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April 17, 2007

Lights, Camera, Action!

Weatherproof cameras on board can make that once-in-a-lifetime fish more than just a memory

Despite all the electronics on board the average sport-fishing boat, it could still lack the singular piece of gear designed not only to make the act of fishing more fun, but to chronicle your anglers' heroics and the true size of the fish they're landing: a video camera.

The deck-mounted camera actually can serve another purpose beyond providing the proverbial 15 minutes of fame while maintaining the angler's veracity and memory: It can function as a safety item by providing literal eyes in the back of your head.

Fortunately, all this comes at a surprisingly affordable price, but unfortunately, it requires learning some new terminology before you decide that you oughta be in pictures.

Basics
Here is some simple camera jargon you'll encounter in camera specs:
• panning: the side-to-side movement of a camera
• tilting: the up-and-down motion
• zoom: the in-and-out (closer and farther away) movement

That said, virtually all the cameras in a "sane" price range are fixed-mount, requiring you to preset the camera to cover a specific area. Remote control for pan/tilt/zoom functions is available for some models.

You may also hear the term white balance on occasion, which is a simple adjustment of all the colors of the spectrum until they look natural and consistent. You'll see the letters NTSC and PAL, which represent the main video standards. The U.S., Canada and a few other places use the NTSC format. Composite and S-video mean single-cable installations; component means multi-cable (two or three).

You'll need to be aware of the type of connection that exists on the recording or viewing unit. Essentially all equipment that has video capability has an input socket; you'll need to ensure that the type of socket on your camera and the plug correspond.

The most common type of plugs you will encounter are RCA, BNC and RF and the pin serial connectors. The former three are essentially the same, consisting of one post in the center of the plug. Typically, these go into those red, white or yellow plug receptacles located behind virtually every piece of home-entertainment electronics you own. You undoubtedly have pin connectors on your computer's peripheral hardware hookups. Adapters allow you to connect RCA, BNF and RF connectors to one another (http://cinemasupplies.stores.yahoo.net/bncvidcon.html is a good source for adapters; if you're a gear junky, do not browse the site unless you wish to enter the film business). The bottom line: The input sockets on your chosen video display must fit the output socket of the camera.

Another term bandied about, CCD, means charged coupling device, the semiconductor that replaces the ancient vacuum tube in cameras. An image-sensing device, the CCD converts light coming through the lens into an electrical signal made of pixels. The more pixels, the better resolution and the sharper the image.

Then there are lines. Most everything you'll encounter in NTSC format has the same number of vertical lines (525 - about 80 percent of which contain the image, the remainder spacing). Any resolution lines you find advertised refer to the horizontal resolution the camera puts out - that is, the number of side-by-side dots/pixels within any one scan line. These literal lines make up the image - the more lines, the sharper the picture. Lastly is light measurement, usually expressed as the minimum light required for the camera to operate. Terms you may also encounter include lumen and lux, both interrelated (a lux equals one lumen per square foot; a lumen represents a measure of the perceived power of light). Again, the lower the rating, the darker the conditions in which the camera can "see."

Cameras
It's unlikely that you'll use any type of cameras on your boat besides CCTV (closed-circuit television) models. Choose units with aluminum housings to handle the abuses of sun, salt and water; this extends to the mounts as well, which you must install securely. Weatherproof color cameras that will fit the bill can be had for $100 to $200 (find black-and-white cams for as little as $80 online). But remember, weatherproof isn't waterproof, and minimally aboard a boat, you'll want waterproof cameras. The Raymarine Cam 100 (www.raymarine.com) and C-Map's C-Cam (www.c-map.com) represent examples of this type. My personal experience with the Cam 100 says that its ability to "see" even in the confines of an unlit engine room border on truly extraordinary.

SplashCam (http://splashcam.com) makes the DeckScan 20/20, a specific deck camera, in several versions. Its daylight- only cam comes in around the $300 mark, and others in the line extend to infrared cameras, dome cameras and units that can boost this project into the $1,500 range. The Discovery Channel series, The Deadliest Catch, which follows the participants of the Alaska crab fishery through a season, uses SplashCam cameras. So you can rest assured that if these cameras are capable of filming in the Bering Sea during a winter storm, chances are they'll be OK on your center console.

LathamCams (www.lathamcams.com), a Florida outfit, offers some of the widest variety of equipment aimed specifically at the sport-fishing market. If owner Mike Latham didn't invent the outrigger cam, he was certainly one of its earliest promoters. Although many of Latham's camera packages go to high-end sport-fishing battlewagons, at press time, he was in the process of putting together a package to sell for "around $1,000" that includes a camera and recording deck aimed at anglers fishing from center consoles of 30 feet and under.

Latham also sees a big market in deck-camera systems on the high-end, big-game tournament boats for which video confirmation of catch-and-release has become an increasingly common practice. His camera installations range to four-and-more cameras with sound systems in the $20,000-and-up category. But on a 61-foot fishing machine competing in a $500,000 billfish tournament, that's chump change.

Recording Decks
You've probably explained the necessity of having a deck cam to your significant other in order to keep a video image of all the fun the family has while boating. Ergo, merely having a video camera attached to a chart-plotter display doesn't quite fill the bill. Hence the recording deck.

Latham uses Sony decks that measure approximately 6 by 5 by 2 inches and that use mini-DV tapes (60 minutes standard and 80 minutes extended). He recommends using a deck that features remote-control capabilities. "There's enough going on during a bite, and everyone has a job to do," he says. "A simple on-off remote handles the job."

You'll encounter other means of recording the action - and reasons for a remote switch. As far as the latter is concerned, a video of three hours of trolling may not provide the most scintillating entertainment; shut off the recorder until there's a strike. As for other recording media, you can go straight to a hard drive if you have a computer system on board, or you can even record straight to a DVD.

Latham recommends the tape system because "the video gets heavily compressed on the DVD. Recording on a DVD makes it accessible for viewing, but puts it in a format that isn't very useful for editing."

The market boasts a wide variety of recorders available, and every day brings something newer, smaller and smarter. Regardless, you want something that will record, store and allow you to edit (via your computer and some inexpensive software).

Regardless, mount the recorder/playback deck out of the sun in an area as dry and cool as possible to prolong their life (but avoid keeping them in a chilly, air-conditioned salon). You can purchase waterproof cases for some models as well, though that's probably overkill if the recorder is properly located.

If you really want to go for bells and whistles, add sound to your recording. But if the original concept was to install a system that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg but that could chronicle your deeds with enough excitement to get you through the off-season, save the sound for when you graduate from Berkeley film school.