Choosing the best drone for photography and video can be tricky. Whether you’re looking at the latest models from DJI, or considering another drone manufacturer, each model features a dizzying array of specs, and some carry some big tradeoffs. I’ve been fortunate to test a number of the most popular options, so I’ve created the following list of the best drones you’ll find today.
Here at Photography Life, it’s probably not a surprise that I’ve tested these drones primarily for their still image capabilities. While I’ve also evaluated their video quality, flight times, ease of handling, and automated flight modes, my number one feature is the quality of their photos.
A recent trend in popular drones has been the importance of firmware updates post launch. For instance, my drone of choice, the DJI Mavic 3, has received several major firmware updates that have drastically improved a number of functions, and even unlocked new functions like shooting raw photos with the 7x telephoto lens. Where possible, I’ll be judging these drones on what’s available today in 2022, as some have gotten significantly better since launch.
One last note: If you’re in the US and want to fly for any purpose beyond “purely for fun or personal enjoyment,” you legally need to operate with a Part 107 license. Otherwise, most of this article won’t apply to you, since you aren’t legally able to fly most drones at all. No matter how you feel about these regulations, you’ll probably want to go with a test prep school in order to pass your Part 107 exam with the FAA, as I explained in this article. The service we’re affiliated with is called Pilot Institute, whose course is $249, or $149 through Photography Life’s discount (found here). It’s not the only Part 107 test prep company, so do your research beforehand, but it’s the one we recommend.
Now let’s get to the best consumer drones on the market today.
Table of Contents
1. DJI Mavic 3
My number one drone for photography in 2022 is the DJI Mavic 3. While I’ve had the Mavic 3 since launch day, where it immediately impressed me with the flexible RAW files, great dynamic range, and extreme flight endurance, it’s only gotten better since then, thanks to firmware updates.
Recent firmware updates have unlocked much more functionality for the telephoto camera, including RAW and AEB functions. This means that you now have two fully-functional cameras in one drone, offering 24mm and 162mm equivalent focal lengths. (Most drones only have a wide-angle lens, typically around the same 24mm mark.)
While the tele lens doesn’t have the same great level of detail that the wide lens offers, the drastically different perspective is still a very useful feature.
To go even wider, the Mavic 3 supports shooting panoramas and adding a wide-angle adapter lens to bring a 15mm equivalent option. Between the two, I greatly prefer the enhanced image quality offered by the panorama, but the adapter is a decent option for moving subjects that can’t be captured via a panorama.
When just shooting normally at 24mm, the Mavic 3 delivers consistently excellent image quality. While the sensor doesn’t set a record in terms of megapixels, offering just 20MP of resolution, the files are so clean that they can easily be upscaled.
That’s because the sensor on the Mavic 3 is huge for a consumer drone. The wide camera is a 4/3-type CMOS sensor, same size as in a Micro Four Thirds camera. While drones are not going to match the long exposure and low light capability of a ground-based camera, it’s entirely possible to shoot high-quality images well into twilight with the Mavic 3 as a result. I’ve even taken some nighttime images with this drone that clean up well with careful post-processing.
In fact, thanks to the excellent dynamic range from the 4/3 sensor, sunset is one of my favorite times to fly the Mavic 3. Whether shooting single RAW files or making use of the quick and easy AEB sets, the Mavic 3 brings out the great colors in the sky, while still retaining plenty of detail in the dark foreground elements. The long flight time also makes it easy to shoot before, during, and after sunset, all on one charge.
In terms of flight capabilities, the Mavic 3 handles competently. While it’s not going to be as sporty as some of the more stunt-minded drones on the market, it’s incredibly stable and plenty fast. This makes it a great platform for planning shots, with the telephoto lens coming in handy for spotting distant details that are worth a closer look. It’s also very capable in windy conditions, being rated for 12 m/s (27 MPH) of wind.
Panoramas are perhaps the last major area that could still use a little improvement. While the mode functions well, some features could be tweaked to make it even better for professional photographers. The first, and most important, is that it takes some extra time to set a single locked exposure for the entirety of the panorama, when it should be automatic. I’ve tried mapping the AE lock to the function button on the remote, but it’s been inconsistent in my experience.
