Does a drone come with a camera? [A complete guide to camera drones]

When you are first looking at buying a drone it can be confusing when comparing a load of different models. Quite often you will come across drones that come with a fixed camera. That means that they come with a camera preinstalled that is not able to be removed or changed. You’ll have to select a drone based on the camera as much as the flight characteristics. When you get into the higher end brands drones have cameras that are replaceable and then you can be much pickier about the quality and hardware. In this article we are going to go through everything you need to know about drones and if they come with a camera.

Does a drone come with a camera? Yes. There are a range of commercially available drones that come with a fixed camera. Most drones over the price of $100 come with some form of camera. The cheaper the drone the less quality you can expect from the camera but the midrange price drones have a fantastic camera. If you are a professional, and you want full control over the camera, you must select a professional camera drone where you can swap out the sensor and add lenses.

Let’s take a look at the different cameras that are used in drones and the quality that you can expect from them.

Which camera is used in a drone?

With each release of new drones the manufacturers are improving the quality of the camera. Drone prices have remained relatively stable because as the technology gets cheaper the manufacturers are opting to keep the retail price the same but include better hardware and more advanced cameras. Obviously, the drone can only carry so much weight so the technology advances at the same rate as the miniaturization of the camera components.

DJI is one of the leading manufacturers of consumer level camera drones and each new model has a more advanced camera. This manufacturer also has a wide range of drones which span a huge range of camera types. In the section below we will look at the different types of camera that each current drone has in the DJI range.

Most drones come with fixed cameras

Most drones come with fixed cameras and there is no way to simply remove or replace them. When you are choosing a drone to buy the camera features and functionality will need to be one of the most important decisions that you need to make. For example, here are the cheapest through most expensive drone camera specifications for different DJI drones.

DJI Mavic mini

The DJI Mavic mini is sold as the every day fly camera. It has a 30 minute maximum flight time, is only 249 g, has a full kilometre high definition video transmission, it has a three axis gimbal and a 2.7 K camera. The drone does not come with a 4K camera but, to be honest with you, unless you are a professional videographer this drone has more than enough resolution. Here are a few of the camera specifications:

  • sensor – 1/2.3 inch CMOS, 12 megapixels
  • lens – field of view 83°, shooting range of 1 m to infinity.
  • Video resolution – 2.7 K, full high definition.

You can see that based on these specifications the DJI Mavic mini is a fantastic camera drone that comes at an incredibly reasonable price range. Let’s take a look at the next level up in the DJI range.

Mavic air 2

The DJI Mavic air 2 is the ultimate mid-range drone for the hobby photographer. It has incredible videography and photography abilities, has a flight time of 34 minutes, it has active obstacle avoidance and takes power and portability to the next level. They offer a range of intelligence shooting functions and amazing image quality while making flying safer and therefore more enjoyable. The camera on this drone comes with:

  • sensor – 1/2 inch CMOS, 48 megapixels.
  • Lens – 84° field of view, focus range 1 m to infinity.
  • Video resolution – up to ultra high definition 4K.

As you can see compared to the DJI Mavic mini, you are getting many more megapixels and a much higher video resolution for a higher buying price. The lens in this drone gives you the same field of view and focus range because drones in this range often do not have interchangeable lenses and therefore they require a lens that is able to do a range of distances.

Phantom 4 pro V 2.0

The Phantom 4 pro V 2.0 spans the consumer and professional worlds of drone camera technology. The phantom 4 pro has a much better camera and is able to shoot at 60 frames per second. That will make for awesome slow motion drone footage that we all love. When you are buying this level of camera they really put a lot of effort into making the camera produce the best images and photos possible. That starts with an awesome gimbal. These are the features of the camera:

  • sensor – 1 inch CMOS, 20 million pixels.
  • Lens – field of view 84°, autofocus at 1 m to infinity.
  • Video resolution – cinema 4K at 60 frames per second.

Compared to the other drones in this article, above, you can see that you are getting a much larger sensor with a significantly larger number of pixels. The lens provides about the same level of focus and field of view but the quality of the lens is much higher and results in clearer images. The drone also has a very precise mechanical shutter which removes rolling shutter distortion when capturing fast-moving subjects and flying at high speeds.

