We’ve all seen how digital still cameras that also shoot HD video, such as the Panasonic GH2 or Canon 5D MkII, have made a big impact on projects, large, small and “we’ll pay for lunch.” But there is another group of cameras that are much smaller and have been popping up in all types of surprising places. These are the Mini Cams that are being used for POV shots on Reality TV shows, quick rig shots in car commercials, and as easy-to-hide cameras for extreme sports and stunts. They’re typically no more then 2 inches high, and are light enough not to upset RC cars or finicky athletes. These cameras are cheap enough to be considered expendable.
We’re talking about the Contour, Drift, EVO and GoPro group of mini cams. Most of these bantam weight cameras use a 5 MP CMOS sensor and record to SD or MicroSD cards. They’re rugged, and typically offer a waterproof option. They have little, if any, exposure control yet their meters are surprisingly accurate. Framing is done with mini monitors but their angle of view is so wide that one can usually fake it with good results. The mini cams offer a 1080p, 30 fps (29.975) option but can also record at 60 fps 720P.
The Drift Cam distinguishes itself with its built-in monitor and revolving leveling lens. Place it and THEN level the frame, or find a dynamic Dutch angle by looking at its monitor while rotating the lens assembly. The Drift also allows one to add an external microphone. It’s water resistant but not submersible. It’s the only mini cam that has Remote On/Off, and it’s wireless as well.
The Contour is very compact partly because it uses MicroSD cards. It features a unique twin laser system built into the rotating lens to aid in leveling the camera. It is also the only system that offers a LiveView via Bluetooth direct to your iPhone/iPad plus a GPS locating system. Their latest model, the Countour+, incorporates a 2.5 mm microphone jack.
The EVO HD is a tethered mini HD system that includes a mini-monitor in its control unit. This system is great if you need the smallest possible lens assembly with the control unit at the end of a five foot umbilical cord. I’ve placed the lens on the end of a boom and then have the 2” monitor available to check my framing.
The GoPro has become the most popular system, probably because of a combination of size, predictably sharp optics, a wide range of accessories, including perhaps the smallest 3D rig/housing, and a developing industry of aftermarket accessories. Until recently, it had no method for live viewing. That has recently been overcome with both hardwired LiveView or a Clip-On backpack monitor. It also does not offer any external microphone jack. The built-in mic is very susceptible to wind noise and buffeting, but recently The Windcutter Company has come out with custom fur wind screens for GoPro cameras that make wild sound much better.
Whether you realize it or not, you’re seeing mini cam footage everywhere from feature films (Fast & Furious: Fast Five), popular TV series like Myth Busters, Top Gear, Deadliest Catch, One Man Army, sporting events like The X-Games, and documentaries like the ones featured during Shark Week. GoPros actually took center stage in Into The Shark Bite. The cameramen created various contraptions containing GoPros that were attacked and bitten by sharks. They actually had a score card, “We started with ten, we’re down to five. Usually the sharks will spit up the cameras.”
The fact that you might not realize that some of the shots you’re seeing are from such minuscule and inexpensive cameras demonstrates how relatively excellent their quality is. There are even plans to use 3D GoPros on an upcoming IMAX project. At a recent pre-production meeting I brought up that, as the GoPro rep, I knew better than anyone what the limitations of this camera system were. But on the other hand everyone already knew that nothing could take their place on a surfer’s head in dangerously large waves.
Even though these mini cams are almost toy-like, it doesn’t mean that they are easy to use out of the box. Since they don’t have the real estate for multiple buttons and easy-to-understand menus, there are a number of ways to mess up a take. I hear horror stories of producers simply handing a bag of mini cams to a camera crew expecting them to be able to use them without preparation.
Like any pro digital system the batteries need to be charged, cards need to be labeled and formatted, and firmware updated. Firmware updates might include changes to the Auto White Balancing. If the firmware doesn’t match between cameras, your footage might not match. And like any consumer grade video camera that uses H.264 compression, you want to avoid as much post manipulation as possible.
Mini cams can be a liberating joy to use, but they don’t just place themselves. One needs to thoughtfully place them to avoid the usual professional movie-making pitfalls: reflections, vibrations, flares, minimum focus, underexposure. The ideal situation is to have someone on the camera crew who is dedicated to maintaining and placing these cameras.
It’s important to understand the limitations of these cameras. The popular GoPros, even though they come with a underwater housing, do not deliver crisp underwater images with their Domed Ports. Those ports were OK for the Standard Def versions of these cameras, but the HD Hero versions require an aftermarket Flat Port to deliver professional results. Fortunately there are a number of aftermarket suppliers who can supply you with Flat Ports and other helpful accessories. The most comprehensive supplier is eyeofmine.com. Oculus (search on eBay) and Makospearguns (no relationship!) also supply inexpensive flat ports.
The best advice that I can give is to buy a mini cam and just play with it. They all have a Stills option. My favorite is the 3 Frame Burst mode with the GoPro. Great for catching expressions when used to take snap shots. And check out the GoPro Facebook page. With close to 650,000 people who “Like” this page you will find daily examples of the wonderful and imaginative uses people have found for their mini cams. Professional video results can be found on GoPro’s website. My samples can be found at: http://public.fotki.com/makofoto/work/gopro-hd-hero-still/
Mako Koiwai is first and foremost a Photographer, who, as an artist and gear head, loves every aspect of image making. He works on a wide range of different types of projects, in every capacity from focus puller/1st AC, to operator and DP.