When the DJI Mavic Air first arrived in the mail, the package was so light and small that I wondered if the shipper had forgotten to put the drone in the box. I’m used to handling Inspires and Phantoms – by contrast, the Mavic Air is pocket-sized. Weighing in at only 15 ounces, could it match the high bar set by its bigger brothers?
The DJI Mavic Air
Inside and Out
This is the only DJI drone I’ve ever flown in my office – the only DJI drone I’ve ever felt remotely comfortable flying in my office. My flying skills aside, bouncing a Phantom or an Inspire off a wall or a TV is likely to result in thousands of dollars worth of damage, whereas the Air feels like it would merely bump along and keep going (especially since this one came with prop guards). In fact, it felt so small to me that I was afraid to take it outside; if a breeze kicked up and blew it to the next county, I’d be upset.
The first thing I noticed when flying the Air inside was that it doesn’t have the “float” the Phantom 4 exhibits when flying indoors. In my experience flying the Phantom around warehouses – places like Costco – the Phantom exhibited a fair amount of float; it has a hard time staying in one place. The Air, by contrast, maintains its position indoors with rock-steady results. In the Air’s case, it seemed like the downward-facing sensors had no trouble discerning where the floor was. The more I flew it around, the more I got a sense for how keenly aware its forward, backward, and downward-facing sensors are of its environment.
On my first trip outside with the Air, I found setting it up to be deceivingly simple. Usually, the ritual with the Phantom is to attach the props, remove the gimbal guard, unfurl the transmitter, figure out the right ND filter, attach the lanyard, clean the screen on the transmitter, say a small prayer, and find a suitable takeoff location. The Air basically unfolds and is ready to fly.
My iPhone X fit easily into the controller, and the two joysticks that were tucked into its handles installed quickly and easily into the control yokes. I extended the Air’s four arms and set it down. The controls and commands are the same as they are for the Phantom, so I followed my usual both-sticks-down-and-to-the-middle takeoff routine, and the drone leapt into the air with a quiet buzz. It’s not silent by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely quieter than the Phantom.
DJI Mavic Air vs. Phantom 4
While all this was going on, a teenage kid sidled up to me to point out that my drone was smaller than his Phantom. Undeniably, this was true. Even though getting needled by teenage passersby while droning has reached the point of cliché, it reminded me of the time I was shooting a documentary with my Sony A7 package and a guy with an FS7 came by to make some comment about how full-frame cameras are pointless. Maybe big cameras are pointless — it depends on the job at hand. If you’re expecting to wow people with your gear alone, don’t show up with an Air. But, to paraphrase a photography maxim: the best drone is the one you have on you. I carried the Air around with me all week in my backpack and didn’t even realize it was there until Friday. It was at the bottom, so I didn’t notice it. Yeah, it’s small.
Pushing New Limits
Once airborne, it’s apparent how small the Air really is. At a distance, I accidentally lost track of it several times after glancing away for a moment or two. Once I got comfortable with the transmitter, though, it was time to get started with some video. On my first take – flying out low over a beach and out over the water, one thing was immediately apparent: the video stabilization was rock steady. I had expected this aircraft to get tossed around like the dove-sized thing it is, but only minutes into my first flight, it was quickly correcting that expectation.
The Air feels very nimble in the air compared to a Phantom. In particular, I felt like I could get closer to the ground without disaster – thanks in part to the lack of landing gear, the Air’s camera is much closer to the ground than the Phantom’s could ever be. This led me to try some throw-caution-to-the-wind takes where I flew just a few inches above the ground – a helpful height from which to start a dramatic reveal.
As someone who once cartwheeled a Phantom down a fairway while flying too low, I approach flying near the ground with an abundance of caution. The Air, once again, handled the flying like a boss. I got the sense that even if I had tried to fly it into the ground, it would have refused. As experienced gimbal-users will know, filming objects up close results in said objects bobbing and weaving. Similarly, when you get too close to the ground with a drone, the raising and lowering of the drone hovering is apparent. With the Air, while this effect is still noticeable, it’s greatly reduced over the Phantom.
