It wasn’t that long ago that drones were the exclusive domain of governments, mega-corporations and a few production studios. Today, there are children playing with them. The cost of drones and the ease of use have changed so drastically for the better,that you can walk into any major electronics store and find multiple drones in any price range, even for as little as 30 dollars! In this guide, we’re going to discuss affordable drones that you’ll want to use for the production of high-quality videos. We’ll concentrate on the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) retailing between 500 and 5,000 dollars.
The great news for you, the creator of aerial videos, is that there are really high-quality drones with 4K cameras within your budget!
Keep in mind, however, that not all 4K cameras are going to give you the same quality of video. Just like every camera made before them, 4K camera quality will depend on many factors, from the quality of the lens to the size of the aperture.
As with any tool, there will be features that you’ll find important, but not others. Features that you may want to look for in a UAV include:
Ease of Operation
Frankly, UAVs are easier than ever to fly. Even amateurs can learn quickly, but not all drones are a snap to learn. If you’re looking for a way to learn to fly your drone, look for a drone simulator that allows you to practice flying without leaving your home or office.
Rarely if ever, will you need to record the sound directly from your camera, but if you do need to do so, you will want to know which drones are the quietest.
Ease of Transport
On this list are some of the most transportable drones ever! Others still need to be transported in a large Pelican or SKB case.
Number of Rotors
It’s unlikely that you will need to worry about this, but you’ll want to know if your flyer can come home if it loses a motor or propeller.
Some drones offer a system that will return the unit to the controller before the battery gets critically low and others will have the drone land safely when the battery goes critical. A few even leave the choice of which retrieval system to use up to you!
How far does the drone fly? Just as important — and maybe even more so — is how far it transmits footage.
If your UAV doesn’t come prepackaged with a camera, does the camera that you want to use fit onto it?
Nearly all of the drones on this list have collision avoidance, but we haven’t tested them all yet!
Likewise, you may want a drone with pre-programmed moves or a Follow Me mode.
Flightpath is another cool feature to look for. Some of these birds allow you to draw a route on the controller, which your drone will then follow. While there will be a learning curve to the timing of this, once mastered it’s a great way to record your footage!
Most modern drones have gimbals to make your aerial footage smoother and more professional. Just as with handheld gimbals and grips, the quality varies and the pricier UAV models will generally have the better gimbals and smoother footage.
If you’re shooting a movie in 4K, you don’t want to use a drone that’s limited to HD resolution. Research the maker and quality of the camera lens, and if the camera accommodates different lenses, see which ones are supported. You’ll want to consider focal length and aperture just as you would with any other camera. Likewise, camera sensor size and interchangeability of the camera should be considered as well.
You’ll want to consider focal length and aperture just as you would with any other camera.
Another consideration, if you’re using drone footage to put a movie together-- is how the drone footage looks relative to the rest of your footage. Are they so close that nobody will notice that you’re using two different cameras? If they’re not the same, are you able to make the necessary adjustments in post?
You will want to use the largest capacity card that your machine allows. For some drones, that’s only 32 gigabytes (GB), which will last only about 5-7 minutes at 4K! Make sure that the drone can use cards of at least 64GB, unless you don’t plan to shoot for more than five minute at a time.
The fact is that the video quality from all of these action cameras is good, but if you are looking for the absolute best video in your price range, your best bet is to go online and compare footage side-by-side and look for comparative reviews. If you’re still not certain, then see if someone in your area rents drones and get some test footage of your own; doing this will also help you to get a feel for the drones so that you can judge for yourself which drone you feel most comfortable with.
The list will, of course, be dominated by DJI and Yuneec because these are the two dominant forces in the drone industry as of this writing. However, it is a very new industry and any of these companies – or someone not even on the list yet – could become the biggest player in the future.
$500 - $750
These drones are the best bang for your buck of any drones capable of HD video. While there are certainly better drones on this list, those in this category all carry a HD or better camera, although the optics may not be the best. Still, if you’re looking to start drone shooting, then these little guys are a good bet.
Parrot Bebop 2 POWER
The Parrot Bebop 2 POWER delivers high-quality video in 1080p. This recently-released drone replaces the Bebop 2 FPV. Like its predecessor, the pilot can choose to view the footage from the POWER’s camera on their control-mounted smartphone or mount the phone inside head-mounted display (HMD) and view it in first person. Consider yourself warned, it is very realistic as you fly high above the trees! There is a little bit of latency, too, which won’t do your stomach any favors. Even so, it’s truly a marvel when you first use your Bebop POWER with the HMD.
