The evolving camera landscape and our 2020 recommendations.
Mapillary is an idea that came to fruition during October in 2013. One of the captivating trends that excited Jan Erik, Johan, Peter, and Yubin (the founders), were the rapid improvements occurring in the smartphone industry. Millions of people around the world now had access to a decent camera, computing power, and a reliable internet connection through the phone they carried around in their pockets. The logical, but perhaps ambitious leap from there was that map data could be collected at scale using street-level images and computer vision. Indeed this is what we have since in the intervening years, with over a billion images uploaded to the platform from places as remote as Antarctica to places as dense as the streets of Mumbai.
We’re regularly asked about which camers we recommend in different scenarios. While the landscape is fast changing, we’d like to give you an update with the cameras in each category that we have found to be most reliable for street-level imagery collection. These recommendations come from our own testing and community feedback from many partners.
Smartphone ownership has increased dramatically over the last decade. Even low-middle countries have high rates of smartphone ownership. In fact the vast majority of people owning any type of phone in India and Brazil own a smartphone, as evidenced in this Deloitte analysis of consumer trends. This is something we have seen supported at Mapillary, where communities in countries around the world have been able to contribute imagery with their smartphones. They may not always be the latest iPhone, but even sub $100 USD Android smartphones can take decent quality geotagged images.
Supported use cases
The smartphone is the device you always have on you and so for this reason it’s often the best tool. You can take images while you walk or mount it to your windshield using a phone mount and the Mapillary app will make sure images are taken at a regular interval. You can then upload directly from the device without the need to transfer images to your laptop.
- Most people have one available at all times.
- Can run Mapillary software through Mapillary apps. No computer needed.
- GPS is substantially improved with multiple constellations and localisation options now available.
- High rate of capture on higher-end models.
- The form factor of most smartphones makes them less than ideal to mount to the front of a vehicle or your bicycle. They’re valuable and fragile which makes them less versatile than an action camera.
- Performance will vary greatly depending on the device. Higher-end devices will have better cameras, more accurate GPS, and faster processors, enabling them to capture images at a faster interval.
- Often you want to use your phone for other purposes. You won’t be able to use navigation features or take phone calls when you’re capturing Mapillary images.
- Battery drain can be significant when using camera and GPS at the same time, but this is not a problem when driving and charging at the same time.
- Harder to edit the images later if you want to transfer them to a computer.
- Increasing trend for phones to have built-in storage rather than expandable slots.
iPhone 6 and above for iOS. Google Pixel 3 and above or Samsung Galaxy 8 and above for Android.
Dash cameras are solely suitable for use in a vehicle. Whether you’re operating your own personal vehicle or a fleet of vehicles, dashcameras are practical because they are already setup and most turn on when you start the engine. This means you can capture street-level imagery with minimal effort and upload when you have driven areas needing new coverage.
Supported use cases
You’ll only be using a dashcamera when it’s mounted to the front and/or rear of your vehicle. Some dashcameras have also been mounted successfully to side-facing windows, but they’re not designed for this purpose.
- Ready to go as soon as you start the vehicle.
- Semi-permanent mount so you do not need to spend time assembling/disassembling.
- Dual purpose. Can also help you if you’re in an accident.
- High frame rate as dash cameras will be recording video.
- Image quality is often reduced by windshield glare, obstructions, and sensor performance in high contrast environments.
- The MicroSD card needs to be removed and inserted into your computer to upload the images.
- Many dash cameras record in a proprietary format. Make sure that the camera you select can export common video files like .mp4 and .avi easily.
- GPS accuracy can vary and is usually a feature in higher-end models only.
- Night time imagery will need to be removed before upload.
Blackvue DR900s. Both 1-CH and 2-CH models are suitable. The latter records both front and rear facing imagery.
Action cameras are the most versatile type of camera available for street-level imagery. They are designed to be rugged and their form factor means they can be adapted for use in different scenarios. The ease with which you can start and stop capture is another major benefit.
Supported use cases
Driving, walking, cycling, skiing, water craft.
Action camera will work in almost any street-level image capture scenario you have in mind. As long as you have somewhere you can mount it that provides an unobstructed, fixed field of view.
- Versatile mounting/usage options.
- Easy to start and stop capture.
- High resolution imagery on top models.
- Wider field of view than most smartphones/dash cameras.
- Batteries can be quickly swapped out if you have spares.
- Higher-end model is needed to get GPS and high resolution images.
- Software is rarely optimised for street-level imagery. A model with time-lapse photo mode that can record GPS is preferable.
- GPS is not as accurate as smartphones which have additional localisation methods.
- Battery life can be limited, particularly in colder weather.
GoPro Hero 9 Black
360º cameras have improved dramatically since Mapillary began. Earlier 360º cameras were usually expensive and in exchange you got poor resolution, very low FPS, and hard to use software. Luckily times have changed and we’ve seen major improvements in all these areas from consumer grade 360º cameras through to professional surveying equipment. We’re going to focus on consumer grade 360º cameras because we’ve tested them more extensively and it’s the camera that most of our contributors are interested in.
A 360º camera creates the most immersive street-level imagery experience and the one that most people are hoping for. This generally means that more map data can be collected over a given distance, whether it’s being extracted automatically by Mapillary or manually labelled by a human viewing the image.
Supported use cases
Driving, walking, cycling, skiing, watercraft.
Our recommended camera is the GoPro Max. GoPro was the company that got the whole action camera market going, and so it’s good to see the 360º cameras from GoPro retaining this in their DNA. The most common use case would be mounting the 360º camera above your vehicle. The GoPro Max can be safely mounted with a mount that has 3 points of contact or a mount that connects directly to roof racks. But the real advantage of 360º cameras are scenarios like walking and cycling where the 360º field of view helps to offset the reduced stability when you’re walking or cycling.
- Immersive viewing experience once the images are uploaded.
- More map data collected due to 360º perspective.
- Streets only need to be driven in one direction.
- Stability of the camera is less important with a 360º image.
- They’re still expensive for most consumers.
- Frame rates are still lower than other options when it comes to still images.
- Large file sizes make storage and upload more complicated.
- Larger field of view may result in unwanted objects in the image such as the roof of your car.
- The resolution on 360º cameras is still not as sharp as action cameras and smartphones which can make it harder to discern fine details at a distance like house numbers and street names.
The camera landscape continues to evolve and our recommended camera models will change, but our thinking on different camera types will likely remain true for a while. We'd love to hear your thoughts on hardware and which cameras you have found suitable for different use cases. The Mapillary Worldwide Facebook group is a great place to continue these conversations.