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The 4 best photography drones: Capture stunning aerial footage

What is the best photography drone? ZDNet chose the DJI Mavic 3. But we've put together a lineup of aerial hardware stacks to fit a variety of enterprise photography and video use cases.
greg-nichols
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer on
Reviewed by Allison Murray

Photography and cinema drive the drone industry in both the professional and prosumer markets. Increasingly the line between the two is blurring, with prosumer and sub-$4,000 drones delivering commercial-level quality and advanced flying features that just a few years ago were exclusive to the highest-end equipment.

It can be daunting wading into the deep roster of drones designed for enterprise photography and video. Sure, DJI, long the market leader, makes some truly fantastic devices, but before you buy the first Mavic you come across for your business photography needs, take a moment to appreciate the nuanced diversity of UAV hardware out there and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current offerings across a variety of applications and budgets. 

To help, we reached out to video and photography professionals to hear what they had to say. Here are our top picks for enterprise photography and cinema drones, along with some advice on deciding which photography drone is right for businesses of all sizes.

dji-mavic-3-featured4-1300x750.jpg
DJI

Features: 46-minute flight time | 24mm-equivalent lightweight lens | 5.1K/50fps or 4K/120fps videos

The DJI Mavic Air 3 is a robust, powerful quadcopter, which is why it is our best overall pick. The new version builds on the strong legacy that's made the Mavic lineup such a success.

Compared to its Mavic 2 predecessor, the new version has improved imaging performance, thanks to its 4/3 CMOS Hasselblad camera and 24mm-equivalent lightweight lens. It can record up to 5.1K/50fps or 4K/120fps videos and supports Apple ProRes 422 HQ encoding, offering better image quality and greater flexibility during post-processing.

It's also a pretty amazing flying machine. In fact, the flight experience got a big upgrade, starting with an impressive 46-minute flight time. The Mavic 3 has omnidirectional obstacle sensing and supports the upgraded APAS 5.0 and Advanced RTH, letting creators enjoy safe flight with peace of mind.

While it's not a professional rig (e.g., the camera system is fixed and the four rotors can't compare to a pro rig's six-rotor stability) this drone represents the top of the line in the consumer department for a surprisingly affordable price.

Pros: 

  • Supports Apple ProRes 422 HQ encoding
  • Robust and powerful

Cons:

  • Not a professional rig
best-photography-drone-dji-inspire-2-review.jpg

Features: 1-inch sensor, 20MP sensor | dedicated FPV camera | 16 pounds

If any single UAV platform was responsible for changing the landscape of aerial filmmaking, it was DJI's Inspire 1. The newest addition to the Inspire lineup, the Inspire 2, was made with filmmaking squarely in mind and builds on the Inspire 1's well-earned legacy.

Among the knockout features, the Inspire 2 uses a dedicated FPV camera to give the operator a personal feed, leaving him or her free to operate the cinema camera independently. That essentially turns Inspire 2 into an untethered Steadicam that's just as good at keeping pace with a couple of people walking down the hall as it is at getting a swooping aerial of a runaway speedboat in Florida's emerald waters.

The base Inspire 2 model features a 1-inch sensor, 20MP sensor on the Zenmuse X4S gimbaled camera. It's a very capable platform, and in reach of film student solo filmmakers at under $4,000. A Pro version ups the specs (and the price, to the tune of $11,000) with an M4/3 sensor that shoots 20.8 MP photos and Apple ProRes video at up to 5.2K. A Cinema Premium version improves camera payload even more with the Zenmuse X7, which has an S35 image sensor offering 6K CinemaDNG RAW and a wide dynamic range of up to 14 stops. That package runs north of $20,000 and is used on some of the world's biggest shoots.

Pros: 

  • Personal feed 
  • Intelligent flight modes 

Cons: 

  • Expensive, and Pro and Premium versions increase costs as well
best-photography-drone-skydio-2-review.jpg

Features: Up to 27-minute flight time | 4K60 HDR video and 12.3MP HDR photos | True 360-degree coverage

I'm not quite sure how they've done it, but the team at Skydio has managed to pack an incredible sensor and AI package into a platform that retails for just over $1,000. Aimed at the prosumer, this one shouldn't be overlooked for enterprise use, particularly in situations where you need an intelligent follow-along photography drone that tracks a beacon (the drone is also fully flyable via a game controller). 

In follow mode, the drone tracks the pocketable beacon and uses a combination of GPS, AI, and user inputs to plan a cinematic path that keeps the lens trained on the moving target. In some impressive test footage, the drone can duck around trees in dense woods to follow an ATV rider, a task that some more expensive systems simply aren't capable of. The drone fits in a small case that belies the effectiveness of its sensor package, which offers stunning 4K60 HDR video and 12.3MP HDR photos. The drone also has six 4K navigation cameras, totaling a whopping 45 megapixels. 

The Skydio 2+ uses a super-fast NVIDIA Tegra X2 SOC with 256GPU cores capable of 1.3 trillion operations a second. The company calls its hardware a "flying supercomputer."

Pros: 

  • Five kit options based on your needs 
  • Great price for a drone packed full of features 

Cons: 

  • Kit options rack up cost
autel-evo-ii-pro-6k-folding-drone-01.jpg
Autel

Features: 19 groups of sensors | 40-minute flight time | 6K camera

This stunningly capable, image- and cinema-focused drone is a great alternative to DJI products. Like the Skydio, the Evo II Pro can track your location and speed of targets simultaneously, predict their trajectory accurately, and track them continuously. It's a foldable, nimble platform, especially considering the sensors it has onboard.

