What the 48mp Mavic Air 2 really means for high-resolution photography

Chinese drone maker DJI in April launched the Mavic Air 2, and photographers are head over heels about the promise of high-resolution 48mp photos.

More megapixels typically means more details. If you’re printing your images, more megapixels allow you to print in larger formats.

When flying your Mavic Air 2, you can shoot 12-megapixel images. But there’s also a “high-resolution 48-megapixel feature.”

Is that actually any good? What does 48mp actually mean, and will it actually do anything to improve your image quality?

Here’s what you need to know about the 48mp Mavic Air 2, its half-inch sensor, and what it means for your aerial image quality:

48mp Mavic Air 2 DJI 4K smartphoto

For 48mp Mavic Air 2 photos, it comes down to the Quad Bayer 1/2″ sensor

How does the Mavic Air 2 actually take 48 mp photos? It all comes down to a large Quad Bayer 1/2″ sensor.

Most color images today are created using what’s called a Bayer filter mosaic, which is a color filter array that arranges RGB color filters on a square grid of photosensors to create your color image.

The Quad Bayer filter, which you’ll now find in the Mavic Air 2, extends the classic Bayer RGB pixel pattern by putting four pixels behind each color square instead of just one.

In that process, the camera can capture two photos at the same time (it’s the reason why the Mavic Air 2 has HDR functionality and Hyperlight, which is DJI’s version of a night-time mode).

Quad Bayer filter Mavic Air 2

What do 48mp photos actually mean?

Cameras promising 48mp is becoming increasingly more common in accessible consumer tech today. And while that many megapixels in the Mavic Air 2 may seem wow-worthy, here’s some context.

Megapixels on their own are not the most important thing when it comes to image quality.

More megapixels does not necessarily equal better

While there may often be a correlation between megapixels and photo quality, it’s not necessarily causation. You could have 480 megapixels and still have mediocre image quality.

You’ll find them in low-cost phones including the Motorola One Vision, Xiaomi Mi A3 and Samsung Galaxy A51, each of which only cost between $200 and $300.

But some experts say you don’t really need a camera with such a massive megapixel count.

What really matters: the sensor

Rather than focus on megapixels, focus on the sensor. The Mavic Air 2 has a 1/2″ CMOS sensor. For comparison, the Mavic 2 Pro has a much larger, 1” CMOS, 20 MP sensor. That’s twice the size (the Mavic 2 Pro is also about twice the price).

Though, it’s a bit bigger than the 1/2.3-inch sensor found on other popular DJI drones like the Mavic Air, Mavic Mini and Mavic Pro Platinum.

While more megapixels on a smaller sensor does mean that the camera’s sensor can collect more detail, beware. More megapixels but a small sensor (and a sensor can only be so big on a drone or some other small gadget, like a smartphone) only means trying to cram more pixels into a smaller place.

It’s like fish in a tank. One fish in a big tank means it’ll likely grow to be a big fish. Cram a bunch of fish in the same size tank and, in the competition for space, they’ll never grow much bigger. It’s like how jumbo shrimp are more expensive (and tastier) than the tiny salad shrimps.

In the case of camera specs, you have more, smaller pixels, which isn’t necessarily great.

Mavic Air 2 review: image quality

The Verge, which got their hands on an early review unit of the Mavic Air 2, compared two similar JPEGs and found that the 48-megapixel one “struggled to keep details in the highlights compared to the 12-megapixel version.”

They suggested that “DJI’s processing is likely to blame here because the RAW versions of these shots are very similar, with just some loss of detail in the highlights and some purple color cast in the shadows.”

PC Mag said in their review that the 48mp Mavic Air 2 shots looked grainier than the 12mp shots, which makes sense.

But it also means you can zoom in and still retain great detail.

This shot, shared by Cinema5D, shows the image as it was shot:

48 mp Mavic Air 2 half-inch sensor image quality
Photo via Cinema5D

And then it shows how tightly you can zoom (look for the grand looking structure in the left side of the photo):

48 mp Mavic Air 2 half-inch sensor image quality
Photo via Cinema5D

PC Mag also added that they experienced a couple-second delay after a 48MP DNG+JPG capture before being able to take the next photo or switch to video capture, presumably because the big files require more processing time.

The tl;dr: 48mp doesn’t mean automatically better.

Instead, it means that Mavic Air 2 pilots can now choose to either take high-resolution shots with a lot of detail, or lower-resolution images with better dynamic range. It’s a tradeoff that you choose.

Given the slightly larger sensor, the Mavic Air 2 has higher image quality than others in the Mavic family like the original Mavic Air, Mavic Mini and Mavic Pro Platinum. But, it will still be lesser than what you’ll find in the Mavic 2 Pro.

Serious photographers should stick to either the Phantom 4 Pro (though it’s currently out of stock) or the Mavic 2 Pro, both of which have a 20MP 4K camera with a 1-inch sensor (the Mavic 2 Pro has a Hasselblad camera).

But for great photos without the price, the Mavic Air 2 is your drone — easily. Just don’t get overly hyped about 48mp photos.

When is the Mavic Air 2 coming out, and how much is the Mavic Air 2?

Shipping begins on Monday, May 11.

There are two Mavic Air 2 packages.

  • Standard package ($799): includes Mavic Air 2, one battery, remote controller and all the required wires and cables
  • Fly More option ($988): includes all items from the standard version as well as a shoulder bag, ND filters, charging hub, and 3 batteries
  • DJI Care Refresh add-on option: For an additional charge, DJI Care Refresh offers comprehensive coverage for incidents such as collision and water damage as well as up to two replacement units within one year.

Mavic Air 2 is currently available for preorder through all authorized retailers as well DJI’s online store. Though, due to limited new product availability, each customer can only purchase one unit. 

You can also get it on Amazon (free shipping, and Prime customers can save 5% by charging it to their Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card). It’s also available for preorder on B&H Photo.

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