The Best Drones for Photos and Video – The New York Times

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FYI
We’ve made the Autel Robotics EVO II our pick for anyone who wants a bump in a few specs or to avoid the DJI brand. We still like the DJI’s colors better and find DJI drones quieter and smaller.
July 23, 2021
If you’re an aspiring aerial photographer or videographer, a drone is your ticket to the sky. After 55 hours of research and test-flying 17 models, we think the DJI Mavic Air 2 is the best drone because it combines a high-end camera with the latest autonomous technology for less than $1,000. We also recommend the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and DJI Mini 2; pilots of all skill levels will find that DJI’s drones are exceptionally reliable and easy to fly. However, it’s worth considering that, although a recent Pentagon report indicates some DJI drones are safe for use, there are ongoing concerns about the security of the drones and allegations that the company provided drone technology to Chinese detention camps.
The Mavic Air 2 packs impressive value for a $1,000 drone by combining DJI’s reliable obstacle avoidance with a 4K camera and great battery life.
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The DJI Mavic Air 2 combines ease of flight with long battery life and a camera that can shoot 4K video in a package that costs less than $1,000 (we recommend buying the Fly More Combo option, which among other things includes three rechargeable drone batteries). The Mavic Air 2’s ability to sense and avoid obstacles approaching from the front, the back, and below, as well as to steadily hold its position even in moderate winds (DJI says it’s safe to fly in winds up to 23.6 mph), lets you focus on your cinematography instead of worrying about keeping the drone steady. It also features DJI smart-flight modes such as ActiveTrack, which directs the drone to autonomously follow and film a subject while still avoiding obstacles. Its 34-minute battery life means you don’t have to land for a battery swap as often as you would with the competition, and at 7 by 3.8 by 3.3 inches folded and 1.3 pounds, the Mavic Air 2 can go with you almost anywhere—it fits exceptionally well in our top pick for drone backpacks.
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If you want the best camera available on a Mavic drone, the Mavic 2 Pro is our pick.
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro takes many of the Mavic Air 2’s best features and, for twice the price and a slightly shorter battery life, tacks on a superior 1-inch image sensor and Hasselblad-branded camera (DJI bought a majority stake in the camera brand in 2017), which captures 20-megapixel photographs and 4K videos that look more colorful than those of the competition. It can also sense obstacles from all directions, which means it’s safer to fly than the Mavic Air 2.
A 4x zoom camera makes this a great choice for shooting from afar.
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The DJI Mavic 2 Zoom is a great choice for aerial photographers and videographers who need to work from a distance, whether they’re shooting a child’s soccer match or wildlife. It looks and flies the same as the Mavic 2 Pro, but it trades out the Hasselblad camera in favor of a different camera that can zoom two times optically and two times digitally (with software that avoids losing detail) for up to 4x usable “lossless” zoom. However, filming with more than 2x zoom requires you to shoot at 1080p instead of 4K. You could crop the Mavic 2 Pro’s higher-quality videos to get a similar zoom effect, but that requires you to spend more time processing videos and doesn’t allow for as wide a variety of cinematic filming options. Like the Mavic 2 Pro, the Mavic 2 Zoom features DJI’s obstacle avoidance and smart-flight mode tech, plus a 31-minute battery life and a foldable body.
This easy-to-fly drone has an 8K camera and 40 minutes of flight time—the longest of any of our picks—and has no known security concerns.
If you are avoiding the DJI brand due to security or human rights concerns, or you simply like the idea of longer battery life combined with the option to zoom, we recommend the Autel Robotics EVO II. The bright-orange drone can fly for up to 40 minutes with autonomous options similar to DJI drones. We also prefer its controller. However, we still prefer DJI drones for their value and image quality. It’s also worth noting that, like DJI, Autel is headquartered in China.
A 4K camera paired with DJI’s autonomous features makes this drone an especially good value.
If you’re just getting into drone photography for personal use and sharing on social media, the DJI Mini 2 is a less expensive model that still includes collision avoidance and a 4K camera. At 31 minutes, its battery life comes close to matching that of more expensive models, though its lower quality camera and sensor mean it can’t quite match the quality of their images and video. However, it folds up to about the size of a person’s hand and weighs just 249 grams; that’s a bit over half a pound and light enough to not require registration for personal use. It still comes with the important features you need from a video drone, such as image and flight stabilization and an included controller, as well as smart-flight modes where the drone flies itself to easily capture cinematic shots.
