This section breaks down the most important features you need to pay attention to when buying a camera drone. Some are pretty obvious (like price) and some are not (like gimbal quality) so I suggest going through all of it to fully prepare yourself.
There are quite a few features here. Don’t get overwhelmed. I also list all of these specs and features for each individual drone model, so you don’t have to look up this information yourself (at least for the drones in this guide). I just want to make sure you know what each feature is and why it’s important before we get into the drones themselves.
Price is one of the most important features of any drone. It indicates whether:
- It fits into your budget
- If you’re getting good value or poor value
- Whether you’re most likely buying a recreational drone or a professional-grade model
Luckily, drones are available in a very wide price range ($15 to over $10,000) so it isn’t difficult to find one that fits your budget. However, it can be difficult to find the right one.
2. Does it come with a camera? And is it built-in? Detachable? GoPro capable?
Next, you need to figure out whether the model you’re looking at comes with the camera itself. Some have the ability to carry a camera, and the image or packaging may even show a camera attached, but it says “camera not included.”
Beware of “camera not included.” Most pilots prefer to buy rigs with built-in cameras or detachable ones because it’s usually cheaper and easier to set up. Just because the image or packaging shows a camera doesn’t mean it actually comes with it. In the drones featured later in this guide, I will let you know whether or not each comes with the camera itself (90% of the models I’ve included do).
Most pilots want to buy drones that come with the camera, standard. It’s usually cheaper and requires less setup and technical knowhow.
On the other hand, some pilots have their own cameras they want to attach, like a GoPro. GoPros are a huge favorite among drone pilots, because they shoot high quality imagery and they’re extremely lightweight (so they don’t add much to the drone’s payload).
So when looking at a drone, make sure to figure out whether it comes with the camera itself (most do), whether it’s detachable in case you would like to switch out the onboard camera for your own, or whether it can hold a GoPro action cam.
3. Ready to Fly or Almost Ready to Fly? (RTF or ATF)
Drones also come ready-to-fly (RTF) or almost-ready-to-fly (ATF).
RTF models are ready to fly right out of the box, meaning that all the required parts are available and ready to go. Nothing needs to be bought separately.
It does not mean that there is no setup required. Every drone requires setup, including attaching the propellers and calibrating the drone itself (don’t worry, you’ll learn all about this in the how to fly a drone section).
ATF rigs require additional parts/accessories before they’re ready to fly. Most of the equipment is there, but a few more pieces need to be purchased separately.
Personally, I don’t like having to buy things separately, and I’m guessing you don’t either. So all of the models I have included in this guide are ready-to-fly.
4. Image quality (megapixels)
Image quality is extremely important when choosing a drone.
Sometimes you will find a cool drone with some great features, but the image quality is way too low for the price you’re paying. Other times, you’ll find a gem, a drone that’s way under priced for its image quality.
Be sure to pay attention to the megapixels each drone camera offers you.
5. Video quality (resolution) & availability
If your only goal is to take still photos, video quality isn’t that important for you. However, video quality is important to most pilots, because you want to be able to get HD pans of the world around you.
A camera with higher resolution will produce higher quality videos. 720p, 1080p, 2.7K, and 4K (going from lowest to highest quality) are the most popular resolutions on drones right now.
All camera drones can take pictures, but not all can take videos. So you need to pay attention to whether a drone’s camera actually offers you video capability or not. (Most drone cameras do.)
6. Flight time, battery life, & charging time
Flight time is a crucial aspect of drone flying.
For recreational pilots, it determines how long you can stay in the air having fun and viewing the world around you. For commercial pilots, it determines how much time you have to get the shots you need.
Flight time is directly affected by battery life and whether or not your batteries are interchangeable. Interchangeable batteries allow you to carry multiple with you. When one runs out, you can land, replace it, and be on your way again. In other words, they can dramatically increase the length of your flight sessions.
You also want to pay attention to how long it takes to fully charge your batteries. Most charging times are 45 minutes to an hour and half.
7. Range (control distance)
A drone’s range is also extremely important.
Range is the distance a drone can fly away from its controller before the connection fades and you lose control over the drone itself.
As you can imagine, losing control over your drone can lead to 1) losing it and 2) potential damage or injury. Both are not desirable, but they’re also quite avoidable. (Some drones will return back to you automatically when they go out of range.)
Look out for drones with longer control distance. It’s usually measured in kilometers (km) but sometimes in miles as well (mi).
