Video analysis, whether qualitative or quantitative, is a timeless solution for coaches. Each year, the market has new options, creating a burden for coaches who need to know which one is best for their situation. Compounding the issue is that, as hardware options expand and improve, more confusion about new features complicates purchases.
We’ve targeted this buyer’s guide to serious coaches at the high school level and above, and even researchers can benefit from the guidelines. Cameras are a big investment in time and money, since it could be necessary to upgrade them every few years. To streamline the process, we did the homework for you, and included all the essential details you need to make a purchase.
Important Differences in the Types of Sport Cameras in the Market
Today, a camera has many different possible hardware options, enabling everything from a simple review of youth practices to a full 3-D analysis of technique for research. A camera can range from the traditional point-and-shoot film option of the past to an infrared video camera mounted indoors. While video is easily accessible on tablets and smartphones, those two options are only starting points because they have camera quality limitations due to the small size of the device.
Most cameras now are essentially a miniature computer with a camera lens, as they have LCD screens for setting navigation and control. Some specialized cameras are simply just the lens and other essential parts to relay the image, with processing done externally or minimally before transmission. Most cameras provide enough processing onboard so the data can be sent later via wired connection, but some are now wireless. Due to improved image quality and sensors increasing their optical resolution, data transmission still has users needing wired connections to push large video files onto a computer.
Digital Camera with Video Option: The traditional digital camera now has video options, as modern cameras no longer store images on film. While photos are the priority with cameras, due to the need for a great camera lens, many companies provide video features that are vital to coaches looking for high-quality recordings. Surprisingly, when you look for video, most of the best choices will be DSLR or digital single-lens reflex cameras.
Digital Camcorder with Still Photo Option: Camcorders, mainly commercial ones, are appropriate for very low-grade capture, and are excellent workhorses when you need to do a lot of video sharing and a limited amount of analysis. Since video is simply a series of still photos in rapid succession, nearly every camcorder can now collect images if needed. Camcorders are more appropriate for longer capture periods and for sport environments, such as underwater, or for the durability needs of action sports.
Motion Caption Infrared Cameras: Cameras that use infrared are designed to capture actions in 3-D and are specialized to collect reflective points attached to the athlete. Two key points here are that they are not designed for video analysis, but they are designed for external analysis programs. Typically, a half-dozen cameras or more are carefully calibrated and placed indoors or outdoors to pick up the attached markers on the body. Due to sport being very ballistic and rapid, sometimes advertisers reference the high-speed element of the camera as a way to communicate the system is effective in capturing fast actions like throwing or sprinting.
These three categories are important distinctions for coaches, and most will not use motion capture due to its impracticality and cost. Because we want to provide the appropriate details necessary for a coach or sports medicine professional allocating a small part of their day to video, motion capture solutions are not part of this review. Two-dimensional cameras with depth sensors are considered 3-D in terms of market category. They are appropriate for clinical level use, but are not research grade for dynamic movement outside of treadmills and simple environments.
High-end consumer products, called “prosumer” in some circles, are sufficient to do research with athletes and are user-friendly enough that coaches invest in their steeper cost. The compromise between user-friendly functionality and power is always a challenge, as consumers want features but struggle to handle the complexity of equipment with countless settings.
Multiple cameras are necessary for simultaneous viewing of the same event in different perspectives, and to overcome the parallax factors discussed in “The Mistakes Nearly Everyone Makes with Video Analysis.” You can create 3-D measurements if you set up the cameras properly and have processing methods that digitize the recordings. Direct linear transformation, or DLT for short, is an algorithm that takes 2-D video and creates 3-D analysis with high level mathematics. Multiple cameras are fine for coaches who use a remote and just want multiple perspectives, but 3-D generally puts too much on a coach’s plate in terms of cost and time to do practices.Cameras are an integral part of coaching feedback, and growing in importance for sports performance. Click To Tweet
Finally, sports professionals often use cameras for cross-referencing other data points in research or in training. For example, the use of video capture during velocity-based training to provide a combined perspective, and the occasional addition of video to EMG studies to give context to the data. Cameras are an important part of coaching feedback and are growing in importance for sports performance.
Key Camera Components
The most important parts of a modern camera are the lens and image sensor, with other components that make the device functional. As mentioned earlier, video records on a solid state flash storage and the camera sensor converts the optical image to a digital or electronic format. Other details like aperture specifications and focal length are worth reviewing, but the primary stumbling block is understanding the difference between shutter speed and frame rate.
