The DJI Mavic 2 Pro for Landscape Photographers
I’ve been interested in the possibilities of drone photography for about eight years now and, some time ago, came close to spending silly money on a (then) state-of-the-art drone that you flew from a bloody great flight case. However I couldn’t justify spending the money (in excess of $18,000) and so I bided my time until the technology reached a point where it was a) affordable and b) of suitably decent quality. That day came when DJI released the original Phantom 4 and I was one of the first folks here in Australia to take delivery of one. It was (and still is) an excellent drone in many ways, but it had its flaws, particularly if (like me) you’re a landscape photographer. Principle amongst those issues were its physical size and design and the quality of the sensor and lens for photographic (not video) work.
When DJI started releasing their portable form factor drones, with the original Mavic Pro, the Spark, the Air and then the Mavic Pro Platinum, I bided my time. I knew that the smaller form factor was perfect for me, but I just didn’t think the sensor and lens combination on those drones justified moving on from my faithful P4. However as soon as I saw the specs for the Mavic 2 Pro, I was convinced that the time had come to upgrade. As the early reviews started coming in, with trusted reviewers waxing lyrical about the capabilities of the Hassleblad camera and that Sony sensor, I had that chat with the missus and consequently took delivery of my very own Mavic 2 Pro on my birthday.
Getting new kit is a big deal for many people (myself included) as we don’t have the disposable income to jump on every bandwagon and upgrade our kit on a whim. So purchases like this new drone are steps that we do not take lightly. And so, in that spirit, I thought I would give you guys my impressions of the Mavic 2 Pro – both from the perspective of a landscape photographer, but also from someone who doesn’t make big purchases very often and needs to know that they are doing the right thing by purchasing one.
Why the Mavic 2 Pro?
So what were the selling points that lead to my handing over just over $2300AUD for a Mavic 2 Pro? They went something like this (and in roughly this order):
- Hassleblad Camera
- 1″ Sony Sensor
- Adjustable Aperture
- Small Form Factor
- Foldable Design
- Special Photo Modes
- Obstacle Sensing
- Battery Life
- Video Capabilities
Now don’t get me wrong – I love shooting video and making films and I am 100% going to be using the Mavic for that. But I’m first and foremost a photographer and it is the photographic capabilities that interest me most. So yes, to the Hassleblad Camera, yes to that 1″ Sony sensor and a big yes to adjustable aperture. After that it was the small footprint that appealed to me, followed by the photo modes (360º sphere, 180 pano etc). The obstacle sensing is important to me because I do not want to wreck my expensive quadcopter by flying into a tree. And no, I didn’t consider the Zoom as an option at all – it’s effectively the same camera/sensor as the Mavic Pro and if I want to zoom in on something I’ll, you know, fly a bit closer to it.
So let’s get down into the nitty gritty. These then are my impressions of the drone – as I say when I review all my big purchases – I’m not a ‘lab’ sort of a guy – I don’t really care about DxoMarks and similar stuff, all I care about is how gear performs out in the real world.
Get up and Go
As I mentioned, one of the biggest problems with my Phantom 4, was lugging it around with me when I was out and about taking photographs. Obviously it was never a problem if the location I was photographing was in close proximity to a car park, but that didn’t happen very often. I grew to hate lugging that great big grey suitcase out and about with me. And yes, I could have bought one of those massive backpacks, but I’ve always tried to keep my photography kit on the minimalist side and strapping one of those huge things to my back, alongside a second bag for my DSLR was not a prospect I relished. So I basically just carried it everywhere by the handle, which was not very practical or (more often) just left it behind.
The Mavic 2 Pro, however, is designed to be taken with you. The legs fold in and up and (crucially) the rotors can stay on all the time, thus cutting out one of the set-up stages. After a short while you get practiced at unfolding the Mavic and removing its gimbal cover such that by the time you set it down on the ground, it’s pretty much ready to go. I did not purchase the Fly More bundle with my Mavic 2, so I needed a bag to put it in. Then I remembered the dinky Lowe Pro bag I bought for my Canon 550D and I went through my storage boxes and found the bag and, wouldn’t you know it – it’s like it was designed specifically for the Mavic 2.
