An aerial viewpoint takes your photography and videography to the next level. Tested and reviewed by CNET, these drones can help you up your game.
Updated June 13, 2023 5:47 a.m. PT
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Andrew LanxonEditor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
ExpertiseLaptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and dronesCredentials
More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
One of the coolest gadgets that you can get your hands on is a drone. There are many reasons you might want to operate one, and piloting a small flying robot is awesome. Firstly, it's incredibly fun to steer them. Secondly, if you're a passionate photographer, it can be a great tool to frame landscape shots. Drone cameras can give you a new perspective that is amazing.
The best drones in 2023 can capture the most majestic views that few have seen before, especially if you live in a rural or suburban area. You're sure to wow your friends and family. And these days, you can get a great drone with a camera for less than $500.
There are plenty of affordable options for drone owners that offer various combinations of features, video quality and prices to suit every drone enthusiast. So, whether you're looking to get into drone photography or just want to enjoy the thrill of the flight, we've got some recommendations.
We've outlined our top picks for the best drones for beginners, intermediate users and "prosumer" enthusiasts, as well as an introductory drone for folks interested in racing, which is a whole scene unto itself. We'll update this list periodically. We've also included a more in-depth buying guide and FAQ on the best drones below, with more information about the key things to consider before you buy.
With its large 1-inch image sensor, the DJI Air 2S is able to take great-looking photos and videos from the sky. It'll shoot video at up to 5.4k resolution, while still images can be taken in DNG raw format at up to 20 megapixels. The drone has a variety of intelligent flight modes too that makes it particularly easy to capture cinematic footage even when you're out hiking by yourself, including a mode that follows you as you walk through the hills and a mode that automatically circles a point of interest.
One thing it doesn't do is flip the camera over to let you shoot in portrait orientation. That's a shame, as it means that capturing vertical video for TikTok or Instagram Reels is more difficult as you'll need to crop your video down the middle, losing a lot of resolution in the process. If that's a priority for you, look towards DJI's Mini 3 Pro.
It's as easy to fly as others in the DJI range and it has a range of obstacle sensors to help keep it in the air and avoid it plouwing headlong into a tree or a wall. Its maximum flight time of up to 31 minutes is solid for a drone of this size but it can be bought with a bundle of extra batteries for those of you that want to capture more footage from the sky.
Its folding design makes it quite easy to fit into a photography backpack, but it's physically larger and heavier than DJI's 'Mini' range, so keep that in mind if you're after the lightest model to take on your travels. But its combination of flight time, automated flying modes and excellent image quality make it a superb all-rounder that's well worth considering.
The DJI Mini may have launched back in 2020, but it's still available to buy today and it's still a superb option for those of you looking to take your first steps into the world of aerial photography. Its compact, folding size means it's super easy to chuck in a bag and carry anywhere while its 249g weight means you don't need to register it with the FAA (in the US).
It uses the same control scheme as other DJI drones, which we've found to be easy for beginners learning the ropes while allowing more advanced flyers the flexibility to test their skills. It can fly for up to 31 minutes on a single charge and has a flying range of up to 6.2 miles (10 kilometers).
Its small camera unit is stabilized for smoother footage and it can shoot video at 4K at up to 30 frames per second. Still images are captured at 12 megapixels.
One of the reasons that the foldable drone is so light is that it has no sensors for obstacle avoidance. That means there will be a learning curve and potentially some crashing. So while it is an affordable beginner options, those of you with no existing flying skills should start out practicing in wide-open spaces until you get the hang of things. Once you do get more confident, the Mini 2 is stable, nimble, safe to fly and quieter than other DJI models.
While DJI's Air 2s and Mavic 3 offer superb image quality from the air, they lack the ability to flip the camera over and shoot video and photos in portrait orientation. As a result, those of you wanting to use your footage for your TikTok page or Instagram Reels will need to crop the video right down the middle, losing a lot of resolution in the process and making it harder to compose your shots when you're out on location.
The Mini 3 Pro has no such problem, as with a simple tap of an on-screen button its camera flips over into portrait orientation, allowing you to capture social content using the full view and maximum 4K resolution of the sensor. Videos can be shot at up to 60 frames per second, while still images can be captured in DNG at an impressive 48 megapixels.
