Lights, Camera…ride on!

In which I rationalize buying a video camera for biking, canoeing and more.

Note: this post originally appeared elsewhere, but is repeated here as a segue into a discussion on wider use of video cameras by cyclists.

I always wanted to be a film director. Like many families in the 60’s, we had an 8mm movie camera and it recorded our family’s holidays, vacations and special events on Kodachrome film, a product that, literally, coloured the memories of our youth (well, anyone’s youth prior to, say, 1980). I loved planning, shooting and watching films that captured our lives in short, three-minute bursts. Being the cameraman was fun and it also got me out of the picture.

My father purchased film splicing equipment to join several standard spools together into a single film of about 10 to 12 minutes all on one theme, usually a summer vacation somewhere. While the big spool felt somehow more professional, it did cut down on the breaks during a movie watching session. Breaks that involved a predictable sequence of events: kids making hand shadows (some rude) on the screen before the projector got shut off, finding the lights, rewinding the film, refilling drinks, finding snacks, and then the drama of threading and starting a new film, complete with under-the-breath swearing (at least until we got a Super 8mm, auto-threading projector). If the film was a good one, there was even discussion about what we had just seen. The splicing gear was nearly always used to just splice existing films end-to-end and not for editing.

It was only a matter of time before I got hold of the camera, gathered up a few willing victims to be in a movie and began experimenting with movies. We were limited mostly by the cost of the film, which, as 13-year-olds, was a real strain on the budget. Comedy was our obvious subject and I was soon planning out shots where objects, through the power of cutting and splicing, would suddenly appear or disappear, things would suddenly change into other things or people into other people, all with great (in our minds) comic effect. We drew several curious and at times disapproving stares as we shot our film, often standing statue still while someone moved out of the scene (only to be replaced with, for example, a stuffed toy). It was all good fun and the results were, predictably, of interest or funny to no one other than ourselves.

As mentioned, money was limited. Other things began to have more interest; among them girls, music and being cool. Woody Allen hadn’t yet made being a film-maker cool, so my interest in filming was placed on the back burner.

My interest resurfaced a few years ago, with the advent of digital video, but never became a big thing. Video seemed to get in the way of things. Asking people to change what they were doing or even re-do what they had already done got in the way of enjoying the thing in the first place. Any video I was shooting was done almost as a voyeur (in a nice way). What would be good would be a way to film that wasn’t intrusive, could record without asking anyone to do anything different and also not take someone (the person filming) out of the action (yes, I got over not wanting to be in videos).

What I was interested in was filming two things that I liked doing: riding my bike and canoeing. The first was something I usually did by myself, so asking me to do anything different wasn’t going to be a big deal. That said, I really didn’t want to change my ride around, just to get some video. While canoeing only involved one other person, we both view our canoe trips as ways to get away from demands and constraints, so again, anything that was going to put demands on the flow of enjoying the event wasn’t going to be welcome.

A “mount it and forget” it waterproof and shockproof camcorder would meet this need. In North America two brands dominate this niche of the market: Contour and GoPro, so I set out to compare the two. While the Drift camera also appeared in some reviews, finding out information on it was more difficult, so I left it to a choice of two (if that was a dumb decision, let me know).

I had seen both in the content of several websites. One that especially interested me was the Bike View in Ottawa website, which focused (excuse the pun) on video of the writer’s bike commuting and bike riding in Ottawa, Ontario. The blog tended to highlight the writer’s more life threatening events during his rides along with commentary on the things he has to deal with as he commutes year-round. He shoots with a Contour (although I have heard that is about to change).

A quick glance suggested that GoPro was the more popular of the two brands or, at least, the more visible on the Internet. GoPro has a trendy and high energy presence on YouTube, fueled by professional brand lead-ins and is featured in some notable, high-profile videos, such as Jebb Corliss’s popular base jump videos (including this one, a favourite of mine).

While side-by-side comparisons (which are plentiful on YouTube) were the most helpful in terms of direct comparisons, in each case certain features on one were better than the other and vice-versa. What wasn’t helpful was that while some of the conclusions made were highly applicable to the situation the reviewer was using the camera for, in other situations, the conclusion would be reversed. What also wasn’t so helpful was that both companies released newer versions of their equipment, but, of course, at different times. Text-based narrative reviews of the cameras also provided insight, but still no conclusive position. What I couldn’t get was any indication of the longevity of the cameras. Was either brand or any particular model more prone to breakdowns?

While both are vendors of cameras, two good sources of information are Point of View Cameras and Camarush, particularly Camarush’s comparison page, which features recommendations for specific activities (still a problem if you want it for multiple sports). Point of View Cameras also illustrates the wider range of camera brands nicely.

Clearly, which one was best was not a case of one brand over the other. It was a matter of what features mattered based on individual likes and dislikes and what you would use the camera for. Some conclusions came down to personal choice. This was particularly the case in terms of the video characteristics. I found the Hero brighter and sharper, but the Contour showed more subtle contrast and was warmer. Warmer versus brighter is a personal choice.

Looking at what I needed, it looked like the Contour would, by a slight margin, best meet my needs. My number one use would be filming (can we still use that term in the digital age?) bike rides, usually from my handlebars. What worked for me here was the easy mounting system for the Contour (slide it in and go) and the big record button (works with gloves). While I would use the camera when canoeing, I didn’t need the full protection of a housing. I don’t do whitewater (at least, not now) and if I drop the camera in the water I paddle, I doubt I will find it again. The Roam’s 1 metre waterproofing should meet my needs barring serious driven winds and rain.

While it didn’t affect my final decision, it was a nice addition when the Contour line was picked up by my local outdoor store, Wild Rock Outfitters. I always like it when I can buy something locally.

Contour camera logo So, I began taking some video and posted clips to Youtube. I thought I would echo those old 8mm movies and keep my clips to about three minutes long rather than put my whole bike commute in one clip. I thought too, I would cut my clips into segments that matched major intersections of Peterborough, allowing viewers (assuming there are any!) to browse the city piece by piece. After a while, this morphed into the PTBO Cycling VideoMap Project. This, in turn, begat this blog as I needed a quick and easy wrapper for the project front page.