If you want to experience flying your drone from a first-person point-of-view, this may be the perfect UAV for you. Not to mention that for only 600 dollars — the lowest priced drone on this list — it offers a lot of thrills for the money and is a very useful tool to make quality video from above.
Another new and inexpensive drone on the market is the DJI Spark. While this one may not come with a mobile headset, it shoots in 4K and has some really cool accessories available. The first cool feature that you’ll notice on the Spark is that it can be controlled via hand gestures. If you’re looking for a selfie drone, this is probably your best bet. But if you’re looking for a drone to make high quality videos with, this may also be your drone. Although the Spark is new to the world of UAVs, there are quite a few accessories, including prop guards and filters – and they’re not all made by DJI. Polar Pro makes a set of ND filters to really help you match your footage and compensate for light; they also make a carrying case for it.
Autel X-Star Premium
What makes this entry in the lowest-price category unique from its competitors is that, like the drones further down the list, its camera is mounted on a three axis gimbal. And while the previous three drones will give you excellent footage, the X-Star Premium will give you steadier footage in windier conditions. Rather than rely on light weight and a low profile, the X-Star Premium’s gimbal does the steadying and its footage has a really high-quality to it because of that. Plus, it’s orange — this is considered a great feature if you’ve ever lost a drone.
Yuneec Typhoon 4K
Yuneec isn’t known for entry level UAVs, so the Typhoon 4K (Q500) is going to be more anomalous than your typical Yuneec drone, at least in the pricing. Frankly, this particular UAV has many great features that you’ll find in much more expensive drones. It’s a sleek, beautiful drone with a CGO3 4K camera. This is the same 3-axis integrated camera that you’ll find on the next-level Typhoon H. Overall, this drone is quite a bargain, as you’ll get so much of Yuneec’s quality in an entry-level drone.
The O2 by GDU is another 4K drone. Although it may not have the same access to accessories that the Spark has, it does have some really cool features. For instance, the O2 doesn’t need a carrying case to keep it safe. Why? Because the arms of the O2 fold up into the drone And, once you fold up the arms on your O2, you can attach it to the controller and carry both units together.
$950 - $1,950
The middle price range drones are very nice drones for professionals. Although there are still nicer UAVs on the list — as well as some that are so pricey that we’re not even going to discuss them — these are all excellent drones that will help you defeat some weather conditions, while giving you excellent footage. They also provide more options than the lower-priced models, including interchangeable cameras.
GDU Byrd Premium 2.0
The mid-range list picks up where the lower prices ended: with GDU and their higher-end drone, the Byrd. Why is it 2.0 and what did they do to make it better than the 1.0? There are not a lot of differences. In fact, the drone itself is the same. The primary differences are the gimbal and the mode of transmission. GDU’s Nicolia Wiles explains, “The Byrd Premium 2.0 uses the same camera as the Premium 1.0 — a Sony alpha α6000 that can shoot in both 1080 and 4K — but the Premium 2.0 has an upgraded video transmission system. Instead of WiFi, it uses OFDM for better and longer transmission. It allows for 2 kilometers versus the 1 kilometer with the Premium 1.0.”
DJI Mavic Pro and Mavic Pro 2.0 Platinum
For stabilization, the Mavic Pro 2.0 and Platinum drones utilize the best of both worlds. Mavic is a low profile, lightweight UAS and has a 3-axis gimbal. It also incorporates several of the lower-priced UAV’s best features, such as the ability to control it with your hand like its little brother, Spark. It has foldable arms like the GDU O2 and you can also purchase DJI goggles to feel like you’re flying, just as you can with the Parrot Bebop POWER, although the POWER includes the goggles with the purchase.
What makes the Platinum different from the standard Mavic Pro? Well, it’s platinum – in color, not material! It also has a slightly better battery life — about 10 percent better — and it’s 60 percent quieter than the standard Mavic 2.0.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
With two of DJI’s most popular drones being very close in price, there is a lot of “which one is better” talk out there concerning the Mavic and the Phantom 4. If it comes down to a question of which is better for shooting, the Phantom probably wins out, as it does take better footage. While the Mavic looks better and has some features that are better than the Phantom 4, the Phantom 4 Pro is a better drone where it counts. For just a few hundred dollars more, it’s worth it. Also, just like the Mavic, you can purchase DJI Goggles for the Phantom 4 Pro if you’d like to get that first person view — in high def, of course.
GoPro, the company whose creation of the action cam made it possible for us to take great footage from lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles, now has a drone of its own. Surprisingly, the Karma is available with three different cameras. Not surprisingly, they’re the GoPro HERO4, 5 and 6. Along with the drone, you’ll also get the Karma Grip, so you can remove your HERO, along with the gimbal and use it as a handheld or body-mounted camera with continued smooth operation.
