Camera Options for Near Space Balloon Missions

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"Pics or it didn't happen." This article will make sure that this is one phrase you'll be ready to address before (and after) your next near-space balloon launch. A large number of amateur near-space enthusiasts are looking to recover a picture or video from their voyage. Whether that is an image of their LEGO® man in space, some obscure item in space as a marketing ploy, or just capturing their entire voyage à la GoPro, there is something majestic and triumphant about capturing images of the Earth's curvature set against a deep blue and black back background from the stratosphere.

While sending up your new Digital SLR running an intervalometer (taking pictures at regular intervals) would capture some truly stunning pictures, there are considerations of weight, cost, and power to take into account for any near-space High Altitude Balloon (HAB) launch.

Key Near-Space Camera Considerations

Before we get started with specific recommendations, here are some key considerations for selecting which camera is ideal for you:

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  • Weight
    • One of the first considerations is the weight and power of your selected camera. The heavier the camera, the longer your HAB flight and potentially the lower maximum altitude you will be able to achieve.
    • Power
      • Another important consideration is power consumption and battery capacity. Does your camera have a large LCD display on the back side that can't be easily dimmed (or better yet, turned off)? That will eat into your battery life considerably. Does your camera have an easily accessible USB charging port, and does it allow you to continue taking pictures while charging?
      • Custom Modifications for Flight Operation
        • Another overlooked qualification for you camera is how you will be taking pictures while no one is there to operate it. For a GoPro or small digital camera taking video, just press record before release. What about other options?
        • Nearly all Canon cameras can be modified using the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK) to run custom scripts that allow an intervalometer to run and take pictures at specified intervals; for example, one picture every 5 seconds. The benefit is this conserves battery power vs. taking constant video, and also offers higher quality pictures (full resolution) vs. lower resolution constant video at 1080p or 720p.
        • Image Quality
          • Generally, the more expensive a camera is, the higher quality images it will offer, but also remember to trade off between capturing streaming video vs. still shots.
          • For example, a Canon SD780IS digital camera that may offer 12.1MP (4000x3000) still frame shots may only be able to capture 1280x720 (30fps) video. Do you require a constant video with sound the entire flight, or would you prefer to capture higher resolution photos of the voyage?
          • Cost
            • There is always the [unfortunate] risk that your near-space payload could land in a tree, in the water, picked up by a stranger, or not found at all. This risk also has to play into your final decision for a camera.

Near-Space Cameras: The Candidates

The camera options below are presented in order of ascending cost and quality. Don't forget to purchase at least a 32GB memory card for your flight to be sure your have enough memory (enough to store ~8900 pictures on a 12MP camera, or 2.5 hours of flight at 1 picture per second; see calculator here).

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Candidate 1: Used Cell Phone

Approximate Cost: ~$15 (w/shipping) from eBay Pros: Low cost; charges via USB while taking photos; lightweight Cons: Low quality pictures/video; requires some setup for intervalometer w/app or script for still photos. Sample: Bad ESN Cell Phone eBay SearchNotes: Don't worry if there is a small crack in the screen, if the phone has a bad ESN (benefit, since it will likely be cheaper and you won't need it!), or anything else listed, as long as it functions and has a working camera.

Candidate 2: Used Canon Camera

Approximate Cost: ~$20 (w/shipping) from eBay Pros: Low cost; lightweight; good quality still pictures Cons: Lower quality video; requires some setup using CHDK for intervalometer; not able to take pictures while plugged in and charging Sample: eBay Canon SD780ISNotes: Again, any minor chips, scratches, and dings on the external body are OK; as long as the camera functions and has an unscathed lens, it should be good to go! It is also worth purchasing a new battery with these, if the supplied battery with the camera is the original, since the capacity of an old, used battery can be greatly diminished. We found the SD780IS one of the lowest cost, easily accessible, higher quality and lower weight Canon cameras available. Must be a Canon camera in order to run CHDK with intervalometer.

Candidate 3: RioRand Wifi RS4000

Approximate Cost: $52 (w/shipping) from Amazon Pros: Low cost alternative to GoPro; comes with insulated plastic case and mounting accessories; WiFi hotspot allows downloading video, even if stuck in a tree; easy option to do time-lapse / intervalometer still frame option or video. Cons: Quality is not as nice as GoPro. Sample: RioRand WIFI RS4000Notes: Make sure to purchase some small desiccant packets, such as these Anti-Fog inserts, to use to prevent fog from building up if you plan to use the plastic case with this or the GoPro camera.

Candidate 4: GoPro Hero4 Session

Approximate CostAdd to Cart first on Amazon to see price Pros: Lightweight version of larger GoPros; Up to 1440 (30fps) video Cons: Lower quality than Hero4 Black. Sample: GoPro Hero4 SessionNotes: Make sure to purchase some small desiccant packets, such as these Anti-Fog inserts, to use to prevent fog from building up if you plan to use the plastic case with this or the GoPro camera.

Candidate 5: GoPro Hero4 Silver

Approximate CostAdd to Cart first on Amazon to see price Pros: Up to 2.7k (30fps) video; built-in time-lapse video option Cons: Lower quality than GoPro Hero4 Black Sample: GoPro Hero4 SilverNotes: Make sure to purchase some small desiccant packets, such as these Anti-Fog inserts, to use to prevent fog from building up if you plan to use the plastic case with this or the GoPro camera.

The above cameras are by no means the only cameras that can be used: whether it's the latest and greatest GoPro Hero4 Black, a small camera running off a Raspberry Pi, or a full-up DSLR, the limits are endless. However, the options above seem to be the most common, sensible options that are used for near-space missions.

A future post will cover in-depth instructions if you wish to use CHDK on a Canon camera for the suggested (and near space flight-tested) Canon SD780IS camera.

*Disclaimer: The links on this page that link to Amazon are our Amazon Associate links and we will get a small fee for referring you to Amazon, but you will still pay the same price as if you had gone to Amazon on your own. Please use these links to purchase any of these items, and we will be sure to re-invest this money into more useful tools and resources for future HAB near-space launches!