With the Evo II Pro's 19 groups of sensors, including 12 visual sensors, the main camera, ultrasound, IMUs and other sensors that enable the building of three-dimensional maps and path planning in real time, it is clear that image is at the center of what this drone does so well. Supporting video resolutions up to 6K with greater dynamic range and stronger noise reduction, the EVO II Pro uses Sony's latest generation of supersensitive CMOS sensors to achieve impressive low-light photographs. With adjustable ISO and aperture settings, this is a photographer's dream with some unexpected tricks, including hyper-lapse photography in 6K and supported 4K HDR recording in rich detail.

With a fly time of 40 minutes reaching speeds of 45mph, this nimble, stowable unit is a great travel companion and an ideal tool for action photography.

Pros: 

  • 6K camera delivers stunning pictures and detailed 120fps videos
  • Tons of sensors for great quality photos and videos 

Cons: 

  • Remote doesn't provide as precise control as other options

What is the best drone for photography?

Our pick for the best photography drone is the DJI Mavic 3, since it's a robust, powerful quadcopter. However, any of the options on this list are quality photography drones; it just depends on what you want/need and what features are a priority for you. 

Photography drone

Price

Features

DJI Mavic 3

$2,049

  • 46-minute flight time
  • 24mm-equivalent lightweight lens
  • 5.1K/50fps or 4K/120fps videos

DJI Inspire 2

$3,189

  • 1-inch sensor, 20MP sensor
  • Dedicated FPV camera
  • 16 pounds

Skydio 2+

$1,099

  • Up to 27-minute flight time 
  • 4K60 HDR video and 12.3MP HDR photos 
  • True 360-degree coverage

Autel Evo II Pro

$1,799

  • 19 groups of sensors
  • 40-minute fly time 
  • 6K camera

Which photography drone is right for you?

While top-end drones do come with feature sets and stacks that some professionals require, many enterprises might do just fine with a prosumer or even consumer model. Benchmarks like payload size are top-line indicators in guiding selection, but beyond that, it will surprise many enterprise customers just how feature-rich the technology and controls stack is for drones that cost less than $5,000, and in some cases less than $1,000.

The good news here is that you do have options at every price point, and they're pretty fantastic. Drones are fantastic enterprise tools across a variety of applications. The photography products they produce are stunning, and they're gratifying tools to work with if treated with care. 

Choose this photography drone...

If you want...

DJI Mavic 3

The best overall option

DJI Inspire 2

A versatile tool for filmmakers 

Skydio 2+

A drone for action sports photography

Autel Evo II Pro

A portable size drone

How did we choose these photography drones?

Our methodology involved a mix of hands-on reviews and detailed discussions with video and photography professionals. We tried to take a broad sampling of the drones available, and this list represents a mix of price points, use cases, and capabilities. 

What features should you look for in a photography drone?

The first thing to consider should always be intended use, and if that happens to be capturing pristine video and stills, you'll want to pay attention to more than the camera. The fact is, every camera system on this list is lightyears ahead of the technology we were raving about five years ago -- you really can't go wrong. But that's not the end of the story when it comes to professional photography and video. The onboard image processor and baked-in file transfer and storage tools can make or break assets in a workflow. DJI's Inspire 2 can transfer images at up to 1,000Mbps, which can be a deadline-saving feature in a tight turnaround.

Also consider where the drone will be flying and, crucially, in what conditions. Every drone manufacturer raves about ruggedness, but if you happen to be doing jobs in dirty, wet conditions, keep an eye out for real weather and dust resistance, which DJI excels at, and for superlative hardware like the Alta 8.

Then again, if your jobs happen to require run-and-gun style shooting or, say, keeping pace with a mountain biker, your priorities are going to shift to smaller, nimbler models that prioritize autonomous flight via follow modes. One great example is the Skydio 2+.

Is drone photography in demand?

Yes. Drone photography is in high demand globally. More photographers are buying a drone and getting their FAA certification, and they're adding aerial photography to their list of skills.

Is drone photography legal?

Flying a drone is legal in the US, but it's in your best interest to research the local drone laws before traveling to another country. You should always be compliant with drone regulations before operating a drone.

A presidential bill signed in 2017 requires recreational drone pilots in the US to register their drones here with the FAA if it weighs between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds. Commercial pilots must follow a different set of FAA regulations. If you plan to sell media captured with your drone, or if you are paid to fly a drone, you are a commercial pilot.

You only need permission to fly a recreational drone in the US if you plan to use it in restricted airspace. The FAA recommends that you check and follow all local ordinances before flying over private property.

Do I need a license for drone photography?

Like we mentioned above, there are different rules for different drone uses. If you're just flying a drone for fun, you don't need to have any sort of special permit or license to use it. But if you plan to use it for real estate or wedding photography or other commercial situations, you'll need to apply for a Remote Pilot Certificate (also known as a Part 107 license). You'll have to renew your certification every two years if you plan to continue to use a drone for commercial photography and video.

What drone is best for wedding photography?

That would be my pick for the best portable drone, the Autel Evo II Pro. It features a smaller, portable design that's better for taking it with you to different venues for ceremonies, cocktail hours, and receptions. With a fly time of 40 minutes, it can capture overhead photos and videos of key moments, and the 6K image resolution lets you capture incredible details.

Are there alternative photography drones to consider?

Here are a few other options to look into:

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