Our Top Pick for 2017: DJI Phantom 3 Standard Quadcopter Drone with 2.7K HD Video Camera
Read our full review.
There was a time where the art of aerial photography only existed in the world of professional photographers who had access to full-sized aircraft. Today, with the advent of the increasingly advanced drone, nearly everyone can power up their flying friend and take to the skies for some truly unique looking shots from a much higher perspective. With your camera-equipped drone, you can take selfies from four feet above your head, quietly observe that nest of sparrow chicks that live in the tree by your house, or simply film a hard to reach waterway that you’ve always heard but not seen. With this nascent technology, the sky is literally the limit to your aeronautical photography adventures. As the tech becomes more and more popular, you’ll start to see more and more of these leisure items in the skies and the choices will only broaden. To make it easier on you, we’ve taken a look at some of the best drones with cameras on the market today and narrowed it down to a list of our favorite four.
#1. DJI Phantom 3 Standard Quadcopter Drone with 2.7K HD Video Camera
What does a Gold Pick flight experience look like? The answer can be found with the high flying drone specialists over at DJI. DJI stands by the belief that “Creativity is at the heart of every dream.” This China-based company specializes in high end, camera-enabled drone experiences and their line of devices are some of the most advanced that are available on the consumer market. If you were to peruse their lines of drones, you’d see that they typically come in at a premium price tag. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is an attempt to develop a more budget friendly camera-enabled drone that incorporates some of the prime functionality of their higher end models.
To start, the Phantom 3’s appearance just seems to exude a sense of futuristic style. Features like its generously placed ports, its red striping, and glowing LEDs all combine to form an aesthetic that is reminiscent of something that might be found in a dystopian sci-fi tale. The entirety of the chassis, save for the red striping and the silver highlights on the moving parts, is painted a nearly uniform white. At the base of this drone is what you’re probably most curious about: the camera.
Mounted directly on a two-axis gimbal that’s set directly underneath the main body of the drone, is a metallically sheathed camera. This is actually a reasonably powerful camera that is capable of 2.7K video at a reasonable 30 fps. Videos come out incredibly crisp and still images snap at 12 megapixels and can be created in either the Adobe DNG file type as well as standard JPEG.
Camera control is accomplished through the DJI Go App, which is accessible through either Android or iOS Smartphones. Simply attach your phone to the included controller and you’ll be able to fly and snap at your leisure. The on-board gimbal grants you exceptional camera control that will make your photography endeavors a veritable cinch. You’ll be able to pivot the camera downwards, and pan it to whichever angle you want; completely independent of the drone’s flight. Amazingly, there is little latency from drone to Smartphone and all video is displayed via a live feed that appears directly on your phone via the app. Videos and images save directly to the device through an onboard micro-SD card slot (DJI was kind enough to provide an eight GB card with the purchase).
This drone is of the quadcopter design and is RTF, or ready to fly directly out of the box, which is our next point: this thing flies exceptionally. While many consider this a prosumer device or a device that’s attuned to people who are more “in the know” than the standard level of consumer, this is still a very newbie-friendly device. It’s always stable; a trait that’s perfect for creating wide-panned shots and making video that includes a lot of drone movement.
You can even set a home point with this device. This is simply using the unit’s built in GPS to establish a point of return that the device will default to if it runs into trouble like a low charge or signal loss. This feature is perfect for a beginner who doesn’t quite know how to manage the devices’ semi-limiting range of .62 miles.
Additional “Intelligent flight modes” that make this device super easy to fly are:
• Waypoint Navigation – This lets you set up a sort of wireframe path that the drone can fly while you operate the camera exclusively.
• Point of Interest Flight Planning – See something you like? If you establish this as a point of interest the drone can simply circle the object, allowing you to take whatever footage you would like to take.
• Follow Me – You obedient drone will follow you based on how you position the controller/Smartphone setup. This has variable settings that will allow you to have an aerial perspective while you film yourself.
• Course Lock – This sets a straight course for the drone. This is perfect when trying to lock in panning shots.
Charging the drone takes around 50 minutes, and will grant around 22-25 minutes of flight time on a full charge. This might seem short but DJI has made replacement batteries available so that when you take it on trips where you want to have more recording and flight time, you can swap out a new battery when the old one gets low. Additional batteries are available from DJI for about $150 a piece. If you really expect to have a long day of aerial photography, you can also purchase a multi-charger from the company for about $90; this will charge four individual packs simultaneously for more than an hour of flight time.
