In-depth review and comparison of the Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera

As a keen amateur photographer, I was immediately drawn in by the announcement on the Raspberry Pi blog about the new High Quality Camera — up to 12 megapixels — with adjustable lenses. Then, I noticed that something was missing — there were no comparisons or third-party reviews of the lenses to help the buyer decide which lens would suit them best. Worse than that, I would have to pay 150 USD up front to find out the differences.

Maybe that’s why you’re reading too? Should you upgrade or not?

In this post I’ll share sample photos from indoors, outdoors, and studio conditions to help you compare each of the lenses against the original fixed-focus camera. I’ll share my thoughts on the practicalities and use-cases for the new HQ cameras, are they suitable for photographers?. To wrap up, I’ll give you my hints and tips for accessing and operating the camera along with my recommendation so that you can potentially save yourself some money.

The rather vague press release from the Raspberry Pi blog

Well, I’ve spent the money, so that you don’t have to. So how do you know if you need a 6mm CCTV lens or 16mm? In the world of 35mm photography, a 6mm focal length would be rather exotic, producing something like a 360 panoramic effect. Clearly the sensor size of the RPi’s new camera isn’t 35mm, or even close APS-C (aka cropped), so there’s very little to go from.

1) Test 1 — unboxing and initial setup

Both the official stockists: The Pi Hut and CPC were out of stock, but my friends at Pimoroni still had it available. For some reason they were not listed as a vendor on the announcement.

The package arrived the next day and was the size of a large shoe box, it contained three smaller boxes: one with the familiar Raspberry Pi red branding, and the other two seemed to be third-party products from CGL Electronics Co. Ltd. The C and CS mount is popular in CCTV and even with cinematography, so the mount opens up new possibilities.

This is what you get for 150 USD

We have the “camera” (a sensor) along with its tripod mount. Be careful not to get dust onto the sensor. Use the supplied dust cap or keep a lens attached at all times.

The sensor and backfocus adjustment screwdriver

The screwdriver can be used to adjust the back focus, but is not required for the supplied lenses.

Assembled and ready for action

The most important feature here is the tripod thread. The camera is so much heavier when assembled that it’s an absolute must. You’ll also need a sturdy tripod to handle the weight. The one I have here isn’t quite up to the task, but I’ll include a link at the end of the post for my recommendation.

You’ll also note an extension ring is included, which caused me some confusion initially. It turns out that it’s only required on the larger of the two lenses (16mm).

The extension screw is only for the 16mm lens!

Apparently this is covered in the official Camera Guide, but I couldn’t see it or I read over it. Fortunately Paul Beach from Pimoroni pointed this out to me. I hope that this note will save you from some frustration.

The supplied camera cable is clearly too short to be of any use with the required tripod, but fortunately they are standard cables, and I was able to switch it out for a longer one that I already owned.

2) Test 2— the close-up

Here’s my first photo, taken with the 6mm CCTV lens. It is a bright picture, with a clear, crisp close-up. Something that was particularly challenging to achieve with the older lens with its fixed focus.

Along with the focus between “near and far” is an aperture control, for depth of field — this acts like an iris and corresponds to the “F-stop” in photography.

Here you can see both lenses together. Immediately obvious is the size difference, followed by real F-stop numbers on the more expensive lens. It has a lot more weight, and is easier to adjust since both the dials can be turned at once. With the cheaper lens I found that the dials have to be locked in and turned independently.

Here’s the equivalent photo with the 16mm lens

Time for a close-up

I tried taking a photo of our cat using the classic RPi 2.1 fixed-focus lens, but the image was so out of focus, I didn’t even keep it. I will note that the focal length was similar to the 6mm, so if you’re looking to upgrade an existing classic camera, you can save yourself some money and go straight for the 6mm.

16mm: useful for a headshot, easier to adjust, heavier

6mm: great all-rounder, similar focal length to the RPi 2.1 camera.

RPi 2.1 camera: did not qualify

3) Test 3-indoor focal length comparison

Here’s an indoor photo in our lounge showing the focal length, colour balance and quality of each camera.

RPi 2.1 fixed-focus camera

100% crop:

Now here’s the 6mm lens, with a similar wide-angle shot. We see a little more distortion in the legs of my TV stand.

The 100% crop of the 6mm lens has much more detail, clarity and sharpness.

I would also say there’s a better tonal range displayed.

Now for the 16mm lens

The 16mm lens, slight under-exposure, lots of detail in the ceiling patterns

100% crop showing lots of detail, slightly under-exposed

Classic: fuzzy picture, but perfectly usable and no need to focus

6mm: huge upgrade in tonality and definition. Fussy on focusing

16mm: when supported well, and kept stable, provides a high definition telephoto lens for zooming in and for headshots

4) Test 4 — Outdoor capture

Fixed focus lens

Another relatively fuzzy picture, the sun had gone behind a cloud which may have affected some of the clarity and contrast.

The 6mm CCTV lens:

Bright, lots of detail, but perhaps oversaturated. The camera clearly benefits from lots of light.

16mm lens

Here we can see plenty of definition, and with careful focusing, the rosemary plant “pops” with high contrast. Unlike the classic lens, this allows us to create an artistic effect blurring out the grass in the foreground.

Fixed: still a great option for CCTV, for bird-watching, and no focusing required

6mm: a huge upgrade on clarity, good focal range for outdoor work

16mm: good for close-ups, perhaps homing in on a bird’s nest or point of interest. Handled wide tonal range well

5) Test 5- the portrait or for use as a webcam

Now let’s get up close and personal with some headshots. I am cheating a little here, using two professional LED lights which I’ve written up about here.

Fixed focus: did not participate

This is taken with my Logitech webcam which overexposes the image so much that I have to close my curtains and use LED lamps. I’ve included it as a reference against the two shots coming up. The whitebalance is also very “blue”

6mm — good focal length for a webcam, when focused correctly, it looks razor sharp. Some very evident distortion and vignetting (dark corners).

If it hadn’t took me over 20 minutes to get the lens focused, then I would consider the quality of this lens a huge upgrade to my normal 1080p webcam.

16mm — the sharpness and clarity outweigh my expensive Logitech webcam for sure, but focusing is very fiddly, this took me about 15 minutes to get just right. A little too zoomed in for my liking.

6) Test 6 — Usability

I really want to like the new RPi HQ camera — in the tests it clearly surpasses the fixed-focus lens, but for general photography, or as a webcam it falls down in one area, so hard that I have to question the target market.

Is this camera for photographers?

As an experienced shooter on everything from pinhole, to Hasselblad, to Canon DSLRs, I just can’t place this. I can’t take it with me because of the power requirements, lack of screen, viewfinder to compose with, or ability to focus accurately.

Perhaps it could be used in the studio, but an entry-level DSLR would be far easier to use.

Is this for robots, IoT and timelapses?

I have built several robots with Raspberry Pi over the years, and the flat form-factor of the camera means it can be taped or screwed against a flat surface, and that focusing isn’t even a consideration

My robot from PiWars

My IoT project to monitor seeds germinating and growing.

In comparison, the new camera is hard to balance, difficult to reach with cables, and extremely difficult to mount to anything. When used outdoors, it begins to look more like a science experiment than an easy way to take a photo.

Outdoors operation is tricky, and time-consuming.

To operate outdoors I had to use the extension lead from our lawn-mower, a 4-way extension plug, Ethernet, and find something to balance the laptop on. Not a great experience.

Think for a moment, how much easier it is to flick a switch on an SLR or to tap the screen of a mobile phone?

My rig for testing the cameras as a “webcam”

So who is this camera for? I really don’t know. I am a photographer, and it’s not for me as you’ll see in the next section. I’m an experienced maker, and it has very limited mounting options for embedded projects.

I did see one early tester “gepatto’ using the 16mm lens to watch birds through his window. We have some bluetits nesting in our neighbour’s honeysuckle. Whilst not suitable as a permanent viewing-angle, I was able to eventually focus the camera after about 20 minutes of fine adjustments and get this shot.

7) Test 7 — Software

There are two, perhaps three ways to interact with the HQ camera, which are the same as the regular camera.

  • raspistill — take a one-off capture to a file raspistill -o test.jpg then run scp pi@raspberrypi.local:~/test.jpg Desktop/test.jpg — on every shot, after every focus adjustment and believe me, there will be a lot of them now.
  • raspivid — the same as capturing a single photo, but to a h264 video file. To open this file on your Mac, you’ll need to download VLC player. Many people reference MPlayer, which now appears to be unmaintained.
  • picamera — this is a Python module which you can use to control capture of video and photos programmatically.

See my rodak project for an example of how to use picamera and how to mount the classic RPi camera into an IoT project. I just can’t imagine doing this with the HQ camera, with the cost and mount both being two limiting factors

Cameras use view-finders to help with composition.
The fixed-focus lens fitted in the Kodak Brownie

My hacks for focusing:

If you are close enough to plug the RPi into a screen via HDMI, then raspivid will open a preview of the picture. Focus the lens until you’re happy, and then run raspistill, but try not to move anything between takes

If you’re far from a screen, then you need to stream the video. On the RPi run the following raspivid -t 0 — mode 1 -hf -ih -fps 30 -o — | nc -k -l 2222 and then on your Mac, run this: /Applications/VLC.app/Contents/MacOS/VLC tcp/h264://192.168.0.53:2222. Replace 192.168.0.53 with the IP address shown on ifconfig. Note that some people will tell you to install vlc on the RPi, do not, it will pull in 1GB of files.

For previewing the image, Ethernet is much faster than WiFi

You may have your own tips for focusing, perhaps you could build a web-server that showed the output of the camera? But beware, that unless you’re using the HDMI cable approach, there’s going to be significant lag between adjustments and you seeing the effect of them.

If you do get your camera set up in a good position and are wanting to create a high quality always-on webcam, then you may like my tutorial on streaming to YouTube on RaspberryPi.org.

You may also like the: Raspberry Pi Camera guide PDF which explains the various adjustments and flags for the two CLI utilities available.

Software usability with the fixed lens: 7/10

Software usability with manual focus: 4/10

Conclusion

The Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera represents a leap forward in quality, clarity and definition. It also opens up possibilities to use professional DSLR lenses such as the Canon EOS EF line, I found an adapter for around 50 GBP, if you buy one, find one with aperture control. So whilst the camera does have a much better picture quality, for me its usability holds it back and I hope that the RPi Foundation will do something about this. The fixed-focus lens is a versatile and cheap way to get computer vision and I think it still makes a great option for many projects including IoT and embedded devices like my rodak above.

But, if you can get away with using a tripod for your project, don’t mind spending a lot of your making tiny focusing adjustments, then you can get very sharp, colourful photos that pop and look like they should come from a much more expensive camera.

Still want to buy? My recommendation for a setup would be the 2GB RPi4, the 6mm lens, the HQ Camera board, the Joby GorillaPod SLR Tripod and an extra long camera cable.

You can find suppliers and buy the camera on the RPi blog, however if you have 150 USD to spend, you may have slightly more fun with some 2GB RPi4s and my write-up on 5 years of Docker and Kubernetes clusters.

Netbooting the Raspberry Pi for use with Kubernetes

CNCF Ambassador. OpenFaaS & Inlets founder — https://www.alexellis.io

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