DJI Mavic Air Snap Verdict
The DJI Mavic air may be small but it has an impressive collection of features. Most importantly for many people, its 12Mp 4k-enabled camera is mounted in a 3-axis gimbal. This means it can compensate for sudden movements and gusts of wind to produce steady footage.
A key part of the appeal of the Mavic Air is that it can be folded down to something that can fit on the palm of your hand. It’s a great little drone and one that has convinced many first-time pilots to take to the air.
For DJI Mavic Air
- Compact, foldable design
- Excellent obstacle avoidance system
- Stable footage and blur-free stills
Against DJI Mavic Air
- Battery life 21 minutes in optimal conditions
- Awkward memory card access
- Routinely requires compass calibration
The Mavic Air has a 12Mp camera with a 1/2.3-inch type CMOS sensor mounted in a 3-axis gimbal.
At the front, there’s a lens with a focal length equivalent to 24mm. At 85 degrees the angle of view is much narrower than action camera users are used to. However, that’s because the Mavic Air is usually flown a little further from the action than an action cam is normally mounted.
Sensitivity can be set to ISO 100-3200, or to adjust automatically between those two values. The shutter speed can be varied between 8-1/8000sec, providing scope for freezing or blurring movement.
However, the aperture is fixed at f/2.8. This is good news for dull days and low-light conditions as plenty of light can reach the sensor. Also, the relatively small sensor, short focal length lens and often distant shooting location mean that there’s plenty of depth of field to get everything sharp.
The downside to a fixed aperture is that you to use an ND filter to reduce the shutter speed for your video if you’re going to follow the 180-degree shutter rule. Thankfully, these are now readily available for the Mavic Air and are easy to fit.
- Camera Jabber Verdict: DJI Mavic Air ND Filters Review
DJI has given the Mavic Air 8GB of internal memory, which is very useful. However, there’s also a microSD UHS-I card slot. Video is saved in MP4/MOV (H.264/MPEG-4 AVC) format while stills are recorded as DNG raw and/or jpegs.
There’s a range of video resolutions and frame rates available. The maximum is 4K Ultra HD (3840×2160) at 24/25/30p while Full HD (1920×1080) can be shot at up to 120p.
In addition to the primary camera, the Mavic Air has a collection of forward-, backward- and downward-facing cameras that are used for obstacle avoidance. There’s nothing on the side or top of the drone, which means you need to keep your eyes peeled if you’re launching through trees.
The Mavic Air transmits 720p video to your smartphone to guide image and video composition. When you hit the record button, this video is also saved to your phone and can be edited using the DJI Go 4 app.
Key Camera Features
- 12Mp 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor
- 24mm equivalent focal length
- 85-degree field of view
- Fixed f/2.8 aperture
- Sensitivity ISO 100-3200 (stills or video)
- Shutter speed 8 – 1/8000sec
- Still Image Size 4:3: 4056×3040 or 16:9: 4056×2280
- Stills shooting modes: Single shot, HDR, Burst shooting (3/5/7 frames), Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB), Pano
- Video Resolution: 4K Ultra HD (3840×2160 24/25/30p), 2.7K (2720×1530 24/25/30/48/50/60p), Full HD (1920×1080 24/25/30/48/50/60/120p), HD (1280×720 24/25/30/48/50/60/120p)
- Max Video Bitrate 100Mbps
- Still photo format jpeg/DNG (raw)
- Video format MP4/MOV (H.264/MPEG-4 AVC）
Build and Handling
DJI has kept the weight of the Mavic Air down to extend its flight time. Consequently, it weighs 430g with the battery onboard. Naturally, this means that much of the craft is made from plastic, but there are magnesium alloy struts inside for extra strength.
So while the Mavic Air doesn’t feel as tough or durable as drones further up DJI’s range, it doesn’t feel a like a toy either.
It’s when you hold the supplied Intelligent Flight Battery alongside the aircraft that you realise how small the Mavic Air is. The battery is a significant proportion of the flight-ready unit.
While the front arms of the Mavic Air just flip out, the rear ones must be rotated into the flying position. This isn’t obvious at first, so if you’re having trouble, follow the link below.
The microSD card slot is at the rear of the drone. This is hidden inside at little hatch that you have to hook open with a fingernail. I don’t think DJI could’ve made the slot much harder to access. It’s really quite awkward to insert and remove a card.
Although you can take control of the Mavic Air, you can’t switch off the GPS to fly in completely manual mode. Neither can you set it to Atti (altitude mode). This may frustrate some experienced pilots, but it makes the Mavic Air easy to fly.
In addition to the standard manual (with GPS) flying mode, the Mavic Air has a collection of modes that enable you to capture great footage automatically.
