The current market offers a dizzying array of drones ranging in price from around $20 up through several thousand dollars. There are a few key features that separate the toys from the enthusiast models from the pro drones, chief among them are GPS and camera quality. And keep in mind that price is not always an indicator of features.
My definition of “toy drones” is those quadcopters that are usually quite small (even fitting entirely in your hand, in some cases), very low priced, and typically have inferior cameras or no camera at all. These toy drones also sometimes lack an “altitude hold” function, which I consider a critical feature for beginners and non-racing drone fans alike. Without altitude hold, letting go of the elevation control stick causes the drone to drop rapidly. Drones with this feature more or less “stay put” when you stop touching the controls. This is very helpful for beginners learning to fly and photographers trying to focus on composition. Some do have altitude hold, like the Crazepony Quadcopter Mini, which also has a FPV camera and is very small.
My experience after having owned and tested several of these small/cheap toy drones is that they are a lot of fun but not terribly useful in any photographic sense. Still images are generally very grainy and the video is pretty bad as well. Battery life is also usually fairly dismal, ranging from 5-10 minutes of flying time per charge (which takes 20-30 minutes to recharge). I’m making a lot of generalizations here, but if you start digging into the specs on many of these toy drones, you’ll find a lot of similarity.
There are some higher-end drones in this category that range up to about $200, but just take a look at the camera specs. If it’s a 720p camera, it’s almost certainly crap (from a photographic perspective).
Toys with GPS?
A year ago, I would have drawn a line between the “toys” and the “enthusiast” drones simply by whether or not the unit has GPS capabilities. But now, there are a few sub-$125 drones that features GPS, such as the Hubsan H4 X502E. That’s a crazy cheap GPS drone, but it’s got a lowly 720p camera, no FPV (you can’t see what it’s camera sees in real time), and no camera stabilization. That means you’ll have to shoot blind and your video will be quite shaky in just about any flying conditions. Additionally, the camera’s angle is not adjustable mid-flight and you have the turn on the video recording manually on the drone before takeoff (and then turn it off after landing).
So the Hubsan is more advanced than most toys, but still a toy in the camera usability sense. It might be okay for taking stills, but video will certainly not be all that usable.
If you want to get some useful photography and video from a drone, you’ll have to spend a bit more money. In the $300-$600 range, there are some nice options that will deliver excellent video quality as well as additional flight control and safety features.
As a starting point, the photographer looking to add aerial options to your bag of tricks should look for drones with following features:
- 1080p Camera (or better)
- Camera Gimbal (stabilization)
- 15-minute+ Flight Time
- Auto-Land if Battery is Exhausted
- Follow-Me or Subject Tracking
Beyond that is bonus, in my opinion. And there are plenty of features beyond that list in this price range.
There are a lot of great options in this “enthusiast” group, but here are a few that deserve some attention:
- DJI Phantom 3 Standard (my review is here)
- DJI Spark
- Parott Bebop II
- UPair One
- Yuneec Breeze (no GPS, but it’s reportedly very stable)
Right now is, I believe, the golden age of drones for hobby and professional photography. The choices seem limitless and pricing continues to drive downward, while features expand. If you’re a wedding or other event photographer looking to add some aerial photo or video to your portfolio and service offerings, I’d stick with the “enthusiast” and up drones (and if you’re in the US, don’t forget to get your FAA Part 107 certification before you use a drone in a commercial setting).
If you want to just test the waters on a low budget, pick a toy drone with altitude hold and an FPV camera and just have some fun.