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The best drones: Which flying camera is right for you?

If you're an aspiring aerial photographer or videographer, you need a top-notch drone. But which is the best? Here are the top 4 compared. And yes, they just so happen to be all from one company: DJI.

Drones are amazing. I can go buy a flying, stabilized 4K camera that slips into my pocket for a few hundred dollars. This is a technology that was the stuff of dreams a few years ago. But now, thanks to companies such as DJI and Autel, dreams have become reality. 

Here are the best drones to help make your dreams come true, chosen based on research and personal experience. I'm a licensed and insured drone operator who has put in many dozens of hours flying these drones for testing, work, and fun.

Features

  • Twin camera: 24-mm wide angle and 162-mm telephoto
  • Max 5.1K @ 50fps recording
  • 20-megapixel camera
  • Omnidirectional obstacle avoidance sensors
  • 46 minutes maximum rated flight time

This is DJI's flagship consumer/prosumer drone. It's big, it's mean, it's noisy, it has two cameras, and is the perfect drone to get the job done. If the conditions will let you fly a drone, the Mavic 3 will deliver.

The main wide angle camera is one of the best that I've used on a drone, capable o capturing stunning photos and video. The telephoto camera -- which DJI refers to as "explorer mode" -- takes some getting used to, and while the quality is not the same as the main camera, it does allow for some interesting and very unique shots.

If you're looking for the best drone, look no further.

Read the review: DJI Mavic 3 review

Pros

  • Fantastic camera system
  • Powerful drone that is stable in high winds
  • Great battery life (even if it isn't as good as advertised)

Cons

  • Expensive
  • A big drone that's not pocketable
  • Required the RC Pro controller for the best experience

Features

  • Max Flight Time: 38 mins with Intelligent Flight Battery/51 mins with Intelligent Flight Battery Plus (sold separately)
  • Max Wind Speed Resistance: 10.7 m/s (Level 5)
  • Image Sensor: 1/1.3-inch CMOS, 12-megapixels
  • Lens: 82.1° field of view, 24 mm equivalent, f/1.7
  • Photo Format: JPEG/DNG (RAW)
  • Max Video Resolution: 4K (3840×2160)@24/25/30 fps
  • Sensors: Downward-facing

The DJI Mini 3 is a flying, stabilized 4K/12-megapixel camera with a theoretical range of 10km (way beyond what you should ever take it), and a rated flight time of 38 minutes with the included battery.

The standard kit comes with the DJI RC-N1 controller with no screen (you use your smartphone), but there's an option to upgrade to the DJI RC controller that has a built-in display that adds $140 to the price.

There's also a "Fly More Combo" option that adds two additional 38-min Intelligent Flight Batteries, a two-way charging hub, a shoulder bag, spare propellers, and a few other bits.

Read the review: DJI Mini 2 review

Pros

  • Small and lightweight
  • Competitively priced
  • Amazing camera
  • Easy to fly

Cons

  • Light weight build makes it a poor choice in windy conditions
  • No obstacle avoidance sensors

Features

  • 1-inch 22-mm wide-angle camera
  • Up to 31 minutes flight time
  • Max 5.4K at 30fps video
  • 20-megapixel photos
  • Spec

This is the drone for people who want more than the Mini 2 has to offer, but don't want to buy a Mavic 3. This drone is perfect even for the most demanding high-end consumer. 

For the price, the Mavic Air 2S is superb. You get a flying, stabilized 5.4K camera that can stay in the sky for close to 30 minutes, and capture amazing film footage. 

The only thing this drone is missing is side sensors. That said, with careful flying, that doesn't have to be a problem at all.

Read the review: DJI Air 2S review

Pros

  • Front and read obstacle avoidance sensors
  • Exceptional camera quality
  • Decent flight time

Cons

  • No side obstacle avoidance sensors
  • Quite a large drone, definitely not something that will fit into a pocket
  • Not cheap

Features

  • 1/1.3-inch 24-mm wide angle camera
  • 4K 60fps max video recording
  • 12/48-megapixel images
  • 34-minutes rated flight time
  • Sub-249g weight category

The long-awaited Mini 3 Pro has landed. This is an upgraded version of the Mini 2, with a redesigned chassis, upgraded camera, bigger battery, and the addition of obstacle avoidance sensors.

The sub-250g category is important in some territories because it falls into an area where there are fewer regulation headaches. This is a big deal in places like Europe, less so in places like the US.

That said, the Mini 3 Pro is a very capable drone that you can slip into a pocket and take with you on your adventures. That's not something you could do with a Mavic 3!

Read the review: DJI Mini 3 Pro review

Pros

  • Small and lightweight
  • Excellent 4K camera
  • Really easy to fly

Cons

  • Expensive compared to the Mini 3
  • No side obstacle avoidance sensors
  • Optional DJI RC smart controller adds to the price

What is the best drone?

The DJI Mavic 3 is ZDNet's top choice for its ultra-high definition recording, excellent frame rate, and long-lasting battery. The dual camera array is great for both aerial photography pros and newcomers alike, though the steep flight learning curve may be difficult for some beginners. 

Drone

Price

Obstacle avoidance

Camera resolution

DJI Mavic 3

$2,849

All round sensors

5.1K 

DJI Mini 3 Pro

$721

Front, rear, and downward

4K

DJI Mini 3

$559

None

4K

DJI Mavic Air 2S

$999

Front, rear, and downward

5.4K video

Which is the right drone for you?

Whether you're into aerial photography as a hobby or professional photographer or videographer looking to add something new to your list of services, drones are a great way to expand your skills. To help decide which drone best suits you and your lifestyle, use-case, or what have you, consider the following:

Choose this drone…

If you want…

DJI Mavic 3

The best prosumer/consumer drone available.

DJI Mini 3 Pro

A high-end drone that's super portable, or the best sub-250g drone available.

DJI Mini 3

A budget drone that doesn't compromise on camera quality.

DJI Mavic Air 2S

A highly-capable drone that's more affordable than the Mavic 3.

How did we choose these drones?

I'm a licensed and insured drone operator, and rather than spending a bit of time reviewing these drones, I've put in many dozens of hours flying these drones, both for testing, flying for fun, and for carrying out commercial work. 

I've put these drones through their paces in many countries around the globe, flying them in cold weather, windy weather, and into the mouths of active volcanoes. I know what they are capable of, and I know that these drones will deliver quality photos and video under even the toughest conditions.

As well as testing the camera and flight characteristics, I've spent a lot of time testing the obstacle avoidance sensors. While I don't think that any drone operator should rely on these for day-to-day use, they're a handy safety feature in case things go wrong.

These drones have been tested to the extreme. This is why I've chosen them and am recommending them.

Are drones easy to fly?

Yes! Modern drones are really easy to fly.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a learning curve, and I highly recommend spending time learning to fly -- pick a large wide open area like a park or beach so you can get used to what your drone is capable of delivering.

Are the sensors on drones foolproof?

No. 

While they're good and can do things like avoiding people and trees and stuff like that, they can be fooled by things like branches, power lines, and telephone wires.

Obstacle avoidance sensors are a safety feature, not something that you should rely on all the time. 

Can you fly drones in the rain?

No!

Drones are not rated as waterproof, and rain -- and even fog -- can damage the delicate electronics in the drone. While you'll see videos on YouTube of people flying in rain and snow, I don't recommend it.

Are there alternative drones worth considering?

While DJI is the biggest name in consumer drones, there are other players. Another brand worth keeping an eye on is Autel. I've tested a few of these drones from Autel, and while I've not put as many hours into them as I have with their DJI counterparts, there's one model worth considering. Moreover, here are few other drones worthy of a closer look. 

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