If you’re looking for an intermediate drone that’s easy to fly but still capable of capturing compelling photos and video, DJI’s Mavic Air has long been the go-to model. It’s small, light, and has enough technology on board to make both flying and shooting with it a joy. It also costs less than a thousand dollars.
The new $799 Mavic Air 2, which is available for preorder now and will ship on May 11th, carries on that legacy. It has more technology on board, an even better camera system, and still costs under a grand, even when you add on necessary extras like multiple batteries. The Air 2 is an upgrade over the prior model in almost every way: it’s smarter, stays in the air longer, and can capture footage that rivals DJI’s more expensive Mavic Pro models.
The Mavic Air 2 looks like a smaller Mavic 2 Pro and a bigger Mavic Mini. It’s also slightly bigger than the first Mavic Air, but it remains portable and easy to store in your backpack or a camera bag. I prefer the look of the first Air. It was a bit smaller, had a shorter wingspan, and came in three colors. It was simply a more fun design overall. The gray housing on the Mavic line is boring, but it fits better within DJI’s current lineup.
Another big change — and I do mean big — is the new controller. It’s almost twice the size of any other DJI controller, excluding the optional $749 Smart Controller. It doesn’t have a screen, and there are no visible antennas sticking out. The phone holder is moved to the top and is spring-loaded. I think the whole design makes a lot more sense. It’s much more comfortable to hold, too. If I were to nitpick, my only wish is for the custom function buttons to be at the bottom of the controller instead of on the side.
The thing most people will care about is that the Mavic Air now has a bigger 1/2-inch sensor capable of shooting 4K 60fps video and 12- and 48-megapixel images. Compared to other standard image sensor sizes, it is still small. It’s bigger than the original Mavic Air’s 1/2.3-inch sensor but a fraction of what you’d find in a mirrorless camera. That means that while it should produce better images and video than the first Air, it isn’t likely to be a radical leap in image quality. For comparison, the Mavic Pro 2 has an even larger 1-inch sensor in its camera system.
The Mavic Air 2 does have other tricks up its sleeve to maximize that sensor, like the option to take 48-megapixel photos, thanks to the Quad Bayer color filter array. It’s the same technology found in a bunch of Android smartphones over the past couple of years. What it means for you, the drone photographer, is that you’ll have the option of high-resolution shots with a lot of detail or lower-resolution images with better dynamic range.
Looking at two JPEGs direct from the Air 2’s camera, the 48-megapixel one struggled to keep details in the highlights compared to the 12-megapixel version. DJI’s processing is likely to blame here because the RAW versions of these shots are very similar, with just some loss of detail in the highlights and some purple color cast in the shadows. In general, the 12-megapixel photos look slightly better, and for most applications, that is plenty of pixels. If you are concerned about having the most detail or need to print these photos in larger formats, the 48-megapixel option is nice to have.
The Mavic Air 2 has an entirely new photo feature for DJI called SmartPhoto. It is basically automatic scene recognition, similar to what you might find on a point and shoot camera or a smartphone. It will adjust settings based on what the drone is pointing at, such as trees, snow, sunsets, or blue skies.
Unfortunately, DJI’s app doesn’t tell you what SmartPhoto is doing or when it’s doing any of those things, so you just have to trust it. Below are two normal shots and two “smart” captures. There’s not much that sets these apart aside from a bit more brightness in the greens and more contrast in the shadows at the bottom. Sunsets do look better, thanks to some leveling of the highlights and shadows without going so far as to make them look mushy. Overall, the SmartPhoto effect isn’t too drastic, which is good because it could’ve ended up being something that looks overprocessed.
Noise handling is good up to about ISO 800. You could even push it to 1600 at times, which is far better than the original Mavic Air. The SmartPhoto mode gives the drone more control over ISO, capping the ISO to 540, extending the shutter speed, cleaning up some noise, and producing nice results. The differences are subtle but just enough to make this mode a worthwhile addition and this drone one of the best drones for photography.
