Aerial photography is more accessible than ever with the latest breed of smart drones; here’s out pick of the best you can buy
Drones have become hugely popular over the past few years for a number of different reasons. They’re fun to fly, for one, and much easier to handle than traditional remote control aeroplanes or helicopters. But the true appeal of modern drones is that they can put the ability to shoot aerial video and photographs in the hands of amateurs.
Cheaper drones below £100 are commonplace but these are mostly toys and the quality of their cameras tends to be pretty poor. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend thousands to get professional-looking aerial footage and photography. In fact, you can get started capturing semi-pro footage for significantly below £1,000.
But what are the best models you can buy at this sort of price and what features can you expect? We’ve put together a buying guide to help you make the right choices and a list of the best camera drones you can buy.
How to buy the best drone with a camera for you
What should I expect from my drone’s camera?
Drones today usually come with integrated cameras that are very much like smartphones or action cameras in the quality of image and video they produce. That’s because sensors they use are typically the same size: around 1/2.3in. Better quality cameras with larger sensors are available but these don’t start to kick in until around £1,500 or more and if you want proper DSLR-level quality you’ll be looking at a big drone costing many thousands of pounds.
Modern drones can record video up to 4K in resolution, though, with cheaper ones at sub-£500 restricted to 1080p. They can produce stills at decent resolutions, too, up to 21 megapixels in the case of the Parrot Anafi.
But just as important as the quality of your stills and video will be the smoothness of the footage you’re recording. Drone cameras are typically mounted on what’s known as a gimbal. Gimbals use a series of tiny motors to detect vibration and motion to keep the camera still so footage looks smooth, and photographs aren’t blurry. All the drones listed here have gimbals, and they offer different levels of stabilisation. Some drones offer single-axis stabilisation (roll or pitch), some two-axis (roll and pitch usually), some three-axis (roll, pitch and pan/yaw). Others only offer digital/electronic stabilisation, which provides inferior results.
And what about the rest of the drone?
Each of the drones in our list has extremely good flight capabilities, but some are more agile and operable than others. Naturally, if the drone isn’t easy to fly that will affect the quality of what you shoot but, equally, the more precise and reliable a drone is in flight, the more confident you’ll be about the types of shot you can pull off. Beginners will be grateful for object avoidance systems that prevent crashes as well as beginner-level flight modes that keep the drone close by and flying at limited speeds.
There’s also the matter of flight time, and how much you wish to film and record in a single flying session. Do you need your drone to move quickly? If so, look out for the top flight speed in the product specifications. Are you anticipating windy conditions? Think about the strength of the drone’s gimbal. And consider how you’ll be transporting your drone. Consider getting a foldable drone if you’re going to be travelling light.
Also, all potential drone users should read over the UK Dronecode, which lays out the rules of flying drones. It dictates that your drone never leaves your line of sight when you’re operating it, that you don’t fly it at altitudes above 400ft (120m), that you keep the drone at least 150ft (50m) clear of people or occupied buildings and at least 1km away from airports, aircraft and airfields.
The best drones with cameras to buy
1. DJI Spark: The best drone under £500
We love this nifty little drone. It’s tiny – about the size of a side plate – but still flies beautifully. More importantly, it’s just as easy to use as the more expensive DJI drones. You can operate it with a remote control (not included in the standard price), the touchscreen of your smartphone, or even – coolest of all – with hand and arm gestures. Wave your hand left or right and the drone will follow suit; lay your palm flat beneath it and it will land delicately on your hand.
The Spark’s nose-mounted camera is impressive for a drone of such a small size, too. It can capture both 1080p video and 12-megapixel stills and is mechanically stabilised for super-smooth footage. Flight time is restricted to 16 minutes, which is short compared with pricier drones but the Spark compensates by offering advanced features such as forward-facing object avoidance which is very impressive in a drone at this price.
