In the old days (like two or three years ago), shooting video or still photos of yourself surfing, kayaking, mountain biking, or any other action sport involved more than a little trouble. Special mounts, wide lenses and wired or wireless shutter tripping devices were needed, and you had to figure out how to mount your camera without it getting smashed, dirty or wet.
Then along came the first GoPro, a small, helmet-mountable, waterproof camera capable of shooting video and stills. Other manufacturers got in on the game, a floodgate of personal action sports imagery was opened, and you can now document every adventurous move you make.
1. GoPro HERO2
The camera: GoPro is the company that started it all. The HERO 2 is the third version of GoPro and their best to date. It shoots a variety of video frame rates at wide to medium angles. It also shoots 11MB stills and has the capacity to do bursts of ten frames a second. The camera is small and comes with a waterproof-shockproof housing and a variety of mounts for helmets, kayaks, and bikes.
The verdict: I’ve been hooked on GoPros since the first model came out two and a half years ago. The HD version was a quantum leap with sharp, clear video and stills that are actually hi-res enough for publication. The Hero 2 is even better, and it even comes with a menu that a normal person can comprehend (unlike the previous model, which was very user un-friendly if you ever needed to change settings without a newspaper-sized instruction sheet handy). All the video modes look good and crisp, although maybe not quite as sharp as some of the other cameras. Low-light recording is improved as well as the still photo quality. This is the big guy on the block that all the others are trying to match up to. $299
2. Contour Roam
The camera: Bullet shaped, cool looking, easy to use, mountable, waterproof (up to one-meter submersion) without a special housing.
The verdict: It’s good for shooting 1080 HD video with 170-degree coverage at a variety of frame rates. But it has no LCD screen, camera menu, or controls of any kind other than an on-off switch. It does have a laser leveler. To change modes, you have to hook up to a computer and run a program, which is practically insane. Try doing that in the field, on the fly. If you’re only interested in video and want to keep things simple, this might be the camera for you. It comes with a variety of mounts and uses Micro SD cards. $199
3. Drift HD170 Stealth
The camera: The Drift is similar in shape and size to the Contour and is the only camera with integrated LCD screen for both live monitoring and playback. It shoots 1080, 170-degree video, and stills.
The verdict: It’s the sharpest video of the lot, although a bit oversaturated. The Drift has easy menu controls for switching between video and still modes and the built-in screen is small but handy for live viewing and composing. It has a rotating lens, which is pretty cool for level shots no matter what angle the camera is mounted. Still photos are decent, but not as good as the GoPro. It comes with a wireless remote for off-camera triggering. 1/4“ tripod thread is handy too. $179
4. Swann Freestyle HD
The camera: This GoPro wannabe looks good out of the box with waterproof housing, wireless remote, detachable LCD screen and an array of Go Pro-like mounts. It shoots 1080 HD (130-degrees) and stills in a variety of resolutions and intervals.
The verdict: Swann is a leading maker of security cameras, and the Freestyle HD is a first foray into the action sports market. The camera suffers from a bunch of problems, beginning with inferior optics. The menu controls won’t hold certain settings once powered off. And you need the LCD back to adjust the menu but it won’t fit in the housing. The stills are lousy, owing to a lens that’s not sharp from side to side. Plus the slightly larger housing is even more prone to fogging than the GoPro housing. This could be a good camera if it had a better lens and a re-engineered menu. I’d wait for the second version to see if the bugs get worked out. $279