GoPro Hero3 Camera on a Motorcycle

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GoPro Hero3 Camera on a Motorcycle

I have a GoPro Hero3 digital camera on my FJR1300 that I use for shooting video while I ride.

The camera is tiny, about 1x1x2 inches. It comes in a waterproof plastic box which is also a wrist mount. It has fixed focus and zoom and records onto flash memory, so it has no moving parts: perfect for a harsh environment.

This camera cost under $150 when I got it. It's almost identical to the company's newer model (the Hero5) that lists at $140. Mine takes 3-megapixel stills, not 5. There are a couple of other differences too.

My Bottom Line

This is a fun toy for the bike, and at the time I bought it there was no competition anywhere near the price. But if I were spending the same money today I'd look closely at an Oregon Scientific ATC 3K, or for less money the older ATC 2K. (Shop around for better prices.) They have more and better resolution, capacity, and features.

If you are serious about shooting video from the bike, for a "real" video project instead of as a toy or a keepsake or "look what I did!" sharing, then you need to look at much more expensive gear. You want a bigger lens, better optics, HD resolution, high-quality video compression, and probably on-bike power and longer recording times. Plus a stabilized mount without vibration.

For other inexpensive camera ideas, see the "Competing Cameras" section below.

Sample Movie


Reduced-size, reduced-quality, WMV-encoded 90-second movie from Hero3
(WMV, 10 mbytes)

Here are two links to the same sample movie. You should right-click and "Save link as..." to save a copy, then play it.

The link on the left leads to a WMV file to give you the idea. It is compressed and has lost a lot of detail.

If you want to check out the raw video quality, the link on the right is the (large!) original AVI file right from the camera. It's trimmed to 90 seconds but otherwise unchanged.
 

Full-size, un-converted AVI file from Hero3 (55 megabytes!)

 The sample movie is from a ride I took in March, 2009 along the Angeles Crest Highway north of Pasadena, California. I was westbound, and it was midday so the sun is generally to the south - that is, to my left. Sometimes you can see the haze caused by the sun hitting the weatherproof box. At the end, notice how there is a lot of glare from the sun being in front of the camera: the plastic has gotten dirty and hazy from dried road spray. When I enter the shade of the trees at the very end, it sharpens up considerably: this is because that sun glare is gone.

The compressed WMV movie has lost a lot of detail (pine needles, leaves, rock wall detail) but you can get the general idea. It was encoded at 1 megabit per second to keep the file size small. The audio is also compressed: the water-in-a-pipe sound is from the compression, not the original audio.

The audio in the sample movie was recorded at the camera's "high-sensitivity" setting. I recently learned there is a "low-sensitivity" setting which would probably be better for capturing the engine noise without the annoying clicks and buzzing of the overloaded microphone.

In both movies you can see that the playback is not perfectly smooth - it jerks sometimes. That's because the camera drops frames. I find this very annoying, and I talk more about it below.

Size, Weatherproofing, and Mounting

The Hero3 camera without its housing is very small: as wide as a standard matchbox, and not much taller, and as thick as about three matchboxes stacked up.

It comes with its own weatherproof housing and mounting strap. The housing is hard plastic with a water-tight gasket. They don't guarantee it's waterproof but it will do pretty well; you just have to keep the gasket clean and be careful with it. The lens looks through a crystal (or at least extra-clear plastic) window in the box, and there are buttons that poke through to let you power on the camera and operate it.

With the plastic housing it's still quite small. The housing has a Velcro strap attached which you can wrap around your wrist or something as a way to carry the camera hands-free, ready to aim and shoot while you're skiing or kayaking or whatever.

Below you can see the camera in its housing and mounted on the bike. I mount the camera by wrapping the strap around the left-side "Tip Over Guard," which I have extended with spacers so it sticks out farther than usual. The company makes other camera and mounting combinations too.

Using the Camera

The camera uses SD card memory (2GB maximum size) and two AAA batteries. I use rechargeable NiMH batteries rated at 900 mAh: they last for a little over an hour of shooting, and the 2GB memory card fills up in an hour, so it's a good match. I can shoot for an hour, then change both the batteries and the memory. I carry a 15-minute NiMH charger with a 12V plug so I can charge several sets before going to bed for a night stop, or even charge two sets (4 batteries) during a meal stop. (I can even charge while moving, but I don't like to have that much going on at once.) I try to carry 2-3 cards for each day of a multi-day trip. The 2GB cards are super-cheap these days, cheaper than regretting you don't have enough. If you carry a laptop and drain your cards into it every day, you only need one day's worth of cards.

To set up for shooting, you take the camera out of its housing, insert memory and batteries, replace the camera and clip the housing shut. (You have to stop to do this: there is no way you're going to accomplish this safely while moving.) Now you are ready to start shooting when you want to. In a pinch, I can hit the "power on" and then the "start recording" buttons while in motion. Normally I stop the bike and start the camera when I know something "good" is coming up, and then just let it run for an hour. The "good roads" that I like aren't short enough to fit two of them into a single hour of video, so there's no point in turning the camera off to save either memory or batteries.

Video Quality

The video quality is just passable. The camera shoots video at 512x384 pixels, which is less than full "standard definition" TV (generally 640x480). Unless you show it on a big screen, you don't really notice the lack of resolution when watching moving video. Fine detail is mostly lost anyway: the optics and sensitivity are so bad that more pixels probably wouldn't help. As an example of the quality, I find I can never read the words on a road sign as it goes by.

As you can see in the sample movie, the image wavers sometimes. This is caused by vibration of the camera, because the image is not read off the sensor all at once: it's "scanned" over a short period of time, and if the camera is moving (vibrating) during that time, you can get the wavering effect. I haven't tried any elaborate vibration-isolation mounting.

