The DJI Mavic Pro was the first drone I ever owned. For the past year, I have used it for both commissioned work and weekend fun. This small drone has surpassed my expectations to this day, providing a reliable flying experience and amazing visuals. However, this past January, DJI released an even smaller drone! The Mavic Air. This is an overview of my experience and a comparison between the Pro and the Air.
First of all, I purchased the Air because I wanted a smaller and more portable version of the Mavic Pro. I think eventually I will purchase something more robust, like a Phantom 4 Pro, but for now a smaller drone will do. I was aware of the similarity in specs between the Mavics, but wanted to test the new one out myself. I pre-ordered the drone during the keynote presentation and it arrived 3 days after shipping. While I already knew the dimensions on paper, seeing the drone in person was a whole other story. This thing is tiny!
Despite using the same camera, a 12 mega-pixel CMOS sensor mounted on a 3 axis gimbal, the Mavic Air promises better quality 4K at 30fps (100mbps) and slow-mo 1080 at 120 fps; improved spacial awareness; and additional flight modes packed in an even smaller size than it's brother. The camera system in the Air has a fixed focus lens (no more tap to focus), no true vertical/portrait images (subbed by a vertical panorama option), a slightly wider lens angle (28mm in Pro vs. 24mm in Air) and a smaller aperture (f/2.2 in Pro vs. f/2.8 in Air) . While I shoot video here and there, my true need is photography. Therefore I needed to test both drones capabilities side by side to really decide whether the Air is a better option for me.
For the most part, the Mavic Air is surprisingly nimble in the air. It moves really fast in sport mode, and flies smoothly in normal mode. Even with 20 mph wind gusts, the Air remained stable and never lost signal. I did notice a slight lag flying in downtown Baltimore, maybe this is due to the drone's WiFi based signal interfering with nearby networks. The flying experience in comparison to the Mavic Pro seems the same to me, but the Pro feels slightly more responsive. I have had scary moments with the Pro in the past; either the DJI app crashed or video transmission went dark. However, I never lost controller signal and could always bring the drone back to me. I didn't experience this issue with the Air, but then again I have only had it for a short time period. Some might say range is a key difference between these two drones, but to me this makes no difference. Technically, you should always remain within eye sight of your drone so whether you can only fly the Air 2 miles out or the Mavic 4 miles out is irrelevant to me as I always want to see my drone's location in case things go south.
A few other differences to note between the two drones are battery range, 27 minutes for the Pro and 21 minutes for the Air per battery; a slight new controller design, they removed the controller screen, some custom buttons and the shutter speed dial; non-foldable propellers, which seem to be louder than the large Mavic Pro's; a new on board 8GB memory with the Air; and additional proximity sensors, which help while flying in tricky environments.
Because this is a new drone, it is hard to find a good review that isn't talking so much about specs or YouTube video comparisons – which are irrelevant to my needs as mentioned above. I wanted to make my own judgement between the two by shooting photographs that were as close to each other as possible between the two drones. It was pretty difficult as I had to land to switch drones, as I only have my Pixel 2 XL to plug in to the controllers. Take a look below for a side by side and crop comparison. I shot all of the images below in RAW (DNG) format when possible or HDR when noted, and edited in Lightroom using very close settings. HDR images were creating merging 3 bracketed RAW exposures in Lightroom.
I wanted to show you what my final product was instead of an unedited version. In my opinion, this gives you a better understanding as to what you can expect after some light color correction and sharpening in post, rather than showing you a flat RAW image.
After shooting in a variety of environments and weather conditions, the Mavic Air proved that it is a great drone. It handles strong winds and unfavorable weather conditions well. However, images are not as sharp as the Pro, they're slightly soft. I did try changing the custom menu settings but nothing, just seems like the Pro's touch to focus option beats the fixed focus on the Air. It's honestly disappointing since both cameras are pretty much the same. In my opinion, the colors and tones produced between the two drones are very close, so no favorites here. Lastly, the Air seems to have a similar issue the Pro has, the warm center in photos. I developed a quick fix in Lightroom, so this can be fixed in post. However, it's annoying that DJI hasn't addressed this issue in their newest drone.
Below are two examples of what makes the Mavic Pro better in my opinion. Let me start by saying that I am stickler when it comes to perspective and keeping lines straight. The Mavic Air regrettably does not offer a true vertical option, meaning the camera does not rotate to shoot vertically – Whereas the Mavic Pro's camera does! To accomplish a vertical image, the Mavic Air stitches 3 horizontal images (one on top of the other) to build a vertical rendition. The final outcome (done in flight) is a JPEG file which doesn't always work well. You can also save the original RAW files and stitch them yourself in Lightroom, but the results are the same. At times the on board computer won't line things up properly creating undesirable ghosting effects and most times the final image looks like it was taken with a super wide angle lens. While these two images are shot from different angles/times, you can appreciate the true to live perspective the Pro produces over the fisheye look the Air stitches. I myself prefer having straight lines and a RAW file to edit from than a crooked JPEG to fix in post.
With all that said, I will be returning my Mavic Air. I thought I would have a smaller version of the Mavic Pro, but in my opinion it does not compare. The Pro produces sharper images and provides a true vertical/portrait option for both photography and video recording. Having those two options in my bag are key to providing clients a good variety of images that are sharp every time. There are rumors of a Mavic Pro II being announced later this Spring 2018, so I will be awaiting patiently until then to test again and maybe upgrade my trusty Mavic Pro.