How to choose the best HD camera for mini quad and drones?

In this guide we will explain the most important factors when making the decision to purchase an HD action camera for your mini quadcopter (a.k.a. racing drone). We will also list a few of the most popular cameras and provide some pros and cons of each.

Index: Considerations in selecting the BEST HD Cameras for Mini Quad

Weight

RC drones have a very limited payload capacity which largely depends on the power of your motor and propeller combination. Typically a mini quad using 5″ propellers might only be able to carry up to 500g before pushing the power to weight ratio too far to be viable.

The heavier your quad gets, the worse it flies and the harder it becomes to control. A lighter quadcopter generally means better flight performance and longer flight time, but also considering legislation in the US that crafts over 250g must be registered with the FAA, losing weight has become even more critical.

Generally speaking, an 80g HD camera (such as the GoPro Hero 4+) is considered a pretty heavy camera for a 5″ or 6″ mini quad, so you really should be looking at cameras around or below this number, and avoid cameras heavier than this.

80 grams, or less…

Serious racers who try to get the best lap times usually fly without an HD camera onboard. A little extra weight isn’t such a big deal for those who fly free-style or just want to cruise around.

Form Factor and Aerodynamics

Apart from weight, the size and shape of camera are also important factors in choosing the best HD camera for your drone. You want to make sure the camera can actually fit on your mini quad frame, and consider how the shape of the camera might affect your aircraft’s aerodynamics.

A wide and tall camera like the Xiaomi Yi or GoPro Hero takes little “front to back” space, but it’s not the most aerodynamic shape as it blocks more airflow during flight and slows the overall speed of your quad.

A low profile camera, such as the Runcam 2 or Foxeer Legend, is more aerodynamic but it requires more top space on the frame. That isn’t much of a problem for “H” style frames, but it gets tricky on some tight “X” frame builds.

Check out this article to learn more about mini quad frame shapes

Source: Tested.com

“Box” style cameras are a good balance between air resistance and required mounting space, good examples are the GoPro Session, Runcam 3 and Foxeer Box. These days there are many modern mini quad frames which provide a dedicated location on the frame to place an HD camera. They’re even designing mounts and protective cases for these cameras which can be 3D printed.

Image Quality and Settings

One of the most important factors in choosing the best HD camera for mini quad is probably image quality.

Resolution

The most popular resolution I see people using for FPV are 1080p and 2.4K. 4K is also slowly gaining popularity in HD drone videos but mostly in aerial photography platforms. Cameras that are capable of shooting at such high resolution tend to be more expensive, especially so considering the size and weight limitation we are faced with.

There are a few things to consider when deciding what resolution you want to use:

  • Higher resolution means larger video files; Editing large videos require a higher spec computer to work well
  • Know your audience and what display they are using to watch your videos from. It doesn’t make much sense to upload 4K videos if people’re only watching from a 15″ laptop or smart phone; It’s worth noting that most people these days watch videos at 1080p resolution
  • Recording at higher resolution drains your camera’s battery more quickly

I think 1080p is the bare minimum, and that should be enough for most FPV hobbyists. For content creators, having 2.4K or even 4K would be a great bonus.

FPS

FPS stands for “frame per second”, and it’s an indication of how many images are captured every second (video is made up of a sequence of individual still images). Most online video platforms like Youtube can display videos of up to 60FPS, though 30FPS is probably more popular for general clips.

Higher FPS videos often appear smoother and clearer, because the pictures change less between frames due to the higher frame rate.

Higher FPS also allows you to create smoother slow motion effects, but there are some downsides:

  • File size is larger
  • Low light performance is worse as the sensor has shorter exposure. It’s common practice to lower the FPS setting in low light environment in order to improve image brightness
  • FPS over a certain level is undetectable to the human eye, so it’s a waste of memory card space unless you are using the footage specifically for slow motion. If you compare a 120FPS footage to 60FPS, you probably can’t tell the difference

Our recommendation is to get a camera that is capable of 60FPS at 1080p as a minimum.

FOV

FOV (Field Of View), indicates the amount of view that can be captured by the camera at a given moment and it’s measured in degrees. Most FPV plots prefer a wider FOV otherwise too much of the peripheral view trimmed from the image.

It’s a good thing to be able to capture more in a single frame, the more of your environment your viewers can experience, the more immersive your videos will be. However the trade off is if the FOV gets too wide you begin to experience “fish-eye” effect, where the center of the image appears further away while everything around the edges looks slightly distorted.

The following shots are good examples, notice how much more immersive the images become with wider FOV, but how distortion affects the tree trucks as the FOV gets higher.

