There’s nothing like being able to watch yourself surfing on video ... and realizing how badly you suck. Poo stances and botched floaters aside, one of the most relevant applications for in-water video capture is the GoPro line of waterproof sport cameras. I’ve had the chance to use the standard definition GoPro Wrist Hero Camera
on our Tribal outings as well as a trip to Maui with decent results. The Wrist Hero is small enough so you can still surf with it and effective enough so you can capture decent footage. Don’t expect jaw dropping Blu-ray quality, but for just about $150, you really can’t complain.
We had originally picked up a Panasonic SDR-SW20 waterproof camera to capture surfing footage. Although that worked pretty well, it decided to crap out on us while snorkeling in Kihei. Preferring not to buy another full-fledged camcorder, we decided to pick up the GoPro to pinch hit for the remainder of our stay in Maui. Although the video quality was not quite to par with the Panasonic, which in itself isn’t exactly eye-popping, it absolutely sufficed.Go Go Gadget GoPro
Small and durable, the Wrist Hero seems more like a portable gadget than a video capturing device. It basically looks like an oversized watch. The camera itself is a very barebones little box with nothing more than the lens, a light sensor, two buttons, and a tiny LCD display that would be hard pressed to render a game of pong.
The Wrist Hero is housed in a bullet-proof plastic case sealed water-tight by an o-ring and a large retainer. The retainer doubles as a clasp for the neoprene wrist-band. A clever setup with an elastic band allows the camera to be undone on one side with your other hand so you can tilt it up to capture footage. Just as quickly, you can re-fasten the camera and still get in a few paddles before duck-diving an incoming wave. Many times, I’ve even just duck-dived waves with the latch unfastened. The Wrist Hero can even be worn with a thin profile watch without interfering with the band.
If you’ve got the Wrist Hero strapped such that it wrests on the flat of your wrist, it does not get in the way of paddling. However, once you detach the elastic clasp, you have to twist your arm somewhat in order to get a good line of sight through the viewfinder. Taking footage with the camera is far more comfortable if it is rotated such that it rests (clasped) on the outside of your wrist, but this gets in the way of paddling. More concerning, you are subjecting the camera housing to more water resistance which may serve to weaken the seal in the long-run. Of course this might just be my paranoia kicking in.
At this size and for the price, you can’t expect a full on IMAX hi-def experience. What you do get is this “300”-esque grainy retro chic look. I personally think that is fine and adds a very home-made touch to the footage. I’m not gunning for National Geographic here. Here's some sample footage my wife took of me taking an ankle slapper at the Lahain breakwall.
Where the GoPro shines is it’s ability to capture footage in and under-water. It’s officially rated to withstand depths of 100 feet. Given the simplicity of design and the impervious nature of the case, I’d say that’s probably conservative. But I’d also say your head will probably implode from the water pressure before this guy will even flinch. Here I am chasing down sea turtles on a snorkeling trip to Molikini.
The Wrist Hero was meant for outdoor activity, and in such environments, the automatic lighting and white balance adjustments are actually pretty impressive. The camera adjusts exposure quickly and accurately when shifts in light suddenly occur such as having the sun in front and then to the back of the subject. Night or indoors footage however just simply looks awful. Unless you’re going for some strange artsy look, I would just forget about taking any low light footage with this camera. Granted, the camera was not designed for this sort of filming.
Although the Wrist Hero does have a microphone (8kHz, mono), I wouldn’t rely on it to capture any voices or sounds whether in the background or foreground. When enclosed in the waterproof case, you can pretty much forget about any sound capture. You can set volume sensitivity in the camera to compensate for background noise, but I'm not sure that necessarily accomplishes anything.Is It On?
Everyone I know that’s owned the GoPro has at least a handful of footage with them staring dumbfounded at the camera wondering if it’s even on. In order to keep to the micro size of the Wrist Hero, a tiny LCD screen is the only way you have to control the camera modes and get information on the camera. A small red LED in the viewfinder flashes intermittently to tell you that it is capturing footage. Although it takes a while to get used to the menu system, it will eventually allow you to access all the features of the camera fairly quickly and easily even while paddling or swimming.
