Mapping with Action Cameras, Mapillary, and OpenStreetMap
Learn some great tips about photo mapping with action cameras in this guest post by Mapbox engineer Bryan Housel (originally published on the Mapbox blog). Note that you'll find the freshest multiple camera rig instuctions on our Help Center.
Mapillary has made mapping with street-level imagery in OpenStreetMap accessible to anyone. Simply take pictures from your phone using the Mapillary app, hit upload and use them directly in OpenStreetMap editors like iD or JOSM. The pictures are shared publicly on Mapillary.com so the entire mapping community benefits from a more complete image dataset of the world.
To take things up a notch, I started to use a rig of four action cameras mounted to my car’s roof for surveys. While still a budget approach, this makes my outings more efficient by taking multiple pictures from different angles at the same time. Over time I’ve streamlined the hardware configuration and the workflow. Here’s a walkthrough of the equipment I’ve found works best. This setup works great with Mapillary, but would also plug into the comparable OpenStreetCam or your own custom workflow.
Four action cams set up to capture a maximum amount of imagery for each frame
There are many affordable action cameras that take high definition photos. For street level photos, you’ll want a camera that automatically tags photos with GPS coordinates. I’ve evaluated several cameras, but I like the Sony action cameras, like the Sony HDR-AS300/W or older model Sony HDR-AS200VR/W, for their reliability and image quality. They’re also tiny, lightweight, splash-proof, and they include a 1/4”-20 socket, which is compatible with standard photography tripods and mounts.
I guarantee you there is no problem with the size of my hands
When taking street-level photos, more is better. I set my cameras to record at 1 second intervals and face them front, back, left, and right. The best placement is high up on your vehicle, aimed as level as possible to the horizon and tilted slightly upwards to avoid including your vehicle in the frame.
Remember to also buy a memory card for each camera. The SanDisk 64GB microSD is enough to hold roughly 40,000 photos, so you won’t need to worry about running out of space or swapping cards. The Sony cameras optionally include a wireless “LiveView” wrist strap remote control that gives you a view of what the cameras see, and allows you to start and stop multiple cameras at the same time.
Wirelessly control your cameras with the LiveView remote
Suction cup mounts are quite sturdy. These mounts have a push button and lever arm to keep them mounted securely to any smooth surface. I’ve even seen them attached to racecars and airplane wings.
Suction cup mounts attach securely to any smooth surface
The Delkin Fat Gecko Single Suction Cup Mounts also have a standard 1/4” tripod thread and can support up to 4 pounds of equipment. This mount also includes a 4” extension arm, which raises the camera up a little bit higher above the vehicle. I’ve found this to be very helpful for seeing around traffic.
It’s not strictly necessary, but adding 1/4”-20 Black Stainless Steel hex nuts as spacers can ensure a better fit between the camera and mount. You can also buy them at a local hardware store.
A 1/4"-20 hex nut will ensure a better fit between the mount and camera
An action camera will only work for about an hour before the built-in battery runs out. I originally ran long USB cables from a cigarette lighter adapter to deliver power to my cameras on the roof. This was inconvenient, increased set-up time, prevented easy access to the passenger door, and the longest cables wouldn’t deliver enough power due to voltage drop.
Instead, I prefer to attach a small portable battery, like the RAVPower Portable 6700mAh Charger, to each mount. Then I use short cables, like the Raysun 6” Angled Micro USB Cable, to connect each camera to its battery.
This makes it much easier to mount the cameras to any vehicle. With 6700mAh of power, this battery will power your camera for about 10-12 hours.
I also found that the Raine Horizontal Knife Sheaths happen to be the right size to hold a battery onto the extension arm of the mount. These tactical pouches are sometimes also sold as flashlight or ammo holders, but any small weatherproof pouch that attaches horizontally to a belt will work here.
A battery tucked inside its sheath
Finally, if you have multiple cameras and batteries, it helps to have a charger that can supply a lot of power to your USB devices, like the AmazonBasics 6 port USB charger.
To protect my cameras from scratches, I slip Black Squid Microfiber Pouches over them when they’re not in use. These pouches are also useful for wiping down the lenses to keep them free of smudges and dust.
For longer storage or shipping, everything packs neatly into a professional padded camera bag. Bags like the Yaagle Camera Backpack have velcro dividers that can be arranged for a custom fit around your camera equipment.
Protect your gear with a camera bag like this one
While front-facing imagery offers the most important view of real world driving conditions, rear and side-facing imagery can be helpful too.
With 360° of coverage, you’ll spot even more features to add to OpenStreetMap: business names, parking restrictions, addresses, bus stops, vegetation, and street art. You’ll also see more street signs at intersections, and be able to map details about pedestrian or wheelchair accessibility.
When I want to mount extra cameras or other equipment to the top of a vehicle, a multi-camera rig lets me attach more things with less hassle.
The Desmond Dual Camera Bracket offers several standard 1/4”-20 attachment points for other equipment. Giottos Mini Ball Heads attach directly to the dual camera bracket and allow each camera to be positioned independently of the rig.
Take a virtual drive around San Francisco's Mission District with Mapillary
Want to know more about street-level photography, discuss camera gear, or share ideas about how to use this imagery to know more about the world? Reach out to me on Twitter and lets chat!