After much debate over many months, watching YouTube drone video after video and reading drone blog after blog, we finally took the plunge and bought our first quadcopter, the popular DJI Mavic Air model.
This blog post documents our first 4 weeks of owning a drone, complete with videos, photographs, ramblings and details of a few accidents along the way. Click the buttons to visit specific weeks or just keep reading and scrolling.
5th November 2019
We packed the first week of owning a Mavic Air drone with visits to some of our favourite places and already managed to capture some fantastic moments. Trying to grab every good bit of light, we filmed and photographed the market town of Ruthin at sunrise, visited the beautiful mountain lake Llyn Eigiau and some great local forests.
First Week – Accidents & Triumphs
OK, so we nearly lost the thing on the very first flight. Super excited, we unboxed the drone immediately and headed to the huge open fields behind our home thinking there’s no way we could lose it there, really safe open environment…
Take off was fine, one click and swipe on the phone app and the drone is hovering 1.2m above the ground in seconds. We flew around for 5 or 6 minutes and everything seemed pretty straight forward so we pushed the height a bit, reaching the maximum 120m without issue.
With just under ten minutes of battery showing, lets have a little fly over the nearby town and do a loop back to the start. The drone display suddenly started screaming warnings that we’d lost signal which led to us running around the field like idiots holding the controller up to the sky praying for a connection. After what seemed like an age the video signal briefly flickered into life and we recognised the cream fronted row of houses as the drone shouted “Emergency Landing” repeatedly before cutting the signal again.
Running ensued, very fast running. We were lucky to know which street the cream fronted houses belonged to, but it was just under a mile away! As we sprinted into the street, still holding the controller to the skies like some kind of modern magic wand, an elderly lady stood at the end of her garden, drone in hand, looking quizzically at it with her neighbour. “It landed very gracefully by the way” she added as we made our apologies.
Following the garden landing disaster we hurriedly watched a few more tuition videos and it seems we hadn’t waited for the drone to connect to enough satellites before launching. Rookie mistake but good to learn early on. We now turn the aircraft on and wait until the phone app displays at least 10 GPS connections.
First Week Mavic Air Photos
We took a few test shots in the first week of owning the DJI Mavic Air that turned out pretty well. The DJI Go phone app is daunting at first (buttons and lights everywhere) but it soon becomes apparent where all the basics are. For taking still photos there’s the option for either Auto or Manual settings for shutter speed and ISO. The Photo option has various modes within it: single shot, HDR, burst, AEB and panoramic in both portrait and landscape options. The last of the main variants is white balance, with a few presets and a custom setting.
Looking back at the decision making period, we had so many questions about buying a drone for the first time and it seemed like a complete minefield of information to begin with. Portability, durability, battery life, video & photo quality and of course price were all major influencing factors.
The general consensus across the internet seems to be that DJI are the manufacturer of choice for high quality hobby drones, and although considerably more expensive than the vast amount of the competition, the specification and overall vibe of opinion combined made DJI the only contender.
This left us with a further choice of which DJI drone to go for, the Spark, Mavic Air, the Pro or Pro 2… or do we wait a little bit longer for the newly arriving Mavic Mini?!? Given that we wanted the drone to mainly use in remote outdoor locations we lost interest in the budget Spark model fairly quickly; the range of this drone and low photo/video quality made it clearly unsuitable for our requirements.
A friend of ours already uses the Pro 2, so we’ve had plenty of experience watching his drone in action and were impressed with pretty much everything, the low noise and incredibly clear live picture on the phone display really stood out.
Here’s where our YouTube comparison marathon started, we must’ve watched every “Mavic Air VS Mavic Pro VS Pro 2” video on there and we kinda felt like this: Mavic Pro 2 is clearly the best specced machine, and the Air and the first Pro are very similar in every way apart from size and price (the Air is less on both counts).
So our choice finally boiled down to Mavic Air VS Pro 2, and the Air won. Here’s why: with the imminent arrival of the Mavic Mini, the retail price of the Air dropped massively. We happened to get an eBay voucher by pure coincidence and ending up paying just £519 for a brand new Mavic Air. Even with buying 2 extra batteries we’re only at a total spend of £620. This set up with the Pro 2 model would’ve set us back in the region of £1,200 so in the end it became a no brainer.
Yes, the Pro 2 has a much bigger 20MP camera (vs 12MP on the Air) and a few extra features such as hyperlapse, but the Air has 4K video, 120 frames per second (at 1080p), full manual control of shutter speeds and ISO, a host of preset flight modes, Active Track mode to follow a person or focus on a point of interest – we don’t really need much more at this first stage of drone ownership.
11th November 2019
First week over and we headed into Week 2 of owning a DJI Mavic Air drone armed with improved knowledge, some rookie mistakes behind us.
Despite the British weather giving us an incredibly mixed bag (some parts of the country received a month of rainfall in 24 hours), we managed to escape to some beautiful locations including Clocaenog Forest, Loggerheads Country Park and a stunning abandoned house overlooking Snowdonia’s mountains.