8. Indoor or outdoor use?
Another feature to consider is whether the drone is meant for indoor or outdoor use. Two factors play into this:
For indoor use, the drone needs to be small enough to fly inside while minimizing the risk of damage to the drone or other objects. For outdoor use, the drone needs to be powerful enough (and, usually, big enough) to handle windy conditions.
Even slight gusts of wind can blow smaller drones totally off course, which can be dangerous. So make sure you decide whether you want to buy a drone mainly for indoor or outdoor use then adjust your search accordingly.
9. Gimbal availability and quality
Next up, does the drone come with a gimbal, can it attach one, and how good is it?
If you remember from the parts of a drone section, the gimbal provides stability for the drone’s camera while it’s in the air. It’s crucial for getting crisp pictures and smooth videos.
Gimbals aren’t necessary on cheaper drones and ones purely meant for recreation. However, if you’re trying to take quality pictures and videos, a gimbal is highly recommended.
10. Storage options
Where do your pictures and videos go right after you take them in the air? Hopefully, to some sort of storage, or they’re lost forever.
Most of these drones come with onboard storage and/or and the ability to use an external storage device, such as a micro SD card, to store your media.
External storage is usually preferred, but it can typically hold more than onboard and you can carry multiple to increase the storage available to you during flight sessions.
11. Size & weight
Size determines whether the drone can be flied safely indoors, how easy it is to carry and transport, and typically how powerful the drone is. Weight is also an important factor, as it determines how much payload you can carry, as well as the drone’s portability.
Thankfully, most manufacturers have taken both of these into account when designing their drones. Size and weight are typically balanced to give you the best possible flying experience.
Other than size and weight, a drone’s portability can be determined by:
- How easy it is to carry
- Can it be packed easily?
- Does it have a case available to hold the drone, its controller, and its accessories/parts?
- Does it fold down?
Recent drone models have made portability a more important factor, as many pilots (not just professional ones) want to travel with their drones.
13. FPV capability
FPV stands for First Person View.
A drone with FPV capability allows you to see, through a monitor or goggles, what your drone is seeing in real time. Not only does your ability to take precise pictures and videos increase dramatically, getting a bird’s eye view of the world is a pretty amazing experience.
Not all drones come with FPV capability. Some come with a monitor or goggles. Some come with the capability but the parts need to be bought separately. But A LOT more models, including those in cheaper tiers, are starting to come with FPV components fully built in.
In my opinion, this is the best time ever to get into drone flying, as the price-to-features ratio on models in every price range is quite astounding.
14. GPS and autonomous flight modes
Now we’re starting to get into more advanced features.
The more advanced drones come with GPS, which allows the drone to sense its own position. This gives it the capability for autonomous flight modes.
Put simply, autonomous flight modes are very cool. You can set the drone to execute a certain flight path, and it will do so automatically leaving you free to control the camera. It makes getting expert quality shots much easier. Even novice pilots can pick it up quickly.
Autonomous flight is one of the greatest advances in consumer drone technology, and it has opened up massive amounts of opportunity.
15. Flight speed
Flight speed is another important spec for many pilots. Unfortunately, it isn’t stated very often on product pages. You typically have to do a little digging to find it for a particular model.
Flight speed is crucial for racing drones. That should be a no-brainer. But it’s also important for professional pilots who want to film fast objects, such as race cars or animals.
The drone needs to be fast enough to keep up, even in unsavory environmental conditions.
16. Remote control options
Here’s another feature that isn’t often stated explicitly: Options on the remote control.
Every drone remote control allows you to adjust throttle (power) and direction (positioning) of the aircraft. But camera drone transmitters can also come with options to take pictures, videos, and adjust inflight settings. Some drones even allow you to control it using your smartphone.
Make sure to pay attention to the options available on any remote control of the drones you’re considering.
17. Accessories available
Here are a few types of accessories drone pilots like to consider:
- Extra propellers
- Extra batteries
- Carrying case
- Landing gear (if it doesn’t come with any)
- Propeller guard
- Landing pad
- Camera filters (I’m a big fan of PolarPro)
The right accessories can enhance your flight substantially, so when comparing drones also check out the accessories available for each one.
18. Bundle options available
Finally, also be sure to look at the bundle options available.
Many drones come in packages with just the drone and its controller (essentials) and packages that come with a range of accessories as well.
The bundles are typically cheaper than buying each accessory by themselves, and they usually include items you might not have thought of (like screws and tighteners).