Frame Rate – A sampling speed of data or the number of individual frames collected each second is only half the equation when looking to record in high speed. Frames per second (FPS) range from 25 to over 100 with some models, but without a rapid shutter speed, those frames lose their clarity.
Shutter Speed – The exposure time for each frame is the shutter speed, and that rate is usually a fraction of a second. Shutters in a camera are like the iris of the eye, and open and close at demanding rates for action shots with sport or wildlife.
For all purposes, coaches should shop for a video camera that can take a lot of quality photos in sequence so they can view the sequence in slow motion or analyze a single frame. Several elite researchers still manually count frames from videos to capture ground contact times of sprinters and calculate the frequency of stride patterns by using visual landmarks as reference points.
When you properly record an athlete, the viewing position can provide research-grade data only if you factor in the parallax and set up the camera square to the action. Some data points in movement with two-dimensional viewing are not valid, but several KPIs are strong enough to be reliable in research and in coaching. Linear sprinting on video is extremely useful, but rotational heavy movements like the hammer throw are not reliable beyond providing basic feedback.
Again, video is about seeing the movement either frozen in time (still image) or in a slower and slightly different presentation (overlay or side by side). A small change in perspective can move the needle with analysis and give further insight for progressing technique and performance.The sensor, shutter speed, and frame recording rate are the cornerstones of video analysis in sport. Click To Tweet
Resolution: The last specification of a camera—the resolution of image quality of the equipment—is tricky. Camera resolution is in megapixel units, and while this is usually a case of higher numbers being better, other factors determine the quality of the image. Lighting, sensor quality, and image processing can make or break the final output of a camera.
Still, a camera with a solid double-digit number of megapixels is sufficient for most needs. Manufacturers sometimes share specialized parts, such as lenses, and focus on selling the product as a whole. Be careful not to get carried away with features and focus on measurement standards. Features are usually half of a camera’s description and the other half are specifications. Pay attention to the numbers in the camera spec list first, and look at features last.
One final note with camera components is the zoom lens information that researchers look for in order to ensure they do calculations properly. The zoom of a lens is basically the magnification of the image caused by the user adjusting the focal point. Magnification is helpful when you can’t easily record athletes, such as during competition and at some practice venues. Experts recommend that you rely on optical zoom specifications, as that is the true measurement, while digital zoom is more of a feature because it’s for convenience and not performance calculations.
High-End Digital Cameras
The sweet spot for most coaches is a sport version of a DSLR camera that has strong frame rate and shutter speeds. What usually limits most DSLR cameras is that they are not designed to be full-time video camcorders, so subtle nuances like battery and storage features cater slightly to photography, not videography. Additionally, the physical housing of a traditional camera body is not ergonomically optimized for video, but for sprints and explosive events this should not be a problem.
You can close the gap between a standard camcorder and a DSLR camera by using a tripod and having spare memory cards and extra batteries. The main decision is whether to get an entry-level digital camera that is a real step down, but still functional for simple analysis.
The DSLR camera market is exceptionally strong, and companies like Nikon, Canon, and Sony are leaders. Fujifilm and Olympus have some products that perform well, but in 2017, several reviews had Nikon and Canon leading in most categories. Prices for compact DSLR cameras range from under $200 (used) to full professional lines well over $2,000 or more.
Looking at specifications, the higher-end models are very feature-rich but the technology is not much different with regard to performance. The price range for discontinued models is very competitive, and any camera that is a former Top 10 model in the last five years should be sufficient for advanced analysis.It’s better to first invest in a quality camera than in two or more less-expensive cameras. Click To Tweet
Many coaches wonder about investing in one quality camera or multiple less-expensive cameras in order to get multiple views. It’s better to invest in a quality camera first before expanding to two or more cameras. It’s also better to wait for the right digital camera that can hit the basic specifications you need for video analysis or for you to buy a refurbished model.
A camera bag may sometimes come with the camera package, and we recommend buying one if it doesn’t. Other accessories are probably not necessary, but spare cables and a full charging adapter are nice to have.
Two primary sub-categories exist with commercial camcorders, and they are sport and serious movie enthusiast options. Action point-of-view cameras exploded in popularity this year (2017) as new players such as Garmin, Polaroid, and TomTom try to compete with Hero video camcorders.
Typically, the sport camera hardware resembles cube-like enclosure, and the companies focus on mounting accessories. The camera is usually designed for first-person recording, with the hardware mounted on helmets and sporting equipment. Due to the ability to synchronize cameras with remotes and the fact that they’re weatherproof, they are good options for coaches who need a simple video of practice, not finite and precise analysis.