Mavic Air Panoramic Photos
After taking a few standard photos in the first week, we tried to capture a few huge landscapes via the Mavic Air’s panoramic photo option. Within this option, there are 3 variants: globe, landscape and portrait. In this week’s blog we’ve looked at the most popular landscape option, more on the other two in weeks to come.
The Mavic Air’s camera settings may well be childs play for seasoned camera types, but for those of us used to smartphones and GoPro’s the exposure options open up a new field of learning.
There is of course an “Auto” mode available that does a great job of dialling in pretty decent settings on it’s own, and it’s easy to Lock Exposure by either tapping the App display twice in the centre or assigning the action to one of two customisable buttons on the controller. Auto mode has a final option of adjusting “EV” – this helps lighten or darken the image, in laymans terms. Higher values for darker scenes and lower settings for bright sunny days, simple.
Manual mode brings two predominant settings into play: ISO and Shutter Speed, and most importantly how these affect still photo and moving video in different ways.
For still photos we’re finding the Mavic Air Shutter and ISO pretty intuitive, as both work on straightforward sliders within the app. Dragging the finger left or right on Shutter Speed introduces drastically different light into a shot, making it easy to pause where the image looks most realistic. For ISO the lowest value possible for the scene is advisable, usually between 100 and 400. Values above this tend to let too much noise into the dark areas of the image (pixelated and blocky shadows).
For video things seem to be a bit trickier. The ISO works on the same principles as for still photos, so that appears to be the easy part. We learnt from various sources that Shutter Speed should be twice the value of the Frame Rate. In practice: if shooting video at 30fps the shutter should be 1/60, if 60fps shutter is 1/120, if 120fps shutter is 1/240. However what this does in practice is allow too much light into the sensor. Further reading has suggested we need to now invest in a set of ND Filters for the Mavic Air. These screw on/off filters replace the plain lens cover on the drone, and in short act like sunglasses for the camera, allowing video to be filmed at the correct ratio to frame rate with some of the brightest light filtered out.
So what do we do in the meantime until we’ve read up on ND filters and bought some? We use auto mode and lock exposure settings, exactly as for still photos. This doesn’t always produce the very smoothest footage, we’ve particularly noticed when speeding up or down the footage definitely has more noise in the shadows, but it does get around the lack of ND Filters in the short term.
19th November 2019
With the autumn weather still not playing ball, we still managed to use the DJI Mavic Air on a nice moody afternoon wander over the Panorama in Llangollen, a trip to one of our favourite forests and a lovely 5 mile walk over great local hill Penycloddiau, where the Coed Llangwyfan forest was in full autumnal bloom.
Exploring DJI Presets
With the limited time we had this week we tried out some more of the DJI Go app’s preset modes, including Active Track, Circle and Dronie. All these can be seen on the Llangollen section of the video: where we’re stood on the rock the Dronie preset was used to achieve the fast zoom in/out and the Circle was used to funnily enough circle around us on the rock.
We used the Active Track function where we’re walking along the mountain path. We’ve found so far this feature only looks smooth if we select the drone to continuously move left or right while it does the Active Track. When set to a simple follow the drone’s auto controllers speed up and slow down too much and it seems to struggle keeping a constant walking pace, although when its circling as it tracks the results are much smoother and drone seems to fly at a much more even speed.
Mavic Air Controller
We’ve been really impressed with the Mavic Air’s controller, the build quality is excellent and the layout is familiar and intuitive for anyone used to Xbox and Playstation game controls.
In this week’s video above there’s a short section with Sian demonstrating quick and easy it is to set the controller up and connect to the DJI App on iPhone.
Our only minor complaint with the supplied gear is that they don’t provide a hard case for the controller, just an elastic pouch on the side of the actual drone hard case. This also means we would have to unscrew the thumbsticks for every use – they fit really well inside the controller for storage but they are also very small and fiddly (easy to lose in the remote locations we visit).
We got a waterproof hard case from eBay for £5 that allows the thumbsticks to be permanently screwed in, saving time and potential headaches when outdoors.
OK so we crashed the drone once this week (*correction, Pete crashed the drone). Check out the Mavic Air hitting a tree at the end of this week’s video footage above.
We got lucky considering it was flying through a forest with no bumpers for propellor protection, the motors stopped but the drone didn’t even switch itself off! Picked it up, dusted it down and it took off again immediately without issue, not even a scratch!
Must be more careful near trees…
27th November 2019
We finally got some reasonable weather to fly the drone in the mountains, getting some great clips from the summit of Tryfan as well as some fun shots in Dinorwic Quarry. There’s also a some footage from Bodnant Gardens in full autumn bloom and some forest goodness courtesy of Bod Petryal in Clocaenog Forest.
Week 4 Photos
This week we finally started to feel comfortable with the Mavic Air’s settings for both video and still photos, getting some shots we’re really pleased with. The first couple are from Dinorwic Quarry and the second pair are from Bod Petryal in Clocaenog Forest.
DJI Mavic Air References
We found these videos really useful when considering purchasing our DJI Mavic Air drone.
The first video was particularly instrumental in the final thoughts, with a well know YouTube influencer choosing the Air over the Pro 2.
The official DJI Tutorials YouTube channel has some great straightforward instructional videos.