Key specs – Video: 1080p; Stills resolution: 12 megapixels; Gimbal: Two-axis mechanical; Top speed: 31mph Size: 143 x 143 x 55mm Weight: 367g
2. DJI Mavic Air: The best drone for beginner flyers
Like the Spark, the Mavic Air is a compact drone but you can fold the rotor arms away into an even more compact package. Despite the size, though, it’s an incredibly capable camera drone. It has three modes of control, just like the Spark: via remote control, your smartphone screen and “smart gesture” and it flies and handles like a much bigger quadcopter.
Where the Mavic Air justifies its £699 price is the quality of its camera, which shoots 4K video at up to 30fps and even 120fps slow-motion footage at 1080p. With the camera sitting on a three-axis gimbal, filming is incredibly smooth, even in choppy weather. What sets the Mavic Air apart from most of the drones here, however, is that it has both forward- and rear-facing object-avoidance sensors, so it’ll automatically stop or sidle past objects you fly it at whether you’re flying forwards or backwards.
Video: 4K at 30fps, 1080p at 120fps; Stills resolution: 32 megapixels; Gimbal type: Three-axis mechanical; Top speed: 42.5mph Size: 168 x 184 x 64mm Weight: 430g
DJI Mavic Pro: The best drone for stealth flights
Okay, it’s no longer the most compact folding drone but the DJI Mavic Pro is still among the very best. It’s larger than the Mavic Air but can be neatly folded up and tucked away in a rucksack, which makes it highly convenient and portable. Its camera can shoot at up to 4K and the drone flies brilliantly. We particularly like its various tracking modes, which allows the Mavic to track moving objects automatically and keep its camera on static objects while you fly around them.
The major advantage the Mavic Pro offers over the Air is flight time, which stretches to 27 minutes where the smaller drone lasts only up to 16 minutes. Its object avoidance system isn’t as sophisticated, though, with only a pair of forward-facing sensors, but nothing at the rear.
Video: 4K at 30fps; Stills resolution: 12 megapixels; Gimbal type: Three-axis mechanical; Top speed: 40mph; Size: 450 x 450 x 201mm; Weight: 726g
Parrot Anafi: A lightweight drone with HDR filming
This model from the French drone company Parrot is like the Mavic Air and Pro in that it folds away neatly for more convenient transport. It isn’t quite as fully featured as DJI’s drones, though. There’s no gesture control for a start and it isn’t as fast or responsive as the Mavic Air or Pro but it does have a very good camera capable of shooting 4K at 30fps and in HDR.
One of the cleverest features of the Parrot Anafi’s camera is that it can point upwards as well as forwards and down, although the gimbal only stabilises the camera in two axes: pitch and roll. Yaw (or panning) is compensated for digitally. Battery life is good, too, with the Anafi rated at a flight time of up to 25 minutes. Perhaps the Anafi’s chief weakness is the absence of object-avoidance cameras and flying it makes for a dicier experience than with the DJIs. Something to bear in mind if you’re of a nervous disposition.
Video: 4K Stills resolution: 21 megapixels Gimbal type: Two-axis with digital yaw Top speed: 34mph Size: 239 x 175 x 66mm Weight: 308g
DJI Phantom 4 Pro: The drone with the best camera
The priciest drone in our list is another from DJI, which as you can probably tell incontestably leads the drone market. It’s considerably bulkier than the Mavic Pro or Mavic Air because its legs don’t fold away but it has a brilliant camera capable of shooting up to 4K resolution at 30fps and 20-megapixel stills from a sensor that’s double the size of the Mavic Pro and Air.
Just as impressive as the camera, though, are the Phantom’s flight capabilities. It’s fast and responsive and, just like the Mavic Air, has forward-facing collision-avoidance sensors, aimed at helping you avoid disastrous collisions with trees and other immovable objects. It’s perhaps priced just a little too high for non-professional enthusiasts but if you’re serious about filming with a drone, the Phantom 4 Pro is well worth considering.
Video: 4K at 60fps; Stills resolution: 20 megapixels; Gimbal type: Three-axis mechanical; Top speed: 45mph Size: 290 x 290 x 175mm; Weight: 1.39kg