The Best Photography Drones Under $1,000
DJI has for long dominated the entry-level drone segment. When I say drones, I specifically refer to quadcopters. Four propellers power these quadcopters, compared to the ones that have six or more.
The enthusiasm surrounding the much-awaited drone of 2016 was the GoPro Karma, was relatively short-lived.
The long-time champion of the entry level drone segment DJI came out with a launch of their own – The Mavic Pro. For many the GoPro Karma was to be GoPro’s answer to DJI. Instead, the Karma is now under serious threat of getting nipping in the bud by the Mavic Pro.
This round up of the best photograph drones launched during 2016 and which are the best in 2017 and this review is not limited to just these two drones.
The 7 Best Photography Drones in 2017
1. GoPro Karma (*Maybe)
We start this discussion with the GoPro Karma. The GoPro Karma is the first foray by GoPro into drones and aerial imaging products.
This project got delayed by months with scheduled launches postponed several times before the actual introduction date, i.e.; September 19th. 2o16. As of now, the GoPro is not available for sales because of a recall started on November 1oth.
The Karma is a lightweight, portable design, unlike some of the other aerial drones that we have seen from their already established competitors. It weighs only about a kilo with the camera harness (minus the camera itself). The four two-blade rotors, when folded down, can fit inside an easy to carry a backpack (also provided with the Karma). It comes with a harness for the GoPro camera model that you wish to use.
The Karma comes with a live-view controller with a video game style dual joystick controls. Live-view is projected onto the 5” 720p resolution touchscreen of the operator.
The right control operates the forward, backward and side to side movements. The left controller performs the spinning movements and the fundamental movements of going up and down.
The Karma can be an addictive way to spend the afternoon, zooming in and out over highways or nature trails and or exploring the immediate environment. If you plan on doing serious photography and or videography, then you should leave the actual work of piloting the drone to itself. Yes, there are built-in auto-pilot modes as well, several of them.
There’s the “Dronie” Mode, the Reveal Mode, the Cable Cam Mode and the Orbit mode. The Cable Cam mode is useful when you need to shoot a footage of a fixed path. The Karma flies in a straight line from point A to Point B back and forth.
Few Karma Problems
Notwithstanding, the Karma seems to be having a few problems, and some of them are quite major. The tripod mode isn’t quite as stable as you would expect it to be as recent tests have shown.
The drone seems to move around even in relatively ‘still’ conditions. It is safe to say that the drone isn’t a good choice if you want to make a video clip of yourself and expecting the drone to be perfectly still while you record. Landing isn’t as smooth and sometimes the drone lands on its own without being instructed to land!
The Karma lacks an obstacle avoidance system. Negative brownie points, Karma! Plus, to make matters worse, the Karma lacks even a downward sensor which could have assisted in a softer landing. Which basically means you can accelerate the fall if you want to. Not that you should as the build quality of the Karma does not instill too much confidence.
At a price of $1200, including the newly launched Hero 5 Black, the Karma is a reasonable choice. The problem with the Karma is that it is not designed to carry heavy duty cameras and third party mounts are not available in case you need to use different cameras. Plus, the actual flight time is less than the DJI Phantom 4 that we will discuss later.
The flight of the GoPro Karma is only 20 minutes on a full charge of its Li-Po battery.
What's Good about the Karma
But having said that, on the positive side, the Karma has some features that you would love.
It has a motorized gimbal stabilization. This gimbal can be detached from the drone and then mounted onto a hand-held grip (also provided with the Karma package). Detaching the gimbal can act as a stabilization tool for the portable grip.
Another thoughtful feature on the Karma is the built-in no-fly zone. With inconsiderate drone flyers frequently coming in the path of law enforcement and government agencies proving utility services such as firefighting and rescue, and most importantly flying over sensitive security installations, it has become imperative that drone manufacturers hard code strict no-fly zones into their drones.
