Movies have been a fascination for me since I first used an 8mm camera for a high school project – a film based on a short story, with my classmates playing various dramatic roles. About 15 years later, I bought my first video camera, followed by three more as formats changed, resolution improved, and digital recording replaced analog.
Now my movies have no plot and no cast of characters, but instead revolve around landscape and nature photography. Scenic photo opportunities are constantly appearing as we’re traveling in our motorhome, and perhaps it's easier to appreciate scenery thanks to the high driving position and expansive windows. And so I started to wonder how to capture these images in motion, without having to stop every time I saw something interesting.
This may sound like a job for a dashcam, a little dashboard-mounted video camera that is used to record a constant stream of events through the windshield. That might be fine for documenting bad drivers, traffic accidents, or an unexpected event like a meteor streaking through the sky, but a dashcam is not well-suited for high quality photography. The biggest problem is that the image is compromised by windshield reflections, unpredictable as the vehicle turns in different directions and much worse on sunny days. Furthermore, the lenses and image sensors on dashcams are not optimized for the best resolution, contrast, speed, and color fidelity, since these cameras were not designed with the intent to capture high quality video with minimal distortion.
What I needed was a high definition video camera that could be mounted externally, where I would not have to worry about windshield reflections degrading the image. The roof of the van seemed like the best location for this – the high vantage point would minimize visual obstructions from other vehicles, road signs, etc. Of course, the camera would then be exposed to sun, wind, rain, road debris, bug splatters, bird droppings, etc. This sounds more like a job for an “action cam,” small video cameras with rugged housings designed for fast-moving activities and especially popular for point-of-view photography of extreme sports. I researched these to find a camera that would meet the following goals:
- Extremely wide angle lens, so that I could capture a very large field-of-view. Since the camera would remain mounted in a fixed position while driving, the only way to “move” or “zoom” to more interesting parts of the scene would be to crop images in post-production (the video editing process).
- 4K video resolution. For the video editing mentioned above, this was an essential feature. 4K video images have four times as many pixels as standard high definition images, so you can crop the image down to one-fourth the original size and it will still look great on a typical high definition screen.
- Wireless remote control. I needed to be able to start and stop the camera as simply as possible, without distraction while driving.
- Long battery life. I wanted to able to capture video during a full day’s drive without worrying about running out of power, and I also did not want to drill any holes in my roof for a power cable.
- Safe and secure mount. Even though I didn’t want to drill into the roof of the van, I needed a fail-safe mount to stabilize the camera.
My last blog post showed the first little movie to be created using my solution to capture scenery while driving. I’m sure there are many possible ways to accomplish this – certainly I am no expert at either video photography or editing – but here are some details about the equipment I chose and my particular workflow to generate the movie:
The 4K resolution requirement narrowed my camera choices considerably, and I selected the GoPro Hero4 Black because it will record 30 frames per second at this resolution. (The newer GoPro Hero5 Black would be my updated recommendation.) It also has an all-glass fisheye lens with a 118 degree field-of-view. The GoPro line of action cameras also includes many of the accessories I needed, including a waterproof housing with a replaceable optical glass lens lens cover, a supplemental “BacPac” that more than doubles battery life, a WiFi-based remote control, and a tripod mount adapter.
For placement on the metal roof of my motorhome, I chose a Fat Gecko tripod mount with steel construction and two heavy-duty suction cups. This double mount not only provides more stability, but also some insurance in case one of the suction cups fails. I positioned the mount to the right of the front skylight of my motorhome, close enough for me to reach out and remove the camera for recharging its batteries overnight. The mount has an arm that can be tilted forward so that the camera hovers just over the van’s front roof fairing:
A GoPro smartphone app connects wirelessly to display a live preview of the image, although I don’t use this app routinely because it drains the camera battery rapidly. However, the app is perfect for viewing the image while making a one-time setup of the housing position:
- Horizontal: Turn the camera so that the van’s antenna appears in the far left of the image (it will be cropped out later). This moves the road to the left side of the image and orients the camera to more of a passenger-side viewpoint.
- Vertical: Tilt the camera so that the horizon is level side-to-side and is positioned roughly in the middle of the frame. This will reduce perspective artifacts in the final image. Because the lens has such a wide field of view, some of the top of the van may appear in the bottom of the image, but this will be cropped out later.
