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Want to be a YouTuber or presenter? Maybe you simply want make the best car videos ever known? A Tribe Called Cars is here to fill you in on the equipment that can help, as part of the first in a series of tutorials from motoring journalist and videographer, Ben Griffin.

Once upon a time the head of content at YouTube told me that there are two types of ‘successful’ video.

The first is the high-budget, well polished content that looks professional. The grading of the footage, the lack of jerky movement, clever camera angles, high-resolution slow-mo, tight scripting – think Top Gear wannabe stuff. And, erm, Top Gear.

The other is the often low-budget, filmed on-the-fly, low resolution, jerky and imperfection-heavy video, the quality of which does little to hinder its popularity. Not quite ‘potato cam’ stuff, as the Internet would call it, but close enough to deeply offend perfectionists.

Obviously there will be videos in both camps that fail to get big hits for one or many reasons, but it is typically the videos that sit somewhere in this video no-man’s land that get fewer viewers, which in turn means slower growth. Not good news if you want to grow your subscriber count fast.

Because most new smartphone cameras are capable of decent video, going the second route is viable. Not only does it keep life simple and cheap, it will also make you focus more on the task at hand, as opposed to the equipment.

There are, however, a few modest additions you can add to your photography equipment arsenal may help your videos move into ‘professional’ territory. It will take money, effort and practice, but perhaps not as much as you might think.

1) Filming A Car Video: The Tripod

Filming a car: Steeda Mustang being captured by a Sony A7RII, Rode mic, camera cage and video slider

An external monitor can be useful, particularly in bright conditions, but a tripod comes first

If you are walking then some motion is to be expected in your footage. But walking around and filming different elements of a car can look awful despite even if your smartphone or camera has image stabilisation.

The remedy is a good-old fashioned tripod. This can be anything from a compact offering that is easy to carry and costs very little to a carbon fibre-legged beast that could withstand a nuclear explosion. What matters most is that you always have it on you and that it is stable.

Many YouTubers such as Parker of VehicleVirgins and Paul of Supercars of London use a Joby Gorrillapod that is large enough to hold a DSLR camera. In doing so, they can mount their camera on virtually any surface. There is also the added bonus that the handle is long enough to keep their face at a reasonable distance when filming pieces to camera.

There are also various compact tripods that will do a similar job minus the wrap-around mounting trick a Joby gives you. A benefit of this is a tiltable head, height adjustment, improved stability and, in some cases, a spirit level to help ensure you avoid filming at a wonky angle (although this matters little if you plan to crop your footage in post production).

Filming a car: The Bentley Continental GT Speed

A slider is a really great tool, but it does take some practice to master

A larger tripod gives you the ability to shoot at a higher vantage point, which will be better for those shots when you are standing up next to a car, but filming a car at a lower typically looks nicer. My rule of thumb (but like all rules, it can be broken) is that you film at eye level and the eyes of a car are the headlights. Some prefer wing mirror height.

If your budget is more substantial, a dedicated video tripod will allow you to pan and tilt your camera for slicker shots that will help maintain interest and add that cinematic look. It is possible to buy a video tripod head separately and attach it to an existing tripod, though the price may not work out that different in doing so.

One particularly useful feature for a tripod is a hook between the legs. Sometimes in windy or uneven conditions, using your bag or something heavy as a weight can ensure stability, especially if you are doing any panning. This will help ensure your footage is smooth and less in need of any post production stabilisation.

Legs that are easily adjustable, meanwhile, are useful if you want to correct the slope of a hill, for instance, but then a ball-head can do this, too. I find adjusting leg height is more hassle and time-consuming, but it is no real hardship.

Bottom line: Tripods really can improve the look of your videos and they are really useful for photography. Buy the best you can afford. If you can stretch the budget, a dedicated video tripod makes most sense as it can do everything. But then if you are the type to lose things or need to travel light, maybe keep it cheap and small.

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2) Filming A Car Video: The Action Cam

Filming a car video: The case of an action camera can make for some interesting shots

Waterproofing is one of the best action camera perks

There are enough decent action cameras out there that film high enough quality footage if you want to avoid using the likes of a DSLR, APS-C or mirrorless alternative. The latest GoPro Hero camera features image stabilisation of the physical kind, which means a smoother shot and no need to crop into footage to make it smoother in post production.

4K detail is also common at the high-end, which gives you the option to crop into a shot later and still maintain a high resolution. It also means you can eliminate the edges, which tend to be where fish-eye is most prominent.

Unlike GoPro cameras before the Hero 6, Sony’s FDR X3000 equivalent has physical image stabilisation. This will help smooth out the imperfections of bumpy roads, engine vibration and other things that can prove problematic for nice-looking video footage.

Other benefits of an action camera over a DSLR or equivalent include being able to use it externally without fear of it breaking (most come with a hardy waterproof and damage-resistant case, although this means poor sound recording) and its ability to be put in awkward places for unique angles.