I cannot begin to express how awesome it is having such a portable drone. I can take that Lowe Pro bag and my iPhone on their own and I’m ready to take aerial photographs within minutes. Or I can put that whole bag inside a small backpack, throw my DSLR and a couple of lenses on top, strap my carbon fibre travel tripod to the side, stick my GoPro Hero 5 Black in a side pocket – and I am ready for absolutely anything. I took that precise set-up out with me when I explored a nearby mountain a couple of weeks ago, and it was simply fucking awesome having such a small payload with me.
I’m definitely a nervous drone flier and one of the things that used to scare the shit out of me was the possibility that I had failed to properly attach my Phantom 4’s propellors. On one occasion I failed to fully click a prop into my P4 and it crashed on take-off causing damage to the props – if it hadn’t a bit higher up it would have been an expensive repair bill. So having the Mavic 2’s props on all the time is a weight off my mind. I do not have to worry about putting the clockwise or anti-clockwise props on, or worrying that they are not secure.
Setting up in the field is a painless process. The drone is ready to go as soon as you set it down on the ground. The remote just needs the joysticks and your phone. You can be up and running in about a minute. Take-off can be done from the ground or from your hand. You can also hand-catch although, thanks to the Mavic 2’s vastly superior object detection (and lack of a sturdy grab-able leg), it takes a bit more practice.
What’s Your Vector Victor?
Actually flying a DJI drone has always been a (relatively) simple process. I’ve played computer games all my life and found using the joystick controller to be a natural procedure, but your mileage may vary. If you are new to drones I suggest enabling the beginners mode in the DJI Go 4 app and spending some time down at your local sports oval feeling your way through it. The compact controller that comes with the Mavic 2 Pro feels natural in the hand and it’s a great starting point for anyone beginning their drone journey.
Once you’re used to the controls then actually positioning your Mavic in the right bit of the sky to get your shot becomes second nature. In comparison to the Phantom 4, I found the Mavic 2 to be lighter on its feet, nimbler and faster. I also found it to be every bit as stable when the wind gets up. All of this means that it fills you with the confidence necessary to send it out over water, or in close proximity to natural geographic features or things like trees. I really appreciated having that LCD display on the controller showing me all the important stuff such as height and speed.
While the controller is great for receiving telemetry from the drone you do of course use the DJI Go 4 app for most control functions and for receiving a video feed. Like so many aspects of the Mavic 2 I was blown away by the quality and the stability of the video feed from the drone. The OccuSync 2.0 system is a wonderful facility, streaming 1080p video footage back to your controller from as much as 8km away. I’ve only had the nerve to send my drone about 1.5km away so far (over the ocean) but the video feed didn’t miss a beat. In a month’s worth of heavy use I haven’t experienced a single glitch or drop-out – on my old P4 the video feed used to start breaking up from about 300m away.
I’ve found the battery time on the Mavic 2 to be brilliant. DJI advertise 31 minutes of flight time and I’ve got pretty close to that. Not having to swap out the batteries so often means you’re more likely to get the shot you’re after and also means that you can get into a bit of a flow, exploring the landscape through the eye of that Hassleblad camera lens.
In the Field
The weather hasn’t been too kind in the build-up to summer here in South Coast NSW, so I haven’t flown the Mavic 2 as much as I’d liked. However I’ve managed to squeeze in quite a few trips out into the national parks and I’ve also used the drone at sunrise and sunset. I have been blown away by the quality of the images that the Mavic 2 produces and fully intend to revisit all sorts of locations to capture improved aerial images.