In ActiveTrack mode you can highlight up to 16 subjects for the drone to follow and capture. You just tap and drag around a subject on your smartphone screen and the drone will track it.
There’s also a collection of QuickShots modes. Their names, Rocket, Dronie, Circle, Helix, Asteroid and Boomerang, hint at the type of flight path and footage they enable. These are great fun to use but you should ensure you’re in a clear area before activating them.
DJI’s SmartCapture technology is also onboard. This means you can control the Mavic Air with hand gestures if you like. I found these work pretty well, but I prefer to use the controller.
How to Control the DJI Mavic Air
There are three key elements to set-up with the Mavic Air. Your smartphone, which is held in and connected to the controller, the controller and the drone itself. The drone is powered by an Intelligent Flight Battery. Both the controller and this battery must be charged before you can fly the drone.
Setting-up the Controller
DJI supplies three cables with the controller that allow it to connect to your smartphone. You’ll need to unfold the controller’s phone clamp to make sure that the correct cable is fitted and swap it if necessary.
Once the clamp is open, you’ll spot the control sticks that are stowed against the controller body. Retrieve them and screw them onto the controller.
Now ease your phone into the clamp ensuring that the cable connection slots into the phone’s charging port.
Next, power-up the controller by pressing the power button once and then making a long press. Do the same with the smart battery on the drone to bring it to life.
Connect the DJI Controller and the Drone
On your first flight, you’ll need to connect the controller and the Mavic Air via WiFi.
To connect for the first time, launch the DJI Go 4 app on your phone and tap ‘Enter Device’ followed by ‘Enter Camera View’. Then tap the icon in the top right of the screen and select the icon for the Remote Control.
Next, tap ‘Linking Remote Controller’ at the bottom of the phone screen, followed by OK. When the controller starts to beep, press and hold the flashing function button on the rear of the drone until you hear a beep. When the beeping stops and the red light on the remote controller has turned green, the drone is connected to the controller.
Once you’ve been through the process, you should find that the drone and controller connect automatically in the future.
To start the motors, push the control stick diagonally down and towards each other. To takeoff either tap the Auto Takeoff icon on your phone or gently push the left control stick upwards.
In Auto Takeoff mode the drone will launch to about 1.2m and then hover waiting for you to take control. To take it higher, push the left stick up – gently.
If you’re going to fly the drone directly overhead, tip the controller antennae forward so they are parallel with the ground. If the drone is further away, flip them up so they are perpendicular to the ground.
Once the Mavic Air is airborne you manoeuvre it using the sticks on the controller. In the default settings, the left stick is used to control height and rotation while the right stick controls the horizontal direction of movement.
Push the left stick up to gain height, or down to lower the drone. Pushing that stick to the left will rotate the drone left (anti-clockwise) while pushing it right rotates it right (clockwise).
Shifting the right stick forward moves the drone forward while pulling it back reverses the craft. Pushing the right stick left or right moves the drone in that direction but it stays in the same orientation so it moves a sideways.
To land the craft, simply tap the Auto Land icon or push the left stick down until the Mavic Air touches down. It should power-off the motors automatically.
If the drone won’t land, it’s probably because its object avoidance system is detecting something that it feels could be a risk. Long grass can be an issue, for example. To get around the problem, either identify an area of short grass or hardstanding or use a landing mat.
Controlling the Mavic Air Camera in Flight
The Mavic Air’s camera is mounted on a gimbal that does a great job of smoothing out any wobble or buffeting by the breeze. Its angle can also be adjusted to frame the subject. However, unlike some drones, you can’t move the Mavic Air’s camera horizontally using the gimbal, only vertically.
As the drone rises, for example, you may want to tilt the camera down, but if you want to shoot something towards the left of the scene, you’ll have to manoeuvre the craft in that direction.
On the left side of the front of the controller is a jog wheel that is used to tilt the camera. Rolling this to the left lowers the camera angle while rolling it right raises it.
The button immediately above this wheel is used to start and stop video recording. There’s a button on the other side of the controller for shooting stills.
The DJI Mavic Air is the first drone that I’ve owned and I’ve held off writing this review until I’ve had some significant flying time under my belt. I haven’t done the flight test section of my application to get a PfCO (widely known as a drone license) yet, but I now feel well on the way to being ready.
My first observation is that the Mavic Air is very easy to fly. There are automatic take-off and landing options available on the screen, but I felt confident enough to take control myself after just a couple of flights.
