Pilentum's Model Train Camera
A Report with Experiences and Recommendations
Many visitors, subscribers and friends of Pilentum's YouTube channel always ask what camera is used for making cab ride videos on model railway layouts. Therefore, Pilentum - its real name is Markus Lenz from Germany - wrote this special report with experiences and recommendations. On the market many so-called action cameras are available. These cameras provide an amazingly good picture and video quality, but they have their weaknesses in terms of frame rate and video resolution. In this report, Pilentum describes those cameras that provide an outstanding picture and video quality that is suitable for broadcasting. Furthermore, special circumstances must be considered for making videos on a model railroad layout.
The most important parameters for model railroading videos
There are some important parameters and settings for making cab ride videos on model railroad layouts. I am going to try to explain these parameters in a very simple technical way. We have do talk about the frame rate, the exposure time, the video resolution and about the minimum focus distance of the camera's lens.
Frame rate, expressed in frames per second or fps, is the frequency at which consecutive images called frames are displayed in an animated display. The term applies equally to film and video cameras, computer graphics, and motion capture systems. Frame rate may also be called the frame frequency, and be expressed in Hertz. For example, Europeans use the PAL video system with 25 frames per second (fps) in standard definition video mode. In high definition video mode they use 50 fps. Americans and Japanese use the NTSC video system with 29.97 frames per second in standard definition video mode. In high definition mode they use 59.94 fps. What does that mean? Basically, the higher the frame rate, the better details are captured on video. Do you remember the old motion picture film format called Super 8mm film? Then, this motion picture film format worked at 16 frames per second only. The result of this amateur film format were jerky and non-fluid movements while watching. When shooting a small miniature world there are so many details. Therefore, the frame rate must be selected high enough to capture any movement.
In photography and videography, shutter speed or exposure time is the length of time when the film or digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light. The amount of light that reaches the film or image sensor is proportional to the exposure time. For shooting a cab ride on model railroad layouts the camera should have settings to change the exposure value (EV) or shutter speed. All this produces a fine, detailed resolution. On the Internet there are small, cheap cameras from China. They are integrated in key chains, for example. Some call it spy cam, some call it pin hole camera. These cameras do a great job while shooting outside. They need a lot of sun or day light. But shooting inside, light is missing. These Chinese cameras do not have any settings for frame rates, shutter speed or exposure time. And, the digital sensor inside the camera is far too small to achieve optimal results.
The display resolution or video resolution of a digital television or of a video camera is the number of distinct pixels in each dimension that can be displayed. It is usually quoted as width x height, with the units in pixels. For example, 1280 x 720 means the width is 1280 pixels and the height is 720 pixels. Television stations and broadcasters are using the following resolutions in standard definition video mode (SD): 720 x 480 pixels (NTSC) or 720 x 576 pixels (PAL). In high definition video mode they are using 1280 x 720 pixels (HD) or 1920 x 1080 pixels (Full HD). And, especially on YouTube the following resolutions are possible in ultra high definition video mode: 3840 x 2160 pixels (4K UHD) and 2560 x 1440 pixels (2.5 K). You can make videos in any resolution with different frame rates. Today, shooting in 1920 x 1080 pixels at 50 fps or at 59.94 fps is an established standard.
For making cab ride videos, of course, other parameters are important. For example, the size of the image sensor in the camera or - in general - the size and the design of the camera. Regarding the camera's size, GoPro is a world-famous brand for small-sized cameras. But a typical GoPro camera can not be used for shooting inside miniature railway worlds built in 1/87 scale. The typical GoPro camera housing or camera body is much too large both in height and width. In height, the GoPro camera hits the overhead power line or caternary. In width, the GoPro camera ramps railway signals, opposing model trains or buildings.
The most important parameter, however, is the close-up limit, the focal length or the minimum focus distance of the camera's lens. Each small-sized action camera on the market is equipped with a fixed lens, whereby the focusing system is designed for subjects located at a distance of at least 0.5 m away from the camera. The minimum focus distance is the shortest distance at which a lens can focus. For example, the lens of a small-sized action camera like Gopro, Yi 4K et al. can not focus at distances shorter than the minimum focus distance. They can not focus at subjects that are very close to its lens. They are useless in macro photography or macro videography. Serious camera manufacturers offer these very important technical data inside the user guide's appendix. Each camera or each lens on the market has different minimum focus distances. When the minimum focus distance, for example, is 0.28 m or 0.92 ft, subjects in front of the lens are only sharply focused when they are 0.28 m away. Each subject on a model railway between the camera lens and 0.28 m is definitely out of focus. We do not need to change the lens of the camera. Pilentum presents a tricky way to transform a normal camera lens into a macro lens.
