Drone and Drone Accessories Buyers Guide
I'm a technology guy. People are always asking me for advice on the latest piece of kit.
Most of the equipment that I use comes in a lot of different versions. If you're not careful, you'll end up overpaying for features you don't need or — worse — you'll spend a good amount of money only to learn down the road that it's an inferior version of what you really wanted (e.g., the standard DJI Inspire 1 vs the X5R — or the DJI Phantom 3 4k vs the DJI Phantom 3 Professional).
I spend days researching all of the pros and cons of all the permutations of my equipment before making the purchase so I've linked to the exact version that you'll want for each item below.
Here are my recommendations if you are just getting started with aerial photography:
Airborne Camera/Drone: DJI Phantom 3 Professional
DJI is currently the king of the drone market. They hit some bumps in the road over the last few years but now they've really found their stride. They release new groundbreaking technology every other month (their latest is a cropdusting drone for farming!). While I would love to be the proud owner of the tremendous $4,400 DJI Inspire 1 Pro, the Phantom 3 Professional is the smart choice for most people.
The Phantom 3 Professional is much smaller (it fits in a backpack!), still provides professional-grade quality, and is available at a much lower price point, making it the perfect tool for most jobs. The Phantom line has received an upgrade — the Phantom 4, Phantom 4 Pro, and Phantom 4 Pro+ — and they are tremendous drones... although they have also driven the price of the Phantom 3 Professional way down so it's still a perfect pick for your first serious drone. If your drone needs to go 50+ miles per hour, look into the Inspire line but if you're completely happy with a drone that "only" does 35 miles per hour, stick with the Phantom 3 Professional.
The Phantom 3 Professional is a fantastic airborne camera that can shoot 4K video and 4000 x 3000 pixel images in a variety of modes from single shot to time-lapse to burst. It can even shoot auto-bracketed images if you are interested in making HDR photographs.
Warning: there are a lot of different Phantom 3 models. Be sure to select the Professional for the most bang for your buck.
Do not even consider the Phantom 3 Standard or Phantom 3 4k — they both use a much lower-powered transmission system that results in flight and video transmission distances slashed by 80%.
Once you get your Phantom, there are a few must-have accessories that you'll want to buy:
You'll get 15-20 minutes of flight time with each battery and they take about an hour to charge. The batteries for the Phantom 2 and Phantom 3 look nearly identical but only the Phantom 3 batteries will work. I would also recommend you purchase genuine DJI batteries. There are third-party vendors out there but DJI will occasionally require software updates on your batteries and in at least one instance in the past, the updates resulted in turning 3rd-party batteries into expensive bricks.
Yes, you can fit your entire Phantom 3 setup in a hard-sided backpack! I also own a Pelican case with a custom foam insert for my Phantom but have not used it once since purchasing the backpack. The backpack will fit extra props, four batteries, your drone, tablet, cables, charger, tablet sunshade and still have a little room to spare. This backpack is a must!
64 GB UHS-1 MicroSD Card
The world of memory cards is intentionally obtuse. The "standards" by which they are measured are eclipsed by new standards every couple of years and it makes buying a new card really difficult. I'm going to make it easy for you. If you are shooting high definition photos or videos, a faster card will result in faster save times. That means more shooting time for you. This is especially important if you are shooting a series of RAW (and you should always shoot RAW when given the option!) bracketed images. The fastest — and while we're at it, largest — card that is compatible with the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is a 64 GB UHS-1 MicroSD Card. Here's the crazy part... you know how to tell it is a UHS-1 card? It has that "U" with the "3" inside of it. Somewhere, in a secret volcano layer an evil genius is patting himself on the back for that one. Anyway, don't worry about all of the research. Pick up this sub-$40 card and know that you've got the best. Actually, do what I did and buy two. Better to have two and need one than to have one and need two!
Phantom 3 Battery Charging Hub
Once you have more than a couple batteries, the charging hub is a must have! Just check out the reviews on Amazon and you'll see everybody is raving over it. It allows you to plug in up to four batteries at once. The smart charger will then top off the battery with the most juice first before moving on to the next until all are charged. With this bad boy and four batteries, you can be flying non-stop all day long!
Phantom 3 Remote Controller Monitor Hood (Tablet Option)
There's nothing worse than taking your day out on a beautiful sunny day and not being able to see your tablet because of glare. There are a million options out there for monitor hoods but the original from DJI is still the best in my opinion. You may not always need it but on that perfect sunny day, you'll be glad you took out this $20 insurance policy.
Anker 1-foot Lightning Cable (Apple MFI-Certified)
You see most Phantom operators wasting a ton of time wrapping their standard length iPad/iPhone Lightning cables all around their controllers. Doing so takes up the slack and helps prevent you from snagging your cable but you also run the risk of accidentally tripping one of the switches or buttons on your remote — plus it's a huge waste of time when you're trying to get that perfect sunset shot. Anker makes the best-rated Apple MFI-Certified (that part is important!) Lightning cable that I've found. Their 1-foot version is not only the perfect size for your Phantom setup but it's also the best $6 you will spend at Amazon today.
RC LiPo Battery Safety Bag
If you plan on taking your drone on an airplane with you, you're going to need a few of these or your drone may be denied boarding. LiPo batteries are extremely powerful but they also are highly volatile and may spontaneously combust. These bags simple suffocate any fire in the very unlikely event that one of your batteries catches fire. They're a requirement for flights but it's not a bad idea to store your batteries in an RC LiPo Battery Safety Bag at home, too, for obvious reasons.
Make sure that you carry your batteries on to the plane with you — even if you check your drone. Airlines allow LiPos to be in the cabin but do not allow them to be checked. If you want to maximize safety and the life of your battery, it's also a good idea to store your batteries with a 20%-30% charge.
My New Favorite Drone: The ultra-packable DJI Mavic Pro
The Workhorse Drone: DJI Phantom 3 Professional
Long-Distance Airborne Camera/Drone: DJI Phantom 2 with H4-3D Gimbal
Action Camera: GoPro HERO4 BLACK
Primary Camera: The tremendous Sony a6300
The Ultimate Handheld Gimbal: DJI Osmo