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Action cameras: getting the most from your GoPro

09 February 2022

Thinking of buying an action camera, such as a GoPro? We take a look at what to consider and how to get the best out of your purchase.

A GoPro on a tripod perches above the surface of the water

Small, cheap and virtually indestructible, the name GoPro has entered our language as a verb and a noun as a way of shooting film or taking photos that would have been almost impossible previously. While the ubiquitous selfie might leave you cold (and if it does you are not alone…) the GoPro phenomenon – which is, after all, generally nothing more than a video selfie – is a genuinely interesting and useful way to transform the way you shoot holiday and hobby video.

What is a GoPro?

GoPro is to video cameras what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners and Biro is to disposable pens; it’s a brand name that is now sometimes used to describe any cheap, tough action camera.

A GoPro is simply a small, wearable video camera that is rugged enough to be used to shoot first-person views under almost any circumstances. It gives a very wide field-of-view and so you’ll see them strapped to the side of cars, on top of surf boards, on the front of paragliders’ helmets, inside the cockpit of a fighter jet and even strapped to a dog’s collar. Their use is limited only by the imagination of the user.

Why are they so popular?

The key to their success is their versatility, something made possible due to an unfeasibly wide selection of accessories that enable you to mount them to almost anything. They are also relatively cheap, meaning that many extreme sports enthusiasts see them as almost disposable in their quest to shot the next viral video.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what your dog gets up to in the park or how an egg is poached, a GoPro lets you find out.

How do I use an action camera?

In essence, you attach them to an object and shoot a stream of film onto a memory card that is later downloaded and edited into the finished film.

You can tailor the field of view your GoPro gives from wide (14mm equivalent and roughly 150°) through medium (21mm and 110°) to narrow (28mm and 75°). This gives you the option of shooting different formats depending on what field of view you want to show. Wide is always a good default option that works well for almost everything.

A GoPro is fundamentally different to shooting with a smartphone or a conventional video camera because with the latter you are looking at what you’re shooting, which means you’ll be instinctively framing and re-framing your shots as the action changes.

With a GoPro you’re setting up the shot and then getting on with whatever it is you’re doing. This makes framing harder, so you’ll need to give it a bit more thought, especially if you’re filming yourself doing something active.

Downloading the GoPro app to your Smartphone will enable you to see what your camera is seeing when it is static. This might sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many videos are ruined because the action was taking place just outside the frame, even with the wide-angle of view a GoPro gives.

GoPro’s editing software is free and easy to use and saves you having to buy a third-party editing suite, the price of which can easily run into the mid-hundreds.

Are there any alternatives to GoPro?

Many other action camera brands exist, with almost every video camera manufacturer looking to steal a slice of this lucrative market. Supermarkets will often sell unbranded versions for as little as £30, while other brands available include TomTom, Garmin and Sony.

Check the reviews of the models you’re interested in as quality can be variable.

What should I look for in an action camera?

Some of the key areas to look for are:

  • Battery life: how long does the battery last? Can it be removed to fit a new one or do you have to stop filming to recharge the integral battery?
  • Waterproofing: is it waterproof or do you need to buy a separate case to keep the water out?
  • Compatibility: can it be used with generic accessories? In reality this means using the GoPro style of mount, which is widely available from GoPro itself as well as thousands of aftermarket manufacturers.

Don’t get too hung-up on specifications, though. Almost every single action camera from a £20 eBay special all the way up to a £500 professional model is capable of shooting fun and exciting videos. You could always start with cheaper model and upgrade once you know you’re going to use it frequently.

What accessories should you get?

Your new GoPro or other action camera will come with a selection of mounts; however, investing in some GoPro accessories will help protect it and get the very best video footage.

A good memory card

Your GoPro’s memory card is the only link between you and what you’ve shot and if the card fails, you’ve lost everything. So it’s just not worth trying to save a few pounds by buying cheap microSD cards. Go for reputable brands such as SanDisk, Lexar or Kensington.

