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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gadget Bag: Compact HD Cams

They’re small, they’re light, they produce outstanding footage, and they’re everywhere. Why you should have one in your bag.

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The world of the small video camera has exploded lately. GoPro HERO cameras have become ubiquitous with extreme-sports athletes, and YouTube positively overflows with footage from these and other compact HD cameras. Among the manufacturers, GoPro is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. Thanks to years of savvy marketing and a well-deserved reputation for quality and durability, the company has established itself as the leader, but it's by no means the only player in this space. A number of models from Contour and Midland have excellent features and image quality, and are every bit as versatile as the GoPros. Why should you even care about these cameras?

Well, they're inexpensive and they let you do some really interesting videography. And they're just plain fun to play with. Also, don't let their reputation as being just for extreme sports put you off. These HD video cameras are ideal for OP readers who want to get a new way of looking at and photographing the world.

A POV Cam That Gives You A New POV
The most fun and interesting aspects of this class of HD video camera is the combination of small size and high quality that lets you get the camera into some spectacular positions. Everyone has seen the GoPro helmet-cam videos that are all over YouTube. Whether it's on a motorcycle helmet, a skateboard, the deck of a surfboard or snowboard, or mountain bike handlebars, to name just a few examples, these cameras have become closely identified with POV (point of view) videos of the extreme-sports crowd.

Nature photographers as a group typically are looking for somewhat different imagery than the average snowboarder. Instead of bombing down chutes in the backcountry, we want to capture majestic landscapes and interesting wildlife interaction. So how does a diminutive video camera with a fixed wide-angle lens do anything for us? Well, because these cameras are small, light and relatively inexpensive, they make ideal nature POV cameras. Think about the possibilities of worm's-eye view shots moving through the grass. Just lock your GoPro, Contour or Midland onto a lightweight pole like a K-Tek Tadpole, and you have a perfect way to capture a whole new perspective. Could you do the same thing with a DSLR? Yes, but the DSLR is much heavier and more cumbersome and much more difficult to move around. The compact video camera gives you spontaneity.

Another interesting POV opportunity takes the camera in the other direction. Extend your mini-boom and hold the camera up to get a bird's-eye view or even peer into nests in the trees (carefully, to avoid disturbing the nest).

Time-lapse shooting is exploding in popularity. If you haven't checked out any time-lapse, we suggest Tom Lowe's TimeScapes (timescapes.org), Shawn Reeder's Yosemite: Range Of Light (www.shawnreedervisuals.com) and Tony Rowell's Astronomy Time Lapse (www.astronomytimelapse.com). These are just a few examples that show off the power and emotion of time-lapse imagery. These projects were shot with DSLRs and other high-end cameras like the RED Epic, and to be sure, your DSLR can capture some incredible time-lapse imagery, but the problem with using your DSLR to shoot time-lapse frames is that it ties up your DSLR for a long time.

GoPros and Contours have time-lapse settings built in. Set the interval and the camera does the rest, and your DSLR is free for whatever photo opportunities come up. Of course, the GoPro and Contour cameras don't give you the same flexibility as a DSLR—you're limited to a single focal length and you don't get nearly as much exposure control, but that's just a trade-off.

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