Source: Pinterest.co.uk

Some people actually prefer having a very large FOV for their drone videos despite having the fish-eye effect, because it somehow increases the feeling of speed. It’s really a personal choice when it comes to camera FOV.

A good example of ultra large FOV would be the GoPro’s Superview. It’s a cleverly developed wide angle image technique that gives you a really wide image without having too much distortion.

Have a GoPro Session 5 and looking for some good settings to start with? Check out this post.

Audio Quality

For FPV videos, the recorded audio is probably going to be just noise from your motors. While some people would normally mute the motor noise from while editing their videos, others are particularly picky about how their motors sound in the footage.

Having good audio quality could be useful in other situations other than just flying, one day you might decide to play guitar in front of the camera, who knows ? :)

Crash Resistance & Lens Protection

When flying a mini quad with an HD camera mounted on it, the camera is usually quite exposed and vulnerable, often the first thing to break in a crash is the camera lens because it’s sticking out of the frame.

Having a camera with built-in lens protection is a bonus, but there are many designs to 3D print your own protector for many of the most popular cameras.

There are many commercial protection accessories available as well. For example, the GoPro Session and Runcam 3 can be fitted with a tempered glass protector designed for cameras of this form factor.

 

If there aren’t any protective mounts available for your choice of camera, just get creative and DIY. Back in the days when I was using the Xiaomi Yi and the GoPro Hero 4, I recycled foam from motor packaging and used it to make protective camera cases. There are many other household items that can be re-purposed you just need to use your imagination.

Price, Insurance and Repair/Replacement Policy

You get what you pay for.

In terms of image quality, the GoPro is probably the best camera you can currently get for capturing HD FPV footage. A GoPro can cost $300 or more, but while there are many other cheap Chinese action cameras that cost $50 or even less, generally the image quality of these cheaper options leaves much to be desired. It really depends on what budget you have and what kind of video quality you are after.

Strapping a GoPro to your quad increases the risk of losing it or damaging it, also you now have a total of $600 flying in the air rather than just the $300 drone.

The good news is that some vendors (such as BestBuy and Amazon in the US, or John Lewis in the UK) offer insurance for damaged GoPro cameras, you can pay a small fee (e.g. $20) a year and they can repair or replace your accidentally broken GoPro cameras.

That can be a really good deal considering the likelihood of us breaking cameras, but make sure “drone usage” is covered for camera damage, and consider there may be an additional fee for repair or replacement.

Most cameras don’t have any insurance and are not covered for damage, so if you break it you would probably have to buy a replacement.

Battery Life and Power Options

HD action cameras with built-in battery usually last 30 to 90 mins while recording. If you plan longer recording sessions, you will need to look into whether they have a removable battery so you can bring spares with you.

Some cameras can be powered from the quad’s main battery, so in theory it can record for as long as you fly.

Can I use HD Action Camera as FPV Camera?

If the HD camera you have supports analogue video output, theoretically you can connect it to your video transmitter (VTX) and use it for FPV, but generally we don’t recommend doing so. Most HD cameras have high latency which isn’t good for FPV.

There are exceptions however, some cameras are designed to have low latency while still allowing you to record HD footage. Cameras such as the Runcam 2 and Runcam Split are designed to offer this dual functionality.

Other Features

WiFi / Bluetooth

WiFi and Bluetooth capable cameras allow you to change settings and preview what’s being filmed remotely from your smart phone. It can be useful at times, but for me it’s not a particularly important feature for drones. If you have limited SD card space it can help to transfer your video files to your phone storage via WiFi.

Remember do not leave WiFi or Bluetooth on while flying, it can interfere with your radio link, which can cause signal lost, failsafe or even a lost of model.

LCD Screen

An LCD screen is very useful in a hand held camera, but kind of pointless when it’s sitting on a drone. It’s actually a bad idea to have a fragile screen on the camera as it could easily get damaged in crashes.

RF Interference

Some cameras can generate RF interference that can affect your radio and video links. A properly designed camera should have internal shielding to prevent RF interference from escaping. Unfortunately It’s hard to know for a fact if a camera is safe for your radio and FPV systems until someone has tested it.

We recommend searching on the web to find out if there is a known issue with RF interference before buying a camera for your quadcopter, and do a proper range check with your new HD camera before putting it fully into use.

Popular HD Cameras for Drones and Quadcopters

Currently these are the most popular HD cameras used by the mini quad community.

GoPro Session

The GoPro Session 5 is the latest model, and it’s a great camera for experienced pilots who are looking for the best possible footage. We cannot, however, recommend this camera for beginners. Breaking an expensive camera in the first few weeks of your flying career is not a nice feeling, we advise you to (at least) master the basic flight first before risking an expensive camera such as this.