Movie cameras range from $200 to $2,000 or more and they are popular with field sports that need to see the entire pitch or playing area. Tactical and technical aspects of the game are more about watching who is where and what they do in real time, than focusing on biomechanics. Team sports tend to use higher-end camcorders for positional evaluation, but lower-end camcorders are good workhorses for slow motion needs. Slow motion is smoother than frame-by-frame analysis, but looks blurry because the shutter speed and frame rate are slower. More commercial camcorders include an external remote in their package, and some leverage a computer or smartphone to trigger recordings.
Coaches must decide if they are going to using cameras for testing and competition analysis or for general training review. Sharing video at high resolution and full speed is enough to get the message across to other coaches and to the athletes themselves. With higher speeds for frame counting needs, such as for research, investing in a compact camera is budget-friendly. Video cameras that are for professionals have faster shutter rates but are much more expensive.
Commercial camcorders tend to have great resolution, but their shutter speeds are designed for live action like birthday parties and non-sport functions. You’ll need a large budget for high-performance analysis with regard to video camera specifications. If you have a smaller budget, you can get by using a digital camera with a video feature, but realize that they are designed to be operated behind, while many camcorders are favored for remote recording.
The third and last category of camera is the industrial camera designed for permanent mounting and remote viewing or control. Often used for surveillance or similar, the market for mounted cameras is growing due to the popularity of biofeedback trending again. Mounted cameras don’t need to be expensive or permanently fixed, as several products allow for reasonably quick changes or repositioning.
Mounted cameras are for training or competition venues, and you can use them in the weight room, the practice field or track, and the competition stadium or venue. Mounted cameras tend to have better lenses for distance viewing, but some systems sacrifice image quality for live feeds.
Biofeedback, in the form of real-time or purposely delayed video, is popular with technical events such as the throws, jumps, and weight lifts. The weight rooms at training halls usually have a five-second delay to give immediate feedback to weightlifters, and indoor areas for throw and jump training. Some coaches leverage the Jumbotron at their facility, but such a screen is sometimes too expensive to use this way.
For example, strength coach Doug McKenney used the Firstbeat system and the facility Jumbotron to give his hockey players and coaches immediate heart rate data live. Now that flat screens are inexpensive, high schools and physical therapy clinics are using video feedback as a way to empower individuals.Now that flat screens are inexpensive, you can use video feedback to empower athletes. Click To Tweet
Professional and college teams have support staffs that handle the video, and they are excellent resources to work with. Most of their expertise is with professional video cameras, and not high-speed point-and-shoot cameras. The office of a professional video analyst resembles a command center, with multiple screens and computer workstations. During games, professionals manage multiple fixed cameras to ensure they capture all of the game properly.
You can install small and specialized setups for instruction with the cooperation of the video staff, as well as the vendors that do the mounting and wiring. Wi-Fi options are available, but most modern systems have redundancy by installing cabling as either a backup or the primary source of data transmission. Mounted cameras may have tracking features and the manual ability to zoom in and out, but for the most part, they are static in nature.
The leaders in IP cameras are Sony, Axis, Bosch, and Pixellot. Some of the cameras do not work with advanced suites of video analysis software, while some brands are designed to be compatible. Many coaches may want to use a commercial security camera to simply track players for managing large teams and for safety purposes. On the other hand, you can buy cameras designed specifically for sports performance directly from distributors like Allied Vision. Distributors are useful because they know how the entire process works, and they are worth working with because they usually provide complimentary consulting on orders.
Before You Invest in Video Analysis
One last thought on camera selection: Know where the recordings will live. Storage and analysis are both huge responsibilities with video, so it’s wise to check what long-term storage and sharing options you intend to use. Also, check the software specifications with your sport analysis software, since you may not be able to use new cameras with older software packages.
Some software functions may not be available with all video formats, but for the most part, the software usually converts the information without a hitch. Work backwards with your main intentions for video and don’t take too much time on or it will not be sustainable and will only frustrate you. Don’t buy hardware expecting the included complimentary software to help you—go into camera purchasing with the viewpoint that it is a hardware investment.
Good cameras last for years, and you do get what you pay for, especially with digital cameras. Video analysis in sports requires a small amount of time for administration and responsibility, but it’s worth every minute. New cameras roll out every year, and they get more advanced and more complex. Focus on properties like a good lens set and a system that other coaches rate well.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF