Capture the action with a helmet camera

GoPro Hero

With video capabilities built into almost everything these days, from digital cameras to tiny cell phones, it’s never been easier to record your favorite moments. But just try carrying one of these devices down a ski slope, or filming scenery while bouncing down a bike trail.

To show off the more active parts of your life, consider investing in a helmet cam—a small digital camera that can be mounted to your helmet, bicycle handlebars, motorcycle foot pegs, surf- board, pet, or just about anywhere else you can think of. I use my helmet cam to capture scenery on cross-country trips on my motorcycle.

If you’re of a less death-defying nature, helmet cameras are also ideal for shooting video that would otherwise be hard to capture. For example, I set it on the ground to capture close-up footage of chipmunks.

Choosing a helmet cam

When shopping for a helmet cam, look for something very small and light. They come in two basic styles: all-in-one or two-piece designs. All-in-one units provide the smallest overall package. Sometimes, these devices are “lipstick” cameras, meaning they’re housed in a long tube with a built-in media reader. Two-piece designs feature a similar lipstick-like camera but connect via a cable to a separate recording unit.

The advantage of an all-in-one is that when you take your helmet off, you won’t have to hassle with cables or find a place to carry the recording unit. The advantage of two-piece units is that the recording unit usually contains an LCD screen, which works as a viewfinder and allows you to review your footage. A viewfinder is nice to have when mounting the camera, so that you can make sure the camera is pointing where you want it. Without a screen to review your footage, it can be difficult to tell if you’ve captured the shots you want. But depending on how you plan to use your helmet camera, you might be able to do without it. For most activities, (bicycling, skiing, etc.) you won’t be able to pay attention to a viewfinder while in action, and you might find that you don’t want to spend a lot of time reviewing footage in the field, on a tiny screen.

Lenses and image quality

Because helmet cameras are intended for capturing video rather than still pictures, they don’t pack the huge pixel counts of even inexpensive still cameras. Most helmet cameras deliver somewhere between 640-by-480 and 769-by-494 resolution video, which is enough data to create an image that will look good when shown on a standard definition TV, and plenty of data for online playback. Because they don’t have zoom lenses, you’ll need to give some thought to what kind of field of view you want on the camera. Most cameras offer a field of view that’s slightly wider than the human eye, though some go farther than this, sometimes producing a fish-eye-like effect.

The advantage of a wide-angle lens is that you don’t have to be as careful with aiming the lens. With an extremely wide field of view, you’ll stand a better chance of getting the shot, even if your camera isn’t aimed quite where you think it is.

Be careful of going too wide. An extremely wide-angle lens can look a little bit off, simply because we’re not used to experiencing the world in extremely wide angle. What’s more, some wide-angle lenses get very soft around the edges. Most vendors are good about posting sample footage on their Web sites, so you’ll want to look at these movies to assess whether a particular camera’s field of view and distortion is acceptable.

Helmet Cams in Action
These small and durable cameras can be used to record the more active parts of your life while keeping your hands free.

Other features to consider

These are some other amenities you’ll want to consider as well:

Durability This is a critical consideration when strapping a camera to your head in potentially adverse conditions. While you can recover from concussions and minor scrapes, your camera is more vulnerable. If you’re going to be using the camera in inclement weather, or in a shock-laden environment (say BMX riding, skateboarding, or boxing) then you’ll want a camera that is waterproof and shockproof. If you’re opting for a two-piece unit, then you’ll want similar durability in the recording module and the cables and connectors.

Batteries Almost all helmet cameras run on AA batteries, which makes it easy to replace batteries in the field. A set of rechargeable AAs will give you much longer battery life. Depending on your camera and your batteries, you should be able to get at least five or six hours of shooting time. If you find a helmet camera that uses a proprietary battery, you might get longer life, but you won’t be able to pick up extra batteries on the go.

Remote A remote control is most likely essential. Some cameras use infrared (IR) remotes, which can be a problem if you’re keeping the recording unit in your backpack. A radio frequency (RF) remote doesn’t require line-of-site and can be a better choice if you’re using a two-piece unit.

Microphone Most helmet cameras are also capable of recording sound, but bear in mind that an exposed microphone plummeting down a hill or cruising along a highway will primarily pick up wind noise. If you want to record your voice while shooting, then get a camera with an external mic jack, or one that has a microphone—either wired or wireless—that can be placed inside a helmet (obviously, on some helmets this won’t be possible).

