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Action cameras and dashcams for recording off-road trips

Posted in Product Reviews on May 7, 2016
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Photographers: Courtesy of the manufactures

The automakers often look to other industries for new ideas and technological breakthroughs. A prime example is the connectivity in new-model vehicles. Bluetooth and other innovations from the consumer electronics segment are some of the most sought-after features in new cars and trucks.

This technological relationship can work both ways. Arguably, the action-camera craze—one of the hottest and most profitable subgenre in consumer electronics—spawned from automotive back-up cameras. According to legend, surfer Nick Woodman was interested in a DIY way to record “pro” footage of his aquatic adventures. After developing human-tethered point-and-shoot film cameras in waterproof housings, he noticed the durable, wide-angle cameras used for automotive back-up monitoring. Woodman combined these optics with memory storage, a rechargeable battery, and a waterproof housing. The GoPro quickly became one of the most entertaining innovations of the past generation.

Most four-wheelers are now familiar with mountable action cameras. YouTube and social media are inundated with footage of enthusiasts’ off-pavement adventures and up-close looks at various components in action.

A related but lesser-known-in-the-U.S. technology is dashcams. While these share some features with actions cameras, the primary difference is that dashcams run off vehicle power (like back-up cameras). Their original purpose was to document culpability in event of a vehicular dispute. Cost-effectiveness is generally more important here than video resolution, although four-wheelers are now recognizing that dashcams are convenient, affordable ways to capture trail footage. This guide presents a glimpse of some of the newer offerings on the market. We also tossed in select accessories that help maximize these cameras’ cinematic creativity.

Action Cameras
Currently, this is one of the highest-profile categories of all consumer electronics. Resolution and other features such as remote controls keep increasing, and competition has made action cameras more affordable than ever. Housing sizes continue to shrink to further increase mounting flexibility. Three prominent shapes have evolved, with cubes and bullets joining the classic rectangle. Size and weight are often related to resolution, as bigger sensors and lenses mean more mass.

Most of the popular cameras now shoot in full HD resolution, or 1080p. Higher-end models offer up to 120 frames per second (fps) at 1080p (or 240 fps at 720p) for people who are interested in smooth slow-motion capability. A few action cameras even offer ultra high-definition 2.7K and 4K.

Two further features that separate action cameras are monitors and Wi-Fi. Built-in monitors are generally limited to the higher-end rectangular models. Some have detachable monitors. Wi-Fi is a workaround, and built-in Bluetooth or similar technology allows the images to be streamed to a remote monitor, often a smart phone or tablet, via the camera’s downloadable app. These apps often allow the cameras to be controlled remotely from the mobile device.

Action cameras can also capture still images. On the plus side, “burst rates” for sequential images can rival quality DSLR still cameras’ specs. A compromise of smaller sensors and wide-angle lenses is that they distort images at their perimeters, so action cameras aren’t DSLR replacements yet for people who like incredible still images. Some action cameras can take up to 16 megapixel (MP) images, providing plenty of pixels to rearrange in image-editing software.

Standard features generally include a built-in microphone, and many cameras also have external-mic jacks. USB are normally included, primarily for charging, and several models have HDMI ports for faster file transfer.

One big advantage of the name brand cameras is that they often offer more available options and accessories than the generic brands, which are typically marketed as valuable and affordable.

Contour +2
The newest Contour is compact and features one-button operation. The wide 170-degree lens can be rotated as much as 270 degrees to level shots from various mounting angles using the built-in laser aligner. An app allows settings to be changed from a mobile device. GPS information can be superimposed on the video. Maximum video resolution is 1080p, and still image files max out at 5 MP. The Contour +2 weighs 5 1/2 ounces. The kit includes an underwater housing.
Contour
888/250-8768
contour.com

DJI Osmo
This system from leading drone manufacturer DJI combines the company’s Zenmuse X3 camera with a three-axis gimbal and handle. The camera can shoot 4K at a maximum 25 fps. The camera has a built-in slow-motion option and a panorama mode. The sensor’s still image capacity is 12.4 MP. The lens’s field of view is 94 degrees at an equivalent 20mm focal length. Wi-Fi allows a smartphone to be used as a monitor. Range is up to 85 feet, and a holder bracket is included. The gimbal has three motors and can be panned or tilted up to 120 degrees per second. Options include a three suction-cup vehicle mount.
DJI
818/235-0789
dji.com

Drift Ghost-S
The Ghost-S supports 1080p video and 12 MP still images. It has a Clone mode for synching/controlling up to four Ghost-S cameras from a main camera. Wi-Fi connects the camera to the Drift smartphone app. A wearable remote is also included. Other features include loop recording and a 2-inch LCD screen for use as a dashcam. The lens can be rotated 300 degrees and has a 160-degree viewing angle. The camera is submersible to 9 feet without a waterproof case. It weighs 6.1 ounces.
Drift
877/876-6327
driftinnovation.com

Garmin VIRB Elite
Garmin integrates the company’s GPS technology into its Virb Elite. The camera uses a built-in GPS, accelerometer, and altimeter and is pairable to remote sensors. Using free Virb Edit software, this data (including even someone’s heart rate) can be superimposed on the video. ANT+ Wi-Fi allows the camera to be controlled by a Garmin watch or an optional Garmin remote control. Max resolution is 1080p at 30 fps or up to 120 fps at 848 by 480. The camera uses a 16 MP CMOS sensor, and videos and stills can be shot simultaneously. A 1.4-inch display provides on-camera monitoring. Dimensions are 1.3 by 2.1 by 4.4 inches. Weight is 7.16 ounces.
Garmin
913/397-8200
garmin.com

GoPro Hero4 Black Edition
GoPro continues to push the action-camera category with the Hero4 Black. This camera has UHD 4K/30 fps capability for those who have monitors that can take advantage of this image quality. 1080p capability is 120 fps for smooth slow-motion. 12 MP still images at 30 fps bursts are possible. The ProTune feature allows manual control of exposure, white balance, sharpness, and more. Low-light performance and external microphone compatibility is also improved. Wi-Fi and the GoPro app allow the camera to be remotely controlled. Weight is 3.1 ounces, and camera dimensions are 1.6 by 2.3 by 1.2 inches.
GoPro
888/600-4659
gopro.com

Ion Air Pro 3
The Air Pro 3 is designed to affordably deliver pro results. Marquee features are water-resistance to 49 feet without a case and free cloud storage for files. HD resolution is 1080p at 60 fps. Dual streaming allows simultaneous shooting and sharing. The sensor is 12 MP, and the camera has anti-shake stabilizing technology. The housing is made of aluminum with a rubberized finish. The Air Pro 3 also features a built-in microphone and Wi-Fi pod. Weight is 4.51 ounces, and dimensions are 1.45 by 1.45 by 4.3 inches.
Ion
855/411-4466
ioncamera.com

Replay XD Prime X
Replay’s latest camera uses a mini-prime 1/2-inch-format cinema lens with a 140-degree field of view. Highest definition is 1080p at 60 fps. Still images are a maximum 16 MP, and the Prime X has a time-lapse feature. The camera’s new sensor is designed for 33-percent less power consumption and delivers up to 3 1/2 hours on a single charge. Integrated Wi-Fi allows the camera to be remotely controlled on a smartphone using the Replay XD app. Weight is 3 1/2 ounces. Replay XD
805/480-9800
replayxd.com

Soloshot3
This robotic camera system tracks objects that are wearing the kit’s transmitter “tag” from a manufacturer-reported distance of up to 2,000 feet. The unit’s base is designed to automatically pan, tilt, zoom, and focus. It can be used with an optional adapter for most lightweight cameras or with Soloshot Opic25 or Optic65 cameras. The Optic 65 features a 12.4 MP sensor and supports 4K video at 30 fps. The telescopic zoom lens provides an equivalent focal range of 24 mm to 1,560 mm. 12MP still photos can be recorded in up to 30 fps bursts. Other features include editing software and cloud storage/sharing. The 6,600 mAh lithium-ion battery provides an estimated 3 1/2 hours of continuous use.
Soloshot
866/347-0869
soloshot.com

