Best drone for real estate 3D virtual tours & aerial photography 2020?

Hello again everyone I’m Josh, a San Diego based 3D Virtual Tour provider and aerial photographer. In my previous blog, we discussed the best 360 cameras for real estate, virtual tours, and 360 pictures in 2020. In this blog, we’ll dive into what I think are the overall best two drones on the market right now. The Mavic Pro 2 and the Mavic Mini drone.

The biggest factors for purchasing a drone for most people are picture/video quality, price, portability, and ease of use. The DJI Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic Mini do an excellent job of fulfilling these criteria within their respective price points for aerial photography. The Mavic Air 2 is an excellent option that is situated almost perfectly between these two drones. If I needed a third drone, it would be my choice. But, it lacks the true portability of the Mini and the power of the Pro 2. That said, it’s an excellent compromise between the two. So, without further ado, let’s dive into it!

DJI Mavic 2 Pro Drone

DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone review
DJI Mavic 2 Pro is one of the best drones for aerial photography

Are you considering taking to the sky’s for aerial photography but not sure what’s the best drone for you? The simple answer to that question is “What are your photography goals and what’s your budget?”. The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is my top choice when for professional use and value. The combination of picture quality, video quality, range, portability, and specialty flight modes all in one drone is amazing!

Speaking of picture quality, the drone has a 20-megapixel camera that is capable of taking breathtaking images. You can let the camera do most of the heavy lifting by leaving it in automatic mode. Or you can switch it to manual mode to gain full control over the exposure, aperture, and ISO. Click here if you aren’t familiar with manual modes on cameras. Images can be saved in JPEG, RAW, or both for your viewing and editing pleasure. The Mini can shoot videos in 4K at up to 30 frames per second for a truly cinematic look. I take full advantage of the Mavic 2 Pro’s 4K and 30 FPS ability all the time while utilizing ND filters. Here’s a 4K video I shot on my Major League Baseball stadium tour (Click me!).

Oracle Park - home of the San Francisco Giants
Aerial view of Oracle Park – home of the San Francisco Giants

Depending on what article you read or video you watch you’ll hear all sorts of distances for the range of the Mavic 2 Pro. The most accurate answer I can provide is it depends on the magnetic interference in the area you are flying. DJI claims the drone can fly up to 6 miles in perfect conditions. Numerous pilots have confirmed the 6-mile range with their range tests. However, some of those pilots also crashed their drones during said range tests because they flew too far and didn’t have enough battery to return.

The environment you are flying in will determine your real-world range. I’ve had my signal cut out repeatedly in as little as 500’ in downtown Los Angeles. I’ve also had the drone over 4000’ away over Lake Michigan maintaining video signal. In most urban and suburban environments, my Mavic 2 Pro starts to lose it’s video feed signal around 2500’ – 3000’ without substantial physical obstruction in the way. There are range booster kits that can be purchased to increase your range, but I haven’t personally tested any myself.

The Mavic 2 Pro offers many of what DJI calls “intelligent flight modes”. Most of these modes essentially automate flight paths and maneuvers of the drone. Such as orbiting around a fixed point, tracking an object, or even automatically flying from a selected location to another. However, one mode that I use often is a specialty type shot listed under quick shots. The camera locks onto a target of your choice. It then flies a preselected distance of your choice diagonally backward from your target. Once the drone reaches the predetermined ceiling it hovers in place and takes a 360-degree picture. This “asteroid” shot creates a video clip that provides the vantage point of an asteroid striking your target. You can see it in action at the end of this video (click here).

Oracle Park San Francisco Giants Tiny Planet
San Francisco Giants Tiny Planet

 The last two notable things about the DJI Mavic 2 Pro I’ll cover are stability and battery life. This drone is capable of ultra-smooth and stable flight. I’m comfortable throwing it in the air with wind speeds up to 25 mph to capture top-notch footage and pictures. That said, extra caution should always be used when flying in adverse conditions. Wind speed typically changes as your altitude increases. So, pay close attention to your drones’ performance.

Battery life is another common question concern for drones. DJI claims the Mavic 2 Pro gets up to 31 minutes of flight time. I typically have the drone within 1000’ when I hit 25% battery. Once I hit 20%, I begin bringing the drone home. The majority of the time I average around 22 minutes of flight time safely. Always be mindful of your battery life, top speed capabilities, and distance to ensure your drone makes it home safely.

