DJI Mavic 3 Preview – PCMag

The Mavic 3's Hasselblad camera sets it apart
The DJI Mavic 3 puts a Hasselblad camera in a small, folding drone. It captures stunning video and stills, but it's missing a few promised features at launch.
DJI’s latest drone, the Mavic 3 ($2,199), is the follow-up to a pair of models from 2018, the Mavic 2 Zoom and Mavic 2 Pro. This new quadcopter combines the functions of the two models: It sports a dual-lens camera that nets stunning wide-angle views, along with a telephoto camera for tighter perspectives. The Mavic 3 has some ambitious tech inside, including a Four Thirds format sensor camera with Hasselblad color science and all-around obstacle avoidance sensors. It’s a promising tool for filmmaking and we’re impressed with its 5.1K video so far. We test-flew the drone with beta software, though, so we weren’t able to try out all of its new features. We’re holding off on giving the Mavic 3 a rating at this time, but read on for our first impressions and check back soon for a finalized review.
A slim, folding design defines the drones in DJI’s Mavic line, and the Mavic 3 doesn’t deviate from that formula. It’s a decidedly small aircraft and takes up about the same amount of space in a camera bag as a typical 70-200mm F2.8 zoom lens. Folded for storage it measures 3.6 by 3.8 by 8.4 inches (HWD) and weighs about 2 pounds, heavy enough to require federal registration.
Recreational pilots flying in the US are required to take the TRUST test before flying, and you’ll need a Part 107 certificate from the FAA to use the Mavic 3, or any UAV, for commercial purposes. For more on what you should know before buying a drone, read our story on drone regulations.
The nose-mounted, dual-lens Hasselblad L2D-20c camera is the star here. The large main camera is a 12mm F2.8 backed by a 20MP Four Thirds format sensor (the same size used in Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras). It captures the same angle of view as a 24mm on a full-frame system, a focal length that’s now the wide end of standard zooms in the photography world.
A second lens sits just above. It has a tighter angle of view, around 162mm in full-frame terms, and is backed by a half-inch sensor, the same size as the main camera in our midrange Editors’ Choice drone, the Mavic Air 2. This lens is used exclusively in Explore mode for media at 7x zoom power and beyond. The camera supports 14x and 28x options as well.
Aerial footage is Steadicam-smooth because of the three-axis gimbal camera mount. It keeps the lens steady and level during flight, even when turning and changing altitude. The camera can tilt all the way down to 90 degrees for bird’s-eye views, and supports 35 degrees of upward tilt—a plus for using the drone as a tool for building or bridge inspections, and not without its artistic uses.
DJI is bringing a few different versions of the Mavic 3 to market. The standard and Fly More Combo use the same aircraft and offer the same flight experience and video capabilities. They’re the models we’re talking about here.
The $2,199 standard edition includes the drone; a protective cover; a remote control and cables to plug in your phone or tablet; one flight battery; two extra propellers; and a charger. It includes 8GB of onboard storage (not much when you consider the size of 5.1K video files), a microSD slot to expand storage, and a USB-C port for wired transfers.
The $2,999 Fly More Combo adds two extra batteries, a three-battery charger, a set of neutral density filters, and two full sets of extra propellers. It ships in a carrying case, one that can convert between a handbag and a backpack. It’s a quality bag and feels sturdy. The zippers aren’t quite the same level of quality as what I’m used to from Peak Design and Think Tank photo bags, however.
The Cine Premium Combo is sky-high expensive at $4,999, but makes some changes to the flight experience and video capabilities. It has the same accessories as the Fly More package, including the bag. It swaps out the standard remote control for the DJI RC Pro remote; this model sports a built-in display, so you don’t have to connect your phone.
More importantly, the Mavic 3 Cine aircraft includes a sizable 1TB SSD, up from the piddling 8GB included in the standard drone. It adds support for higher-quality video compression as well, encoding footage using Apple ProRes 422 HQ codec. The standard Mavic 3 is limited to H.264 and HEVC/H.265 encoding.
DJI adds obstacle avoidance sensors to most of its folding drones—counting in-production models, it’s only missing from the basic Mini SE and Mini 2. The Mavic 3 expands the feature, offering an improved version of the all-around sensors from the Mavic 2 Pro and Zoom.