Its folding design allows it to shrink down to something little bigger than a standard can of coke but it still packs a variety of sensors that help stop you crashing it into trees. Keep in mind though that its tiny size and 249g weight does mean that it's susceptible to strong winds and in blustery conditions will have to fight harder to remain airborne -- reducing your flight times.
Best FPV drone for exhilarating first-person flying
If you've been on Instagram or TikTok recently then you'll almost certainly have seen exhilarating videos of similar FPV drones flying through bowling alleys, factories or doing other incredible aerial maneuvers. To achieve that, FPV pilots wear headsets that let them see through the eyes of the drone, navigating those twisting turns and zooming through tight gaps as if they're behind the controls and up in the air.
And that's exactly how you'll fly the Avata; with a set of DJI FPV goggles that give you a view directly from the drone's perspective. It's an exhilarating way of flying as it really feels like you're up in the air controlling the drone from behind a steering wheel. It's a more extreme way of flying than you'll get from more typical drones like the Air 2S, with more instant controls and faster speeds.
The upside is that you get fast and exciting footage of your drone speeding through forests or through impossibly-small obstacles which you simply can't achieve with other drones on this list. The downside is that the first-person perspective can make you quite nauseous, particularly if you suffer at all from motion sickness. I found I could manage 5-10 minutes of flying at a time before needing an extended break.
The nature of wearing the goggles also means you're unable to see around you -- which makes it more difficult to spot any incoming dangers, such as rescue helicopters. As such, you're legally obliged in many areas (including the UK) to have a spotter next to you keeping an eye out on your behalf as you race your drone around the sky.
The Avata is smaller and lighter than DJI's first FPV drone and has built-in guards around its propellers which allow it to bump into walls, trees or other obstacles without necessarily being taken out of the air.
Its 4K, 60 frames-per-second video looks great and it's easy to fly using the DJI Motion Controller, which lets you simply maneuver the drone based on your hand movements. You'll see a crosshair in your view that moves around when you move the controller -- wherever you point the crosshair, the drone will follow. It's a simple 'point-and-click' way of flying that I really enjoyed.
The DJI Mavic 3's relatively high starting price of $2,000 makes it significantly more expensive than others on this list, but if you're a professional or enthusiastic photographer wanting superb photos and videos from the sky then it's an investment that might be worth making.
The Mavic 3 packs a 4/3rd-size image sensor which is physically larger than any other image sensor you'll get from other drones on this page. That bigger sensor allows it to capture more light and offer better dynamic range. As a result, its 5.1K-resolution video looks superb, with tons of detail for cropping into and excellent exposures, even in high-contrast scenarios.
It's got sensors all-round too, keeping it safe from smashing into obstacles, while its huge 46-minute maximum flight time is better than almost any other drone around. It folds down to the size of a large camera lens, so it's relatively easy to get into a photography backpack, but those of you wanting a tiny drone for travelling should still look to the DJI Mini 3 Pro.
The DJI FPV was the company's original first-person drone, offering a beginner-friendly entrance into the exhilarating world of FPV drone flying. We loved its lighting-fast 97mph top speed and its solid 4K video quality. And while the DJI FPV has been somewhat usurped by the new DJI Avata which is smaller, lighter and safer (thanks to built-in propeller guards), the original DJI FPV is still worth considering.
That's largely down to its price, which is now around $1,000 for a full kit with everything you need to fly, from the drone itself, to the controller and the original FPV headset. The DJI Avata comes in at $1,170 for the similar 'Fly Smart' combo which I personally think is worth paying (as it includes the motion controller which makes FPV flying much easier) but if you want an FPV experience at the lowest cost then the cheaper DJI FPV might be the better option.
Though mainstream drones like the DJI Mini can fly fast, racing drones fly even faster, capable of hitting speeds above 100 mph. They're also much more agile, built for acrobatic maneuvers with you at a set of manual controls. That means there's a learning curve that usually involves some crashes.
