By David Hague
No doubt there was a lot of so called "Action Cams" in Chrissy stockings this year or under the tree. These are bound to be one of the hottest items around, as they do a far better job than the humble smartphone for taking video of such pastimes as skateboarding, skiing, mountain bike riding, surfing, fishing or any of a few hundred other fun things.
But whilst in general action cams are easy to use, to get the very best footage - like the really good stuff you see on YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo etc - there are some things you can do to improve your shooting out of sight!
Firstly there is the actual camera setup. Depending on the camera make and model, there could be a myriad of options here but as a rule of thumb, a good 'average' setup is 1080 at 60p. To break this crypticism down:
- Recorded image is XAVC S at 50 Megabits / second
- Resolution is 1920 pixels x 1080 pixels
- Image frame rate is either 50 or 60p
- Playback frame rate is either 50 or 60p
Other settings include:
- Wind reduction = on
- Auto White Balance = on
- Scene Type = Normal
- WiFi = on
- GPS = 0n
- Steady Shot = on
Note that the higher the frame rate, the better slow motion you can obtain when editing the completed footage.
What are all those other settings for then you might ask?
Well a gentleman by the name of Abe Kislevits who is an expert in this area has summed it up on his blog thus:
- 2.7K 30fps Wide: Basically, it's super high res, but still the standard 30 frames per second. This means that you can selectively crop footage down to 1080 to really pull in on something (even more so if you're exporting to 720). Because the frame is so big at 2.7K you can still scale down to 1080p for lossless, stabilized video. A lot of image stabilization software trims off the edges of the video anyway. It's also supposedly the best for low light. File sizes tend to be larger at this setting so make sure you've got something to accommodate that, but as long as you've got a big enough card, this should probably be your go-to mode for POV shooting.
- 1080p 60fps Medium: It's super sharp, it's slow-mo (if you slow it down to 30fps in post), there's very little lens distortion, and there's no rolling-shutter jelly effect because of the higher frame rate. It's kind of the Goldilocks mode, and it's great for shooting others. If you're head-mounting you probably want to switch to wide mode, though, which is still super clean.
- 720p 120fps Narrow: This is your slo-mo money mode. 120 frames per second gets you 4x slow motion when played back at 30fps (or 5x if you go to 24fps), and the narrow field of view basically eliminates the lens distortion. You're left with super clean slooooo-mo. Now, it's 720p, so if you want your whole sequence to be full HD then you'll have to scale up, and the image will be noticeably soft. But you're probably exporting to 720p so it shouldn't matter as much and it'll still look great on YouTube/Vimeo/etc.
While these settings will work, of course don't forget to experiment and keep a little notebook (or the cool kids use Microsoft OneNote on their iPhone / iPad or Android smartphone / tablets) and write down the settings they have used for specific shot types they like.
The majority of action cameras come with a wide-angle lens - also called a "fish eye" - and this can cause problems in certain circumstances and be a bonus in others.
For example, if you have what is known as a "wide shot" or "panorama shot", with lots of background, horizon and sky, you'll get that "curved earth" effect where the images appear bent and look, well, downright weird.
This you would probably want to get rid of and the best way we known is a fabulous piece of software called ProDrenalin V2.0+ from a company which specialises in action camera post editing. More on ProDrenalin later as it has quite a few party tricks up its sleeve and deserves a section purely devoted to it alone.
But the fish eye effect can also be used to advantage. A close up of a person with a fish eye lens is not a flattering look; they look like they are reflected in the back of a large spoon, but an animal is a different kettle a fish. Try shooting a close up of your pooch or puddy tat's face, and with a dog, if it's tongue is lolling it, there is an Oscar right there alone!
Action cam footage is far more effective when you are close to the action. For example, if someone is skateboarding down a rail or jumping a snow drift, try and get at the end of the rail or under the drift so the action comes towards you and over the top. Imagine the difference as against being side on and zooming in. In comparison that is boring, boring, boring!
Oh and tip here, keep the camera rolling as often the best footage occurs AFTER the action you anticipated has passed. In the ski jump, the jumper may land in a swirl and flurry of snow, arms, legs and skis for example as against a graceful landing!
In professional shoots, the DOP (direct of photography) will spend lots of time scoping out the best locations and angles for shots and if you are serious, you should do the same. And especially pay attention to what may be in the background! There are two famous sequences in the annals of TV; the first was an old black and white TV show called Robin Hood, and in the start of the show, Robin fires and arrow from his bow and the camera follows it in the air, complete with telegraph poles! Another showed a diesel train during a cowboys and Indians shoot out!
If you are going out on a fishing trip, on the way out, why not work out the best location to mount the camera (or even better, cameras) to get the most exciting footage? If you have a boom pole, why not place it in such a way the camera is pointing BACK at the boat so you can shoot the expressions of the folk fishing? Much more exciting than shooting their back or side on. And if you have a Sony ActionCam with the WiFi wrist monitor (LVR) you can frame the shots perfectly during the action!
Or on mountain bike shots, if you set your action camera in the right place, or have a friend shoot HD video while you provide the action, you can get a good aspect as to how steep the environment actually is.
What can help here too - and again the trusty OneNote comes into play (it's a free app by the way from the iStore or Playstore)) is creating a rough "storyboard" of what you want to try and capture to later edit.
Don't forget you can splice shots together; it doesn't matter if a story shows footage from two, three or even four fish caught to make really good sequence of one fish being caught. Use different angles to get different perspectives. And when editing, keep each sequence short - 3 to 5 secs max. Watch any movie (or fishing show) and you'll see that is how the editor does it.
Oh, and avoid fancy or "cute" transition effects between shots as they only distract from the main footage. Lucas and Spielberg use them very minimally and so should you. A straight cut from sequence to sequence signifies action, whereas a blend or fade between sequences denotes time, just so you know. Some fancy graphic whizzbang cut or fade generally means you don't know what you are doing, especially in action footage.
Due to the nature of the beast, this is almost inevitable. Newer cameras have great stabilisation built in, but even this is not perfect. To minimise or even eliminate Camera Shake from your footage in editing, again check out the later section on the software ProDrenalin V2.0+.
Now this is getting into deeper territory and does not apply to all action cams as they may not have the capability to use these.
Filters are ostensibly pieces of glass that go over the front of the standard lens to provide different effects. And by effects I don't mean more of that cutesy stuff!
For example, in really bright locations such as in the snow or on the water, an ND filter can be used to tone down the brightness so your video is not washed out due to limitations of the camera being able to do that in the internal workings. Or believe it or not, a red filter can really add to underwater shots!
If you want to see the masters of filters at work, watch any of the scenery shots in the TV shop Top Gear or its even better "successor", The Grand Tour. They use filters to "pop" the clouds out of the blue in the sky, or accentuate the green in grass or brown in autumn leaves.
In fact watch the Grand Tour (its only$2.99 / month at the moment from Amazon Prime) and see master editors and camera people at work, let alone a very, very funny (and politically incorrect) car show.
If you are a fishing person, you know not to come back from on a day out or next to the briny and just throw all the gear back in the box, right? And so it is with your Action Camera gear, mounts, poles and other accessories. They should be cleaned of any salt, fish blood (or your own!) or whatever and left to dry.
Make sure lenses and filters are cleaned and kept safe from scratches or other damage, remove any SD or other memory cards and get the footage off them immediately to a safe place (I use a dedicated external USB drive for my action cam stuff). If your camera is waterproof, splashproof or has a special waterproof housing, make sure ALL the seals are clean and free of any grit and kept lubricated (Vaseline is good for this), and spray any mounts and poles etc with the special CRC or similar used for fishing gear.
Post Editing and ProDrenalin
As promised, the wizard to get rid of all the imperfections the action cam genre throws into footage is ProDrenalin V2.0+ from ProDAD.
As well as the fish eye effect mentioned earlier, ProDrenalin V2.0+ also removes a phenomenon known as "rolling shutter" among other things.
If you have ever seen footage of an aircraft propeller spinning, you will have undoubtedly noticed the prop "arms" appear to be grotesquely "bent". This is the rolling shutter effect and caused by the way the electronic shutter of action cams work.
ProDrenalin V2.0+ removes this effect giving you clean and clear footage.
Another one is camera shake as mentioned. This is removed in the process by the software finding a stable point in the affected footage and adjusting everything else accordingly. My brain cannot even comprehend the mathematics behind this, especially seeing how fast the process is. All I can think of is that the programmer(s) and engineers of ProDrenalin (and the other ProDAD packages such as Mercalli, Adorage, Vitascene and Heroglyph) must have grey matter the size of a planet (with apologies to Douglas Adams!)
ProDrenalin V2.0+ can also colour correct, change the brightness and tint, add some special effects (if you must!), change the footage saturation, and even do basic editing and storyboarding.
But don't take my word for it, watch the video! And there IS a trial version and the full version is only $79.20. EVERYONE with a camcorder and ESPECIALLY an action cam such as the Sony should have ProDrenalin V2.0+!
Editing and Pinnacle Studio
Of course, to make your finished masterpiece to submit to Tropfest, the Hollywood Guild or for your mad mates to watch over a beer or JD or two, you'll need to edit those hours of footage down to a manageable length - I'd suggest 3-5 mins as a max per single clip as after that people's interest and attention starts to wane.
You'll also want titles, perhaps some background music and / or a narrative, plus be able to export the finished product to a memory stick, SD card or even DVD so your scungy mates all have their own copy.
Here at Australian Videocamera over the years we have reviewed and used for real projects many, many video editing packages - called NLEs which stands for non-linear editor - and can think of none better for creating action cam stories than Pinnacle Studio 20.
It won't break the bank at $129.95 for the top of the range (Ultimate) version ($59.95 for the basic package and $99.95 for the Plus version - we recommend the top version for a number of reasons), and has all the editing "grunt" that editing programs 5 times the price.
If we take the Ultimate version, it has a drag and drop editor, comes with 2,000 effects and transitions, allows "stop motion" editing (think Wallace and Grommet), can edit multi camera shoots (so you and those mates can combine footage from separate cameras), motion tracking and much, much more. See the full comparison chart here.
And if you were lucky enough to score a 360-degree action cam, it will edit that too and also "straighten" it out to look like "ordinary" footage if you don't want a 360o version. Likewise, if you were REALLY good this year and Santa brought you a super-dooper 4K camera, it will also edit that and output to Blu-ray (or SD / memory stick) and let the shiny new 4K TV play it back I in all its glory!
Once you have unwrapped that package under the tree to reveal that ripper new Action Cam, don't think of it as a toy to simply play and have a bit of fun with. This is a SERIOUS bit of kit and you can, after a bit of experimenting, application and learning, become fantastic with it. It will open up a whole new world to you of creativity, thinking and perhaps even a direction of career.
And believe me, you NEVER stop learning and you come to look at the world through different eyes - the eyes of a videographer.
So, enjoy it, have fun with it, document your life with it, create memories that last forever... and post me your first edited piece you are REALLY proud of to [email protected].