use at all. I applaud their decision to cater to these markets and not try to compete in the highly-volatile prosumer camera drone market just yet.
And as far as Walkera, Syma and other Chinese knock-off brands go- Don’t waste your money (or my time explaining why they’re all crap). Just don’t do it.
That pretty much clears the field and leaves DJI as the clear leader and the only real option for prosumer and most professional applications.
Note: I have no affiliation with DJI nor have I been paid/compensated by them in any way for this year’s drone guide. My opinions are just through actual use and my own experiences and those of my colleagues who have been making a living in drone photography/videography.
So, what DO I recommend?
As I tell people who contact me directly – it all depends on what you’re planning to achieve with your aerial imaging experience. What you may need for photography or mapping will most likely be different from videography on many levels. Not unlike choosing your next camera, choosing which drone solution you need requires a bit or forethought as well.
Easy to fly and ready to travel – quality optics and features:
The DJI Mavic Pro is one of the newest quadcopters in their lineup this year and has blown-away any competition in the portable drone market.
This portable quadcopter folds neatly into less than 3.5″x8″ size that neatly tucks into your backpack or even coat pocket. The controller is small as well and works with your smartphone to operate the camera and advanced features of the drone – such as touch and fly, an optical follow-me, obstacle avoidance and much more.
But don’t mistake the Mavic as merely a toy. Many professional photographers and video shooters have tested the stabilized 4K camera’s optics and the features and capabilities of this little dynamo, and are replacing their Phantom 4s with the Mavic as their preferred aerial travel companion. I plan on doing the same soon as well.
Check out the DJI website for more detailed info on the Mavic Pro. Note that DJI is trying to keep up with the demand, so they might not be in stock for the holidays, but try an authorized reseller like Multicopter Warehouse as they get regular shipments in all DJI products.
The DJI Phantom 4 follows the lineage of the technology that launched an industry of ready to fly camera drones, starting with the original Phantom that carried a (non-stabilized) GoPro Hero 3+ back in 2012.
For the serious hobbyist or photographer that wants a simple, RTF (ready to fly) aerial photo/video drone that’s portable enough to take on most airline’s overheads and stable enough to trust around buildings, trees, etc. The Phantom 4’s optical sensors and collision avoidance systems make this one of the safest and easiest camera drones on the market for under $1k.
The camera’s optics are clear and undistorted and the video stabilization is superb. I’ve been using the Phantom 4 for commercial work along side my Inspire 1 and the footage quality is nearly undetectable in post. It’s highly agile even in tight conditions, yet stable in winds up to 25mph (my personal findings – not published specs).
If you don’t need a “pocket rocket” like the Mavic pro and want to start out with a very stable and easy to fly camera drone with good optics in the $1k range, then the DJI Phantom 4 would be my top pick for you.
Prosumer/professional aerial video with advanced capabilities:
Phantom 4 Pro/Phantom 4 Pro+
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro is one of the latest additions to DJI’s lineup. It features an updated camera equipped with a 1-inch 20-megapixel sensor capable of shooting 4K/60fps video and Burst Mode stills at 14 fps. With titanium alloy and magnesium alloy construction, it increases the rigidity of the airframe and reduces weight, making the Phantom 4 Pro similar in weight to the Phantom 4. The advanced FlightAutonomy system adds dual rear vision sensors and infrared sensing systems for a total of 5-direction of obstacle sensing and 4-direction of obstacle avoidance.
Add in the autonomous controls and smart features such as Draw, ActiveTrack, TapFly, Gesture and more – this makes the Phantom 4 Pro a truly amazing RTF camera drone that delivers everything it promises.
With the Phantom 4 Pro+ (coming soon) you get an integrated 5.5in 1080p screen which offers 1000 cd/m2 of brightness – more than twice as bright as conventional smart devices. It makes bright, vivid colors easily visible in direct sunlight. With this screen, a mobile device is not required, simplifying pre-flight preparations. As the DJI GO app is built into the screen, hardware and software can be fully optimized, further reducing video lag. Integration of an HDMI port, Micro SD card slot, microphone, embedded loudspeaker, and Wi-Fi connection allow images to be edited inside DJI GO to be shared almost instantly. Lastly, a five-hour battery life makes the Phantom 4 Pro + a complete aerial imaging solution.
