The 10 Best Drones For Photographers
Take Your Photos Higher
Whether your goal is to capture still photographs or stunning video, the drones on our list provide you with range, altitude, and an interface that keeps you in control of the camera as well as its flight path.
Most of the drones on this list are quadcopters, which are flying machines powered and propelled by four rotary blades situated parallel to the horizon. Two of these rotors move clockwise, and the other two move counterclockwise. If all the blades spin at the same velocity, they create a force against the air beneath the body of the quadcopter, causing it to rise. With a decrease in power, the copter can hover or decrease its altitude.
By increasing the power to the two blades moving clockwise, or to the two blades moving counterclockwise, you will spin the copter along its Y axis, or yaw, without affecting its angle of flight. By increasing the power to only one of the clockwise rotors and decreasing the power to its clockwise partner (and vise versa with the counterclockwise rotors), you can affect the copter's pitch, providing a tilted, momentous turn. Increase the power to any of the two rotors next to each other, and the copter will move in the direction opposite them.
There are other possible rotor combinations that allow you to achieve more advanced maneuvers, but what's important about these copters is that they all have a little mount on their underbellies to hold a camera. Whether that camera is part of the copter package – or the mount arrives empty and waiting for whatever camera you fit to it – depends entirely on the brand and model.
Once airborne, the camera interfaces with its video monitoring system while you control the copter with a handheld radio controller. Sometimes the drone controls are incorporated into the app that controls the camera, and other times the video relay for the camera is built into a physical controller for the drone.
Take Your Tests
Even the most inexpensive combination of drone and camera isn't cheap, and the most expensive among them ought to require an insurance policy. Too many times have I heard a woeful story from a young photographer or cinematographer who got their hands on a shiny new drone, only to run it into the ground on their first flight and break the drone, the camera, and their bank.
The best thing you can do for the insurance of your gear before picking up a drone for photography is to get your hands on a cheap, tiny kid's drone like you see those depressing salesmen playing with in the hallways of malls across the nation. These will give you an inexpensive, low-risk opportunity to familiarize yourself with the nuances of drone flight before setting aloft equipment worth a couple grand or more.
Then, once you've honed your skills and purchased your photography drone, if it's the kind to which you affix a camera of your own, take it for a test flight or two (or twenty) before strapping your camera to its chassis.
When you're ready to purchase that photography drone, the choice between a drone with a camera built into it and one with a bracket designed to receive popular models of action camera is a tough one. While the brands and models with cameras attached to them already tend to be slightly less expensive overall investments, they run the risk of becoming obsolete a lot sooner than a drone whose camera you can quickly replace.
The other major variable to consider is the control interface. If you find that you require separate controllers for the camera and the drone, you're liable to give up hope of ever coordinating a proper shoot, unless you have a talented drone operator and a talented cinematographer working in effective concert with one another.
The far better layouts are the drones whose apps allow for total control on your smartphone or, preferably, your tablet, and the models whose physical controllers also have interactive touchscreens for camera feedback and control.
A Long, Slow Ascent
In 1907, Louis Breguet, a French designer and builder of aircraft, created a four-rotor aircraft that achieved brief flights, momentarily hovering a few feet above the ground. Repeated attempts to achieve flights greater than a few meters off the ground, without overworking the pilots on board, were largely unsuccessful for the next sixty years or so.
Then, in the late 1970s, Bell Helicopter and Boeing came together on a joint military endeavor to research the possibility of an tiltrotor quadcopter aircraft that could operate as a quadcopter during takeoff and landing, but that could also tilt its rotors into the configuration of a more traditional airplane to achieve greater speeds once airborne.
While Bell and Boeing chipped away at the project, which would eventually get shelved in the early 21st century, advances in the use of drone aircraft for military strikes began a reintroduction of radio-controlled aircraft to the public. Suddenly, radio controlled fliers seemed less like the domain of the outcast enthusiast, and more like the domain of the rugged military man, a shift that allowed a whole new market of consumers to take the technology seriously.
Once people started mounting their GoPro cameras and other action cams onto the bodies of their drones, all bets were off, and the photographic and film industries would never be the same.