In terms of video, the Mavic Air 2 comes with significant upgrades over its predecessor. It can film 4K 60fps with a 120 Mbps bitrate, which even beats the flagship Mavic 2 Pro. It can record slow-mo footage up to 240fps at 1080p resolution, and you can film in three color modes: standard, Cinelike, and HDR. I’m usually not the biggest fan of HDR; it used to be this oversaturated mess. But fortunately, DJI got it right this time. It adds more saturation overall, but it doesn’t push it to the point where it looks unrealistic.
Most consumer drones struggle to control image noise even at low ISOs, but the slightly larger sensor in the Air 2 does provide a noticeable improvement in this area. After some light coloring in Premiere, I was really thrilled with the results. Noise that was present in the unedited footage could easily be removed by adjusting the dark tones. It’s not as good as the footage from the higher-end Mavic 2 Pro, but it’s an improvement over what we could expect from a sub-$1,000 drone.
Lastly, Hyperlapse mode can now render out 8K exports, which is great, but there are still issues with hyperlapse captures. Often, they need to be manually stabilized in Premiere or After Effects. And many times, there will be a shift in exposure in those final exports, ruining the footage.
There is also a number of limitations with the Air 2’s hyperlapse feature in its current form. First, not all hyperlapse modes are capable of 8K exports, though DJI has promised it will be adding more through software updates over the coming months. Second, you can’t download an 8K export directly onto your phone, only 1080p ones. Third, the 8K option doesn’t actually save image files for you to fix imperfections later. Fourth, the minimal interval between shots in six seconds, which makes the final export a bit too fast. Lastly, one of the exports I did came out corrupted. It worked on my colleague’s computer but didn’t work for me in Quick Look, QuickTime, or Premiere Pro.
The Mavic Air 2 comes with front, rear, and bottom sensors for obstacle detection, improved Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS) for obstacle avoidance, 34 minutes of battery life, and DJI’s proprietary OccuSync 2.0 instead of Wi-Fi for controlling the drone wirelessly. That last point is perhaps the best reason to upgrade to the Air 2 if you have the prior version, as OccuSync is miles better (pun very much intended) than the prior Wi-Fi-based system. I couldn’t really max out the Air 2’s range in the city, but the connection was super stable throughout all of the many flights I had.
In my testing, I didn’t get the full 34 minutes of flight time on a battery charge. The longest flight I had was 28 minutes in typically windy San Francisco conditions. The rest of my flights would average around 25 minutes, which is still better than the 20 minutes I average in the Mavic 2 Pro. As good as the battery life is, having to wait almost two hours for it to charge before I can fly it again isn’t ideal. You’ll definitely want to invest in a few backup batteries if you plan on using the Air 2 for more than just a few minutes at a time.
In the few tests I did using the updated Follow Me modes, I’m starting to believe DJI’s claim about it being its smartest drone. It was better at keeping me in focus, and overall, it felt like it was less jittery than the previous models, including the Mavic 2 Pro. The same can be said with the upgraded APAS: I’m glad it’s there, and it’s still improving. Is it comparable to Skydio? No, not really. That’s partly due to the fact that the Mavic Air 2 doesn’t have full 360 omnidirectional object detection. But it does give you and everyone else around you an extra layer of safety.
Overall, the Mavic Air 2 is an upgrade from the Mavic Air. It even does some things better than the flagship Mavic 2 Pro. But most of the updates are iterative, even slightly boring. DJI has been hesitant to creep into Skydio’s territory when it comes to obstacle avoidance and autonomous flying. And even though the Mavic Air 2 has better options for those things than its predecessor, it’s still far from what Skydio offers. I also wish there was more evidence of Hasselblad’s color science in the photos and videos.
All that said, the Mavic Air 2 is the drone I’d recommend to someone looking for more advanced controls and better video and photo quality than entry-level models but isn’t willing to spend more than $1,000. You won’t find a better drone for anywhere near this price.
Photography by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge
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