USD $1199 (starting price)
Being an industry-standard for serious video and TV production over the past two years, the DJI Inspire 1 with the multiple camera options has been a flexible platform that professionals have come to trust.
I’ve personally been using one in both single and dual operator configurations for several commercial video and photo productions and demonstrations. I’ve upgraded the camera/gimbal system with the Zenmuse Z3 and have used a colleagues Zenmuse X5 system as well.
The included Zenmuse X3 camera and gimbal provides high quality 4K video and 12MP still images with a 360º rotating gimbal that can be controlled independently with a 2nd radio controller for more flexibility in serious productions.
I highly suggest getting the dual-operator kit and as many batteries as you can afford when you make this purchase. With realistic 15-18 minute flight times, you’ll burn through batteries before you know it. I typically travel with 6-8 batteries and that does fine for most commercial shoots. If you’re going to be out all day, make sure you have portable quick charging options or simply MORE charged batteries on hand!
When flying with a colleague, the Master controller pilots the aircraft while the Slave controller moves the gimbal and camera’s direction. Both remotes receive live data and video straight from the Inspire 1, but only the Master controller sends commands to the aircraft. The Slave controller must be linked to the Master via secure password to control the gimbal.
Way too many features and spec to post in this guide, but get a great overview of the Inspire 1 craft’s specs and features from the DJI website.
The Zenmuse Z3 integrated zoom camera for the DJI Inspire or M600 is a remarkable combination optical and digital zoom for aerial productions and live shooting/reporting. A 7x zoom made up of 3.5x optical and 2x digital lossless zoom creates a 22mm to 77mm equivalent focal length range, making it ideal for industrial applications. While it’s optimized for still photography, I’ve found it great in many video applications, but the installation of the Zenmuse X5 vibration plate on the Inspire 1 is necessary to reduce vibrations and jello effect while shooting.
Here’s some test video footage I shot when we first got the Z3 installed:
You can definitely tell the difference between the true 3x optical zoom and the lens cropping of the digital zoom at this lower-resolution. (Note that digital zoom is not active when shooting in 4K resolution, as there’s no cropping of the sensor).
Zenmuse X5/X5R Camera & Gimbal (removable lenses)
USD $1399 (starting price – camera only)
The Zenmuse X5, the world’s first mirrorless, compact Micro Four Thirds camera made specifically for aerial photography and cinematography. Designed to work with the DJI Inspire 1 ready-to-fly platform, the Zenmuse X5 packs a powerful sensor that’s capable of recording 4K videos at up to 30 fps and capturing still images at 16MP. Equipped with the standard MFT interchangeable lens mount and allowing full wireless remote control over focus, aperture, and more, the Zenmuse X5 lets you shoot the way you want.
This is the obvious option for professionals looking to get the highest quality aerial imaging in a ready-to-fly platform that allows for the use of multiple lens options. Chances are you’ve seen a lot of aerial shots from this camera in major film/TV work. The Zenmuse X5 works with the Inspire 1, Inspire 2 and M600 platforms.
The Zenmuse X5R records is the world’s first Micro Four Thirds aerial camera capable of recording lossless 4K videos in RAW. With a framerate of up to 30fps and 1.7Gbps average bitrate (2.4Gbps maximum bitrate), the X5R empowers you to capture breathtaking professional-level footage every time. Packed with a powerful MFT sensor, the camera also takes 16MP images with stunning details, while the integrated 3-axis stabilization gimbal keeps the camera level. Check out the DJI website for more details and specs on the Zenmuse X5R.
USD $6900 (pre-order)
The Zenmuse XT Thermal Imaging camera is developed by FLIR. It provides high-sensitivity (50mK) infrared scanning at 640/30 fps or 336/30 fps depending on the camera model. This sensitivity provides accurate temperature measurements ideal for analytics and telemetry. Both cameras are available with four lens options to meet different business needs. Stabilized and controlled by a custom DJI gimbal, it provides smooth, clear imagery and 360 degrees of seamless rotational movement.
The Zenmuse XT is still a pre-order only item since DJI is still in final development with industrial partners and has a very niche application for SaR, Fire and LEO applications. Contact DJI from their website for more info on the program.