There is no doubt that paying more for your drone results in a much higher image quality. Like I’ve mentioned before, these drones come with a fixed camera. That means you will be purchasing a camera with a drone and if you want to upgrade the camera you need to also upgrade and buy a new drone. When you get into professional level drones there is also a way to have interchangeable cameras. And at this price point the cameras do not come with the drone. You have to buy them separately.

More expensive drones have interchangeable cameras

The professional level drones in the DJI series are used for filmmaking as they have a 360° rotating gimbal and a 4K camera. An example of the current professional level camera drone is the inspire 2. This comes with two options for cameras. The cameras are interchangeable at the gimbal and plug straight into the body of the drone. All of these cameras are designed for cinema graphic level quality and have interchangeable lenses on top of the sensor just like DSLR photographers are used to. These cameras are:

  • ZENMUSE X7
    • the sensor size is 23.5×12.5 mm
    • it supports a number of lenses
    • and the resolution is up to 6K at 23 frames per second.
  • ZENMUSE X 5S
    • the sensor is a CMOS, 4/3 inch sensor with 20.8 megapixels.
    • It supports a range of lenses.
    • And up to 4K video resolution.

These interchangeable cameras come with the power of having interchangeable lenses. Lenses are an important part of giving your shot a different feel and controlling the distortion effects that are common in drone footage. The freedom to change lenses is absolutely vital to getting the feel and the look of the shop perfect. There is no doubt that these interchangeable cameras give the drone flyer ultimate creative freedom.

Can a drone take pictures?

Yes, a drone is able to take pictures as well as video. The quality of the photos will be determined by the sensor and lens of the camera as well as how well the gimbal is able to hold the camera still during the shutter opening and closing.

In the past the sorts of images that drones are able to take was limited to people that had access to helicopters. Aerial photography has become easier than ever because of the advancement of drone technology. For example, you can take your hands off the controls and most drones will stay in the position that it currently is so that you can focus on composing the image rather than piloting the drone and keeping it steady.

There has never been a better time to take up aerial photography as a hobby. Some quick tips for drone photography are:

  • permissions – make sure you have permission to be flying on the land that you are over and also you have permission to take photos of the people that are in the frame.
  • Registering your drone if required – in some states and provinces you need to register your drone before flying.
  • Height rules – this is a very important one you need to make sure that your drone is not going over the maximum permissible flight height and you must keep it in line of sight.
  • Stay away from restricted areas. You should not fly your drone close to power stations, airports, military bases, government owned buildings, or other government property. You can also not fly over moving cars in some countries.

Can drones take pictures at night?

Even though drones are fitted with lights it is advisable and, in some places, illegal to fly your drone at night. You need to get special permissions and undergo specific pilot training if you want to fly your drone at night. This will involve demonstrating that you are able to control your drone under observation by a professional drone pilot and gain a certain amount of certification. In some places you will also have to submit a flight plan to fly at night.

Technically speaking there is no reason why your drone hasn’t got the capability of taking photos at night. This will simply involve increasing the ISO and decreasing the shutter speed to capture as much light as possible. However, because drones do not stay exactly still you may experience some form of blurring in the photo at night. Choose your flight time and location so that you are flying in minimum wins so that your images come out as perfect as you imagined they would.

Let’s take a look at the most important things that you should consider when buying a drone with a camera.

What should I look for when buying a drone with a camera?

Here are the things that you should look at when you are buying a drone with a camera. If taking photos and videos is the main reason why you are considering purchasing a drone, the amount of time you spend on making sure the drone can do exactly what you want will be well spent. Making sure the camera has the exact features and specifications that you require will mean that you will have no buyers remorse when the drone lands on your doorstep. Here, are some of the most important aspects that you should consider when buying a drone with a camera.

Flight time

One of the first things I look at is nothing to do with the camera but rather the flight time. Drones are starting to level out at the 30 minute flight time. That is currently the limit to the technology. They will need to be a huge jump forward in battery technology or miniaturization of electronics before we see the 40 minute flight time broken in consumer level drones.

A longer flight time just means that you are able to focus on capturing the shop rather than rushing because you have limited flight time. This can be counteracted by buying more batteries and I often recommend that if you are buying a camera drone that you purchase at least two batteries is that will give you about one hour of flight time. That is more than enough for most photographers to get the exact shots they need while having a little bit of a buffer in case things don’t go to plan while they are in the air.