There are eight sensors in total, two each facing forward, aft, upward, and downward. The front and rear sensors are angled outward, so there’s no need for dedicated port and starboard cameras. The Mavic can sense obstacles coming from any direction. In our first round of testing, it worked as expected, and was accurate enough to warn me of a vulture circling above at one point. DJI says that the sensors can sense objects as far as 656 feet (200 meters) away.
Better obstacle detection is good news for safety-conscious pilots. There’s less chance of an accident, and the more sensitive sensors improve automated return-to-home functionality. The drone is better able to map the environment and uses that data to plan a smarter path back home.
The Mavic also promises to better navigate autonomously through complex spaces using the Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS). Earlier versions of APAS worked well enough to fly around trees at a local park, but DJI promises that APAS 5.0 is much more capable. It showed us footage of the Mavic 3 using it to follow a subject through a very dense cluster of trees.
APAS 5.0 wasn’t finished in time for us to test ahead of the Mavic 3’s announcement, but will be available with the final version. We’re eager to see how it compares with the as-yet unparalleled obstacle avoidance in the Skydio 2, especially when combined with DJI’s subject tracking system, Active Track 5.0.
Active Track 5.0 isn’t available at launch, either; DJI says that feature will arrive with a firmware update set for January. Those features aren’t the only ones missing at launch. That January update will also include support for two types of automated shots (QuickShots and MasterShots) that let the drone take control over the flight path and its cameras, as well as a 100MP Panorama mode.
Positioning is solid: The drone gets its location from GPS, GLONASS, and BeiDou satellites, so it knows where it is on the globe and can hover perfectly in place, even with wind. Indoor flight is an option too, and while you won’t have GPS to keep the drone steady, downward-facing visual positioning sensors work to keep it in place. Just be careful not to fly it over reflective surfaces or those with repeating patterns when working indoors.
The drone can also tell you when a manned aircraft is nearby, using an AirSense ADS-B system. It works as advertised—a warning popped up on my screen during a test flight, just moments before I heard the unmistakable sound of a prop plane flying overhead our bucolic test spot. I opted to bring the drone down below the treetops until the plane passed by.
The Mavic 3 also supports AeroScope Remote ID, kind of a license plate for drones. It broadcasts the drone’s location, in compliance with an FAA requirement set to take effect in 2023. The system allows authorities to locate your drone if it’s flying in restricted airspace.
You’re unlikely to do so by accident, though. DJI has a robust geofencing system in place, Fly Safe, that prevents the drone from taking off in no-fly zones, and prompts you to go through an authorization process in restricted areas where you have permission to fly.
The built-in communication system sends 1080p60 video back to the remote over a digital O3+ connection. In our tests, I had no problem with the signal; it was flawless within visual line of sight. If you’re working with a spotter and can fly beyond visual range, DJI promises better than nine miles of transmission range.
A reliable battery is just as important as signal strength. The Mavic 3 uses a new flight battery, one that promises to deliver up to 46 minutes of flying time on a full charge. Those numbers are in ideal conditions, and in our first batch of tests, the battery fell a little shy of estimates.
I flew three flights over the course of two days, for an average of 28 minutes, and landing with 15 to 20% battery life each time. The DJI Fly app estimates how much time is left on the battery right up until the end of the flight, so I could have eked out about 35 minutes if I’d flown until the drone landed itself.
We’ll take more test flights and see how they compare to get a better handle on real-world flight time as we continue to review the Mavic 3, but these initial results indicate that DJI is a little ambitious with its 46-minute estimate. Even so, it’s up from the 27 minutes and 18 minutes we got from the Mavic 2 Pro and Skydio 2 respectively in our tests.
If you’re upgrading from a Mavic 2, you’ll appreciate the Mavic 3’s remote control. It sports a better design and better accommodates larger smartphones. It’s the same remote control that other recent DJI drones use, including the Mini 2, Mavic Air 2, and Air 2S.
It’s a gray slab, not too far off in form or function from a video game controller, just a bit more rectangular. The flight control sticks unscrew and stow in the bottom for slimline storage. Your smartphone pops into the clamp on the top, and the clamp acts as a cover for the connection cable when closed. It’s a smart design.
You use the DJI Fly app for everything from camera view and controls to firmware updates. (If you aren’t a smartphone owner, this isn’t the drone to get.) DJI Fly is available for Android and iOS, and you get Lightning, micro USB 2.0, and USB-C cables in the box. The remote charges via USB-C and can provide power to a connected device—a plus if you’ve got a smartphone with a deteriorating battery.
