One of the best parts of the Sidewalker Daily community is all of the wonderful people we get to meet along the way. Our community consists of all different types of travelpreneurs: videographers, photographers, vloggers, bloggers, influencers, journalists – and the list goes on. What started off as a small community on Instagram has grown to over 70,000+ authentic followers from around the world.
We decided to branch off into the land of Facebook, where we launched our private Facebook group, “Travel Blogger + Influencer Society by Sidewalker Daily”. This group differs from our Instagram page as it digs deeper into topics that are relevant to travelpreneurs. From topics such as, “what is the top drone for beginners,” to “how to pitch to a brand,” to “how to disclose a sponsorship on Instagram,” we love being able to support our community of some of the best content creators from around the world.
When it comes to the top drones for beginners, you have to ask the experts.
Cue in Brandon Burkley and Amy Seder, a professional content creation duo who work on film and photo projects for some of the biggest hotel brands in the world, such as the Hyatt and St. Regis.
We met Brandon and Amy on a press trip that we organized and hosted in the beautiful country of Jamaica. There are some people in this world that you meet during these trips that you know you’ll stay friends long after the project is over. When we received a question in our Facebook group asking about the best drones for beginners, we knew Brandon was the right person to shed some light on this topic…he is a FAA Part 107 certified remote pilot after all.
So here it is…an overview of the top drones for beginners by Brandon Burkley.
Drones have opened up a whole new world of creative possibilities for the traveling filmmaker and photographer. They’ve been around within the film industry for quite some time now, however, these were typically very expensive, heavy, difficult to use and unreliable pieces of equipment. Now, with innovators like DJI, drones have become incredibly small, easy to use and affordable for the consumer, prosumer and professional markets alike. I was asked recently by the Sidewalker Daily team to to share my recommendations for the best starter drone. The question came from their private Facebook group by one of their community members:
“Any advice on a good beginner drone? I am scared to commit to an expensive drone, so I’m looking for a cheaper one that ticks the boxes for a travel blogger: Good quality photos, lightweight & not crazy expensive.”
I’ve spent the last few years shooting with several different drones and I’ll share the long and short of my personal opinion.
If you’re looking for the best beginner drone with camera, look no further.
To answer this question quickly:
Go with a DJI Mavic Air or Mavic Pro. When it comes to a good starter drone, these models are great and tick all the boxes mentioned in the question above. I’ll explain these in greater detail below.
Now for the long-winded answer:
First off, I would recommend sticking with a drone from DJI. They have been the most reliable, feature rich and easy to fly drones. They also make some of the smallest drones in the market that outperform most competitors by a long shot. I do want to say that I’ve only owned drones from DJI.
I’ve tried out and used drones from other manufacturers briefly, but quickly dismissed them as they were either (1) too hard to use, (2) did not take photos/videos to the quality I wanted or (3) were way too expensive. A lot of drone companies come and go, but there’s a reason why DJI has most of the market share and why they’ve been the most successful – in short, their drones are the best. That’s why so many in the industry consider DJI the one stop shop for top drones for beginners.
The following are drones that I’ve used and can recommend for the purpose of this article. I’ve also used more expensive drones such as the Inspire 2 (which I love), which have their purpose for more professional film jobs, but I’ve omitted them here as I’m covering the best affordable and lightweight drones for beginners (if you’re interested in higher performing drones, please shoot me a message!). I’ve included a brief description on their specific purpose as well as pros and cons.
1. Mavic Air ($800-$1000) – Ultimate travel drone, extremely small, lightweight and portable
Latest drone from DJI, packed with new tech
Extremely lightweight and portable, fits in the palm of your hand, folds up and easily fits in a camera bag
Higher bitrate video (4K @ 100 mbps compared to 4K @ 60 mbps on Mavic Pro), impressive quality for its size
Great quality raw photo shooting, includes HDR and interval shooting
Not as stable with light winds or high altitude
Flight time is only around 20 min. (as opposed to around 30 min. on Mavic Pro)
Photo/video quality not as great as Phantom, Inspire or higher quality drones
2. Mavic Pro ($900 – $1300) – Great travel drone, small, lightweight and portable
Lightweight and folds up to fit in your camera bag
Great quality video shooting up to 4K
Flight time is around 30 min., excellent for a drone of this size
Older tech, released over a year prior to Mavic Air
Shoots at a lower max bitrate (4K @ 60 mbps) as opposed to the less expensive Mavic Air that shoots at a higher bitrate (4K @ 100 mbps)
Not as small and lightweight as Mavic Air
3. Phantom 4 Pro ($1500 – $1800) – Mid-range high performing drone in a carry-on package
Great quality video and photos alike, noticeably better than both Mavic Air and Mavic Pro
Offers 4K @ 60fps shooting for ultra high res slow motion video
Incredible performance, flies at up to 45 mph (72 kph) and stable in the sky even at moderate to high winds
Great flight time of 30 min.