USD $2999 (starting price)
Part of the latest lineup from DJI this year, the DJI Inspire 2 takes everything that was good about the Inspire 1 and improves it. An all-new image processing system records at up to 5.2K in CinemaDNG RAW, Apple ProRes and more. It goes from 0 to 50mph (80kph) in just 5 seconds and hits a maximum speed of 58mph (94kph) and has a max descent speed of 9m/s for unheard of speed and agility in an aircraft this size. A dual battery system prolongs the flight time to a maximum of 27 minutes (with an X4S),while self-heating technology allows it to fly even in low temperatures. FlightAutonomy has been revised and developed specifically for the Inspire 2,providing two directions of obstacle avoidance and sensor redundancy. Increased intelligence adds multiple intelligent flight modes, including Spotlight Pro, giving even single pilots the ability to create complex, dramatic shots. An upgraded video transmission system is now capable of dual signal frequency and dual channel, streaming video from an onboard FPV camera and the main camera simultaneously, for better pilot and camera operator collaboration.
Integrated into the Inspire 2 is the brand new CineCore 2.0 image processing system, capable of recording 5.2K videos in CinemaDNG*1, Apple ProRes*2 and more. CineCore 2.0 is built into the aircraft nose and works with any camera connected through the dedicated gimbal port.(Currently compatible with X4S*3 and X5S).
The new Zenmuse X4S is a powerful camera featuring a 20 megapixel 1-inch sensor and a maximum ISO of 12,800. Dynamic range is increased from the Zenmuse X3 by 1 stop, with signal to noise ratio and color sensitivity increased by 1.5 stops for next-level image quality. The Zenmuse X4S uses a DJI-designed compact lens with low dispersion and low distortion 24mm equivalent prime lens. This 84° FOV, high resolution lens makes the Zenmuse X4S as powerful during aerial imaging as it is on the ground.Combined withCineCore 2.0, the Inspire 2’s powerful image processing system, it can record 4K/60 H.264 and 4K/30 H.265 videos at a 100Mbps bitrate, and oversample 5.2K video into 4K video in real-time, capturing fine image details. In Burst Mode, the Zenmuse X4S supports 14fps shooting at 20 megapixels in both JPEG and DNG formats. It is able to make the difficult balance between agility and image quality.
USD $TBD (not yet available)
A maximum 2000 cd/m² of brightness means the CrystalSky monitor is more than four times as bright as typical mobile devices. On-screen details are clear and sharp, and colors are vibrant, giving the quality needed to fine tune image composition. A dedicated Sunlight Readability Enhancement mode is especially designed for processing the image in real-time to ensure more comfortable viewing under bright light.
* 5.5” / 7.85” 1000 cd/m2
7.85” Ultra Bright 2000 cd/m2
Resolution: 2048×1536 (7.85’’) / 1920×1080 (5.5’’)
The CrystalSky monitor uses optimized video decoding to decode video in real-time. Due to limitations in software access on smartphones and tablets, video decoding in other smart devices is less than ideal. When used to view photos or videos transmitted by the camera, problems can occur including video jitter, long latency and more. The CrystalSky monitor’s optimized decoder provides smooth, real-time video with minimal latency.
A two cell 4920 mAh secondary external battery gives the CrystalSky monitor a longer operating time than comparable mobile devices. It supports quick charge, and controls its discharge rate well even in low temperatures. Used with the 7.85″ and 5.5″ screens, it can achieve a maximum operation time of 4-5 hours and 5-6 hours respectively.
Equipped with dual Micro SD Card slots, the CrystalSky monitor’s storage can be extended, or footage recorded on an Micro SD Card can be played back directly on the monitor. It can also be used for footage backups. Using editors built in DJI GO, high-quality edits can be made quickly and instantly shared to social media. The CrystalSky monitor supports H.264 and H.265 video decoding, allowing it to play back these files at 30 fps and 60 fps respectively. These videos can also be output through its HDMI port.
*Note: All new DJI products purchased are eligible for enrollment in their DJI Care plan. DJI Care is a service plan that provides you with peace of mind, covering damage to your DJI aircraft, gimbal or camera sustained during normal use. During DJI Care’s period of validity, if accidental damage occurs during normal use, repair fees and related costs will be covered by DJI. (This does not include careless activities and illegal flights caused by certain YouTube Vloggers.) 😉
Professional heavy-lifters for carrying DSLRs, Mirrorless and Cine Cams:
USD $4599 (starting price)
DJI Matrice M600
The M600 (Matrice 600) is DJI’s new flying platform designed for professional aerial photography and industrial applications. It is built to closely integrate with a host of powerful DJI technologies, including the A3 flight controller, Lightbridge 2 transmission system, Intelligent Batteries and Battery Management system, for maximum performance and quick setup.
