January 24, 2010

Recording your passion: in-car camera roundup

What a great time for tracktard photo and videographers, there have never been better or more affordable tools to capture our passion. Check out this great clip shot with a still camera, a Canon 5D MkII. Creative possibilities have hugely expanded even in just the last year or so and after the jump we'll look at some of the best tools available to you.

Cool video right? It comes from Chean's Weblog via this other great page : Bulgogibrothers.com. Make sure you watch it full screen in HD to really see how good in car video can now be.

While some tracktards out there only want an onboard camera to have a record any incidents which might happen, the boundaries of what's possible, practical and affordable in terms of image quality have been radically shifted in the past year or so.

For a long time now the the gold standard for in-car video has been the ChaseCam system and for good reason. Compact, rugged, simple to use, the system was designed by car people for motorsport applications. But ChaseCam has an inherent flaw: it was designed for watching videos on a 4:3 televisions which means interlaced video. I don't think I'd be too off the mark if I said that 95% of all chase cam videos are watched on 16:9 computers screens today. Interlaced videos on computer screens simply don't look as good as progressive scan pictures from even a first generation GoPro camera, with all it's flaws.

The advent of inexpensive HD video has effectively rendered the first Chase Cam system obsolete in terms of image quality. Chase Cam has announced a new HD based recorder will be on the market this year and it will likely become the new standard. But there are a number of other solutions with great image quality available for al you "Motographers" out there.

GoPro updated their camera with impressive specs and some cool features: 1080P, 30 fps with a maximum 15Mbit/s data rate, the ability to do time lapse stills so, for example, you could make a video like this:

Personally I find the GoPro's ergonomics and the need for it to be in it's bulky case a bit frustrating and it does suffer from a bit of that dreaded "Rolling Shutter" artifact which makes it impossible to use so many CMOS based camcorders for in car footage (CCD camcorders don't have this problem but ...you can't find any now, HERE is an extreme example of the problem).

Here is a clip filmed with a GoPro HD

An alternative to the GoPro is a camera which has wide popularity with the extreme sports crowd, skiers, mountain bikers, base jumpers but for some reason not as popular yet with the four wheel motorsport set, the ContourHD1080p. Specs for the new ContourHD 1080p are comparable to the GoProHD but the ergonomics are in my opinion vastly superior. The design philosophy is to make a camera as simple to operate as possible. There is a power on/off button and a large record switch and you aim it with the aid of two built in lasers. All housed in a sleek metal water resistant housing...Done.

There is one hidden switch that allows the choice of two resolutions, preset via computer software. Via software you can also set the mic gain and the exposure as well a choice of three exposure metering modes, spot, center weighted and average. The ContourHD 1080P does a very good job in tricky lighting conditions (though it does get grainy in very low light), The video below was shot in the late afternoon with the sun low, you can see what a great job the camera does not only at picking a balanced exposure but also not freaking out with the changing lighting. (try fullscreen)

Another alternative is to use the video feature of many point and shoot cameras, results can be pretty good but these cameras are generally delicate and most don't have a wide enough field of view... this one was shot with a Canon PowerShot SD780IS

For the ultimate in quality and image control you can use a Canon SLR (Nikons have the wobbly rolling shutter issue) with its wide choice of lenses but of course, SLR's are expensive, heavy and relatively delicate and for a similar cost you might have a look at something like a Sony HXR-MC1 but frankly I think it's not worth the money, the Sony lacks crucial "pro" features such as external mic inputs for example while not providing a drastically better picture.

Of course both the Contour and the GoPro lack a remote start feature but they are $300. You could buy a SmartyCam for about $1000 it features a live data overlay and connection to AIM systems but the image quality is just OK and the data overlay has some sync problems. Convenient, especially if you already have AIM but Traqmate's TraqstudioHD produces a cleaner overlay and final result. (example HERE)

So, while we wait to see ChaseCam's second act, a number of simpler, lower priced alternatives have raised the bar very high. Best time ever for tracktardographers!.

Please share your thoughts, expertise and setup as reference.


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