Choosing a Camera for In-car Video

I’ve been holding off posting about this new camera until I saw how it worked on track, but I recently bought the Panasonic DMC-TZ1 to replace my Canon SD700 as my in-car Cam. Now I’ve long been a fan of Canon cameras, but the Achillesí heel of their offerings is that while their video quality is great, they limit you to a maximun file size of 1GB, which is only enough for about 12-17 minutes of 640×480 video. That’s simply not enough recording time, and unless you want to use them in 320×240, you’re going to lose a lot of great moments, or worse, spectacular disasters on track.

Gratuitous DMC-TZ1 glamor shot

Two of my favorite features of the SD700 were the fact that it did NOT use Mpeg4, the quality of which tends to suck, and it had an optical image stabilizer, as opposed to the more common “digital stabilization”, which is really just a software attempt to stabilize your image. Optical stabilization produces much smoother video, only jarring in the worst of bumps. So, armed with these requirements, along with the ability to record video files > 1GB, I went searching for a new “point and shoot” to use for video.

You may be wondering why I want to use a digital point and shoot (hereafter PnS) instead of an actual video cam, or the dedicated track specific units like the Chase Cam. Well, there are several reasons. First of all, for me an in-car camera must use a “computer friendly” media, such as SD cards or compact flash. Mini DV cams may be digital, but capturing video is a huge pain in the ass and very time consuming. The quailty of video is better than most other solutions, but I’m posting this stuff on the web, not making DVDs. All that better quality means to me in the end is I have to deal with these massive files where each session is a ginourmous 4-6GB; editing and storing the video makes me want to kill myself. So that’s why anyting recording to tape is out for me. PnS, on the other hand, record to SD or CF cards, and I can simply pop them into my computer to tranfer them. Even at a very good quality a session is about 1 – 2GB, which is quite enough considering I’m going to edit that to a lap or two in the 20-50MB range for the web. They’re self-contained, easy to deal with, and small. They’re also flexible, meaning you can use them as -gasp- actual cameras to take pictures of your kids / cars / the hottie that lives next door. With solutions like the Chase Cam, not so much. Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine with the PnS.

Downsides of PnS include quality, if you really want DVD-quality video, possibly expense, and capacity. Quality we’ve already touched upon, but basically if you don’t need true DVD-quality video, there are a lot of PnS that can take very nice video. You simply need to stay away from MPeg4, and stick with something like Motion Jpeg (Most Canons) or Quicktime (some Panasonics). I only mention expense as an issue because a PnS with good video capabilities tends to run $200 – $500, and if you, like me, sometimes mount your camera outside your car, well all it takes is one good rock and the camera is a goner. This constrasts with solutions that use bullet cams, as the cam is not only usually cheaper ($80 – $200), but they’re also about 1 sq inch from head-on, so they’re much less likely to take that fatal strike. Another longetivity issue to keep in mind is that your optical image stabilization is not going to survive forever in a car on track. You have to expect it to break in 1-3 years. Lastly there’s capacity. Many cameras that use SD cards will only record to cards 2GB or smaller. That’s not too bad, but that could mean you need 5 cards to get you through the day, so it’s something to consider.

So, I chose the Panasonic DMC-TZ1, as I mentioned. It’s a 5 MP camera that runs about $200 – 220. 5MP is not a lot these days, in fact my Canon was 6MP, but megapixelage is not a major consideration for video work. There were 3 killer specs that made me choose this camera: 1) 848×480 widescreen video at 30fps! 2) No 1 GB file limit 3) Quicktime video. Also important was that the data rate was decent doing video; it’s about 1.7MB/s, which is not bad, and the white balance is pretty good on the cam, which is very important as we’re shooting video in a very contrasty environment. The first event where I used this camera was at the 2-2007 Horse thief Mile event, and I’m extremely pleased with the results. You can check out a video taken with this camera by clicking the in-car video from the 2-2007 event.

A Video still: Check out the resolution of this still; you can even see the terror in the Mustang driver’s eyes…
and yes, the Lotus is so good, it drives itself.

As you can see in the video, the quality is very good, the stabilization is great (aside from when you hit a big bump, then it’s overwhelmed), and the resolution is fantastic. This camera has different configurable AF modes, and you have to make sure you’re using the “pinpoint” mode, which focuses only on the very center of the shot, and make sure that center is not on your dash, or everything outside the car will be out of focus. That’s about the only adjustment I had to figure out with this cam to get good video. Another tip is you MUST buy at least 133x SD cards, none of those cheap, low-speed cards, as they can’t keep up with the bandwidth requirements of the video. I bought five 2 GB cards (150x Corsair 2GB at $34 apiece), as this cam won’t take 4GB cards. Of course, you could get by with fewer cards, but they have many uses when you’re not at the track, so I just stocked up on them. Also, the battery life on this cam is very good, and I haven’t come anywhere near running out of juice during a trackday, assuming I’ve charged it up the night before, which is nice. The one downside of this cam is that as a still camera, it’s nowhere near as good as my SD700, but then it cost less than half as much as well. All in all, I’m very impressed with it.

The seductive, but ultimately useless JVC Everio and Archos AV500

One last little tidbit: two other choices you may be considering, but should avoid: video recorders like the Archos AV500 or the JVC Enviro line of HD-based camcorders. Both sound like great solutions, and both will let you down. The big problem seems to be that each camera will shut itself down in high-vibration environments to “save” the hard drive from destruction. Unfortunately for you, this means you end up with 3 minutes of video each track session. Intially I had high hopes for both of these cameras, as they worked great in my initial “video tape me driving home from work” test. However, the track is simply too much for them. Some of you familiar with the JVC may be saying “but wait, you can turn off the ‘drop detection'” mode, and the camera won’t turn itself off, right?” The answer is no, it still turns itself off for some reason.

There is one possible solution for the AV500, however. Perhaps if you isolate the player from vibration thoroughly, it will not shut itself off…however, doing that and still being able to access the thing to make sure it’s recording would be a tough balancing act. Personally, it’s just not worth it to me. I want to KNOW my recorder is working; there’s nothing worse than running your best lap, or having a spectacular spin, only to find your camera wasn’t recording…well, execpt for crashing…that would be worse…but there’s NOTHING worse than crashing and not even getting it on tape 😉


You may or may not have seen the new High-def in-car cam writeup, but for those looking to spend less than the $300-750 it’s going to cost to get HD video, I thought I’d give a little update about the Panasonic this page talks about. First of all, my original TZ1 is still going strong, after much abuse, with no problems at all. However, the TZ1 has been replaced by newer models, and the one you’ll want is on sale as of this writing, for $129! That’s an unreal price for the Panasonic
LZ7. Please make sure you don’t, by accident, buy an LZ6 – there is no mic on the LZ6, so you get video with no sound. You need the LZ7 to get audio AND video. Other advantages over the TZ1? The LZ7 uses SDHC cards for higher capacity, has higher still camera resolution, and, of course, now costs $100 less. This appears to be a blowout of the old cam to make way for newer models, so get them while they’re hot!

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