Gear Review—June 2009
Three Compact Video Cams
By Gary Luhm (photos by Gary Luhm)
Shooting video has never been as popular with sea kayakers as it has been with whitewater paddlers. They like the action, we like the stills that capture the panoramic scenery and the close-up portraits of sea critters. With the advent of tiny,waterproof cams like the ones reviewed here, all that may change. Little cams are popping up on sea kayakers’ decks and helmets, and sea kayaking video is migrating to YouTube. These video cams are unobtrusive, and they capture even the most tranquil of scenes with an immediacy that stills can’t. They’re simply fun. The waterproof versions are becoming commonplace with the rough-water paddlers at tide races, but they’re also capturing quiet lake paddles, wildlife encounters and especially the goofy people stuff like never before.
The three video cams here have plenty in common. Each is small, simple to operate and designed for action in wet environments. They all shoot AVI video at about 30 frame/sec, all with a good deal of jpeg compression. They each have a tiny LCD screen for selecting functions, but they don’t give you the ability to preview or review your shots.
Without giving the manuals more than a passing glance, I popped a Secure Digital (SD) card and batteries in each camera, pushed the ON button and then RECORD, and I was shooting video. The defaults for each camera are set to make a quick start possible. All were easy to rig to a helmet or kayak deck with the included attachments. I shot video with each in essentially identical situations while paddling on calm water, Eskimo rolling or riding a bike. For all testing, I did side-by-side comparisons. For the water shots I mounted the cameras to my helmet, all three at once, and then did the same for the bow and the near foredeck. I wore a 3mm neoprene glove to operate the controls—a ruthlessly high bar for testing such tiny cams. With all I used a card reader to upload the files to my computer. The GoPro and Oregon Scientific cameras were provided with A/V cables, so I was able to view their shots directly on my 19-inch, VGA-size TV.
Epic Action Sports Combo Kit $149
Pros: Simple 2-button control, waterproof in case to 20ft., accessories for helmet or bike cam, 5MP stills, light-weight, fair sound when not in case, informative beep signals, easy fit in a PFD pocket, picks up light changes quickly.
Cons: Soft plastic lens cover on waterproof case scratches easily and reduces contrast, little sound sensitivity while inside case, difficult to operate with gloved hands, no TV cable.
Equipped with an SD card, two AAA batteries, waterproof case, clip mount, Velcro strap and a foam saddle shaped to fit a bike tube, the Epic weighs in at 5 ounces. The clip mount can be attached directly to the camera or the waterproof case, and has a broad quick-release lever that’s easy to use. The foam saddle acts to secure the camera and dampen vibration. The lens has an aperture of f/2.8 with a 47° field of view (about a 50mm lens in 35mm format equivalent) and its fixed focus covers from one meter to infinity. Video resolution is 640×480 (VGA) or 320×240 (QVGA), at 30 frames/sec. It shoots stills at 5 MP, 3 MP or 640×480, and accepts SD cards up to 4 GB. The manual (eight pages each in English, French and Spanish) covers the operation. Two buttons control everything, allowing on/off, video or stills, quality selection and delete one or all. The battery warns if it’s getting depleted by emitting a long sound. The time remaining for video is indicated on the LCD when in default video mode. When the SD card fills, the LCD indicates FULL. The Epic comes with a USB cable, but I used a card reader for the SD downloads.
Outside of its case, the Epic camera itself is about the size of a D battery; its cylindrical, screw-on top case is not much bigger. Even with the mount and attachment strap, it fits easily in a PFD pocket. A rubber sleeve on the camera hides the SD slot, and a sliding door pops open to access the two AAA batteries. The supplied Velcro strap slips through slots on the mount and together they work well. The camera, by itself or in its case, slides neatly onto the mount.
On the Water
The camera beeps once when turned on, beeps once for a still picture and beeps twice when recording video. I could still hear the beeps when the camera was in the case, but with normal outdoor background noise this may be difficult. The buttons were easy to operate out of the case. I needed a fingernail to operate the buttons on the housing, but I could do it blind when the Epic was attached to the helmet. With a neoprene glove on, I had difficulty operating the buttons: out of the case was hard, in the case was unworkable.