Controls are straightforward for anyone who’s piloted a drone before. (We have a primer for folks who haven’t tried one yet.) There are two control sticks to move the drone through space, as well as a shoulder control wheel to tilt the camera. Return-to-home, power, and function buttons sit on the front, and there’s a shoulder control to control recording.
A toggle in the center lets you switch between Cine, Normal, and Sport flight modes. The Cine mode stops the drone down a bit for slower-moving shots. The Normal mode offers a decent amount of speed, around 22mph with obstacle avoidance enabled. The obstacle sensors are turned off in Sport mode, so it’s best to use that when flying high and away from trees and buildings; in this mode, the drone gets up to around 45mph.
The remote offers basic camera controls, but the app opens up more possibilities. There, you can pick your video frame rate and resolution; turn Raw photography on or off; view fight logs; and change other settings. It also includes some basic video editing tools and ready-made templates for casual edits.
You can edit the 1080p video the Mavic streams back to your phone immediately, or copy full-resolution footage over to your device for editing. It supports quick Wi-Fi 6 transfer rates for compatible phones. I’d expect more Mavic 3 buyers to edit on a laptop or desktop—I used Final Cut Pro to put the sample footage here together.
The Hasselblad brand is well known to older photographers by way of its unmistakable square-format film cameras—my dad’s 1950s-era 500C was one of the first cameras I ever handled, and I have fond memories of opening and closing the doors of its waist-level viewfinder as a child because it wasn’t too different from a Transformer in the way it changed shape. The younger set may know the Hasselblad more from partnerships, including a short-lived Moto Mod smartphone camera, and the more recent 907X mirrorless camera.
This isn’t the first DJI drone with Hasselblad tech inside. The companies formed a strategic partnership in 2015 and DJI made a more sizable investment in Hasselblad in early 2017. It’s an alliance that takes Hasselblad back to its roots—while it’s best known for handheld system cameras, the original HK-7 was made for the Swedish Air Force and a Hasselblad was used to capture the most iconic images from the surface of the moon during the Apollo missions.
The L2D-20c camera sports dual lenses. The larger wide-angle lens is the one you’ll want to use for the best quality footage and images. The smaller zoom lens comes in handy for getting a tighter view when you can’t fly your drone too close, but its image quality is closer to that of a smartphone than a mirrorless camera.
The big camera has a more robust toolkit, both for videos and stills. It supports 5.1K video with an extra-wide 1.9:1 aspect ratio, with 24/25/30/48/50 frame rate options. Wide aspect and 16:9 4K are both available with the same frame rates, plus 60fps. In slow-motion mode, the Mavic 3 can capture 120fps at 4K and 1080p; this is another feature that I wasn’t able to test yet.
See How We Test Drones
The standard edition of the drone we tested encodes footage in your choice of an MP4 or MOV container and H.264 or HEVC/H.265 compression. You need to step up to the $5,000 Cine package for ProRes 422 HQ.
There are two color profiles, Hasselblad Natural Color, and a flat, 10-bit D-Log profile, suitable for grading. I’ve not shot any D-Log footage yet—DJI told me the profile wasn’t quite finished in the beta firmware.
The Hasselblad color profile is fully polished, though, and really nailed the look and feel of the rural Pennsylvania landscape during both a perfectly lit sunrise and a pretty standard late October afternoon. It’s an 8-bit profile though, so there’s not as much flexibility for color adjustment—if you want a different look, 10-bit D-Log is the way to go.
I opted for a cinematic 24fps frame rate and attached a neutral density filter (included with the Fly More Combo) to the lens to maintain a proper shutter angle. The neutral density filters are very easy to swap out—they twist off counter-clockwise, and cover both lenses. Keep that in mind that the ND filter is less ideal for the zoom lens—its smaller aperture and sensor may prove problematic in environments with less-than-bright sunlight.
Photos are available at 20MP resolution in JPG format with the Hasselblad profile or as Raw DNG for editing. The JPG shots are a little brighter, a bit crisper, and correct for some slight barrel distortion. They’re ready to share right out of the camera.
