Toy & Game Reviews & Buying Guides
Summary: DJI provided us with a review unit for one of our writers to test. Read on for their full take.
If you want to get into aerial photography, you may find that the limiting factor in any relatively affordable drone is its camera. That changes with the Mavic 3, which not only offers a significantly larger image sensor in its main camera but also includes an impressive superzoom camera for telephoto shots. This drone can do things never before seen in a consumer product of this kind, but is it worth the steep price tag?
Key upgrades over previous Mavic series drones include ADS-B Airsense capability to help you stay safe and avoid manned aircraft, as well as increased speed and battery life. The biggest difference is the camera, where the Mavic 3 features in its dual-camera system both a larger sensor than the Mavic 2 Pro and a longer zoom than the Mavic 2 Zoom.
Anyone who’s flown one of DJI’s modern camera drones will find much of the design of the Mavic 3 familiar. The basic shape of the drone isn’t much different from the Mavic 2, with some notable exceptions.
For one, the camera on this thing is huge, which should come as no surprise given the massive upgrades DJI packed into that portion of the drone. Secondly, the batteries now load from the back of the drone and are long and rectangular in shape.
Other than that, it still deploys and stows away using the same folding configuration as the Mavic 2, though notably, there are some subtle yet significant upgrades in this regard. The gimbal and camera now lock automatically when the drone is powered down. Additionally, a rugged wrap-around hood replaces the finicky plastic bubble previously used to protect the camera and gimbal. This feature safeguards the gimbal and the motors, blades, and sensors from damage during transit.
What accessories you get will depend on which bundle you buy, but if you opt for one of the less expensive bundles, you’ll get the standard DJI remote controller, which is kind of a disappointment, as this is the same controller bundled with several of DJIs less expensive drones.
It doesn’t have a built-in screen, so you’ll have to use a smartphone with it to fly. I flew with an iPad Mini, which, once set up, is a great experience, but the time it takes to attach the controller to the tablet adds valuable time to the process of getting in the air.
If you opt for one of the more expensive bundles, you get DJI’s new RC Pro controller, a much better way to pilot the Mavic 3, but it’s painfully expensive and somewhat difficult to recommend. Unfortunately, the Mavic 3 is not compatible with the older DJI Smart Controller, which is the predecessor to the RC Pro controller, and which many people, including me, already own.
That might be my biggest complaint about the Mavic 3, but it’s a gripe I was able to set aside due to the overwhelming excellence of the system overall.
Setting up the Mavic 3 was free of the hiccups I typically experience setting up a DJI product. I've used many of their drones and cameras, and I often encounter issues with firmware and activation getting them up and running. However, with the Mavic 3, I didn't have any problems worth mentioning.
The Mavic 3 has a truly gigantic camera for a drone. Its Micro 4/3 is generally considered the minimum size for professional mirrorless cameras, and to have one attached to an unmanned aerial vehicle as accessible as the Mavic 3 is really exciting.
For perspective, most phones feature a 1/2.3-inch sensor, while the top-of-the-line Mavic 2 Pro that preceded the Mavic 3 had a 1-inch sensor. Micro 4/3 means that the Mavic 3 has a 4/3-inch sensor.
A larger sensor improves many aspects of camera performance. In general, you get more detailed images with better low-light performance. You also tend to get a better dynamic range, which means that the camera can capture more detail in very dark and very bright areas of the image. As a result, you don’t have as much of a problem with losing parts of your image in high contrast situations.
Overall, I’m hugely impressed with the quality of images I can capture with the Mavic 3. It’s a noticeable upgrade over the Mavic 2 Pro or Air 2S. Low-light performance is every bit as good as I’d hoped. I was able to capture sharp, vibrant photos even at the tail end of dusk, which is something no drone I’ve ever flown has been able to accomplish.
I found the digital zoom function kind of a gimmick, and its integration into the use of the 7x optical zoom in the explore mode makes this feature more awkward to access. However, it’s worth dealing with the little eccentricities because that 7x zoom is incredible.
True, the image quality from the superzoom camera isn’t fantastic, but it allows you to capture photos and videos that are simply impossible with a drone featuring only a wide-angle lens. This is the only drone on the market that I could actually recommend for wildlife photography, which requires that you maintain an enormous distance from your subject.
It’s impressive how well the gimbal manages to stabilize such a long focal length. I was able to capture smooth video footage of an eagle in flight from roughly half a mile away, which was an absolutely jaw-dropping moment.
While the camera may be the eye-catching part of the Mavic 3 that everyone really cares about, the engines, rotors, and battery that keep that camera in the air are every bit as vital. What I want to make most clear here is just how well this drone holds up in strong winds. Now, I don’t recommend intentionally flying in such conditions, but the weather can change fast and you don’t want to be knocked out of the sky by an errant gust.