The Mavic Air 2 packs impressive value for a $1,000 drone by combining DJI’s reliable obstacle avoidance with a 4K camera and great battery life.
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If you want the best camera available on a Mavic drone, the Mavic 2 Pro is our pick.
A 4x zoom camera makes this a great choice for shooting from afar.
May be out of stock
This easy-to-fly drone has an 8K camera and 40 minutes of flight time—the longest of any of our picks—and has no known security concerns.
A 4K camera paired with DJI’s autonomous features makes this drone an especially good value.
A lifelong photography enthusiast, I have chronicled the rise of modern hobby drones by working closely with the industry’s professionals and hobbyists. I’ve studied photography-focused quadcopters—and their smaller, more-agile cousins built for racing—extensively. I have also spent hundreds of hours flying drones in all sorts of environments, and I’m the writer of Wirecutter’s guide to drones under $100. I also have a remote pilot certificate.
We tested all the best cheap drones for aspiring pilots, racers, and kids, and the DJI Tello is our favorite for anyone who wants to earn their wings.
Drones (or, more specifically, quadcopters) are small aircraft that you can equip with a camera for the ability to shoot bird’s-eye-view photos and videos. They could be of interest to any photographer or videographer who wants to reach normally inaccessible spaces that would otherwise require a crane or helicopter, such as those high up in the air or across a body of water.
The drones we cover in this guide might be of interest to certain professionals, including, for example, someone who wants to film a wedding, inspect gutters, or capture footage of a house going up for sale. But professionals shooting a film might want to look at higher-end options that allow specific camera equipment to be mounted on the drone. There are also options for people who want to inspect farmland and industrial equipment, which can call for specialized sensors.
Thanks to improvements in technology and rapidly declining prices, a decent photography drone can cost as little as $400. But if you’re looking for your first drone and want to get used to flying before risking even that much, we have a guide to inexpensive drone models (without nice cameras) that are great for learning.
Regardless of which drone you choose, know that there’s an evolving body of regulations surrounding drone flight and appropriate usage that you should get familiar with before buying and flying.
All of the drones we recommend in this guide are made by companies headquartered in China. Shenzhen, China, a hotspot for technology innovation, is also a hub for consumer drones. At the government level, there are ongoing concerns about the safety of using Chinese technology for surveillance work on US soil. At the hobby and professional level, you’ll have to make a call for yourself based on the sensitivity of your footage. There’s also the matter of allegations of human rights abuses. If you’d like to avoid Chinese drones altogether (though not Chinese parts), you can consider drones from the French company Parrot or US-based Skydio.
After reading professional and owner reviews plus speaking to enthusiasts, experts, and manufacturers at the CES 2018 trade show, we decided to consider the following criteria while looking for drones to test:
Using the above criteria, we were able to pare our original testing field in 2016 down to the DJI Mavic Pro, the DJI Phantom 3 Standard, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, the Yuneec Typhoon H hexacopter, the GoPro Karma, and the Parrot Bebop 2. We tested the DJI Spark in 2017 and then the DJI Mavic Air and DJI Phantom 4 Pro v2 in early 2018. In late 2018, we tested the DJI Mavic 2 Pro, DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, and Autel Evo. We tested the Skydio R1 in early 2019 and Parrot Anafi in late 2019. In early 2020, we tried the DJI Mavic Air 2 and DJI Mavic Mini. We tested the DJI Mini 2 in late 2020.
We shot photos and videos with each drone to evaluate camera quality, which also helped us gauge stabilization quality and see whether propellers appeared in any of the shots. We also tried all of the advertised intelligent-flight modes and crash-avoidance systems by flying the drones through trees. We tested maneuverability and controller sensitivity by flying fast with lots of turns.
In 2018, we spent dozens more hours evaluating and testing drone accessories such as backpacks, first-person-view headsets, and landing pads to determine the extra gear that’s truly worth the investment for photography drones.
The Mavic Air 2 packs impressive value for a $1,000 drone by combining DJI’s reliable obstacle avoidance with a 4K camera and great battery life.
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The DJI Mavic Air 2 is the best drone for budding aerial photographers and videographers because of its automated obstacle avoidance and 4K camera, as well as how easy it is to fly. It offers all of that for $800 (or $1,000 in the Fly More Combo we recommend because everyone should invest in extra rechargeable batteries), which we think is an impressive value considering the Mavic 2 Pro costs twice as much for a better camera but otherwise older technology. Its three-axis gimbal provides effective image stabilization, and its 34-minute battery life means you need to land less often. The Mavic Air 2’s preprogrammed flight modes and its ability to autonomously return to its launch point and land itself allow both beginners and advanced pilots to get cinematic-looking shots without much effort.