Getting started will be neither quick nor easy, but for a racing drone, the Emax Tinyhawk 2 keeps things relatively simple. You'll still need to learn how to pilot the thing, but the process will be less expensive and less frustrating than with other entry-level systems. For one thing, you don't need to worry about getting all of the individual pieces to work together -- or soldering anything, which is required for many DIY models.
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How much do drones cost?
The prices for drones varies depending on what kind of features you want or the quality you need from the camera. As with most areas of tech, price lines up with performance, with the more expensive models offering higher-resolution video with bigger image sensors and longer flight times.
DJI's range currently starts at only $450 for the Mini 2, which offers decent 4K video and strong flight times but lacks obstacle sensors or any kind of intelligent flight modes. At the higher end, the DJI Mavic 3 shoots 5.1K video with a large image sensor for pristine quality, its 40-minute flight times are class-leading and its range of obstacle sensors means it can fly autonomously to capture cinematic footage of you with minimal effort. At $2,000 though, you pay a lot for these kinds of features.
How far can drones fly?
Many drones in DJI's range can fly in huge areas, with the Mavic 3 being able to fly up to 9.3 miles (15km) away from you. That's in ideal conditions however, and sometimes you may find you get interference from other sources and the drone will advise a closer proximity.
Keep in mind too that while the drone may technically be able to fly a long way away, your local laws may not be so forgiving. In the UK, for example, your drone always has to remain in eyesight of the pilot, and the small size of these drones means they're likely going to be impossible to see once they get too far away.
How fast can drones fly?
The top speed of drones varies depending on their use for the most part. More typical camera-focused drones like the Mini 3 Pro can achieve up to 37 mph in its fastest "sport" mode, while the DJI FPV can hit a whopping 97 mph. FPV drones are designed for faster, more extreme flights so you'll typically find these drones have much higher top speeds. Some drones designed for racing can even achieve speeds of 170 mph.
What's the best DJI drone?
"Best" is of course a subjective word and what might suit your needs most may not suit someone else. If you're looking for the best image quality for beautiful landscape images, the big sensor of the DJI Mavic 3 is the one for you. Looking for the best small drone for travelling? The Mini 3 Pro's tiny design will suit you well.
If you want a generally solid all-round drone then look towards the DJI Air 2S. Its combination of travel-friendly size, excellent image quality and decent flight times means it ticks most boxes and could be the best drone for most people.
Which drones shoot vertical video for TikTok and Instagram?
While you may have seen lots of vertical videos from drones on your TikTok or Instagram feeds, the reality is that very few drones can actually shoot this video natively. Even camera-focused drones like the DJI Mavic 3 can't shoot video in portrait orientation, so drone users will have to crop their footage down the middle before uploading it to their social accounts.
The recent DJI Mini 3 Pro is one of the few drones currently able to flip its camera over and shoot vertically. It means you can take advantage of the full 4K resolution of the sensor, and have a much easier time in composing your shots as you don't need to imagine what it would like after the crop -- what you see as you fly is what you'll post to TikTok later.
How do you connect a drone camera to a phone?
Most drones -- including most of the DJI models featured here -- require you to connect your phone at some stage to act as the viewfinder and control screen for the drone. Usually that'll involve you connecting the phone physically to the controller using either a Lightning cable (for iPhones) or a USB-C cable (for Android phones) and using apps like DJI FLY. The controller then connects to the drone, showing the feed from your drone's camera right on your phone screen.
Which drones are waterproof?
In short, almost none of them. Complete waterproofing is tricky for drones as the propellers need to be able to generate downforce (so can't be fully enclosed) and short of fitting wiper blades from a car, the camera will always be susceptible to raindrops. None of the drones on this list are sold with any kind of "waterproof" promise and while you can certainly get away with flying in a few spots of rain -- or even through clouds -- if it really starts to pour then you should land immediately.
How we test drones
Like all products on CNET, any items that feature on our best lists are tested by us to make sure that they perform as well as the manufacturers claim. Nothing is taken at face value and nothing is recommended to buy based on marketing promises or specs alone. If they don't perform, they simply don't make the list.