Review and conclusion
The camera produced decent video with some grainy noise but little jpeg compression artifacts like blockiness and ragged edges. The light meter caught up almost instantly with changing light. The sound was fair when not enclosed in the case. When the camera was in the housing, the plastic cover reduced contrast and sound was very muffled. The plastic lens cover of the case also scratched easily, further reducing contrast. The 5 MP still pictures were fair quality, averaging about 550 KB, indicating a good deal of compression. The stills had noticeable noise in the shadows and, if the case was used, reduced image contrast. Epic didn’t supply a TV cable, only a USB, but I was able to view it anyway on TV by popping the SD card in one of the other cameras. Video looked very good without the case, with acceptable sound though the wind screamed a bit while on a bike ride.
Oregon Scientific ATC 3K $139
Pros: Fairly sharp video, high contrast makes image appear sharp, audible sound, recessed lens protects glass, tripod socket, good battery life, accessories for helmet or bike cam, camera can be rotated within mount.
Cons: Sound picks up static (but better than the others in case), icons are at edge of LCD and hard to read, water drops hang up in the recessed lens and distort image, metering not quick to pick up light changes, no stills.
The ATC 3K is a long, black cylinder that weighs 8 ounces including SD card and two AA batteries. Unlike the other two video cams that have housings, the ATC 3K itself is waterproof to 10 feet without a case. Mounts for handlebar and helmet, Velcro strap, silicone rubber head strap, USB and AV cables and silicon grease for the O-rings were all supplied. There is also a 1/4-inch tripod socket. The lens is well recessed, with a fixed focal length and 48° (48mm) field of view. Focus appeared to be good about one meter to infinity. A pair of O-rings seals the end cap, which unscrews for access to the SD card, batteries, plus USB and AV ports. Despite the meager 10-foot underwater rating, the seals looked and felt better than the others, certainly to withstand anything kayaking. Much of the black exterior is partly rubberized for shock-resistance. The camera is video only, no stills, recording at 640×480 (VGA) or 320×240 (QVGA), and 30 frames/sec. It has 32 MB of internal memory and accepts SD cards up to 4 GB. Released from the mount, the camera will fit in a PFD pocket. Three buttons on top provide control (on, record/menu change, menu scroll), and a tiny LCD screen indicates remaining video time, or can be used to scroll though the various options like resolution, sound (hi/low) or delete.
On the Water
The mount conveniently allows the camera to rotate fully in two directions, so you only have to get one plane right when mounting, and then can adjust for the other two. For example, it’s easy to mount it on either side of your helmet, or the top, with the camera pointing forward for recording. The camera snaps on the mount with a reassuring click and is disengaged by pinching two plastic levers. Holding down the ON button for two seconds starts it up to show video time remaining on a tiny LCD. Hold the center button two seconds to begin recording and, again, two seconds to stop. A third button scrolls through the menu icons, again beginning with a two-second hold to get started. I found the little LCD icons difficult to see unless I was in good light. Also, the two-second hold to start a video could seem like an eternity if you need both hands on the paddle.
The camera started up easily with bare hands, but with gloves on I had to be looking at the unit to be sure it turned on. Starting the video was the same, so when I operated the ATC 3K as a helmet cam I took the helmet off for start-up. Mounting on the helmet or deck was easy, but the mount surface wasn’t broad enough and I found I needed to stick in a wedge of foam sometimes to avoid a side-to-side shake, then compensate if it was out of square with a simple twist of the mount.
Review and Conclusions
Video quality was good, sharp and with excellent contrast, though with a fair amount of blockiness from jpeg compression. Connected to the TV, the image looked good as well. Unfortunately, after submersion from rolling, water tended to hang up in the camera’s recessed lens, greatly distorting the imaging. The light metering usually didn’t catch up with the video, so with a quick Eskimo roll, the underwater footage of the roll was all black (OK, so I roll pretty fast). The sound was fair, but distorted and tinny, and though better than the others in their cases, it still muffled voices unless they were quite close. Battery life outlasted the others, not surprising given the greater capacity of the AA batteries.
GoPro Helmet HeroWide 170° $189
Pros: 170° super-wide field of view for edgy, in-your-face video or stills; the ON button blinks red while recording video; timer function for 2- or 5-sec interval stills, picks up light changes quickly, accessory for helmet works for deck as well, operable with gloved hands.
Cons: Little sound gets picked up while the camera is in case, even when set to high; battery life is a bit short.
