Making Cab Ride Videos on a Model Railway or Model Railroad Layout

Many visitors and subscribers of Pilentum's YouTube Channel always ask what cameras are used for making cab ride videos on model railway layouts. Therefore, Pilentum 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 his cameras which provide an outstanding picture and video quality that is suitable for broadcasting.

Model Train Camera for Making Cab Ride Videos on a Model Railway or Model Railroad Layout by Pilentum Television

■ The most important parameters for model railway videos

There are some important parameters and settings for making cab ride videos on model railroad layouts because special circumstances must be considered. I am going to try to explain these parameters in a very simple technical way. We have do talk about the frame rate, about the exposure time, about 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.

■ 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 catenary. 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 Micro 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.

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.

JVC ADIXXION II camera on a rail car in HO scale.

JVC ADIXXION II camera on a rail car in HO scale. The camera set is 7.25 cm high.

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.

The best camera set in action, JVC ADIXXION II camera on a depressed floor flat car.

Pilentum's old camera freight car with two axles.

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.

Using the JVC ADIXXION camera without close-up macro filter lens.

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. 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.

Using a camera without a diopter filter for making cab ride videos.

Using a camera with a +1 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.

Using a camera with a +2 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.

Using a camera with a +4 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.

Using a camera with a +10 diopter filter for making cab ride videos.

■ 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.

GoPro or Yi 4K camera will cause an accident with opposing model trains.

Yi 4K camera will cause an accident with opposing model trains.

■ Where to buy the JVC camera?

Unfortunately, the JVC ADIXXION GC-XA2 is no longer produced. But you can find the camera on eBay. Warning: Do not buy camera type 1, but camery type 2, called GC-XA2! Please, check out the different, international marketplaces of eBay, for example, eBay USA, eBay UK, eBay Germany, eBay France, etc.

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■ Pilentum Television

Let's discover the world of model trains. Pilentum Television is one of the leading video networks for toy trains, model railroading and railway modelling. Pilentum presents the largest model railroad layouts and the finest model railway displays. Actually, there are more than 300 videos about rail transport modelling on YouTube and Dailymotion.