For drones, we take them out of the city to a safe flying spot. We set them up and connect them to the controllers and our phones, just as you would. We then send them into the sky, checking out how easy they are to fly, how responsive they are and whether there are any issues with signal transmissions or physical problems such as obstacle avoidance not working properly.
We test the flight times and battery capacity in different conditions. Most manufacturer's claims of battery life are done under perfect, wind-free conditions which isn't realistic for most of us. As such, we fly them in real-world scenarios and give an indication of what actual battery life you can expect.
And we of course shoot plenty of videos and photos, looking at the image quality, at the colors and the contrast. We pay attention to the dynamic range as this will determine how well a drone can balance a bright blue sky against the darker ground. If a drone offers DNG raw photos, we use this too, and we see how well the images can be artistically edited in software like Adobe Lightroom.
Things to consider before you buy a drone
New to the world of modern drones? Don't worry, we've got you covered. Here's a quick overview of what any beginner needs to know to find the best drones for their money.
The price of the drone is only the beginning
You're going to want a couple extra batteries, some spare propellers, maybe some prop guards and perhaps a quick charger, so you're not waiting hours to fly again. You're more than likely going to crash, which could lead to repair costs -- either for replacement parts or shipping it back to the manufacturer for repairs. (This is exactly why DJI offers crash insurance for new drones.)
Before you buy a drone, it's worth spending a little time researching the price and availability of replacement parts, batteries and other accessories. And be cautious of third-party parts -- especially batteries and chargers -- which may be inferior to those made by the drone manufacturer.
Everyone will assume you're invading their privacy
When you're out flying in a public space, or even in your own backyard, anyone who sees you doing it will think you're spying on them or someone else. You could be standing in the middle of a 20-acre field with no one in sight and your drone no more than 50 feet directly overhead and you might end up answering questions about being a peeping Tom. It's happened to us. Repeatedly.
And along those same lines....
Everyone but you thinks they're dangerous
It doesn't matter if you're the safest drone pilot around or that you could do more damage hitting someone with a baseball than a drone -- onlookers may feel threatened. After all, nothing about plastic blades spinning at high speeds screams "safety."
As such, US-based pilots may benefit from an Academy of Model Aeronautics membership. Along with a whole host of benefits including access to AMA-member flying sites, the $75 annual membership protects you with $2,500,000 of comprehensive general liability insurance as well as $25,000 in accident or medical coverage, $10,000 maximum accidental death coverage and $1,000 fire, theft and vandalism coverage.
Finding places to fly can be a challenge
In population-dense places like cities and metropolitan areas, it can be difficult to find places to safely and legally fly. US national parks are off-limits. Regulations differ among state, county and municipal parks. And then there are the no-fly zones, which puts many metropolitan areas out of bounds as well as just dangerous, because of buildings, people and cars.
Before you buy a drone -- even a toy one, if you plan to fly outside -- you'll want to visit AirMap or download the FAA's B4UFly app to check for no-fly zones. These don't cover state or local ordinances, though, so you'll need to do additional research on your chosen environs before you fly.
The EU and UK's drone rules are based mostly on how heavy a drone weighs and no longer differentiate between people flying for fun, or people flying for professional purposes. Europeans among you with new drones should make sure to fully familiarize yourself with the 2022 drone regulations and ensure both you and your drones are registered before taking flight.
Any remote control aircraft except 'toys' need an FAA registration in the US
The US Federal Aviation Administration is requiring anyone who wants to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle that weighs between 0.55 pound (250 grams) and 55 pounds (approximately 25 kilograms) for recreation or hobby to register with the agency. Civil penalties for not registering such an unmanned aircraft may include fines up to $27,500. Criminal penalties may include fines up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to three years or both.
Most sub-$100 UAS drones fall under this weight. A kitchen or postal scale can be used to weigh your drone or you can check with the manufacturer. Also, this applies to both store-bought and homemade aircraft.
The UK has its own registration requirements. Essentially, owners of drones that weigh more than 250 grams must register as a drone operator, which costs £9 annually. And pilots of drones that weigh more than 250 grams must pass a free online education course every three years. Australia has promised that new rules are "on their way," but for now there are no official requirements.