The Raspberry Pi camera guide

The Raspberry Pi camera guide can be broken down into 8 dimensions:

  1. determine what you need;
  2. determine if you already own any potentially compatible camera;
  3. define the automatic functions of your camera;
  4. the compatibility between camera and your Raspberry Pi model;
  5. how to interface the camera to the prototyping board;
  6. accessories for cameras;
  7. what type of camera has the best performance;
  8. documentation to setup and build applications;

All these eight key factors should help you figure out which is the best digital camera for your DIY project.

The Raspberry Pi camera guide: best practices

1. Determine what you need

You should be demanding when looking to buy a camera. After all, you together with the Pi and this little gadget are going to do many things, from capturing hundreds of photos to detect objects or build a point and shoot camera.

To avoid getting sucked into buying a camera beyond what you really need, here are a few questions to ask yourself before shopping:

What do you need the camera for?
Whether you choose the cheapest or the most expensive camera to use it with the Pi board, there are plenty of applications to build.

Any of these tiny cameras allows you to build a stream live feed, doing macro filming and photography, reading a barcode, process images captured by a robot, detect the motion, build a face detection and recognition application, and why not build your homemade point and shoot camera.

What conditions will you largely use the camera?
Do you plan to use the camera in low or bright light? Indoor or outdoor? The Pi is a prototyping board focused on robotics, automation and aerial applications. So you can use this little computer anywhere and in different conditions.

Night vision captures
If you plan to build an application to take a capture in night vision conditions, you need a special camera with infrared capabilities.

What is your budget?
Are you interested in purchasing a digital camera and you’re not sure which is the best one for your budget?

With cameras ranging from $6.00 to $69.00, the decision boils down to different specifications, work without additional accessories such as a power hub and price.

2. Do you already own any potentially compatible digital camera?

If you don’t use until now the Pi for video and image captures, is unlikely to have in the drawers any specially designed camera for Raspberry Pi.

Rather than using a dedicated camera module for this tiny prototyping board, you can use a standard USB webcam to capture images and videos on the Raspberry Pi memory. Here is a long list with USB webcams compatible with Raspberry Pi.

3. Automatic functions

Understanding the automatic modes of a camera can make a real difference to the quality of your images. But from these eight cameras explored in this article, only three of these are featured with automatic functions: Raspberry Pi NoIR, Raspberry Pi Camera Module and Logitech Webcam C525.

The Raspberry Pi Camera Module and NoIR shares the same automatic image control functions including the automatic exposure control (AEC), automatic white balance (AWB), automatic band filter (ABF), automatic 50/60 Hz luminance detection and automatic black level calibration (ABLC).

The Logitech webcam C525 is featured with an ultra-smooth autofocus and auto light correction for dim and harsh lighting.

4. Is the digital camera compatible with your Raspberry Pi model?

Before digging deep into what makes the cameras a compatible product, I’ll show you the Raspberry Pi family tree:

  1. Raspberry Pi B
  2. Raspberry Pi A
  3. Raspberry Pi B+
  4. Raspberry Pi A+
  5. Raspberry Pi 2 Model B

If there is no doubt that the Raspberry Pi Camera Module and SainSmart Infrared Night Vision Camera are compatible with all Pi versions (B, A, B, A, 2 Model B), the Pi NoIR Camera Board is compatible only with the first versions of the Pi: Model A and Model B.

As you might expect, all the USB webcams are compatible with any Raspberry Pi model, but these four media gadgets were tested on the Raspbian and Debian Wheezy operating systems with versions no older than 2014. So, in the worst case if you run an old version of Raspbian or Debian Wheezy, you have to update your operating system with an up-to-date version.

5. Interface

Using the CSI connector to interface a camera module has advantages and disadvantages. To install a camera via the CSI interface is very simple and allows you to capture images in minutes. Simply plug the ribbon cable into the CSI interfaces and setup the camera using the standard Pi program.

With only one CSI connector on the board, the biggest disadvantage is that the Raspberry Pi can host only one digital camera. The Pi NoIR, SainSmart surveillance camera, and the official hardware add-on for the Raspberry Pi use the dedicated CSI connector.

The Pixy camera is different and support SPI, I2C, UART, USB or analog/digital output.

But if you were able to use one of the general-purpose USB-connected cameras, the Pi can handle any number of USB cameras.

6. Accessory

Every time when Raspberry Pi introduces a new model, we all faced with a series of questions about compatibility. The Raspberry Pi camera it’s itself an accessory for the prototyping board and this accessory needs other accessories.

If you work outdoors, you need a protective camera case and a wall mountable support that holds the Pi and digital camera firmly in place.

Another great accessory is an adjustable mount bracket designed to hold the camera in multiple positions.

You can have a much wider perspective of the world if you take a step back and view the Raspberry Pi images through a wide-angle lens. The Pi camera is engineered with a fixed focus lens and a wide-angle camera lens increase the viewing angle of the camera.

A Raspberry Pi or a NoIR camera module comes with a 15 centimeters flat cable. Depending on the project specifications, sometimes you have to move the camera where you want. Because the fruit named computer is so small, this should not be a problem. However, in case that this small and flexible cable is not enough, you can use a long flexible cable to increase the distance between Pi and camera.

If all these accessories are designed for dedicated Raspberry Pi cameras, the list of accessories for the USB webcams is very short, almost doesn’t exist.

7. Performance

When working with robotics and you need high performances to run computer vision applications, you need GPU and CPU performances.

In this case, we have two camera types: camera board or USB camera. Because the Pi camera board connects directly to the GPU, it has only a little impact over the CPU performance, leaving it available for other processes and applications. In other words, the dedicated cameras are faster and provide a higher resolution than any other USB cameras.

8. Documentation

Once you have the hardware components, you need documentation to put these together. In other words, you need documentation to setup the camera and capture images/videos.

All dedicated cameras that use the CSI connector comes with good online documentation to interface and build applications with your camera.

On the other side, the USB cameras or Pixy comes with good documentation for their core applications, but almost nothing in the DIY area. In this case, you have to find the necessary software and commands to turn any USB webcam into a digital eye for the Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi camera list

Different features are the essence of all these cameras. In today’s world of infinite gadgets and smartphones that can be integrated with a Raspberry Pi computer, you must understand what makes these cameras different and why you have to use one of these and not any other digital camera. In the following, I’ll tell you the key characteristics for all digital cameras presented in this guide.

The Raspberry Pi camera specifications

The Raspberry Pi camera specifications

Because the world of cameras that encodes digital images and videos digitally with the Raspberry Pi computer is small compared with compact cameras or DSLRs, in just a few words I’ll do a short description of the eight best digital cameras compatible with the Raspberry Pi board.

1. Raspberry PI 5MP Camera Board Module

The Raspberry PI 5MP Camera Board Module

The Raspberry PI 5MP camera module

This camera is for general work. It should work for anything as long as the light is required. With a weight of just over 3g, the camera is perfect for applications where the size and weight are important such as drones or tiny mobile robots.

The 5 megapixels sensor is capable to support 1080p30, 720p60 and 640x480p60/90 video and a maximum resolution of 2592 x 1944 pixels for static images.

2. Raspberry Pi NoIR Camera Module

Raspberry Pi NoIR Camera Module

The official Raspberry Pi NoIR camera

This is the official night vision camera for Raspberry Pi designed without the infrared filter on it. This missing feature makes it perfect to take infrared images in low light conditions.The camera has a native 5MP sensor that can deliver 1080p30, 720p60 and 640x480p60/90 video recording and 2592 × 1944 pixels for static images.
3. SainSmart Infrared Night Vision Camera

SainSmart Infrared Night Vision Camera

A good camera for night vision applications

This is a special camera with an infrared night vision system for surveillance and any other application in low light conditions.

The camera has a native 5MP sensor capable of 2592×1944 pixels for static images and 1080p@30 fps, 720p@60fps or 640x480p 60/90 in video recording.

4. Pixy CMUcam5

 Pixy CMUcam5

This is the Pixy CMUcam5

This camera is fast enough to detect and track objects around it, but the object should be colored in bright solid color to make a good distinction from the surroundings.

The most common way to interface the camera module with a Pi is via the Pixy’s UART or I2C lines. The image sensor is capable of 1280×800 pixels for static images and 720p HD resolution for video.

5. Sony Playstation Eye for PS3

Sony Playstation Eye for PS3

You can play with your Pi and the Sony Eye for PS3

Tested on Wheezy and Raspbian operating system, the Sony Playstation Eye for PS3 can deliver only 640×480 or 320×240 pixels for video and static images. The camera doesn’t require a power hub.
6. Logitech Webcam C525

Logitech  Webcam C525

One of the best USB camera

The Webcam C525 is equipped with the best sensor of all digital cameras with USB and deliver an HD 720p resolution for video capture or 1920×1080 pixels for static images.
7. HP Webcam HD-2300

HP Webcam HD-2300

The HP webcam for your Pi project

Like the MiniCam Pro, the Webcam HD-2300 was tested on the Raspbian and Wheezy operating system and deliver an HD 720p resolution at 30 fps or 1280×720 pixels resolution for static images.
8. GE MiniCam Pro

GE MiniCam Pro

A cheap USB camera

The MiniCam Pro is a cheap USB camera that can deliver a range of resolution between 640×480, 352×288, 320×240, 176×144 and 160×120 pixels. The camera was tested on a Pi running Raspbian or Wheezy operating system and can run without a powered hub.

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7 comments » Write a comment

  1. A little off-topic: A 720p (or even 1080p) camera has a minimum CPU speed requirement? Can it be used with a board running at 32MHz or 100 MHz?

    • First of all, depends on what you want to do with the camera: taking picture, streaming,…. Each task loads the processor differently.
      More than that, you need a good graphics processing unit (GPU) and RAM memory to run 720p or even 1080p.

      • Right, thanks.
        The camera would capture video and save it on an SD card.
        I overlooked the GPU part…
        Maybe I should consider taking several pictures instead of a full video.

  2. Hey,
    First of all, thank you for your work and all the detailed explanations.
    I have a question for a project. I will build a mobile robot that shall be able to detect objects (different size and shape, like bottles, walls and bricks) with a camera.

    For this I have thought about using a Raspberry Pi with a camera. Now my question is what camera you can suggest. I am hesitating between the Raspberry Pi Camera Module V1 or V2 or another simpler USB cam that shoots in 640×480. What do you think?
    Thanks and cheers,
    Zingi

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