The modular design makes the M600 easy to set up and ready to use in just minutes. Its dust proof propulsion systems simplify maintenance while actively cooled motors make for reliable operation during extended periods of time. All Zenmuse cameras and gimbals are natively compatible, and a maximum payload of 6 kg allows it to fly the Ronin-MX gimbal and a range of cameras from Micro Four Thirds systems to the RED Epic.
The M600 Pro (Matrice 600 Pro) inherits everything from the M600 with improved flight performance and better loading capacity.Pre-installed arms and antennas reduce time required for setup, and the system’s modular design makes it easy to mount additional modules.The airframe is equipped with the latest DJI technologies, including the A3 Pro flight controller, Lightbridge 2 HD transmission system, Intelligent Batteries and Battery Management system. All Zenmuse cameras and gimbals are natively compatible and full integration with third party software and hardware make the M600 Pro ideal for professional aerial photography and industrial applications.
The M600 Pro is natively compatible with current Zenmuse cameras and gimbals. With a maximum payload of 6kg, it effortlessly supports the Ronin-MX gimbal, DJI Focus and a range of cameras from Micro Four Thirds systems to the RED EPIC.
USD $17,495 (starting price)
The ALTA 8 transforms from the world’s most capable drone, to the most portable, in minutes thanks to its folding props, folding swan neck booms, and Toad in the Hole quick release system with the Freely MoVi. Designed to make your life as an elite aerial cinematographer easier, the ALTA arrives in a custom pelican case and is ready to unfold and fly.
The ALTA is also the first multi-rotor to accept a camera on the top of the airframe. Explore a completely new world of filmmaking possibilities with SkyView.
This is a serious Aerial Cine platform that’s currently being used for major motion picture and network TV productions around the world today.
USD $15,999 (starting price)
The Dragon platform is xFold™’s Supercarrier featuring great flexibility designed for wide range of applications and carrying up to 50kg loads. Medical equipment, dual Red epics for filming in 3D, or as a carrier of smaller sUAV drones, the xFold™ DRAGON sparks the imagination of military & commercial professionals all over the world. This xFold™ Dragon comes with a default x8 or x12 (8 or 12 motors & propellers set) configuration, dual operator set up, gimbal system, a travel case and 2 Lipo batteries. xFold™ sUAV Drones are FAA Certified Aircrafts.
- Frame is designed, manufactured, built and assembled in the USA
- Supercarrier payload capacity of up to 50kg (110 lbs)
- Great for Search & Rescue, industrial applications, as well as 2 cinema cameras
- Compatible with all commercial grade flight controllers
- Modular (X8 or X12) & folds down to ~30% of flight configuration for easy transport
- Payload distributed over a large surface area to maximize efficiency
- Unique engineering designed to keep central gravity 100% balanced with quick release sliding gimbal mounting system
- 12 months xFold™ Service Plus Warranty
See the xFold Dragon in action:
USD $TBD (email for info)
The ALTI Transition is a next generation VTOL unmanned aerial aircraft, developed as an advanced, efficient and affordable fixed wing system with the ability to take-off and land vertically, anywhere. This type of imaging drone is primarily used for precision agriculture, geological studies and industrial surveying – but is just too cool not to mention in this guide, as this type of airframe is surely a look into the future of aerial imaging on a smaller scale as well.
The ALTI Transition offers incredible fixed wing endurance with true VTOL capability and great hover times pending AUW, setup, payloads and environmental factors.
Electric VTOL Endurance: <10 Min
Fuel Fixed Wing Endurance: Over 6 Hours
Endurance based on actual real world flight tests.
- ELECTRIC VTOL - A powerful electric VTOL system allows the ALTI Transition to take-off vertically.
- FUEL FIXED WING – Once at altitude, a 21cc four stroke petrol motor keeps the system airborne for up to 6 hours.
- OPEN PAYLOAD - Support for a wide range of payloads, including advanced EO/IR, multi-spectral and more.
- POWERFUL AVIONICS - Fully featured autonomous avionics system with easy to use ground control software and hardware.
6 hour flight time: