In Action With Action Cams

action cams

They re small, tough and surprisingly affordable —digital video/still action cams can go where conventional cameras can t in order to record extreme footage. Motorcycle road-tester Nigel Paterson is a convert and explains how they work and what s available.

It doesn t seem so long ago that the minimum requirement for creating a decent photograph was a 35mm SLR and a proficient operator. These days, if you believe the marketing hype, you could grab a Pulitzer Prize winner by strapping an action cam to your helmet or handlebars.

The reality is somewhat different though —a good operator can capture awesome footage and images, but be ready for a learning curve before you see the invite to the awards ceremony. Action cams is the generic term for the rugged, ultra-compact digital hybrid video/still cameras which are now available in a bewildering variety of shapes, brands and styles. However, most models have a few things in common apart from being extremely small —high definition video recording, automated stills capture and a wide selection of systems for mounting in places where conventional cameras won t go are among the good features. On the downside are the tiny sensors, extreme wide-angle lenses and slow bit rates when shooting video. What this means is that a compact action cam is very much an additional tool to your D-SLR or conventional video camcorder rather than a replacement. Although these action cams have been around in various forms for nearly a decade, their popularity has soared over the last couple of years. The breakthrough was the combination of delivering a video image quality good enough for broadcast television (which it is, if the action is fast and furious) and reaching a price where basically everyone who wants one can afford one (i.e. under $500). Another reason for the growing popularity of action cams is YouTube because here you could upload your action movies for free and show them off to the world.

It s All In The Angles

Most action cams capture a fish-eye view of the world at around 170 degrees. This is a lot wider than even a 16mm ultra-wide lens on a D-SLR with a 35mm-sized sensor, and it means if you want a foreground subject to actually be bigger than a speck in the frame, you need to be very close.

This is great for seeing a slice of the helmet the camera is attached to (if that s what you want), but it makes it hard to shoot other people, other cars or other bikes. Not impossible, mind you, but sometimes difficult.

However, the fish-eye angle-of-view is needed for capturing the action because otherwise a lot of it would be missed. Apart from attaching an action cam to a helmet and following what s going on with your eyes, you don t compose the shot. Instead, you take the shot to the action by attaching the camera to a roll cage, handlebars, windscreen, surfboard or, in reality, virtually anything that moves through the air, on water or on land.

Stills And Video

As a publisher, I was hoping the action cams I purchased would be useful not just for taking onboard video (the primary reason for buying them), but also for capturing stills we could publish in Cycle Torque, the motorcycle magazine I run. Alas, I have never printed a still image from any action cam because I really donlike the highly distorted fish-eye effect so bear this in mind if your primary objective is shooting stills.

action cams

We use the onboard video from these cameras with every motorcycle we test because it s a great way to let readers get a bit of a feel for what it s like to ride these machines. Combined with publishing Cycle Torque for the iPad (http://itunes.com/apps/cycle-torque), action cams are now an essential part of the equipment list for a shoot.

The fish-eye effect looks absolutely fine in a video taken while riding through insane Vietnamese traffic, flying high over the jumps on a motocross bike or racing around a MotoGP track, but the stills only look good if you like a very wide-angle view and the subject is suitable.

One other thing to keep in mind here, though, is that a fish-eye lens for your D-SLR is likely to cost considerably more than any action cam. The action cam will also undoubtedly be lighter and smaller, easier to mount and much less of a disaster if the worst happens and it somehow comes to grief. Consequently, having one in the camera bag for those times when your widest lens doesn t even come close to being wide enough might just be a godsend.

Modes And Control

Action cams can shoot in a number of modes, starting with video in various quality levels and frame rates and stills in burst mode (lots of frames in a short period) or timed exposures (i.e. captured at preset intervals).

The Holy Grail of video quality is 1080p, known as Full High Definition or simply Full HD. This means there s 1080 lines of pixels on the vertical edge, and it s widescreen in picture format (the 16:9 aspect ratio). This footage looks awesome on the flat screen TV in your loungeroom, but if youactually more interested in putting the video up on YouTube, you can choose the 720p mode which is still high definition, but now you can shoot at 50 fps (frames per second) instead of 25 fps. This gives you more scope for recording slow motion sequences.