The Mavic Air 2 can sense obstacles from up to 155 feet away as they approach from its front, back, or bottom. Although that left it blind while it was flying up or to the side (the Mavic 2 Pro and Zoom tack on sensors for those directions), we still found the feature useful for normal flight; the drone emitted a loud beep and stopped itself when I tried to fly it straight at a tree or slam it into the ground. Obstacle sensing removes stress from the flying experience, both when you’re flying manually and when you’re using any of DJI’s preprogrammed flight options.
The Mavic Air 2’s camera has a ½-inch sensor and 12- and 48-megapixel modes, plus 4K video capture at up to 60 frames per second (for smoother-looking movies compared with the Mavic 2 Pro’s 30 fps, though the Mavic 2 Pro’s larger sensor makes for crisper images and video). In our tests, the Mavic Air 2 took videos that looked sharp without any color-balancing fuss from us; however, we still liked the colors that came out of the Mavic 2 Pro’s Hasselblad lens more. A new feature called SmartPhoto, which recognizes what the camera is seeing and adjusts the colors accordingly, may have been part of the reason, though it was hard to tell what exactly the feature adjusted.
While flying in winds clocking about 10 mph, the Mavic Air 2 was unfailingly stable. It didn’t drift, and it consistently shot steady video, even when it rose hundreds of feet into the air over the Mississippi River. The other Mavic drones we tested performed similarly, except for the Mavic Mini, which warned us about high winds and advised us to land. Like many drones, the Mavic Air 2 uses a combination of GPS and GLONASS satellites, as well as the vision cameras, to monitor movement and altitude changes.
It’s annoying to get into the rhythm of flying a drone and then just a few minutes later receive an alert indicating that it’s time to land and change the battery, which is our main problem with the drones we cover in our guide to inexpensive drones. Battery life should be one fewer thing to think about. With a life of up to 34 minutes, the Mavic Air 2’s batteries are among the longest lasting of any drone we’ve tried. The flight time was so long that we filled its 8 GB of internal memory space before our first battery drained.
Photographers and cinematographers can take their skills further with the preprogrammed flight modes. We most often used ActiveTrack, which directs the drone to follow a subject (or yourself). In QuickShots mode, the Mavic Air 2 can autonomously film in elaborate cinematic ways such as circling around a subject or zooming away from it. Tripod mode, which limits the drone’s speed to 3 mph and softens the controls to prevent jerky movement for cinematic shots, is also useful.
The Mavic Air 2 measures 7 by 3.8 by 3.3 inches when folded—about the size of a large coffee thermos—and weighs 1.3 pounds. Its controller is comparable in size to a sandwich. You can slip both into a camera bag easily or stow them in a purse or backpack.
It’s possible to fly the Mavic Air 2 up to 6.2 miles away, though federal regulations say a drone must remain within your line of sight. It transmits via DJI’s OccuSync 2.0 system, which we’ve found to be reliable.
You can use DJI’s Fly app for drone calibration, camera settings, GPS maps, and intelligent-flight modes. Most important, the app displays a live feed from the drone’s camera so you can frame shots to your liking. It also tracks all of your flight information (which you can replay if you’re trying to repeat a shot), warns you about any flight restrictions in the area, and has built-in video-editing tools. You connect your smartphone to the controller via an included specialized USB Type-C, Micro-USB, or Lightning cable threaded through the side of the left brace—you can use a standard cable instead, but it sticks out oddly and limits motion.
Although you can use the DJI app to control almost every aspect of the drone, you still need to use the controller to pilot it. In our tests, the drone responded nimbly to our controls even while flying in the faster and more agile Sport mode. We also found it easy to adjust the tilt of the drone’s camera with the wheel built into the controller or to hit the specialized buttons that prompt the camera to take a picture or start filming.
Like other China-based brands, DJI has come under scrutiny from the US government over security concerns in recent years. There are also allegations that the company provided drone technology for surveillance of Chinese detention camps. In 2020, the US government placed it on its entity list, meaning US companies could not provide DJI with technology but DJI could continue to sell its drones in the US. A 2021 report from the Pentagon cleared some types of DJI drones for use by the US government, but said nothing definitive about human rights abuses or the safety of the brand’s consumer drones.
While the Mavic Air 2’s front, back, and bottom sensors go a long way toward preventing collisions, we prefer the Mavic 2 Pro’s addition of top and side sensors. We didn’t feel as confident flying amid the branches of a tree with the Mavic Air 2, as it was hard to gauge from a distance just how close the branches were. Additional sensors make for a lower-stress flight.
The Mavic Air 2 also has a smaller camera sensor than the Mavic 2 Pro. We thought the videos it took looked sharp enough for posting to YouTube and social media, but the Mavic 2 Pro’s videos looked even clearer, with better colors.
The controller lacks a built-in screen. Although that isn’t a big deal if you have the drone linked with a phone and boot up the DJI Fly app, which tells you all of the information a controller screen would, it’s a minor thing we missed when we wanted to get in a quick flight without connecting a phone.
If you want the best camera available on a Mavic drone, the Mavic 2 Pro is our pick.
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is a worthwhile upgrade if you’re willing to pay more for a better camera and improved obstacle avoidance. Its 1-inch sensor makes for clearer videos and photos, while its Hasselblad-branded camera makes the footage it shoots more colorful. It can also sense obstacles coming from any direction, facilitating somewhat safer flying.
In flight, the Mavic 2 Pro uses sensors to detect obstacles up to 65 feet away approaching from its sides, front, back, bottom, and top; the Mavic 2 Zoom is the only other Mavic drone that senses obstacles coming from any direction. During our testing, the Mavic 2 Pro stopped short when we tried to fly it at a tree, and it flew around a tree blocking its path when we directed it to autonomously return to its launch point. It beeped loudly to warn us whenever we flew close to an obstacle and automatically slowed its descent while landing so that it gently set down on the ground every time. Note that the side sensors on the Mavic 2 Pro work only while you are flying in Tripod and ActiveTrack mode. If you ever do need to fly close to an obstacle for the perfect shot or a more sportslike performance, you can turn off obstacle sensing and avoidance.
The Mavic 2 Pro’s 20-megapixel, 4K camera is branded by Hasselblad, a Swedish company known for medium-format cameras, that DJI acquired in 2017. Considering that this camera is as small as a fun-size candy bar, it can’t capture the same quality as Hasselblad’s larger cameras can. But DJI and Hasselblad did work together on a few features that are notable for a drone, including a 1-inch CMOS sensor that can work in lower-light conditions because it tops out at an ISO of 12,800. The companies also say that they adapted Hasselblad’s method for making colors look more realistic without your having to fine-tune color settings, and that the Mavic 2 Pro captures more colors than other DJI drones. We found that the colors did indeed look truer and brighter than those of the Mavic 2 Zoom, which has a different camera and produced images with a pinker hue. The Mavic 2 Pro shoots 4K video at up to 30 frames per second (weaker than the Mavic Air 2’s 60 fps) with a 100 Mbps max bit rate (the processing speed at which the camera is recording digital media). You can set the aperture anywhere between f/2.8 and f/11.
Like the Mavic Air 2, the Mavic 2 Pro is one of the most consistently stable drones we’ve ever flown. In our tests, it hovered accurately and resisted drifting, even when we flew this model in winds topping 20 miles per hour on a river bank. Like its sibling, it uses a combination of GPS and GLONASS satellites.
At up to 31 minutes, the Mavic 2 Pro’s battery life is impressive, though it falls a few minutes short of the Mavic Air 2’s battery life. Still, we think anything over the 30-minute mark is enough for you to capture a satisfying amount of footage before you have to land for a battery change. Like the Mavic Air 2, the Mavic 2 Pro has the autonomous follow-me mode ActiveTrack, plus the cinematic QuickShots.
The Mavic 2 Pro folds up to 8.4 by 3.6 by 3.3 inches, which makes it slightly larger than the Mavic Air 2 but just as portable. It weighs 2 pounds and doesn’t require any assembly before you fly (aside from removing the camera cover). The controller is the size of an eclair. Though the Mavic 2 Pro is about 50% heavier than the Mavic Air 2, it’s still conveniently sized. You can stow it in a conventional camera bag or even a purse.
You can fly the Mavic 2 Pro up to 5 miles away, though US rules say you or a spotter must always have the drone within your line of sight.
Unlike the Mavic Air 2 controller, the Mavic 2 Pro controller includes a screen, which is useful for monitoring battery life, distance, and connectivity, especially if you’re not using a phone. It also holds your phone below the controller instead of above it, which we think is slightly more awkward for keeping an eye on the live feed from the drone’s camera and tapping around in the DJI Go 4 app. We still found the controller responsive and easy to use, though we preferred the Mavic Air 2 controller’s larger size for easier gripping.
A 4x zoom camera makes this a great choice for shooting from afar.
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The DJI Mavic 2 Zoom could be a better option for photographers and videographers who care more about having a zoom lens than having extra megapixels. By combining its 24–48mm telephoto lens with a digital zoom, the drone can shoot HD video with up to 4x lossless zoom. That’s useful if you’re photographing noise-sensitive wildlife or interested in achieving cinematic effects that use a zoom. Otherwise, you can just fly any drone toward a subject to achieve a zooming effect.
The drone has a 12-megapixel 4K camera and a 1/2.3-inch sensor, in line with older Mavic drones like the Mavic Air but not as good as the Mavic 2 Pro. It can film 4K video while zooming in up to 2x, but zooming further requires you to film at a max quality of 1080p. We thought the images and video it captured had more of a pinkish tinge and duller colors overall compared with the output of the Mavic 2 Pro. However, we used the telephoto lens to zoom in twice as far as we were able to with the Mavic 2 Pro. We photographed a flower conservatory and a bridge, two subjects that we felt uncomfortable filming from up close. We also used the Mavic 2 Zoom’s new Dolly Zoom effect, an autonomous-flight mode in which the drone flies away from a subject while zooming in on it, giving the impression the subject is standing in place while the background shifts. It’s a neat effect, as long as you don’t overuse it.
Other than the camera, the Mavic 2 Zoom looks and flies the same as the Mavic 2 Pro. It detects and avoids approaching obstacles, uses batteries that last up to 31 minutes, and remains extremely stable while holding its position in the air. Along with Dolly Zoom, it comes with DJI’s other preprogrammed flight modes, and at 8.4 by 3.6 by 3.3 inches and 2 pounds, it’s small and light enough for you to carry it in the water-bottle pocket on some backpacks. You can fly it up to 5 miles away and view a 1080p preview on a phone screen thanks to DJI’s OccuSync 2.0 transmission system. It also uses the same controller as the Mavic 2 Pro.
This easy-to-fly drone has an 8K camera and 40 minutes of flight time—the longest of any of our picks—and has no known security concerns.
If you’d like to avoid buying a drone from DJI or are interested in an 8K camera and longer battery life, the Autel Robotics EVO II is a worthy competitor to the Mavic 2 Zoom. We’ve tested a few Autel drones over the years and found them just as easy to fly as their DJI counterparts. The company’s well-designed app also includes plenty of autonomous flight modes. However, we don’t think they provide the same value as DJI drones, and we still think DJI drones shoot crisper and more colorful images and video.
Like the Mavic 2 Zoom, the EVO II is capable of 4x lossless zoom (with the option to zoom in as much as 8x). The higher detail of its 48-megapixel, 8K camera and ½-inch sensor would be the main reason to choose it over the Mavic 2 Zoom. However, we preferred the clarity of colors captured by DJI drones across the board.
The EVO II’s other main draw is its 40-minute battery life, which is 9 minutes longer than our favorite DJI drones. It’s rare that we find ourselves wishing for more than 30 minutes of battery life, but pilots who want to take advantage of its 5.6-mile transmission range might find it useful.
Like the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom, the EVO II can sense obstacles approaching from any direction and autonomously maneuver to avoid them. We found that its sensors were sensitive enough to detect a chain link fence and white snowman, and in both instances it stopped itself to avoid a collision.
We prefer the EVO II’s included controller over those included with DJI drones. Both controllers include clamps to hold your phone, which displays a livestream from the drones’ cameras, but the EVO II controller holds your phone above while DJI controllers hold it below. When you’re trying to keep your eye on a drone, it’s much better to not have to tilt your head down as far to glance at your phone. We also like the EVO II’s bright orange color more than DJI drones’ matte gray because they’re easier to spot in the air. However, we find Autel drones to be much louder than DJI drones.
We also tested, and enjoyed flying, the EVO II Pro. It has a higher quality camera that makes it more of a direct competitor to the Mavic Pro 2, though we don’t think it provides the same value. EVO II drone cameras are modular; if you later decide to upgrade to the EVO II Pro, you can buy an EVO II Pro camera and swap it with the one included with the EVO II.
A 4K camera paired with DJI’s autonomous features makes this drone an especially good value.
