One of the first questions many pilots have when getting into the hobby is “why do so many racing quadcopters carry two cameras?” They are of course referring to the fact that most pros run an HD action camera alongside their FPV camera. The confusion, I suspect, stems from the presence of the FPV camera though. Why is that small little thing necessary? Why not just use the awesome GoPro footage to fly?
The answer is that FPV cameras must fulfill significantly different requirements when compared to an HD action camera. The former must provide an analog video feed with extremely low latency and low light sensitivity. The latter must record digital HD video with proper color representation. There is no camera on the market today that fulfills both to a satisfactory tune for miniquads. Well, except for maybe the Connex ProSight camera – but that’s another article.
In this article, I hope to expand your knowledge about the FPV cameras our quadcopters use and explain why they are so important to our unique form of flight.
FPV Cameras Explained
Probably the most important feature an FPV camera must have is that it must output its video as an analog signal that the VTX can pick up. Some digital cameras can do this, but not very well – the video signal must go through encoders and decoders and DACs to finally make it to the VTX – adding considerable latency. An FPV camera, on the other hand, is purpose built for analog.
That all starts with the image sensor. This is a small electronic component that is mounted to a PCB which converts light fed to it from a lens into an analog video signal which can be sent to the VTX. Even though these particular sensors have been around for decades, they are still incredibly sophisticated technology which can be designed and manufactured by just a few companies on the planet. In the case of miniquad FPV cameras, pilots have all settled on a single image sensor as the “best”: the Sony Super HAD II CCD sensor.
This sensor was originally designed for the security camera market and is one of the last cheap CCD sensors still manufactured – with the advent of smartphones and digital action cameras, the world has moved almost totally to CMOS sensors. This sensor is at the heart of every popular FPV camera on the market. The Foxeer HS1177 and the Runcam Swift, for example, both make use of this same Sony Super HAD II sensor.
CMOS vs CCD
The word “CCD” in “Sony Super HAD II CCD” is the real key at why it is a dominant player in the FPV market. Consumer image sensors operate in one of two ways: CMOS or CCD. I won’t go into details on how these sensors actually work, but you should know that CCD sensors are more expensive to manufacture, consume more power and offer the following imaging advantages:
- Superior performance in wide-range lighting conditions. For example, when flying at sunset you can at one moment be pointing the camera at the sun and the next at a dark ground. CCD cameras adjust themselves very quickly to this lighting difference. CMOS cameras do not.
- Low latency. CCD cameras send their images to the VTX quicker than CMOS cameras do. Newer CMOS cameras are very competitive but I would still give the edge to CCD.
- No “scan lines”. Many CMOS cameras “scan” their images line by line to pick up the image data. On a quadcopter with a lot of vibration, this scanning can result in a wavy image often described as “jello”. CCD cameras sample all of the image data at once and do not have this shortcoming.
There are a few very good CMOS cameras on the market right now. Specifically, the sensors used in Runcam’s Eagle cameras are very compelling. I have flown with one and I still have light sensitivity issues with them though – especially flying around sunrise or sunset. I honestly cannot recommend a new pilot buy anything but a CCD camera at this time.
What to look for when purchasing an FPV Camera
With the above discussion out of the way, it should come as no surprise when I say that you are not shopping for image quality when you are looking to buy an FPV camera – because they are all identical! Instead, your purchasing decision should be made based on a few other factors:
This refers to the overall shape of the plastic body of the camera, or the lack of a plastic body altogether. Cameras that are made up of only a PCB and a lens are referred to as “board cameras”. These used to be more popular in the hobby and are still a cheap way to get an FPV camera working but most quadcopter frames these days have camera mounts that require you to have a plastic camera body. Board cameras are also obviously more susceptible to being damaged in crashes.
When it comes to plastic camera bodies, variation really comes in the size of the plastic. The “standard” is the body shared between the Foxeer HS1177 line and the Runcam Swift. Runcam managed to shrink this down substantially with the Swift mini and Swift micro – the latter getting pretty close to our board camera roots! Smaller cameras can be easier to install in tight quadcopter frames and can save a few grams of weight for those looking to pinch their weight pennies.
