Look, Ma, no hands! Taking your shooting to extreme levels has never been easier, with tinier cameras and easy-to-rig support gear – get ready to launch!
Helmet and small sport video camera recording systems are still a developing technology. They provide “hands-free” recording of activities, events and extreme sports such as rafting, cave exploration and trail bike riding. This article offers you some guidelines on what to look for in a helmet video camera supplier and the equipment itself.
A typical helmet camera is small and mounts to the side of a helmet. It has video and audio feeds leading back to a recording device (i.e., small camcorder) and a power supply feed leading back to a power source (i.e., battery pack). There is usually a LANC included as part of the system, which controls the recording and the power on/off of the recording device. The microphone makes up the final component of a helmet camera system.
Our sidebar below lists most of the well-known helmet camera systems and accessories suppliers. They all provide the basic components for a helmet camera system, though you may have to purchase the recording device from another source. Some suppliers are more interested in moving product, while others are more engineering-driven, spending their time and money on R&D versus marketing. I prefer to work with an engineering-driven supplier, as they are better able to configure a unique helmet camera system to suit your specific requirements.
Points of Interest
My major helmet camera uses are for whitewater rafting and cave exploration. The following are characteristics you may want to consider when deciding on a system configuration.
Camera Size: Most helmet camera units are the size of a tube of lipstick, (often called lipstick cams). They are lightweight and can be attached to a variety of surfaces.
Video Quality: Most suppliers list the lines of resolution for their camera units, usually 480 to 580 lines.
Camera Types: There are two primary types of cameras on the market. One type uses a Sony Ex-View Chip for recording the image, while the other is a Super HAD. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Sony Ex-View cameras have very good color resolution and perform best in outdoor lighting conditions. They do not perform as well in low light conditions, resulting in a loss of image clarity. Super HAD cameras, on the other hand, have better image clarity in low light, but lower color resolution. Based on this, I used a Sony Ex-View camera for outdoor events (rafting) and a Super HAD for underground events (cave exploration).
Waterproof Camera: There are some cameras that are waterproof and some that are not. Depending on your application, this can be a very critical issue for your consideration.
Waterproof Cable System: Some cable systems include waterproof quick-disconnects. Some are metal (heavy & bulky) and some are plastic (light & small). The type and quality of connector is very important when your application deals with a wet environment. Quick-disconnects, using a gasket-type configuration, will provide a better level of protection from water corrupting your video and audio signals.
Batteries: A separate battery will typically power your camera unit. There is a variety of battery types to pick from, including alkaline, NiMH, NiCad and lithium-ion. I prefer lithium-ions, since they are the lightest of the batteries and have very good run times.
Microphones: Microphones are a very important element in your helmet camera system. Some suppliers can provide waterproof microphones, while other cannot. Also, not all microphones perform equally well (sound quality).
Recording Devices: You will need a recording device to record the video and audio from the helmet camera and microphone. There are products that use a hard drive for recording, but they are subject to jarring in a dynamic environment. This is also true for those units that record onto DVD. I personally use a small DV video camera for my recording unit. It uses a Mini DV tape for recording the video and audio, and the camcorder is small, dependable and lightweight.
Protective Cases: You will need some type of protective case for your recording device and helmet camera battery. Waterproof cases, like those made by Pelican, work well, especially in wet environments (i.e., whitewater rafting). If you need only a water-resistant case, plastic food storage containers that have a seal/gasket can work. They are very inexpensive and, combined with some foam padding purchased at the local fabric store, are an effective and low-cost solution. Tip: Throw in a packet of silica gel to absorb moisture that might get inside.
Pricing: “You get what you pay for.” You can purchase a less-expensive system, but the video and audio quality will most likely be poor. If you want a high-quality system, you will end up spending a few hundred dollars.
Technical Support: This is where you’ll be able to tell the quality of a helmet camera supplier. The better suppliers will be able to answer your technical questions immediately.
Helmet Camera Accessories: Most of the suppliers mentioned sell a variety of accessories for helmet camera units, including mounts, cables, cases, microphones, etc. You will probably need to purchase the recording device (i.e., camcorder) from another source.
Warranty/Customer Support: You should ask suppliers about their warranty policy for the helmet camera and supporting components. Also, you may want to ask them about their policy for upgrading or swapping components. Some suppliers are very customer-oriented and are willing to work out “deals” with good customers, in an effort to develop a good working relationship with repeat customers.
If you are interested in a helmet camera system, I recommend you collect all of the details about how you want to use the system (subject matter, environment, location, lighting conditions, etc). Then contact a few helmet camera suppliers and ask them to help you configure the proper system. The good suppliers will be able and willing to help you identify and configure the proper system for your application.
Good luck and happy recording.
Mike Stoll has been using helmet cams and other devices for extreme shooting for several years, being both shooter and participant in extreme sports activities.
Side Bar: Helmet Camera Suppliers
This is a sampling of helmet camera suppliers. This is not a complete listing.