A few days into the Mavic Air
DJI's Mavic Air packs a punch in the so far smallest 4k consumer drone. If you are reading this you likely know the specs already. Frankly, they are not too far off from the already since a year existing MPro! Let's take a closer look at the Mavic Air especially in comparison to the Phantom 4 Pro/Advanced and the Mavic Pro which are its bigger, older brothers.
*rambling on - skip this if you are in a hurry and only interested in the Mavic Iar*
I was always hesitant to pick up a drone for private use. When I used to work for my old company I flew both the Phantom 4 and 4 Pro regularly. The image quality of the 4 Pro is incredible! The pictures are stunning, the video is butter smooth and holds up well in post production and when you take into consideration that it costs less than 1500$ it's the best price/value you can get for high image quality. Even some people I worked a alongside who own the Inspire 2 and big heavy lifters admitted they end up using the Pro4+ most of the time simply cause it's so convenient and the lack of quality in comparison to the X4 of the Inspire 2 is marginal. But the 4 Pro is not a consumer drone anymore. It's not convenient and only hardcore enthusiasts would carry an extra backpack for their drone around in their free time!
The Mavic Pro changed that and I have never heard of so many people picking up drones. Four of my friends got one and I probaly flew theirs more than they did themself. Suddenly everyone who was slightly interested in photography and had the financial means had a drone: small, relatively cheap and easy to fly the Mavic Pro had sparked also my interest...and when I was about to pick up the Platinum edition a few weeks back I heard rumours of the Mavic Air which ended up being released a week later.
The Inspire 2 and Phantom 4 Pro are the tools for professional use but if a project does not have the budget to hire a drone pilot the Mavic is a great alternative to get involved in "operations". It adds some elements for storytelling that otherwise would not be possible with time, security or budget restrains. To be clear: I am no commercial drone operator, I am Photographer and Creative Director who occasionally fly's himself for fun or if there's no budget to hire the boys with the big toys.
After the Mavic Air arrived 2 weeks ago I got about I got about 2h of flight time with it. It's good. Is it the best drone I ever flew? NO! By far not. In fac, it disappointed me with the DJI goggles not working well (lack of light bridge which the Mavic Pro has). Also, the gimbal cannot turn into portrait mode (the Mavic Pro can). And the wifi connection sucks. (more on that later) The video is clan though and let's not forget the thing is smaller than anything else which puts out this kind of quality at the moment!
The highlight roll-off is beautiful and makes me wonder if they really kept the same sensor as the MPro (or simple software tweak?), the speed in sport-mode is insane and the portability is THROUGH THE ROOOOOOF. Purchased as a fly more package I got a very VERY useful slingshot bag which holds 3 batteries, charger (can charge 4 batteries at once), the drone and other extras; all fitting in there with extra space left. I can not express how much I love the size of this thing! The industrial design reminds of apple and so does the packaging actually. Get the fly more pack, you will need the spare batteries and love the bag.
Starting from the palm of your hand works well and so does landing. The obstacle avoidance has been tested on youtube already so no need of doing that. So far only some angry birds came close to the drone.
Let's talk again about the highlights and image quality. The new HDR photo outputs good JPEGs! I usually shot 3-AEB-sequences RAW (0,-2+2) in highlight situations but for mobile edits the JPG is more than enough and even found myself using them in lightroom. For web use I can not tell the difference between what what was a JPEG and what was a PNG. If you need the extra DR shooting PNG is the way to go but I liked the JPGs more than usual (i hate jpgs and always shoot raw). The HDR-JPEGS are crisp with accurate colours and no noise! Just look at the two beach pictures.
The quality of the image is not as good as it could be in 2018 - you can tell its a tiny sensor. The way this drone positively surprised me with its size, it lets you down in IQ for photos. Video quality was bumped up over the Mavic Pro but not so much the photo quality. As said, the video is stunning but also here are some issues: Anyhting other than ISO 100 and noise creeps in. As of ISO 800 it's mushy and noisy and if you push it all the way to ISO 1600 you are left with what looks like a nightvision camera...no night time flying for this bad boy for sure!
In PNG's noise is present in the shadows even at ISO 100 but nothing you would actually see in print/web or when viewed in anything else than full resolution. The files remind me of the DJI Mavic Pro - just somehow the highlights look better. I wouldn't necessarily say it got a better dynamic range. I leave that up for testing to chart pushers. In short: the file definitely handles easier in post. They also hold up decently to altering colors as you can see below with no extra noise. Naturally the camera overexposes a bit and I preferred lifting the shadows than pulling down the highlights in post. Shoting +2,0,-2 I ended up mostly using the dark shot instead of the 0 or +2 image.
As mentioned, some functions the Mavic Pro has aren't available and its a lot slower than the Phantom 4 Pro. The Gimbal acts funny in sport mode so unless you fly straight I would not ever film in sport-mode. Also, wind affects the Mavic Air a lot more than this is the case with the Phantom Pro but that was to be expected. Not to the point, it couldn't deal with it but I get wind warnings pretty much every time I fly above 80m. I did not with the MPro. The Air manoeuvres differently as well. While the Phantom 4 and Mavic Pro both shift quickly to the side, the Mavic Air is only fast in forward and backward movements. Side ways, for example if you want to fly a manual boomerang, it is MUCH slower than forward. Compass calibration was necessary 50% of the times when started up.
The biggest flaw is the wifi / RC SIGNAL! Yes, this thing flies on wifi. It's enhanced wifi but it still sucks! The Mavic Pro NEVER lost connection, even 2-3km away with plenty of interference. Same with the Phantom 4 and 4 Pro. The Mavic Air loses connection a LOT and I get an interference warning during pretty much every flight. That's dangerous!
It is not because I fly in the middle of the city but because WIFI is a bad idea. I never lost the drone but I do get blackouts here and there which still to this date scare the shit out of me. Furthermore, it's hard to believe DJI could not have added light-bridge just as they did in the Mavic Pro. It seems more of a positioning decision than a "we could not technically do it" but hey it makes sense....the Mavic Pro II is coming soon and some technology must be reserved for that one otherwise everybody would just buy the AIR.
Overall.... the Mavic Air is the better Mavic. Its smaller, lighter, fly's extremely fast in sports mode and also costs less. The video bitrate is much better over its older brother and photo quality also has improved SLIGHTLY (i wish it would be a bigger step up for photos though). The new functions with obstacle avoidance and some software tweaks make this thing a no-brainer over the Mavic Pro....until the Mavic Pro II is released in ~ 2 months...