Sony X1000V 4K
Sony is banking on 4K becoming “standard” high-resolution with its compact X1000V. Capabilities are 4K at 30 fps, 1080p at 120 fps, or 720p at 240 fps. The camera comes with a waterproof housing that’s rated to 32 feet. Its 170-degree lens is wider than many other cameras’, and Sony includes electronic image stabilization — engineered with drones in mind. Other high-end features include a built-in stereo mic, GPS location-tagging, and live Ustream streaming. The camera has an LCD display, and Highlight Movie Maker software is included in the kit. These features come in a package that’s larger than most at 14 ounces and 6.37 by 5 by 3.25 inches.
Sony
sony.com

Dashcams
Dashcams are invaluable in countries where video evidence is critical for resolving disputes about theft or accidents. Fourwheelers are discovering them as affordable ways to capture trip footage—basic models cost less than $100. Dashcams generally run off of vehicle power and are intended for interior use. Durability and image quality are often less than action-camera standards, although these lines are blurring as more companies offer both dash and action cams.

Dashcams record in loops. The duration is normally customer-selectable, and old loops are replaced on the storage media (such as an SD card) as newer ones are recorded. Also, dashcams can often superimpose data on the footage, such as time, date, and GPS coordinates.

Allucam VG-10Z
This two-camera system simultaneous records action inside and outside of the vehicle. Wi-Fi and apps for popular smart phones allow video to be streamed. The front camera records in 1280x720 at 30 fps. Viewable angle is 120 degrees. A built-in microphone and GPS module are included.
Allucam
323/510-3700
allucam.com

BlackVue DR650GW
This higher-end dashcam system has front and rear cameras with 129-degree fields of view. The front sensor is 2.4 MP for 1080p resolution at 30fps, and the rear is 1.0 MP for 720p at 15 fps. Integrated GPS tracks speed and location. The system also includes a built-in mic and speaker. Wi-Fi allows route mapping on a mobile device, and footage can also be transferred to the device with the camera’s app. Motion and shock sensors trigger the camera.
BlackVue
cs@pittasoft.com
blackvue.com

Cobra CDR 855 BT
Part of Cobra’s Drive HD line, the CDR 855 BT continuously records 1080p video. It features a 2-inch screen, a 160-degree viewing angle, and a G-sensor, which automatically saves and protects footage that results from impacts. Bluetooth connectivity enables GPS location, time, G-force, speed information, smartphone interface, and access to the iRadar Community for speed/red-light cameras, live police locations, and shared radar alerts.
Escort Inc.
773/889-3087
cobra.com

Hewlett Packard Car Camcorder f720
This system is designed to work with the existing rearview mirror. It uses Super HD 1296p definition and has a 150-degree view area (full HD 1080p and 720p settings are also offered). A three-axis G-force and motion sensor automatically triggers emergency recording in case of impact or attempted break-in. Another feature is the Advance Driver Assistance System, which offers lane-departure warning and driver-fatigue alerts. The camera also takes 4.1 MP still images and has a built-in microphone.
Hewlett Packard
800/565-9917
hp.com

Magellan RoadMate 6230-LM
This system navigates and records your trip. It has a 120-degree lens and audio recording capabilities. A G-shock sensor detects any sudden impact and locks video and data to record the event. The GPS documents exactly where and when recorded events occurred for analysis later on. The navigation feature is loaded with seven million points of interest, including gas stations, restaurants, and ATMs. Interface is via a 5-inch touchscreen display.
Magellan
800/707-9971
magellangps.com

Papago P3
This dashcam employs a 1/3-inch CMOS sensor to capture footage in full 1080p HD at 30 fps. A built-in microphone can record cabin audio. Recording begins automatically when the car is turned on, and the oldest files are automatically overwritten first when the memory is full. When an accident is detected, those files are automatically overwrite protected. Up to six hours of 1080p footage can be saved on a 332 GB SD card. The built-in GPS receiver tracks direction and speed. Map mode displays the road name, upcoming exits, cross streets, and toll plazas. Driver reminders include a fatigue alarm, speeding warnings, a headlight reminder, a lane-drift alarm, a stop-and-go signal, and known speed-trap alerts.
Papago
844/972-7246
us.papagoinc.com

Pilot DualCam CL-3015
The Dual Cam is a combination action and dashcam. Features include 1080p HD video at 30 fps, 10 MP still images, a wide 170-degree viewing angle, a built-in microphone and speaker, and an accident-detection shock sensor. A windshield suction cup and loop recording allow it to be used as a dashcam. Wi-Fi connectivity permits smart phones to be used as monitors. A 700 mAh battery has a rated 65-minute recording time when used as an action camera.
Pilot Automotive
800/237-7560
pilotdualcam.com

