Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Camera Drones

Thursday January 6, 2022
we spent a lot of time flying drones in beautiful locations.
We spent a lot of time flying drones in beautiful locations.
Credit: Steven Tata

We design all of our testing metrics to determine which consumer drone is best able to easily and reliably capture high-quality footage. To do this, we purchased the most popular amateur models on the market and flew them side by side through a series of exhaustive tests.

Video Quality


To test video quality, we fly all of our testing models along similar paths at similar times of the day to ensure that lighting conditions remain fairly consistent. We make sure these flight paths include both long, smooth panning shots and some tight twist and turns. We then closely evaluate the resulting footage for several factors: how stable the camera remains through all the maneuvers, the resolution and color quality of the images, and if the propellers ever impede the camera's view. We also pay attention to things like whether pointing the camera at the sun affects color saturation. We make all of these comparisons side by side on large, high-definition monitors that allow us to open multiple videos in the same viewing environment.

we fly in both dense and open areas at different times of day and...
We fly in both dense and open areas at different times of day and then compare all the videos side by side.
Credit: Laura Casner

Flight Performance


We evaluate flight performance by flying each drone extensively. We take each one on long out and back routes, putting them through the twisting and turning of following mountain bikers and frolicking dogs and making sure they stay steady when hovering close to the ground. This gives us a clear idea of the responsiveness of each model. We pay particular attention to how stable each model is during takeoff and landing, as these are some of the most accident-prone points in every flight. We also test each model's specific autonomous flight features. Since most of these features are designed to make capturing certain types of footage easier, we evaluate these features both in how smooth the flight appears when we use them and how good the resulting footage looks. For example, the orbit point of interest feature is meant to yield a nice circular panning shot centered around a particular point. We score these features based on how reliably and steadily the flight pattern is executed and how smooth and focused the resulting footage looks. We also make sure to evaluate the dependability of each model's automatic return to home function, though we would not recommend using such a feature unless it is a last resort (i.e., you've lost sight of or contact with the drone).

we test every aspect of performance, from the camera to the rotors.
We test every aspect of performance, from the camera to the rotors.
Credit: Laura Casner

Portability


To evaluate portability, we bring the drones on as many trips as we can. This varies from roadside car camping to backcountry ski tours. In addition to subjective evaluation, we measure and weigh each drone with any included case and controller. We note which ones are feasible for packing into a backpack and how susceptible to any damage they would be in a full bag. Some models can be tossed into a bag as an afterthought, while others can only be carried in large cases that are not very portable. Impressively, many new models have been designed for travel and some of the best cameras are found on drones that fit into an average day pack.

the dji mavic mini is a pocket-sized aircraft that is great for...
The DJI Mavic Mini is a pocket-sized aircraft that is great for travel.
Credit: Laura Casner

Ease of Use


In assessing ease of use, we consider the effort required from opening the box to getting the drone in the air. This includes initial setup of the drone, attaching rotors, downloading any required applications, and pairing the drone, controller, and smart device. We also closely evaluate the user interface on each controller and any menu options that appear on the connected smart device display. We look for joysticks that feel solid and provide good tactile feedback and on-screen menus that allow for easy navigation of in-flight functions. After many hours of flying each one of these models, our testers are able to make meaningful comparisons.

The controller plugs directly into your smartphone or tablet.
The controller plugs directly into your smartphone or tablet.
It is much easier to fly drones with controllers that have...
It is much easier to fly drones with controllers that have joysticks,than drones that are flown directly from an app on your smartphone.

Video Downlink


We also test the quality of each video downlink by completing a 3000-foot flight with each model (an exception is made for models with shorter ranges). This distance pushes the range of the drones towards the outer edge of what can be considered a reasonable and safe flight. Throughout these flights, we closely inspect the video downlinks, noting how clear each one is, if there are any decreases in quality during the flight, and if there are any glitches or loss of picture.

the calm before the flight.
The calm before the flight.
Credit: Katherine Elliott

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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.

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