Simple settings for shooting model railway videos
The two photos present - in general - the camera settings, when Pilentum makes model railway videos in high-quality. By the way, this is my favorite camera. It is the good, old Panasonic HVX 200. Professionals on www.dvxuser.com call it "Big Betty" in a loving way. The camera has three CCD image sensors, not CMOS. While CMOS image sensors generate rolling shutter failures, my "Big Betty" with its three CCD sensors does not generate any rolling shutter failures. In my opinion, CCD sensors are better, but they need a lot of light.
Basic rule no. 1: Use a tripod!
Basic rule no. 2: Use external video lights!
Basic rule no. 3: Use the highest frame rate, here 50 fps (see. red mark in the photo)!
Basic rule no. 4: Use an external video display for better focusing (see. red mark in the photo)!
Basic rule no. 5: Use a high shutter speed, here 1/500 instead of 1/50 (see. red mark in the photo)!
Figure: Using an external video display or field monitor for better focusing.
Figure: HD720 video mode, 50 fps and 1/500 speed shutter.
The good, old Panasonic HVX 200 camera is no longer produced. But you can get the camera on eBay:
» Ebay (Ireland): Offers for Panasonic HVX 200
» Ebay (Canada): Offers for Panasonic HVX 200
» Ebay (Australia): Offers for Panasonic HVX 200
» Ebay (United States): Offers for Panasonic HVX 200
» Ebay (United Kingdom): Offers for Panasonic HVX 200
An external video display or field monitor is not always necessary but it makes work easier. The are many offers at Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): Field monitor with HDMI input in HD, Full HD or 4K
» Amazon (United States): Field monitor with HDMI input in HD, Full HD or 4K
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Field monitor with HDMI input in HD, Full HD or 4K
To lighten-up the model railway layout you should use LED light panels. I prefer the YONGNUO YN300 III:
» Amazon (Canada): YONGNUO YN300 III LED 3,300 K - 5,600 K Light Panel
» Amazon (United States): YONGNUO YN300 III LED 3,300 K - 5,600 K Light Panel
» Amazon (United Kingdom): YONGNUO YN300 III LED 3,300 K - 5,600 K Light Panel
Using a tripod should be self-evident. The are many offers at Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): Affordable tripods with fluid head
» Amazon (United States): Affordable tripods with fluid head
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Affordable tripods with fluid head
Making cab ride videos in 1/32 scale
In Germany we call 1/32 scale "Spur 1" or "Spur I", meaning 1 gauge, gauge 1 or gauge one in the English language. On this large scale, we do not have significant problems. We can use any camera that is offered on the market. Pilentum mounts the camera on a flat freight car. This freight car is then pushed by a locomotive. The only thing to note is the correct speed of the locomotive. The whole camera train has to drive slowly. Very slowly! The camera can run in automatic mode, for example, set the focusing system to auto focus.
I prefer a small Panasonic camcorder, type HDC-SD600, because this camcorder has three image sensors (CMOS), records in 1920 x 1080 pixels at 50 fps, has a minimum focal length of 35 mm, and - particularly important - the camera's display can be flipped and inverted onto the camera housing. Of course, an action camera can also be used on this scale, for example, the typical GoPro camera or the Yi 4K camera. But notice what I wrote before, namely the most important parameter: The minimum focus distance of the camera's lens.
The best results are provided by my Panasonic camcorder. Action cameras, usually, have the problem of generating a very wide-angle image. This problem is called "fish eye" effect. Due to its light intensity the Panasonic camcorder is suitable for both indoor and outdoor use. If I had to make video shootings of a garden railway, I would prefer the Yi 4K+ camera offered by Yi Technology from China because it is the world's first 4K camera recording at 50 fps respectively at 60 fps.
Figure: Panasonic camcorder, type HDC-SD600, mounted on a flat freight car.