Let’s talk about daylight photography first. As you can see from the images on the right, the level of detail and the colour rendition in these images is superlative. One of the first things I did was ensure I was shooting in RAW and I have been amazed at the detail I’ve been able to pull out of these images. I haven’t altered the photo settings in the DJI Go 4 app at all as I prefer to do all that in post. I know a lot of people have chosen to give the sharpening a bump in the settings but I far prefer to do that in Lightroom where I have full latitude over the process.
I have been a Canon photographer since I started in DSLRs a decade ago, but I have always been drawn to the landscape images taken on the Sony cameras. So to have a Sony sensor sitting behind the Hassleblad camera enclosure on the Mavic is a real thrill. I think this sensor does a sensational job capturing the detail in the image and rendering it in a realistic way. Incientally – none of the photographs I’ve taken thus far have used any filters. I did have a set of ND filters and polarisers for my P4 but I haven’t bought a set for my Mavic 2 yet so all of the images you see above were taken with the native glass.
Getting the Setting
To get the most out of the Mavic 2 Pro, you need to shoot in manual, exactly as you do on your DSLR. Anyone who knows their way around a DSLR will have no problem choosing the right aperture and shutter speed for any given scenario and it’s easy to click into the DJI Go 4’s settings and dial up or down your aperture or exposure to fit the requirements of the shot you are taking. It has been a real pleasure being able to choose my aperture as I see fit. And then when I want to actually take the shot, it’s awesome having the shutter button accessible by index finger, which is entirely in keeping with traditional camera functionality.
I tend to leave the ISO alone if at all possible but there are occasions when you’ll need to bump it north of 100 to get the shot. Whenever you increase ISO on any camera you increase the amount of noise too so there’s always a trade-off, but compared to my old P4, the noise levels are minimal. Of course the Mavic 2 Pro has the awesome tripod mode, which enables you to keep the drone as stable as possible when taking a photo. So instead of bumping up the ISO in low light conditions, you can enable tripod mode, open the aperture up and leave the ISO at 100. By keeping the aperture south of f8 you also reduce the amount of diffraction hitting the sensor. It’s worth mentioning too, that the Mavic 2 Pro controller now has a switch on the side which enables you to effortlessly switch between Postioning, Tripod and Sport modes – I quickly got into the habit of flicking it into tripod mode whenever I wanted to take some shots.
In terms of photo size, it’s a no-brainer to keep this at the standard 3:2 ratio. If you change this to 16:9 all the will happen is that the software will crop the top and bottom of your image. You might as well keep it at 3:2 and then crop to any ratio you like in Lightroom or Photoshop. Doing it in post means you get to decide where the crop happens. I don’t bother with any of the other overlays (histogram, zebra stripes, grid etc) as it’s all just clutter – instead I trust my eyes and my instincts – if you can’t tell that a photo’s in focus, you should probably consider another hobby.
Low Light Love
The areas of photography that interests me most, are scenes when there is a wide dynamic range, such as sunrises and sunsets. Ever since I discovered the joys of extracting the ‘hidden’ data in RAW files I have loved taking such photographs. However this kind of photography is problematic due to the fact that at one end of the scale you have very low light levels and at the other you have light levels so strong that they will always clip. It’s for this reason that pretty much every photo I’ve made in the last six years or so, has been bracketed.
Now on the Mavic 2 Pro, with its 1″ sensor, it does a much better job of capturing wide dynamic range, than my P4 did. Moreover, thanks to the adjustable aperture it’s possible to precisely configure how much light you want to let in through that lens. So I am already photographing scenes with a level of quality that simply wasn’t possible on the P4. In the gallery on the left you can see three of the sunrise and sunset shots I’ve taken thus far.
The DJI Go 4 app includes different options for photographing low-light or wide dynamic range scenes. For people who don’t know how to use HDR software or have no inclination to learn, there is a built-in HDR mode that produces a single shot from three bracketed images. There’s also the AEB mode which enables you to take either three or five consecutive images covering a range of exposure values including under-exposed and over-exposed so that shadows and highlights don’t get clipped. You can then process these manually using your favoured software just as you would with DSLR bracketed images. Finally there’s the new Hyperlight mode, which is designed for taking night photographs. As I am not licenced I cannot take night shots here in Australia so I won’t be taking any shots under cover of darkness, but I do intend to try this with sunrise and sunset scenes. Hyperlight is designed specifically to reduce the sort of noise you typically see in high ISO scenes.