Lens

When we talk about the lens, we must address all of these components:

Field of view: expressed in degrees and tells you how wide the drone can capture an image.

35 mm format equivalent: The term 35 mm equivalent focal length is a comparison of the field of view seen through a digital camera lens compared to the field of view produced by the older 35 mm film cameras.

Aperature: Also known as f-stops and controls how much light gets into the sensor and the depth of feild.

Shooting range: will tell you how close and far away you are able to focus on an object (expressed in meters and to inflinity)

Each different camera on a drone will have a different array of values for each of the above. Drones typically are not used for portrait or other close up shots so manufacturers make a lens that is suitable for long range focusing with a wide field of view for those awesome landscape shots!

Sensor

The sensor is where light lands after it passes through the lens. This is the part of the camera that turns the light into an electronic signal so that it can be processed and turned into a digital image. Here are the most important parts that you should pay close attention to:

Sensor type

CMOS – Complementary metal-oxide semiconductor. Includes solid-state circuitry at each and every photosite, and can manipulate the data for each pixel right in the sensor. The CMOS sensor can respond to lighting conditions in ways that a CCD can’t.

CCD – Charged-coupled device. Captures photons (light particles) as electrical charges in each photosite (a light-sensitive area that represents a pixel). After exposure, the charges are moved off the chip to an amplifier located in one corner of the sensor.

Effective pixels – this tells you how many pixels can respond to the incoming light and correlates with the maximum resolution of the image.

Most new camera have a CMOS type of sensor as they have better imaging processing capability. Even the Mavic Mini (DJI’s entry level drone) has this type of sensor. The number of effective pixels and the quality capable from each camera is related to price. When you are buying a more expensive drone you will always get a better camera included. That is, until you get to the professional level drones that have interchangeable cameras and sensors.

ISO range

The ISO range tells you how sensitive the sensor is to light. Low numbers require lots of light entering the camera and result in a better image. Higher settings are required when there is less light entering the camera and result in a grainy and noisy image.

ISO ranges typically start at 100 and go upwards to 12800 when operating the camera in manual mode. It’s always best to use the lowest ISO range possible and increase the amount of light entering the camera. If you are dealing with a really bright environment you should use neutral density filters (NDFs) that are like sunglasses for your camera.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed of a camera is the length of time that the camera allows light to touch the sensor. In short, it is how long your drone camera spends taking a photo.

When you use a long shutter speed the first effect that you encounter is motion blur. Motion blur can be used creatively to give a sense of movement and excitement to an image.

When the shutter speed is short it is able to “freeze” fast moving objects in place. This requires a lot more light to enter the camera as the sensor is exposed to light for only a short period of time.

The shutter speed can be anywhere from 8 seconds (lots of blur) to 1/8000 of a second (very sharp clear image). It’ll take a while for you to get a sense of what sorts of shutter speed you need to get the desired effect or creative angle that you want. Getting a drone with a longer flight time will also take the time pressure off and allow for lots of variations of the settings to capture the perfect shot.

Photography modes

One of the last important factors of drones for photography is the different photography modes that you can use. This is starting to get very technical and for most people this will not need to factor into their decision making. As an example of the different photography modes here is what the DJI Mavic 2 Pro offers:

Single shot: will take a single shot and it what most of us are used to with a camera.

Burst shooting: will take 3 – 5 quick-fire images so you can select the best one.

Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB): The camera will choose one exposure (based upon what its metering thinks is correct) and then it will take one other shot on either side of this best guess (one over exposed and one underexposed).

Interval: Will take an image every so often as the settings dictate. Evert 2 – 60 seconds.

RAW: A RAW image offers very little processing from the image sensor. The camera saves the settings but does not process the image. There is much more freedom to edit the image but the file size can be 2 – 6 times larger than the processed version.

Taking a moment to think about the sorts of things you will shoot and how you’ll best be able to use these modes will be the best thing you can do.

If you want more information about drone photography check out my other article – drone photography for beginners – click here.

Conclusion

So there we have it, now you know everything you need to know about drones and cameras. The most important thing is that you choose a camera drone that matches what you want to do with it. And if you are a professional and you have the budget for it you are able to purchase a drone that has interchangeable sensors and lenses. However, this comes at quite a premium price.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!