More seriously, the camera also drops frames sometimes. Really, it drops frames very often. It makes the video subtly jerky instead of smooth, especially when playing at regular speed. (It's less noticeable when you speed up playback; see below.) Some people don't notice, or they can tell it's not perfectly smooth but can't explain why not. But I see it all the time and it really bothers me. The camera drops frames when its video processing chip can't finish compressing and writing a frame to the memory in time. This happens most when there are lighting changes, like when you go in and out of shadows. It also happens with frames that have a lot of detail in them, because they take longer to compress to a given size. I asked the company about this specifically and they said the newer Hero5 acts the same way.

The image quality also suffers from looking through the plastic housing all the time. You want to keep the little lens window clean. I had a whole hour's worth of video come out foggy when I passed through some salt spray on the Pacific Coast Highway and it dried on the housing. Since then, if I notice any spray I wet my finger or a cloth and wipe off the lens window.

As you might expect, the camera works best in full daylight, with the sun behind you. When the sun is beside the camera or anywhere in front of it, you can get haze and "dazzle" from optical imperfections in the housing. And of course if the sun is visible in the frame, you've got a bright thing in the sky and you're looking at the shadow side of everything in the landscape. If you plan ahead you can put the camera on the bike's "shady side" so there isn't as much haze from the sun dazzling off the plastic.

This is not a night-shooting camera: you won't see anything if it's dark out.

Watching the Video

When you get home, you want to copy the movies from the SD memory cards to a computer. I'm a PC, not a Mac, so I can't talk about Macs. The video is compressed with "MJPG" (Motion-JPEG) compression, which is something the Media Player in Microsoft Windows knows how to play without extra downloads. At least, mine seems to.

The very good video processing program VirtualDub doesn't like the way this camera encodes audio, so I have to turn off audio processing to use it. I haven't researched whether there is a plugin I need to make it work.

The VLC Media Player will play and convert both audio and video correctly. But it only plays at normal speed - at least the version I have does.

I find that normal-speed playback seems sluggish: things aren't moving as fast as I remember them from the ride. I think this is because the camera's field of view is fairly narrow, so what you're seeing is still mostly well in front of the bike when it passes out of view to the side.

In Windows Media Player you can select View > Enhancements > Play Speed Settings and make it play back faster. It seems to me that 1.2x feels about like it did live. Playing at 2x speed is fun, feels like fast-motion. Anything faster is just for skimming through, not really for watching.

Converting and Uploading the Video

One thing people like to do with their video is share it on YouTube and similar video-sharing sites. I haven't done this so I don't have details, but I know you'd want to trim your movies down to the most interesting parts, and maybe make them play back fast (see above), and maybe put some audio or titles on them. I use Adobe Premiere Pro for this kind of thing, but that's overkill for a little motorcycle movie that will be compressed to very low resolution and quality by YouTube.

At 2GB for an hour of video, the original AVI file has a data rate of 5mbits/sec. With MJPEG compression, that is not great. This makes for large files even without especially high quality. By comparison, the WMV sample movie above is encoded at 1mbit/second: you lose a lot of detail but you can still see what it was like. Flash and MP4 usually gives better quality at low bit rates, but not necessarily: when there is a lot of motion and lighting changes, they're actually pretty bad. I don't know what bit rates and quality you would get from YouTube's standard and HQ modes.

Other Camera Features

Besides shooting video, this camera shoots stills at three megapixels; its newer replacement the Hero5 shoots at five megapixels. It has a self-timer, and you can tell it to shoot a burst of three pictures.

The camera also has a continuous shooting mode where it shoots one still picture every five seconds until you stop it. This mode should last longer than an hour on a battery charge, and it will certainly hold more than an hour's worth of shots on a memory card. If you want to capture documentation of a ride or just take the chance that you might capture a few great views without stopping, you could try this mode. (Imagine if you're snorkeling or kayaking or something: you can set the camera in this mode when you start, and then when you see something you just aim there for a few seconds to capture it - no need to fiddle with buttons under water or even to use two hands.)

The still image quality is again just passable - better than nothing, but this shouldn't be your vacation snapshot camera. It has no flash, no zoom, poor color and light sensitivity... It wouldn't be good enough to talk about at all except for the ruggedness that lets you use it in active outdoor settings.

There is no screen at all: you can not see the images you have shot using just the camera.

The camera will display movies and stills on a TV, using the supplied custom USB-to-TV cable. But mostly you'd want to transfer stuff to a computer for post-processing.

Competing Cameras

There are a few other cameras in the sub-$150 price range to consider: the various cameras from GoPro, the ATC-2K and ATC-3K from Oregon Scientific, and the Tachyon XC from www.TachyonInc.com. See the four-camera shootout at www.helmetcamreview.com. (Note the wide price variation among the cameras there.) Another good site with reviews is www.helmetcameracentral.com.

The GoPro camera people have a line of wide-angle cameras which show more of the view, but the wide angle can also make things seem small and far away. All higher-resolution (HD) cameras are way outside this price range, as are cameras with high memory capacity for longer recording, MP4 compression, and other features.

Kodak has announced something that looks like a real step up: the Kodak Zx1 due for release in April 2009. It's a solid-state video camera (no moving parts) that shoots at 720p resolution for $150 (list). They say it's weather-resistant. It even has an optional remote control, so you can turn it on and off from the saddle. Takes up to 32GB memory cards, so shooting time should be easier to manage. Takes many types of batteries: AAs but also a Kodak rechargeable lithium ion battery or external 5V. With external power and recording at VGA resolution, I bet you could get 24+ hours continuous recording. Mounting is the only challenge I see: the shape isn't a natural fit for a helmet, handlebar, or frame mount.

 

 

 


This page was last edited April 03, 2009.