The DJI Mini 2 is one of the most basic and inexpensive models DJI offers and is an ideal beginner photography drone. Though it lacks the sensor and camera quality and the range of the Mavic Air 2 or Mavic 2 Pro, the Mini 2 weighs and costs a third as much yet still packs a 4K camera and retains important beginner-friendly features. The drone can take off, land, and return home with the push of a button. It also has a positioning system that’s intelligent enough to hold its location in the air and sense obstacles approaching from the front and back, and its 31-minute battery life is almost as long as that of more expensive models. For a beginner who just wants to start taking photos and videos, the Mini 2 is a bargain.
The Mini 2 can sense obstacles from its front, back, and bottom, which means it can stop itself from flying directly into a tree and automatically slows itself for a gentle landing. It can’t avoid trees or other obstacles approaching from its front, back, or sides like higher-end DJI drones can, so it’s still a good idea to stick to flying the Mini 2 in open spaces until you gain more experience.
It has a ½-inch sensor and can shoot 12 megapixel photos or up to 4K video at 30 fps. The results aren’t as clear as what you can capture on a Mavic Air 2 or Mavic 2 Pro, but they’re nice enough for posting to YouTube and social media. It’s also a huge improvement in image quality for what you can get at this price compared with even just a few years ago.
The Mini 2 is a stable drone that can capture steady video even in windy conditions. We didn’t notice drifting as we tooled around in a field in 5 mph winds. It relies on the same GPS and GLONASS positioning systemas other DJI drones, but we have noticed in other small drones, such as the original Mavic Mini, that they do not have enough power to fight wind as effectively as larger drones.
That tiny size is the Mini 2’s best feature. Because the drone weighs 249 grams, or about half a pound, you don’t have to register the drone with the FAA before flying it for personal use. It’s only 5.5 inches long and 3.2 inches wide, about the same size as its controller. I had no trouble tucking it into my jacket pocket when I moved locations between flights.
You can fly the Mini 2 up to 6.2 miles away, but you need to keep it within sight to comply with the law. Its smaller size and lighter gray color meant it was harder for us to spot from a distance, so we tended to keep it closer than we did larger drones. This drone relies on the DJI Fly app for a live stream from the drone’s camera, access to many of the intelligent-flight modes, and a second location for activating things like auto takeoff and landing.
You can have a lot of fun flying a drone by itself, but a few key accessories can make your flights smoother and even more enjoyable. We spent 40 hours researching and testing dozens of drone accessories, as well as interviewing four expert drone pilots, to find the best backpacks, first-person-view headsets, landing pads, and microSD cards for foldable DJI drones. We also recommend picking up some extra batteries to extend your flying time between charges.
Lowepro’s drone backpacks are tailored to individual drone models, which means you’ll find a spot for every essential. They’re comfortable to wear, too.
Drone backpacks provide a spot for each piece of kit to stay snugly in place; as a result, they make it easier for you to locate items without having to dig through a bunch of gear, and they protect your equipment from damage. That last part is especially important for batteries, which have the potential to burst into flame if you leave them banging around. After considering 22 options and testing four finalists by fitting in three DJI drones of varying sizes and a full kit of accessories—including a controller, batteries, a charger, props, cameras, and a laptop—we think Lowepro’s line of drone bags is your best bet because they each offer the best fit and organization for your gear while still being quite comfortable when fully loaded. (We tested the Lowepro DroneGuard BP 250, which is made specifically for DJI Mavic drones, but any backpack in the DroneGuard or QuadGuard series will perform similarly.)
The entire front of the BP 250 zips open to reveal the main compartment. Movable dividers create smaller spots for core gear such as the drone and its controller, and they allow you to make sure the batteries are safely snuggled in. For good measure, a strap holds the drone securely in place, and a special foam block sits between the drone controller’s two joysticks for a more custom fit. The front cover has elastic bands that are perfect for holding extra propellers or securing cords to keep them from tangling. In our tests, the main compartment was large enough that we could also fit an FPV headset or a disassembled camera body and lens.
Three other compartments fit a camera and a tablet, flat items such as prop guards, and larger items such as a camera or an FPV headset. A compartment on one of the front shoulder straps fits a phone. The front of the backpack is also covered in looped straps that you can use to attach a drone, a tripod, or other gear with bungee cords, and two side pockets fit water or sunscreen bottles.
Although the BP 250 has an obvious spot for everything, its dividers are only so flexible—fitting an assembled DSLR, for example, into the main compartment of the BP 250 is impossible. That makes this bag, along with the other DroneGuard and QuadGuard backpacks, a great choice if you plan to use the backpack with only a specific drone, but if you prefer a backpack you can customize to fit multiple drone models, we recommend the Peak Design Everyday Backpack 30L.