In addition to video, which is what I use my GoPro for 99.99% of the time, there are modes that allow you to take regular photos, take two or three successive photos, take a photo every five seconds, or set a timer to take a photo after a ten second delay. There is also a mode that captures images upside-down to accommodate certain situations. Like if you’re surfing upside-down, presumably. Maintenance functions include a mode for deleting just the last photo or video taken and for deleting everything on the memory card. There are also preference settings such as remembering what mode the camera was in when last turned on or defaulting to a photo mode as well as power saving modes.
Point being, a lot is being communicated through a tiny LCD screen so if you want to get the most out of the Wrist Hero, certainly take the time to go through the manual and familiarize yourself with the less than intuitive navigation. Personally, I never even knew about half of these features until writing this review.Technicals
The Wrist Hero sports a standard CMOS sensor and a glass lens at f/2.8 aperture with a 54 degree angle of view. In English, it’s a basic camera.
In terms of storage, the camera makes use of an SD card maxing out at 2 GB. That sounds pretty small in today’s standards but since video is being captured under “standard definition” (512 x 384 MJPEG 30 FPS), I’ve actually never found myself running out of space. For reference, the Lahaina and Molikini videos above weighed in at only 9 MB and 6 MB, respectively. Capacity is officially listed at 56 minutes of footage or 1,945 photos. I’ve also just used the generic SD cards you can get cheap at the geek stores with no problems whatsoever.
This Wrist Hero is powered by two AAA batteries. Using regular (NiMH) batteries, I’ve been able to get just over an hour of footage. If you’re so inclined, you can pack some more expensive lithium ion batteries in there and get closer to three hours. It’s best to carry around an extra set of batteries, and you should be fine.
You also get some cables to connect the camera to a USB port into your computer or video inputs on a device, but I usually just slip the SD card into my computer and copy the videos from there. No need for any additional software or drivers on your computer so long as it can read SD cards to begin with. Just drag and drop.GoPro Flavors
The more popular “Surf Hero” comes in a wide-lens version that mounts to the front of a surfboard. The video quality is the same as its Wrist Hero counterpart but the lens boasts a 170 degree angle of view (versus the 54 degree angle for the Wrist Hero). You’ll see tons of videos floating around on the internet capturing a “board’s eye” view of people surfing using the Surf Hero. The Surf Hero mounts to a surfboard through a permanent, stick-on baseplate or FCS compatible plug mounts which are actually shaped into the board just like the fin plugs. As far as I understand, the two Heroes are similar in all other respects. I was advised by shop owners who had used the Surf Hero extensively to opt for the Wrist Hero if I were intending on taking footage of other people. The super wide-angle nature of the Surf Hero, while ideal for close-up shots, distorts subjects that are too far away.
You can also get a pretty sick variety of mounts for the Heroes. There is a handlebar seatpost mount for bicycles. There is a rollbar mount for ATVs or go-karts. A head-strap mount, tripod mount, vented helmet mount, and even a chest mount for ... well let’s just say there’s a mount for whatever that’s for.
A high definition version of the Hero camera was recently released priced at about $100 more than its standard definition cousin. The HD Surf Hero appears to only come in a wide-angle variety although with a dizzying set of hi-def settings from 1080P (1920 x 1080; 127 degree angle; 30 FPS); 960P (1280 x 960; 170 degree angle; 30 FPS); and 720P (1280 x 720; 170 degree angle; 30 and 60 FPS). In addition to the HD-ness of this Surf Hero on steroids, everything seems to have been juiced from improved audio recording to depth ratings to a rechargeable lithium ion battery.The Word
As far as capturing surfing footage – while actually surfing – the GoPro line of Hero cameras is as close to ideal as I’ve seen. Although the camera was clearly designed for a number of different applications other than surfing, it’s as if it was designed specifically for surfing. The Wrist Hero is unobtrusive so you can surf just fine while wearing it. It’s quick release latch allows you to snap footage quickly. The menu system can be quirky at best. The Spartan LCD display will not be winning any design contests. Notwithstanding, the camera does exactly what it says it will do – capture images in the water. So long as you’re not aspiring to be camera one in Taylor Steele’s next flick, the Wrist Hero is a great buy for the price.DISCLOSURE: THE AUTHOR OF THIS ARTICLE PURCHASED THIS PRODUCT AT MSRP FOR PURPOSES OF TESTING.