The most popular use case for drones is — you guessed it — photography. Luckily, there’s a drone out there for every type of photographer, and for every type of budget. Most camera drones are made by DJI, but there are also worthy competitors made by other brands.
Whether you’re looking to spend $200 or $2,000 on a drone, you should be relieved to know that in this industry, you can get an incredibly high quality flying robot (WITH a camera attached to it!), for often not much more than just a standard digital camera on its own.
Editor’s note: This piece was last updated on April 25, 2021. Drone technology is rapidly changing, but these are the best drones on the market as of this date.
What to expect from a camera drone, by budget
You can get a decent camera drone for $400. If you’re looking for professional image quality (maybe you need to shoot weddings or real estate), expect to spend closer to $2,000 and up.
When it comes to our picks for the best drones for photographers in 2021, DJI dominates the landscape. But consumers must know DJI is the best and have validated our findings with their dollars. Here’s proof: according to an analysis of FAA drone registration numbers by drone market research and data group Drone Industry Insights, DJI had a 76.8% market share in the U.S.
But while this list is dominated by DJI, there’s actually tons of variety for all types of photographers. Find the best drones of 2021 for you, on any budget:
The best overall drone for most photographers: DJI Air 2S
The DJI Air 2S has the perfect combination of new and wildly innovative tech, a high quality camera, a seamless flying experience, smart safety features AND a reasonable price tag.
In most cases, it’s the best deal for your money.
The DJI Air 2S is the latest in the DJI Mavic Air line, which combines the best of both worlds of the Mavic Pro and Spark. It’s about the size of a Spark in flight, but folds up like the Mavic Pro to become even smaller. It has the Spark’s nifty gesture control, but it also has the Mavic Pro’s 4K video. It’s also got great safety features with a collision avoidance sensor on the front and back.
It mostly stands out for its 1” sensor offering 20-megapixel photos and 5.4K video. That’s the same as what you get in the larger, more-expensive Mavic 2 Pro. The sensor also offers a larger pixel size of 2.4μm.
Buy the DJI Air 2S drone now from:
The best drone if you don’t want to register or use Remote ID: DJI Mini 2
With the DJI Mini 2, DJI just proved that ‘smaller and cheaper’ doesn’t mean ‘worse’.
To make the Mini 2, DJI stripped out many features on our top pick, the Mavic Air, including sense and avoid. Yet it’s still capable of recording 4K video — particularly impressive given the drone’s small size and low price point.
And that small size is the real standout feature of the DJI Mini 2.
Weighing in at 249 grams, DJI’s Mavic Mini doesn’t fall under the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration if you’re flying for hobby purposes. That means no need to register your drone, and no need to comply with Remote ID rules. The FAA currently only requires drones flying for hobby purposes to be registered and comply with the Remote ID requirements if they weigh 250 grams or more. Again, that makes the Mini much more accessible for people who don’t want to worry about complying (or not complying) with federal laws while flying their drones.
Flight time: 30 minutes
Buy it from:
The best drone if you’re on a budget: DJI Mavic Mini
This drone is the older model of the aforementioned DJI Mini 2, but it’s $100 cheaper.The video quality isn’t quite as good — 2.7K on the Mavic Mini vs. 4K on the Mini 2 (and most other DJI drones).
But if you’re on a budget, we’re okay with it. This drone’s pricetag is just $399, compared to the more than $1,000 that most of its big sibling Mavic drones go for.
Plus, there are some new features thrown in that photographers should love, including one of my favorites: Cinesmooth Mode.
And again, like the Mini 2, this drone only weighs 249 grams. That’s great for casual pilots who don’t want to worry about registering or Remote ID rules. The FAA currently only requires drones flying for hobby purposes to be registered and comply with the Remote ID requirements if they weigh 250 grams or more.
Flight time: 30 minutes
The best drone for action sports: Skydio 2
This freakishly smart drone has six, 200-degree color cameras. That means Skydio 2 can see everything in every direction so it theoretically never crashes. Whether you’re flying down a pine tree-covered mountain tracking a snowboarder, or you’re navigating down a trail following a biker, this drone is a dream for pilot who need to fly in complicated environments. Skydio 2 shoots 4K video and captures images at 12MP.
