There are different things to consider when choosing the right drone, such as the type of camera, skill level, durability, price and tasks to perform.
For most amateurs and professionals just starting out, a ready-to-fly (RTF) camera drone is by far your best option.
READY TO FLY
The most popular camera drones today either come ready-to-fly (RTF) –with an HD or 4K camera installed– or they can be easily fitted with a 2-axis or 3-axis gimbal capable of carrying a camera of your choice, none as compatible as the GoPro.
BEGINNERS AND FIRST-TIME PILOTS
If you’re willing to settle for less range and less than 4K video quality, then you can get a decent RTF camera drone for about $500. A great choice in this price range is the Phantom 2 and Phantom 3 Standard.
HIGH-LEVEL AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY AND CINEMATOGRAPHY
Complete, ready-to-fly camera drones capable of shooting 4K video usually cost between $1,000-$2,000. Most flying cameras in this price range offer a LOT of features including: flight planning software, a ground station controller with integrated touchscreen, GPS autopilot, advanced trick camera shots, a 3-axis professional gimbal, and a GoPro 3/4 or similar-quality camera. The most popular RTF camera drones in this price range are the Phantom 3 Professional / Advanced, Phantom 4 and 3DR Solo.
What constitutes commercial drone use? If you’re using a drone for personal interest or enjoyment, it falls under consumer use. If you take photographs and use them on your own website or store them on your computer the FAA says that’s fine. The line gets a bit grey with sharing your cinematography elsewhere though. According to the FAA it falls into the category of commercial use if you sell any photos or videos taken by a drone, for example, wedding or concert photography.
It should also be noted that monetizing on any videos or photos uploaded to the internet is considered commercial use of those photos or videos.
Using drones to carry out services, like inspections, farming services, etc. such as mapping land or filming a scene for a movie.
Using drones for other professional services, like security or deliveries.
As of right now, you’re only safe if you’ve been cleared by the FAA.
For more professional demands – for example, if you need to film in Micro Four Thirds or need a drone that allows 2-person operation – prices generally start at around $2,500 and can go much higher. The leading RTF flying camera in this price range is the DJI Inspire 1 ($2,000-$8,000) which offers many different camera packages including a professional-grade Micro Four Thirds camera system.
If you need to fly a heavier camera rig like the RED Epic, then you’ll need to upgrade to a higher-payload multicopter like the Matrice 600 ($4,500), which is capable of carrying 6kg of gear. But heavy-duty flying camera rigs like this cost $6,000-$10,000 after you add a camera and gimbal.
ARE YOU INTENDING TO START A CAREER IN AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY OR VIDEOGRAPHY?
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN BUYING A DRONE
These are the features that matter most when selecting a drone for aerial photography and film making.
If you plan on recording something for upwards of ten minutes, you need to make sure you have a drone capable of staying in the air for that long. The batteries on drones are small to keep their weight down for optimal flight control. This also means many of the batteries only last for ten to thirty minutes. Choosing a drone based on the battery life is important to meet your needs.
Built-in camera drones are the easiest way to enter aerial photography. You get everything you need - a drone with a camera, FPV (first person view), transceiver, ground control app, and batteries, all in one complete package. Examples of built-in camera drones are Phantom 3, Phantom 4 and Mavic Pro.
Many professional photographers and film makers, however, prefer camera drones with pro gimbals that allow for stabilization while filming and can accept many different cameras. The most popular type of third-party camera mounted on flying camera platforms today is the GoPro. It’s hard to go wrong with a GoPro, unless you are a commercial film maker and need super-high-quality images suitable for the big screen.
You can choose from a wide range of drones designed to deliver crisp HD from your GoPro straight to your mobile device, such as the GoPro Karma, 3DR Solo and Phantom 2.
Camera Mount and Gimbal
The quality of your gimbal will make or break the quality of your video image. A camera gimbal takes care of two critical jobs in film making:
The best-quality camera drones like DJI's Phantom 4 are equipped with a high-quality professional 3-axis gimbal to control camera positioning and to provide a stable image in all conditions.
Tip: Avoid fixed camera mounts if image quality is your priority.
There are many different types of flight controllers available today, from the very basic to the most sophisticated. From an intuitive video game-style controller like the one 3DR Solo has to smartphone and tablet controls.
Most drones come with a Remote Control transmitter. RC transmitters provide control of your drone for a much greater distance than a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection. If you are going to use a third-party RC transmitter, make sure you verify that it is compatible with your drone or the matching receiver can be installed in your drone.
Several drone manufactures have created apps that give you advanced positioning, first person video controls, programmable flight routes, and more.
Some drones come with both an RC transmitter controller and a mobile application for viewing you’re the drone’s position using GPS, flight stats like speed, battery life, and fly time.
It's important to ensure that your controller has the following basics covered:
Flight planning & control
If you want to produce a professional quality film or video, then solid pre-flight planning is essential. This can be done with or without software.
The best camera drones for sale like the Phantom 4 include integrated flight planning & control software that lets you visually plan your flight path ahead of time by overlaying waypoints onto a visual map of your flight region.
In general, amateur and semi-pro videographers and photographers should avoid camera drones that do not come equipped with this vital capability.
Advanced Flight Modes
The most popular advanced camera control features in drones are Follow-Me (3PV) and Region of Interest (ROI) camera modes.
Follow-Me makes it easy to take an HD “film selfie” of you enjoying your favorite extreme sport and outdoor activities, without needing a second person to operate the drone. In Follow-Me mode, the drone will follow the operator wherever s/he goes using a location beacon that is typically worn on the wrist or as a pendant.
Region of Interest camera positioning maintains the camera’s focus on a GPS-defined region, rather than a moving person.
ROI mode is useful in building and construction monitoring, event and tourism marketing, real estate marketing and other applications where the center of action is a fixed location.
Using the right drone, a film maker can program a flight path and add a Region of Interest to do a complete sweep of an area or event, all without touching the controls.
Auto return home: GPS locking your drone before you start flying will make it possible for your drone to return home if it loses data connection or flies out of range of your controller.
Object Detention & Collision Avoidance
Enabled by real time object detection, the newest camera drones like the Phantom 4 can literally see objects in their flight path and automatically route a new course around them.
This is a crucial feature in a drone because it reduces the chance you will crash and damage your drone due to unexpected obstacles.
Even better, with intelligent re-routing around objects, you don’t need to worry as much about unseen object like small trees and light poles. Just let your drone take care of it.
A camera drone’s effective range is a function of the quality of the wireless connections used for the radio controller unit, the video streaming channel, and the telemetry channel (if separate from video). The less crowded the frequency band, the more chance you have of flying a long distance and streaming HD video when you arrive.
If you need long-range operation, then make sure your drone & controller use the latest wireless/radio frequencies & technologies approved for drone use, such as 5.4GHz or 5.0 MIMO.
There are two kinds of safety to worry about when operating a camera drone: the safety of the drone and the safety of people it could fall on.
The most important safety features to get in a camera drone include
Most drone buyers today are first-time flyers, and taking great shots from the air is not easy to do. It takes a lot of practice to fly, point and shoot in 4 dimensions (x, y, z and velocity) using a remote camera.
If you don’t want to destroy a few drones ($$$) and cameras ($$) and waste weeks learning how NOT to fly a camera, then I recommend you get trained by experts.
Even if you have a pilot’s license, then I recommend getting trained on the following techniques and topics:
The good news is there are several options today for getting trained, either in person or online.
Starting a career or business with drones
There are many uses for drones these days and you can build a solid business or career around them. These incredible artifacts can perform different jobs in: