Digital Camera Technology: Buying a Camera for Your Drone

By Mark LaFay

Most people want a camera for their drone. It’s part of the fun! Camera technology has come a long way in the past 25 years. So far, in fact, that film photography has become something reserved for film purists and nostalgia.

Some would argue that film is still far superior to digital photo much in the way that music purists argue that records are far superior to digital media. In a way they are probably right, but it really is hard to tell the difference these days because digital technology has advanced so far.

Film cameras and digital cameras function in a very similar manner. When taking a picture with a film camera, a shutter opens for a brief moment to allow in light. The light is then focused and reflected onto a piece of film. The film captures the image exactly as it was seen through the lens of the camera.

When a roll of film is developed, the film is chemically treated so that it is no longer reactive to light. The end result is a negative, a transparent piece of plastic that contains your image. Shine a light on your negative to project an image onto a screen or onto a piece of paper to make a photo.

Digital cameras function much in the same manner. A shutter opens to allow in light through the lens. The light is then focused and reflected onto a sensor instead of a piece of film. The sensor then translates the light information into pixels, which are organized and stored in a digital file. Digital video works much in the same manner as digital photography.

With so many digital cameras available, you have many features to choose from. Aside from price, here are the primary features that require consideration when selecting your new camera:

  • Sensor size and type: Digital camera sensors capture the image information and convert it into a digital image. The two primary sensors that are widely used today are CMOS and CCD sensors. There is some debate over which sensor type is the better option, but really, sensor size is the more important consideration. The larger the sensor means the greater the image information that can be captured.

    Digital camera sensors gather light to make images and video. [Credit: Source: Onslidephotography.c
    Credit: Source: Onslidephotography.com
    Digital camera sensors gather light to make images and video.
  • Lens: Your camera lens gathers and focuses the light that makes up your picture. Several types of lenses are available that create different effects. Maybe you want a close-up shot that is very focused, or maybe you want a distant that is clear as can be.

    Having the option to change out your lenses to perform different functions is a huge plus for professional photographers and videographers. Integrated lenses are cheaper and they are typically designed to work in numerous scenarios.

    Lenses small and large serve a number of purposes. [Credit: Source: mecookie/Creative Commons]
    Credit: Source: mecookie/Creative Commons
    Lenses small and large serve a number of purposes.
  • Image processor (file types): Once an image is captured by the sensor, it must be converted into a digital file. Your camera’s image processor compresses the image into a variety of different file types. Keep in mind that the term compress is synonymous with “throwing away potentially useful image information for the sake of saving space.”

    Shooting in RAW is the only way to not lose image information. RAW is essentially everything that your image sensor detects. RAW files take up a lot of space, about two to three times more than a comparable JPEG, which is why an image processor is valuable. Compression also means that you need fewer SD cards.

  • Image size: Camera companies have been using megapixel ratings as a marketing gimmick for a long time now. Debating megapixels is like debating Nikon and Canon. Pixels are used to describe the size of an image, not the overall quality of the image. More megapixels means the bigger your prints can be. Bottom-line, the larger the megapixel rating, the better.

  • Video options: Every camera today should come with the option to capture video. DSLR cameras and point-and-shoot cameras, for the most part, have a video mode that allows you to capture video footage. You may want to pick a camera that has video capability, whether you think you’ll use it or not. It’s a great feature, even if you don’t intend to use it frequently.

  • Video resolutions: Video resolution has to do with the number of horizontal lines. For instance, if you are viewing something in full high-definition, then you are viewing an image that is made up with 1080 horizontal lines of picture information. The higher the definition, the crisper and more vibrant the image should appear on your display device.

    If you are interested in video, you want to make sure that the video capabilities of your camera are at minimum HD. Some cameras will capture ultra-high-definition, which means higher than HD. 2k is essentially 2 times the definition of HD; 4k is 4 times, and so on.

    Standard-definition to high definition. [Credit: Source: en.wikipedia.org/TVaughan1]
    Credit: Source: en.wikipedia.org/TVaughan1
    Standard-definition to high definition.
  • Frame rates: Video is a sequence of photos. There is a lot of debate on how many pictures the human eye and brain can process per second, but the industry standard has been 24.7 frames per second for a long time. That means that in video, you show 24.7 pictures per second to make the video look smooth and buttery. However, cameras today can capture video at higher frame rates which means more pictures per second and ultimately, an even smoother looking video.

    An added benefit to higher frame rates is smooth slow motion. If you were to slow down a video shot at 30 frames per second, it would look and feel like a family slide show. However, if you shot a video at 120 frames per second and you slowed it down to 30 frames per second, your video would be silky smooth and it would be moving at one quarter the speed.