Another camera option

In my on-going search for a decent action camera, I forgot to mention in my earlier blog post one option. I own a camera that is somewhat waterproof (IPX7), has nearly 80GB of storage on it, and can shoot 4K/30fps and 1080p/60fps. It’s my new iPhone 7 Plus. I added a waterproof case (IPx8), and it should be fine for the splashing and brief immersions of your typical kayak race. I did a bit of testing, and I can film 2 hours of 4K video without depleting the battery below 50%, nor did it more than half-fill the free space on the phone. So 4 hours might well be possible. Plus it has the advantage that I already own it.

The drawbacks, however, are kind of big:

  • The shooting field of view is fairly narrow compared to most action cameras. They usually use a pretty wide field of view. I’ve seen add-on lenses for earlier iPhones that go over the phone but they cost as much as a GoPro, so that’s not going to help.
  • The form factor doesn’t lend itself well to being worn on the head for Point Of View shots.
  • The waterproofing is good, but it’s not rated for “full immersion to meters below the surface for hours at a time” like most action cameras.
  • Most importantly, if you ruin it somehow, either by getting it wet, losing it in the depths of Lake Ontario or smashing it on a rock, you’re out a $700+ dollar phone. And if you do any of those things or even just run down the battery and suddenly need the phone for making an emergency call, you’re shit out of luck.

I think I need to test it out, but I’m thinking this isn’t going to be my primary camera.

Still looking for a good camera (or three)

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.

Seneca Monster Race

You might have noticed that I haven’t written anything about last weekend’s Seneca Monster race yet. There are a whole bunch of reasons for that, but first and foremost is that I had a terrible race. Secondly, one of my cameras wasn’t charged up so it didn’t get any video, and another fell off and was lost in the canal, so I have no video. And thirdly I had surgery on my wrist during the week and so I’ve had other things on my mind and a limited ability to type for a while.

If you want to know why I had a terrible race, you need to cast your mind back to 2014 when Epic changed the design of their V10 Sport. There are many things you notice, both large and small when you compare Mike’s 2013 V10 Sport with my 2014 V10 Sport. Most of them are awesome. The closable bailer is worth the price of the upgrade right there. The cutaways at the catch area are great too, and the handles sure are nice at the end of a long paddle. But if you look at the bow, there is a very subtle change in where the straight up and down part transitions to the curve that goes under. When Mike and I are paddling side by side, you might notice that on his, the waterline is actually on the curve whereas on mine it’s on the straight up and down part. I’m sure there are hydrodynamic reasons for that change, and I’m sure somebody figured out it would be half a percent faster on ocean waves or something, but the upshot is that my bow collects weeds in places where Mike’s doesn’t. They just seem to slide under his on the curve and stop dead in mine on the straight part.

The Seneca Monster race is entirely in weeds. There are weeds from the start to the end, worse than even the USCA Nationals. And just when you think it’s the weediest race you’ve ever seen, they run you through a channel behind an island that is twice as weedy and shallow suck water as well. And then just to make life terrible for kayakers, just before the downstream turn in Seneca Falls there is a massive mat of weeds that was so thick it stopped me dead from full speed. It was so bad I couldn’t make the turn until I paddled backwards to clear my rudder, then I turned and then had to go through the same damn mat again on the way up. There were three close together bridges in the town of Seneca Falls, and if they’d moved the turn to the second bridge, we could have avoided that horrible mess.

Before the race I’d been so worried about the two portages. I figured that Roger is faster than me on the carries, especially since these ones were perfect for using wheels, so I figured that I’d need a good lead on him before the second carry so I’d still be ahead at the finish. Instead, thanks to the weeds, I lost contact with him within 2km of the start, before the channel behind the island. By the third kilometer, exiting the channel, I was side by side with Mike and Scott. Both of these guys I’ve been beating pretty handily this year, but I’d blown so much effort on trying to keep up with first Roger, and then a guy I didn’t know who was behind Roger while dragging weeds that I didn’t have any energy left. My race was basically done well before the first portage. At one point Mike tried to stab the weeds off my bow with his paddle, but I had misinterpreted what he was doing and veered off so he missed. I stopped and backpaddled to get them off myself, and the weed bundle was the size of a football. By then I was blown up and I couldn’t catch back up with Mike and Scott.

At the first portage, at about 4.5 kilometers in, I actually caught them exiting the water, but they both portaged faster than me. Scott stopped to put on his wheels, but he came trundling past a few minutes in and disappeared into the distance. I did nearly catch him as he stopped to take off his wheels, and I got to see him practically drop his boat down these steep stone “steps” at the end of the portage. Since my boat is much more fragile than his I had to take it more gingerly, losing even more time. I still managed to crunch my boat a little bit – unbeknownst to me I’d loosened the stickum on one of my camera mounts, so about a kilometer later the camera dropped off and I was unable to catch it before it sunk. An expensive lesson in the value of camera tie downs, I guess.

After that, there really isn’t much to report. I tried to keep my speed up as well as I could. There were a couple of canoes that I would pass, and then they’d pass me back a few minutes later when I was backing up to clear the weeds, then I’d pass them again. In spite of the frequent weed clearing, my shoulders were incredibly sore from the effort of paddling with that much resistance. And the portages were hard on my shoulders as well.

If I ever go back to this race, it would have to be with a boat that doesn’t pick up weeds as badly as my Sport. My V12 has the same bow as Mike’s Sport, and it doesn’t pick up weeds, but it’s heavy. Maybe if I had wheels…