If you’ve ever used a drone, you know: It’s so much fun. If you haven’t used one, either because of lack of opportunity or abundance of disinterest, just give it a shot. The latest drones are much easier to pilot and they’re less bulky compared to the earlier versions. Plus, you can find a good one for not too much money. We tapped a collection of experts to help you cut through the clutter and find the best drone to meet your needs.
But first: Before buying a drone, be sure that you know the requirements, and potential restrictions, involved. “You must register your drone with the FAA if you’re going to be operating it in the USA and it weighs more than 250 grams — about a stick of butter,” says Josh Ziering, founder of Kittyhawk, a drone companion app that tells you if your airspace is permissible to fly in. “The next-most-important thing is knowing whether or not you can legally fly in a certain area,” says Sally French, a drone expert and the creator of TheDroneGirl.com. “Property owners can set their own rules, so it’s perfectly valid for, say, a college campus to ban drone flights,” she says. “Operating a drone responsibly also means having situational awareness. For example, you can’t ever fly in certain areas — like Washington, D.C. — or if there is a ‘temporary flight restriction,’” Ziering says.
The less expensive drones are more portable but lack advanced features, which makes them harder to fly. But that’s okay, because beginners will want to take these drones out to practice their piloting ability. Another big trade-off for smaller drones is their weaker battery, so don’t expect to go on longer excursions. If you spend a little more money, expect features like GPS, longer battery life, better photo and video capability, and flight stabilization. This makes it much easier to fly,” Ziering says. “A drone without flight stabilization is like driving a stick-shift car while juggling.”
Here are our experts favorite picks.
The best all-around drone
Tyson Wheatley, a commercial travel photographer, is a big fan of the DJI Mavic Air Pro 2. “DJI seems light-years ahead in the consumer-drone market,” he says. “It’s the best overall drone on the market right now — and definitely the one I’d recommend to anyone, amateurs and pros alike.” Wheatley cites improved battery life, easy-to-use controls, onboard memory, preprogrammed flight paths, and unmatched portability as reasons he loves the Mavic Air Pro 2. Plus, “it’s light and small, and it folds down into a shape you can fit into your camera bag along with your other photo gear,” he says.
The best beginner drone
“I recommend you always start by flying something you can afford to lose. You don’t want to fly $1,000 into a pool or tree by accident,” French says. Chris Fenton, Technical Director and Pilot at Octovision Media, recommends the Ryze Tello. “The Tello has all the components for beginners: easy to fly and safe to fly.” Still, he suggests starting inside to let yourself get the hang of things. “It will bounce off a wall with the propeller guards on without issue and can even be programmed to fly autonomously by coding,” he says. And in case you decide to try your hand at drone photography, the camera shoots 12-megapixel photos, which isn’t enough for a serious photographer, but it should be good for a beginner. French also points out that, although Tello is made by Ryze, it was created in partnership with DJI. “DJI is far and away the market leader in drones. So getting DJI tech for less than $100 via the Tello is a win,”she says.
The best portable drone
“The next step up from the Tello is the Mavic Mini,” French says. “I LOVE this drone.” It has a higher price tag, but you get superior video quality, and it includes DJI’s automatic flight modes. “They have goofy names, but they’re useful: For a mode called Dronie, the drone flies backward and upward, with the camera tracking you, à la a selfie,” she says. “No matter how good of a pilot you are, those flight modes are almost always going to be precise — getting you that perfect circle or evenly straight line.” Brooke Holm, a photographer, also recommended the Mavic series. “They fold up quite small, so they are the most portable option, and the video quality is great,” Holm says. “DJI drones come with built-in safeguards (like obstacle sensors) that are mostly fool-proof, so for beginners, this is extremely helpful.”
The DJI Spark is even smaller than the Mavic Mini. According to Patrick Gavin, a Minneapolis-based journalist and filmmaker, “drone flying is akin to that oft-quoted axiom about photography: ‘The best camera is the one you have on you.’ You can have the nicest drone in the world, but if you don’t actually have it on you, because, say, it’s too big to fit in a backpack or it’s just too much of a pain in the butt, you’re going to miss shot after shot.”
The best photography drone
“Nowadays, safe flying comes together with high-quality photography,” says Karolis Janulis, a drone photographer. “The Mavic Air 2 is small and easy to transport, offers 48-megapixel photos, which gives you the possibility for larger cropping, and it is easy and safe to fly,” he says. It can also shoot 4K video and has a battery life of 34 minutes. According to French, the Air also has many more improved features, including rear- and front-facing obstacle-avoidance sensors, “which can be useful in cutting down on crash potential.”
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