Want to try your hand at flying a drone, but aren’t ready for a pro model? We've put together our favorite affordable and easy-to-fly drones to help you get started.
Images, and the devices that capture them, are my focus. I've covered cameras at PCMag for the past 10 years, which has given me a front row seat for the DSLR to mirrorless transition, the smartphone camera revolution, and the mainstream adoption of drones for aerial imaging. You can find me on Instagram @jamespfisher. Quadcopter Drone
A camera drone is a fun way to explore a new style of photography and video production: aerial imaging. Taking photos and making movies from high up in the air, or flying a small drone through tight spaces, nets a very different look than using a smartphone or handheld camera for recording.
PCMag reviews drones made for users of various skill levels. If you're after an advanced model, check our roundup of the best camera drones overall, which includes quadcopters suitable for cinematography. Here we'll concentrate on drones made for photography and video that are good for beginners. Read on for our top picks, followed by what to look for when shopping for a starter drone.
The DJI Mini 2 is the best drone you can get for under $500. The 249g flyer folds up for easy storage and offers flight times of up to 31 minutes between charges. It includes a remote control, but you'll need to add a smartphone (Android or iOS) for a camera view and control.
The camera is a good one, with support for 4K30 recording and 12MP stills. It skips HDR support, though, a downside for sunrise and sunset scenes, but you do get Raw DNG photo support. The 4K video and Raw support are the notable camera upgrades versus the $300 DJI Mini SE.
Obstacle sensors aren't included with the Mini 2, and that's really the biggest detriment for pilots starting out. You'll be safe flying above the treetops, but take care with this one at lower altitudes.
If you want a drone you can fly confidently in complex environments with trees and other obstacles, it's worthwhile to spend more on a beginner model with obstacle detection sensors and the DJI Mini 3 Pro fits the bill. The 249g drone includes three-way obstacle sensors for safer flight with automated navigation around obstructions.
The camera is also a step up from the Mini 2. The 3 Pro sports a Quad Bayer sensor for 4K60 video and your choice of 48MP or oversampled 12MP still photos. The standard color profile provides pleasing video out of the camera, and you have the option to use a 10-bit flat look if you've got color grading skills.
The Mini 3 Pro ships with a 34-minute battery. In its $759 configuration, you get a remote that requires a smartphone, but there is also a $909 version that includes a remote with a built-in touch screen and camera control app. Finally, an extended-life battery is a good upgrade and pushes flight times to 47 minutes, but makes the drone heavier than 250g, so you'll need to get an FAA registration number if you want to take advantage of that accessory.
The Autel Robotics brand is a popular one among drone hobbyists and provides quality alternatives to the more popular DJI. The Evo Nano+ is an ultra-light 249g flyer, so it doesn't have to go through FAA registration, and it's not limited by DJI's strict Flysafe geofence. Battery life is solid, with flight times in the neighborhood of 28 minutes on a full charge.
We like its three-way obstacle detection, good-looking photos, and stabilized 4K30 video. The drone offers some basic automated camera moves, as well as Hyperlapse. Its Raw picture format is a little tricky to edit and video looks a little overprocessed, but that's of less concern to beginners.
The Nano+ is available in a basic config with a remote, flight battery, and standard accessories for $909. A Premium bundle adds a carrying case, a multi-charger, and two extra flight batteries for $1,099. Both go on sale, so don't be surprised if you find the drone for less.
The Ryze Tello isn't a drone to buy if you care about picture or video quality—its camera is really quite poor, even by budget standards. It is, however, a good drone for teens taking STEM classes and learning to code.
That's because there are two ways to fly the Tello. If you want to have fun, connect it to your smartphone and use on-screen controls to fly the drone. The Tello doesn't have onboard memory, and instead beams 720p video to your smartphone.
You can also connect it to a computer and control it using MIT's Scratch programming language. Scratch lets you send commands to the drone and have it perform actions in sequence. It's a good way to teach basic computer programming concepts, and the fun factor of the drone will help keep kids engaged in lessons.
Drones are pretty complicated pieces of hardware. They rely on GPS stabilization and other flight assists to hover perfectly in place, and use radio transmitters to keep a connection between the aircraft and its remote control. They usually require a smartphone to work, too; you'll connect your phone to the drone's remote control to run a flight app and control the camera, for example.
We recommend you stick to a quality brand to get started—we've included models from Autel and DJI, and they are both trustworthy brands. We've had bad luck with some of the lesser-known budget models you see for sale online, so we don't recommend that you spend money on shoddy starters like the Holy Stone HS360.
It's worth it to spend a little more on a drone with a better camera, one that supports higher-than-1080p video and is mounted on a three-axis gimbal for stabilization. You'll also want to be sure to get a drone with an integrated GPS and a return-to-home system; and if you can afford to spend a bit, an upscale model with obstacle-avoidance sensors will help you avoid accidents when learning to fly your drone.
Pilots flying in the US, even for fun, need to register certain drones with the FAA. If you plan on flying outside, and your drone weighs 250g (8.8 ounces) or more, you'll need to pay a $5 registration fee to ensure compliance with federal regulations. Moreover, anyone flying a drone is required to pass the TRUST test, a basic online knowledge quiz. For more, read up on the rules for flying drones in the US.
We recommend you budget between $300 and $1,000 to get started with a drone. On the low end of the price spectrum, the DJI Mini SE ($300) uses the same flight hardware as the Mini 2 ($450), but the SE camera only does 2.7K video (the Mini 2 offers 4K recordings). We've not reviewed the Mini SE, but expect it to deliver the same strong flight experience as the Mini 2, matched with the picture quality of the original Mavic Mini.
On the high end, the DJI Mini 3 Pro costs $759 with a remote, but for the extra money you get obstacle avoidance sensors and a better camera than the basic Mini 2. All of the Mini series drones make a 249g weight to sidestep registration requirements, too.
If you're looking for a drone that's a bit better than beginner, make sure to check out our list of the best overall camera drones you can buy. You'll also need a smartphone to run your drone, so make sure you have a good one.
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Images, and the devices that capture them, are my focus. I've covered cameras at PCMag for the past 10 years, which has given me a front row seat for the DSLR to mirrorless transition, the smartphone camera revolution, and the mainstream adoption of drones for aerial imaging. You can find me on Instagram @jamespfisher.
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