FPV cameras are generally mounted to the frame in one of three ways:
- Attached directly to the frame by two screws on either side of the camera’s plastic body.
- Attached to a bracket that mounts to either side of the camera which is then screwed to the frame.
- Hung by a ring that slips around the lens.
How your camera is attached will largely be determined by your quadcopter frame. Look up some build videos or at the manual that came with your frame to figure this out. We infinitely prefer option 1 when it is available.
All cameras we’ll list below can use any of these mounting styles. However, they are not all as good as each other at doing it. In particular, the Foxeer HS1177 uses self tapping screws into a bare plastic hole for its mounts, which do not provide a very secure mount and wear out after being screwed and unscrewed about 20 or so times. The newer Foxeer Arrow and the Runcam cameras use press-fit brass inserts with machine-thread screws for a much more durable and secure mounting solution.
It seems like FPV camera manufacturers are using the TVL figure of cameras to start a “numbers race” in the camera market. This is bull, and I’ll explain why but first of all, you have to understand what TVL measures. TVL stands for “TV lines” and is quite literally measured by hooking the camera up to a display in a controlled environment and having it take a picture of cards with alternating black and white lines. The maximum number of black and white lines that can be put on a card and still be picked up by the camera is the TVL. Therefore, TVL does quantify exactly how detailed an image a camera is capable of putting out. However, there a lot of problems with going over the de facto 600TVL that we’ve been using in FPV for years now:
- Our analog video feeds are noisy. TVL measurements are done in controlled labs with very expensive cables and displays which minimize the environmental noise that impacts the video images. Analog video is not digital video – what the camera puts out is not necessarily what the receiver picks up. The medium matters – A LOT. Transmitting video feeds over the 5.8GHz band (shared with any number of other electronic gadgets around you) is just about the noisiest way of transmitting video. I guarantee you will not be able to pick up more than 400TVL through an FPV feed.
- Our goggles suck. I know they were expensive – but most goggles don’t even break a resolution of 720p. A rough conversion of TVL to pixels puts a 720p display at around 800TVL. Therefore assuming you could somehow transmit a perfect 1200TVL image to your goggles, they wouldn’t even be able to display that kind of resolution!
Here’s the deal: analog video transmitted over 5.8GHz is always going to be a lackluster experience in our age of 4K everything. The real answer to this is a digital FPV video feed – I still have hope for that to become mainstream soon. As it stands now, it’s dubious that we even pick up the full image quality that the Sony Super HAD II CCD image sensor can produce – which is at best 700TVL. Don’t fall into the trap thinking that more TVL will mean a better picture – it simply won’t. A newer, better sensor perhaps – but not the TVL figure.
The same goes for choosing between cameras with the Super HAD CCD sensor – there are 600TVL cameras out there and 700TVL cameras. Both are great. I’ve used both and cannot tell the difference. This is not the figure you should be basing your decision on.
The type and location of the connectors your FPV camera uses should be one of the more important deciding factors in what camera you use. Some quadcopter frames, for example, only support cameras with top-mounted connectors – so make sure to pay attention for that!
Another consideration regarding connectors is how they are laid out. The reason this is relevant is that all FPV cameras will come packaged with a wired OSD controller which you can use to change the settings of the camera (e.g. brightness, contrast, saturation, exposure settings, etc). How this controller is wired to the camera will determine how easy it is to change those settings. Cameras made by Runcam definitely have the edge here – they design their cameras with two connectors on the back. One for video output which can be permanently attached to your quadcopter and another for the controller, which can be plugged in whenever you want. Foxeer cameras, on the other hand, only have a single connector on the back. When you want to program their settings, you will need to totally disconnect the quadcopter from your camera and use a wiring harness to power it and read its video.
All of the FPV cameras you can expect to use on a 4″-6″ miniquad will use the same 1/3″ screw-in lens type. These lenses are interchangeable between all the different types of cameras on the market. However, just because the lenses are interchangeable doesn’t mean they are identical. Different manufacturers offer their cameras with different lens that can offer wider or narrower field of views. This determines how “wide” you will be able to see while flying your quadcopter. Wider is not always better – as you use progressively wider lenses, depth perception becomes more difficult and focusing on specific elements of a race course or an acro lines becomes trickier.
We don’t have any particular recommendation here. None of the lenses offered will make a quadcopter unflyable but you may find you specifically prefer one type of lens over another. When you find that lens, stick with it!
When buying some FPV cameras, you will be offered the option to buy the camera as “IR blocked” or “IR unblocked”. “IR unblocked” means that a small layer of IR blocking material is not applied over the image sensor. This has two effects: heat will show up as discoloration in your image, and you will suddenly have a fairly decent night-vision camera! If you plan on doing a lot of flying at night, this is a really cool feature to have. You just need to be OK with having very poor color reproduction during the day. It will not affect your ability to fly – it just makes everything look “weird”.
An “IR blocked” camera produces accurate colors that look like you would expect. Most cameras that don’t explicitly express this feature have the IR blocking filter in place. You can still fly at night with these cameras, but you will need some decent lighting. Parking lots and sports parks work great!
In general, we highly recommend you purchase “IR blocked” cameras unless you know exactly what you are doing.
One trend the FPV camera manufacturers drove home last year (2016) was the addition of an on-screen display (OSD) into their FPV camera models. This appeared in the Foxeer Arrow model and the Runcam Swift 2. This OSD can provide a readout of battery voltage and a flight timer, or it can be disabled through the camera menu. While I think this is a neat idea, I highly recommend you consider using a flight controller with a built-in OSD instead. You get so many more features and so much more customization going that route that it simply doesn’t make sense to do it through the camera. That plus the fact that the industry is moving towards flight controllers with built in OSDs as a standard.
Price is, as always, a pretty big factor. Unlike most other components in the hobby, however, there aren’t a lot of cheap alternatives. You can expect to pay between $35-$45 for any of the name brand cameras and the price is pretty comparable per featureset between Foxeer and Runcam. There is a knock-off HS1177 clone available that comes in at $20 for those searching for a bargain.
If you take our suggestion and get a camera that uses the Sony Super HAD II CCD image sensor, this isn’t an option for you. That sensor only puts out pictures with one aspect ratio.
If, however, you are tempted to venture into the land of CMOS sensors by the likes of the Runcam Eagle and the Foxeer Monster, you can get cameras that output video in a “wide-screen” 16:9 aspect ratio. Why is this important? Well, one of the most popular FPV goggles in the world – the Fat Shark Dominator v3s natively display at this aspect ratio! If you use these goggles, as I do, you stand to gain a better picture by going with a CMOS camera.
In my opinion – it’s not worth it! I tried out a Runcam Eagle on my recent Armattan Chameleon build and while the picture was definitely better, the loss I experienced, in particular with regards to light tolerance, was unacceptable. I will be shortly be replacing the Eagle with a Runcam Swift in that quadcopter.
There are two types of analog video formats – NTSC and PAL. NTSC is the standard for North America, while PAL is largely used in Europe. Thing is, most FPV equipment supports both formats. Still, it’s worth checking to see what video formats your FPV goggles and video transmitters support before picking a camera. Some FPV cameras support both formats and can be switched using the on-screen menu system. Others are forced into one mode or the other from the factory. Make sure you order the correct mode if it matters to you.
Camera Comparison Graphic
YouTube user Rico_FPV put together an awesome graphic of several of the camera types on the market showing how the picture differs between CMOS / CCD and IR sensitive / blocked, as well as with one of the night cameras. I found it very useful:
Recommended FPV Cameras
As previously mentioned, there are really only two big players in the FPV camera market: Foxeer and Runcam. In essence your choice then becomes “which brand do I pick and which model of that brand”? We’re here to help..
