FPV stands for First-Person View, and that view is arguably the most important in having a successful and enjoyable experience when flying an RC aircraft from the perspective of an onboard pilot. The choice of transmission frequency, antenna positioning and styles, and image devices (such as video goggles or monitors) can all affect the quality of the view from your aircraft, but the camera you choose will affect it the most.
There are numerous cameras that you can use for FPV, many of which are adapted from other applications such as security systems and sport event recording. I’ll explain the advantages and disadvantages of these different cameras, and hopefully help you decide on the perfect view for your aircraft.
The board style is the first major category of cameras. These are simple sensors and lenses mounted to a circuit board with connections for power and analog video out (making them perfect to plug into standard video transmitters). These cameras are usually inexpensive, so a very good one will cost you approximately $60, but they can be more expensive based on additional features that can help you when flying.
Board cameras are also the simplest and come in all different shapes and sizes. They usually have mounting holes already in the board, and are small enough to fit into the fuselage of an airplane with the lens poking out of the nose, or directly mounted between frame plates on a multicopter.
Besides being easy to mount and set up, board cameras have many performance benefits. First off, they’re not HD (high definition). How is that a benefit? Well, FPV transmitters only send out a 640 x 480-pixel resolution image.
The Security Camera 2000 (securitycamera2000.com) line of FPV board cameras is a great place to start. They are inexpensive, have easily changeable lenses, and even come with a menu controller to change all necessary settings.
These micro-board cameras can be mounted directly onto the video transmitter and plugged into LiPo battery charge cables for power, resulting in a tiny, lightweight FPV setup.
Having a camera that gives the transmitter a higher-quality image isn’t necessary since you’ll never see that image quality on the ground unless you have one of the new fancy HD video transmitters such as the DJI Lightbridge (dji.com) or the CONNEX by Amimon HD FPV system (http://connex.amimon.com).
When an FPV transmitter has to send a 1,080p image in a 480p resolution, the image can be fuzzy depending on how the transmitter downsizes the resolution. When the camera gives the transmitter the same resolution that it transmits, the image received on the ground is actually much sharper.
One of the downsides of board cameras is that they can’t locally record. They are designed to be used with security systems that record many cameras from one location. Some have SD card slots, but the image isn’t HD if image quality is an issue.
Another workaround is to record the received image (the same image you would fly from); however, you will inevitably see static and signal interference in the recording.
Because board cameras are primarily used in security systems, they do have some video characteristics that are particularly helpful for FPV. Board cameras usually have good low-light performance and can see into shadows.
Board cameras also sacrifice color accuracy for high-dynamic range, meaning more light gradients are let into the camera at the same time. For example, you can still see clouds and see details in shadows at the same time. Most cameras can only see one at a time, such as details in the shadows, but on a completely white, blown-out sky. High-dynamic range is incredibly important when you’re flying around an area with a lot of changing light consistencies, such as under trees then into an open field, and all below a bright, cloudy sky. Board cameras are perfect for just flying around.
But what if you want to record decent video? If you’re more concerned about image quality, go with an HD camera that records locally to an SD card. Many FPV pilots have adopted sport-action cameras to record and to see during flights. Action cameras such as the GoPro (gopro.com), Sony Action Cam (sony.com), Mobius (mobius-actioncam.com), and keychain cams are all good cameras to stream video from while recording. They usually have an onboard battery, so you wouldn’t need to power them with an external battery, which can help save weight.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some downsides to HD action cameras. The HD image can look fuzzy after being transmitted over standard definition. They need special cables to connect to video transmitters, which are sometimes hard to make or find. The transmitted image from an action cam is also darker and has more color than a board camera. The exposure also takes longer to adjust when going from shadows to bright light or vice versa. All of this can sometimes make it hard to pick out details in the surroundings.
GoPros are currently the most widely known and highest-quality action cameras on the market, and are generally the best option for recording FPV flights.
The video-out feed from an action camera (upper right) is definitely darker than the recorded image (background), but it can be brightened with contrast and brightness settings on the viewing device. Photo by Ian Frechette, from an RCGroups thread.
Action cameras also sometimes overlay information on the video feed such as camera mode, recording time, video settings, etc., and although some of these can be helpful, generally the stock on-screen display options are distracting. Luckily, most cameras allow you to turn this off.
Finally, action cams can be hard to mount to an aircraft because of their size and weight. Although some are streamlined, GoPro is notorious for making cameras that have a large, un-aerodynamic format that can be hard to deal with.
I primarily fly FPV looking through my GoPro. It is annoying at times, but for me, the image is clear enough, the colors and lighting are fixable in the brightness and contrast settings in my goggles, and I have the added bonus of having a wide field-of-view from the GoPro.
Some cameras strive at being both good for FPV and great at recording, such as the FoxTech HorizonHD (foxtechfpv.com) camera, which is easy to mount and fly, but if you’re really concerned about seeing the clearest image when flying and still recording the best possible video, and if your aircraft is big enough, just use both.
Using a fixed-board camera for FPV and an action camera for recording video is becoming popular, even on smaller aircraft. This is great because the best mounting angle for flying might not be the same for recording video of what you want on the ground.
A two-camera setup is helpful when flying with a gimbal because you would never know your aircraft’s orientation if you flew FPV through the gimbal camera. If you still want to check in on your recording camera to see if you’re getting the shot you want, you can even get a video switch that plugs into a spare auxiliary port in your receiver and allows you to toggle between video feeds.
FPV flying is a fantastic way to experience RC flight in a much more immersive way. Having a view that makes it easy and clear to see your surroundings when flying, and being able to take away great footage that you can share with your friends, is important to every FPV pilot.
I hope this article has helped open up your perspective about camera setups for your next build. Maybe I’ll see you around in the sky sometime!