Based in San Francisco, Skydio is also an appealing company to buy from for consumers who prefer to purchase technology from American drone companies.
Flight time: 23 minutes
The best drone for more advanced pilots: DJI Mavic Pro Platinum
The DJI Mavic Pro provides high quality aerial video, in a small package that will have you wanting to bring it everywhere you go. But, it’s bigger than the Mavic Air.
With that, it has a longer transmission range and longer flight time (30 minutes). It also has 60% noise power reduction for a quieter, more enjoyable flight experience. But, it has fewer obstacle avoidance features than the Air. If you’re a pro pilot, then you’ll love this drone. If you want a little more piloting help, stick to the Mavic Air.
Flight time: 27 minutes
The best drone for professional photographers: the Mavic 2
The new DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone launched in 2018 featuring a new 1 inch CMOS sensor and Hasselblad 20 megapixels camera, which was a mind-blowing feat for the most serious of photographers.
The Mavic 2 Pro is also great for photographers who don’t want something as bulky as the Inspire 2 but still demand incredible image quality. It folds up into the size of a water bottle, so it won’t take up much extra space in your camera bag or be a big burden if you’re bringing it out on a shoot.
The Mavic 2 Pro has a three-axis gimbal with a Hasselblad camera (which you won’t find on our top pick for most people, the Air 2S) and 1-inch CMOS sensor and F\2.8 EQV 28mm lens, capable of capturing 4K video and 12MP images. It also includes the DJI OcuSync transmission system with a transmission of 1080p and a maximum range of up to five miles. We also like this one over our top pic, the Air 2S for pros because the Air 2S shows cropping at higher frame rates (that’s because the Air 2S’s full one-inch sensor is not used in the 4K 60fps mode).
This drone also allows you many more capabilities in terms of adjusting settings. For example, you cannot adjust the aperture on the Air 2S.
One note: for videographers, we do still recommend the lower cost Air 2S over the Mavic 2 Pro, given that its maximum video resolution is 5.4K (versus 4K on the Mavic 2 Pro) and it’s 4K video bit rate is higher at 150Mbps versus 100Mbps on the Mavic 2 Pro).
The Mavic 2 Pro also has a sister drone, the Mavic 2 Zoom, which utilizes a two-time optical zoom camera with a 12 MP 1/2.3” CMOS Sensor.
Flight time: 31 minutes
The best drone for pro photographers who need a sturdier drone or the ability to broadcast live: DJI Inspire 2
The DJI Inspire 2 has an image processing system records at up to 5.2K in CinemaDNG RAW, Apple ProRes and more. This drone also has obstacle avoidance on two sides for safety.
It is also an ideal drone for live broadcasters, because the drone’s video can be broadcast live using its dedicated 1080i50 and 720p60 transmission signal, simply by plugging the remote controller to the satellite truck.
Flight time: 27 minutes with dual-battery system
Drone photography FAQs
Even if you’re a photo pro, there are a number of terms and concepts specific to drone photography that you should know.
What is a gimbal? A gimbal is crucial to keeping your aerial footage silky and steady. Without a gimbal, your videos will look shaky and every tiny movement will appear jarring to the viewer. If your drone doesn’t have a gimbal, don’t buy it.
What’s considered “good” flight time or long battery life? This might not be the answer you want to read, but here it is: “it doesn’t matter.” Given LiPo battery technology and how far it can be pushed (ahem, Samsung exploding phones) don’t expect a photography drone to fly longer than 30 minutes. Though, one drone in this guide, the Mavic 2 does have an impressive max flight time of 31 minutes. Instead, just buy some spare batteries!
Do I need to register my drone? Yes! Learn more about drone registration in our Getting Started Guide here.
Do I need a license to fly? Maybe. If you’re flying commercially, you definitely do. If you’re just flying for fun, you probably don’t need a license. Find out more about how you can get your drone pilot’s license from the FAA here.