The DJI Mavic Air’s underside
On another take a few minutes later, I was flying forward when two blue herons swept over the frame from behind the Air. As the second of the two birds flew past, the front-facing sensors on the Air brought it to a stop in midair. At the time, I was annoyed that the sensors ruined what would have been a very cool shot, but upon further reflection, not all shots can be perfect, and having accurate sensors that do their job is more valuable in the long run.
In further hours of flying, I noticed that the Air doesn’t seem to get some of the false-positive proximity notifications that my Phantoms experience, and it rarely would give me the “high wind velocity” notification that I get on nearly every flight with the Phantom (though I did get it once or twice across a handful of flights).
Taking the Stick (and Letting It Go)
The Mavic Air espouses a myriad of new automated features. The automated flight modes don’t usually interest me because I’m able to execute with better precision when flying manually, with the exception of orbits. Orbits are generally really hard to maintain, and hard to keep smooth – it’s really tough to get smooth and continuous yaw on a Phantom, in my experience, and the Inspire is a non-starter.
The Air is a different story. I found it exceedingly easy to execute manual full and half orbits with it – I don’t know why it’s different, but it is. This makes orbiting while shooting moving objects, like ships at sea, much, much easier. In my test flight, I tried orbiting some buildings, to great success. Having learned that I could manually pull off an orbit with ease, it made me curious to try the new flight modes – if I could easily do something that was traditionally difficult, could the Air make more complex moves more exciting?
QuickShot Mode on the Mavic Air
“Point of Interest,” a feature long-available on other DJI aircraft, is also available on the Air. Taking the concept a step further, the Air also offers “Quickshot Intelligent Flight Modes,” which give you six different shots: Asteroid, Boomerang, Rocket, Circle, Dronie, and Helix. My favorite, by far, is Asteroid, which creates a shot that transitions from video up close to you (or your subject), and then pulls out to reveal a 360 sphere. If you reverse the shot in post, you have a shot that mimics “a falling asteroid.” I had a lot of fun with this. The Air creates a single video file from the video and series of stills it takes while in Asteroid mode.
Mavic Air Quickshot Target Selection
There are some limitations to be aware of with the Quickshot modes. The first, and probably the most crucial, is that you’re limited to automatic exposure settings. I also tried selecting a subject that wasn’t a person – in this case, a building – and I had mixed results. Granted, even though this was a high-contrast situation with what may have been a poorly defined subject, the Air really tried to hang in there. I stopped it when it started to look a little hairy, as you can see in the video below.
So, for the time being, it’s probably better to stick with people as the subject here, as the Air seems to have no trouble locking onto humans. Overall, Quickshot looks to be the perfect solution for people looking to take all sorts of selfies — or dronies, as it were. For filmmaking, because of the auto-settings, you’ll probably want to avoid resorting to Quickshot for now, though I can see a lot of really fun and creative shots coming from this feature.
Mavic Air SmartCapture
And then there’s SmartCapture — a feature that has thoroughly freaked me out. As you can see in the video below, with SmartCapture, you control the Air with hand gestures. The Mavic Air is extremely responsive when you gesture towards it, and I had no trouble rolling/cutting video or moving the drone up/down/left/right.
The video taken using SmartCapture feels very POV-like — as in AMEE’s POV. Or maybe Oblivion‘s 166. The camera stays locked on you as the drone moves around. Why are movie drones evil, anyway? The real question is, who’s going to be the first person out there to film an entirely self-shot feature with a Mavic Air?
One of my biggest takeaways from the Air is the increased smoothness when ascending or descending. With the Phantom, you generally get a bit of rock and roll when descending, but not so with the Air. While descending (or pedestaling, or whatever you want to call it), the Air is able to maintain buttery-smooth stabilization in video. Even in relatively high winds, which were gusting to around 20 miles per hour during one flight, the Air kept up with impressive video stabilization, and much to my surprise, didn’t blow away altogether.