Figure: Märklin freight car without side walls, item no. 58483, 58810, 58811, 58812, 58813.
Figure: Yi 4K camera on a flat freight car.
The Panasonic camcorder, type HDC-SD600, is no longer produced. Current models are available at Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): Panasonic HC-V770 (extremly good)
» Amazon (Canada): Panasonic HC-WXF991K Camcorder (professional 4K Ultra HD, but only 25 fps at UHD)
» Amazon (United States): Panasonic HC-V380K (cheap and good)
» Amazon (United States): Panasonic HC-V770 (extremly good)
» Amazon (United States): Panasonic HC-WXF991K Camcorder (professional 4K Ultra HD, but only 25 fps at UHD)
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Panasonic HC-V770 (extremly good)
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Panasonic HC-WXF991K Camcorder (professional 4K Ultra HD, but only 25 fps at UHD)
Yi Technology is a competitor for GoPro. Yi cameras offer a very good price and performance ratio:
» Amazon (United States): Yi 4K camera, 3840 x 2160 pixels at 25 fps or 29.97 fps
» Amazon (United States): Yi 4K+ camera, 3840 x 2160 pixels at 50 fps or 59.94 fps
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Yi 4K camera, 3840 x 2160 pixels at 25 fps or 29.97 fps
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Yi 4K+ camera, 3840 x 2160 pixels at 50 fps or 59.94 fps
The freight car in 1/32 scale. Märklin is damn expensive. Get a cheap one at eBay:
» Ebay (Ireland): 1/32 scale flat freight cars
» Ebay (Canada): 1/32 scale flat freight cars
» Ebay (Australia): 1/32 scale flat freight cars
» Ebay (United States): 1/32 scale flat freight cars
» Ebay (United Kingdom): 1/32 scale flat freight cars
Making cab ride videos in 1/87 scale
Germans call the 1/87 scale "Spur H0" using the number zero. British call it 1:87 scale modelling or H0 gauge. Americans say HO scale. By the way, in Great Britain there is also OO gauge, OO scale, 00 gauge or 00 scale. OO describes model trains with a scale of 4 mm = 1 foot (1:76) running on HO scale 1:87 (3.5 mm = 1 foot) track (16.5 mm). But it does not matter if we speak of the 1/87 scale or 1/76.2 scale, because now we are moving in a very small miniature world. Regarding videography we must conquer the world of macro photography.
In 1/87 scale the basic requirements for a camera are the following: Firstly, the camera can only be as wide as the railway track. Secondly, the camera can only be as high as the overhead line. Thirdly, the camera and the lens must have the smallest possible minimum focus distance. And, the camera needs its own rail car.
At the beginning, I must note that you can forget all the cameras on the market that work with radio transmission (WiFi). Any radio system on the market leads to image errors and transmission problems. The train camera must record the photos and videos on an SD card. In this case, you can not watch your model railway layout live. But we do not want that live view. We want to make video recordings in such a quality that we can broadcast the footage at TV stations. Nevertheless, let's take a look at the market for wireless cameras. The Austrian manufacturer Roco offers a wireless train camera that is built inside locomotives. The loco models are equipped with a built-in video camera. The video image is directly transferred to a smartphone or a tablet PC using a special WiFi locomotive chip. Unfortunately, the locomotive camera delivers a video in a very low resolution. There are only 640 x 360 pixels at 25 fps which are sent from the camera to the user's device. And, sound will not be recorded.
Image source: Screenshot of Roco's website on www.roco.cc
Finally, the wireless camera system made by Roco is an innovative approach. The camera is useful for live events, for example, at model railway exhibitions or at model railroad clubs for transmitting the live video to a monitor or display for visitors. Ultimately, the camera delivers - for Pilentum's purposes - a very poor image quality. Pilentum uses a completely different equipment.
