Low-Cost Cameras for Photogrammetry and Measurement
What makes a good low-cost camera for photogrammetry? Photogrammetry is the technique of using a camera to measure and model the real world.
First note that low-cost is a relative term – we are not talking about a $150 camera – instead of between $500 and $900. This is more aptly titled: “What is the least amount of money I can spend to get a good camera for photogrammetry?”
Below we mention some specific brands and models of cameras. The camera list is not all-encompassing – other cameras meet the criteria as well. With the speed at which this market changes, these recommendations will be out of date within minutes of this article being published! That is why we start with the criteria first, so you can apply them to any camera you come across.
The main idea is that you want photogrammetric projects that are:
- easy to execute
Main Camera Criteria
There are several criteria for choosing a low-cost camera for photogrammetry that result from the conditions above. Some criteria apply to all project types, and some apply to just certain applications.
You want to get a camera that best fits these criteria within your budget:
- high resolution
- good quality lens
- prime/fixed lens
- some control over settings
The first criteria is pretty clear. Get a camera with the highest resolution (megapixels) that you can, given the cost and other criteria. You can buy reasonably affordable digital cameras now with 24 MP (24 million pixels).
‘Prime lens’ means a lens without zoom and that has one fixed focal length. Can you use a zoom camera with photogrammetry? Yes, you can, but we generally don’t recommend it from our many years of experience with customer frustration with them. Sometimes it is all you have though – more on this elsewhere.
What cameras come with prime lenses? Generally, most interchangeable-lens-cameras (mirror-less and DSLR) have a lens in the line up that is not a zoom. Most integrated-lens-cameras come with zooms but not all. For most applications, you also want to go to a wider-angle prime lens (between 18mm and 35mm in the 35mm-equivalent) as it gives good results and can be used in tighter spaces.
You can do a Google search for ‘prime lens cameras’ and come across articles such as:
On lens quality, don’t skimp here. If you are buying a lens for an interchangeable camera, the lens might cost close to the cost of the camera body or more!
On the ‘control over settings’ criteria, it is good to know:
- does the camera or lens have image stabilization? If so, can it be turned off?
- does the camera auto-rotate images? If so, can it be turned off?
Both of these automated features get in the way of accurate or successful photogrammetric projects.
Mobile Phone Cameras?
We don’t talk about mobile phone cameras in this post, even though these are often good choices. The newer models can have reasonable resolution and most have a prime/fixed lens. The lens and sensor do tend to have lower quality compared to a dedicated camera – a compromise due to being in such a small package, and sometimes there is a lack of control over some of the automated features (such as auto-rotate). Here we focus on non-mobile phone cameras.
Other Camera Criteria
There are other criteria you might consider when looking for a camera. They aren’t necessarily mandatory but can apply to particular situations.
|Factor||Why and what to look for|
|frame size – aps-c vs full frame||The cameras listed below are the APS-C frame size as they are less expensive. A full frame (35mm across) camera can have better image quality (less noise, better in low light) and this might be important in some situations.|
|focus range||What range can the camera or lens focus? If you are doing close-up work with very small objects, a macro focus capability can be useful.|
|manual focus||Can you manually focus the lens? This can be useful for higher accuracy projects when you want the focus to be constant. This can be very important for macro photography.|
|aperture – max and control||The amount of light that hits the sensor is controlled by the aperture and the exposure time. If you are working in lower light conditions and/or indoors, having a faster lens (smaller f-number) can help. Also, do you have manual control over aperture and exposure time? This can help in some tricky depth-of-field situations.|
|remote control||Will the camera be mounted remotely or on a ceiling? Or will it be at the end of a pole for high shots? If so, you might want to remotely control the camera – take photos, download pictures. Some allow this through USB, some WiFi, and some Bluetooth. Also, can the camera be plugged into power if it is mounted in a difficult location to access.|
|size/weight||If the camera is going to be hand-held in awkward positions, put on the end of a pole, or lifted by a drone/uav, then you will need to find a light camera. Compare the weights of your options.|
Additional PhotoModeler Information
See also the PhotoModeler page on cameras.
January 2019 Choices
Here are some cameras that meet the main criteria at the top of the post with the goal on low cost, and should make reasonable photogrammetric cameras.
A few notes about the camera makes and models below.
- This list is only current as of the date listed above.
- This list is aimed at low(ish) cost. There are other viable choices at a higher cost (usually due to lens choice, higher resolution, more features, etc.).
- The prices are approximate and obtained from B&H Photo online (a well-known US camera retailer). You may find for less, and prices change all the time.
- The list was aimed at wider focal lengths (but not too wide) for versatility in tighter spaces.
- We don’t necessarily have personal experience with all these cameras. This list is compiled mostly based on online specs and how each camera meets the criteria above (with a bit of review search thrown in).
- The interchangeable-lens cameras (mirror-less and DSLR) have the advantage of being able to take other lenses for versatility.
|Make||Model||Resolution||Lens Focal Length (equiv)||Approx. Price|
|Point and Shoot with Prime Lens|
|Canon||M100||24MP||35mm *1||$650 *1|
|Sony||Alpha a6000||24MP||32mm *2||$750 *2|
|Fujifilm||X-A5||24MP||28mm *3||$900 *3|
|Nikon||D3500||24MP||32mm *4||$900 *4|
|Canon||EOS Rebel SL2||24MP||38mm *5||$680 *5|
- The Canon M100 usually comes with a zoom lens so the price includes the body, zoom lens, plus 22mm E-FM add-on lens.
- The Sony price includes body plus the 20mm E fixed lens. Sometimes cheaper to buy a kit with zoom than the body alone.
- The Fujifilm x-a5 includes body plus the FUJIFILM XF 18mm lens.
- The Nikon D3500 with body and AF Nikkor 20mm.
- Canon Eos Rebel with body and Canon EF-S 24mm lens. Sometimes cheaper to buy a kit with zoom than the body alone.