I am new to videos, only having started shooting and editing videos this year. I have no aspirations to produce professional quality videos–my efforts are limited to short snippets uploaded to the web via Vimeo. During the ski season I became interested in point-of-view (POV) videos after having seen some fine efforts from a friend who, among other things, skied off the iconic Vancouver mountain landmarks known as the Lions. Until my recent interest in POV videos, I had been shooting videos with a Canon G10, then with a Panasonic Lumix FX-35. I started researching POV cameras. I wanted something simple, that could be operated without many controls, without wires and that was robust. Because I didn’t know whether my interest in videos (or specifically POV videos) would be enduring or fleeting, I also didn’t want to invest a lot of money in a system.
Ultimately I settled on a GoPro Helmet Hero Wide, in large part due to a breathtakingly thorough review by Brian Mullins at MTBR.com. When I started using the GoPro I realized that it was a very customizable system that invited lots of tinkering with different mounts and setups. I looked around for setup help, but didn’t find much information. Although there are many reviews of the GoPro many are either superficially banal with a paucity of information about setup and/or real-life use or are targeted at other sports or activities. Many of the biking oriented reviews are geared to tips for cross-country flat trails (the camera orientation of the GoPro is crucial to taking decent video).
The purpose of this article therefore is not to duplicate the technical information available on the GoPro site or to discuss how to operate this wonderful little camera. There are already resources on the web discussing these topics and I point to that further in the article. The purpose is to point out some quirks of the GoPro Hero Wide camera and to detail some personal setups that I found worked for steep trails
GoPro Form-factor and Portability
As previously stated the GoPro is small. It’s also light. If you wear it on your head or on a helmet you’ll notice it for a bit of time but you will get used to it quickly. You’ll soon learn to duck under branches. Even if you do hit branches or fall on your head (I did this skiing not biking), that waterproof case is tough and you’d be hard-pressed to break the camera.
The GoPro comes with several kits and different mounts and straps you can use to customize the way in which you wear the camera and thus, shoot video. I found that the Helmet Hero kit was useful for biking. I also wanted the Chesty harness as I wanted to use the camera for skiing, windsurfing and surf-kayaking and would be moving the camera around between different pieces of sporting equipment, helmets and other miscellany. The GoPro has several mounts which you can stick on various surfaces (eg a bike suspension fork, ski topsheets, the tip of a surfboard, the mast of a windsurfer) but, anticipating that I would want to be able to move mounts around, I hoped that the Chesty would give me the most flexibility. This turned out to be correct as the Chesty is a must-have, not only for biking but for other sports (more on its uses later).
GoPro Camera Usability
You can operate the GoPro with light gloves. Heavy gloves (like the kind you wear skiing or riding in winter) won’t work. There are only two buttons to push – one button turns it on and off. The other button starts and stops recording. There’s a blinking red LED which tells you whether or not the camera is on. A LCD screen displays some information. It really couldn’t get any simpler. Simple is good.
You don’t have a display to show recording output, or lasers to indicate where the camera is pointed. Undoubtedly all that would add weight and cost. As I said, simple is good.
GoPro User’s Manual
The manual could use some work. It does the job in explaining basic operation of the camera but does miss some important points. Some of these points and/or troubleshooting tips are on the GoPro site itself. I’ve identified some basic operator errors of which you should be aware below. To be clear, these are just mistakes I made after reading the manual carefully. This does mean that these are my fault. They also do mean that, in my opinion these are mistakes you, the gentle reader, could also easily make.
Possible issues and fixes
As I said earlier, first read the manual then read the Troubleshooting tips and FAQ if you have issues. Here are undocumented issues I encountered:
Tip #1: Insert USB card so it is flush with the camera body
The GoPro Wide uses a SD card as a recording device. I inserted the SD card so it was sticking out of the camera. It takes a bit more pressure to insert the card so it’s flush with the camera. Not wanting to break anything delicate, I didn’t insert the card far enough. A long fingernail or a blunt object will do the trick. Getting the SD card out is the process in reverse – ie pressure the card so it clicks and comes out. Here is the email in this regard from the very attentive, patient and responsive GoPro support:
Is the camera powering off when inserted in the case? Are you unable to power it back on when in the case?
If so, it could be that you are not inserting the SD card in far enough for it to properly lock into place. You really need to use your fingernail to push the card in past flush until you hear a clicking sound. Here is a quick instructional on correct insertion and removal of the card:
You want to look at the camera with the lens facing up and ‘HERO’ logo on the bottom right…
Insert the memory card with the metal contacts going into the slot first and facing up at you. In other words the SD card label should be upside down when you insert it this way. You need to push the card in past flush to have the spring mechanism lock the card into place.
To get the card out of the slot, push the card in past flush and then the spring mechanism will release it. You will hear a click when the card locks into place or is released from the slot.
Tip #2: Delete all files and format card
As a closet computer nerd, I’m embarrassed that I made this mistake but I’ve found that others have done the same thing so it’s time to confess. After you delete files off the SD Card either make sure the trash bin on your desktop is dumped or that you format the card. Mac and Linux fans I know you are the elite so you are on your own. An excrutiatingly patient email from GoPro is reproduced below:
It sounds like you don’t have all of the memory available on the card which is why recording is being stopped.
Sometimes mystery data can be taking up space on the SD cards while still registering 0 files, so please check under properties (PC) or disk utilities (mac) to see how much memory is available. If there is not enough available memory, you will need to reformat the card in order to free up the space.
If you are using a Mac to download and delete files, make sure you delete the files from the memory card AND the trash can before you disconnect the camera from the computer. If you do not do a complete delete, then the card will show ‘0′ files but the space will not actually be cleared. Again, you will need to reformat the card if it was not fully cleared.
Tip #3: Perform an occasional hard reboot of camera
Sometimes, the GoPro won’t turn off and stop recording even though you have lots of memory. I don’t know why. It’s an electronic device and I’m not about to disassemble it and find out. The fix is easy; just take it out of the casing and pop out the batteries. Then put the batteries back in and turn it on. Voila.
Camera Mount Settings
Despite its ease of use there is a learning curve with the GoPro and hopefully this article will reduce the time of that curve. The issue is that it’s not possible to check video results without downloading results back to a computer and viewing. Since most of us don’t pack a mobile video viewing device on our bike rides this might mean that you have unusable video of the sky, or someone’s back tire but no face or of one’s own crotch. It takes some time to figure out how to orient the GoPro. Once you figure that out you have to remember the orientation. There are no markings on the various GoPro mounts. You could score the mount with a knife but putting in markings would be a simple fix.
Go Pro Battery Life
In summer temperatures using NiMH batteries charged on a TENERGY smart charger I got 2.2 – 2.5 hours of battery run-time out of the camera. Battery life wasn’t as good when temperatures were cold and some reviewers who provided data on a MTBR thread with some real-life examples of battery life discussion revealed battery lives of 10 minutes in 20-degree F temps. As another data point, other people in that same thread agreed on the 2 hours or greater battery life with some confirming that the GoPro recommendation of (relatively pricy) Lithium Ion batteries for even longer life had merit.
One other user of the GoPro has been able to use the camera for 30 minutes (could possibly have been longer but he turned it off) in 20 degree F temperatures by placing a hand-warming packet to the underside of the housing.
A Word on File Storage
As previously stated the GoPro uses SD cards to store data. While GoPro recommends using a 2GB card, they are to be shortly (I don’t know the date yet) releasing a firmware upgrade that will allow one to use a 4GB SDHC card and later a 8GB card. I’ve received and used the new firmware and it works fine for 4GB and even 8GB cards. With the price of cards dropping all the time you might as well buy and use a 8GB card and stay ahead of the curve. A 2GB card will store about 54 minutes of video – double that for a 4B card and double that again for a 8 GB card.
Go Pro Video Quality
Turning now to possibly the most important quality of the GoPro, its video output is good. Video quality itself is acceptable. In particular, the GoPro’s output suffers in low light (despite the f2.8 lens), and in mixed light and shadow where the video output’s white balance tends to be blown out. Video itself tends to be quite pixelated especially so in low or mixed light situations. “Video is recorded at 512×384 at 30 frames per second” per specifications; expect TV output to be mediocre. However, video quality uploaded to the web to be shared remotely is more then adequate for my (admittedly moderate) standards.
The wide angle reduces the jitteriness sometimes associated with narrow angle field of view POV cameras. It would be nice to have image stabilization but jitteriness can also be reduced by simply getting used to consciously holding one’s head (or chest) still while following a rider. Having said that, on rough or rooty technical trails it’s going to be difficult to get a smooth video stream. Also a rider must be really close to you and even then they’ll look like they’re pretty far away – such are the attributes of a fisheye lens
Video below is an example of the GoPro’s quality in mixed light. Both angles were with the Chesty mount. It was rendered in Quicktime at 640×480 @ 25 frames per second. Video size is approx 30mb for 3:01 length.
Video below was encoded using the same settings but is mostly in brighter sunlight or under canopy without as much mixed sun and shade. Image quality is better. Video size is approx 43 mb at 4:12 length.
Sound quality, or the lack thereof, is the Achilles heel of the GoPro. There are two settings LO and HI. Even with the rubber gasket removed and a hole drilled in the housing, voices still end up sounding like Donald Duck and sounds are muted. That’s the downside of a bombproof, well-sealed tight, camera-protective housing. Here is the advice from GoPro about how to drill out the housing from the MTBR Videos forum (I confirmed that GoPro endorses this mod). Picture below illustrates further.
On the LO setting you get nothing, and on the HI setting not much more inside the case.
My first step was to complain to the GoPro manufacturers who were very helpful. They first told me to try with the seal off which I did. This worked reasonably well on HI (still not much on LO) but gave a lot of wind noise and the volume was still quite low.
I posted my videos on YouTube and got the manufacturers to watch. The next thing they told me was that, as long as I’m not ever wanting to submerge, I could drill out the case with a small drill. But they told me specifically where to do this. It is in the back, top left where there is a circle moulded into the plastic case. This position is they say the best due to the location of the mic and the integrity of the case.
This worked much better, on HI (still no good on LO) but the recording sounded like the end of a tunnel. Next step I enlarged the hole to about an eighth of an inch. This was the best result yet. However, when the camera is turned so that the hole is not shielded from the wind, you get bad wind noise that overloads the camera electronics and sounds like really loud static. Next I tried some foam inside by the hole. Not much better but a slight improvement with the static. I reckon this is the best I’m going to get.
The next logical step is to make the hole bigger – say a quarter inch, and use the LO setting, but I haven’t done that yet. (You can always tape up the hole if the sound gets too loud I figure, but these steps are not reversible )
Whatever you do, DON’T try to drill out a hole above the mic. As this is on the top, I guarantee you will get horrendous wind noise (if you ride fast) which will overload the electronics causing very bad static noise.
Recommended Video Editing Tips
Finally, at the undoubted risk of exposing my ignorance and displaying my biases, I’ll say a few words about videos. Here are some tips:
- Try to include some different perspectives. Mix up Helmet, Stem, Reverse and maybe some footage from stationary observers
- Short is better than long. Some have said 1 minute. Personally I find 3 minutes is about right. I violate this rule all the time of course and will plead that when it’s videos for the benefit of friends that I put in as much footage as possible to keep them happy.
- Videos look better when either you’re chasing someone or someone is chasing you. It’s nice to have some other person in the frame.
- Videos of climbs are boring (I say this as a former shaved-legs bib short-wearing xc racer). 15 seconds of downhill trumps 15 minutes of video footage of sweaty climbs.
- Everyone will criticize your music so don’t worry about that. Unless you like Zamfir with the pan-flute.
- Use whatever software you need so that you’ll actually make those videos. I know someone with 12 hours of video on their POV that they bought last winter. They bought the horrifically bloated Adobe Premier Elements. I’m sure this is wonderful software if you want to work for Pixar or have unlimited time to play with buggy, bloated , take-over-your computer overloaded functionality crapware (sarcasm intended) but maybe stick to something that’s adequate for its intended purpose and won’t give you a raging migraine as soon as you look at its user interface.
- If you have a GoPro, your raw footage is not going to be the highest quality. Accept that and embrace the concept of quick, easy workflow video editing. My personal choice is the free Windows Movie Maker. I recently bought AVS4You which has slightly more functionality and will read not just the GoPro .avi formats but also Apple’s Quicktime format and most importantly is easy to use.
Most Useful Camera Mounts
I found the Chest Mount to be the most useful. It can be worn conventionally or worn in reverse. Either way it’s a tough one to get right at first. Most first efforts are (in my opinion) aimed too low or move around too much. Personally I like the Chesty’s camera angles because it shows the front tire (unlike the stem or handlebar mount). I also like seeing the rider’s arm movements and proper positions so you can see the rider’s efforts on technical sections. Here are some tips on how to use the Chest Mount.
Tips when worn on the chest:
- Get a friend to watch you seated on the bike and ensure that, in riding position, the camera is pointed ahead.
- Remember that you are riding downhill and that the rider ahead will be below you. I found that if the camera was “just right” that it probably wasn’t a bad idea to move the camera up on your chest.
- Tighten the straps. That camera should be sitting in the middle of your chest. It should be tilted to its maximum- basically flat against the hard plastic chest plate.
- If your pack has a sternum strap put that strap under the camera. It keeps it from flapping in front of the lens and also helps keep the camera from being knocked around or creeping down your chest.
- Obviously make sure your Camelback hose isn’t flapping away in front of the stem
- I tried flipping the camera upside down on the chest mount and recording the video upside down (you can alter this video setting with the GoPro). It works on moderate trails but on steep downhills or on drops if you have a riding style where you get low on the bike (like myself) you’ll bounce your chest and the GoPro off your seat and alter the camera’s orientation.
This will only work on low profile packs. Packs with protruding bulges don’t do very well with this mount as the camera will sit awry.
All you have to do is flip the Chesty over and wear it so the camera is pointing backwards. I’m almost always using a pack when free-riding or downhilling, I put the Chesty over the pack. I’ve found that the pack actually seems to absorb some vibration and impact so that the footage is relatively smooth. The fisheye wide-angle also amplifies the feeling of speed.
Tips for reverse Chesty:
- Ensure that any dangly pack bits aren’t in front of the camera lens.
- I found that the best position is somewhere in the mid-point of the pack. Too high and you’ll see the pack itself. Too low and the chesty straps will constrict your neck. You should loosen the straps if you’ve been using the Chesty conventionally as it’ll be a tight fit worn over a pack
- The camera should be perpendicular to the pack and then inclined about 5 to 10 degrees from perpendicular towards your head. When you’re standing up it’ll look like you’re taking pictures of the ground. However, when you’re riding downhill and it’s steep and the person you’re filming is behind you then the angle will be perfect. Resist the inclination to tilt the camera forward.
Nothing screams “tourist” like wearing the GoPro on your head. Fashion observations aside, there’s not much to say about this handy mount. It works best on XC style helmets or helmets with lots of vents as it has straps to attach to the bucket. For DH and Free ride trails you’ll want the angle of the camera on the head to be essentially the same as the reverse Chesty ie inclined about 5 to 10 degrees from perpendicular towards the back of your head. If you leave it perpendicular, you’ll get entirely too much footage of your front tire.
I have tried using the helmet mount in reverse without much success. Footage was mostly of my pack. It would work if I wasn’t riding with a pack but I have yet to experiment with that.