Yuneec Typhoon H
Yuneec’s high-end hexacopter is a huge, beautiful drone with a lot of functions. Using the ST-16 controller, you will get an extra-large picture that will make it easy to see what your camera sees. One of the many wicked-cool features for this drone is the Wizard. The Wizard is a remote control sold separately from the Typhoon H, which comes with the ST-16 controller. Using the ST-16 with the Wizard, you can work the drone as a team. The Wizard can control the drone while the operator of the ST-16 can concentrate on the video.
Drones from $2,000 to $5,000
If you can afford a UAV in this price range, get one. There’s a reason these models are priced high — they promise better-quality, more stable footage with pro-level cameras and control options. Here’s a look at the big guys.
Yuneec isn’t known for its entry-level drones, so this category is where you’ll find the majority of the UAVs that they make. Let’s start with their newest drone, the H520. The arms of this commerical-grade fold in and the propellers are easily removed for packing. In fact, the packaging is included with the sale in the form of a Pelican 1620 case, with foam custom cut to the H520’s packaging needs. Want more? The landing gear folds up with the flick of a toggle switch. Another great feature is that it’s orange and easy to see in the sky, just like the Autel X-Star we mentioned earlier. Also, the E90 and E50 cameras will provide you with some sweet 4K video (720p downlinked to the ST-16S controller) and the E90 will also allow you crisp 20-megapixel pictures. Speaking of the controller, it is a work of art and the form and function seem like they’ll really work nicely.
Yuneec Tornado H920
It’s plausible that this drone was named after the feeling you get if you stand too closely to its six propellers, mounted to an aesthetically appealing carbon fiber body. This is a beautiful beast and looks like something you’ll want to get out of the way of. You can also be excited for the the CGO4, the newest camera from Yuneec, made in partnership with Panasonic. The CGO4 camera features a 3-times optical zoom lens and can capture 16 megapixel photos.
DJI Inspire 2
The DJI Inspire 2 has one thing over all the other drones on this list. It’s as ugly as it gets! And that is a good thing. By “ugly,” we mean it looks vicious and mean. In some ways, it resembles a mini-helicopter, but with the personality of a Yorkshire Terrier. The DJI Inspire 2 is one badass looking drone! If you’re like me and want your drone to scream “back off” to other drones – as well as birds and trees – then this is the drone for you. While it is one of the two most expensive drones on the list, it is relatively inexpensive when you consider how many UAVs cost more than quadruple the 3,000 dollar price tag. Plus, for another 450 dollars or so, you can feel like you’re actually flying this bad boy using the DJI Goggles. Oh, and it has a great camera, too.
The choice is yours.
You know you want them. You do. If you can afford a UAV in this price range, get one. There — you’ve been told! No more excuses. Now it’s up to you to make the choice. Figure out which features are most important to you and use the Guide wisely.
EXTENDING FLIGHT TIME (SIDEBAR)
Over the past five years, drones have made massive improvements on every level – except one: flight time. The average commercial UAV still has a flight time of no more than 25 minutes.* For the most part, that only poses a financial problem, in that filmmakers will have to purchase multiple batteries, as it’s unlikely anyone will need to film a scene for over half an hour. But if you wanted to fly your drone for an hour or more non-stop, you are left with absolutely no choice. Well, that’s not exactly true anymore. You can now purchase a Jupiter H2 drone from Flightwave Aerospace and it will fly for up to two hours, while carrying a payload of up to 44 ounces! What’s the secret? The Jupiter H2, as its name implies, runs on hydrogen. The hydrogen fuel cell technology comes from Intelligent Energy, as the two companies announced their joint venture at InterDrone last September. Depending on speed, payload and weather conditions, the 3.0 liter fuel cell can fly the 27” wide drone for upwards of two hours and possibly more.
There is one drawback to the system: the price tag! At the moment, the only hydrogen fuel cell powered drone in the air will set you back 15,000 dollars, but that’s not the point of this sidebar. The point is that the technology to power drones for excursions longer than a half-hour has finally been brought to market and, as with most technological advances, prices will come down once the market is there for the less expensive versions. Hopefully, the H2 will help to revolutionize the flight-time issue that the drone industry has been facing.
*Manufacturers list their available flight time as tested under well-controlled lab conditions. You’re highly unlikely to get the flight times that they claim, so plan your battery purchases and chargers accordingly.]
John McCabe enjoys cool gadgets, especially if they can fly! He’s currently making a VR movie and can be reached at John@NeverSayCut.com