Dramatically Improve Your On-Bike Action Cam Footage
- by Christopher Jones
- Published: 1 March 2014
A lot can go wrong when you’re capturing great action cam footage on your bike that will ruin all of the fun. The footage can “go missing”, become corrupt, get distorted, or be so wobbly that you think you are stuck in a blender watching the outside world. I have experienced all of these disasters and more since getting my first action cam, the GoPro Hero1. I have however been able to eliminate or minimise most of the problems and will share the tips and tricks I’ve learned to help you get better footage on the bike.
Missing or Corrupt Footage
This is one of the hardest problems to resolve but you will minimise the chances of this happening if you make sure that you have a quality Class 10 SD or Micro SD card for high resolution filming. Memory cards with a lower speed rating may be too slow to record higher video resolutions. This may cause the camera to drop frames or even stop recording and damage any existing footage.
A Kingston 16 GB SD card, a SanDisk Ultra Micro SD card and an adapter for the Micro SD card
It goes without saying that the memory card also needs to be large enough to capture for the duration over which you are filming and the camera needs to have sufficient battery life.
A frequent problem with missing footage is simply forgetting to record or pressing the wrong buttons. The default GoPro settings have caused me a lot of anguish when it accidentally switches from film mode into photo mode, so it can be worth changing the settings to start recording automatically when the camera is turned on. Other brand cameras, such as Sony or Contour, offer a one button/switch recording function.
To minimise these problems, read the manual, set up the camera, and then develop a routine of formatting the memory card, charging the camera, and checking the settings before recording. If you are recording action footage that you can’t afford to lose, review it and, when possible, back it up on location to ensure that it is safe.
Hard cases for camera are fantastic for protecting against damage and water, but as the camera heats up it can cause condensation to build up inside the camera where it often builds up on the inside of the lens. Changing temperatures can accelerate or intensify the effects of condensation and, when that Vaseline ‘wedding photo’ look with the blurred edges creeps over to engulf the entire scene, then you can throw the footage away.
Perfect conditions, but the video is ruined by fog
The easiest solution is to film without the closed waterproof case, but for biking this often isn’t practical as the camera has to be mounted and usually requires the case to mount. The Drift Ghost, Garmin Virb, ContourRoam and brand new Sony (AS100V) camera are waterproof without a case, whereas the Contour+2, GoPro, and Sony (AS30V and AS15) cams require a case. Older GoPro cameras were delivered with an additional ‘open’ door with holes and this fixed the fogging problem. To get the best of both worlds, I would stick strips of Gaffer tape onto the outside of the case which I could then move and temporarily cover the holes if there was an unexpected downfall.
Emergency Gaffer tape to seal the holes in the ‘open’ door in case of rain
The new GoPro cameras have a ‘skeleton’ case as an optional accessory and, while fogging isn’t as bad, it still happens. Fogging was, and is, a serious issue with the new and original Sony Action Cams. There is no ‘open case’ option, unless you’re using a helmet mounted strap which doesn’t use the closed waterproof case. To try and eliminate the fogging issue, I tried two techniques: firstly, using a hair dryer to evaporate any moisture and secondly, anti-fog spray which is applied to the inside of the lens of the camera case. Neither are effective, and anti-fog spray is difficult to use as it forms a thin film on the inside of the lens which can also distort the video footage.
The most effective anti-fog solution I have tested, and one that works on all cameras, is anti-fog inserts. While they are not cheap, they can usually be reused, and simply baking them in the oven or microwave for a very short time dries them.
Anti-Fog inserts were required for the Sony Action Cams to eliminate fogging.
Cleaning up your act
Greasy fingerprints on the camera lens, or the lens of the case, are just as bad as dust spots or road and trail grime. The camera lens, and the waterproof cover lens (inside and out), needs to be spotless and it is worth getting a small sunglass cleaning cloth for this purpose. Train yourself to keep your fingers away from the lens and this makes it easier to polish after or prior to each ride.
The dirty lens of an original GoPro Hero1
Most sports action cameras unfortunately don’t come with a lens cap, which is unusual considering SLR and compact cameras either have a lens cap or a protective shutter when it is not in action. A consolation is that the protective lens on the waterproof case for some brands is replaceable which is cheaper to replace than an entire new case if you do scratch it.
I’m all shook up!
Up until now, even if you have done everything right, if you are not mounting the camera properly, the video could turn out unpleasant or un-watchable.
An example of ‘shutter roll’ (jello effect) when vibration causes distorted footage
The easiest solution to get smooth footage is to not mount your camera on your bike. A helmet mount will immediately improve the fluidity of your footage as your body absorbs the bumps. The downsides of this are that helmet mount makes you look like a dork, you have the extra weight of the camera on your helmet, and if you like to look around then the video will follow you and swing left and right, up and down. The long thin format of Contour and Sony cameras are better suited to mounting on the side of your helmet.
Chest mounts are an alternative that save you from carrying the extra weight away from your head, and also reduces the amount of movement in the footage (due to your natural head movements). The chest offers a lower vantage point and will include your arms and front of the bike in the field of view. This perspective is fascinating to watch for mountain biking with the front suspension pumping up and down.
A bike mounted camera is by far the most convenient mounting option, but is also the most susceptible to vibration and movement. The first step to reduce this problem is to toss out the plastic mount that came with the camera. Get some cable ties, some super glue, and some foam, and mock a mount up yourself, or use a K-Edge mount, which is CNC machined from aluminium, which is the best solution I have found so far.
K-Edge produce handlebar and saddle mounts that fit the GoPro style camera mounts as well as cameras with a ‘camera screw thread’ (Universal 1/4-20 UNC thread) which is used by the Sony Action Cams (you may be familiar with this screw-in type mount on SLR cameras or compact digital cameras).
A small section from an old inner tube will protect your handlebar
When attaching the K-Edge handlebar mounts, I usually take a small strip of rubber from an old inner tube and use this to protect the handlebar and provide a slight dampener before tightening the K-Edge mount and attaching the camera. You need to ensure that the screws are tight and there is no movement. On a side note, while the handlebar mounts are built for 31.8mm diameter handlebars, if you have a smaller diameter handlebar it is possible to pad it out.
The aluminium mount eliminates the vibration and flex that is responsible for the rolling shutter/jello effect. For rough terrain, the footage may be harsh and every bump that travels up your fork and through the handlebars will be noticed, but this is still far better than distorted video. Footage captured from behind using the saddle mount is generally a little more stable than the front since the weight of your body reduces the amount of vibration that travels up the seatpost in comparison to the front forks and handlebars.
Saddle mount with GoPro fitting [left] and ‘universal mount’ adapter [right]
The action cam mounts comfortably on the saddle rails
Screen capture from rear mounted camera – watch the Mountain Biking in Rotorua Video
I have two gripes with the K-Edge. Firstly, it is pricey – after purchasing a $400 – $500 camera, and perhaps a few accessories, paying an extra $50 – $70 for a mount is asking a lot. I bit the bullet and got both a front and rear mount and, after seeing the results, I recognised that it was money well spent.
The hex bolt in the old version K-Edge mounts was prone to wear
The second issue was the 3mm Allen key (hex) bolts used for GoPro style cameras; they are inferior and easily wear. The current models, however, appear to have new bolts and are hopefully more durable. The camera screw thread version is quite nifty; the camera is first fastened by hand (by turning the dial) and then a larger 5mm Allen key is used to really tighten the screw. When it is not in use, a nicely integrated rubber o-ring ensures that thumb-screw doesn’t fall out. Nice!
The K-Edge mounts are purpose built, so they mount very well. With the saddle mount, you wont be able to carry a saddle bag, and with the front mount you may have issues with brake and gear cables getting in the way. I prefer the GO BIG “Pro” version of the mount which extends the camera forward to clear the cables.
Make sure that you mount your camera below the handlebar. Not only is the camera tucked away and the space around your handlebars clear, in the case of an accident the camera is better protected. GoPro cameras can be easily adjusted to film up-side-down, but the original Sony camera (HD-AS15) couldn’t, so footage needed to be rotated on your computer.
In Australia the K-Edge mounts are imported by De Grandi and are available from retailers across the country.
The Cinematic Experience
There are other ways to improve your footage. Simply lowering your tyre pressure will reduce the amount of vibration transported through your bike. There are limits to this, and the road or trail surface will still impact the quality, but it is a simple and effective option.
Current generation cameras often have a video stabilisation option and I recommending testing this option before a big filming run. Stabilisation may be able to take away the tiny bumps and improve the fluidity, but may come at the cost of a slightly lower video quality. For higher quality video production, some video editing tools also have stabilising options and can be easily tested. In my experience, YouTube’s video stabilisation is rubbish for bike video and will further degrade the overall quality. If you are producing high quality video, you might want to look to Vimeo which has garnered a reputation for professional videos.
If you have aspirations for breath-taking action video, you should start exploring different mounting options on the bike and off the bike. Even before you introduce expensive digital SLRs to take your movie making to the next level, the sports action camera, when setup properly will give you a lot of bang for your buck.
Chosing the right camera is a different story, for now, this is an unsorted list with web links of the major players along with the name of their current top model action camera:
Sony: Sony Action Cam HDR-AS100VR
GoPro: GoPro Hero3+ Black
Drift Innovation: Drift Ghost-S
BlackVue: BlackView Sport SC500
Rollei: Rollei S-50 Nitro Circus
JVC: JVC Adixxion GC-XA2
Garmin: Garmin Virb Elite
ION: ION Air 3 Wifi
Shimano: Shimano Sport Camera CM-1000
Polaroid: Polarois XS80 HD
There is a lot of cheap junk and look-alike cameras on the market so take tike to check the specifications.
Edited: From feedback, specific detail note on Sony camera model regarding recording up-side-down