* Prices may differ from that shown
I know there are serried ranks of people out there who positively hate cyclists. If you listen to a lot of pedestrians, it's only cyclists who go through red lights. Car drivers never do this of course, which is just a well as they sit in something weighing twenty times more, going twice as fast. Oh no, they're perfect.
Then I got to thinking about filming a few of my journeys to work on my bike. I'm a cycling instructor, so turning up in a car is not really an option, if only as a matter of pride*.
Not only could the resulting videos be useful merely as visual records, especially on a nice day in Richmond Park, but I also wanted to be able to show just how much traffic-light abuse there is from all levels, be it pedestrians, motorists or cyclists. There's even the merest of possibilities that I could use the resulting films for road safety videos for my employers.
(* OK I cheat occasionally by driving part way there and then unfurling my folding bike!)
Up till recently, filming on the move for amateurs has been limited to fixing the family camcorder to your handlebars with Duck Tape (not exactly a quacking good idea) or strapping a 'bullet cam' to your helmet or directly to your head, the latter choice being combined with having to find room for a recorder somewhere else about your bike or person, and looking like a potholer who's lost his 'hole'.
Then, a couple of years back, along came a selection of self-contained virtually weather-proof action cameras from Oregon Scientific. I've opted for the lowest specified version, the ATC2000 (packaged as ATC2K) and now reduced to £50 at ALDI. At the previous guide price of around £100, I would not have considered these to be value for money, but at this price, I'm willing to forgive it its foibles.
WHAT, YOU MEAN IT'S GOT FOIBLES, CHRIS?
Oh yes, for one thing, it's 'focus-free' a euphemism for 'has no means of focus' like many mobile phone cameras. This is partly compensated for by the fact that it has no pretensions whatsoever to shoot in low light, so voyeurs hoping to use it on escalators for nefarious purposes need not apply! Having to operate in good light does however make the lack of focussing less critical.
The relatively wide-angle lens helps too, as it does with minimising the effects of vibration. Anything that can end up clamped onto bike handlebars is naturally going to be subjected to a fair buffeting, especially given the post-winter pot-holed state of our local roads. I'm hoping to 'upgrade' by adding a bike with front suspension to my stable soon so hopefully steadier shots will ensue.
My other main criticism is of the sound system. Obviously it's only 'mono' but to be perfectly honest, it may as well be turned off to save disc space. By the time you try to hear something relevant like a commentary, the road- and wind-noise all but drown it out completely. I partially blame the need to waterproof the unit, which I assume means that some membrane or other covers the mike.
Whilst warmed up to a damned good moan, I'm not sure why someone thought it was a good idea to have the LCD menu display at 90 degrees to the angle from which you'll most frequently view it, and why do the rubber-covered buttons have to be so bloody hard to press? Fortunately, it beeps to confirm an action and you've got about one second to let go before it starts filming, but there would be occasions, whilst skydiving for instance when you'd be taking it on trust that it really has started filming. Think of it - your first solo free-fall and it fails to start, all because it was so noisy by the open door of the plane that you had no idea if it had beeped. Still, I guess it's less of a let-down than having the 'chute fail to open!
My advice would be to make sure it was filming before strapping it on. You can always edit the resultant AVI file afterwards to get rid of the bits with you being gormless staring into the lens looking 'pensive'.
Unlike most cameras you're already used to, this one has no viewfinder, or means of admiring your work whilst away from home. Therefore, if fitting it to a bike's handlebars, take extra care to walk around it looking at its angle from several directions. The horizon's going to be twitchy enough viewed from a 2-wheeler of any kind without constantly looking like you're leaning over. Worse still, an hour's recording of the sky alone will only impress Andy Warhol fans.
To be fair, the mounting bracket allows for fine adjustment to get it as level as possible, even with 'cow horn handlebars'.
Potentially, strapping it to your helmet should produce less jerky and vibration-prone recordings, but of course the finished article depends entirely on where you were looking at the time.
On the subject of fixing, I was annoyed to find that the universal clamp on the camera fits the helmet strap arrangement with a smooth click, but needs what is nearly a whack with a mallet to get it in and out of the handlebar clamp. Still, I suppose at least it won't rattle loose!
Well, in these days of 'Hi-Def' the ATC2000 has its feet planted firmly in the 'Standard-Def' camp, the upper of its three definitions being VGA or 640x480. Still at least it shoots up to 30 frames per second for nice flicker-free shooting. You can drop both the definition and frame rate, but personally I'd stick to the best quality, and splash out on a maximum size storage card, in this case 2 gigabyte SD cards, which are dirt cheap these days anyway (less than a fiver on e-bay). Even then, you get one whole hour of shooting, which coincidentally is about as long as the two AA-size batteries last!
I've heard all the arguments for using rechargeables instead, but the camera seems quite sensitive to voltage drop, and since these frequently start life, even when fully charged, at a slightly lower voltage, i.e. not quite 1.5 volts each, it doesn't take long to need freshly-charged cells again. Having the batteries fail whilst shooting corrupts the AVI file, so only use short life batteries for short shots.
At the opposite end from the lens there's a large waterproof screw cap, which when removed reveals four items of interest.
1) The battery compartment - speak for itself I guess.
2) A mini USB connection. Once connected to a Windows PC, it just becomes an extra drive, like a flash drive. It's from here that you transfer and/or delete files. Likewise, you also need to connect to do the initial formatting of any SD cards. Beware, the camera only accepts the FAT16 version of Windows formats, which in theory limits file size, but since that's still more than the camera can shoot in one go, it doesn't really matter!
3) A miniature A/V socket allowing for composite playback to a TV including sound. The results viewed directly on a TV aren't that impressive, being reminiscent of some of the rubbish on YouTube.
4) The SD card slot. The camera does come with small amount of internal memory, say enough for 1 minute's shooting at best quality, but as soon as you add the card, this rockets to 60 minutes, which is easily enough to bore the pants off anyone, and nowhere near as much fun as other methods for getting into their underwear.
I have to admit that it does come with everything you'd need, except a set of batteries to get you going. Both the connecting leads you'll want are there, as are what appear to be an intriguing selection of S&M accessories, rubber straps, cleats, clamps etc. There's no whip though for clearing the path of pedestrians!
The overall construction gives you a measure of confidence that it will withstand knocks, being somewhat like a rubberised field monocular, and it is indeed declared to be waterproof to around 10 feet of water. Before cavers and snorklers get too excited, remember what I said about its inability to shoot in low light.
To preserve its water-tightness, they give you a pot of silicon grease with which to lubricate the O-rings that form the seal of the rear screw-on cover, nice touch I thought which shows that they take it seriously. As I'm only worried about keeping rain out, I don't think I'll bother initially, but I'll check it after its first outing in the wet stuff.
Even at £50, this is definitely one for the nerd** or enthusiast in gung-ho activities. I'm not entirely sure which category I fall into, as I had more in mind a nice quiet ride along the Grand Union to feed the ducks!
** At least it looks like a cycle headlight though, so shouldn't attract too much adverse attention.
p.s. Looks like I got it for free - I've just been reconciling my bank statement, and Aldi never charged my debit card for it over a month ago!