DJI is by far the leader in drones for filmmakers, but they haven't let that stop them from continuing to innovate to stay ahead of the pack. That trend continues with the new Air 2S.
With a maximum resolution of 5.4K at 30fps or 4K 60fps, as well as the option of shooting in 10-bit log, the small unit packs a big punch. Big enough, actually, that it might even start to compete against the bigger Mavic 2 Pro and Zoom, though there are still a few features that might steer a filmmaker toward those top-of-the-line foldable drones.
We got our hands on a DJI Air 2S and walked away very impressed.
DJI options for filmmakers run from the foldable Mavic lineup up to the interchangeable lens Inspire 2 units to the "carry whatever camera you want" Matrice series. But the Mavic line is the most popular with independent creatives. Mavic units are small, travel well, and fit in part of a larger palette for content creators, while Inspire and Matrice are more for dedicated drone pilots who are making aerial work a major focus of their business.
The Mavic lineup starts with the Mavic Mini and Mini 2, which have a smaller sensor that's great for social media but isn't quite robust enough for filmmaking. Next is Mavic Air 2 which is beefier, but it's really the Mavic 2 Pro and Zoom from 2018 that have been the biggest hit with filmmakers. With a 1" sensor and color science from Hasselblad, the Mavic 2 Pro/Zoom packs a lot of image quality into a package you can fold into your backpack.
Now we are starting to see a lot of that image quality come down to the Air 2S.
It boasts a 1" sensor, up from the 1/2" sensor in the Mavic Air 2, which is a dramatic improvement in image quality. Larger sensors, of course, mean larger photosites, which can give you better low-light reproduction and higher-resolution images. The step up in imagery is dramatic with the Air 2S and compares quite favorably to our experiences shooting with the 1" sensor in the Mavic 2 Pro.
That extra resolution helps tremendously with rendering fine detail of the wide shots you typically get from flying a drone, and we were very pleased with the reproduction of details like bricks and buildings while working with the Air 2S. The addition of D-log (the DJI Log format) also adds post production flexibility. All of this in a lighter body that offers more nimble flying than the beefier Pro/Zoom models.
In our tests the imagery was very impressive for a 1" sensor, clearly competing with or outpacing our previous experiences with the Mavic 2 Pro. The addition of 10-bit D-log is the real winner here, though, opening up more flexibility for grading and helping integrate the footage with a wider variety of other cameras.
Drone work almost always has to match your ground-based camera, so the more flexible the files, the better. Of course, drone work is almost often outside as well, with high contrast daylight situations being very common, and the extra latitude of D-log helps. We would love 12-bit, but considering the price, 10-bit imagery is still very useful. Where 10-bit will struggle is in very high contrast situations, like trying to see detail in a foreground object while shooting straight into a sunset. For 12-bit and RAW capture, you'll need to bump up to something like the Inspire 2, or we might possibly see 12-bit in Mavic 3 Pro/Zoom.
Like many DJI drones, the new Air 2S has several pre-planned Quickshots that include Rocket, Circle, Dronie, Helix, Boomerang, and Asteroid. But new are what DJI calls MasterShots, which are predesigned shots where the drone will autonomously plan a flight path and start recording the footage.
While a filmmaker might bristle at letting the machine do the operating, these shots are actually surprisingly useful. You select the object you want to feature, and it can automatically create panning shots, pivots, drift ins, and drift outs that will make great establishing shots. In the DJI Fly app, select MasterShots and it can shoot a whole routine with multiple options.
While MasterShots aren't likely to be too useful when working on your magnum opus where you want to control every detail of a move, when you are shooting a documentary and have to rush to get a quick establishing shot of the building you are working in, they are actually the perfect tool. Savvy users can already see these moves appearing in final content, and that will only increase as these pre-programmed moves become more sophisticated.
One thing to be conscious of is that the pre-planned flight modes are "easy" but also require practice and planning. For instance, you can still fly into something even when in automatic mode, so you need to keep a close watch on the drone and ensure that it has a safe flight path ahead of it. When testing the feature we were still very conscious of the potential for collision and stopped one of the pre-programmed moves when its arc went larger than expected.
This is a great time to reinforce that while DJI has done a tremendous amount to make drone flying easy, and frankly fun for even beginners, it is still a task with potential danger. We recommend working with at least another collaborator to work as a visual spotter on the drone, since the main pilot will be looking back and forth between the drone and the phone screen on the handset.
The Fly More Combo comes with interchangeable ND filters.Credit: DJI
DJI Air 2S Comparison
The imagery from the Air 2S is good enough that we really started to wonder if it was creeping up on the specs of the Mavic 2 Pro. In fact, the 5.4K resolution of the 1" sensor on the Air 2S is higher resolution than the 4K you get from the Mavic 2 Pro.
One feature that the Mavic 2 Pro has that is missing in the Air 2S is the controllable aperture. Controllable aperture is a nice feature, since it lets you manually control working with a wider aperture if you want a shallower depth of field. However, the Air 2S Fly More Combo, which is what we tested, does come with ND filters that you can easily mount to the lens. The difference here is that you'll have to plan your shot ahead of time by testing out which ND filter is best before recording, where with the Mavic 2 Pro/Zoom, you can adjust the aperture in flight.
Another bigger difference is the absence of side impact sensors. The Air 2S has four-way directional obstacle sensors, but they are top and bottom, front and back.
Credit: DJIWhile side impact sensors don't seem like a big deal at first, they are wonderful to have. If you're working alone, you are most likely paying attention to what is in front of the drone or looking through the image on your phone to see where the drone is flying. But say you're tracking side to side, and the image on your screen isn't showing you what the drone is heading toward. This means you need to be constantly looking back and forth from the remote to the drone. It's possible to do this safely with practice, but it does take practice, and even experienced operators run into things from time to time.
We prefer having the warning beeps we got when deliberately flying a bit too close to objects in order to purposely set off the impact sensors. All the information we can have is appreciated. The Air 2S has front and rear sensors, which is wonderful, but when flying side to side those side impact sensors will be missed.
So where does that leave the Air 2S? The phrase we kept coming back to in our mind was content creator. If you're someone putting out a lot of content for YouTube, with fast edit turnarounds and a real need to keep equipment lightweight, the Air 2S is likely going to be the drone for you.
It has a bigger sensor than the Mini 2 and Mavic Air 2, so if you're not invested in either of those and want to save money over the Mavic 2 Pro/Zoom, the Air 2S is the better choice.
It has several FocusTrack modes, where the drone can fly an autonomous flight path around the subject (Point of Interest 3.0), actively track a subject (ActiveTrack 4.0), or lock the subject in frame while you pilot the drone (Spotlight 2.0). These are great options to have while shooting alone or doing an elaborate trick, enabling you to keep your crew small while keeping your content constant.
It has D-log if you need it, and for most shots, we can live without side impact protection. If one of your goals with a drone is to always have it with you, it's going to do that job incredibly well. However, if your goal is to focus heavily on your work as an aerial cinematographer, go out to work on other peoples productions, and want maximum control, it's worth still giving the Mavic 2 Pro/Zoom a real look.
That said, the imagery from the Air 2S is very impressive, and will cut well into a lot of projects and provide a great platform for expanding your storytelling.
The Air 2S is available now for $999, or in the Fly More Combo with more batteries, ND filters, and propeller blades for $1,299.