Foxeer manufactures the most popular FPV camera to be sold in the last three years: the venerable HS1177. This camera got its big break when the extremely popular ImpulseRC Alien quadcopter frame came with exclusive support for a variant of the HS1177 with a top mounted connector. Since then, many frame designers (and cloners) have followed suit, causing this camera to take a strong chunk out of the FPV camera market share.
We like Foxeer cameras because frame manufacturers build frames specifically for them. If a frame was designed around an HS1177, it might fit an Runcam, but it will definitely fit an HS1177. The HS1177 is also very cheap compared to other cameras and easy to come by. Even most brick and mortar hobby shops carry them nowadays. We also like the rugged, good looks of the “Arrow” models.
What we don’t like about Foxeer cameras is their connectors. Whoever thought it was a good idea to force you to remove the camera from your quadcopter to change the settings didn’t understand their target market.
Foxeer XAT600M / HS1177
$34.99 – Banggood
This is probably the most popular FPV camera of all time and is a standard camera in countless quadcopter frame designs. It has a very simple design with many problems, but it works and is cheap.
$38.90 – Banggood
This is Foxeers evolution of design upon the HS1177. Their main claim for this camera is it’s OSD feature, but it has several other improvements we like much more. Specifically, the form factor and the mounting screws are a big upgrade over the HS1177. We love the color options too!
$38.90 – Banggood
The Monster is Foxeer’s entry into the 16:9 aspect ratio market. As mentioned above, the only way this can be achieved with off the shelf imagers is by using a CMOS chip. I don’t recommend this camera but if you want to try 16:9 this is the camera for you.
Runcam was a more popular manufacturer back in the days when we were all flying with board cams. They lost a lot of ground when Foxeer got it’s HS1177 standardized in the frame design of a lot of quadcopters but have made a lot of headway by copying the physical dimensions as the HS1177 but making a lot of improvements.
We like Runcam for their infinitely preferable connectors and the dual machine-screw mounting points which allow you to shift the camera forward or back on your quadcopter to get the perfect fit. We also like the variety of available sizes and weights that they offer. They do tend to be slightly pricier than Foxeer offerings, though.
$75.00 – Gearbest
The Runcam split is a combination FPV camera and action camera. If you like taking video footage but are tired of replacing expensive action cameras or lugging around their weight on your quadcopter, this is the FPV camera for you. Check out our Runcam Split review here.
Runcam Swift 2
Propwashed Recommended Pick
$39.99 – Banggood
The Swift was Runcam’s first attempt at competing with the HS1177 and it is a doozy. It has the exact same dimensions and mounting points, but offers a second mounting point hole, better hardware and the better Runcam connectors. It has since been replaced by the Runcam Swift 2, which improves a few design aspects and adds an optional OSD. The superior mounting options available to this camera as well as the excellent CCD chip and fantastic connector layout make it our recommended pick for most quadcopter builds.
Runcam Swift Mini / Micro
Mini – $34.99 – Banggood
Micro – $29.99 – Banggood
The Swift mini and micro are just variants of the Swift with progressively smaller cases. The Swift Mini has an OSD while the Micro does not. These are pretty much the only cameras to use if you are going for an ultra small or lightweight quadcopter.
Runcam Eagle 2
$54.99 – Banggood
The Eagle is Runcam’s 16:9 ratio camera. Again – this means it uses a CMOS sensor and we can’t recommend it – certainly not for the price. If you’ve got some money and curiosity, thought, it might be worth trying… but why not just get the Foxeer Monster at $20 less?
Banggood HS1177 Knock-off
$19.99 – Banggood
Banggood is selling an HS1177 clone for nearly half the price. We don’t have any personal experience with this camera but we’ve heard that it is an identical clone as far as functionality. If you’re looking for the cheapest, best FPV camera option, this is probably it.
What about the night cameras?
Yeah – we’re missing those from this list. Here’s the thing – while we’ve tried (almost) all of the cameras above, we don’t have any experience with night cameras yet. We just didn’t feel right making claims or recommendations without trying them. Who knows – this might be the environment where CMOS cameras finally excel. If/when we get experience with these types of cameras, we’ll update this guide!