After many, many experiments Pilentum found the perfect camera equipment for making cab ride videos. Each cab ride video on Pilentum's YouTube channel are made with this camera: Pilentum uses the GC-XA2 ADIXXION made by JVC. In 2014, JVC offered this amazing action camera features 1920 x 1080 recording at 50 fps or at 59.94 fps, an improved gyro-sensor image stabilizer, enhanced low light performance, WiFi functions, and much more. Truly pocket-sized and weighing barely a quarter pound, this camera is waterproof to a depth of five meters, dustproof and freezeproof, all without the need for a separate housing. In addition, the camera also includes a 1.5-inch LCD monitor and dual standard tripod mounts. Please note, JVC released its first ADIXXION camera, type GC-XA1, before. This camera delivered a very poor video quality. We are talking about the second generation, the ADIXXION camera, type GC-XA2.
Figure: JVC ADIXXION II camera on a rail car in HO scale.
Figure: JVC ADIXXION II camera on a rail car in HO scale. The camera set is 7.25 cm high.
Figure: JVC ADIXXION II camera on a very flat rail car in HO scale. The camera is 6.60 cm high.
The first camera train car is self-made. It is an old freight car made by Märklin with only two axes. The camera set is 7.25 cm high. This height is unproblematic on model railway layouts without catenary. However, only two axes are disadvantageous because the camera car rolls very restless, especially when it rolls over railroad switches. Finally, the use is very simple: The camera car is coupled in front of a locomotive. From experience, I can report, the locomotive must push very, very slowly. You must reduce the model train's speed. Even slower than usual. Because this camera set had problems with overhead lines, I had to find a better solution.
The second camera train car is a very flat freight car made by Märklin. It is called "Rollende Landstraße" in German, and "Rolling Road" in English. It is a depressed floor flat car for truck transport made of metal, not of plastic. The Märklin's item number or article number is 4740. This camera set is 6.60 cm high. The height is so small that the camera set fits under the catenary without any problems. And, the wheelset or bogie with four axles ensures that the camera car is rolling smoothly over rails, switches and crossings. The camera is simply fixed with adhesive tape on the freight car. The whole camera train set is coupled in front of a pushing locomotive. Again, you must take into account the basic rule: Drive slowly! Often I put a weight on the car to stabilize it in curves. Note, that the four small wheels can derail quickly because the center of gravity of the car is displaced upwards by the camera.
Figure: The best camera set in action, JVC ADIXXION II camera on a depressed floor flat car.
Figure: Pilentum's old camera freight car with two axles.
Figure: Pilentum's new camera freight car with four axles.
The problem of the minimum focus distance of the camera's lens
Like any other action camera, the JVC ADIXXION II camera is designed to capture subjects that are far away from the lens. I had to find a method to change this camera into a macro camera. For example, there are experts that can replace the lens of a GoPro camera. This may also work with the JVC ADIXXION II camera. But I am not a technician. And, the intervention in the electronics of the device inside is too dangerous for me. The simplest way to shorten the focal length of a camera is to use clos-up lenses or macro lens adapters in front of the camera lens. Therefore, I ordered a so-called Polaroid Optics 4 Piece Close Up Filter Set (+1, +2, +4, +10). These close-up filters decrease the minimum focusing distance of any lens by using +1, +2, +4 or +10 diopter filters. I had to buy those close-up lenses that have a diameter slightly larger than the diameter of the JVC camera lens, approximately 37 mm. Because the JVC camera does not have a filter thread, I use two strips of adhesive tape to fix the adapter in front of JVC's camera lens.
Figure: Using the JVC ADIXXION camera without close-up macro filter lens.
Figure: Using the JVC ADIXXION camera with close-up macro filter lens.
Changing the minimum focus distance with close-up lenses
Please, take a look at the following photos to understand what the close-up lenses do.
Figure: Using a camera without a diopter filter for making cab ride videos.
Figure: Using a camera with a +1 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.
Figure: Using a camera with a +2 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.
Figure: Using a camera with a +4 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.
Figure: Using a camera with a +10 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.
When comparing the photos you can see very clearly that the diopter filter moves the focus level closer to the camera. The background becomes harmoniously blurred. And, the foreground becomes very sharp. I reached the best results - again and again - with the +10 diopter filter. But please note, these experiences relate to the JVC camera. For other cameras other lenses are used. Therefore, you must try which close-up filter gives the best results for your camera. And, there is another basic rule: Any filter that is mounted on the camera lens, reduces the light performance of the camera. In other words, always take care for a good lighting of your railway scenery.
