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The best drones for photos and video

DJI sweeps the competition.
Wirecutter, @wirecutter
December 24, 2018
Signe Brewster/Wirecutter

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By Signe Brewster

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter's independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commission. Read the full drones guide here.

After 45 hours of research and test flying 14 models, we think the DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the best drone for aspiring aerial photographers and videographers thanks to its high-end camera, autonomous obstacle avoidance, long battery life, and portability. Pilots of all skill levels will find it to be exceptionally reliable and easy to fly.

The Mavic 2 Pro features a 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 captured by the competition. Its ability to sense and avoid obstacles in all directions and steadily hold its position even in moderate winds lets you focus on your cinematography instead of worrying about keeping the drone steady.

It also features DJI's smart-flight modes like ActiveTrack, which directs the drone to autonomously follow and film a subject while still avoiding obstacles. Its 31-minute battery life means you don't have to land for a battery swap as often as other drones, and at 8.4 by 3.6 by 3.3 inches folded and 2 pounds, you can take the Mavic 2 Pro almost anywhere—it fits exceptionally well in our top pick for drone backpacks. It's also compatible with the DJI Goggles FPV headset we recommend.

The Mavic 2 Zoom looks and flies identical to the Mavic 2 Pro, but it trades out the Hasselblad camera in favor of a different camera that can zoom 2 times optically and 2 times digitally (with software that avoids losing detail), for up to 4x usable "lossless" zoom. However, filming with more than 2x zoom will require you to shoot at 1080p instead of 4K. It's 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. Like our top pick, it features DJI's obstacle avoidance and smart-flight mode tech, plus a 31-minute battery life and foldable body.

If you're just getting into drone photography for personal use and social-media sharing, the DJI Spark is a less expensive model that still includes collision avoidance. Compared to our top pick, the Spark has shorter battery life and range, and it can't capture 4K video (just 1080p), but it weighs half as much and folds up to about the size of your hand. It still includes the important features you need from a video drone, including image and flight stabilization and an included controller, and it has gesture controls and smart-flight modes like ActiveTrack.

Why you should trust us

A lifelong photography enthusiast, I have spent the past five years chronicling 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 write Wirecutter guides to drones under $100 and drone accessories.

Who this is for

Drones (or, more specifically, quadcopters) are small aircraft that can be equipped with a camera to give you the ability to shoot bird's-eye-view photos and videos. They could be of interest to any photographer or videographer interested in reaching 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 covered in this guide might be of interest to certain professionals, including 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 you to mount your own camera equipment on the drone. There are also specialized options for people who want to inspect farmland and industrial equipment, which can call for specialized sensors. We did not test drones that are only focused on autonomously following and filming a moving subject (such as the Skydio R1) because they do not let videographers frame their own shots.

Thanks to improvements in technology and rapidly declining prices, you can get a decent photography drone for 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 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.

How we picked and tested

After reading professional and user reviews plus speaking to enthusiasts, experts, and manufacturers at the 2018 CES conference, we decided to consider the following criteria while looking for drones to test:

  • A quadcopter design: Drones shaped like planes do exist, but they're not as easy to fly as quadcopter models shaped like an X. A quadcopter shape (or alternatives like hexacopters that add additional arms) make for the most stable photo and video because they can hold their position in the air steadily.
  • Crash-avoidance sensors: Sensors in drones have come a long way, and there are now some models that can sense obstacles approaching in any direction and adjust their flight path to avoid a crash. This removes so much stress from flying that we are only willing to consider drones that at the very least can sense obstacles approaching from their front, back, and bottom.
  • A high-quality camera: Generally, the more you pay for a photography drone, the better quality camera you get. For our top pick, we only considered models that can shoot at least 12-megapixel photos and 4K video. We were willing to consider less impressive specs for our budget pick.
  • A three-axis gimbal: A good gimbal, which stabilizes a camera attached to a drone with accelerometers and gyroscopes even when you are flying in wind or a jerky pattern, is essential if you want usable footage. A three-axis gimbal is a general industry standard.
  • Long battery life: Longer-lasting batteries tend to be larger and weigh more, so manufacturers have to balance drone size with battery life. But a shorter flight time means fewer shots, shorter videos, and less flexibility. We prefer drone batteries that last at least 20 minutes and recommend that pilots pick up a few extras so they can spend more time in the field flying.
  • Autonomous modes: Any video drone worth buying should have a fail-safe return-home mode that automatically brings the aircraft back to the launch point when you press a button or the drone loses contact with the controller. Additionally, we prefer drones that come pre-programmed with cinematic autonomous flight modes; at the touch of a button, you can tell a drone to follow you while you snowboard down a mountain or fly in a circle while filming for a dramatic selfie.
  • Portability: The best drones are portable enough to be an everyday tool, which means they are small and light enough to pack into a camera bag or backpack. Some drones accomplish this by having foldable arms that make them more compact.
  • Long flight range: Federal rules say you must always keep a drone within your line of sight. But in special cases, a drone's ability to fly an especially long distance without losing contact with a controller can be a useful tool.
  • Intuitive controller: Most drone controllers look similar, with two joysticks for controlling flight and a smattering of buttons for specific tasks. Controllers with a built-in screen or option for attaching a smartphone so you can gain additional abilities with an app extend their functions even further, often more intuitively.

Using these criteria, we were able to pare the 2016 testing field 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 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.

Our pick: DJI Mavic 2 Pro

Drones for photo and video

Photo: Signe Brewster

The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the best drone for budding aerial photographers and videographers because of its ability to sense obstacles coming from any direction, the sharp, colorful photos and videos its camera shoots, and how easy it is to fly. Its three-axis gimbal provides effective image stabilization, and its 31-minute battery life means you have to land less often. The Mavic 2 Pro's ability to autonomously return to its launch point and land itself and its pre-programmed flight modes let both beginners and advanced pilots get cinematic-looking shots without much effort.

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. Obstacle sensing removes stress from the flying experience, both manually and with any of DJI's pre-programmed flight options. During 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 it gently set down on the ground every time. Note that the side sensors on the Mavic 2 Pro only work 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 sports-like performance, you can turn off obstacle sensing and avoidance.

The Mavic 2 Pro is the first drone in the Mavic line to sport a camera that competes with DJI's previously higher-end Phantom drones. The 20-megapixel, 4K camera is branded by Hasselblad, a Swedish company known for medium-format cameras that DJI acquired in 2017. Considering the camera is as small as a fun-size candy bar, it's impossible for it to capture the same quality as Hasselblad's larger cameras. 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 be used in lower light conditions because it tops out at an ISO of 12,800.

The companies also say they adapted Hasselblad's method for making colors look more realistic without having to finetune color settings and that the drone captures more colors than other DJI drones. We did find that the colors look truer and brighter than the Mavic 2 Zoom, which has a different camera and produced images that had a pinker hue. The Mavic 2 Pro shoots 4K video at up to 30 frames per second (which is weaker than the handful of drones like the Phantom 4 Pro v2 that shoot 60 fps) with a 100 Mbps max bitrate (the processing speed at which the camera is recording digital media). The aperture can be set anywhere between f/2.8 and f/11.