Selfie stick

If you want to take selfies or film yourself talking to camera you’ll need a selfie stick that is rigid enough to prevent your GoPro wobbling too much but extends far enough to enable you to get a decent shot of you strutting your stuff. It also needs to collapse down so you can stuff it in your pocket when you’re not using it. They typically cost around £15.

A decent case

There is an endless selection of cases for your GoPro ranging from cheap neoprene bags all the way through to rigid plastic cases.

If you want something really high quality then Pelican cases are a good option. They’re dust and waterproof and will protect your equipment from practically everything. No, they aren’t cheap but you’ll only ever have to buy it once, thanks to the lifetime guarantee. You might even be able to pick up a bargain on eBay.

Tripod grip

A tripod grip is, as the name suggests, a tripod that can also be used as a handgrip. You’re looking for something that feels comfortable in your hand and is rigid and stable enough to give a solid foundation when you’re using it as a tripod. These accessories are available from around £5 all the way up to £100 and more.

Floating handgrip

If you’re messing about on the water then you’ll need a floating handgrip. A brightly coloured one would make finding it easier in low light, but other than that I’m guessing that anything that is comfortable to hold and floats would fit the bill. They usually cost just a few pounds.

Different mounts

From helmet mounts to bike handle mounts to chest mounts and pet mount, GoPros and other action cameras have a range of mounts available for whatever you want to record. The GoPro are brilliantly engineered and will last you a lifetime (assuming you don’t lose them) but they can be pricey. There are thousands of companies out there making alternatives that are probably as good and certainly an awful lot cheaper.

Thumb screw wrench

The GoPro thumbwheels give a rock-solid grip but if you’ve cranked them down tight they can be tricky to undo, especially if you’ve got a touch of arthritis in your hands. There are plenty available in some rather nice anodized finishes, and a lot of them even come with spare thumbscrews too. The Tool from GoPro themselves costs just a few pounds and makes short work of loosening even the tightest of thumbwheels. It also has a handy bottle opener on the other end. You know, just in case…

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Get the most from our action camera

So, you’ve chosen your new GoPro (or equivalent) and you want to get out and use it. While the instruction manual will give you all the basic information that you’ll need, taking these tips into account will help raise your game and give you a video you can be proud of!

Get your numbers right

The resolution that you shoot at can make a huge difference to the amount of memory you use. Most, if not all, action cameras can shoot at 1080p, and some can even shoot in full 4k, but you should resist the temptation to think that bigger is always best. Big files take up a lot of memory on your memory card and take a lot longer to render and edit on your computer too.

While 1080P and 4K are the Gold Standard, most of us will be perfectly satisfied with 720p (the figure refers to the number of pixels on the vertical axis of your frame) and will enjoy the smaller file sizes that result more than we would the marginal improvement that comes from shooting at a higher resolution.

You’ll also be able to set the number of frames you shoot at per second, or fps. Films used to be shot at 24 fps and the human eye struggles to be able to tell the difference at anything higher than 25fps, which is the more modern equivalent.

The exception is if you want to be able to slow the action down for a slow motion film. In this case you can set the frame rate to 60fps or more.

Keep checking your camera

Even the best footage will be ruined if your camera isn’t being held steady, so it’s worth checking the footage and considering the best place to mount it to stop it wobbling. Always use a tripod or other solid mount if you can. If you’re holding it in your hand then a decent grip will help. Of course, if you’re attaching it to your dog then all bets are off.

It’s always worth checking that the camera is still shooting. It’s all too easy to find you’ve missed some great footage because you’ve run out of memory or battery power or knocked a critical button by mistake…

Consider the B-roll

B-roll is the footage that filmmakers slip into action footage to give a sense of place. You can do the same by shooting some stock footage of traffic going past, the sun setting, people strolling along, or a city skyline. Consider the whole film, not just the action sequences.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.