Out of the reviewing audience of 402 Amazon user who have purchased this excellent Gold Pick camera drone, an impressive 80 percent felt that this device was worth a four star rating or above. Here is one great five star level testimonial from a satisfied consumer on Amazon: “This is an incredible entry-level quadcopter. I have flown the Syma X5C, so I was used to flying quads. Right out of the box, I was able to take off, fly around, and land with no issues whatsoever. The video and photos I could capture were incredible from day one.”
#2. UDI U818A HD+ RC Quadcopter Drone with HD Camera
View it on Amazon: $119.95*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.
Our Silver Pick is another newbie-friendly option that has great controls, a bevy of neophyte friendly features, and great picture taking capabilities. Produced by UDI, this drone features a quadcopter design and a very sleek form factor.
At first glance, you’ll notice that despite the fact that both of our gold and silver picks are quadcopters, each has a very different design from the other. The U818A is also significantly lighter than the Phantom 3; weighing only 4.6 ounces as compared to the Gold Pick’s 8.2 pounds. As with all quadcopters, this drone utilizes a four rotor system that is ringed in a clover-style pattern to protect the blades from impact. The entire device is black and comprised of a very lightweight plastic that doesn’t stand up to gustier winds very well. Just like the prior pick, this quadcopter comes ready to fly, right out of the box.
Wind issues aside, you’ll have no issue flying this drone and capturing lots of footage. It comes with a 720p HD camera that captures great detail for the price point. It doesn’t connect via a Smartphone interface, so when filming you’ll have to wait to check what kind of footage you got during your outing. You’ll seldom be disappointed though, as this really does provide some great HD footage at around 30 fps. This device comes with a four GB micro-SD card for storing your visual media. Unfortunately, this isn’t really a great device for stills and as a result of the quadcopter’s continuous movement, you’ll get a lot of blur on still shots.
This drone features a two level flight mode that has two featured speeds. From a control point of view, this drone flies incredibly steady at both speed options. For beginner pilots, speed one will give you the control you need to really learn the ropes of flying a drone. You can use it indoors as it gives you heightened maneuverability and will let you avoid obstacles. As a beginner, it’s not recommended that you use the second, higher speed indoors as this may cause you to damage your drone. Speed two is perfectly suitable for outdoors under clear conditions of course.
UDI did a great job with the power system for this drone. Due to the current limitations in battery technology, you’ll never get a drone that flies for over 30 minutes without the need to charge until there are advancements in the field. UDI manages these limitations by providing two LiPo batteries with the drone. These batteries utilize a system of cells that store 3.7 volts a piece and last for about ten minutes of flight time per battery. The included charger can charge both batteries simultaneously, and it’ll take about 90 minutes to attain a full charge. Out of the box, you can expect to be able to capture 20 minutes of flight time with the two batteries. This is somewhat mitigated by filming and wind conditions as operating the camera and adjusting the rotors in gusty situations does drain the battery more.
Included with the unit is a 2.4 Ghz infrared controller that features an on-board LCD for minute controls. This controller has a rich feature set; the left stick controls how you throttle the drone up or down and adjusts moving the drone left or right. The right stick controls the pitch and roll. Between these two sticks are two additional buttons that control trim.
A unique feature on this infrared controller is the presence of two shoulder buttons along the top of the unit. When you hold the leftmost shoulder button and move the left stick, the drone will do a full 360 degree inversion. The right trigger, on the other hand, activates “headless mode”. This mode allows you to control the drone as if it had n “head”. In other words, you’ll be able to switch directions quicker regardless of the quadcopter’s orientation. Once in this mode, you can press the home button to cause the drone to return to its starting position.
81 percent of the reviewing audience on Amazon gave this quadcopter drone a positive score of four stars or above. One five star review attests to the drone’s durability: “Bought this quadcopter on a whim because I wanted to get into flying. It is the most awesome product and I have been flying it every day for the last week. It is lightweight plastic, so it is not indestructible, but I have crashed it into trees, the side of the house, roof, shed, and the neighbor’s pool. It got a few scratches but keeps on going and going.”
#3. Syma X5SW 4 Channel Remote Controlled Quadcopter with HD Camera
Our Bronze Pick is manufactured by the RC and drone specialists at Syma. Syma, as a hobby company, has made quite a name for itself by making aeronautics accessible to even the most grounded of consumers. The X5SW provides an excellent photography experience while also delivering some genuine thrills with its streamlined design and aerial acrobatics.