That’s not going to happen with the Mavic 3, and I wouldn’t want to meet the gust that could take down the Mavic 3. As I’m writing this, I just returned from a winter expedition out in the mountains where, in mid-flight, a howling gust of considerable power came out of nowhere while I was in the air. I was filming a timelapse video using the 7x optical zoom. Not only did the Mavic 3 weather the blast without harm, but the timelapse also didn't even show the dramatic turbulence I experienced.
It also performs well in the cold, as I flew it on numerous occasions in weather well below freezing. Aside from some ice buildup on the propellers, it handled literal freezing cold like a polar bear.
In terms of speed, the Mavic 3 can go as fast as 47 miles per hour. That’s fast enough to keep up with a car, though you can only achieve this rate in sport mode where obstacle avoidance is disabled. However, in normal mode, it’s still pretty fast. If you want to capture precise, slow shots, a Cine mode option puts a very low limit on the speed.
In terms of battery life, the Mavic 3 has an advertised 46 minutes of flight time, and in my judgment, this is a very accurate estimation. I found that each fully charged battery would get me through several separate typical flights. It’s a wonderful, freeing feeling to fly and not have to worry about running out of battery.
Regarding transmission range, it’s extremely stable and able to operate over farther distances than you are ever likely to fly. The video signal to the controller is crisp and clear.
If I had one quibble, it would be how long it takes the Mavic 3 to acquire a GPS lock. It’s significantly longer than any other DJI drone I’ve flown, and I often found myself launching without GPS and flying up until I got a stronger GPS signal. My impression is that this is because the Mavic 3 requires more satellites to achieve GPS lock, which is difficult when taking off in some confined locations.
The noise level of the Mavic 3 is also worth mentioning because it’s remarkably quiet. The moment I first lifted off with it, I could tell it was much less noisy than any other drone I’ve ever flown. Compared side-by-side with an older Mavic Pro, it’s a night-and-day difference, at least to my ears. Part of the contrast is that the tone of its rotors is much lower than other drones and, as a result, much less bothersome to hear.
Lower noise is precious to drone pilots, as it reduces your chances of bothering passersby. It should be the goal of every pilot to ensure that they do not interfere with the experiences of others in the outdoors.
At launch, the Mavic 3 was missing a large number of important features. Luckily, Mavic quickly remedied that situation.
Obstacle avoidance worked fine for me, though I am a very cautious pilot and rarely find myself in situations where it’s necessary. It will, however, in many cases prevent unfortunate accidents. I did encounter an issue with false-positive object detection halting the drone in its tracks while flying in low light at dusk, but that was early on, and I have not been able to replicate the issue after DJI rolled out a significant firmware update.
Another useful feature is a system that detects nearby manned aircraft and alerts users to their presence. It's an absolutely vital safety feature.
Other options include subject tracking, with which the drone was able to follow me very accurately and find me again and lock on even if I maneuvered my way out of the frame. In this mode, you're also able to adjust the way the drone follows you, such as overhead, from the side, in front, or behind. It's pretty cool.
A related feature is "mastershots," where the drone automatically films various cinematic shots of your subject. Timelapse capability is also available. The great thing is that in all of these modes, you can film in 4K, which hasn't always been the case in DJI drones.
It's also worth noting that Mavic improved the return to home function. I didn't test it out as it's my policy to reserve this only for emergencies and fly in such a manner that it never becomes necessary.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the DJI Mavic 3 is a very expensive device. It starts at $2,200 and goes all the way up to $5,000 for the Cine version which adds a built-in 1TB solid-state drive, as well as Apple ProRes recording capability.
However, you’re getting two flying cameras in the same drone: one with a giant, high-resolution sensor and the other with a super-telephoto lens. When you consider that, $2,200 seems very reasonable indeed.
The DJI Mavic 3 is the superior drone in every performance and photographic capability metric, but there are also compelling reasons to buy the DJI Air 2S instead. When I reviewed this awesome little drone in 2021, I dubbed it the best drone on the market. From a value perspective, that’s still true, and it’s certainly the most portable drone you can buy that’s optimal for high-quality photo and video work.
Its 1-inch sensor isn’t quite as large as the Micro 4/3 sensor in the Mavic 3, but it’s still larger than what you’d typically find in any other drone in this price range. The DJI Air 2S has most of the obstacle avoidance and smart features found in the Mavic 3, all for roughly half the price. Plus, the Air 2S is compatible with the older, more affordable, but still excellent DJI Smart Controller. While the Mavic 3 is certainly the objectively more powerful drone, the Air 2S is shockingly close on its heels.