Pros

  • The best image quality
  • Footage is flexible for post editing and colour grading
  • Great form factor, lots of 3D-printed camera mount designs are available online
  • Insurance available in some countries

Cons

  • The most expensive and could be risky for drone usage

Purchase

GoPro Hero

The GoPro Hero used to be the “go to” camera for top pilots before the Session was released. Although it has a very bulky form factor, it does provide excellent image quality.

Since the cheaper and more compact Session 5 was made available, I don’t see any reason to buy the GoPor Hero for a mini quad anymore. Unless you can find a really good deal that beats the price of a session perhaps :)

  • The best in image quality
  • Footage is flexible for post editing and colour grading
  • Lots of 3D printed mounting options
  • Insurance available in some countries

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Bulky form factor and quite heavy

Purchase

Runcam Split

The Runcam Split is an HD camera that can be used as an FPV camera at the same time, it can also be mounted inside the frame for better protection.

Runcam wasn’t the first to come up with this idea, but this camera performs well enough to get a lot of attention. Runcam has recently released the Split 2, which has improved upon issues raised by users of the first iteration.

Pros:

  • More affordable than other HD cameras of similar image quality
  • Well protected inside the frame, and it makes the quad lighter overall
  • It’s powered by the quad, so no worries over camera battery life
  • Image quality is quite good!

Cons:

  • Higher latency than a dedicated FPV camera
  • Cannot be shared with another quadcopter easily
  • It’s not as versatile as a traditional HD action camera, as it cannot be used outside of FPV without lots of modifications (unless you are happy to carry your quad around to film LOL)
  • It doesn’t work on all frames, you might have trouble fitting an extra board in some tight frames

Purchase from Banggood | My Review of the Split 2

Runcam 2

The RunCam 2 is a great low profile budget camera. It gives decent image quality and is capable of recording 1080p at 60FPS. However the long flat form factor requires a flat top frame for mounting, and possibly forces you to bottom-mount your LiPo battery.

Purchase | Review

Foxeer Box

Half the price as a GoPro Session, and it provides pretty decent image quality. However the recording time is very limited at about only 30mins, and battery is not removable.

Purchase

Foxeer Legend 3

The Legend 3 has the same hardware as the Foxeer Box, just in a different form factor. So you can pick the best shape for your frame.

Purchase

Xiaomi Yi

The Xiaomi Yi has been around for a few years now and has proven to be a solid camera. It has a very similar shape to the GoPro Hero, but at a much lower price point. Apparently it uses the same image sensor as the GoPro Hero 3, with the help of a custom firmware created by the community, it’s possible to get the image quality quite close to the GoPro Hero 3.

Purchase

Mobius 2 and Mobius Mini

Before 2015, the Mobius was the “go to” camera for pilots with limited budget. However the market was quickly overtaken by many other affordable cameras with better performance. The Mobius 2 was developed in an attempt to recapture some of the market share.

The Mobius Mini is probably one of the tiniest HD cameras that is capable of 1080p at 60FPS.

Purchase (Mobius 2 | Mobius Mini)

Other Budget/Cheap Chinese Action Cameras

There are many other action camera options available on Banggood and Amazon. Usually they stay unknown for a reason, so we advise caution. Make sure to check reviews before buying.

Choosing a Good SD Card

It’s important to get a good SD card for your choice of camera. It’s hard to recommend one as each camera has different requirement. It’s mainly down to:

  • Storage Size
  • Writing Speed

Most cameras support maximum 32GB micro SD cards, some more high end cameras even offer support for 64GB or bigger cards. Larger cards allow you to record longer and at higher quality without having to delete files on the card as frequently.

SD cards have different classes, higher classes have a faster writing speed. You need a fast writing speed if you want to record at higher resolution and FPS. Class 10 should work for most action cameras recording 1080p at 60FPS.

The camera that you buy usually recommend what SD card spec you should get, such as size, write/read speed and class. Follow their recommendation and you won’t go wrong.

Edit History

  • Oct 2016 – Article created
  • Nov 2017 – Article revised, added a few more new camera options and updated all images

7 thoughts on “How to choose the best HD camera for mini quad and drones?

  1. Andrius

    Gopro still sells gopro session (or gopro hero 4 session), it does 1080 wide image at 50fps, which is more than enough for most pilots needs. I got mine for about 120$, but sometimes you can find them for 99$.
    Absolutely the best option on a budget, imho.

    Reply
  2. rcschim

    Good article – found many known cams here. Awesome how this all developed since the first Gopros. My first Gopro1 was attached to a glider 2009 :)

    Reply

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