Lead camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H... See Full Bio
It is important to understand the warning about wind because wind is the most likely cause of serious problems with these drones. The drones in this category do not fly well in the wind because their motors are not strong enough. It is easy to lose them in the wind, so do yourself a favor and do not attempt to fly them, especially up high, if there is even the slightest wind outside. It would be better to fly them indoors if it is a windy day.
The Altair Aerial Outlaw Drone is one of the best GPS drones around and the absolute best that you can find for under $300. Thanks to the stabilization features in GPS flight mode, this drone will keep itself hovering in midair at whatever place you choose for it to go, making it easy to line up the perfect shot for your photo or video camera. It also has a 1000 meter flight range and a flight time of nearly 20 minutes, which is great for aerial photographers who need time for a longer shoot. If you want high definition, pro-quality photography at a price that won’t break the bank, the Outlaw is the choice for you!
This is the drone you start with if you're worried about crashing. Thanks to flexible plastic and propellor protectors, you could drop this on the ground or fly into a wall without too much damage. It has a camera if you are just getting into drone photography, but we prefer this model as a starter quadcopter. Beware: when it has low battery, the drone tends to lose connection with the controller. This could become tragic if you've flown the drone over water.
The main thing that you will need is a relatively new IOS or android device. Usually you can use any iPad or iPhone made in the last 3 years. However, some drones don’t have controllers that were designed to hold tablets, so keep that in mind. If you’re buying the bugs 3, you won’t need a smartphone since it doesn’t have a built-in camera that you can control. All of the drones in this list come with batteries, chargers, controllers (if needed), extra propellers, and anything else you might need to go for your first flight.
There is such a wealth of options in this rapidly growing field that we wanted to share a couple more drones that we like. The first is the Holy Stone HS170 Predator Mini RC Quadcopter. This UAV offers a great feature set at an economical price, and its fast charge time (under an hour) will have you back in the air in a hurry. The Force1 U45WF Quadcopter offers features rarely seen at this price point, such as a custom route mode that allows you to trace out a path on the screen that the drone then follows. We also love that this drone ships with three batteries to greatly extend your flying time.
To gauge flight performance, we put the drone through a number of tests to see how the manufacturer’s claims hold up. First we take it to a local football field and see how fast it can clear 100 yards, then do some calculations to get an objective reading on speed in miles per hour. After that, we do a similar test to assess ascent and descent speeds, and all the while, we’re also taking notes on how responsive the controls are, how stable the craft is, how far it can go before it’s out of range, and what the overall piloting experience is like compared to other drones.
The other primary consideration is how the photos and video are stored after you take them. Drones with WiFi capabilities will work with your mobile device, letting you see and store media real-time on your phone. For those that don’t, you’ll store the media on the drone, usually on a microSD card. If this is the case, know how much storage the drone comes with and whether (and by how much) it can be upgraded.
While DJI may be the first name you think of when it comes to drones, it isn't the only game in town. You can also look at models from Autel Robotics, Parrot, PowerVision, and Yuneec. Others have dabbled in the consumer drone space and exited quickly—GoPro pulled its Karma after a rocky launch and poor sales, and 3D Robotics tried to get in with the Solo, but also gave up the fight to focus on the industrial and enterprise spaces.
If you’re looking for quality, the Inspire 2 is the best camera drone you can buy that comes ready to fly out of the box. The next best option is the Phantom 4 Pro and after that, the Mavic Pro. If you’re concerned about video quality, just pick one of the three drones mentioned above (which ever one matches your price point) and you’ll be more than satisfied. There are really no other drones that come close to what these three can do. Some people who shoot videos for a living will buy the Mavic Pro, Phantom 4 Pro, and the Inspire 2, because each of them can be useful for different situations.
With headless mode, you don’t need to worry which way the drone is facing because your controller is the basis for the drone’s orientation. In other words, whichever way the controller is pointing is the way the drone is pointing. This will help you master all aspects of drone flight, and as such it is one of the top features that beginners should consider.
If you are a beginner just learning to fly with these cheaper drones, take your time to learn the controls by flying in a safe area that is a wide open space, with no wind, and no obstacles. At first, fly low to the ground until you can maneuver your drone correctly. Practice flying on a single battery charge and then let the drone cool down for ten minutes before flying more.