In racing, action cameras have gone from rare, to regular, to required. General track days do not require cameras, but more and more people are using them. While I personally think they are little more than an unneeded distraction for beginners, they can certainly be useful for advanced drivers reviewing and sharing videos.
From $900(!) to $400, and down to $70 name brand action cameras (Smarty Cam, Gopro, Mobius) may not destroy your season’s budget, but they are another one of those budget items that warrant a second look.
Low budget knockoff cameras are around $50, with some even dipping down into the $20’s. You typically don’t get the same features, quality, or reliability of the significantly more expensive, name brand cameras… But they’re soooo cheap.
*Also expect to add a Micro SD card to pretty much any camera you buy. The good news is prices have been plummeting and even class 10 high capacity cards are available under $20.
Could there be another option?
If you were born after 1980 it is likely you have more than a couple tired and beat up old smartphones lying around. Smart phones work great for a year, maybe even two. As they age their screens get cracked, they struggle to run normal apps, and/or their batteries won’t hold a charge long enough to be practical. These phones can get a second lease on life as track cameras.
Benefits of using a phone for video:
4) Quick review – big touchscreen makes reviewing video easy.
3) You already have one, or two (3?) – C’mon you know you, or your parents, or somebody has a few old phones lying around.
2) Great quality video – Cell phones have had great cameras for years now, you may miss out on the newest features but will still be able to take high quality videos even if a phone is a few years old.
1) Easy Uploads – Jump on wifi and upload, done.
Possible issues with using a phone, and how to overcome them.
3) Max recording length
Due to some obscure European Union rule regarding taxation and device recording length, most cell phones will only record videos up until ~30 minutes. This may work fine for 15-25 minute HPDE sessions, but for racing you are often waiting in grid recording video for several extra minutes (waiting in race grid is stressful enough, you don’t want to be fumbling with starting video as cars begin rolling). My first attempt using a phone for race video got me 15 minutes of grid/yellow and only 17 minutes of the 35 minute green flag race.
The build-in android app would hit it’s time limit and stop recording. However, the “Open Camera” app can not only record longer before stopping, but it also has an option to automatically begin a second video as the first stops. Problem solved. There are other options, but I’m very happy with Open Camera’s simple, straightforward interface. I love the option to autolock the screen when recording begins so you can’t accidentally start-stop the video when starting.
Obviously the cupholder or magnet mount you use in your daily driver will not work. A more robust mount is required. I use a cheap gopro rollbar mount, and a “gopro smartphone mount”. It mounts the phone securely in a spot where it gets great video and doesn’t vibrate, droop, or fall.
1) Action Cam Lenses:
Action cameras come with a fisheye (or wide-angle) lens to record a much greater field of vision than a typical cell phone camera. You can live with a cell phone camera’s slightly smaller view, or look into purchasing a clip-on wide angle or fisheye attachment for a cell phone. I’ve only just begun to experiment with this, my $1.95 (yes, less than $2) lens from eBay does an okay job but isn’t perfect. I Haven’t used it for a race yet, I may give it a full test before playing with other options.
Why did you retire your phone in the first place?:
The reason(s) you retired your old cell phone may not affect its functionality as a track camera at all.
3) Cracked screens:
Annoying or even dangerous for an everyday phone, but much less of an issue for a phone if it’s only used to record video.
2) Bad Battery:
Phone won’t last 6 hours normal use without dying? It’s infuriating for a regular use phone. A phone in Airplane mode with minimal apps will last much longer. Set up a charging plug in the car so it charges while you’re recording video and battery is no longer any concern.
1) Old, and slow:
As older phones age they get slower and slower. New apps get more demanding, more are running in the background, and the phone is chock full of data/information/spying/etc.
A track camera can always be in airplane mode, the phone doesn’t try to look for service or worry about a sim card, it’s doing less.
Delete all the apps you don’t use, disable any others that you may not able to delete. My track camera phones have “Open Camera” for recording, “Youtube” for uploading, “Google Drive” also for uploading, and a lap timer app… that’s about it.
After two full years of use, my old HTC was unbearably slow as a regular cell phone. I deleted most my apps and it still functions perfectly as a track camera, despite being 6 years old.
-Want to go to the next level of running lean? Look into “Rooting” your android or “Jailbraking” your Iphone…. I haven’t needed to, so I haven’t bothered.
What if you don’t have a spare/retired smartphone?
2) Brave? Use your current phone:
Using your current (important, expensive) phone can work. Personally, I don’t like the risk. You’re obviously securing the phone, but if something drastic happened I would be much less angry if I broke a 6 year old phone than if my current everyday cell phone.
There can be a benefit of using a current, active phone: Youtube, Facebook, (And probably 10 other sites by now) offer live-streaming video options. If you have a generous data plan and don’t mind your unfiltered driving being beamed straight out to the public internet, live streaming may be for you. Live Streamed videos are obviously available live, but also stay up after you stop recording. I missed a couple races this summer with a newborn baby at home, but Ken Martinez of the “Ken’s House Wash” H4 Integra live streamed the races I missed. I was able to live vicariously through him (and even watch some Spec Miata battles unfold around his car).
1) Don’t have an old phone and don’t want to use your current one?: Ask around… friends, parents, kids, may have old phones also collecting dust that they would give/loan/ or very cheaply sell to you.
Does anyone else use cell phones for incar video? What do you have to say?