This pad folds out easily, has built-in weights so it stays put, and is waterproof.
When you’re flying an expensive drone carrying an expensive camera on its belly, it’s a good idea to protect your investment from water, dirt, and other elements by using a dedicated landing pad. These pads also tend to be a bright color such as orange, making them a useful visual indicator for spotting home when you’re wearing an FPV headset. They also look more professional in videos if you’re producing content for a client.
After testing three landing pads (and a piece of cardboard), we recommend the Hoodman Drone Launch Pad because it’s truly waterproof, it’s easy to set up, and its unique weighted edges keep it in place. Waterproofing is the single most important reason to use a landing pad, and the other two pads we tested (from RCstyle and Fstop Labs) turned out not to be waterproof at all, despite their makers’ claims. Twenty minutes after we sprinkled water across the Hoodman pad, the water was still beaded up and no moisture had seeped through to the other side.
We also like this landing pad’s metal-weighted edges, which prevent it from flying away in windy weather. This feature adds a little more overall weight to the gear you’re carrying compared with the stakes that other pads use, but it makes the Hoodman pad easier to set up and more useful if you’re flying on hard ground such as a rocky field or a parking lot. The center fabric is a pleasing orange color and feels tougher than the material of the other pads we tested.
The Hoodman pad’s 3-foot size made it trickier to fold up than smaller models, but it packs down to 13 inches across and fits nicely into its carrying case. The size of the pad you should buy depends on how large your drone is; Hoodman’s larger, 5-foot size is more than you need for most drones but could be useful for professional cinematography drones. The larger size is also easier to see from the air.
If you’ve invested in an expensive photography drone, you should invest in a reliable microSD card with ample space to store photos and video.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $31.
The SanDisk MicroSDXC card for Nintendo Switch (128 GB) is the best microSD card to use with photography drones because its fast read and write speeds are ideal for shooting 4K video and making quick file transfers. A large capacity is a necessity for a photography drone, and even for a racing drone equipped with a nicer camera—more storage means you won’t have to land a drone early to swap out a card. This SanDisk MicroSDXC card is also inexpensive.
A card from a reputable name in memory storage like SanDisk provides peace of mind, as you can be confident that your videos and photos will be there when you go to upload them to your computer. As we note in our microSD card guide, be on the lookout for counterfeit microSD cards from unknown sellers on Amazon, which are common—we recommend that you buy a SanDisk card directly from the manufacturer or Amazon itself. For more details on the competition, read our guide to the best microSD cards.
Most microSD cards are good enough, but if you know what to look for, it’s not hard to get one that’s great.
Anytime you set out to fly a drone, it’s important to ensure that you, the pilot, are doing everything safely and legally. Although we can’t provide legal advice, we did speak to experts and consult Federal Aviation Administration and Academy of Model Aeronautics documentation to collect the steps that we consider essential for every recreational pilot.
“The main thing to keep in mind is we’re sharing the airspace with manned full-size aircraft,” said Tyler Dobbs, Academy of Model Aeronautics government affairs representative. “We’re not trying to push things to the limit and do things outside of AMA safety guidelines or the FAA rules. Just have fun but do so within one of the federal paths of operating legally and safely.”
Different types of drone pilots must abide by different rules and laws. Here we’re focusing on those who use drones for recreational purposes—what the FAA calls a “model aircraft.” That means the pilots can’t sell the photos or videos they take with their drone or use the drone for any other business-related reasons.
Recreational drone users can either get a remote pilot certificate from the FAA, which requires an in-person test, or “follow community-based safety guidelines and fly within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization” (a much easier option). Commercial pilot and drone lawyer Jonathan Rupprecht said that “this is the chief thing you need to pay very close attention to” and that it’s something people often misunderstand or miss. You do not need to join a nationwide organization, but you do need to follow the organization’s rules; a broadly accepted option is the Academy of Model Aeronautics. For details, read the AMA handbook.
Once you’ve committed to following the AMA’s rules, you need to register with the FAA. Visit the FAA website and follow the checkout process, which is about two minutes long. You need to submit your name, phone number, and address, and pay $5. Then the FAA issues you a registration number valid for three years. It also generates a printable certificate, which could be useful if a police officer or someone else ever questions you while you are flying.
