Master aerial photography: 5 drone choices for all levels

Forget selfies. Aerial photography and cinematography is now amazingly accessible. Here are the tools you need to get stunning shots.

Done right, UAV photography and videography can be enchanting, jarring our perspective and opening the world up in new scales and dimensions. The barrier to entry is incredibly low, but with so many choices it's difficult to know what to buy for your needs.

We asked aerial shooting specialist Philip Lima to weigh in with his choices. Here they are below, along with some suggestions of our own.

And if you want to shoot like a pro, check out Lima's tips for excellent aerial photography and videography:

The entry level shooter

You're new to drones or new to photography. Either way you want to get in the air and take some great looking photos or video in a portable, easy-to-use package.


Philip recommends the DJI Phantom 3 series.

"I have the Pro version, because I've had everything, and I still use it. I've taken it mountain biking and the footage I get is absolutely beautiful. It doesn't do what the highest end systems can, but it's pretty amazing."

The Pro version is pricier at $1000, but the Phantom 3 Standard will set you back just under $500, and you get a lot of intelligence and a nice camera package for the price.

It's particularly suited to beginners. Built-in GPS records the Phantom's takeoff point and remembers it as you fly. If the control signal is ever lost, the Phantom returns home instantly, adding a layer of security and a workaround to the dreaded flyaway.

The Phantom 3 is fabulously stable and can fly for 25 minutes on a single charge.

The built in camera is more than respectable, shooting 2.7K video at 30 frames per second and a maximum of 40 Mbps. Or record in full 1080p HD at a variety of frame rates.

For still shooting, the Phantom 3 shoots 12 megapixel JPEG files or DNG RAW with a 1/2.3" sensor, a 20mm equivalent f/2.8 prime lens, and a preset focus optimized for aerial images. That means you pay attention to shot setup and not worry so much about your depth of field.

The intermediate shooter

Philip Lima

It's DJI's world, we just fly in it. If you want some truly professional photos or video without going (totally) broke, the Philip recommends flying the DJI Inspire with the X5 camera payload.

The X5 series of cameras has brought all the power of the mirrorless revolution in digital photography to drones. It uses a micro 4/3 system, which was originally developed by Olympus and Panasonic and for which there are SO many amazing lenses.

The stats for the entry level X5, which is going for $1699 without a kit lens, are impressive:

  • 4K video at up to 30fps
  • Record at 4096×2160 (24fps) or1920x1080 (60fps)
  • 16MP photographs
  • 12.8 stops of dynamic range

The X5R is a step up in performance, but also cost at $3199.

  • Lossless cinema 4K RAW video
  • Record at 4096x2160 (24fps) or 1920x1080 (60fps)
  • Average 1.7 Gbps bitrate (2.4Gbps maximum)
  • Removable 512GB SSD
  • 16MP photographs
  • 12.8 stops of dynamic range

Of course you'll need a drone to fly it. Philip is a fan of DJI's Inspire series, which will give that sweet X5 payload an easy lift. You can find an Inspire Pro and X5 package for $5049.

Hollywood, baby

What does Philip Lima shoot with? Not surprisingly, the two systems already mentioned are in his tool bag and get used all the time. But to squeeze everything he's got out of a shoot, he uses two top-of-the-line systems.

The first is the CineStar-8, a heavy lift quadcopter from FreeFly, which cut its teeth making insanely steady handheld rigs for videographers.

Philip Lima
Philip Lima

At $7,415, this is not a hobbyist UAV. You can nerd out on the specs here, but the most important thing this baby does is hoist what is without doubt the best camera for professional aerial videography: The Epic Red. Capable of 5K resolution, different Epic packages can cost north of $50,000.

For a more modest professional debut, Philip recommends the DJI S1000 octocopter flying either 5D Mark III or a GH4 from Panasonic. Both cameras are popular with budget filmmakers and professional photographers.

The DJI S1000 starts at $1900.

The hacker

Why buy when you can make? Check out our build notes for the DIY $200 drone.



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