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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 (, Shawn Reeder‘s Yosemite: Range Of Light ( and Tony Rowell’s Astronomy Time Lapse ( 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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Into The Elements
Since their respective launches, the compact HD cameras have been available with an array of housings to protect them from mud, rain, impact and underwater use. The cameras and their housings are incredibly durable. In fact, filmmakers can use these little cameras as inexpensive crash cams to get some stunning footage during wild stunts. You’re probably not going to use one as a crash cam, but these small cameras can be beaten up quite a bit and they’ll still work. This is an area where your DSLR simply isn’t an option.

Snorkelers embraced small HD video cameras early on, but they quickly learned that the underwater housings didn’t allow for the best imagery. Eventually, a cottage industry of garage tinkerers started modifying the factory housings with flat ports instead of the usual curved port. These modified housings did a much better job underwater, and snorkelers, scuba divers and others have flocked to these units (check out for excellent aftermarket underwater housings).

Both Contour and GoPro now make their own flat-port underwater housings that do a fine job. What’s especially nice about these little cameras in their housings is the ease of setup. For shallow-water use, like snorkeling or even shooting fish in the shallows of a river or stream, drop the camera into the housing, attach to a mini-boom, if necessary, and you’re off. If you’re a scuba diver, you’ll probably want to use some auxiliary lighting, but even then it’s not nearly as complicated or expensive as a large video camera housing.

If you want to explore making your own 3D videos, these compact HD cameras are pretty tough to beat as far as the price-to-performance ratio. If you tried to shoot 3D with DSLRs or even standard video cameras, the costs go up in a hurry. GoPro makes its own 3D rig for $99 (the kit takes two GoPro HD sports cameras, not included), and there are aftermarket solutions for Contour and Midland cameras, as well. If you’re thinking of experimenting with some 3D video, this is a great way to get started.


The $499.99 Contour+ camcorder can record 1080p video and 5-megapixel still images, and features a built-in fixed-focus ƒ/2.8 wide-angle (170°) lens, which can rotate 270° for just the right angle. Video specs include 1920x1080p at 30 and 25 fps, 1280x960p at 30 and 25 fps, and 1280x720p at 60/50 and 30/25 fps. You also can do one photo every 3, 5, 10, 30 or 60 seconds. Video is H.264, .MOV. A 2.5mm jack accepts an external microphone. Bluetooth turns your mobile phone/device into a wireless viewfinder, or you can stream HD to a monitor or TV. The camera runs on three AA batteries (or optional AC adapter); files are stored on microSD cards up to 32 GB (a 2 GB card is provided).

Unlike other compact HD video cameras, the Contour+ incorporates GPS video mapping, recording speed, location and elevation twice each second. And, via the optional Contour+ Cerevo Live Shell, you can do live streaming easily—just plug the camera in via HDMI cable, and turn the power on. No need to deal with streaming software or drivers. With the optional AC adapter, you can stream video 24/7; with three AA batteries, about three hours.

The Contour+ is water-resistant, but for submarine use, there’s the accessory Contour+ Waterproof Case, which can handle depths of 197 feet (60 meters). There’s a variety of body, gear and vehicle mounts, as well.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Contour also offers the simple ContourROAM ($199.99; $249.99 with waterproof case) and the tiny ContourGPS ($299.99). Contact: Contour,


You’ve undoubtedly seen output from the popular GoPro HD HERO compact video camera in action videos online, TV commercials, TV shows and movies—the camera mounted on the action subject. Now, GoPro also offers the HD HERO2 Professional with a 2x faster image processor, a 2x sharper glass lens and professional low-light performance. The housing is waterproof to 197 feet (60 meters).

The built-in, fixed-focus ƒ/2.8 lens can deliver angles of view of 170°, 127° and 90°. Power is by rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and files are stored on SDHC cards (not provided).

The tiny HD HERO2 comes in three editions—Outdoor, Motorsports and Surf—each with appropriate mounting accessories to suit the intended use, and each priced at $299.99. All three can shoot video at 1920×1080/30p, 1280×960/48p and 30p, 1280×720/60p and 30p, and 848×480 at 120 and 60 fps, with mono sound via a built-in microphone or stereo via an external mic. It can also shoot 11-, 8- and 5-megapixel still images in single shots or 10-frame bursts.

Accessories include the Wi-Fi BacPac + Wi-Fi Remote (provides Wi-Fi connectivity and enables operation of up to 50 cameras from up to 600 feet away), LCD BacPac (adds an LCD monitor) and Battery BacPac (lets you charge batteries off-camera and provides additional battery power on-camera). The HERO 3D System lets you combine two HERO or HERO2 cameras in a single housing to record 3D and 2D photos simultaneously. Contact: GoPro,

Midland XTC-300VP4

Midland XTC-300VP4
The unit with the most complicated name is the simplest featured here. The $249.99 XTC-300VP4 is a tiny HD video camera that provides first-person video and audio at the touch of a button. It’s weather-resistant and comes with a submersible case good to 100 feet. The multicoated, tempered-glass lens provides focus from 5 inches to infinity, with a 127° angle of view for 1080 video and 170° for 720 and 480 video. The camera can do 1920x1080p video at 30 fps, and 1280×720 and 848×480 video at 60 fps in MPEG-4 format with H.264 compression with AAC sound.

Power is via a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and files are stored on microSD cards up to 32 GB.

The camera comes with a helmet, a helmet strap, and handlebar and goggle mounts, and a wide variety of inexpensive additional mounts are available as accessories. It weighs less than six ounces with battery. Spare batteries are just $29.99.

Midland also offers an SD action camera for $99.99, HD models starting at $109.99, and the Mossy Oak 1080p camera, similar to the XTC-300VP4, but with a camouflage finish. Contact: Midland Radio,