Bicycle Video Equipment and Software Choices

A friend sent me an e-mail:

Hey, bike video friends,

I’m once again considering buying my own camera, and I know I’ve bugged you before with requests for advice, so I’ll try to keep this short by making it short-answer instead of essay:

Since I spent some time on my answer, I’m posting it on my blog.

Let me start with some comments on questions he hasn’t addressed.

HD or SD?

HD cameras now are available for little more than standard-definition ones, and HD has some special advantages when shooting from a bicycle, even when the final product will be at a lower resolution.

Advantages:

  • You don’t have much control over the camera when riding. You may want to zoom in. Shooting in HD lets you enlarge the image without losing (as much) detail.
  • HD records in progressive (non-interlaced) format, which gives cleaner results if you do almost anything to the image in post production. However, almost any camera that is not intended as a standard-definition camcorder records in progressive — including even digital still cameras which record to standard definition.
  • Vibration is a serious issue on a bicycle — if you record in HD, you can use image stabilization software in post-production and down-res, say from 1080 lines to 720 or 720 to 480, while obtaining full resolution.
  • (You can can mix clips at different resolutions in the same project, too.)

Disadvantage of HD:

  • Much more data and slower processing may require you to buy a new computer.

Computers and Software

Hardware:

Platform choice should be dictated mostly by available software. Generally, the PC offers more bang for the buck than the Mac, but if you are familiar with one or the other, it’s easiest to stick with what you know. You will need, in either case:

  • A powerful enough computer. (You’ll find out soon enough whether your present computer is). Generally, a 2 GHz or faster processor and 4 GB of RAM. Some high-end video packages need more. The computer hould have a big internal HD. Check software’s system requirements carefully.
  • If you use a camcorder that records to tape, it probably will need a Firewire (IEEE 1394) connection to input data into the computer. Macintoshes used to all have this kind of connection but Apple has dropped it recently.  It is available on plug-in cards for desktop computers, and PC Express cards for laptops.
  • Video software runs faster if you keep source video files on a different drive from render files. Video files are huge, and so, you need a 1 TB or larger hard drive for them. If your second drive is external, it should have an External SATA or Firewire connection. USB 2.0 is more common than either of these but it uses the CPU, and so video won’t run smoothly. USB 3.0 will probably be OK but is only just now appearing.
  • While a PC Express card is good enough to make the Firewire connection to  a camcorder, I don’t recommend connecting a hard drive to a PC Express card, because the connection inside the computer is too mechanically flaky, and a broken connection to a hard drive can corrupt it.  If you are using a laptop computer, get one with an integral Firewire, ESATA or USB 3.0 connection.
  • You need another big hard drive for backups. This can connect by USB. I recommend the Seagate FreeAgent drives if you use Windows. The Mac has the Time Machine backup utility; a similar utility, BackInTime, is available in Linux. (You could do your work in Windows and back up in Linux on a dual-boot computer.) These drives/utilities manage backup archives without compressing the data. You can read files right off the backup drive without using the backup software. Drives are cheap. The file compression in traditional backup software, or WD Smartware drives, takes forever (days), hogs you computer’s processor, and is pointless anyway, as video files already use their own compression.

Windows editing software:

  • Windows freebies: this software is sometimes useful for file conversion but is very limited, intended for the “family sitting around the computer with big smiles” market. (Do you ever wear a big smile when using Windows??? What are you smoking, then?)
  • Pinnacle Studio: Moderate price, crashes quite often (though it almost always recovers the file), powerful enough and has a fairly intuitive interface. The main limitation is that there is a maximum of three video tracks at once. Get at least the “plus” version.
  • Avid — a more powerful, multi-track version from the same company that makes Pinnacle Studio, and now with a moderate-priced version. I haven’t tried it.

Cross-platform Windows/Mac:

Mac only:

  • IMovie: free with the computer, simple and easy to use but rather limiting (clips visible only as thumbnails, no hierarchical organization of them, gets unwieldy with a video over 5 minutes long).
  • Final Cut Pro: Very powerful, used by professionals who have lived with it since the beginning — but it has an antiquated, non-intuitive user interface. For example, to enter a title, you learn where the tiny icon is that brings up a dialog box, then adjust its appearance using a number of controls in two or three different tabs of that dialog box, then click on one of those tabs — only one works — and drag the text to the video timeline. There are several “secret” steps here, and you can’t see your work in progress.