Raw files offer ample room to edit and are a better way to go if you want to fine-tune color. I used the Agfa Precisa 100 preset from RNI Films to give the Raw take on this sunrise shot a different mood.
The camera has a variable aperture, adjustable from f/2.8 through f/11. Results are a bit softer wide open than at f/4 and smaller settings, so you may want to work in aperture priority and keep the iris closed down for the sharpest results. At f/8 and f/11, bright points of light show as multi-point sunstars, a desirable look for landscape work.
You need to swap to Explore mode to use the telephoto lens—just tap the Binoculars icon in the DJI Fly app. It offers 1x, 2x, 4x, 7x, 14x, and 28x step zoom, for an effective angle of view of 24-672mm. It’s a bit less capable than the main camera—12MP photos are saved in JPG format only and the video frame rate is locked at 30fps.
The quality also suffers along with zoom. Explore uses the main camera for 1x, 2x, and 4x, but the 4x results are a little soft and show evidence of digital upscaling. At 7x, the camera switches to its telephoto lens and delivers crisp, smartphone-quality shots. Results hold up pretty well at 14x. The 28x feature can come in handy for industrial work and inspections, but it doesn’t make for beautiful photos.
Although the Explore mode nets results that fall shy of the excellent the main lens, the zoom power lets you get shots that you can’t with a wide-angle lens. I was able to track the flight of nearby vultures at one point, and the mode may be useful for getting clearer views of wildlife from the air when out camping or hiking. Just remember that you’re not allowed to use drones in any National Park; many preserves restrict access too.
It raises obvious privacy concerns. I was able to zoom in on myself from a 350-foot height, and it’s easy enough to identify me waving to the camera. At that distance, the drone is barely audible. It’s easy to imagine a ne’er-do-well violating the reasonable expectation of privacy that people enjoy in their homes and backyards.
Some video modes weren’t available for testing ahead of the Mavic’s announcement. These include Hyperlapse and the standard set of QuickShots—orbits, corkscrews, and other selfie reveal shots—as well as the more complex MasterShots introduced with last year’s Air 2S.
Even in its early state, the Mavic 3 is shaping up to be the best small drone for independent filmmakers; enthusiast and professional photographers; and successful vloggers. It pushes the envelope for drone cameras, backing its main camera with the same type of big image sensor used in Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras and adding a smartphone-quality zoom to complement it.
All-around obstacle avoidance, reliable satellite positioning, smarter return-to-home functionality, and extended flight times work together to make the Mavic 3 a safer drone to fly. Geofencing is a divisive feature—some lament its limitations—but we see it as a benefit to keep cinematographers out of trouble and keep drones away from places they’re not permitted to wander. If you prefer a drone without it, consider the Autel EVO II Pro.
We’re eager to finish testing the Mavic 3 and give it a final rating. Its ActiveTrack 5.0 and APAS 5.0 features promise to deliver subject tracking on par with the crash-proof Skydio 2, a drone that’s amazing to see fly, but nets video that’s just okay. The Mavic 3’s camera is miles better than the Skydio.
And it’s the camera, with its Hasselblad color science and smooth, stable, 5.1K video, that allows me to conclude that, even without all of its flight features in place, the Mavic 3 is the best small drone for demanding photographers and cinematographers. To get any better, you need to invest in a big drone, such as the DJI Inspire 2 or Sony Airpeak S1, and maybe think about hiring a film crew.
The Mavic 3 costs a lot less than those bigger drones, but at $2,199 to start, it’s not an impulse purchase for most of us. And I recommend getting the Fly More Combo, especially if you’re using the drone for travel, which pushes the price to $2,999. Either way, it’s as much as a good full-frame camera, and that may be a hard pill for enthusiasts to swallow. Video pros who are used to more expensive equipment than photographers may see the $4,999 Cine kit as a splurge, but find the ProRes 422 HQ video to be worth the extra cost.
The DJI Mavic 3 puts a Hasselblad camera in a small, folding drone. It captures stunning video and stills, but it's missing a few promised features at launch.
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Jim Fisher is our lead analyst for cameras, drones, and digital imaging. He studied at RPI and worked on the retail side of the industry at B&H before landing at PCMag. He has a thing for old lenses, boneyards, and waterfowl. When he’s not out with his camera, Jim enjoys watching bad and good television, playing video games (poorly), and reading. You can find him on Instagram @jamespfisher
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