While they might seem like toys, a high-quality quadcopter is a serious investment, and an easy way to add production value to a film project, or get a unique view on the world for your travel vlog. We've flown plenty, and these are the best drones in our tests.
Even if you have no good reason to justify buying one, you have to admit that drones are cool. Some are glorified tech toys, but the models we highlight here are fit for use in imaging and cinematic applications small and large. If you think you can use a flying camera in your next project, there’s some good news—the tech has come a long way in a very short time. There are models on the market now that put earlier copters to shame in terms of video quality and stabilization.
And now the bad news. You get what you pay for, and if you want an aerial video platform that can capture stunning footage, you need to be ready to spend some cash, anywhere from a few hundred to more than a thousand dollars. Because drones are such pricey propositions, it pays to do your research before buying one.
You can technically buy a drone for under $100, but we think it’s worth it to spend a bit more to start. Our top-rated starter drone is the $450 DJI Mini 2.
The drones we review are ready-to-fly models, so you can use them right out of the box. In most cases, you’ll need to bring your own Android or iOS device to view the camera feed in real-time. If you don’t own a smartphone, the Autel EVO II series is worth a look, its remote has a built-in screen. We don’t focus on racing, industrial, or agricultural aircraft here—our coverage is squarely centered on imaging and video.
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The rules of the air vary from region to region—we’ve covered what to know for US and UK pilots. But, typically, if your drone weighs 8.8 ounces (250g) and up, you’ll need to register it in order to fly it outdoors legally—even over your own property.
There is one mass market exception, the DJI Mini line, now in its second generation. The original Mavic Mini and the updated Mini 2 weigh just 249g, skirting registration requirements in the US and UK, and opening them up to (legal) operation in other regions.
They skip a safety feature—obstacle avoidance—to make weight, though. But they include all of the other expected tools to help ensure a safe flight, including GPS stabilization, automated return-to-home, and automatic takeoff and landing.
Almost all of the models featured here have some safety features. Even the DJI Spark, which isn’t built for long-distance flight, includes a GPS and automatic return-to-home functionality. If your control signal is interrupted, or if the battery gets down too low (most drones can only fly for about 25 minutes on a single battery charge), you drone will start to head back to its takeoff point and land.
Flyaways still happen, and there are horror stories on various web discussion forums. Of course, negative experiences are amplified in this context, simply because uneventful flights that don’t result in a crash or missing drone aren’t hot topics for discussion. Some manufacturers offer extended warranties that will replace a lost aircraft, but make sure to read the fine print before buying something like DJI Care Refresh—there are restrictions and fees to consider.
If you’re flying within the United States, you need to take heed of FAA guidelines—or be prepared to face potential fines or jail time. There are no-fly zones set by the FAA, so don’t take off if you’re near an airport without notifying the control tower first. And, even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, don’t take your drone above 400 feet. Most are set to obey these regulations out of the box, but controlling a quadcopter is just like driving a car—even if you missed seeing that speed limit sign, you’re still liable to pay the ticket.
There are a number of products on the market that are sold as drones, but don’t quite fit the bill. Remote-controlled aircraft have been around for ages. But with the recent surge in popularity, quadcopters that would simply be sold as RC products are now being tagged as drones. These don’t include GPS stabilization, return-to-home functionality, and other automated flight modes that make a drone a drone.
Drone racing enthusiasts often build their own aircraft from kits or parts. Some skill with a soldering iron and screwdriver is required, but it’s become an aspect of the hobby itself. DJI is hoping to change that with its FPV Combo, released earlier this year. It’s a ready-to-fly racer that works with a digital VR headset (included), and can fly as fast as 87mph. It also benefits from GPS stabilization, making it easier to for beginners.
DJI models currently dominate our top picks, and there’s a good reason for that. The company is simply a few steps ahead of its competition right now, and has a product catalog with models at various price points, which take up a good number of the slots in our top ten. It made a huge splash with its iconic Phantom series, and now makes the best small drones we’ve tested in the form of the Mavic series.
Its pro lines offer a lot more power, for more money. Its Inspire and Matrice models can carry heavier payloads, including interchangeable lens systems. They’re overkill for most consumers, and not nearly as convenient to carry as small, folding drones.
There are a few other brands to consider when looking for a drone. Autel makes the Evo, which is similar to a Mavic, but has an LCD in the remote so you don’t need to connect your phone. Parrot, based in France, offers the Anafi, another good folding drone, and is an option for consumers wary of buying tech from Chinese firms.
Sony has recently jumped into the market with its Airpeak S1. It’s set to ship this fall, but is positioned for cinema productions. It starts at $9,000 without a camera or gimbal.
For a long time, the DJI Phantom series was about as small as you could go if you wanted to get a full-featured drone that maintains stability in the air and includes strong safety features. That’s no longer the case. Hikers and travel photographers appreciate a small, light kit, and they can now get a drone that fits into a backpack.
Of course, not every small drone is a top flyer. Some are barely capable of getting off the ground and require you to use your smartphone as a remote control, which makes for a sloppy control experience. Make sure you get one with a real remote.
There are some standouts in the class. The DJI Mavic Air 2 and Air 2S offer as much power and imaging prowess as you can find in an older Phantom model, but in a much smaller package. Size doesn’t compromise their performance in any way. It’s not just DJI, either. The Parrot Anafi is svelte, charges via USB-C, and supports 4K HDR video.
And there are models that come with some caveats. The DJI Mavic Mini is so light that you don’t have to pay a FAA registration fee to fly it, and its video and images are of strong quality. But it showed issues with connectivity and wind resistance in test flights, and doesn’t offer any sort of obstacle detection.
The Skydio 2 has the best obstacle detection we’ve seen in any drone, and is one of the few models built in the US. It costs a bundle, and its camera isn’t that good, so it didn’t earn a top rating—but it’s worth a look if you’re interested in a drone that can follow and film you in action.
The Ryze Tello isn’t a good drone for videographers, but Scratch programming support makes it an appealing first drone for teens learning to code. The DJI Spark is another one that makes compromises for its size, but remains a good choice for low-altitude, short-distance flights and aerial selfies.
The DJI Inspire 2 is aimed at professional cinematographers, news organizations, and independent filmmakers. And it’s priced as such—its $3,000 MSRP doesn’t include a camera. You have the option of adding a 1-inch sensor fixed-lens camera, a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens model, or a Super35mm cinema mount with its own proprietary lens system and support for 6K video capture.
DJI also has the Matrice line, built for industry and to carry heavier cameras. They’re the UAVs you’ll look to if you want to fly a full-frame mirrorless or RED cinema camera around. The Matrice 600 starts at $6,600 without a gimbal.
As mentioned earlier, Sony’s forthcoming Airpeak S1 promises to carry big cameras, just like a Matrice, but is sized closer to the Inspire series—welcome news for location work.
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any of the models listed here. For the latest field-tested drone reviews, check out our Drones Product Guide. And if you just bought a quadcopter and are looking to get started, read our guide on how to fly a drone.
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Jim Fisher is our lead analyst for cameras, drones, and digital imaging. He studied at RPI and worked on the retail side of the industry at B&H before landing at PCMag. He has a thing for old lenses, boneyards, and waterfowl. When he’s not out with his camera, Jim enjoys watching bad and good television, playing video games (poorly), and reading. You can find him on Instagram @jamespfisher
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