Action cameras also work well because of space reasons. Taking the least amount of stuff with you wherever it is you film means you are less likely to forget something and it is easier and less space-hungry if you have to travel abroad. Paying for an extra bag can prove costly with some airlines, after all.

Please note that aggressive and constant vibration can actually result in a really nasty effect that sort of looks as if the camera is drunk. Footage in my McLaren Senna video, for instance, exhibited this problem.

Sometimes switching off image stabilisation can help this situation and others, but you will need to experiment. Fortunately, it seems like a rare occurrence.

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3) Filming A Car Video: The Suction Mount

Delkin Fat Gecko triple suction mount

This particular mount has worked wonders for me and is relatively affordable

Action cameras come with a case that can be attached to your head or other surfaces, but usually you will have to spend more money on a suction mount, which makes mounting a camera inside the car a whole lot easier.

First-party accessories are usually more expensive and the quality can be sub-par, not to mention the fact most are stubby in length and therefore less versatile. Go for a third-party option and you may save money.

Spend more and you can get yourself a suction mount strong enough to cope with bigger cameras such as a DSLR. The Delkin Fat Gecko Triple Mount I use, for example, has three suction pads, which makes it incredibly strong and therefore less likely to fall off while driving.

The mount can also be split into two sections. One part has a single suction cup, which works well for an action camera, and the other has two suction cups that can happily hold a bigger camera at the expense of overall rigidity.

From what I have seen, the suction mounts with the pushy-in buttons hold strongest, but then I have never had a camera fall off or move using the simpler, less time intensive locking mechanism.

What I would say is that stones can be thrown up and smack into your lens when filming externally so consider using a lens filter (UV and polariser are my favourites) or a protective case.

I tend to stick to action cameras for external on-car filming because of cost reasons, but obviously quality takes a hit and the footage will need some effort to make it look the same or similar to other footage filmed on a DSLR, APS-C or mirrorless camera.

One thing to note: Avoid mounts that rely on a sticky pad as these work well once but are pointless for anyone who regularly changes the camera angle or car.

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4) Filming a car video: The Microphone

Filming a car: Rode VideoMic Pro

Not the cheapest, but the Rode VideoMic Pro is a decent microphone option

If you are filming yourself in the car or want to capture engine noise, a microphone is essential. Because typically the one inside your camera can be a bit rubbish, especially once you have background noise to contend with.

There are various types of microphone available, including a boom microphone. A lot of car YouTubers go this route as it is easy to carry, easy to edit the footage at the end as the audio is already synced and the quality is usually ample.

Boom microphones sit neatly in a hot shoe (the square slot on top of a camera), which is convenient, too, and can use either the camera battery for power. Some have an in-built battery of their own for the same reason. Then there are examples that need no power at all.

While a boom microphone will improve audio quality, it does have its limitations. When sitting in a car with a camera mounted away from you, it will collect sound between you and the camera such as any unwanted vibrations and engine noise. In a noisy environment, it will be difficult to isolate your voice from the bad stuff and that can detract from the quality.

To counter this, you can go the lapel microphone route. These small sound collectors can be plugged straight into your camera or a sound recorder and then attached to your collar, seatbelt, sin visor or something else near your mouth, reducing the issue of unwanted background noise and making your voice more prominent.

A 28mm lens is great for filming interior details

A lapel mic is also good for capturing engine noise as you can tape the mic near the exhaust (away from the heat, preferably, unless you like melting things) and run the cable into the boot. Besides the quality, this keeps your sound recorder safe. Just be sure to adjust your audio gain (-12dB is the aim at peak) to cope with the higher noise peak.

Ideally, go with a combination of a lapel and boom microphones because then you have a back-up if something fails. On a shoot where you only get one take, this can be a problem.

What I would suggest is that you buy the best microphone (or microphones) you can afford because bad audio is especially jarring and viewers will almost certainly complain in the comments. Some videographers go as far as saying sound is 50 per cent of your video so get it right.

Also read the manual that came in the box − and is usually available online in a digital format − for using microphone to get the best from it. Positioning is important, obviously, as is ensuring nothing rubs against the mic while you are moving. But so is using the right sound recorder settings and, if outside, using the furry ‘dead cat’ to reduce wind noise, which will be explained.

On the Zoom H2N sound recorder, for example, there is a setting that separates audio into two files − one for your connected microphone and one for its own microphone. Use this and you can take the superior lapel microphone recording, while discarding the other. Or blend the two for the best of both although this is less useful in a car setting.

Then there is the testing element. If a car is particularly noisy, you may need to adjust the audio level on the day. Take some headphones (preferably of decent quality such as Sennheiser or Audio Technica), do a sample test and then adjust accordingly.

Once you have your audio, you can use software such as Audacity to cut out any unwanted ‘erms’, awkward pauses, ensure the volume is stabilised and potentially improve the quality even further. Video editing software and third-party audio programs usually feature audio options that may help.

There are many, many guides out there for microphone positioning, sound levels, sound editing and so forth. So if in doubt, consult Uncle Google or whichever search engine you prefer. Or consider hiring a sound professional if you have the budget because it can be the most challenging element of filming a car.

