In the last five years, we've gone from a world where a drone was a nice perk to bring along to the rare shoot that might need one, to a drone being an absolute default assumption on most productions. If you're looking to save a little, head here for drones on a budget.
Whatever you are looking for, be sure to head over to our gear guide hub page for more gear of all variety.
As filmmakers, if you are looking for the absolute best drones to buy, rent, or hire and operator with for video on your upcoming projects, here are some of the top drones that you'll see in regular use.
Best Overall: DJI Inspire 2
The Inspire 2 takes everything that was good about the Inspire 1 and improves it. An all-new image processing system records at up to 5.2K in CinemaDNG RAW, Apple ProRes and more. This kit includes Zenmuse X5S Gimbal & MFT 15mm/1.7 ASPH Lens.
- Image Quality
- Sense and Avoid
- Multiple Operating Modes
- Up to 50mph
On paper, the Inspire 2 with the Zenmuse X7 camera outclasses the DJI Mavic 2 Pro in most ways. It's a 6K camera, rather than 4K, and with that extra resolution, it gives you more room for post stabilization or reframing.
It shoots to RAW formats including ProRes RAW at 5.2K and Cinema DNG at 6K. It flies faster at 58mph, compared to the limits of the Mavic 2 Pro at 44mph, a major factor if working with vehicles that you need to keep up with. It comes with a Super 35 23.5 x 12.5 mm sized sensor, while the Mavic 2 Pro comes in with a 1" sensor. The Inspire 2 also comes with interchangeable lenses around the DJI DL mount, while the Mavic 2 Pro comes with an integrated lens.
The Inspire 2 with Zenmuse X7 offers by far the most flexibility in an integrated system you could hope for. Interchangeable prime lenses, built around the proprietary DJI DL mount, will let you choose precisely the right lens for the scene you want to shoot without the optical drawbacks of a zoom lens. The large, wide dynamic range sensor will give you stunning images in a wide array of setups, including in lower-light situations than you'll get on most other drones. The ProRes Raw recording will give you a lot of room to grade in post. It's ready for a variety of setups.
But it's a pretty large package. It's a big enough package that you just aren't going to always have it with you. Even if you own it, you are only going to bring it out when you know it's going to get used.
One thing to be conscious of is that the DJI Inspire 2 launched in 2017. In drone years, that is practically ancient. For comparison, the Mavic Mini came out in 2019, and by 2020 there was already an upgrade to the Mavic Mini 2.
Table of Contents
- Best Overall: DJI Inspire 2
- How We Picked
- Best Budget: DJI Mavic Air 2
- Best Commercial: Freefly Astro
- Best Alternative: Autel EVO II Pro
- Final Thoughts
How We Picked
We've been flying drones since the Phantom days and work to keep current on the latest and greatest in drone tech. We evaluate specs, but also look at what drones are actually getting used in real-world productions. In addition to professional reviews, we look at feedback from real-world users on their experience with the platforms.
For our picks, we focused on drones with built-in video cameras. If you are looking to rent a drone that can lift another camera setup like an ARRI Alexa Mini LF or RED, you'll want to consider hiring an experienced drone operator. All drone work takes practice, experience, and skill, but flying a full-sized cinema package requires an especially large amount of knowledge, along with a host of accessories and insurance.
However, for many productions, the quality of images from integrated camera drones is high enough to intercut with other cameras. Footage from the drones we recommend is getting cut into theatrical motion pictures, advertisements, music videos, and prestige TV regularly.
Once you learn to use them properly, they are amazing tools to have in your arsenal.
Best Budget: DJI Mavic Air 2
Mavic Air 2 takes power and portability to the next level, offering advanced features in a compact form factor.
- 4K 60p at 120 Mbps
- 1080p at 240fps
- Quick Shots, Hyperlapse, Active Track
- OcuSync 2.0
- Small Sensor
- Digital Zoom is Ok
- Low Light Shooting
The Mavic Air 2 also comes with a feature called Spotlight, which is in the Inspire 2 but not the Mavic 2 Pro. This feature lets you select a subject and then fly around them, and the drone keeps the subject in the frame. This allows for some pretty sophisticated shots that would be difficult without it and is a compelling reason to consider the Air 2 over the Mavic 2 Pro.
DJI is so dominant in drones right now that there really isn't a major competitor from the others in space like Parrot, Skydio, or Autel. We suspect that there is more competition coming to the lucrative drone arena, but at the moment DJI is really the main player in the space that filmmakers should be considering.
Best Commercial: Freefly Astro
Freefly’s latest commercial drone platform with RTK, 60 megapixel Sony camera, LTE cloud connectivity, mission computer and more.
- Wireless Control
- Compact Design
- Flight Times
- Advanced Flyers Only
If you're looking for a commercial drone to take flight, Freefly Systems has several, including the Alta series which can lift larger cameras from ARRI and RED into the sky. What caught our attention this year was Astro, a drone scaled for smaller cameras like the Sony a7 IV.
The Astro is a mid-range commercial quadcopter that's primarily aimed at commercial work, but because of it being paired with the Sony a7R IV, it's an interesting choice for filmmakers. The gimbal for the Astro is a quick-release so you can change payloads quickly on set. It also features LTE Cloud connectivity, a Linux-based on-board computer, and RTK (Real-Time Kinematic—centimeter-accurate GNSS positioning of the drone) along with integration via the Auterion Air, Ground- and Cloud-SDK.
Better yet, the Astro is a foldable drone, and set up takes less than two minutes. You can read our full interview about Astro here.
Best Alternative: Autel EVO II Pro
A 1-inch sensor with 6k resolution allows you to capture stunning detail. An adjustable aperture, HDR and intuitive camera controls make this the perfect choice for any aerial cinematographer or mapping pilot.
- 6K Resolution
- HDR Video
- 9km Video Transmission
- Dynamic 48MP Stills
- 40 Minute Flight Time
- Can Overexpose Images
- Images often Sharp
The EVO II PRO is a drone with HDR video capabilities, intuitive camera controls, and an adjustable aperture that delivers up to ISO 12800. This high-end device lets you capture remarkable detail using its 1” sensor camera that captures 6K video up to 30 fps. It features built-in HDR bracketing, 10- to 12-bit recording, an H.265 codec, and A-LOG gamma curve support, too.
EVO II PRO drones can fly within a 5.5-mile range for up to 40 minutes and go farther and faster at their maximum speed of 45mph (72kph). And to further complement its flight capabilities, the drone enables omnidirectional obstacle avoidance by creating a 3D world through its 12 image sensors. It also boasts dual-core powered object detection, Autel’s Dynamic Track 2.0 function, and a Gesture Control mode.
You won’t even need your mobile device to operate an EVO II PRO drone as a built-in 3.3” OLED display lets you do so. Autel integrated this screen into the included smart controller, which offers simpler packing and flying with four hours of battery life and an ergonomic, portable design.
Both the Mavic 2 Pro and the Inspire 2 deliver images that you can feel confident are going to intercut well with your principal storytelling camera. Both deliver footage that was frankly unimaginable in an affordable drone a few short years ago.
The Inspire 2 is going to offer you more flexibility, with its interchangeable lenses, larger sensor with impressive dynamic range and low-light performance, and higher top speed. The Mavic 2 Pro is going to go more places with you, more easily, and is more likely to be the drone you have with you for that unplanned drone shot that inspiration demands.
If you're looking to get the most bang for your buck, it's hard to pass up the Mavic Air 2.