Drone Photography Buying Guide

What are the Most Important Features to Look For?

By: Scott Wilkinson

Whether you are an experienced photographer or an aspiring Instagram influencer, adding aerial photography and video to your toolbox can give your work a serious boost, not to mention how fun they can be to fly.

So, what exactly is the best drone? It depends on what you plan to do with it.

What You Plan on Using the Drone For Matters.

Just like any photography equipment, how you plan to use a drone is very important in answering the question, “which is the best drone?” Everyone can agree that the Canon 1DX III is a great camera, but is it the best? Well, if you are doing street photography, maybe you want something a bit more discreet. The situation, to some extent, determines which camera is best.

Same goes for drones.

Are you planning on using it for travel photography? You may want a smaller drone that fits in a carry-on bag. Are you planning on using video as well as photos? Find one with a gimbal.

Though it isn’t possible to say definitively which is the best drone for everyone, I can explain some of the major features and how they can affect performance in a variety of situations and help you pick the drone that works best for you.

Image Quality Is Key to Picking the Right Drone (Obviously)

Image quality is one of the main factors to focus on when choosing the best drone for photography. While there are drones that allow you to mount a full-sized DSLR camera, for this article, I’m going to focus on drones with integrated camera systems.

Most prosumer and entry-level professional drones have cameras with fixed lenses and sensors slightly larger than those found on smartphones.

For example, the iPhone uses a sensor that is 1/3 inch [17mm2]. Compare this to drones from DJI, such as the Mavic Pro, Phantom 4, and Spark, which use a 1/2.3 inch [28mm2] sensor, and the Phantom 4 Advanced or Pro models which have a 1.0 inch [116mm2] sensor. Compare this to a full-frame sensor which has an area of 864mm2, and you can get an idea of the types of sensors available.

Though most drones have sensors substantially smaller than full-frame DSLR cameras, they are more than capable of delivering exceptional photographs in conditions with sufficient lighting.

For more advanced photographers, especially if you use professional editing software such as Lightroom, you will also want to choose a drone that shoots in a raw format, for example, the DNG format used in DJI drones—just like with a DSLR, shooting in raw format with a drone gives you extra control over the editing process and can allow you to pull more out of photos shot in lower lighting.

Should You Go for The Full 4K Video?

4k video or 1080p? 24fps or 60fps? Again, it all depends on what you plan on using the drone for.

For most video, 24fps will provide smooth footage, especially for static shots or flyovers made with a straight flight path. If you plan on using slow motion or action shots with lots of twists and turns, you may want something closer to 60fps.

As far as resolution, I always prefer 4k, but probably not for the reason you think. 90% of the work I upload is in 1080p or below. But, I like to use 4k because it allows me to crop, “zoom,” and edit to my heart’s desire and export to a full 1080p video.

If you don’t plan on doing a lot of post-production, 1080p is probably more than enough.

Does the Drone Hover in Place and Make Smooth Movements?

Blurry subjects can make or break a great photo or video, which is why it is essential to have a drone that can fly smoothly and hover in place steadily.

Having a gimbal can help somewhat, but nothing is going to save a photograph if the drone is continuously rocking back and forth in flight. Same goes for videos. We all want our videos to be silky smooth. It’s hard to make these shots if the drone is jerking when you try to make a turn or if it is wobbling while performing a flyover.

In my experience, DJI has, by far, the best flight control system for ensuring smooth flying and stationary hovering.

Size Is A Big Factor When Buying A Drone.

As a travel lover and avid photographer, I always want to bring my newest toys tools with me whenever I travel, and I always have to consider size when making a decision on which gear to buy. Drones are no different.

Smaller drones are going to be a better choice if you plan to take your drone on vacation and are only able to take one or two suitcases. But smaller isn’t always better.

Many higher-end drones are quite large and weigh several pounds. While these wont be fitting into the overhead compartment on your next flight, they do offer some distinct advantages over their smaller counterparts. Larger drones are able to carry larger cameras, meaning larger sensors and better low-light performance, as well as larger batteries, which provides longer flight times. Heavier drones also have a leg up when it comes to stability in less-than-ideal flying conditions and are much easier to maneuver when flying in the wind.

One last thing to consider is the weight. In the US, any drone that weighs 250 grams or more must be registered with the authorities. So, it is no coincidence that mini-drones such as DJI’s Mavic Mini come in at a very light 249 grams.

Flight Time Isn’t as Important as You Think.

Many drones, even professional ones, have limited flight times. Typically drones have a flight time of 15 to 30 minutes on a single charge. And, while that may not seem like a lot, I have found that flight time is not as important as I thought.

What is important is having extra batteries. Think of it like this: Even if you are creating videos with your drone, rarely will you ever need a single shot that lasts longer than a few minutes. You are more likely to send the drone up several times to take several different shots. Simply replace the battery when it gets low and voila.

Many drone companies offer special accessory packages, like the DJI Fly More Combo, which include multiple additional batteries for a discounted price.

Special Features May Tip the Balance.

So, you’ve gotten this far. You know everything there is to know about picking the best drone for your needs, right? Well, not exactly. The devil, as they say, is in the details. Maybe after reviewing the specs of several drones, multiple models tick all of the boxes on your wish list of size, image quality, and price. But don’t forget to look at the extras that each drone offers

Basic drones may have decent cameras but lack subject tracking capabilities, making it difficult to capture moving targets. If you are taking selfies, you may want to find a drone that offers hand gesture controls rather than using a videogame-style controller.

There are drones that us AI to lock on to a subject and follow them throughout the duration of a shot; there are drones that include dozens of sensors to avoid crashing or flying too far from the pilot; there are even drones that have unique controls for racing and performing tricks such as barrel rolls and flips.

By looking not only at the image quality but also the quality-of-life features, you should be able to pick the perfect drone that fits your unique needs.

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