Aesthetically, this quadcopter style drone looks sleek and futuristic, similarly to our Gold Pick. It features an almost all white coloration and is made of a very durable plastic shell that could take a few dings. Also, whereas the Phantom 3 looked almost dystopian in design, this X5SW has an almost alien design aesthetic with its stalks and semi-circular prop guards. Located under each rotor arm are LEDs that are colored red and green. This drone is also decently weighty; it weighs about 2.2 pounds and has enough heft to work reasonably well in gustier weather.
Even though this is considered an RTF style drone, you’ll still need to do a little assembly before you can engage in your first flight. The prop guards and the landing struts both need to be added onto the unit and both will require you to screw them in. Luckily, this is a very easy process as the screws come pre-installed in the components. Also, the battery comes nestled inside the drone, so if you’re looking for it, check within the hatch first.
This flyer controls like a dream and the system of picture taking is somewhat similar to the way our winner drone takes pictures. You simply, connect the included plastic piece to the antenna of the infrared controller, open the clamp-like structure, and safely secure your Smartphone in place. Once you download Syma’s proprietary application, sync the controller and your Smartphone to the drone, connect to the drone’s built-in Wi-Fi, and start up the application, a plethora of choices will be made available to you.
Once connected, your phone’s main screen will immediately sync up to the drone’s 2.0MP HD camera. The majority of the screen will feature the input from the main aperture but there will be additional functions along the top of your screen as well. These include:
• Camera Icon – This allows you to snap 2.0 megapixel stills. There is some decent image stabilization tech in the drone itself, but you may get blurry still images if you are moving at a fast rate.
• Video Icon – This accesses the 720p HD camera functionality. This will probably be your best option when you’re looking for HDTV compatible video to show off to your friends and family.
• Folder Icon – On this drone, the files that you create aren’t stored on the body of the aircraft itself, they are saved directly to your phone via the app. To access these photos and videos simply click this icon and they’ll be there for your perusal.
• Wi-Fi indicator Icon – This icon shines red when there is good signal strength and proceeds to turn white as the signal degrades due to range.
• Back Button – Exits the application.
Unfortunately, due to the type of battery and the load of the camera, you can only expect around four minutes of flight time with the included 500mAh battery. This can be increased with the larger capacity battery that’s sold by Syma, but even with this option, you’ll only get around six minutes of continuous flight time; as a result of this, if you’re thinking about purchasing this model, consider getting multiple replacement batteries to swap.
71 percent of the Amazon reviewing audience reported positive experiences with this drone. These reviews encompassed either a four star or a five star rating. In regards to its durability and camera functionality, one reviewer who felt this drone camera deserved a five star rating had this to say about the item: “This thing is really durable. I have crashed it numerous times and nothing has been damaged. The camera quality is not the best but it works good enough to see your surroundings just fine. Works much better on bright days. Wifi connect to cell phone is easy as can be, just make sure to go to settings on your phone and allow third party applications to work.”
#4. Eachine H8C Quadcopter With 2.0MP HD Camera
You can have a great time creating aerial videos and images even when you are ballin’ on a budget. The Eachine H8C is a great, miniaturized drone that will allow you to capture 2.0 Megapixel images and 720p HD videos at a much lower price than some of the more expensive drones. This machine is perfect for beginners to earn their wings or even for smaller children.
This drone camera is a lot smaller than some of the other options that we’ve presented here, but it performs smoothly in all but windy situations. From a design point of view, this drone camera has some of the same design cues from the Syma model, but scaled down. It’s has the same quadcopter rotor setup that’s protected by semicircular prop guards. The arms are almost skeletally thin, and the landing struts are made of a piped, pliable plastic that will absorb all but the roughest landings.
Insofar as charge, this little drone has a relatively good flight time, especially considering that this is a budget item. With a full 40 minute charge, you can expect around six to eight minutes of flight time. Unfortunately, you can’t bring additional batteries for this drone as it charges directly through a USB connector to an internal power source.
This drone records video and photos by way of a purely on-board system and all media is saved onto a on-board micro-SD. Video on this unit is of decent quality, but don’t expect to get startlingly crisp pictures from this camera drone.
The control system utilizes a 2.4 Ghz frequency infrared controller that has several key functions in its small frame. This controller actually favors a video game styled controller as it has directional pads that adjust trim, thumbsticks that favor analog pads and adjust throttle, life, and pitch, and a set of thumb triggers which will allow the drone to do tricks. Like others of its type, this quadrocopter also has a headless mode that is particularly beginner friendly.
On Amazon, 69 percent of the reviewers thought that this drone was worthy of a four star rating or above. The general consensus is that this is the perfect drone for a child who wants to learn how to take aerial photos or video, or an adult who wants to get their feet wet in the world of drones. Here is one five star testimonial from a reviewer on Amazon: “Great little palm sized quad that comes packed with a lot of features like blade guards, camera, 3 speed settings, flips, headless and so on! If you’ve never flown a quad before, you’ll find this one very easy!”
