Why drone photographers need a bigger sensor

When it comes to sensor size — yes — bigger is better. If you’re getting a drone for photography purposes, then one of the most important specs to consider is sensor size.

Worry less about transmission range or battery life. That should have little bearing on your photo quality — or even the types of photos you’ll take. Worry more about sensor size, as that’ll differentiate a photo that looks nice from an uber-high-quality photo that really pops.

The DJI Air 2S is able to capture more details in the shadows when compared to the DJI Mavic Air 2 bigger sensor
The DJI Air 2S is able to capture more details in the shadows when compared to the DJI Mavic Air 2, which has a smaller sensor.

What the sensor does, and why a bigger sensor is important

Your camera’s sensor size is what determines the amount of light that can be processed to create an image. More light means your camera is able to see (and take in) more information than a smaller sensor. A bigger sensor allows your drone to take in more light. Therefore, a larger sensor means a more detailed image.

Low-light photos

The ability to take in more light is especially important when photographing in situations where there already is limited light. When taking photos in low-light situations, such as indoors, or during dawn and dusk, then a bigger sensor is able to process more information even in tough circumstances.

With a larger sensor, you’ll typically also be able to generate larger pixels. Pixels are responsible for absorbing light, producing an electrical signal, which is then converted into a digital image signal (your photo!). Bigger pixels can absorb more light, creating a stronger image signal, which is ultimately just saying a sharper, crisper image.

ISO: The ISO setting is one of three elements used to control exposure besides the f/stop and shutter speed. A larger sensor is especially important for allowing you to be flexible with ISO. ISO refers to the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. A higher ISO lets in more light, and a lower ISO lets in less light. You’ll need to increase your ISO to shoot in low-light settings (and lower it when shooting in broad daylight), or otherwise your photo will be too dark. The trade-off is that higher ISOs translate to grainier images than the same photo with a lower ISO

But a bigger sensor allows you to shoot at a lower ISO — thus overall cleaner, noise-free images.

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

Greater Dynamic Range

DJI Air 2S Vs Mavic Air 2 comparison in daylight bigger sensor
Another comparison of the DJI Air 2S vs. Mavic Air 2 shows how the former can capture more details in the highlights.

You want a more detailed image, right? That’s tough when the sun in your shot blows out all the detail. It’s sometimes referred to as “clipping the highlights.”

But with a larger sensor that has those aforementioned bigger pixels, the camera can collect more information. Rather than, say, a blown out sky, you get those nuanced color changes in the shades of blue long with all the details of the cloud shapes.

The same goes for shadows. A larger sensor transforms a dark mountain from an effective blob into a detailed arrangement of individual rocks and cracks.

In a nutshell, a larger sensor allows your drone camera to take in more information in both the highlights and shadows of an image, which translates to richer details and a more nuanced environment.

When you open Photoshop or your other editing software after the fact, you’ll also have more room to play with those highlights and shadows in your post-processing. That allows you more flexibility in brightening up a dark image, recovering details in the shadows/highlights, pushing colors further, or even cropping.

Read more: The best drones for photographers of 2021

What drones should I get if I want a bigger sensor?

Big drone companies are increasingly focusing on enticing customers with improved cameras. And DJI has largely led the way.

Its newest drone, the DJI Air 2S, includes a 1-inch sensor, as evidenced by the examples above. Despite costing less than $1,000, the DJI Air 2S made huge waves for its 1-inch sensor offering 20-megapixel photos and 5.4K video, and a larger pixel size of 2.4μm. That’s the same as what you get in the larger, more-expensive Mavic 2 Pro. It’s also much better than what you’d get from its predecessors that launched at a similar price point.

Here’s how the sensor sizes on some of DJI’s most popular drones compare:

The problem with a larger sensor

Bigger is better, so what’s the problem?

It also means a bigger burden on your wallet. Larger sensors often mean your drone will cost more. It also means the drone itself is generally bigger. For example, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is incredible for photographers (and has a 1-inch sensor). But it’s also big and bulky. The Phantom 4 in its case will on its own count as one of your carry-on bags. It’s impossible to fold up the Phantom 4 to the size of a water bottle, like you can with DJI’s Mavic lines.

But that’s changing. The Mavic 2 Pro was a photographer’s dream with its Hasselblad camera and 1-inch CMOS sensor and F\2.8 EQV 28mm lens, capable of capturing 4K video and 12MP images.  

DJI Air 2 2S bigger sensor

But could drones go smaller than that? Alas, as companies race to build sub-250 gram drones that won’t fall under the purview of many FAA rules, it’s not often feasible to get a sensor that small. Thus, DJI’s smallest drone, the Mini 2, has just a 12 MP, 1/2.3 sensor.

The aforementioned DJI Air 2S isn’t smaller than 250 grams, but it’s still small — weighing less than 600 grams. That’s appealing for travelers looking to pack light, or just photographers who don’t want to carry unnecessarily bulky gear.

That’s not to say we won’t one day see sensors on drones as small as the Mavic Mini drones. After all, with the rate of growth in the drone industry, it really does seem as though the sky is the limit.

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