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5) Filming a car video: The Lens

Filming a car: McLaren 570S in the New Forest

Sticking the McLaren 570S in shade helped reduce the issues associated with direct sunlight (see the over-exposed foliage on the left and right)

At this point, money can become an issue because there are so many lenses available and rarely are they cheap. You will also need to have a camera with an interchangeable lens, such as the Sony A7RII (my personal camera) or its newer A7RIII alternative (1080p 120fps slow-mo for the win), to make this an option.

Full-frame lenses tend to be larger and that means more costly, but then if you upgrade to a better camera at a later date it may not be such a bad idea to spend more early on. Sony full-frame lenses work on its APS-C cameras.

You will also pay more for a faster aperture speed, which will allow you to operate in darker conditions. An F1.8, for instance, will work better on a gloomy day in winter, especially inside a car without a sunroof, than a f2.8.

In terms of focal length, 35mm is good because it is wide enough to capture your face and some of the interior when mounted inside a car. I use a 28mm F2 Sony as this is both fast and wide enough to capture interior details and me talking to camera. Too wide and you may start to see a distorted, fish-eye-esque look. The Sony 28mm F2 is also cheap, lightweight and good quality.

A lens with a faster aperture not only provides more light, it gives you greater depth of field (otherwise known as bokeh). Besides being pretty, the effect helps separate the subject from the background, helping keep the attention on whatever it is you want.

The problem with a car is that it is a particularly large object. Separating the background limits you to filming straight-on, which avoids the issue of having part of the car in focus, or using a long focal length and standing far away.

Filming a car: McLaren 570S interior

Dust can be a real pain when shooting up close

One of my favourite lenses for this job is an old Leica-R 90mm F2.8, as this can be ramped up to over 120mm using Sony’s ‘Super 35’ mode, which basically uses a smaller portion of the sensor but ups the quality. In doing so, a 1.5 multiplier is applied to the focal length.

With this lens I can stand far back and capture the car while blurring the background, without having some parts of the car in focus. Longer focal lengths can also be useful for detail shots as the level of bokeh is more than you would get from a shorter focal length.

While some older lenses can provide a creamy, preferable look to out of focus areas (and indeed in-focus areas, too), there are new lenses that can do the same thing with less hassle. There is, for example, no need for an adapter, which adds weight to the camera. You will see a difference when a manufacturer designs a lens for a specific sensor, too, especially if it has a lot of megapixels, in the form of higher detail.

Newer lenses are also usually (but not always) better at coping with lens flare, an issue that can reduce contrast, and other nasties such as chromatic aberration and lens distortion. It also means you can utilise autofocus if your camera has it, a useful feature for filming moving objects and to-camera pieces solo.

Autofocus lenses can be great for solo filmers, but pick the right autofocus area setting

Bear in mind that 35mm on a micro 4/3rds or APSC camera such as the Sony A6500 will give you a longer focal length beyond 50mm because of the magnification multiplier, which can be a bit close for in-car stuff unless you only want to focus on specific areas.

If you have a reasonably competent camera, I would suggest going for a new lens over your kit lens if that is all you have. Sony, for instance, does decent budget 35mm, 50mm and 85mm prime lenses and other companies such as Canon, Fuji, Nikon and Sigma have their equivalents.

Alternatively, you can get a higher-end zoom and never have to change lens during a shoot. The downside is that zooms tend to be less sharp (although it can be hard to see the difference) than prime lenses because of the fact they use movable parts.

Sony’s 24-105mm G is particularly good as the zoom motor is silent, it covers a large focal range and the quality is excellent. It also costs substantially less than the 24-70mm G Master without being noticeably less sharp.

As with most things, the internet is filled with example videos and photos from probably every lens ever made so do a bit of homework. One good wide prime lens and one with a longer focal length will cover almost all of your bases, especially on a full-frame camera, but then so can a competent zoom.

If you really want to ensure you buy the right lens, you can actually hire lenses. If you do take the plunge and buy new, bear in mind that lenses tend to hold their value (the good ones anyway) so you can always sell it at a later date and get most ─ if not all ─ of your money back.

The alternative is to scour eBay, Gumtree, car boot sales, classifieds and auction websites and hope for a bargain.

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The Lowdown

Even with all the gadgets and gizmos, your videos can still look rubbish. Because the expression ‘all the gear and no idea’ holds true. It is practice, your performance, what you say and how you say it that will strike a chord with your viewers.

But then ensuring your video footage is at a level where no one can pick it apart is important, too. Do you really want a YouTube commenter to say it looks like you used a potato cam? Probably not, yet they will if they get the chance. Every. Single. Time.

For those who already have the gear (or some of it), I’ll be talking about various techniques and tips in part two, which is coming soon. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Found the article useful? Please be sure to use any of the affiliate links if you are making an Amazon purchase, as this gives me a very small donation at absolutely no cost to you.

About The Author


Ben Griffin is a motoring journalist and founder of the website and YouTube channel, A Tribe Called Cars. He is also a contributor at DriveTribe.

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