Drones as a style of aeronautic vehicles vary in many ways from the style of propulsion, to control scheme. The most important way that drones differentiate though, is the skill level required to pilot them. Some drones are designed for beginners and are an absolute cinch to fly. Other types of drones are designed with the understanding that the pilot has a middling amount of experience flying these remote-controlled aircraft. The final type of drone is best left to the drone experts. Here is a little more detail on how these types of skill level requirements can affect your flight experience.
• Beginner – These are typically the lightest and most inexpensive of the drone types. They are made of plastics that are more pliable and can take a few hits before you’ll need to replace parts. Typically, these aren’t very tight to maneuver; and as a result, are best flown in the great wide open. As a beginner drone pilot, this is where you’ll earn your wings.
• Intermediate – These are bigger and heavier than the beginner type. These types of drone are still best left to be flown in outdoor areas. They do provide an easier to control, more stabilized flight experience and as a rule, can travel at a faster clip than beginner models.
• Advanced – Here is where you’ll find the most complex, expensive models of drone. As these tend to have more rotors you, as the pilot, will have much more control over the individualized flight characteristics of this type of drone. Want to film a loop? You’ll be able to control each rotor as well as manipulate the HD camera to execute and capture your aerial acrobatics.
Flight Control System
Anyone who’s ever played with an RC-anything will know about the control system for most drones. Typically, like RC helicopters, drones utilize a dual stick system to control tilt, pitch, trajectory, and lift. As you scale into the higher end realm though, you start to see more complicated systems such as Smartphone controlled interfaces, infrared controllers that have built in HD screens or even systems that incorporate geo-caching and Google Earth waypoint navigation.
Many devices on the market today even have autopilot-like systems that will allow the drone to return home, follow you like a lost puppy, or even land when its battery approaches a critical stage of charge. When you’re thinking about purchasing a drone that can take some great pictures, make sure that you understand the specific flight control system associated with the drone you’re purchasing.
Simply put, you won’t find a photography drone that will be able to fly for hours at a time. For the most part, most drones can only fly continuously for around five to 25 minutes or so. Charging time will vary on the technology, so definitely look into how long your drone takes to reach its fully charged status. As a rule, try to shoot for a charging time of about 45 minutes or so and a flight time over ten minutes. Also remember, that utilizing your camera will greatly reduce the charge of your drone, so if you’re planning on a long day of filming and flying, bring some extra battery packs to keep your little aircraft aloft.
The range in which a drone can operate can vary greatly, so when selecting a new drone for your photographic pursuits, seek one that has a range that will suit your realistic needs. Most drones utilize a system in which, when they fly out of range, they’ll make an emergency landing. Whether this is safe for the drone will depend on the situation and terrain where you are flying it.
You’d certainly find it unacceptable to have spent a day of flying, while expending multiple battery packs, only to find that the aerial shots you took of deer running through a field looks more like a herd of rats running across green carpet. So that this doesn’t happen to you, ensure that whatever drone you purchase has quality HD film taking capabilities. Be sure that its camera can take movement shots, has filters for effect, and a high megapixel count to ensure that there’s as little pixilation as possible. Remember, you are entering the world of aerial picture taking, be sure that the device you end up buying meets all of the quality requirements that you’ll have to set to truly draw enjoyment out of this hobby.
Do It Yourself (DIY) vs. Ready to Fly (RTF)
These are complex machines. As a rule, most drone kits that come pre-assembled will be of the beginner to intermediate skill level. If you’d like to have a pre-assembled unit, look for packages that say RTF; that means that they are ready to fly right out of the box.
Do it yourself on the other hand, is all about your creativity and engineering skill. You can buy sets that you have to assemble, or you can purchase your components piecemeal and assemble your own creation from your own imagination. One caveat with this style: you’ll need a lot of patience when crafting your own camera drone and from time to time you may break a component during assembly.
Conclusion (Wrapping it up)
Cutting loose and taking to the wild blue yonder is made an even more exciting experience when you’re able to record your adventures for posterity. This list of the best drones for taking aerial photography is designed to help you earn your photographer’s flight wings as well as tell you about some of the more interesting models of camera drones that are available on the market today. Consider some of these, their feature sets and designs, and make the decision that will best fit your own flight style and design. Also, don’t neglect to take a look at some of our pre-purchase considerations and you’ll be exploring your world from a bird’s eye view in no time.