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.
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 for professional photographers: DJI Mavic 3
At less than $1,000, the DJI Air2S is certainly great for hobby pilots. But if you’re a serious photographer — and are willing to plunk down some serious cash — then DJI has another drone that is far and away more advanced. Though, the price tag is bigger too. The wow-worthy DJI Mavic 3 is easily the best drone for professional photographers, but it starts at $2,199. The even-more advanced Cine Premium Combo will run you $4,999.
So why is the DJI Mavic 3, which launched in November 2021, so great? While it’s tough to narrow down the best, most pilots agree the top three specs are 1. a dual-camera system featuring Hasselblad, 2. an incredible 46-minute battery life, and 3. improved sense and avoid tech that makes this drone nearly crashproof.
The Mavic 2 Pro has a three-axis gimbal with both a custom Hasselblad L2D-20c aerial camera and a 28x Hybrid Zoom Tele Camera. The 4/3 CMOS Hasselblad camera uses a 24mm prime lens and offers higher dynamic range and resolution. The Zoom camera has a 162mm long-focus lens.
More serious photographers or videographers who demand the highest-quality video might consider the Mavic 3 Cine Combo. The $4,999 comes with a few extra accessories, including the improved DJI RC Pro. But the real reason to spring for it is the higher-quality video, which offers Apple ProRes 422 HQ encoding for richer video processing, with an internal 1TB SSD onboard for high-speed data storage.
Flight time: 46 minutes
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
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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.
The Skydio 2’s omnidirectional obstacle avoidance capabilities are matched only by one other consumer drone on the market, the DJI Mavic 3. That’s also an excellent pick for action sports photographers, save for one reason: price. While the Skydio 2 goes for $999, the Mavic 3 starts at a hefty $2,199. If you’re purely filming action sports (and don’t need as high a quality of camera and wouldn’t use the zoom camera), then the Skydio 2 probably delivers more value for your dollar.
Price: $999 (available only directly from Skydio).
Flight time: 23 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 full Part 107 certificate. Find out more about how you can get your drone pilot’s license from the FAA here. However, all pilots flying drones that weigh 250 grams or more must either fly under Part 107 (and have said license) or pass the FAA recreational drone test (referred to as TRUST).