Once you have a registration number, you need to label each drone you fly for the next three years with that number. Unlike commercial pilots, recreational pilots do not need to complete a new registration for each drone they fly.
You should read both the FAA guidelines and the AMA handbook (PDF). Be prepared for them to contradict one another at times, but in general these are the essential rules that apply nationally:
Locally, there can be even more rules for drone flights. For example, It’s illegal to fly a drone in the US National Park System (unless there’s a designated area) or within an extended 15-mile range of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Check your city and state’s specific rules governing drone flight.
Do everything you can to minimize the chances of something going wrong when you fly a drone for the first time. Read the manual and take the time to watch YouTube videos about safe setup and flight.
“People tend to crash these things unnecessarily because they can’t read the manual,” said Rupprecht. “The first flight and second flight you’re scared out of your mind. The third flight you hear the [sings theme song] Top Gun music and you say, ‘Yeah, I can do it!’ You go outside and you’re flying and you crash it. Before being lawful, figure out how not to do that.”
It might be worthwhile to invest in a flight simulator to practice the controls before your first real flying adventure. Otherwise, the best way to fly a drone for the first time is to learn from others. Chances are, a drone club exists in your area. In my experience, they are welcoming to newcomers, and members are happy to show you the basics.
“They will help you learn the rules, they’ll help you learn how to fly and show you that, yes, there’s things that you need to take seriously while you’re operating in the airspace, but overall it’s a great and enjoyable hobby,” the AMA’s Dobbs said.
Some other helpful tips:
There are a lot of rules governing drone flight, but the experience should still be about having fun. Take your time, learn new things, and don’t forget why you started flying in the first place.
Our former budget pick, the DJI Mavic Mini, might be a good buy if you see one selling for cheap and don’t care much about video quality. Its 1080p video isn’t as good as the newer Mavic Mini’s 2’s 4K video, and the Mavic Mini benefits from the latest DJI features.
The DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise has specs similar to those of the Mavic 2 Zoom plus a port to add optional accessories such as a spotlight, speaker, and beacon. It’s built to be useful to firefighters, law enforcement, and search and rescue teams. As a result, we didn’t test it for this guide, as it is not meant for people who are primarily using a drone for photography.
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ V2.0 cuts the propeller noise in half in comparison with previous Phantom models. We flew the drone in mid-2018 and found it to be reliable, but aside from its included screen and ability to shoot 4K video at 60 fps, we didn’t think it offered enough additional benefits that topped the Mavic 2 Pro’s portability.
We still think the DJI Mavic Air is a great drone, though its camera and battery life aren’t as good as those of the Mavic Air 2. It’s a decent option if you’re bargain shopping and don’t mind missing out on the latest and greatest features.
The Autel Evo is a fun and reliable drone we tested in late 2018. It reminded us a lot of the Mavic line, as it offered a foldable shape, steady position holding, and an easy-to-use app that includes preprogrammed cinematic modes. However, its 12-megapixel 4K camera and lack of a zoom lens meant it couldn’t quite compete with the Mavic 2 Pro or Zoom. (It can shoot 4K at up to 60 fps like the Phantom line.) It is a closer competitor to the Mavic Air 2, though it typically costs a bit more.
The Parrot Anafi packs in a lot for a low price. It sports a fold-up design and a 21-megapixel camera that shoots 4K HDR video on a 180-degree tilt gimbal. It offers 25 minutes of battery life and can go up to 32 mph. We think obstacle avoidance is important enough that the Anafi’s lack of obstacle sensors disqualify it as a potential pick, but if you’re an experienced pilot on a budget and you consider a high-quality camera to be more important than obstacle avoidance, it could be a better option than the Mavic Mini. We tested the FPV version and found the included headset useful for lining up shots. The backpack also felt of high quality.
The Yuneec Typhoon H hexacopter has a 4K camera that rotates around a full 360 degrees, plus forward-collision avoidance, carbon-fiber prop arms, retractable landing gear, a handful of intelligent-flight modes, and a touchscreen built right into its remote controller. It is extremely fast and agile, but it has a limited flying range. Like the version with RealSense, it isn’t readily portable, and we don’t like its controller as much as DJI’s.
Signe Brewster
Signe Brewster is a senior staff writer at Wirecutter covering drones, virtual reality, 3D printers, STEM toys, smart-home gadgets, and hobby tools. She previously reported on emerging technology and science for several tech publications (with brief stints at CERN and The Onion). She spends her free time quilting and pursuing an MFA in creative writing.
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