One of the coolest new modes I discovered is “Cinematic Mode.” In this mode, instead of abruptly starting or stopping, the drone eases into starts and stops. With all of these intelligent flight modes, what you’re getting is behavior that emulates skills that advanced pilots develop over many, many hours of flying. I’ve spent hours practicing a gentle roll off of input at the end of a move — with “Cinematic Mode,” the Air does it for you, no practice required! Surprisingly, though, the “Cinematic Mode” didn’t change the characteristics of the camera pitch input at all (controlled by the wheel on the top left side of the transmitter) — a parameter I usually dampen or slow as much as possible.
Above is a clip shot in Cinematic Mode in D-Cinelike, uncorrected. In the clip, you get to see a bit of everything: a smooth initiation of the move; the overall stability of the video; what highlight rolloff looks like; descending; a lateral move; and a partial orbit with manual yaw. This is a fairly complex move, and admittedly the initiation of the yaw is a little rough, but it’s pretty impressive to be able to pull off a shot like this with such inexpensive gear. Try budgeting this move five years ago!
The Mavic Air’s Cinematic Mode
In the Palm of Your Hand
The other thing I find I’m really liking about the Air is the controller size. The controller feels a lot like a game-console controller: it’s lightweight and ergonomically friendly, and every button, wheel, and toggle is easily reachable. The connection with my iPhone X, courtesy of a cable built in to the side of the controller, was error-free, and I didn’t mind the screen size at all — it seemed to fit the overall experience perfectly.
The DJI Mavic Air Transmitter
Shockingly, the drone that can do all of this does literally fit in your pocket. The feeling of filming, then landing, folding, and inserting it into a jacket pocket and walking away is really strange. “Oh, there’s a cool shot! Let me get my drone out of my pocket.” Weird.
A pocket-sized drone
Pretty, Pretty Pixels
There are two features I generally use more than any other, when it comes to pushing the limits of sensors: D-Log and HDR. There’s been a lot of discussion online about D-Log vs. D-Cinelike — suffice to say, the Mavic Air does not support D-Log, but it does offer the “Cinelike” color profile. Considering the size of the sensor and the processing power, I’m not confident that the typical user would gain much from D-Log in the Air. The idea behind Cinelike is to maximize the sensor’s latitude while minimizing the amount of post processing needed.
D-Cinelike in Video Settings
Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) and High Dynamic Range (HDR) modes are both available on the Air. If I’m going to take a still with a drone, it’s generally going to be bracketed. I find that you’re able to pull off much more impressive depth with exposure bracketing over the traditional HDR offering, and I enjoy the additional flexibility in post that you have when editing bracketed RAW images. However, the Mavic Air’s new HDR algorithms do an impressive job when creating HDR images. Below are two images that have been given identical post treatment, with the exception that one is HDR and one is a merged three-exposure bracket.
Mavic Air 3-Exposure Bracket
Mavic Air HDR
From the two photos above, you can see that the native HDR mode can potentially produce a lower-contrast image. Given the amount of post-processing the normal HDR shot takes, being able to produce results like these virtually right out of the camera is impressive. Below is the uncorrected HDR image. The HDR mode does an impressive job of holding the shadows and highlights; DJI says the new algorithms provide more natural transitions between highlights and shadows.
Uncocrrected Mavic Air HDR
Between its compact size, the relatively low amount of noise it makes while in the air, and its impressive ability to stabilize video, the Mavic Air feels like the perfect drone to bring along on weekend trips, vacations, family outings, and anywhere indoors. It also feels like the perfect companion for Instagram — it’s a small, quick, and easy way to create photos and videos. With the Air, the question no longer has to be “Do I bring a drone on this shoot?” It can instead be, “What cool extras can I grab with the Air in my downtime?” For those shoots where a drone may or may not tag along depending on how much space is available, the Air can be a valuable addition.
I used to be more enthusiastic about bringing along my various Phantom iterations to film interesting places and things, but after a while, having the Phantom tag along became a nuisance because of the size and weight of it. With the Air, even though the much-smaller sensor is somewhat of a sacrifice on quality, I’d dare to say that casual viewers are going to have no idea whether your sensor was 1/2.3 or 1” or Super 35 – they’re just going to say, “Wow, what a cool shot!”