Generally, stills are shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Some cameras will offer a narrower angle or  digital telephoto  shot at a lower megapixel count, but be aware that this usually means it s simply cropping the image in-camera and so you re just losing pixels (there isn t an optical zoom). Unless you re worried about space on the memory card, just shoot wider and crop later.

Each action cam has a slightly different set of options when it comes to control over exposure. Some have a spot metering mode and others an exposure compensation system. Whatever they use, the basics are fully automatic. You can t set the ISO. Focus is fixed, but as the lens is so wide and the sensor so small, the depth-of-field effectively extends from just a few centimetres in front of the lens to infinity.

 action cams have

Mounting

The different brands of action cam also have different mounting systems. While you can t quite mount anything anywhere, you can certainly come close with some of the accessories that are available.

There are helmet mounts, surfboard mounts, suction caps, handlebar mounts, chest harnesses and wrist straps and... in fact, if you can think of an action sport, there s probably a mount for it.

And then the are the third-party suppliers such as Ram Mounts. Ram is an American company which makes mounts for everything from laptops to iPads to iPhones and, of course, action cams. I have some Ram Mounts which are excellent —in particular, a G-clamp which can clamp onto anything remotely tubular. Ram Mounts employs a ball-and-socket design so photographers familiar with ball-type tripod heads will come to grips with them very quickly. In fact, I often use a small ball head with the Ram Mounts to get action cams located in exactly the right spot.

I ll also make specific mention here of the Drift action cameras which not only have a built-in tripod screw (which is very handy), but they also have a rotating front lens which makes alignment so much easier than trying to get, for example, a boxy GoPro camera perfectly level.

On smooth surfaces you can use the stick-on mounts. I regularly use them on the sides of motorcycles and helmets. Obviously, the handlebar mounts are perfect for pushbikes and motorcycles.

With a bit of practice, you can position an action cam without needing a viewfinder or preview screen, but they sure do make it easier. Many action cams don t have a screen, but the Drift and the GoCam do, and the GoPro has one which is an optional extra. Just launched is a Wi-Fi back from GoPro which will let you preview the image on a smartphone or a tablet. The Wi-Fi BacPac for the HD Hero cameras supports iOS4 and Android 2.2+, enabling live streaming of video.

Audio

 front lens

If you re shooting video, never underestimate the importance of audio —try watching a sporting event on TV with the sound turned down if you don t believe me. Most action cams actually capture action audio reasonably well, but there are ways to improve this too.

The best option is to use an external microphone, but to do this the action cam will need to have an audio input. Even a cheap external microphone —which will only cost around $20 —tucked out of the wind will make a huge difference to the quality of your video s sound.

Which One?

The major brands in the action cam sector are GoPro, Drift and Contour, but there are many smaller players and among these are some interesting products. For example, the GoCam from Optex (see side panel) which is waterproofed and has a built-in LCD monitor.

GoPro is arguably the best-known brand and is widely used by video pros in, for example, the making of TV documentaries. The latest model, the HD Hero2, produces great video, excellent audio (especially if you use an external microphone) and has a huge array of mounts, cases and accessories available for it.

The Drift cameras have a built-in monitor, a mic input socket, a tripod screw fitting and a rotating front lens. The Contour cameras are distinguished by their cylindrical  lipstick  design and are available with some really handy features like a GPS receiver (in the GPS and Plus models), so it really does pay to do your research before purchasing.

A new brand which is making waves in the dirt bike world is Liquid Image which has built a Full HD camera into a set of goggles. I m sure this would also be great for applications such as ski-ing and bicycling, too.

When it comes to the price, don t forget to allow for the mounts and accessories —such as an underwater housing —that you might need. Some are provided as standard, but many are optional extras.

Conclusion

Action cams can be a great addition to your camera bag, but like so many accessories, they are only any good if you learn to use them properly. They are unlike any camera you ll have used before. I was put off for years by the lack of manual controls and a viewfinder, for a start. These days, however, these mini digital cameras can capture images and footage which would have been almost impossible to shoot just a few years ago, and they can do it remarkably easily and cheaply too.

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