How to Choose a Camera for Your Quadcopter

For many pilots, successfully building, sourcing and flying a drone has required more than a knowledge of aeronautics.

As many current applications of UAS technology rely heavily on imaging devices, a solid understanding of the principles of photography goes a long way toward creating a successful flight experience.

After you have a strong grasp of safely piloting your aircraft, it may be time to turn to sure-up your photography knowledge. As you’ve probably seen, choosing a camera can be almost as daunting of a task as choosing a drone.

With a wide variety of features for specific applications, it is good to know what features are most important for your intended uses. Here are a few different considerations we recommend taking to heart when choosing a camera for your drone.

4K or Not 4K?

… that is the question. There’s a rather large debate both inside and outside of the drone community on the practical applications of shooting in 4K.

4K video refers to the horizontal resolution size in which the camera captures images. The 4K video resolution is actually, in fact, multiple different resolution standards, so it is important to be aware of the differences when shopping for a camera.

The DCI 4K resolution is 4096 x 2160 pixels and is traditionally adhered to by the film industry, whereas the UHD 4K resolution is 3840 x 2160 and is used by the video game and television industries.

For all consumer intents and purposes, both of these are known as 4K, but if you are operating in a professional film setting, it is important to know the difference.

Source: Ambient Skies

Regardless of whether it is UHD and DCI 4K, it still captures images at a resolution that far surpasses the capabilities of most consumer devices at the moment.

While television manufacturers and companies such as Netflix and YouTube have adopted the standard for certain aspects of their products, many consumers still lack a 4k-capable television or the bandwidth necessary to view/stream this data-heavy format.

As of right now, 4K is most important to those who are planning for the future or need a format that allows some wiggle room on the editing front. As the 4K resolution is significantly larger than 1080p, a 4K video can be zoomed and cropped to 1080p without a loss of quality.

This can be useful in terms of removing props from shots or eliminating an offending object from the scene.

Rotational/Tilt Limitations

Another important aspect of consideration for photography and videography purposes is the rotational and direction limitations of the camera system. For some purposes, this is far more important than whether or not a camera has 4K resolution features.

If you’re not able to fly safely and capture the shot you need, then it doesn’t really matter whether or not the camera shoots in 720p, 1080p, or 4K. There’s a wide variety of limitations and features across the UAS spectrum that hinder or help in this capacity.

Some drones for sale do not allow 360 degree rotation for their cameras. Even if the camera does allow for 360 degree, make sure to check the rotational degrees per second to see how quickly the camera is capable of performing this task.

These same considerations should be applied to the system’s directional tilt features as well. While the rotational is important to capture the sights around the aircraft, the tilt will help the videography truly take advantage of the aerial aspect to compose breathtaking angles in the shots.

Shooting in RAW

When it comes to separating the amateurs from the pros, very few aspects perform this task as quickly as shooting in RAW.

The term RAW refers to a native file format for cameras that captures the entirety of data capture by the sensor. It is a lossless file structure as opposed to a compressed format such as JPEG. Okay, so that sounds nice and all, but what does it actually mean for a user and why is it important?

The importance of capturing all of the sensor data and avoiding compression in the camera lies in the possibilities for future use. If you enable the camera to handle the image compression and discard certain aspects of sensor data, then you’ve limited yourself and the image you’ve captured in terms of use for future applications.

First of all, all digital cameras shoot in RAW, even if they don’t let you choose to save files in that format. Digital cameras shoot in RAW and then convert the file into JPEG or whatever file format the camera has chosen as its default.

If your camera allows you to select RAW as the default format that means you will end up with the highest quality version of the image you have captured. The RAW format also dominates when it comes to levels of brightness as it is capable of capturing more than 16,000 levels of brightness depending on the sensor whereas JPEG stores 256 levels of brightness, which is a significant difference.

But, the most practical applications of the RAW format can be see in the editing world. The RAW file format allows you to easily correct mistakes from the original shot in terms of exposure, white balance and more.

The abundance of data captured from the sensor enables the editor to fix and adjust these settings to a wide degree in post-processing, which leads to, in my opinion, one of the best features of shooting in RAW.

Source: Francois Orsero

When you’re editing in RAW, you’re not actually modifying the original data — the RAW image always stays as the original RAW sensor-captured information.

You’re actually creating a JPEG other file format version of the RAW data based on the editing specifications that you have applied to it, which leaves the RAW image intact. This allows you to have a so-called ‘master’ copy of all your images and shots, which ensures you can always go back to it in order to make additional edits.

You’ve greatly lessened your chances of inadvertently destroying the original shot through editing by shooting in RAW.

Look at the Whole System

Last but not least, remember, it is important to look at more than just the camera itself. Very few cameras, if any, refer to just the main the body; rather, they exist as entire photography/videography systems that should be examined for use and fit for the respective circumstance.

Whether you’re dealing with a GoPro or Red Epic, it’s important to exam every aspect and accessory available for your system.

Does your camera system have the filters that you require? What rendering software is available to this system? Does this camera create in limitations for the gimbal it will be attached to due to size or weight?

Ensure that the camera system you’re looking at doesn’t just capture great images, but allows you to capture the specific images that you’re aiming for and within the environment that you’ll be flying.

Alan Perlman

Alan Perlman founded UAV Coach, a drone pilot and sUAS industry training community, to help push the drone community forward and to help new pilots break into the sUAS industry.

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