Linux:

  • Video editing software is still an evolving product category in Linux. I’m wary, unless/until one of the major software houses ports a package over to Linux or there is a stampede to an open-source product.

Other software you may need:

  • File conversion software (AVS4YOU has a good package in Windows for $80).
  • Codec pack (Windows maddeningly has spotty support for many common formats without this). K-Lite is the ranking name in this field.
  • Image stabilization and frame-rate conversion: may be available in some editing packages. Gooder Video is good under Windows.

About editing at the local public access channel:

  • Typically has nice equipment, usually Macs. You can also take out cameras. May offer classes. May be disorganized and not have good control over access to files. I had a project deleted once. Bring a backup drive. (I have one Mac-formatted specially to use at the cable channel, where I gained my experience with Final Cut Pro…)

Cameras

What’s the best camera you’ve even owned for recording bike video?

Well, my original one, which i sitll used, is the helmetcamera.com camera. The Helmet Hero HD camera looks very impressive — Ipve just bought one and the image quality is stunning, though the audio is poor. In any case, get a camera or recorder that uses a memory chip. The lack of moving parts makes it more reliable, and a chip downloads much faster for editing than a tape does.

What do (did) you like most about it?

The helmetcamera.com camera is rugged, and it allows the use of external stereo microphones though the second microphone is an extra item. The GoPro. again, offers stunning HD image quality.

What do (did) you like least about it?

The helmetcamera.com camera requires a rat’s nest of wires to make an analog connection to a camcorder or digital video recorder, and to a battery, leading to reliability problems with the connections.

How much did it cost?

A bit over $300.

If you’ve owned more than one camera, and the cheapest one you owned is different than the one you answered above, please answer the same questions about it:

What’s the cheapest camera you’ve even owned for recording bike video?

A tiny Vivitar digital still camera which shoots very creditable SD video and records to an SDHC chip. I use this for the rear-facing camera in some of my videos. You really want two cameras running at once, front and rear, to shoot instructional video of interactions with other road users. (Check out the Dual Chase Productions site for more about this tactic.  As the rear-facing camera will generally be used for a picture in picture, you don’t need as much video resolution.)

What do (did) you like most about it?

Cheap and expendable.

What do (did) you like least about it?

Like many cheap cameras, it scans the image rather than capturing it all at once, so vibration can cause geometric distortion. Also, be sure of when choosing a digital still camera for bike videos that it be able not to shut off automatically, so it can shoot long clips.

Digital still cameras eat batteries in movie mode. Some cameras take AA or AAA cells, yet will not run on NiMH rechargeables or lithium long-life batteries, which produce a slightly lower voltage compared with alkaline batteries. You might want to rig up external power supply with a larger battery. Most digital still cameras have an external power input socket.

How much did it cost?

$50, plus about $15 for an 8 GB SDHC memory chip.

And one last question: If you had to pick one consideration as the most important when buying a camera, what would it be? (pixel size, view angle, memory, mount accessories, etc.)

Reliability. Bicycling makes rough use of a camera and you don’t have time to check it during a shoot.

Okay, that last is sort of an essay question, but feel free to make it short. Thanks!

Also note that you need a wide-angle forward facing camera. In the classic movie/video tradition, conventional camcorders don’t offer wide-angle coverage unless you use a special add-on lens. There’s a good reason for this: a wide-angle view causes odd-looking expansion at the edges of the image when panning. Typical digital still cameras offer wider-angle coverage and typical helmet cameras, even wider coverage with a fisheye lens that curves objects at the edges but avoids the expansion.

Wrap-Up

My answers apply to shooting instructional video or travelogues with cameras on the bicycle or helmet, while riding. When shooting from a stationary position, a conventional camcorder is often more suitable.

I avoid talking while shooting video, so I can use the background sound as needed, with a voice-over. That way, I can review the shot and compose my comments. I can’t talk fluently while concentrating on the task of riding. For a different approach to shooting video while riding the bicycle — blogging-style, hand-held camera, conversational, see Lynette Chiang’s advice.

The answer got long. Sorry about that :-)

2 Responses to Bicycle Video Equipment and Software Choices

  1. Thank you, John, much appreciated!

  2. Excellent overview. Ditto, thank you!

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