Action!

There are more choices than ever when it comes to capturing motion images of your automotive exploits. We live in an age when you can walk into a big-box electronics store and walk out with equipment capable of shooting a feature film, all for less than the price of a decent 10-year-old Miata.

Where do you even start?

How about with the gadgets themselves? We’ll discuss some of the equipment that’s commonly available, then explain how you can use it to capture video at the track or autocross course.

Practices and Standards

First, let’s talk a little about some of the numbers and specs you’ll be seeing throughout this story. The first alphabet soup hurdle you’ll have to clear is resolution. Simply put, resolution is the easy way of measuring the amount of data in an image, based on the number of pixels.

Remember, we aren’t shooting on film anymore. Every image we capture is merely a huge field of colored squares. The more squares, the higher the resolution. Notice we didn’t say “the more squares, the higher the image quality.” While that’s typically true, many other factors that affect image quality as well.

We also have to examine how those pixels are both captured by the camera and displayed on screen. When an electronic sensor captures a video image, it doesn’t do so all at once. It scans the image, one horizontal line of pixels at a time. When every line is scanned in each frame of video, the result is “progressive” resolution. In some cases, though, the image isn’t captured that thoroughly.

An “interlaced” image has one half of its horizontal lines scanned per frame. For example, if you’re shooting video in an interlaced resolution, frame one would only include the even-numbered horizontal lines of pixels, while frame two would just be the odd-numbered lines, etc. That pattern would continue throughout the video. These days, we frequently equate the phrase “high definition” with high quality. The actual standards for an image to be considered high definition is a minimum resolution of 720p and maximum resolution of 1080p.

Let’s break this down. 720p refers to an image with 720 horizontal lines of pixels that are scanned progressively (hence the p). So 1080p would be an image with–you guessed it–1080 horizontal lines of resolution. A 1080i image uses interlaced scanning, but it’s also legally considered “high definition.”

Yes, this is a car magazine, so we’re going to keep the video nerd talk to a minimum. If you want to learn about that stuff, a quick trip to Wikipedia will break it down for you pretty well. But we wanted to give you some information ammunition to prepare you for when you go shopping.

In today’s world, 1080p high definition is probably the closest thing we have to a standard for consumers. There are cameras available to everyone that shoot at even higher resolutions: of 2K, 4K and even 8K. These are cinema standards and typically shoot at a wider aspect ratio than the 16:9 ratio of modern TVs and computer displays.

The next wave for consumer gear is probably 4K–several manufacturers are already offering 4K TVs–but it’s not coming fast enough that you won’t get full value out of an HD purchase (unless you’re reading this story far in the future, at which point we can’t help you).

All that word salad basically means this: When shopping for a camera to record your automotive exploits, if you get something capable of shooting 1080p HD, you probably won’t be bitten by the obsolescence bug any faster than anyone else.

Now that we’ve defined how much camera you need, let’s look at the typical types of choices you’ll be seeing on your shopping trip.

Action Cameras

courtesy stable image solutions

courtesy stable image solutions

Action cams are probably the fastest-growing segment of consumer photo and video gear right now, and for good reason. They put the power of capturing previously uncapturable images into the hands of Joe and Jane Average. Action cams are small and offer a variety of mounting options. To survive the action, they’re either rugged or heavily armored.

But the compact size of action cams is their strength and their greatest weakness. Their small, armored design typically means that the lens is of a fixed focal length. Even though the optics on many action cams are quite good, you usually only get one view: a very wide look at the world where everything is in focus. In the case of some action cams, the view is so wide that there’s actually some fisheye effect.

Most action cams also use CMOS or “active pixel” sensors, which can lead to other complications. Remember earlier when we talked about the sensor capturing one line of data at a time? Well, what happens if the camera is moving during that 1/30 of a second that the image is being captured? You guessed it: weird stuff. There are various types of distortion, from the “Jello” effect that’s common in high-frequency vibration environments to stretch effects that are common in lateral-motion environments.

Unfortunately, this is a peculiarity of these types of sensors. A CCD (charge coupled device) type of sensor operates more like a film camera, exposing the entire sensor at once for each frame of the image.

Unfortunately, CCD sensors are usually only available in much higher-end cameras, such as the types used by news crews.

Manufacturers are aware of these inherent distortions, though, and are devising software workarounds that compensate for it during capture. There are also postproduction programs featuring filters that can eliminate or reduce typical CMOS distortions. Your best bet, though, is always the mounting solution with the least amount of vibration possible.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

courtesy sony

courtesy sony

Point-and-shoot cameras have improved dramatically over the last few years. These days, it’s easy to find a camera the size of a deck of cards that shoots high-resolution stills and high-definition video.

Point-and-shoots have many of the same advantages of action cams when it comes to packaging. They’re small, easy to mount, and travel well. What they give up to the action cams, though, is durability. A typical point-and-shoot camera is simply not designed for the rigors of 100-plus-mph pebble impacts or sliding down a straightaway into a cactus.

But what they lack in durability, they make up for in features. Point-and-shoot cameras typically have zoom lenses that allow you to adjust the focal length. Also common are menus that allow you to adjust other photographic settings, such as exposure and focal range.

Many point-and-shoots also have some form of image stabilization during video capture. This can highly reduce the potential for CMOS distortions.