Also, the panorama mode shoots and stitches a JPEG version, an unnecessary step, as I’ll always prefer to just stitch the individual RAW files myself. While you can cancel the automatic stitching operation by moving the drone during the process, it would be much nicer to just disable stitching altogether. Lastly, I’d love to see the automated panorama mode added to the telephoto camera – now that it supports RAW, it would be a great option to shoot high resolution, short telephoto panoramas.
Lastly, the Mavic 3 currently isn’t supported by the SDK. DJI’s SDK support enables third party software providers like Litchi to create tools for automating flights, among other features. While this isn’t going to be a priority for many, users who want to create maps and other technical drone uses will find this to be a major limitation.
The Mavic 3 is not the cheapest drone at about $2050, but it’s a great value for a 4/3-type sensor. The rest of the drones in this ranking are less expensive, however.
2. DJI Mini 3 Pro
While the Mavic 3 represents the current high-water mark in the prosumer drone space, the Mini 3 Pro completely surprised me when I flew it earlier this year. It’s significantly smaller, and even better, it weighs under 250 grams with the smaller battery pack, making is substantially easier to fly legally with the Mini 3 Pro.
Small drones under 250 g can avoid some registration and regulation requirements that are imposed on larger drones. While these rules vary and are subject to change, having a 250 g drone can be a great benefit for travel photographers, landscape photographers, and others who may operate in a range of regulatory environments.
As the entire Mini 3 Pro weighs less than a single battery for the Mavic 3, you might think you’re sacrificing a ton of image quality, but the reality is surprising. While the Mini 3 Pro doesn’t have the same telephoto or pure IQ capabilities, the files from its 1/1.3″-type sensor (a bit bigger than a typical smartphone) are surprisingly good for such a small package. In daylight conditions and even right at sunrise and sunset, the Mini 3 Pro produces impressive images.
Of course, the larger Mavic 3 has a big advantage in low light, or when you need to do a lot of shadow recovery. The Mini 3 Pro, however, is far more usable. Bringing the Mavic 3 along is a deliberate choice, as it takes up about as much space as a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens, with the controller requiring another full lens spot in a bag. The Mini 3, by contrast, easily fits into a compact lens spot, or could even be stuck into a large jacket pocket.
The size advantage also translates into a quieter and less obtrusive drone to use. While you should always operate a drone in compliance with local regulations, the bigger Mavic 3 simply draws more attention and is much louder in the sky, which may annoy people or animals nearby.
The Mini 3 Pro, like the Mavic 3, has excellent battery life. With the sub-250g battery, the drone is good for 34 minutes, while the larger battery pack pushes that to 47 minutes. Either way, that’s more than enough time to figure out compositions, shoot stills, panoramas, and videos, and still have enough time to fly back and land.
I also like one of the tricks that the Mini 3 Pro has up its sleeve. Namely, the gimbal is able to rotate 90 degrees, letting you shoot native vertical photos and videos. This eliminates the need to crop photos or videos to a vertical format, which would take away a lot of resolution. Just like the unique perspective offered by the telephoto lens on the Mavic, the Mini’s vertical option can help you deliver a unique look in the sea of drone photos.
3. DJI Air 2S
The DJI Air 2S is in an interesting spot right now. The image quality is good, thanks to a 1-inch type sensor, but not drastically better than the Mini 3 Pro. Also, the Air 2S weighs more than 250 grams. What sets the Air 2S apart from the Mini 3 Pro is that the Air 2S has support for DJI’s SDK. The DJI MSDK lets developers create apps that can interface with drones in a direct, efficient way. In practical terms, this means that apps like Litchi and Maven can support the Air 2S, bringing important features like automated flight planning to this drone.
The Air 2S’s 1-inch type sensor is one step up from the Mini 3 Pro’s sensor. (Specifically, the sensor diagonal is 15.9mm versus 12.0mm on the Mini 3 Pro, which is about the difference between micro four thirds and aps-c.) However, the Air 2S has a narrower maximum aperture than the Mini 3 Pro, at f/2.8 rather than f/1.7. This fully negates the advantage in low light conditions, although the Air 2S still has better dynamic range if both cameras can be used at base ISO.
Other advantages of the Air 2S include better obstacle detection and beefier motors, allowing the drone to fly faster than the Mini 3 Pro. The Air 2S can also handle greater wind speeds. Lastly, the Air 2S also supports ADS-B, which essentially acts as a potential warning that manned aircraft are in your airspace. Most of these advantages are only possible because of the Air 2S’s larger form factor.
