Drones have recently become extremely popular among photographers of all types. And for good reason, they are simple and fun to fly, they add a new element to your photography, and they offer a totally unique perspective. They are also relatively inexpensive for what they offer, which is basically a high quality camera and aerial view. To get that same combination without a drone might cost you $300-500 per hour… (hint, hint – helicopters and planes). The popularity of drones has led to many new models being released. Each one is innovative and offers something unique in terms of drone or camera design. It is a great time to be looking for your first drone. Here is my list of the four top drones of 2018. DJI Global dominates the market with great selections, but there are a few alternatives.
- DJI Mavic Pro 2
- Hasselblad 20MP / UHD 4K Gimbal Camera
- 1″ CMOS + f/2.8-f/11 Adjustable Aperture
- 10-Bit Dlog-M + 10-Bit HDR Video
- OcuSync 2.0 Transmission Technology
- Up to 31 Minutes Flight Time
- Omnidirectional Obstacle Sensing
- Hyperlapse Time-Lapse Mode
- Top Speed of 44.7 mph
- Enhanced HDR Photos with 14EV
- Remote Controller Included
The DJI Mavic Pro 2 packs a big punch in a small package. It is quite expensive at $1,499, but the price is well worth the quality of the drone. It measures 3.3 by 3.6 by 8.4 inches folded and 3.3 by 9.5 by 12.7 inches with it arms extended, all while weighing approximately 2 pounds. It packs down to about the size of a standard 70-200mm f/2.8. It also boasts one of the top sensors available in a drone of its size. Most drones have a 1/2.3 in sensor, but the Mavic Pro 2 (along with a few of the DJI Phantom drones) has a 1-inch sensor. The larger sensor allows for 20 megapixel resolution and great 4K video. The main gripe about the Mavic was its comparatively poor image and video quality when stacked up against the Phantom series. Well that has changed with the Mavic Pro. We now get the best of both worlds – an incredibly small drone plus great image and video quality.
- DJI Mavic Air
- Capture 4K Video and 12MP Photos
- 3-Axis Gimbal-Stabilized Camera
- GPS- & Vision Position-Based Navigation
- 8GB of Internal Storage
- FlightAutonomy with Obstacle Detection
- Top Speed of 43 mph in Sport Mode
- ActiveTrack Subject Tracking Modes
- Up to 21 Minutes of Flight Time
- Foldable, Portable Body
Although the DJI Mavic Air is not the most capable drone on the market, it is the smallest drone. So, take note if lightweight and packable are your biggest concerns. It’s under a pound and can fit in your jacket pocket at 1.9 by 3.3 by 6.6 inches folded. That is unbelievable. Weight is a huge concern for many photographers and videographers, and the Mavic Air is a great option for those who might not have space for a Mavic Pro 2 or a Phantom 4. It is also one of the most affordable drones that is still packed with features at $649.00. The small size does take a toll on image and video quality and flight time however. The Mavic Air is equipped with only a 12 megapixel camera, yet still capable of shooting in JPEG and RAW. Amazingly, it is able to record 4K UHD and video quality is fantastic. It’s just not at the level of the Mavic Pro 2. 4K DCI is not supported, DCI is basically 4K, but a little wider. Still, a drone that can shoot quality 4K video and fit in your coat pocket is pretty impressive. You’re also looking at about 18 minutes of flight time. If you can live with the minor shortcomings, then the Mavic Air might be for you. I wouldn’t even call them shortcomings, they are more tradeoffs of manufacturing a drone in such a small size.
- Parrot Anafi
- Capture 4K Video and 21MP HDR Photos
- 3-Axis Sensor-Driven Image Stabilization
- Dual-Band Wi-Fi Antennas in Each Leg
- 180° Tilt Camera Gimbal
- 2.8x Lossless Digital Zoom
- Compact and Foldable Frame
- Lightweight Carbon Fiber Construction
- 16GB microSD Card Included
- 25 Minutes of Flight Time
- Geofence and Smart Return Home Functions
Finally, a new player outside of DJI. Parrot has been releasing some very good drones. The Parrot Anafi is most comparable to the DJI Mavic Air. The Parrot Anafi is a super light drone that packs about as small as a Mavic Air (the Anafi is a little bigger), but at 11.3 oz it is about 4 oz lighter than the Mavic Air. A benefit of the Anafi is that it can be charged via USB so you don’t have to carry around a dedicated power charger for it like you would with the Mavic Air. It offers 21 megapixels, which is really impressive for a drone of this size. Image quality is great, but you will get better with the Phantom 4 or Mavic Pro 2. Mainly because those drones have sensors four times as large, which generally means less noise and more dynamic ranger. But again, the Anafi is really competing with the Mavic Air and not those drones. The Anafi offers things the Mavic Air does not, such as extended gimbal tilt, HDR video, hyperlapse, and USB charging. All in all, there’s no question that the two best lightweight drones on the market right now are the Anafi and Mavic Air.
- DJI Phantom 4 Pro
- 1″ 20MP CMOS Sensor
- Gimbal-Stabilized 4K60 / 20MP Imaging
- Ocusync Transmission
- FlightAutonomy with Redundant Sensors
- Four Directions of Obstacle Avoidance
- Top Speed of 45 mph in Sport Mode
- Maximum Control Range of 4.3 Miles
- Visual Tracking of Moving Subject
- Up to 30 Minutes Flying Time
- Remote Controller Included
About a year ago, if you wanted to best drone features, including top image and video quality, the obvious choice was a Phantom 4 Pro. That is not the case anymore. The Mavic Pro 2 rivals the Phantom 4 Pro in almost every category. The Phantom 4 Pro is just barely cheaper than the Mavic Pro 2 at $1,349. The Phantom 4 Pro is a bulky drone, there is no doubt. It weighs a pound more than the Mavic Pro 2 and it does not fold down well. To me, this is a big talking point because with features and overall quality so close, who wouldn’t take the drone that you can almost fit in your jacket pocket. But, the Phantom Pro 4 does offer fantastic image and video quality. It offers better noise handling than the Mavic Pro 2 and can shoot video in 4K at 60 fps (versus 30 fps for the Mavic Pro 2). The two drones fly very similarly, with about 30 minutes of flight time, a top speed of 45 mph, and obstacle avoidance. If you want to save a little cash and size isn’t an issue for you, the Phantom 4 Pro still remains a great choice. However, you’re going to get slightly better performance in most fields with the Mavic Pro 2 (which is why it’s listed as my #1 drone).
Two considerations with drone photography:
Pay Attention to Rules
Drone photography has exploded and regulations have followed. Those regulations are a good thing. Sure, it is cool to get photos with a really unique perspective and the video you can get is really cinematic. But, drones can be annoying. No one wants to visit a pristine natural area (like a national park) and experience hundreds of drones flying above. Hence, the rules are important and you should pay attention to them. Drones are banned in many areas in the US, such as national parks, and in many international areas. Before flying you should pay close attention to restrictions and abide by them, don’t be ‘that guy’ or ‘gal’.
Take time to Learn
Flying a drone is a lot of fun. Like a lot of fun. It can be difficult though, especially when conditions aren’t ideal and you have to deal with wind and rain. So, you should practice flying your drone. Before taking your drone out on any serious shoot, you should spend time flying it in your backyard. There is a slight learning curve and trust me, it is much better to overcome that curve at home versus when your drone is a few miles out over the ocean. Many people crash and either lose or destroy their $1,000+ drones. Practicing also helps you understand the flight time of your drone, obstacle avoidance, and tracking.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.
Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.
As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.
You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)