Seatpost or Stem Mount
I didn’t find the seatpost mount to be overly useful. In freeride and downhill applications where the rider is constantly sliding backwards and the seatpost is usually dropped it produced entirely too many engaging crotch pictures. However, it would be useful in flatter trails and certainly on climbs.
I experimented with a few stem and handlebar videos. I didn’t like the footage all that much and felt that it was isolated from the rider.
I did try a bit of an experiment where I mounted the GoPro on a stem and flipped the camera so it caught the rider’s expressions and movements as they went down the trail. It’s good for a few shots here and there but I personally wouldn’t want more then a few snippets of video with this perspective.
The GoPro comes with this rather fetching headband. I couldn’t see much use for it in biking but will use it for skiing. However, I got an idea for use from “tep” at mtbr who said ” …the helmet I use is a Bell X-Ray, which is kind of flat on the back part of the helmet where the rear vents are, so I used the “headlamp” stlye head strap that came with the camera and had it facing backwards. I don’t know if this would work with all helmets, but on mine it sits at just the right angle, and is really quite stable. I also like that it doesn’t look “down” onto the person behind me, but more on the same plane as the rider.”
Tep’s video indeed does show that this works and works quite well. I’ve experimented with various mounting positions and have concluded that the best way to have this mounted would be for the strap to be under the visor (or the helmet brim if you don’t have a visor) and the camera perched on the rear of the helmet. The camera angle won’t work if you have a pack but if you’re riding without a pack then this would be a very good way to use the headband other then dress up on “Look Like A60′s Hippy Day.”
Other Useful Mounting Positions
GoPro itself has recognized that hobbyists and tinkerers will want to figure out different ways of mounting the camera on a bike. There’s quite an active MTBR forum (Videos) which has an active thread–where users discuss various video camera options. GoPro discussions are plentiful.
My friend, Anthony modified the mounting plate supplied with the headband and came up with a secure attachment which can mount to any backpack. Clearly this has real utility for bikers who use packs or for any sports where a pack is used. the key will be to ensure that the pack does not move.
Per Anthony “I actually had to modify my first mount to the Camelbak a bit. I now use 2 medium wire-ties, and 2 small ties, attached directly to the main Camelbak strap, and looped through each side slot. I have one strap around the top, and one around the bottom.”
- Don’t place the wire-ties between the camera and the mount, as the camera needs to be as close to the bracket as possible. Ties need to go behind the bracket, and around the strap.
- The camera needs to be placed high on your chest, or it will point down too much (like my video). Of course you can also flip the camera upside down if your camera points down too much, but I think it may bounce more.”
For those who do not want the added expense of the “Chesty” mount–MTBR member “bri” modified the headband mount by adding webbing and/or Velcro so that one can wear it around the chest. I can see possibilities for adding additional webbing or elastic to add vertical straps so this mount will be even more secured for those fast bumpy trails.
- Relatively inexpensive
- Weatherproof housing is tough
- No wires… simple
- Easy to use
- Lots of ability to tinker with mounts and settings
- Very responsive and helpful customer service/technical support
- Documentation is lacking
- Sound is not so good
- Mediocre video quality, but great for Web video
- A bit of a learning curve to set up properly
- Firmware upgrade is long overdue (has it shipped yet?)
The Bottom Line: GoPro Camera
If you want a POV camera that won’t break the bank, that takes video that you can share with people on the web, that is simple yet tough – then get the GoPro. Soon you’ll be joining the legions of people annoying their friends and family with home movies. If you want high- quality video with any kind of sound then this is not the camera for you.
The GoPro is intended to fit the budget POV niche and does so very well and has remarkable value for dollar.
Buy Now: Search for the GoPro Wide Camera
Guest blogger Lee Lau is an avid skier and outdoorsman embarking on many adventures with his loving, and sometimes concerned wife, Sharon. He has over 15 years of experience skiing, ski-touring and dabbles in mountaineering. In the “off-season” he is occasionally found working in his day job as an intellectual property lawyer when he is not mountain biking. As a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Lee’s playground extends mainly to Western Canada, including South West B.C. and the Selkirks.