As great as the Mavic 2 Pro is, there are a couple of issues that I have identified with it – they’re not deal-breakers but they’re worth mentioning. First are foremost amongst these minor irritations is the process of getting the photographs and video off the drone. If you have used the Mavic 2’s built-in 8Gb of storage space then you have no option but to unfold the drone, take off the gimbal cover and plug it directly into your computer using the USB-C slot in its side housing. The placement of the slot isn’t ideal and having to set up the drone and run it off battery for the duration of the transfer is annoying. If you’ve shot using an SD card then you can still go with the USB-C direct transfer method, or you can eject the card from the drone and plug it into your computer’s SD card slot. The slot placement is quite fiddly and I found it tricky to get a grip on the card with my fat fingers – as I said it’s not a deal-breaker, just a minor annoyance.
I have found that the DJI Go app will switch to JPEG from RAW, particularly if you’ve just used one of the multi-shot modes such as for a pano. I’ve had this happen to me three times now and in each case it meant that a lot of images I thought would be in nice sexy RAW were instead in lossy JPEG. I now pay very close attention to the on-screen status readings which show if you’re shooting in JPEG or RAW, but I shouldn’t have to – if I’ve set the app to use RAW, it should stick to that format until I tell it otherwise.
When folding the drone I have found that the underside legs clip into the edge of the Mavic’s body. Sometimes you have to give it a little nudge to seat it properly and flush with the surface. I initially wondered if I had a faulty drone but it turns out they all do this and DJI have responded to questions about the problem on their customer forums by saying that it’s all well within tolerances.
I have found the gimbal cover very fiddly to fit back onto the drone. It’s worth being very careful during this process because on one occasion when flicking the bulb-shaped camera section over to lock it, the cover was slightly further back than it should have been and it started placing pressure on the gimbal struts. I have found that it helps to immobilise the gimbal with one hand and then use the other to slip the cover over, but it’s a fiddly job and I don’t think I’ve done it in one smooth motion yet.
As soon as I saw the specifications of the Mavic 2 Pro I was sure that it was the right drone for me and, after a month of ownership I am confident that it’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. The product that DJI are putting out there has been evolved, iterated and refined over the years and the quadcopters they are selling now are polished products from the packaging all the way through to the apps.
I bought this drone as someone whose primary interest is stills photography and I am more than happy with my decision. The L1D-20c camera that DJI have developed in conjunction with Hasselblad is excellent and the vibrant 20-megapixel shots I am taking are a great testament to the superb 1″ Sony sensor that sits behind that lens. DJI have grown to understand the needs of photographers and videographers and there are plentiful options for taking great photographs with the Mavic 2. Modes such as AEB mean you can shoot bracketed images and combine then in whichever way you prefer from the RAW files. The panoramic modes are excellent and, while the in-app stitching isn’t that great, it doesn’t matter because you build the panorama yourself from the RAW source files.
Having full control of focus and aperture are essential for any landscape photography process and it’s great that the Mavic 2 gives you that control. But it’s all the deft little touches that DJI have included that make this such a valuable tool for the photographer – features such as being able to increase or decrease the EV value from the hat switch on the controller, or the new hyperlight mode for shooting noise-free night shots, or the fact that you an just slide an ND filter on the front of the lens. It’s the sort of thoughtful design that other companies pay only lip service to.
So if you’re a landscape photographer who wants to get into aerial photography, or you own another drone and were considering upgrading then I can highly recommend the Mavic 2 Pro. This is a refined and elegant quadcopter that will serve you well for many years. It’s portable enough to go anywhere with you, it has a highly practical design and the end result – the photographs that you take with it – can happily sit alongside the ones you take with your main DSLR or mirrorless camera.