The actual camera sans housing is tiny - 2.25 x 1.5 x 1.5 inches and 2.4 ounces - making it (or the non-wide angle standard GoPro model) suitable for YouTube-quality video for the backpacker.
This review is quite limited in scope. I had one singular objective in testing this product: to evaluate its utility as a helmet camera while packrafting on a longer expedition, where kit weight, battery life, and ease of use in bad weather matter the most. My intended output for the footage from this camera included projection on a large auditorium screen as supporting material during public speaking engagements, and, well, YouTube!
Thus, the review focuses more on practical use of the camera in a backcountry context rather than the technical merits surrounding its image quality or specifications.
Wide vs. Normal
A wide angle helmet-mountable lens was important to me because I like to maximize the field of view while packrafting. It allows me to capture some of the scenery, it forgives imprecise aim, and it it imparts a crazy curvilinear shape to my packraft paddle (the fisheye effect) that has more than once caused somebody to email me and ask me where I got that cool paddle.
My GoPro Packrafting Kit
My GoPro camera kit for backcountry packrafting focuses on the minimally simple, and includes the following:
- Petzl Meteor Climbing Helmet. The helmet is a vented, “bike-style” foam helmet, with perfect spacing between front vents and a stable platform for securing the GoPro camera (weight: 9 oz)
- GoPro Wide Helmet Cam (weight: 2.4 oz with 2xLiAAA batteries)
- Waterproof Housing (weight: 4.0 oz, includes helmet attachment strap and hinge mount)
- Extra Lithium AAA Batteries
- Extra 2G SD Cards
Perhaps somewhat ironically, the housing weighs almost twice as much as the camera. However, it's the essential feature that makes the GoPro suitable for packrafting. Note the convex lens shape on both the camera lens and the housing lens - this give the GoPro its massive field of view relative to other helmet cams on the market.
I'd like to walk you through the workflow required between the time the camera is retrieved from my pack (in the field) and the time a video is uploaded to YouTube (at home).
In the Field
- I store the camera, batteries, and SD cards in a 12 x 12 inch Aloksak, which is oversized for the kit, so that the bag can be rolled up a little to protect the contents further while in the pack.
- Each morning at camp (and time permitting, the night before), I make sure there is an empty SD card loaded into the camera, and if needed, a fresh set of LiAAA batteries. The kit gets stored in my pack, near the top.
- When it's time to hit the water, I attach the camera to my packrafting helmet.
- When I foresee a section of water that I'd like to film, I usually remove the helmet from my head, so I can verify visually that the camera is turned on. While the helmet is off, I press the record button, then return the camera/helmet to my head. I added this step to my workflow (removing the helmet so I could see the camera) because the tactile response of the record button is poor, and I ended up missing some shots when just reaching up to turn it on.
- When done shooting the clip, I reach up and hit the record button again to stop recording. I usually don't remove it from my head to stop recording, because the consequences of stopping a recording are less severe than missing a shot. Again, because of the lack of tactile response when pressing the record button, I end up shooting a lot of footage by accident.
- If I'm camping on the river at night, I'll leave the camera attached to the helmet and ready to go in the morning. If I'm coming off the river and ready to start a hiking section, I repack the camera into the Aloksak and return to Step 2.
The complete setup, with the camera secured in its waterproof housing and attached to a helmet strap. Weight is 6.4 ounces with batteries.
There is no preview LCD, so unlike most of my digital photography and videography, I do not do any shot previews in the field. Thus I have no idea whether I am being successful or not until I load the clips to my computer after the trip.
The housing lens loses its hydrophobicity quickly, minimizing its ability to bead water droplets and allow them to roll off. Thus, when it's raining or I'm running water that is particularly splashy, I make a habit of regularly reaching up to the lens and swiping it with my finger. I also found that wiping the lens with an anti-fogging wipe once a day helped immensely.
At the Computer
- First, I back up all of the original files on the SD cards to my RAID disk. This constitutes my archival copy.
- Import video directly from the SD card into iMovie.
- Create a movie within iMovie and publish directly to YouTube from within iMovie.
See, pretty easy.
Play the video below to see some footage from the GoPro camera as part of a story about a packrafting trek in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex from July 2009. I mounted it on my helmet and either wore the helmet, or attached the helmet to my pack, which was lashed to the bow of my boat. The latter configuration was noticeably more wobbly in the rollers, but provides a fun perspective of the packrafter.
Mounted to my helmet (the 9-ounce Petzl Meteor), I definitely felt the added weight of the 6.4-ounce camera when I first put the helmet on. However, it wasn't uncomfortable, nor did it impair my ability to use my head normally [sic]. In reality, I seldom noticed it was there, unless I was making a conscious effort to shake my head.
All in all, I love the concept of a waterproof helmet cam for packrafting. As you can see in the video sample, I also wore it fly fishing! I'll undoubtedly try that more often, too. The GoPro meets my needs of being able to produce a decent quality YouTube video that doesn't look like it was shot with a cell phone. Its main shortcoming is the lack of tactile feel in the housing button that engages the record button on the camera. A simple click button would suffice, so I had a little bit of feedback, allowing me to avoid taking my helmet off my head to know with certainty that I was starting or stopping a recording.