The biggest complaint I have for the Mavic 2 Pro is one that plagues most drones, battery life. How much battery life is enough? Just a little more is always my answer! But in actuality, the Mavic line has increased its battery life over the years. Hopefully, they will continue to do so. Depending on how much flying you plan on doing battery prices could also be a negative for you. A new battery from DJI will cost you just under $150. Which means two extra batteries on their own cost as much as a Mavic Mini.

Aerial View of Bannerman Castle in the Hudson River Valley - New York
I was about 2500′ away shooting Bannerman Castle in the middle of the Hudson River Valley

DJI’s Geofencing can be glitchy at times. DJI’s Geofencing is designed to keep their drones from flying in restricted areas, such as airports, events, or power plants. If you try to take off in one of these restricted areas the controller will display a message notifying you of the restrictions and ask if you have permission. It’s typically a quick and painless process at takeoff.

However, some have reported instances during a flight when the drone’s GPS confused their location for a restricted location. The drone then began an automatic landing sequence. The users were only able to move the drone horizontally or downward but were unable to gain altitude I’ve experienced this once throughout 100’s of flight hours. In San Deigo, I was flying about half a mile from controlled airspace, that I didn’t obtain clearance for, since I had no intentions of entering it. Fortunately, I was able to regain control over the drone and land it safely. I have yet to encounter the issue since then.

Several of DJI’s competitors such as Skydio, Autel, and Parrot don’t have built-in geofencing like DJI. As a certified Part 107 commercial drone pilot in San Diego, I believe it’s important for drone pilots to follow the FAA flight regulations and to request clearances for flights into restricted areas. Utilizing apps like Kittyhawk for automatic clearance approvals (VIA LAANC) makes things much easier. For flights planned further out in zones that automatic clearances are available the FAA drone zone usually gets the clearances completed within a couple of days. I emphasize “usually” because there are times where I have waited a week and never got a reply. On my cross-country baseball stadium tour last month, I used the FAA drone zone 6 times. 5 times I got the clearances within 3 days. The other time I waited 6 days and never got it.

Conclusion

Showing off the vibrant colors of South Beach Miami Florida. Beaches don't look like this in San Diego.
Showing off the vibrant colors of South Beach Miami

The Mavic 2 Pro drone is a feature-packed drone that takes amazing pictures and videos for aerial photography. It’s more than capable for most commercial photography applications. It strikes a perfect blend of price, performance, portability, and features to make it a phenomenal value. Real Estate drone photographers will be delighted with its capabilities and hobbyist will find it is potential only limited to how many batteries they can carry! The Insta360 One R Aerial Mod for this drone may end up being a game-changer once it’s perfected. I’ll do a full review of this mod soon. The Mavic 2 Pro cost $2000 with its fly more kit. Accessories such as ND Filters, extra batteries, a tablet, and case puts the price in the $2500 – $3000 range.

Check out the DJI Mavic Pro 2 here!

DJI Mavic Mini Drone

DJI Mavic Mini drone. Great Aerial photography
DJI Mavic Mini drone. A budget friendly and pocket sized option for aerial photography.

When portability is the biggest concern, I’m happy to turn to my DJI Mavic Mini. It’s around the size and weight of an Apple iPhone X. The Mini weighs only 249 grams (half a pound). This lightweight means it will face less drone flight restrictions traveling outside of America. Most countries’ drone laws are specific to the weight of the drone. 249g is just under the 250g limit imposed by those countries.

Another major selling point for the Mavic Mini is it’s price. Fully loaded you can purchase it for $499. The base model without the fly more kit is only $399. The Mini is hard to beat for somebody looking to try their hand at aerial photography. This bite sized drone punches well above it’s weight. Pun intended!

A recent update allows users much more manual control over the drone’s camera. You can now manually adjust the exposure and frame rate for videos, along with white balance tweaks as well. The ability to change these settings allows the drone to shoot closer to cinematic quality videos. While the Mini’s camera isn’t on par with the Mavic 2 Pro, these changes have allowed me to more confidently utilize the mini as a back-up drone.

That said, the mini does take great pictures and videos for personal and social media use. The difference in camera quality is noticeable on a big 4K display. But realistically speaking most people view media on their smaller phone screens. The combination of smaller sized screens and the typical default 1080p (at best) YouTube settings on smartphones makes the camera quality difference much less noticeable. Here’s a friendly reminder to change your YouTube video quality to the highest quality available when watching videos online. Sometimes the difference from the default resolution to the highest available is staggering!

