John Chambers is Managing Director of Drivedata (UK) Ltd, which specialises in minicam solutions for broadcast, military and extreme-sports applications.
Minicams, also referred to as POV cameras, are becoming increasingly popular as they get smaller, cheaper and easier to use. The POV camera is now a firm favourite in reality TV, sports coverage and fly-on-the wall documentaries. So how do you choose the best one for your application?
Which minicam is right for me?
Your choice of camera and recorder is going to depend on a number of important factors:
Subject matter and type of POV shot you want to get
What picture quality/format you need
How much shock/vibration/general abuse they are going to get!
We're going to concentrate on single, fixed minicams for the sake of this feature, although there are multi-camera, jib and PTZ (pan/tilt/zoom) options available for most types of minicam on the market these days.
There are three common configurations when it comes to POV cameras:
1. 'All-in-one' solutions (small camcorders, dedicated 'sports-cams', mobile phones)
If you need something cheap and cheerful and picture quality isn't a big concern then the 'all-in-one' camera/recorder could be for you. There are plenty of hand-held devices and 'sports cameras' on the market capable of recording video, usually to removable flash memory. However, even the smallest handycam can be too big for POV use. Triggering and monitoring the recording, battery life, lack of mounting options and poor reliability can be a problem with these devices. If you want that 'YouTube' look then it may be right for you, but spend a bit more money on a separate camera and recorder and you'll get much better results.
2. 'Two-box' solutions – small camera head linked to video recorder by a cable
This has been a very popular POV camera configuration for some time. The main advantage with having a separate video recorder is that the camera itself can be made very small, light and often fully waterproof with the recorder protected and controlled remotely.
Mini-DV camcorders or 'clam-shell' decks, such as the now obsolete Sony GV-D1000, used in conjunction with a composite video 'bullet' or 'lipstick' camera has been an affordable, reliable and high quality solution for POV work for many years. Mini-DV has now largely been replaced by solid state video recorders, which are much smaller and more rugged. Memory cards are available up to 64GB and prices have fallen rapidly, so solid state is now the de facto standard for POV camera work.
3. 'Three-box' solutions – mini camera head with dedicated CCU and video recorder
If very high picture quality is required but a small camera head is essential, then a camera with separate CCU (camera control unit) will probably be the way to go. Miniaturisation has not yet got to the stage where all the electronics needed to drive and control a high-end SD or HD camera can be crammed into a small aluminium tube. Recent one-piece HD cameras such as the Toshiba IK-HR1D and Cunima MCU1 don't need a CCU but are still too big for some POV applications. Expect to pay anything from £1,000 to £10,000 for this type of camera and don't forget you'll still need a video recorder to go with it. The CCU also takes up more space and consumes more power, so for body-worn or onboard shots they may not be practical.
What picture quality can I expect?
A 'two-box' system based on a small, composite video bullet camera and good quality solid state video recorder can deliver remarkably good pictures, but there are subtle differences in the specification of these devices which can have a huge effect on picture quality.
Check the camera resolution – 520 lines should be the minimum if you want a sharp picture
Does the camera have fixed/configurable white balance? - Auto WB can cause big colour casts and shifts difficult to correct in the edit.
Check the recorder resolution and frame rate – this should be 720 x 576 at 25fps for SD PAL. If the resolution is less, it's not going to look good when upscaled later. If it only works at 30fps you could have problems with stuttering and frame-dropping in the edit. There are many low-cost solid state recorders on the market offering 640 x 480 or non-standard frame rates, which are just not suitable for use as a minicam recorder in a professional environment.
Check the recorder's file format and bitrate – If it records in MPEG2 (.MPG) file format then you'll need a bitrate of at least 8MB/sec for good quality SD video. VBR (variable bit rate) is an advantage as the compression will adapt to the subject matter and can give better results. With the newer H.264 compression algorithms, even a relatively low bitrate can give good results, but anything under 3MB/sec probably won't be good enough.
Ultimately, overall picture quality will depend on choosing a suitable camera/recorder combination which have been well matched and correctly set-up. The only sure way to be certain that the system will deliver the look and quality you need is to get some original clips from the manufacturer and view them on a proper monitor.
How and where do I mount a POV camera?
It may sound obvious but mounting the camera properly is crucial if you want good results. It may be tempting to stick a small POV camera onto a vehicle or helmet with some gaffer-tape and tie-wraps but you'll probably regret it later. The ubiquitous suction mount is also often not the best solution. They can and do fall off for no apparent reason!
You need to be sure there won't be any legal or Health & Safety issues if the camera or recorder comes adrift or gets a knock during the shoot. Attaching minicams to aircraft can be a particular problem in Europe as you will need someone with official certification to carry out the work. In Motorsport, you'll need to deal with teams and officials who don't want anything attached to the car which may compromise safety and performance.
Drivedata has spent a lot of time designing and refining minicam mounts to make POV cameras easier and safer to use in extreme environments and there are other specialist grip manufacturers who can supply advice and hardware to help with this.
I need widescreen/HD – what are the options?
Single chip, composite video SD mincams are almost all based on a Sony CCD sensor which is only capable of producing 4:3 ratio. This is a big issue with broadcasters and producers, as widescreen is usually mandatory these days.
There are only two ways to get around this with existing 4:3 cameras – either ARC the picture by cropping and zooming in or use an anamorphic lens adapter. ARC'ing inevitably means a loss in picture quality, but the results can still be acceptable and this is how it's usually done now. Anamorphic adapters can give very good results but are expensive, involve custom engineering and add weight and size to the camera.
A much better solution is to use a dedicated widescreen/HD system. Both Sony and Panasonic have recently released POV camera systems capable of widescreen and HD. An even more affordable option is the sub-£500 HD system offered by Drivedata, which much smaller than rival systems and records 16:9 widescreen at full 1920 x 1080p HD resolution.
If the budget is available, there are several other full HD minicam systems to consider, but prices start at around £10,000 for a camera/recorder solution and there's always the risk that something better and cheaper will be along next week.
So should I buy or rent the kit?
Actually, there are three choices: buy it, rent it (dry hire) or pay for a minicam specialist to do it for you.
If all this talk of bitrates, aspect ratios, solid state flash memory and anamorphic adapters is confusing you, then you might be better off talking to a few minicam specialist and agreeing a rate for one of them to come along and handle the POV camera work for you.
If you've done a bit of data-wrangling and know your SDI from your SDHC, then you might want to consider renting in the kit and operating it yourself, although you should bear in mind that experience counts for a lot and you could end up with unusable footage even though you've got the latest high-end kit at your disposal.
The choice to buy a system is becoming an easier one these days and with HD minicam systems now available for under £500, it may be a best to invest in one and just have a play around trying new angles and shots you can't get any other way.
Drivedata offers purchase, rental and full service options for POV minicam kits, digital wireless links and other hardware for capturing action impossible to get with conventional cameras.