How to easily create a dolly zoom effect using the DJI Air 2S drone

‘Disorienting’ and ‘bizarre’ are just a couple of the adjectives often used to describe the dolly zoom effect. Sometimes called ‘the Vertigo effect’, it debuted in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. Back then, you needed a smooth track and steady zoom to pull this effect off, which can add a touch of suspense to a scene. Nowadays, it’s a bit simpler to achieve – especially if you happen to own a DJI Air 2S drone.

Back in 2018, DJI released the Mavic 2 Zoom, the first consumer-grade drone equipped with a zoom lens, which included a built-in dolly zoom function. The Air 2S doesn’t have a zoom lens, but it can zoom digitally and benefits from a higher resolution, 1″-type sensor. Although it doesn’t include the automatic dolly zoom found on the Mavic 2 Zoom, it’s pretty easy to replicate the effect on your own.

‘Disorienting’ and ‘bizarre’ are just a couple of the adjectives used to describe the dolly zoom effect.

Because the Air 2S uses a digital zoom, there’s some impact on the overall quality of the video when doing this. But it’s still pretty neat to be able to create a dolly zoom effect on a drone that retails for just under $1,000. For comparison, the Mavic 2 Zoom starts at $1,349 and features a 1/2.3″ CMOS sensor, making it less attractive overall, for many people.

The most straightforward way to zoom in and out on the Air 2S is by tapping on the ‘1x’ button on the center right-hand side of the DJI fly app. However, this jumps directly to 2x, 3x and 4x zoom. It’s imprecise if you’re trying to do a dolly zoom.

On the right-hand side of the DJI Fly app, there’s a dial that allows you to scroll up and down to zoom. While it might work for zooming in and out, it makes for an awkward experience when trying to achieve a Dolly Zoom effect.

Alternately, you can execute a smooth zoom by sliding your finger up and down the digital dial (above, next to the red record button). However, if you’re trying to create a dolly zoom effect, it’s pretty awkward to do this while simultaneously maneuvering the joysticks on the controller to manage the drone’s movement.

So, how do we create a dolly zoom?

Thanks to a tip from filmmaker Chip Eberhart, there’s an easier and more effective way to achieve smooth dolly zoom footage with the Air 2S that nobody seems to talk about.

Instead of attempting to maneuver your joysticks while simultaneously scrolling up and down on your smartphone’s screen, you do the following: press and hold the ‘Fn’ button, located on the upper-left-hand corner of the remote and dial the gimbal wheel, located directly above and on top of the remote, to the right.

Use your left hand to press down on the ‘Fn’ button with your thumb, and use your index finger on the gimbal wheel, above, to zoom in and out.

At the same time you’re doing this, fly your Air 2S in a backward direction. You’re essentially zooming in on a subject while flying in the opposite direction, pulling the background to the forefront.

Unfortunately, DJI’s Cine mode doesn’t work in this scenario, as the drone moves too slowly, and Sport mode makes it fly too quickly. Normal mode, which you can access on the front of the Air 2S’ remote, should be activated before you start recording.

I created this dolly zoom on the church after a little bit of practice.

When shooting a dolly zoom, it’s important to select a striking subject, such as a statue or building. You’ll want to position the drone at least 100 feet from your main point of interest. You can either hit the record button on the DJI Fly app or the remote, then press and hold down the ‘Fn’ button with your thumb while using your index finger to slowly roll the gimbal wheel to the right as you fly backward.

There are a couple of limitations to be aware of. First, as mentioned above, the Air 2S uses a digital zoom, so there’s some effect on the overall video quality. Second, the zoom function on the Air 2S only works at resolutions up to 4K/30p, so you won’t be able to use the beautiful 5.4K footage it produces.

It will take some trial and error to get it right, as you can see from my first clip in the article featuring the windmill compared to the final one of the church directly above. However, it’s pretty easy to create a dolly zoom clip that adds an element of excitement to a film or project with a little bit of practice.