If capturing sights and sounds are your primary reason for purchasing a drone, it’s important to know that the craft, itself, is only part of the battle.
To truly conquer the aerial videography world, it takes a moderate level of training and a camera suitable of meeting your expectations.
Before we get into particulars, there’s an important note we should discuss about scouting camera specifications, in general. When it comes to choose a camera for your drone, the most important things are optics, resolution, and sensor. Don’t get caught up in the marketing madness that some companies push on consumers such as megapixels.
I won’t get into the science of it all, but if you’re really interested, Ken Rockwell has a great piece on the subject. All you need to know about megapixels is that they’re really not that important.
Now, onto some specific makes and models.
GoPro Hero 4
When it comes to action videography or out-of-box video shoots, it’s almost impossible not to mention GoPro. This company skyrocketed from modest beginnings into an industry juggernaut with high resolution and rugged wearable/mountable camera that can take a pounding and still catch that once and a lifetime moment.
I’ve personally used them while swimming with whale sharks and riding bareback on elephants, so trust me when I say they can stand up to a beating.
Since their company’s inception, they’ve continued to upgrade and innovate their models, which brings us to the GoPro Hero 4 model. As an extremely drone-friendly company, you’ll find the newer GoPro models are quiet easy to mount on many camera friendly UAVs.
The GoPro Hero 4 comes with a 1/2.3 inch CMOS sensor, Bluetooth, H.264 video compression, maximum 4K resolution, maximum 6400 ISO, and an HDMI interface. It stores images and video through microSD cards and supports a maximum 64GB of storage. At an entry point of $400, this is a fantastic set of features in a camera.
But, one of the best things about this camera might be the included waterproof and shockproof case that comes with the camera. GoPro cameras are designed to take a knock or two, so this camera might give you the best chance of salvaging a camera and footage in the event of an accident or catastrophic failure.
While no one hopes for a crash, it’s always smart to plan for it and since GoPro cameras have literally survived falls from the edge of space, they stand as a solid investment to your sUAS.
Phantom 4 Camera (Built-in)
Not every worthwhile camera is found as an addition to a drone as the DJI Phantom 4’s built-in camera is a true powerhouse to give plenty of mountable cameras a run for their money. The Phantom 4 comes natively with a camera featuring a 1/2.3 inch sensor, maximum UHD 4K resolution, and a microSD supporting 64GB storage maximums.
A major benefit of this camera drone is that it already comes with one of the most popular new prosumer drones from the industry-leader in consumer drones. As the camera is defined as part of the craft in this instance, it means that it is covered by DJI’s new DJI Care policy that can be purchased as an after sales option with their drones.
Purchasing the DJI Care service will cover the aircraft against dropping, squeezing or crashing causes by operator error and in reference to this article, that includes the camera. While the GoPro offers some added durability, the DJI option offers complete repair/replacement of damaged parts, which is an undeniable benefit toward peace of mind.
DJI Zenmuse X5 Raw
When it comes to DJI, don’t confuse them as a company strictly focused on the consumer and prosumer markets as some of their products offer extremely viable options for professionals looking to make the most out of aerial videography.
This is clearly evidenced in the Zenmuse X5 Raw. The Zenmuse X5 raw features as 4/3-inch CMOS sensor capable of capturing a photographs at 4608X3456 resolution and video at UHD 4K resolution.
This is the first camera on the list that shows exactly why megapixels and resolutions aren’t the only items to look at when buying a camera. As this sensor is significantly larger than the ones in the GoPro Hero 4 and DJI Phantom 4, it allows the camera to capture a larger light spectrum, which makes it more suitable to low-light video environments.
The ability to capture clearly images in lower light settings allows a videography to use a lower ISO in shoots, which makes for a less grainy video.
The Zenmuse X5 Raw also is the first camera on the list to support multiple lenses, which is an extremely important feature for professional photographers and videographers.
The ability to customize a lens package for a particular shoot enables a professional to further prepare for various shooting environments and call from products from Panasonic and Olympus to enhance their image capturing package.
For drone operators looking to venture into serious cinematography, a removable lens system is an absolute must from a competition standpoint.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Those who have been shooting long enough may remember a time where Canon was seen as merely an afterthought baby brother to the more superior Nikon.
As Nikon lenses have been a staple of photography for decades, Canon often played second fiddle as a choice with professionals. Man, how the times have changed.
In the past two decades, Canon has cemented itself as an industry leader for professional photography and prosumer videography and much of that can be attributed to the Canon EOS series.
While the EOS series has been around since the 1980s, it saw a complete revamp in 2005 that brought the the camera fully into the digital world. With an easy-to-user interface and fantastic videography settings, the Canon EOS DSLRs became an industry favorite for those looking to shoot adaptive range video without breaking the budget and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is no outlier.
With a 33mm CMOS sensor, 5760 x 3840 maximum image resolution, and 1080p video resolution, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is an extremely versatile system for various photography and videography applications. One of the most desirable features of this camera, in my opinion, comes from the lens system.
As Canon holds a significant share of the DSLR market, it is extremely difficult to find a lens that can not be fitted to the EOS through the purchase of an adapter. This gives the 5D Mark III access to lenses from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, and many more. Access to this wide arsenal allows a photographer or videographer an almost limitless supply of ‘tricks’ to turn to for any particular shoot.
The most noticeable lacking for this camera against the aforementioned ones is seen in the lack of 4K resolution, which makes this arrange more suited to aerial photographer than it does aerial videography. It is an important consideration when deciding what system is best for your individual purposes and requirements.
Now, for those looking to take their next work to Cannes Film Festival while also praying for a safe landing every time the craft takes off, there exists an entire other realm of options in the Red Epic and Red Dragon.
The story of Red is absolutely incredible and I won’t spend too much time on it, but to sum it up, when they first announced the company, the majority of us thought it was fake. The specifications, size and price were so advanced for the time that many of looked at it as closer to myth than reality and designed to warrant pre-order money for a product that couldn’t actually be produced.
But I’m very glad to tell you that Red proved the doubters wrong and has grown into THE go-to cameras for many videographers who shoot digital and have substantial budgets.
The Red Epic features the proprietary Mysterium-x sensor capable of capturing at 5K Raw, which places it in the upper echelons of digital videography devices. The Red Epic features a modular body that maximizes customization options and allows the videographer to make use of a library of lenses similar to the Zenmuse and Canon systems.
In short, this is one of the few ways to get an ‘analog film’ cinematography experience from a digital format in an aerial setting.
It must be said that this setup is not for the faint of heart or short of funds operator, though, as the base package without many other necessary items typically sees the Red Epic in the $10,000 range used on eBay.
It’s a great camera, but make sure you’re comfortable enough with your skills to put that much money in the air without having a heart attack each time.
But one of the most desirable options, regardless of money, for an aerial videography rig has to go to the Red Dragon. The Red Dragon is the spiritual and actual successor to the Red Epic with an outstanding 6K (6144 x 3160) capture range.
Everything from the sensor to the frame rates to dynamic range has seen an upgrade over the Epic and it certainly is what the best pound-for-pound videography machines available on the market.
The latest incarnation of the Red Dragon begins at $50,000 for the Epic-M Red Dragon Carbon Fiber brain and SSD Module, which places it traditionally out of the realms of entry-level participants.
But if you’re confident enough to place the down payment for a house on a multirotor, I can ensure you that the Red Dragon will not fail you when it comes to the video that it produces.
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.