The GoPro Helmet HeroWide is a three-ounce, two-button, matchbox-sized camera with a protruding fisheye lens. It takes an SD card and two AAA batteries. The correspondingly small waterproof case is rated to 100 feet. Also supplied are helmet and headlamp-type straps and an assortment of mounts, arms, buckles and combo USB/RCA cable. The lens is a super-wide f/2.8 170° fisheye, with a fixed-focus range of about six inches to infinity. It shoots video at 512×384 size, a tad smaller than the others, and 5 MP stills. Weight for camera, case and strap and a couple attachment arms is about eight ounces. The camera may or may not fit in a PFD pocket, depending on which attachments are used. The camera has 32 MB of internal memory, and accepts SD cards up to 2 GB. Two buttons control the camera (power/mode, shutter). The power/mode button turns on the camera, and functions to move the camera between single shot, 2- or 5-second interval, three-shot sequence, video, 10-second self-timer and delete. The 3/4-inch LCD displays the mode, battery life and number of shots taken.
On the Water
The tiny camera fits snugly into its housing. A 3-inch-long plastic plate-mount with a slight bend nicely matches a helmet or kayak deck, and the 3/4-inch strap buckles it securely. A quick-release pops off the camera, though the attachment arms pop off as well. For a helmet cam I needed to add one to three arms (three for a side mount). Only one arm comes with the Hero. Additional arms to provide more flexibility in pointing the unit can be separately ordered. The ON button flashes red once when pushed for start-up. When the video START button is pushed to begin a video, the ON button flashes red on-and-off while recording. I found this very reassuring. I could also turn it on and shoot with gloved hands. A viewfinder can be used to aim the shot, but it doesn’t show the full field of view and is substantially blocked by the black lens ring on the case. The LCD info is displayed upside-down for easier wrist-mounted viewing.
Mounting on deck within arm’s reach takes advantage of the wide angle, and can get all of you in the frame despite the short distance. Subjects need to be fairly close to appear in the frame, or they’ll be quite small and blend into the background. Because the protruding fisheye of the case could get scratched, a soft bag would be prudent for stowage.
Review and Conclusions
Video quality was very good on the computer monitor, with some jpeg compression artifacts, and with fisheye-type lens distortions. Video was a quick setup for TV using supplied cables. The viewing was excellent, but the sound from when the camera was in the case had continuous background hiss and squeal, and was muffled even when set to high. Out of the case, the sound was good. The light meter quickly caught up with changing light. While rolling, a water drop often stuck annoyingly near the middle of the lens.
The 5 MB stills were crisp, averaged 950 KB with little noise or jpeg artifacts, but showed a purple fringing around the edges of the frame. The timer that takes stills continuously every three or five seconds is a winner. Set it to go and get picture after picture without taking your hand off the paddle.
The video cameras all work well, with a minimum of setup time and picture quality suitable for YouTube or better. The small size is great because it allows you to go about your activity with little intrusion. A few ounces on a helmet isn’t much of a burden, and when secured to the deck your main worry will be running short on batteries or memory. The gain that comes with tiny size and simplicity does come with a loss in feedback. Because no review is possible, you have to wait until you get home to see what you got.
A significant difference between these three cameras is the focal length of the lens. The GoPro model tested has a fisheye-wide view; the Epic and Oregon Scientific have a normal field of view. This is something of a personal choice, but if you’re shooting a lot solo, or like in-your-face, edgy video, the GoPro is a great choice, and I don’t think I’d tire of the extreme wide-angle. The more conventional view of the Oregon Scientific and Epic may be better for tracking other paddlers, especially if you want to remove yourself from the scene. GoPro does have a model with a field of view similar to that of the other two brands: the $139 Wrist Hero, a predecessor of which was reviewed by Sea Kayaker in Aug. ’07.
The GoPro wins the glove test, important for paddlers shooting in cold climates. It also was a winner with stills, because the picture quality is good and having a timer taking pictures at two- or five-second intervals is huge. Digital isn’t film, so having the timer take hundreds of images with one push of a button costs no more than the time you spend on your sorting the great ones. I like the GoPro flashing light for video as well. It can be seen at a distance and is very reassuring for self-portraits. The Epic wins for size easiest to fit in a PFD pocket. The Epic beep indicator is nice, and the video was good if not in the case. When compared in their cases, the Oregon Scientific had marginally better sound. It was also best for battery life, and the contrasty video has appeal. Image quality can be pretty subjective, though, so check for yourself at the Sea Kayaker website, where we’ve posted video from these three tiny cams.
Gary Luhm lives in Kirkland, Washington and has been an outdoor photographer for 11 years. He specializes in sea kayaking photography. His website is www.garyluhm.net.