Camcorders

courtesy canon

courtesy canon

Camcorders are what we used to picture when we thought of video: a handheld device specifically designed to shoot motion pictures with a built-in zoom lens. In reality, the consumer-grade camcorder is becoming a bit of an anachronism. Point-and-shoot cameras can capture exceptional video from a much smaller platform, while digital SLRs and other cameras can capture amazing video with the added advantage of interchangeable lenses.

So where does this leave the venerable camcorder? Well, there’s definitely still a place for this type of device, especially toward the high end of the consumer spectrum. You could purchase a camcorder with a sensor identical to that of a point-and-shoot camera, but with the larger-form-factor camcorder, you’ll frequently get higher-quality lens optics, even more advanced image stabilization, and additional options for sound, including inputs for microphones and outboard sound-capturing devices.

For these reasons, the only camcorders we’d actually recommend are heavily featured ones that give you more options and better quality. If you’re going to buy a stripped-down camcorder without many features, you may as well get a point-and-shoot and save space in your bag.

Interchangeable-Lens Cameras

courtesy canon

courtesy canon

It’s no secret that most modern digital single-lens reflexcameras can capture stunning video. Indeed, even feature-film crews and TV productions are using DSLRs in their work to capture shots that are too difficult to film with traditional large cameras.

The main advantage of an interchangeable-lens camera–whether it’s the DSLR type that uses an APS or APS-C sensor or one that uses a micro 4/3-inch sensor–is the exceptional image quality. The quality is largely a result of the excellent lenses available for these cameras as well as their large sensors.

In addition, many DSLRs can shoot at 24 frames per second–the standard for celluloid film–as well as 30 frames per second–the standard for video recording. The 24fps images have a more muted, filmlike look as compared to the Mexican soap opera quality of 30fps video images.

The wide variety of lenses and full manual control of these cameras also mean exceptional control over your images. But as with all these choices, the upsides are also the downsides. All that quality comes at the price of complexity and fragility. A DSLR is simply not going to survive rough use outside the car for any length of time at speed.

Capture the Action

This is not a videography magazine. There are plenty of those out there, so we’ll leave the hardcore discussion of technique to them. But we will give you a few reminders of what it takes to produce good video from your track day.

First, you have to remember the reason you’re shooting in the first place. Many people slap a camera on a car without asking themselves, “Why am I shooting this video?”

Are you trying to uncover bad habits in your driving? Make an exciting video to share with friends? Fine-tune your driving line around a track? Examining your needs will give you some guidance in your shooting.

Also remember to pay attention to what your camera is pointed at, as it will affect the final product. For example, maybe you’re trying to examine your driving technique, so you point an action cam at the driver inside the car. Well, that action cam automatically sets the exposure based on prevailing light conditions, so if the car turns so the sun shines into the lens, the camera will automatically dial back the exposure to compensate. The driver will be underexposed and basically look like a black blob.

Keep this in mind when mounting cameras on the outside of a car. Is the camera mounted in such a position that it’s constantly moving in and out of shadow? Mounting it so that the direct light is consistent will produce better results.

Keep your intent in mind when you pick your mounting position. Are you looking to study your line around a road course? Mounting the camera high and near the centerline of the car–like on the roof above the windshield–will give you a better look at both sides of the car.

Looking to do something exciting to share with friends and relatives? Choose some unusual angles and mounting points. Just because every other video on YouTube has the camera mounted on the driver’s door just below the mirror, doesn’t mean yours has to be. Look at what other people are doing and try something different. The same rules that apply to photography apply here: The farther you move away from an eye-level view, the more dramatic the footage can be.

Mount It Right

Your camera can only capture as good an image as it can see, and what it can see depends on your mount. Your mount not only positions the camera, but hopefully isolates it from vibration that can ruin an image. Sometimes these goals are at odds with each other, but they should both be considerations.

Using a pillow-block roll-bar mount is extremely safe and secure, but attaching the camera directly to it is a recipe for high-frequency vibrations on all but the smoothest-riding cars. Perhaps a video-style, fluid-filled tripod head between the camera and mount would isolate some of those vibrations as well as give you easy aiming options.

When mounting outside the car, triangulation is always your friend. A single point of attachment with a suction cup or magnetic mount may be fine for a small action cam at lower speeds, but at higher speeds you’ll quickly find out how much leverage that small camera has against a body panel in the wind. If you have the option, establish additional mounting points on different body panels.

Our favorite kind of mounts for use outside the car–even for small action cams–are the ones used by the film industry. They’re modular and provide for multiple points of attachment, providing more safety and vibration resistance. These types of mounts typically use suction or magnetic bases and articulating arms that triangulate the camera mount to various points on the car.

Cut It Up

Once you’ve shot your video, you’ll need to edit it–or at least prep it for distribution. There are plenty of free solutions for this purpose–if you’ve bought a Mac or PC in the past couple of years, it likely came with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker, respectively, both of which are powerful tools for editing.

There are also stripped-down versions of higher-end software like Adobe Premiere and Sony Vegas that are extremely powerful and available for much less than their full, commercial-style counterparts.

In whatever case, you main focus in editing will be to remove unnecessary or unwanted footage. No one wants to see you waiting in line at the autocross for 10 minutes to make a 55-second run, so trim your footage to the minimum length needed to tell your story.

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