Much larger than Mavic Air and Mavic Pro, essentially an extra carry-on for travel
More expensive than Mavic Air and Mavic Pro
So what’s my top pick for the best starter drone?
Overall, if I were to choose one drone for a beginner just starting out, I would say go with the Mavic Air. I’ve taken this with me on some more intensive travel and adventure projects lately and it’s been incredibly reliable and high performing for the price. The quality of photos and videos, especially after exporting and rendering for web, is essentially unnoticeable when compared to the Phantom 4 Pro. Also, it’s tiny, incredibly portable and less traceable and daunting in the sky. Which leads me to my next point…
Before you buy a drone, you should definitely understand that you’re going to immediately draw more attention to yourself and with that, have more issues with people harassing you on your travels. There are also permitting and customs implications for every single country, which are changing constantly. I’ve been all over the world and try to always do my homework before going somewhere new. I typically do a quick Google search, scan the DJI forums, etc. before packing my drone for travel.
Typically, most countries allow you to have a drone under a certain weight for recreational use. There are always flight guidelines and restrictions that each country has, so make sure to look into these. Other countries are more restrictive and require you to obtain a permit and/or insurance to enter the country with your drone. Some countries and cities do not permit drone flight whatsoever, e.g., Morocco – don’t try to bring a drone here, they’ll seize it upon entry. Always do your research!
Also, I have a Part 107 Remote Pilot license, which is required to operate drones for commercial use here in the United States. This requires you to master a certain body of knowledge, not just about drones, but flight principles, airspace requirements, weather, etc. and you must pass a knowledge test, which is very similar to the private pilot’s exam (please message me if you’re interested in more information on this).
You really only need this if you want to be contracted out for a film job, fly for some other commercial purpose, or fly outside of the standard recreational limitations. However, most bloggers and casual content creators don’t have this and don’t really need this as everyone is allowed to fly for “recreational” use in the US with a standard set of parameters, e.g., don’t fly over 400 ft, don’t fly over people, don’t fly in restricted air space, etc.
DJI recently released firmware updates for all their drones that inhibit flight if you were to try to take off in certain restricted airspace, known as “geo locking.” Luckily, they have a website where you can identify restricted areas before you fly and unlock certain “authorization areas,” that require you to get permission before you fly (see site below).
Flying a drone well takes a lot of work and practice, but every year the technology is improving and it gets easier and more automated. If you have a lot of experience with video games and joysticks, the hand-eye coordination is fairly transferable, however if you are not experienced with multiple joysticks (like Amy who will only play a Nintendo Wii), there is a fairly steep learning curve. Things do often go slightly wrong – connections cut out, winds pick up, your screen goes black for a few seconds, and it is important to keep your cool.
Finally, there are so many restrictions and permitting requirements out there that it quickly starts to become overwhelming and may make you question, do I really need this thing? Drones are amazing tools and allow for incredible cinematic shots that are now essentially a must for any travel film project these days. They also give you so many other options for both film and photo in expanding possibilities for new creative angles for your shots.
The one rule of thumb I always follow – use common sense! Don’t be that idiot out there flying your drone next to an airport, into someone else’s backyard, right over people’s heads, etc. Get amazing shots, but do so by maintaining a low profile. These are amazing tools for endless creative possibilities, let’s make sure we keep our rights to use them!
Brandon Burkley is co-founder of Away Lands, a travel lifestyle inspired film and photo production company, along with his partner Amy Seder. He is a filmmaker, photographer and FAA Part 107 certified remote pilot (and is currently working on his private pilot’s license). Brandon and Amy have worked on film and photo projects for clients such as Hyatt, St. Regis, Sauza Tequila and many other brands across the world.
You can learn more about Away Lands and check out their portfolio here.
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