Many people have complained about the compass calibration error that appears when setting up their Mavic Air. I’ve had the same experience. It appears every time. However, it’s easily dealt with and just requires you to enter the calibration mode before rotating the drone as indicated by the app. Jeff explains it in more detail here:
I purchased the DJI Mavic Air Fly More Combo as this includes two extra batteries, two sets of spare propellers and a battery charging hub. It means I can fly for longer and I have a back-up in case of propeller damage. That said, I’ve not yet needed to replace the propellers, despite a little grass-cutting.
The Mavic Air has short landing gear. This means it’s quite fussy about where it will land. It doesn’t like long grass. In fact, it seems to have a similar eye for grass length as the groundskeeper at Carnoustie. This makes a landing mat a sensible additional purchase.
The DJI Mavic Air is incredibly stable for such a small craft. I was with a group of people flying Mavic Airs on a cliff in Portugal as an unexpected weather front came in and it coped remarkably well with quite strong winds. The footage is impressively smooth.
Its sound comes as a bit of surprise. It’s like a furious bee and tends to draw the attention of passersby.
The Mavic Air relies on a Wi-Fi communication with the controller. This has a range of 4Km or 2.5 miles, which is well in excess of the 400ft height limit and 500m distance regulations in the UK.
I found the connection very reliable. The only occasion when I couldn’t make a connection was when there had been a couple of firmware upgrades that needed to be installed.
The Mavic Air responds promptly to adjustments made by the controller.
With a 1/2.3inch sensor, the quality of stills and video from the Mavic Air can’t compete with that from an APS-C or full-frame format camera. Nevertheless, it’s impressive. The detail in 4K and Full HD footage is high and in daylight conditions, the colours look superb.
In changing lighting conditions it can be useful to leave the Mavic Air to take charge of the exposure and white balance automatically. However, the best results, especially for video are usually achieved by taking manual control. This prevents any fluctuations in exposure that can result from a change in subject brightness.
Similarly, although the Auto White Balance setting is pretty good, it’s usually better to opt for a specific white balance setting such as Sunny, to match the conditions.
The dynamic range is reasonably good. You need to keep an eye on the exposure and avoid the need to make dramatic adjustments, but you can tweak the brightness of videos and stills a little post-capture. With this in mind, if you’re comfortable with processing raw files, capture raw files for better data levels.
With video, take a look at the most important parts of the scene and make sure that the highlights aren’t burning out. You can afford to lose a few highlights here and there but make sure the main subject looks good on your phone screen. Using the histogram view allows you to assess exposure in bright conditions when your phone’s screen may be hard to see.
Show anyone footage from the DJI Mavic Air and their first remark always seems to be a comment about how stable it is. The craft itself does a great job of maintaining its position when it has GPS signal. The gimbal also does a great job of keeping the camera still and smoothing out movements.
I’ve only experienced a few occasions when the GPS signal became weak during a flight. The DJI Go 4 app warned me that there might be a problem, but usually, the GPS signal returned quite quickly.
DJI quotes a battery life of 21 minutes for the Mavic Air’s Intelligent Flight batteries. That’s a bit optimistic is normal flying conditions when there might be a light breeze or you use the propeller guards which add weight and drag.
As a rule, I find I can fly the Air for around 18 minutes on one battery. However, having the Fly More Combo means I have two extra batteries that I can swap to, one after the other if necessary.
Like most novice pilots I was a bit anxious when I made my first flight with the Mavic Air. However, it only took me a flight or two to realise that it does most of the hard work for you. It really is very easy to fly.
Nevertheless, I think it’s worth following some of the guidance I was given for improving your flying before getting too involved with the photography and videography side.
I’ve used a range of action cameras over the years, and I’m a GoPro fan. The DJI Mavic Air doesn’t completely replace a GoPro for me, it adds another string to my bow. The image quality is at least as good as, if not better than I get from my GoPro Hero5 Black. I also use it to shoot stills, which is something I rarely do with a GoPro.
The Mavic Air has become a camera that I take with me on trips away from home. It’s fun to fly and it lets me capture footage and images that I would otherwise be unable to capture. Rather than wading out into a river, for example, I can fly above it. And as well as shooting from a viewpoint, I can shoot looking back at it.
In short, I’ve fallen a little in love with the Mavic Air. It’s a great drone for beginners. It’s easy to fly and has clever automatic flying options that enable you to produce really slick looking videos. You can also take control, add an ND filter and get a bit more serious with it.
The DJI Spark is another great introductory drone, but it only has a 2-axis gimbal, video maxes out at Full HD and the battery life is 16 minutes. If you think drone flying could be more than a passing fad, go for the Mavic Air. And if you can afford it, go for the Fly More Combo for the handy extras like two spare batteries, the charging hub and the propeller guards.