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HOW TO CHOOSE FPV CAMERA FOR QUADCOPTERS AND DRONES

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Dedicated FPV cameras provides low latency real-time video to the drone pilots when they are flying. To choose the best FPV camera for racing drones and multirotors in general, there are a few things to consider which we will discuss in this tutorial.

FPV Camera Round-up

FPV camera is one of the most important parts of the FPV setup on a quadcopter. Real-time video captured from FPV camera is sent to the pilot through a video transmitter.

It doesn’t matter what video transmitter you are going to use, the image you see is only as good as your FPV camera.

I compiled the specifications of all FPV cameras for mini quad in this spreadsheet so you can compare them more closely.

If you are looking for recommendations, here is my take on the best FPV cameras.

FPV Camera installed in a racing drone

FPV camera installed in a racing drone

Table of Content

FPV Camera Size and Weight

The size and shape of FPV cameras determine how easily the camera can be mounted in a given multirotor frame.

Here is a little bit of history how FPV camera evolved over the years.

Runcam is probably one of the earliest companies who specialized in FPV cameras. They used to make surveillance cameras, but more and more people started using CCTV cameras for FPV so Runcam slowly turned to FPV.

Back in 2013 and 2014, the Runcam PZ0420 CCD camera was made popular for FPV. It’s such an iconic camera because it was the absolute best camera at the time (mainly because there weren’t many other options around).

It’s built on a square 32x32mm PCB without any protection and they are normally referred to as “board cameras”. Components in a board camera are completely exposed and can get damaged easily in a crash.

board fpv camera - pz0420

In 2014, Runcam released one of the very first cameras designed specifically for FPV with protective enclosure – the Runcam Sky. It started the trend of putting cameras in a protective case.

FPV camera dimension didn’t settled until Foxeer released their iconic HS1177 later that year. It’s a 28x28mm camera (height and width), and that became the standard for the next few years. Nearly all the mini quad frames after that were designed to support this camera size.

In 2016 and 2017, Runcam developed even smaller and lighter cameras, the Swift Mini (21mm wide), and the Swift Micro (19mm). And these two sizes are now part of the standard.

FPV camera sizes are determined by the width – the distance between the two mounting holes on the sides. The common sizes today are:

  • Standard, aka “full size” (28mm)
  • Mini (21mm)
  • Micro (19mm)
  • Nano (14mm)

A dedicated FPV camera can weigh between 4g to 20g.

There are also “AIO” (all in one) FPV cameras that has a video transmitter integrated (usually mounted on the back of the camera). They feature a small form factor and light weight, however they are usually not the best in terms of image quality and range. These are popular in micro size drones such as the Tiny Whoop, and we don’t normally use them on bigger drones.

CCD and CMOS – The Types of Imaging Sensor

CCD and CMOS are two main types of image sensors in FPV cameras, each with unique characteristics and advantages.

CCD is an older technology and used to be the go-to image sensor for FPV cameras as it performed better than CMOS at the time.

But CMOS technology has been improving really quickly and it’s now just as good as CCD if not better. Nowadays nearly all new FPV cameras use CMOS sensors and they are constantly getting better and cheaper.

Here is a summary of the pros and cons of CCD and CMOS:

CCD

  • Less jello effect in footage due to global shutter
  • Image is more “raw” and appears to be less processed. Resolution and image detail are normally lower than the best of CMOS cameras
  • Good performance at most lighting conditions, less digital noise in low light
  • Not the best but acceptable dynamic range performance and light/dark transition
  • Image usually has better contrast than CMOS
  • Cameras with CCD sensors across the board perform similarly. Unlike CMOS cameras, performance varies a lot

CMOS

  • The performance and price of CMOS cameras differ vastly – the most expensive cameras are usually CMOS, and ironically the cheapest cameras are also CMOS, while CCD is usually in the mid price range
  • Generally lower in latency (with one or two exceptions)
  • Higher resolution and sharper image, the trade-off is heavier digital noise and artifacts
  • Low light / Night FPV cameras tend to use large CMOS sensors
  • More susceptible to jello due to rolling shutter
  • Usually more flexible/dynamic with camera settings

For more detail check out this post about the differences of CCD and CMOS.

There is no doubt the best CMOS cameras outperform CCD cameras these days, such as the Runcam Micro Eagle and Phoenix Oscar Edition.

Personally, I don’t think it matters which image sensor you want to choose, as long as you like how the image looks. Make sure to check reviews before buying, see how they perform in the lighting condition you tend to fly in.

Aspect Ratio

There are 2 aspect ratio to choose from in FPV cameras, 4:3 and 16:9. Aspect ratio has nothing to do with resolution, it’s just the different screen shape.

16:9 vs. 4:3

4:3 is more square and has the shape of an old CRT TV while 16:9 is longer like a modern computer monitor.

One isn’t always better than the other, it all comes down to which ratio your FPV goggles or display supports. If you have a 4:3 camera, but your goggles is 16:9, the image will appear stretched. If you have a 16:9 camera but a 4:3 display, the image will appear squashed.