Once the camera is correctly angled, the housing and mount thumbscrews are tightened and the equipment setup is complete. Below are the steps in my usual workflow when I’m anticipating that I’ll want to be capturing video while I’m driving:
- Tap the camera’s front (Mode) button and access the Setup menu. Make sure the default capture mode is set to Video 4K-30 (4K video at 30 frames per second). Also confirm that the batteries are charged and that a microSD storage card has been inserted. Press and hold the power button to turn off the camera.
- Press and hold the camera’s side (Tool) button to turn on the camera’s WiFi network, which will allow it to communicate with the remote control that you will keep near the driver's seat. As long as the WiFi is on, the camera itself can remain off until it is needed, conserving battery.
- Clean the housing’s front lens cover and insert the camera into the housing.
- When you anticipate a need for video capture while driving, tap the remote’s Power button and it will find and connect with the camera’s WiFi signal within a few seconds.
- Tap the remote’s Record button to start recording, and tap again to stop. You can leave the camera powered on if you think you will be capturing more video soon. If not, press and hold the remote’s Power button to turn off the camera and conserve battery life.
- Once the day’s video recording is complete, press and hold the camera’s side (Tool) button to turn off the camera’s WiFi to stop further battery drain. A pass-through button on the side of the housing allows this to be done without removing the camera. However, the camera will need to be removed from the housing when the batteries need charging or if you want to access the microSD card to edit your video.
There are many choices for video editing, but I’d like to focus on the basic steps that need to take place regardless of your software preferences:
- GoPro provides two apps for import and processing video that has been stored on the microSD card. As soon as your computer detects that card, the first app (simply called “GoPro”) will import the video files to your hard drive.
- Import the downloaded video files into the other GoPro app (called “GoPro Studio”). You need this app to remove the nasty barrel distortion that is unavoidable when imaging with an ultra-wide-angle lens. Choose “Remove Fisheye” from the Advanced Settings menu of GoPro Studio, and the result is shown below. Notice the automatic cropping that takes place at all of the edges, but that’s OK – you started with a 4K image and have resolution to spare.
- Import the converted video into your favorite non-linear video editing software. I use Final Cut Pro on a Macintosh Pro, and I start by trimming the video to just the clips that are worth keeping. I then make modest adjustments to exposure and color saturation as necessary, and I smooth transitions between clips by inserting dissolves and fades.
- Most video editing software has cropping capability that allows you to select a particular region of the image, a way to focus your viewer’s attention on the portion of the scene that is most interesting. Final Cut Pro includes a dynamic cropping tool that is named after the documentary filmmaker who popularized the technique. If I choose the “Ken Burns” option in the cropping tool of Final Cut Pro, the original image is outlined in green, and I can select the end image (outlined in red):
Final Cut Pro will then create the entire crop transition over the timing of the clip and automatically scale the image to fill the screen. Although scaling means that you are discarding pixels, remember that you have plenty of pixels to spare since you captured the original video in 4K resolution. The net result is a high definition video that leaves a viewer with the impression that the camera is panning across and/or zooming in on a scene, as shown in the short clip below:
- A major problem with capturing video using a vehicle-mounted camera is that all of the bumps and roughness in the road surface are recorded as bounce and jitter in the video. My GoPro camera has no built-in video stabilization mechanism (although the newer GoPro Hero5 Black does), and I have not been able to find any software solution to remove the jitter in these complex moving scenes. Instead, I recommend a simple method to smooth out the final movie: When you’re done with all the video editing, use your software’s “Re-Time” function and double the speed of the video. This does not change the frame rate (it remains at 30 frames per second) but it does hide every other frame, which has the effect of smoothing out the stream of images and creating a movie that that is largely jitter-free.
- My last step in editing is to replace the original audio track (which is just wind noise) with a music track. I then export the entire video in 1080p format, which can be viewed directly on a standard computer screen, a high definition television, or on a video-hosting platform like Vimeo or YouTube.
As I wrote earlier, I’m sure there are many other possible solutions, especially if you don’t mind drilling into your roof or are willing to spend more money installing video-stabilizing gimbals, third party lenses, motorized camera mounts, etc. What I’ve described above is an admittedly minimalist approach with the primary goal of capturing scenery in motion with high definition and low distraction. My 3-minute pilot movie is featured in a new “Vanscape Videos” collection, which includes a few other landscape and nature shorts that I’ve made with standard equipment during the last three years.