The Karma has a built-in no-fly zone map hard coded into it, and the drone operator will not be able to fly their Karma into these restricted no-fly zones.
2. DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter
The DJI Phantom 4 is the undisputed champion of the $1500 quadcopter segment. Though not exactly $1000 (it retails at a price of about $1200) the DJI Phantom 4 rules the segment for affordable quadcopters with a camera mount.
In most cases, enthusiasts look for a way to shoot different full HD videos and stills and the DJI Phantom 4 is more than capable on both these counts.
The DJI Phantom 4 is a four 2-blade rotor powered quadcopter with a gimbal stabilized mount for a camera. A camera is provided with the quadcopter, and it has 4K video capabilities with the ability to shoot stills at 12 MP (which is the same as the Hero 5 on the GoPro Karma we read above).
What the DJI Phantom 4 has is an advanced obstacle sensing Visual Sensor. It works in practical situations.
The overall construction of the DJI Phantom 4 is good. Magnesium unibody and a well-designed streamlined construction ensure that the quadcopter can take a bit of abuse.
The DJI Phantom 4 beats the GoPro Karma regarding the actual flight time. On a full charge, the flight time is 28 minutes.
The DJI Phantom 4 is a more fun drone to fly. The fly by tap mechanism allows even a 3-year-old, someone who can draw on a tablet, to fly it. Ideally, one wouldn’t want to hand over the controls of a $1200 drone to a 3-year-old, but you get the drift. It is also the speedier of the two drones we have discussed thus far. 15 m/s on the GoPro Karma compared to 20 m/s on the DJI Phantom 4. It is incredibly stable when hovering.
The maximum altitude capable on the DJI Phantom 4 is 19685’ while that on the GoPro Karma is 14500’. The maximum ceiling is exciting though I would not recommend that you fly either the GoPro Karma or the DJI Phantom 4 or for that matter any other drone to its maximum capacity altitude.
The DJI Phantom 4 also has a smart Obstacle Sensing System (OSS) that ensures prevention against crashing into the objects. The Phantom 4 does that even when you flicked the Home switch, avoiding obstacles and flying around them. That include trees.
If it cannot fly by it will stop and keep hovering until you pilot it around. Kind of cool for a drone that costs $1200. The OSS however, is not a security for bad piloting. It can and does sometimes behave erratically, and there is no foolproof chance that the OSS will work in every situation.
It certainly does not when your camera is pointed in a direction away from the vector you are flying to. If you are a newbie, the technology can make you complacent making you highly likely to crash the drone!
Another advantage or rather a disadvantage of the drone is the Sports mode. If 20m/s isn’t good enough, the drone can fly even faster, ascend and descend at an accelerated rate in the sports mode.
While pros and action photographers will find the feature quite handy, beginners are likely going to find it difficult to control with an increased chances of crashing.
A significant disadvantage of a unibody structure is that the DJI Phantom 4 is not portable. You cannot dismantle it or fold it like the GoPro Karma or the Mavic Pro that you are going to read about below. The legs the chassis everything is just one structure. Nothing folds, nothing unmounts, and that means a big hassle if you are planning to travel with your DJI Phantom 4. The GoPro Karma of the Mavic Pro, thus, are better options in this regard.
3. DJI Phantom 3 Standard Quadcopter
Before the Phantom 4 became the most sought after quadcopter in the enthusiastic segment, the DJI Phantom 3 was the preferred choice for drone enthusiasts and hobbyist flyers. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is a 2.7K capable entry level drone that is designed for both the hobbyist flyer as well as the pro stock video shooter. At under $500 a piece, you could buy one just for the kicks.
The $500 is the standard version of the Phantom 3. There is also the Phantom 3 Professional which shoots 4K. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard comes with 2.7K (UHD) resolution video and 12 megapixels still capability.