WASPcam P.O.D. 9401
The P.O.D. (Proof On Demand) is a combination dash camera and on-board diagnostics (OBD) monitor. The vehicle’s OBD information is displayed on the 2.7-inch LCD screen: engine load, coolant temperature, current fault code quantity, current mileage, battery voltage, current driving speed, and throttle percentage. The HD video records at 1080p/30fps (and also 720p60, 720p30, or 460p30) with a built-in GPS that includes speed alert. Other features include loop-recording, a G-sensor, and an auto start/stop recording function.
WASPcam
519/822-8400
waspcam.com

Accessories
The best place to start looking for add-ons and upgrades is on the camera manufacturers’ websites. Mounting methods are the most popular. Fourwheelers are obviously adept at using duct tape and zip-ties to solve challenges, and most of the major manufacturers offer suction and sticky mounts that work well for most on-vehicle situations. Some even have dog harnesses for a lower-level POV.

Protective housings are another popular upgrade area. Waterproof/dive cases can be well worth the investment for mudders and other inclement-weather warriors.

Sound is often a compromise in compact action cameras. If interviews are part of your off-road moviemaking, consider investing in a microphone kit.

Daystar Pro Mount
This mount securely attaches POV cameras to tubular cages, bumpers, and handlebars. Kevlar-infused polyurethane spacers dampen vibration without scratching any finish. Each kit fits 7/8, 1 1/2, 1 3/4, and 2-inch round tubing.
Daystar Products
800/595-7659
daystarweb.com

Axia GoPro Mount
This fully adjustable billet aluminum mount allows for 360-degree rotation to set the camera precisely for preferred field of view. It is also compatible with all of the camera’s supplied mounting accessories, and the camera can even be mounted perpendicularly. Required strap clamps are sold separately.
Axia Alloys
480/216-6266
axiaalloys.com

Joby GorillaPod
This action video tripod has a ball head and comes with two quick-release clips to accommodate most action cameras. Capabilities include 90-degree tilting and 360-degree panning. The wrappable legs have rubberized rings and foot grips. Joby
707/827-4000
joby.com

Polsen GMMK-22 microphone
This audio production kit is made specifically for the newer GoPros. It includes a stereo microphone and a shotgun microphone, which attach to the GoPro when used with the Revo Quick-Release Frame (sold separately). The supercardioid shotgun microphone is optimized to focus on the sound directly in front of it while rejecting off-axis sound. The stereo microphone features two condenser capsules arranged in an X/Y pattern. Designed for recording live action, dialog, or soundscapes, the system is engineered to deliver natural stereo sound. Both microphones are powered by the GoPro camera via the Mini-USB cable. The production kit includes an adjustable bracket that easily attaches directly to the three-prong GoPro mount. Foam windscreens are included for both mics.
B&H
800/606-6969
bhphotovideo.com

Video Editing
Capturing raw footage is only part of the story. Preparing it for public consumption is possibly even more important than the shooting.

Luckily, video editing isn’t the black art it used to be. Most computers include an editing application: iMovie for Macs, Windows Media Player for many other machines. YouTube even has editing tools that allow the boring stuff to be cut before the video is published.

Robert Angelo—Emmy-winning co-creator of Jay Leno’s Garage, curator of the “Roads & Rides” YouTube channel, and director of several cable shows and car commercials—offered a few basic tips for increasing trail-video watchability:

“First, check your camera’s settings. White balance is probably the most important. If you can adjust it, set white balance for 5,600k outdoors and 3,200k indoors. Also, many cameras now come with editing software. These free editing programs normally allow you to adjust the color balance and saturation. Subtle adjustments that look good to your eye and resemble the way things actually looked can make a big difference. However, overdoing the saturation will make the video look cartoonish.”

Although the pros use full-featured editing programs such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, the various free applications allow footage to be imported, edited, narration and titles to be added, and more. Robert Angelo adds that the pros often spend as much time in post-production as they do shooting the footage.

Cinematic-quality compact cameras are more affordable than ever. The difference between tedious trip footage and entertaining videos is often in the editing. –Tom Morr

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