How to mount your camera

One of the trickiest things about working with a helmet camera is figuring out where you want to put it, and how you can get it to stay there. When evaluating cameras, look at what kind of mounts it provides, and consider whether it will work with your helmet. Most cameras come with a few options, ranging from adhesive-backed pieces of Velcro that you can attach to a helmet, to zip ties that you can use in conjunction with custom mounts to fix the camera on a handlebar. You’ll also want to give some thought to bumps and vibration. If you’re on a bicycle, mounting a camera on the handlebars will probably yield shakier footage than if you mount it on your helmet and let your body act as a shock absorber.

Some helmets present mounting problems because they’re not necessarily smooth. For example, I was all set to use adhesive Velcro to attach a camera to the top of my motorcycle helmet, before I realized that the top of my helmet isn’t flat—there’s a big crease in it. The only flat part that was big enough was on the side of the helmet. This works OK, but means that I have an easier time shooting things on my left than I do on my right. If you have a bicycle helmet with a vented, unusual shape, then there may not be a flat space big enough to Velcro a camera to. You’ll need to use a zip-tie mount, or another type of custom mount.

While it’s easy enough to find the top of the helmet when it’s sitting on a flat surface, bear in mind that when you’re in action, the top of your helmet will be at a different height and angle on your head. The easiest way to position the camera is assume the position you’ll be shooting from, and have someone else mount the camera on your helmet. Shoot some test footage to ensure the camera is rigged properly. Because there’s no way to tell for sure if your mount will be stable in the field, you’ll want to pack extra Velcro, zip ties, duct tape, or other appropriate adhesives.

Shooting tips

The best advice for shooting with a helmet camera is to be aware of its limitations. Understand your camera’s field of view, and think about how to use it. You’ll want to be careful about lots of fast pans, and you should try to minimize camera shake, lest you make your audience seasick. Depending on what activity you’re engaged in, getting smooth footage could be difficult. If your shots are too shaky, try experimenting with different places to mount the camera.

Make sure you shoot ample amounts of footage. Since you won’t be able to film with great care, you’ll want to get a lot of coverage to choose from. Remember to record shots other than your helmet-mounted point-of-view. Editing a bunch of first-person footage together can make for a pretty boring result, so take the camera off its mount and use it like a normal video camera from time to time. Shoot some establishing shots of your location, and interview people you meet along the way. If you can mange it, position the camera to shoot some footage of yourself while you engage in your activity. All of these shots will give you more to edit with when you get home.

No matter what kind of camera you use, remember that every story needs a beginning, middle, and an end, whether you’re shooting with a camera in your hand or on your head.

Top helmet cameras

There are a lot of helmet cameras out there. Here are a few options:

Oregon Scientific ATC5K
Oregon Scientific ATC5K

Oregon Scientific ATC5K An all-in-one unit with a built-in viewfinder, the ATC5K offers the best of both worlds by eliminating the wires and storage hassles of a two-piece unit. It offers a few mounting options and a fairly wide field of view ($230; http://www.oregonscientific.com).

VIO POV.1.5 A two-piece model that yields very good image quality, the POV.1.5 scores with its interchangeable lenses (giving you a choice of focal lengths), cable-mounted microphone that can easily be fixed inside a helmet, RF remote control, rugged design, and a huge assortment of mounts. The recording unit is a little big—too big for handlebar mounting—but the overall design is very thoughtful ($700; http://www.vio-pov.com).

HoytTech HCR-100X Another two-piece unit, the HCR-100X has a smaller recording unit than the Vio, making it more reasonable for mounting in a visible location. Offering a special “IR/Night sensitive” option and a huge range of accessories, the HCR-100X is a great, full-featured choice ($530; http://www.hoyttech.com).

GoPro Motorsports Hero Wide An all-in-one with a huge assortment of mounting options, the Hero offers a whopping 170-degree angle of view. Like the other cameras here, it’s waterproof and shockproof, and ready to handle a tremendous level of outdoor abuse ($190; http://www.goprocamera.com).

Macworld senior contributor Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, fourth edition (Charles River Media, 2007). More of Ben’s work can be found at Complete Digital Photography.

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