Sorry, the JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2, is no longer produced. But you can get a used one at eBay:
» Ebay (Ireland): JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2
» Ebay (Canada): JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2
» Ebay (Australia): JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2
» Ebay (United States): JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2
» Ebay (United Kingdom): JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2
There are many suppliers for close-up lenses and diopter filter sets. Take a look at Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): Polaroid Optics 4 Piece Close Up Filter Set
» Amazon (United States): Polaroid Optics 4 Piece Close Up Filter Set
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Polaroid Optics 4 Piece Close Up Filter Set
The "Rollende Landstraße" respectively "Rolling Road" depressed floor flat car made by Märklin:
» Ebay (Ireland): Märklin 4740, Rolling Road, depressed floor flat car
» Ebay (Canada): Märklin 4740, Rolling Road, depressed floor flat car
» Ebay (Australia): Märklin 4740, Rolling Road, depressed floor flat car
» Ebay (United States): Märklin 4740, Rolling Road, depressed floor flat car
» Ebay (United Kingdom): Märklin 4740, Rolling Road, depressed floor flat car
GoPro, Yi 4K and other camera types are too wide
I previously wrote that other camera types can not be used. On the one hand, I have not experienced about the effect of close-up lenses using a GoPro or Yi 4K camera. On the other hand, these cameras are too wide. If you have two tracks on a railway layout, these cameras will cause an accident with opposing model trains. And, the cameras can not be centered on the camera car.
Figure: GoPro or Yi 4K camera will cause an accident with opposing model trains.
Figure: GoPro or Yi 4K camera will cause an accident with opposing model trains.
This was the Full HD era, now 4K UHD comes
A few days ago, I ordered a new camera on Amazon, namely the "Drift Ghost 4K" camera made by Drift Innovation Ltd. The camera is built very small and very compact. On the Internet, there are many good reviews. So I ordered this camera. So far I have not done a cab ride video test yet. I still have to experiment how I can mount the close-up lens. The most important parameters of the Ghost Drift 4K camera for me are: The video resolution and frame rate of 4096 x 2160 pixels at 25 fps (Cinema 4K), 3840 x 2160 pixels at 25 fps (4K UHD), 2704 x 1520 pixels at 60 fps (2.7K), and impressive 1920 x 1080 pixels at 100 fps (Full HD). With 1280 x 720 pixels 200 fps and 240 fps are available. This results astonishing time-lapse effects. Especially the camera dimensions are very advantageous for HO scale and N scale cab rides. The camera's size is 4.3 cm in the width, 8.2 cm in the lenght and - only - 3.1 cm in the deep.
A very good alternative to the old JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2 camera, the Drift Ghost 4K. Get yours on Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): Drift Ghost 4K
» Amazon (United States): Drift Ghost 4K
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Drift Ghost 4K
Image source: Amazon PartnerNet
Other cameras on the market for making cab ride videos
There are a variety of cameras on the market. The spectrum ranges from high-quality, professional cameras to cheap cameras. Sometimes even the cheap cameras from China are suitable. But pay always attention to the light intensity, to the video resolution and to the frame rate of the camera. If you want to buy a camera for making cab ride videos, Pilentum recommends these four camera types on the market: 1) Ghost Drift 4K, 2) GoPro HERO Session camera, 3) Polaroid Cube+ 1440p camera, and 4) Sony FDR-X1000 4K camera.
Image source: Amazon PartnerNet
GoPro HERO Session camera on Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): GoPro HERO Session camera
» Amazon (United States): GoPro HERO Session camera
» Amazon (United Kingdom): GoPro HERO Session camera
Image source: Amazon PartnerNet
Polaroid Cube+ 1440p camera on Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): Polaroid Cube+
» Amazon (United States): Polaroid Cube+
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Polaroid Cube+
Image source: Amazon PartnerNet
Sony FDR-X1000 4K camera on Amazon:
» Amazon (Canada): Sony FDR-X1000 4K camera
» Amazon (United States): Sony FDR-X1000 4K camera
» Amazon (United Kingdom): Sony FDR-X1000 4K camera
I hope you like this report. It took me a lot of time to translate my experiences from German into English. I guess, some phrases are written differently in the English language than in the German language. But you will understand what I mean. You can share this report with your friends on Facebook or on other webpages. The permanent URL is www.pilentum.de/camera/index.htm. Thanks for reading.