Aspect ratio isn’t directly related to the peripheral view, e.g. 16:9 camera doesn’t necessarily give you a wider field of view. It actually depends on the lens and image sensor of your camera, which we will talk about later.

But it’s worth knowing that CMOS sensors have a native aspect ratio of 16:9, while that of the CCD is 4:3. Some CMOS cameras allow you to choose between 16:9 and 4:3 in the setting, but the 4:3 is achieved by chopping off the sides from a 16:9 image, and therefore you will get a smaller field of view in 4:3.

Field of View (FOV)

The field of view (FOV) of an FPV camera is determined by three things, the focal length of the lens, and the sensor size.

  • Shorter focal length => wider FOV
  • Larger sensor size => wider FOV

As mentioned previously, aspect ratio can also have an effect on FOV if the camera supports both 16:9 and 4:3. In this case, when you select 4:3 it will simply chop both sides off and you get a smaller FOV.

There is no “best” FOV, it’s entirely a personal preference, and sometimes depends on the type of environment you fly in.

To give you some idea, here is a rough estimation for a camera with 1/3″ sensor size in 4:3 aspect ratio:

Lens Focal Length Approx. FOV
1.8mm 160° – 170°
2.1mm 150° – 160°
2.3mm 140° – 150°
2.5mm 130° – 140°
2.8mm 120° – 130°
3.0mm 110° – 120°

With smaller FOV, the image is more zoomed in and you can see things more clearly. Wider FOV allows you to see more of the environment which might be preferred for proximity flying and racing.

However when the FOV gets too large, the image will appear more distorted, which is known as the “fish eye” effect. The objects in the middle will appear smaller and further away than it really is, while the edges of the image will appear curved and distorted.

I personally find 140-160 degree a good range for FPV, typically 2.1mm – 2.5mm lens for 1/3″ sensor.

This is a good example of different FOV (from narrower to wider).

Sensor Sizes

Two main sensor sizes: 1/1.8″ and 1/3″ – the former is larger while the latter is smaller.

Sensor size affects low light performance and dynamic range. It’s almost always true that a camera with larger sensor has better low light performance given the same settings. Larger sensor also offers a larger FOV given the same focal length lens.

Lens Sizes

You can replace the lens on an FPV camera to get a different FOV or image quality. FPV camera lenses are different in two main things: focal length and thread size.

In this article I experimented a few different lenses for the Runcam Swift, you can see how they make a difference to the image. Lenses with larger glass normally gives nicer image quality but they are also heavier.

Full size cameras normally have lenses with 12mm diameter threads you can screw into the housing. We call this M12 lenses.

Smaller lenses are also used in some cameras in order to make it smaller and lighter. These lenses normally have 8mm diameter threads – the M8 lenses.

M12 lenses are bigger and heavier. They are normally used in Mini and Standard size cameras. They let more light in, thus the image quality is usually better than M8 lenses. M8 lenses are very compact and mostly used in Micro and Nano cameras.

Check out this article to learn more about FPV camera lenses.

Wide Dynamic Range (WDR)

Wide Dynamic Range (WDR) is a technology that aims to improve image detail under extreme lighting conditions where both bright and dark areas are present in the same frame.

WDR - Wide Dynamic Range of an FPV Camera

WDR – Wide Dynamic Range of an FPV Camera

As you can see the image on the left it’s under exposed, you can see the sun and clouds very well, but the tree and bushes are all dark. On the right we have an image that is slightly over exposed, the trees are all visible now but the sky is blown out. The image in the middle represents the best wide dynamic rangeof the three images, you can see the clouds and the trees at the same time.

Once you understand the concept you will begin to appreciate the importance of WDR capability in FPV cameras because it helps you see better when flying. Most FPV cameras have some degree of WDR, but the WDR performance can vary.

Low Light Capability

If you plan to fly indoor, at sunset/dawn, or even at night, then you have to find out about the low light performance of an FPV camera. Some are designed more specifically for low light than others.

Here is a low light comparison of some popular FPV cameras I did recently.

Low light capability of an FPV camera is measured in LUX. The lower it goes the better it is for low light. For example, the Runcam Swift 2 has a minimum LUX value of 0.01, while that of the Runcam Eagle 2 is 0.0001, you know the Eagle 2 is going to be better at low light than the Swift 2.

Cameras with bigger imaging sensor also normally perform better in low light as more light enters the sensor.

Most FPV cameras come with day/night mode. It enables to the camera to output either color and black and white images based on user’s selection, or lighting condition. “Night mode” makes use of near-IR light to deliver black and white images, allows you to see better in low light.

NTSC and PAL – Video Encoding Format

Does it matter which one to use? It does and it doesn’t.

The main difference between NTSC and PAL is in resolution and frame rate. PAL offers slightly better resolution, while NTSC allows higher frame rate. If you want to have better picture, go with PAL. But if you want more fluid footage, NTSC does a better job.

  • PAL: 720 x 576 @ 25fps
  • NTSC: 720 x 480 @ 30fps

For a more detail comparison, check out this post.

Conventionally, NTSC is used in North America, Japan and South Korea while PAL is used in most of Europe, Australia and large parts of Africa and Asia. It might be a good idea to stick with the standard in your country. But it really doesn’t matter nowadays, because both video formats are supported by all FPV equipment.

