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Action cameras: a user's overview

  • 2/16/2017 3:36:00 PM
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By Kip Ladage
From the January/February 2017 issue of 
Iowa Outdoors magazine
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Walk through many outdoor stores and videos are playing non-stop—skiers in powdery snow on a mountaintop, divers swimming in crystal clear water or incredible views of wildlife from unusual perspectives. The videos are outstanding and help sell action cameras. But, for the ordinary person, do the cameras justify the expense? Are the cameras worth the trouble? What should you look for in an action camera?

What you need to know about action cameras to capture all your outdoor adventures | Iowa Outdoors magazineI wondered the same when I was in the market for an action camera—would I use it and how would I use it? At one point I bought one, but took it back, unopened. I didn’t think I would use it enough to justify the cost. Not long after, I received a GoPro camera as a gift. Now that I have one, I really like it. The tiny camera has really expanded my photography options.

So here is an overview from a real user. I’ll share the good points, the not so good things and the challenges I have faced. While this article references my experience with a GoPro camera, this is not an endorsement for GoPro equipment.

Video Quality
Action cameras produce very high quality videos. In fact, Hollywood and producers of nature programs have recognized the video quality coming from these tiny cameras. Video of big-game animal stampedes are produced with tiny action cameras. For video of dangerous situations, videographers put an action camera nearby to record it. The output of today’s action cameras even suits today’s high-definition production demands.

For average users, the wide range of video quality settings can be overwhelming. Knowing which frame rate or format to use can be very confusing. For beginners, your camera should record, at a minimum, 1080p video at 30 fps (frames per second). Video formats exceeding 1080p are used for high quality video productions. For general use, 1080p will be fine and looks great on high definition screens.

A good action camera is designed for abusive situations. Impacts, vibration, dust and wet environments all challenge the delicate lenses and electronics of small action cameras. My preference is for cameras with a separate housing. Housings offer extra protection. While separate housings protect the cameras from exposure to the elements, they do require attention and come with trade-offs. Be sure to watch the seal on the waterproof back. A noticeable drawback of the GoPro housing is that when using the waterproof back, the audio quality suffers since the microphone is covered. I have found no way to improve audio quality when using the waterproof back.

Video Sensitivity
While action cameras of all brands shoot pretty good video, realize they are not up to par with higher dollar video production cameras. Often, what action cameras lack in video sensitivity can be addressed, to a certain extent, using video editing software. More on that later.

Most popular action cameras offer multiple settings for field of view. Field of view is how wide (or narrow) your camera sees. For example, GoPro camera users select from wide, medium and narrow fields of view. A wide field of view allows users to take in the scene from directly in front of the camera to a long distance on either side. This option is great for scenic videos. But, that wide angle view comes with a caveat. Image content that normally is straight (canoe paddles, fishing rods, shotgun barrels, trees, buildings, etc.) will likely appear abnormal with very noticeable curves.

Medium and narrow settings provide a much more “normal” view. As their name implies, both settings show progressively less on either side, creating the appearance of being closer.

Simultaneous Video and Photo Mode or Frame Grabs
Still Photos

Most people buy action cameras to record video. You might be surprised to learn the handy little cameras also shoot acceptable still photos. (Don’t expect DSLR quality images, but do plan on pleasing images under the right conditions.) All photos for this article (except for the camera image below) were shot with my GoPro camera and processed as I do image files from my Nikon DSLR.

What to know about action cameras | Iowa OutdoorsOne of the most useful capabilities of action cameras is the ability to record still images while also shooting videos. I typically have my camera shooting a still image every 10 seconds when videos are being recorded. With a bit of post-processing, still images shot with an action camera can look quite good. In fact, the files look so good that anytime I am in wet environments, my GoPro is exposed to the elements for imaging while my Nikon is safely tucked away and protected.

In the event your action camera does not have the simultaneous video and photo mode option, your video editing software may allow you to export a single frame of video. I have not found that feature as practical as recording still images when recording video, but it is an option if you forget to use the simultaneous video and photo mode feature or if your camera does not have it.

Video Flip
Sooner or later you may want to use your action camera underwater. If you mount it on a long handle for shooting video under your boat, or beside your kayak, or down your ice fishing hole, you will want to use the “video flip” option. That feature causes the camera to shoot everything upside down and allows you to avoid having 
to correct the video in editing software.

GoPro cameras do not have a built-in viewfinder. Users aim the cameras and hope for the best. When you adjust the field of view, without a viewfinder, things get real interesting. An optional touchback viewfinder is available and works well. A “Touch BacPac” viewfinder connects to the back of some camera models and provides an electronic viewfinder and touchscreen control for the camera. Or, you can control the camera wirelessly using your smartphone as a viewfinder with a free phone app. Whether you add the touchback finder or go wireless with your phone, your battery will not last nearly as long. I make it a practice to use a viewfinder display for my initial set-up and then turn the viewfinder off until it is needed again.

Mount Options
The purchase of an action camera is only the beginning of your video making efforts and expenses. You will quickly find a desire to mount the camera on bicycle handlebars, your chest, helmet, windshield, shotgun or just about anything else you wish to use to capture your moments. Action camera manufacturers have an endless variety of mounts and accessories available. Third party mounts and accessories are also available, often at a lesser price. If you are handy with tools, you can make some mounts yourself and save considerable money.

One accessory that should be a priority is a safety tether. A simple safety tether may mean the difference between dropping your camera to the bottom of a lake or catching it before it is gone. Add a safety tether and use it!

Video Editing Software
Action cameras often come with video editing software. Some software is more user-friendly than others. An interesting feature for GoPro cameras is “Protune.” Protune, when used while shooting, allows users to adjust video/photo settings as the recording is being made, similar to manual mode on a standard camera. Protune used in the video editing software (GoPro Studio) provides a one-button adjustment that dramatically improves video quality by adjusting contrast, color saturation and sharpness.

Other options for video editing, often with fewer capabilities, are programs that come standard with computers. For many of my videos I use GoPro Studio software to assure the levels and sharpness are what I desire. I then export each video clip to a folder. From there I use other software to edit the final video together.

Other Uses
Use a tiny GoPro camera to shoot videos and still images where a typical camera is not practical, such as taking close range video of birds at feeders while remotely controlling the camera. My videos do not yet compare to National Geographic-type videos, but they are better than expected. More importantly, the wildlife was not disturbed by the little camera hidden nearby.

Since the cameras are typically “worn” and not held, maintaining a horizontal horizon is an ongoing effort. Monitor the position of the camera and adjust as needed. It may be necessary to correct positioning issues in editing software.

Water drops, while adding to the reality of images, can ruin interesting videos. When shooting in wet environments, periodically wipe water from the lens. Apply Rain-X or a similar anti-beading solution to the camera housing lens to prevent water spots from forming when using your camera in rain or water. When Rain-X is not available, periodically licking your lens is a good backup solution. I have tried it and it works.

Action cameras are a great tool for recording your adventures. Whether you relive your fond memories or share them with others, today’s cameras make the process relatively simple. With so much capability and an endless list of mount options, nearly anyone can make great quality videos. Go ahead…start recording your adventures and share your fun.