Tips for Better Action Camera Video

Get the most out of that GoPro!

A GoPro HERO4 in a clamp mount.
A GoPro HERO4 in a clamp mount. Getty Images

Action cameras are gaining popularity at a pace as rapid as the action they regularly capture, but with simplicity and ease of use comes a new challenge: getting the most out of a pocket-sized camera.

Action cameras can do amazing things. Shoot at dizzying frame rates, plunge deep underwater, and capture Ultra High Definition (UHD) or better footage. They also mount to pretty much anything with a handlebar or suction-cup friendly surface.

So why do some shots look like they were filmed with a Hollywood movie camera and others like an antique Minolta?

Most likely it’s because we’re prone to forgetting that a camera is a camera. Ten short years ago, GoPro shipped it’s first camera and it included a roll of Kodak 400 film. Things have certainly progressed since then, but the very same fundamentals that existed then still apply.

Let’s take a look at some of the drawbacks of modern action cameras, and consider how we can shoot to best minimize those drawbacks.

Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Vibrato.

The first issue with any small format camera is the lack of space in the camera body for some of the features of larger cameras, including any optical image stabilization. It’s most likely that an action camera will have, at most, some digital stabilization, but even that is unlikely. Considering that most of these cameras are designed to be placed on or around moving objects without any damping, the footage is totally at the mercy of it’s environment for stability.

Some shots may work terrifically well, but many will appear shaky and frenetic, particularly when shooting handheld.

To minimize shake, a few things can be done. The first is to practice fundamentals of handheld shooting to develop an understanding of what effect camera shake has on footage. Slow, steady movement can minimize shake dramatically.

Additionally, there are many tools on the market today to smooth out action camera footage. Gimbals, steadicams, thousands of mounts, and “selfie” poles or sticks.

Mounting action cameras to any of these can work wonders in smoothing out footage, as well as add the ability to get some shots that would be nearly impossible otherwise.

When it comes to tiny cameras, it’s important to use some imagination when looking for creative stabilization methods. One cool trick to try is to hold an action camera against your face and take some shots - the minute shakes and jiggles will be smoothed out, as our head is one of the best naturally stabilized objects on the planet.

Plan, compose, shoot. Repeat.

Whether shooting with a GoPro, smartphone or DSLR, the rules still apply. Each camera shoots a certain area, and some shots are going to look better composed than others.

While there are no hard and fast rules, and composition guidelines are regularly broken to great effect, keeping composition basics such as the Rule of Thirds in mind while shooting can make a huge difference.

With ultra-wide angle action camera shooting, particularly on cameras with no viewfinder it can be difficult to nail composition every time, so what can be done?

The answer is planning. Draw some pictures of the vision in your head. It might sound boring, but good planning generally means a better outcome.

Let’s look at a case study:

One of the most popular series of videos on YouTube are Ken Block’s Gymkhana series. In the series, Ken and other stunt drivers blast around ridiculous obstacle courses with cars, trucks, bikes, and whatever else they get their hands on. The videos appear to be seamless thrill rides involving, often times, a single driver and vehicle.

As it turns out, one of these shoots can involve as many as a hundred GoPros, along with a handful of Canon DSLRs and at least one ARRI camera.

Figuring out composition on over a hundred cameras is a massive, essential effort, as these aren’t the kinds of shoots where you want to have to do a dozen takes. Many GoPros are harmed in the making of these videos, and often the first take has to work.

The lesson from these videos is to plan a shoot like Ken’s team. Think about what would make for the best shot, draw out some ideas for angles to try, and take some test shots. Figure out which environmental factors affect a shot - it may be too dark to get a good shot from the underside of a skateboard, or wind may add shake to a camera not mounted firmly enough. Even if some footage doesn’t make the cut, practice and planning will help, and the keepers will be that much better for the extra work.

One final tip on fundamentals is to keep an eye on how clean lenses, cases and enclosures are. Some dirt or a fingerprint on a lens can ruin a shot. Some dirt on a fingerprint on a lens for a day can ruin a day.

Improving shots with add-ons and technique

So the footage is now smooth, shake-free, and well thought out. What else can be done to improve action camera footage?

Let’s start with exposure. Action cameras, like DSLRs and other specialty cameras, lack built-in neutral density (ND) filters to help with exposure in bright environments. While action cameras love bright outdoor environments, they can have trouble dealing with things like bright sunlight, which can cause highlights in shots to “blow out”. Look for external add-on ND filter options (or special effect filters) for the action camera you are using. Some companies offer great options for customizing action camera shooting. If they don’t, think outside the box and look for things around the house that can be taped onto the front of a camera to change a look.

One of the best things action cameras have brought to the table are the amazing high frame rates many of them can shoot at. Shooting at a higher frame rate means much smoother slow motion is possible when editing. There are many resources online to help with slow motion and techniques for cool speed effects. Check out “speed ramping” in particular, where footage goes between playing back at full speed and into slow motion over a period of time, or vice versa.

Wrapping it all up

Well, this is a start. Our footage is smooth, thought out, speed ramped, and maybe shot with a filter or two. There are other considerations, such as the crummy audio that most of these cameras capture, but that’s a story for another day.

The primary thing to keep in mind is that with each of these cameras, regardless of the resolution they shoot, the sensor and image processor in that little body are probably pretty darn small. They can work wonders in many cases, but they can’t perform miracles.