Beyond that, the Air 2S also adds a number of video features over the Mini 3 Pro, like support for 5.4K resolution. While the Air 2S also originally had an advantage in support for 10 bit color, an update to the Mini 3 Pro brought that feature down to the smaller drone.
When choosing between the Air 2S, it really comes down to a question of size versus software and body advantages. The Mini 3 Pro makes surprisingly few concessions for being such a small drone, but the Air 2S does retain those few features that keep it ahead of the Mini line for some users. There’s also the difference in price, with the Air 2S at about $1000 compared to the Mini 3 Pro at about $670.
4. DJI Mavic Air 2
The Mavic Air 2 is still holding a spot on the list, which is both a bit of a surprise in an industry that moves so quickly, as well as a testament to just how much DJI got right when it was first released. While the Air 2S offers a few improvements over the venerable Air 2, including a better sensor and slightly wider lens, the differences may not be enough to justify the price difference to you. If you’re looking for a solid value for a photography drone, a used Mavic Air 2 is going to be a great deal.
The Air 2 has a 1/2-inch type sensor, capable of producing 12MP images or 48MP images via special shooting mode (which really aren’t worth it, unfortunately). While these images won’t have the noise or dynamic range excellence present in newer drones, they’re still excellent quality shots in daylight conditions.
Importantly, unlike other more budget minded drone options, the Mavic Air 2 still supports all the great DJI features, like Quickshots, panoramas, hyperlapses, and obstacle avoidance. Support for Ocusync 2.0 means that the drone will have a solid, steady video feed even at range or poor RF conditions, making it easy to fly with confidence.
Overall, the Air 2 has a really solid spot as a budget option, if you’re comfortable buying used. However, I’d make sure you find a deal on the used market that puts this drone at least cheaper than the Mini 3 Pro. The Mini 3 Pro is a better drone overall, but the two are pretty close if you don’t need a sub-250 gram option.
5. Autel Evo Lite+
While this list has been dominated by great drones from DJI, they aren’t the only company in the market, even if it feels that way sometimes. Autel, another drone maker, has released a number of models intended to compete with DJI’s offerings. The Autel Evo Lite+ compares most closely to the Air 2S, designed to beat it in a few specs, albeit at a higher list price.
The major, photography-relevant improvement on the Evo Lite+ comes after sunset, where the camera is capable of shooting at higher ISOs, with cleaner results. While both drones share a 1” 20MP CMOS sensor, Autel can push theirs further, offering ISOs up to 48000, compared to the Air 2S’s 6400. This low-light prowess is further bolstered by Autel’s “Moonlight” algorithm, which is meant to offer cleaner shots with better color.
The Evo Lite+ also sports a larger battery than the Air 2S, giving it 40 minutes of flight time to the Air 2S’s 30 minutes. While that difference might seem small, you want to leave some cushion for your return trip, limiting practical flight times to 35 and 25 minutes respectively. Having more time on a single battery makes things easier from both a flight management and photography perspective.
Unfortunately, the Evo Lite+ is missing a few features that I think are helpful to pilots. The first: ADS-B support. While ADS-B alerts are not a substitute for being alert and conscientious behind the sticks, it can help provide awareness in busier airspace.
The second might be a benefit or a negative to some pilots, and that’s the lack of geo-fencing on the Autel drone. Geofencing is manufacturer-created restrictions on where you can fly, designed to prevent operation in prohibited areas. While DJI lets you request an exemption, the process can be a bit cumbersome. Autel, on the other hand, doesn’t restrict the operations, for better or worse. With the Eco Lite+, you’ll definitely need to pay more attention to apps like B4UFly, or other resources like sectional charts and local rules.
Overall, I’m not sure the Evo Lite+ is worth the price premium over the Air 2S (about $500 more expensive). If you’re looking for the best low light quality without having to step up to the Mavic 3, it’s a good option. For other users, however, getting the Air 2S instead leaves budget for more batteries, 107 licensing, and other drone essentials, all without sacrificing much quality or flight capability.
I hope this article gave you a good idea of the different classes of drones, and which one you should buy for photo and video usage. Let me know in the comments section if you have any questions about these drones, or any that I didn’t cover here!