By Brady Betzel
Since the first DJI Phantom was released in January of 2013, drones found a place in our industry. Turn on almost any television show airing on National Geographic and you will see some sort of drone videography at work. DJI and GoPro have revolutionized how everyone films over the last decade.
Nowadays drones are expected to be a part of every cameraperson’s kit. Once DJI released their second-generation flagship drone, the Mavic Pro, the quality of footage and still frame images went from prosumer-level to professional. One thing that has always been a tough sell for me with drones is the physical size of the unmanned aerial vehicles. The original DJI flagship drone, the Phantom, is a little big, you essentially need a duffle-sized backpack to carry it and its accessories. But now DJI has upped the ante with a smaller footprint — the Mavic Air.
The Mavic Air is absolutely the best drone I have ever had my hands on — from being the size of a few iPhones stacked on top of each other to recording high-quality footage that is 100% being used on television shows airing around the world. It’s not only the easiest drone to use with or without a remote, but it is by far the best picture I have seen from a consumer-level drone for under $1,000.
The Mavic Air is small, lightweight, and packed with amazing technology to help itself avoid slamming into the sides of buildings or trees. You can find all the nerdy tech specs here.
While there are super high-end drones flying Red Monstros around, sometimes there are restrictions that require the crew or cameraperson to downsize their equipment to only what is vital. So a drone that takes up a fraction of your carry-on luggage and will still yield 4K footage acceptable for broadcast is a win. Obviously, you won’t be getting the same sensors that you will find in the
The Mavic Air has many features that set it apart from the pack. SmartCapture allows anyone to fly the drone without a remote, instead you just use a few specific gestures from your hands. An updated slow-motion feature allows the Mavic Air to shoot up to 1080p, 120fps for those uber-epic sweeps in slow motion. There are multiple Quickshot modes you can find in the DJI app — like the two newest: Asteroid and Boomerang.
DJI is known for advancing drone technology and keeping their prices relatively low. One of the most advanced features DJI consistently works on is flight sensors. Flight Autonomy 2.0 and Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems are the latest advances in technology for the Mavic Air. Flight Autonomy 2.0 takes information from the seven onboard infrared sensors to create its own 3D environmental map to avoid crashing. The Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS), which has to be enabled, will automatically tell the Mavic Air to avoid obstacles while flying.
So really how is it to fly and work with the Mavic Air? It’s very easy. The drone is ultra-portable, and the remote folds up nicely as well — nice and tight in fact, and you can then unfold it and install the newly removable joysticks for flight. You mount your phone on the bottom and connect it with one of the three cables provided to you. I have a Samsung Galaxy, so I used a USB-C connection. I downloaded and updated the DJI Go App, connected the USB-C cable to my phone (which is a little clumsy and could hopefully be a little better integrated in the future), paired the remote to the Mavic Air and was flying… that was unless I had to update firmware. Almost every time I went to fly one piece of equipment — if not more — needed to be updated. While it doesn’t take a long time, it is annoying. Especially when you have three young boys staring at you to fly this bad boy around. But once you get up and running, the Mavic is simple to fly.
I was most impressed with how it handled wind. The Mavic Air lives up to its name, and while it is definitely tiny, it can fight for its position in wind with the best of them. The sensors are amazing as well. You can try your hardest (unless you are in sports mode — don’t try to fly into anything as the sensors are disabled) to run into stuff and the Mavic Air stops dead in its tracks.
The Mavic Air’s filming capabilities are just as impressive as its flying capabilities. I like to set my DJI footage to D-Cinelike to get a flatter color profile in my video, allowing for a little more range in the shadows and highlights when I am color correcting. However, the stock DJI color settings are amazing. Another trick is to knock the sharpening down to medium or off and add that back in when finishing your video. The Mavic Air records using a 3-axis stabilized camera for ultra-smooth video up to 4K (UHD) at 30fps in the newly upped 100Mb/s H.264/MPEG-4 AVC recording format. Not quite the H.265 compression, but I’m sure that will come in the next version. I would love to see DJI offer a built-in neutral density filter on their drones — this would really help get that cinematic look without sacrificing highlight and shadow detail.
In terms of batteries, I was sent two, which I desperately needed; they only lasted about 20 minutes apiece. The batteries take around an hour to charge, but when you buy the Fly More Combo for $999 you also get a sweet four-battery charger to charge them all at once. Check out all the goodies you get with the Fly More Combo.
You will want to buy a decent-sized memory card, probably a 128GB, but a 64GB would be fine. When inserting the memory card into the Air it can take a little practice, the slot and cover are a little clunky and hard to use.
In the end, the DJI Mavic Air is the best drone I have used hands down. From the ultra-portable size (due to its compact folding ability) to the amazing shooting modes, you get everything you would want in a drone for under $1,000 with the Fly More Combo. The Mavic Air is just the right balance of technology and fun that will make you want to fly your drone.
Sometimes I get intimidated when flying a drone because they are so large and distracting, but not the Mavic Air — it is tiny and unassuming but packed with raw power to capture amazing images for broadcast or personal use.
While we typically don’t rate our reviewed products, I will just this once. I would rate the Mavic Air a 10, and can only hope that they next iteration embraces the Hasselblad history to stretch the Mavic Air into even further professional directions.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.