One of the things I’ve really gotten into in the last couple of years is making movies of my kayaking, especially races. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from them. Unfortunately, I have yet to find cameras I like.
The basic problem is that my requirements are not the same as most people who use “Action Cameras”.
First and foremost, it appears that your average GoPro user only wants to go out and do a few stunts. Or they’ll be doing something where they can use their hands to turn on and off the camera. Or they can stop what they’re doing to change the battery. None of those use-cases require ultra-long battery life. My use-case is that I want to be able to turn on my cameras as I leave the dock to go warm up, finish my warm up, do a 2-3 hour race, warm down, and then come back to the dock and turn off the cameras. Mostly the cameras are not within my reach, but even if they were I couldn’t spare a hand to deal with them during a race. So basically my number one priority is that they have at least 3.5 to 4 hours battery life. I have only found one camera that comes even close to that battery life, and that’s the Contour Roam 3.
VelonCC, an organization of professional cycling teams, makes “Inside the Peloton” videos that show highlights of every day’s stage in major cycling races, using GoPro Hero Session cameras mounted on some of the rider’s bikes. But the Hero Session, like just about every other action camera, only has 90-minute battery life, and so I wondered how they are showing the finish sprint at the end of a 4-hour stage. I asked them, and they claim that they program the cameras to turn on and off during different times. I downloaded the manual for the Hero Session and I can find no mention of timed start times. VelonCC also claims that they don’t have special firmware to allow this timing. So I don’t know how they actually do it. Maybe there’s a secret menu that isn’t in the manual. Maybe I’m missing something in the manual. I don’t know. They also seem to be extraordinarily good at guessing who is going to be involved in major events of the stage and when those events are going to be happening. I have my suspicions – I suspect they’re lying about the timing and they’ve got people in the caravan using remote controls, or they have some special device or firmware to allow the timing.
Secondly, I require my cameras to be waterproof. Naturally, most cameras are waterproof or come in waterproof housings. Unfortunately, my attempts to deal with the battery length issue have lead to me compromising the waterproofing. I had a Polaroid XS100 camera that produced a really nice picture and was simple to use, but I attempted to bodge a battery extension using sugru and an external USB battery. Unfortunately after a few uses the camera stopped working – I assume it got water through the sugru and shorted out. I also had a GoPro Hero 3+ Silver camera and a third party extended battery, which was just about perfect. It produced a really nice 1080p/60fps picture, a bit washed out in color compared to the Polaroid, but nice and smooth. And the battery life was pretty close to the required five hours. Unfortunately when I was at the surf-ski vacation of my life in the Gorge, the hinge on the case broke. I thought I had fixed it, but afterward, the camera would stop recording after 5 minutes or so. I thought I was recording when I wasn’t because it had shut off almost as soon as I got underway. I guess my fix wasn’t adequate and allowed water in. I tried both with and without the third party battery and it still does that, so it’s toast.
I also had a cheap Chinese GoPro knock-off called a “GeekPro” (because intellectual property is something that happens to other people, not Chinese companies). It looks a lot like a GoPro but is just different enough that the GoPro extended batteries don’t work on it. I worked out a bodge using a tiny flat cable from a wireless charger for Android phones. In bench testing, I got nearly 7 hours battery life. However, as soon as I tried it on the water it reverted to the 90 minutes that the built-in battery is good for. I assume that means my bodge isn’t waterproof. But it hardly matters because the picture quality is terrible – if you include any bright sky you get weird bands of color and everything is horribly over-saturated.
By this point, I was getting leery of any solution to battery life that didn’t come from the camera maker, and like I said I didn’t really like the picture quality of the Roam, so I bought a Veho Muvi K2. It promised a 2 or 2.5-hour battery life shooting 1080p/60fps. It also says the waterproof case is good down to 100 meters depth. What they don’t tell you in on the web is that it has a terrible tendency to fog up inside the waterproof case. They provide a bunch of silica pads to put inside the case, but even so, it fogged up terribly. I used in two races where I had it mounted in the front of the kayak pointing back at me, and both times I could see the lens fogging up as I paddled away from the dock. The third time I used it I hit the camera on some rocks while portaging and loosened the mount to the point where it fell off into the water about a kilometer afterward. I made a grab for it, but it sunk before I could reach it. I don’t miss it.
As I alluded to a few times above, I’ve decided that 1080p/30fps just isn’t good enough for capturing the action in races. The Contour Roam has the battery life and waterproofness I want, but I really don’t think much of the picture quality, and at least part of that is because it looks choppy and pixelated in high action like at the race start. I’m thinking 1080p/60fps is the bare minimum. After watching Bradley Friesen’s YouTube channel, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be doing 4K video. Unfortunately, 4K video seems to only come in 30fps. Some of the new Action Cameras do a 2.7K video at 60fps which looks intriguing – and some of them use the size of the 4K sensor to do image stabilization at a lower resolution (basically they’re doing some sort of cropping in the camera). Those are all things I’d like to experiment with.
There are a couple of new cameras like the GoPro Hero 5, the Hero 5 Session and the Garmin Virb Ultra 30 that do all the fancy 4K stuff and the image stabilization at 1080p/60fps. But so far none of them have any option, either first party or third party, to extend the battery life beyond the nominal 90 minutes or so. Maybe there will be in the spring by the time I need to start recording kayak races again. There is also a whole slew of cheap-ass 4K Chinese GoPro clones appearing on Amazon for around $100. It’s unlikely they will ever have any options for extending battery life because although they look like GoPros, they don’t include the proprietary GoPro port that earlier GoPros used for expansions. Another option is to forget about 4K and image stabilization and buy older GoPros. GoPro themselves have an eBay shop where they sell “factory refurbs” – I could buy 2 GoPro Hero 3+ Silvers for what a Hero 5 Session would cost me, and I could use the extended life battery I bought for the one that got wet. I’d just have to be more careful about the hinge.
Oh well, at least I don’t have to make a decision on this before spring. Maybe things will be more settled by then.