Regarding the design, the DJI Phantom 3 is similar to the Phantom 4 that we just covered above. Unibody design makes the whole structure rigid and difficult to transport. Construction quality, however, is good. The Phantom 3 is an upgrade from the Phantom 2 in some areas. But the core design has been maintained. Notable changes from the older Phantom 2 are improved flight controls, better braking, and a better rotor design.
Having said that the Phantom 3 has no Visual Positioning System like some of the pro models and that means in areas where GPS lock is non-existent or confusing the user will find it difficult to fly.
Phantom 3 Standard uses 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi technology for pairing the controller with the camera for streaming 720p HD live-view footages. A handicap on the DJI Phantom 3 Standard is the lack of range for the controller to receive live-view streaming. The controller on the Standard DJI 3 has a range of only 1 km.
4. DJI Phantom 3 Professional Quadcopter
The DJI Phantom 3 Professional is the professional version of the DJI Phantom 3, and this one comes with 4K video capability. One of the key improvements of the DJI Phantom 3 Professional over the Standard is that it has dual GPS locator system. The secondary GLONASS satellite together with GPS positioning will ensure a far more accurate positioning of the quadcopter than only the GPS powered DJI Phantom 3 Standard. Plus this model has what is referred to as Visual Positioning System that ensures better flight control in areas without or poor GPS coverage.
Another improvement over the older DJI Phantom 2 and the Phantom 3 Standard is that the DJI Phantom 3 (both Standard and Professional) comes with Lightbridge technology. This technology ensures that the camera comes with better live-view transmission between the camera and the ground controller. With this technology, the range of the ground controller is much higher (5 kilometers for the Professional model).
5. Autel Robotics X-Star
Premium Quadcopter with 4K Camera and 3-axis Gimbal
US-based Robotics Company and designer of quadcopters Autel is the designer of the next quadcopter in this discussion. The design is strikingly similar to the DJI Phantom.
On first looks, it might appear to be a DJI Phantom that has been painted orange (yes it comes in bright orange unlike the DJI Phantom), as if the whim of a 15-year-old.
The X-Star Premium is a four two-blade rotor powered quadcopter with a built-in 4K camera. It has a 3-axis gimbal that stabilizes the camera in-flight.
The camera is capable of shooting 12-megapixel stills apart from crisp 4K videos at 30 fps. At full HD 1080p, the camera is capable of shooting at 120 fps. If you want even further slow motion, you could drop down the shooting resolution to 720p HD, and the camera will capture 240 fps.
The camera of the Autel Robotics X-Star Premium shoots RAW as well as JPEG. You can tinker a different number of shooting parameters including Single Shot, Burst mode, Auto Exposure Balance, bracketed frames and even shoot time-lapses with it.
Video or stills are recorded on board a MicroSD card. The lens itself has a 108 ˚ angle of coverage, enabling you to capture a large slice of the scene. Control of the device is attained using a mobile device that can pair with the controller. This device doubles up as the monitor. Live-view 720p HD video feed is fed into the mobile device to give you a POV perspective while you are flying the quadcopter.
Just like the DJI Phantom 3 and 4K the X-Star premium uses two satellite systems for locational purposes. GPS is the primary positioning system used. The second is GLONASS. These two work together for more accurate positioning and in-flight auto control. Apart from these two the quadcopter uses the Starpoint Positioning System. This unique system allows the operator to fly the quadcopter at any height without depending on GPS.
Despite the many similarities with the DJI Phantom, there are some very subtle differences too. First and foremost, the camera and the gimbal mount on the X-Star premium are both detachable. With the DJI Phantom you are stuck with whatever camera and camera gimbal mount you get. This is unacceptable to many pro users who would genuinely look to upgrade their camera but not necessarily a functional gimbal.
The other difference is the distinctively nippier feel of the X-Star premium compared to the DJI Phantom in flight. Though both are very similar in speed, the former seems slightly sprightly than the latter.