Unedited JPEG image straight from the DJI Mavic Mini camera. Silverton Colorado
Aerial view of Silverton Colorado – Unedited JPEG image straight from the Mini

Did I mention that the mini is also a blast to fly? It’s loud, a little twitchy, and lacks the polish of the Mavic 2 Pro. But all of that just adds to the ear to ear grin you’ll have when flying it! The mini feels more like a go-kart compared to the Mavic 2 Pro’s luxury car feel. Sometimes, you just want to race go-karts! Once you get use to the controls and adjust the settings to your liking it’s capable of very smooth cinematic flight.

The Mavic Mini suffers from the same DJI geofencing related problems described above for the Mavic 2 Pro. Aside from that, here are some negatives specific to the Mini. The Mini’s camera only takes pictures in JPEG file format and doesn’t offer RAW images. Without getting too technical, I’ll explain the difference between a RAW and a JPEG file. A Raw file is all of the data the camera captured when you snapped the picture. A JPEG is the camera’s interpretation of the data captured to create an image.

Another way of looking at it is RAW files are like a full novel and the JPEG is the CliffsNotes. RAW images retain much more information from when the image was taken. Comparatively speaking it’s not uncommon for a RAW image file to be several times the size of its JPEG counterpart. A RAW image from my Sony A7RIII digital camera is typically around 42 Megabytes. That same image in JPEG is typically around 10 Megabytes. I’ll dive much deeper into this topic in a future blog post.  The benefit to RAW images is they allow you to make more adjustments in editing because of the extra information contained in their file. They make it easier to make a mediocre picture good and a good picture great.

Another unedited JPEG image straight from the DJI Mavic Mini camera. Silverton Colorado
Aerial view of Silverton Colorado – Another unedited JPEG image straight from the Mini

One of the benefits of the Mavic Mini is its weight and size. One of the biggest negatives for the Mavic Mini is in part caused by its weight and size. The mini is notably more impacted by windy conditions compared to its larger siblings. In 20 MPH winds, the Mavic 2 Pro appears well planted and doesn’t appear to be bothered by the wind. The mini noticeable jitters in place in the same conditions. The Mini’s gimbal does a great job smoothing most of the jitters out. However, those jitters are sometimes noticeable when recording video during slow-speed flight.

Many drone pilots have lost their drones because of the wind overpowered them. Which, ties directly into the next negative. The Mini can only fly 30 MPH. While that isn’t slow and matters less in ideal weather conditions, it’s just one more factor to consider when flying in windy conditions. 31 MPH winds blowing away from you means the drone will drift away at 1MPH, along with burning through your battery quickly. I’m fortunate to do most of my flying in San Diego, where we have temperate weather year-round. The last concern regarding the Mini’s stature is its easier to lose sight of the drone compared to larger ones. Just like the Mini’s size, this isn’t as big of an issue.

DJI claims the Mini has a max range of 2.5 miles. I have no intention of testing the max range on my drones. However, in real-world applications, I typically get as little as 500’ in urban areas up to 2000’ in more rural settings for its video signal range. I’m not too disappointed or even surprised at the range provided by the mini. Once again, you can never have enough range… Range is like horsepower in sports cars or graphics in video games. More/better is more/better!

For those of you that want to utilize a tablet to enhance your Mini flying experience to see more from your drone’s viewpoint, I have bad news for you. You won’t benefit from using an IPad as a bigger screen with the Mini because it’s flight app doesn’t expand beyond smartphone screen size.

Conclusion

The image quality is impressive considering it was taken straight from a video in Premiere Pro. Silverton Colorado. Mavic Mini drone review
This image quality is impressive considering it was taken straight from a video in Premiere Pro.
This image quality is impressive considering it was taken straight from a video in Premiere Pro. Silverton Colorado. Mavic Mini drone review
This image was also taken straight from a video in Premiere Pro.

It may sound like I beat up on the Mavic Mini a lot. But, don’t let that discourage you from purchasing it. I actually love my Mini. I just want to lay out all the ups and downs for you all to help you decide what’s best for you. Its the perfect drone for lots of scenarios. As is the Mavic 2 Pro. That’s why I have both of them. At $500 the Mini comes loaded with everything you need to fly it and then some for aerial photography. Which, is a steal when compared to the price tag of it’s bigger siblings. The image quality the Mini provides is more than sufficient for most real estate, business, and social media applications.

Mavic Mini Fly More Combo

Wrap-up

There are plenty of great drones out there for a variety of budgets and tasks. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better value drone for real estate and commercial aerial photography. Combining aerial photography with 3D virtual tours makes for a devastating combination. Feel free to contact me anytime if you are looking for a 3D Virtual tour or aerial photography in San Diego or beyond. Let me know in the comments what’s your favorite drone and what are you using it for!

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