Note that you have to choose which format your camera is using in Betaflight OSD in order to have the text displayed correctly.

TVL – FPV Camera Resolution

TVL (TV Lines) is what manufacturers use to measure analogue FPV camera resolution.

The number is based on how many alternating black and white lines can be displayed in the image horizontally. A 600TVL camera means it can display 300 black lines and 300 white lines alternately in one frame. The more TV lines, the better definition image you can get out of the camera. Commonly seen FPV cameras TVL are 600, 700, 800 and 1200.

However higher TVL doesn’t always give you better image due to the limitation of analog 5.8Ghz video transmission, as well as your monitor or FPV goggles. For example, 1200TVL is not going to be twice as sharp comparing to 600TVL in an analogue FPV system.

There is no easy way to verify the TVL spec claimed by manufacturers. So don’t be overly concerned about this number when buying an FPV camera, and base your decision on the actual image quality.

Latency

It takes time for the FPV camera to capture and process the image before sending it to the video transmitter. The delay varies from camera to camera depends on its hardware as well as software.

Latency can be a deciding factor if you are into drone racing or high speed flying. The lower the latency, the more quickly the pilot can react.

Imagine if you are flying at 100Km/h, a delay of 50ms (0.05s) means you quad will travel 1.4m before you can react on the sticks, which could mean the difference if you hit or miss the obstacle.

Latency is not something printed on the specifications, so I try my best to test as many cameras as I can, and provide this info to the community: FPV Camera Latency Testing.

Camera Settings

You can access the camera menu and settings using a controller that comes with the camera.

Thanks to the effort by flight controller software developers, we can now even do this from our radio transmitter by hooking up your camera to the flight controller. This means you can change your camera settings anywhere without carrying a controller with you.

Here is the tutorial how to set up camera control via OSD pin.

Can I use HD cameras as FPV camera?

Those HD FPV videos you see on Youtube are captured using HD action cameras like the GoPro or Runcam 3, which is an additional camera pilots put on their multirotors.

Some of these HD cameras provide “video out” capability, and you can hook up to a video transmitter for FPV. But the latency is normally too high for FPV flying (typically over 100ms). You will probably crash before you can even see it.

Therefore I always use a dedicated FPV camera alongside with a HD recording camera. It’s also important that you don’t put the FPV camera on a gimbal, so it doesn’t mess up your orientation.

Recording Flight Footage

DVR (digital video recorder) is used to record footage off FPV cameras. There are two ways to do it.

Most FPV goggles, like the Fatshark’s and Skyzone’s, have built-in DVR that records footage from the video receiver, i.e. whatever you see on the screen can be recorded. But that also includes all the the signal break-up you get during flight.

The other way is to place a DVR inside the quadcopter, and connect it directly to the FPV camera. I call this “onboard DVR”. This way you can record footage without any interference, and image quality tend to be better as there is no quality loss from passing the 5.8GHz link.

But either way the footage is not going to be as good as an HD camera like the GoPro, but it’s cheaper and lighter to do. There are now light weight HD cameras that can record 1080p, even up to 4K videos, while being used as a low latency FPV camera, like the Runcam Split.

“On Screen Display” (OSD)

This is a bit off topic, but i am sure there are people wondering how to display all those useful flight information on the screen. Basically, an OSD (on screen display) is a separate feature built into some flight controller, that overlays text/data onto your camera footage.

Do not be confused with the setting menu in FPV cameras, which some manufacturers refer to as “OSD” as well in the product page. FPV camera setting menu is also technically “OSD”, because it’s text that pops up on the screen, but that’s not the term we would normally use.

How to Connect FPV Camera?

The wiring of the FPV camera in your drone depends on the application and what components you have.

In the simplest and most basic form, an FPV camera has three wires you have to connect: video signal, voltage input and ground.

You can connect the FPV camera directly to a VTX, signal to signal, and you should get an image on your FPV goggles (with a working video receiver, on the same channel). Make sure you also connect the ground on both FPV camera and VTX together for this to work properly if you are powering them from different sources.

Most FPV cameras these days support wide range of input voltage, e.g. 5V to 36V. This allows you to power them either from a regulated power source or directly from a LiPo battery (2S-8S).

Here are some good practices on how to connect your FPV setup to get cleaner video.

The most common way to wire an FPV camera is probably via the flight controller if it has a built-in OSD chip. There should be a video input (Vin/CamS/Vi) on the FC to connect the camera signal to, and a video output on the FC to connect to the VTX.

There might be other optional connections depend on the camera features, for example:

  • TX and RX (UART) – for connecting to the FC so you can change camera settings with your radio
  • OSD or Menu – for plugging in the joystick for changing camera settings
  • VBAT or VSEN – for monitoring battery voltage

Built-in Microphone

Some FPV cameras has built-in mic, you can then hook it up to your VTX and transmit audio back to your FPV goggles. We explained the usefulness of flying with audio in this post.

If you don’t need to hear beeper / motors from your model while flying, then it’s not necessary having a microphone onboard.

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