6. DJI Mavic Pro
The Mavic Pro is the newest kid on the block when it comes to affordable camera drones. The drone that it is going to compete with, the GoPro Karma, is already pushed to the back seat on account of the launch of the Mavic Pro. The Mavic Pro matches and betters the features of the GoPro Karma and does that with consummate ease.
The thing that stands out with the Mavic Pro is the obstacle avoidance system. Initial tests seem to show that it works rather well. The downward sensors are also very efficient.
The Mavic Pro is undoubtedly fun to fly around. It is stable when in tripod mode (unlike the GoPro Karma) and is more reassured with better feedback from the controls when you are darting around. With a maximum speed of 65km/h in no wind conditions, you would love to spend time with it exploring your immediate environment. The maximum flight time of the Mavic Pro is stated to be 27’.
The maximum range for control of the drone is 7 km. The Mavic Pro gives you better control over the camera. The controls assist in 3-axis movement (pitch, roll, and yaw) of the camera. Plus, the presence of intelligent gesture control means you can make the drone respond to your hand signals for that perfect selfie.
The specs of the Mavic Pro’s camera and that of the GoPro Karma (assuming that you have the latest Hero 5 Black) are not only comparable, but they are almost identical. They are both based on 12-megapixel sensors, and they both shoot 4K videos.
The Mavic Pro is small when it comes to camera drones, especially when compared with some of the large unibody designs that we have seen in this round-up. When not in use the propellers and the landing gear fold snugly into the drone’s body (something that the GoPro Karma doesn’t). The whole thing becomes no bigger than a full-frame DSLR. That means it can be neatly packed and transported.
Mavic Pro’s remote control device does not come with an LCD screen. Or at least not one to view the live feed. You need to pair one of your mobile devices or tablets with it. That’s a bit of a hassle. There are both plus and minuses for an arrangement like that. But on the right side your display quality is dependent on the screen of the device you pair the controller with.
With the specs compared the Mavic Pro has the edge over the GoPro Karma.
7. Hover Camera Passport
What if you could simply let go of your drone and camera, let it fly around, following you, making images and videos while you indulge at the moment?
The ideal drone camera would be the one that needs little to no constant input and simply do what it’s supposed to do without any fuss – make images. The Hover Camera Passport is just that and more. Designed by Zero Zero Robotics from Beijing, this is probably a unique piece of drone camera system that you have ever come across.
Just unfold this self-flying drone camera, shaped like a hard-bound book and it would, as its name suggests, hover. It requires no inputs as the forward facing sensors detect human faces and bodies and track them as it makes stills or videos.
For all those selfie obsessed individuals out there who always wanted to let go off the selfie stick and just get their images taken, the Hover does just that. Flip out the wings of this tiny drone in pretty much the same way you would flip open a book, turn the drone on; and that’s it.
It is probably the only time you will have any serious interactions with it. Four tiny propellers carefully packed inside a carbon fiber mesh allows it to float in the air when you release it, all in a natural way.
The design itself is brilliant as the constant flow of air keeps the internal mechanics from getting overheated. The wire mesh prevents any accidental contacts with the drone’s propellers. It can fly to a maximum height of 164 feet and for about ten mins in no wind conditions.
At the heart of the system is a 1/3.06” CMOS sensor capable of producing a meaty 13 megapixels. Processing is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. The Hover is capable of capturing up to 4K/UHD video clips (3840 x 2160p) at 30 fps and still JPEG images of the size 4208 x 3120 pixels. The Hover has a fixed focus lens of maximum aperture f/2 and a field of view equivalent to a 28mm lens on 35mm.
The Hover Passport comes with some comparable features as some of the other more illustrious drones we have discussed here. The Orbit mode, e.g., allows you to film yourself while the Hover Passport hovers around you in an orbit while recording a video.
The drone is tiny. It weighs only 242 grams (including the battery). That means when it comes to portability; this is the drone that beats the rest.
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Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly.
He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favorite pursuits.
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