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With video production and video & film technology journalism being my main professions in life (I’m currently the deputy editor of RedShark News if you’re interested) I am quite often asked how to get the best from cameras, and how best to edit. To quote Anthony Hopkins as the elder Zorro, this is going to take a lot of work!

Okay maybe not a huge amount, but effort will be involved. I’m mainly going to talk about the GoPro cameras, particularly the Black Edition from version 5 onwards, with a focus on the 6, because frankly these are the best on the market no matter what the on-paper specifications of rival cameras tell you. Paper specs only tell you half the story. I know there are alternatives such as the Yi 4K cameras. But those have limitations such as the LCD screen being completely impossible to view in daylight. And if you are going to get varied shots, having a screen that you can actually see is important!

The GoPro Hero 6 Black has a huge and varied set of settings that can be adjusted, and an extremely comprehensive number of frame rates and resolutions. So much so that to the technically uninitiated it can be completely befuddling.

Having said that, much of what I say here is still quite highly transferable to other makes. Mainly because making good video is down to how you use the camera rather than the features it has. But… And there is always a but, the settings you use will still have a big influence if you know how to use them.

Filming kayaking is hard

Unfortunately for those of us who take part in this mad sport, white water kayaking is most likely the hardest adventure activity to film, especially with an action camera.

The reasons for this are pretty straightforward. Kayakers and canoeists need to use both hands, so that puts handheld poles of the kind that skiers use to take selfie shots, or to get follow shots of other skiers out of the running. Furthermore, we can’t even use gimbals to stabilise the camera because they wouldn’t survive a dunking. At least not while in the boat.

Can we take bank footage? Sure. But the issue with action cameras is that due to the extremely wide angle of view you need to get very close to the action in order to get an effective looking shot. This requires a very narrow river or good access to be able to get very close to a particular feature. Otherwise we risk the paddler simply looking like a dot in the distance due to the wide angle of the lens.

However, such bank based angles are important because, frankly, a video that is made up entirely of headcam is incredibly boring to watch.

Making good video takes effort

Making good video is difficult. It’s one reason I don’t often make kayaking videos. So one of the things you should do, if you want to make better videos, is to be quite selective about what you film.

Whether your video has any viewable interest is, at its most basic level, down to whether the activity you are filming is interesting. I know that others in the group just want to see a video no matter how crap it is, but we are talking about making better videos here, aren’t we?

Best GoPro modes for head cam

So what are the best modes to use on a GoPro when kayaking? It all depends on the angle you are taking. Let’s start with the most common, and over used one, the head cam.

Head cam is overused as I have mentioned. But worse than that it is often poorly set up using a less than optimal mode of operation. The first thing to know about head cam with a GoPro on a kayak is that you need to set up the angle on your helmet.

Some people prefer to mount the camera on top, slightly near the front of their helmet, while others like to have it more forward to reduce the risk of damage if they go over. Personally I think it’s much of a muchness. The camera sticks out no matter what, so it’s going to be taking hits regardless. The important thing is to set the angle correctly, and also the mode of the camera.

Most modern GoPro’s have two relevant modes that are best for this. 1440, 2.7K 4:3, 4K 4:3, and Superview.

All of these modes do similar things, they give a slightly wider view horizontally, and a much wider view vertically. Superview does something special however. First an explanation.

What the hell is 4:3?

What does 4:3 mean? Without going too technical 4:3 is basically recording a square(ish) image. Remember what televisions were like before widescreen (I know some readers might not be old enough to remember!)? That’s the 4:3 shape. These days virtually all televisions and monitors are 16:9 (that’s to say that the height of the screen is nine sixteenths of the width).

Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t go all technical, but it’s important. When you record footage from a GoPro in 4:3 mode and play it back on a modern television you will have great big black borders either side of the image, because you are displaying a squareish image on a wider rectangular screen. Still with me?

4-3-illustration

The 4:3 video as recorded by some GoPro modes will leave black borders either side of the screen when shown on a modern 16:9 television if it isn’t modified in some way.

So what can be done about that? If you are a computer geek you can go into a video editing package such as FCP X or Resolve and do what is called a dynamic stretch. That is to say stretch out the sides of the image to fill the rectangle while leaving the centre of the image pretty much untouched. You can get a lot of control this way.

Superview

The ‘shoot-and-forget’ method of achieving pretty much the same thing is to use what’s called Superview mode. In this mode you get the full height and width of view of the 4:3 modes, but the GoPro stretches out the sides of the image to fill a 16:9 screen width for you. There are limitations to this though because Superview mode will generally not allow you to select the higher frame rates for cool looking slow motion. But if you are a technophobe, this is the mode to use.

If you are someone who is willing to learn editing methods and you want good slow motion you can only use 4:3 modes in 4K up to 30fps. So instead use 2.7K, which in 4:3 mode goes up to 60fps (yes, you can go to 120 fps in normal 16:9 mode, but remember we are talking about the slightly wider 4:3 ones here).

Okay, so why my insistence on 4:3 and Superview modes for head cam operation? Simply put they are much more immersive for the viewer, and this is the bit you’ll really like, it makes your paddling look more dynamic, within reason. It won’t turn a beginner into Pat Keller for instance

I see head cam all the time in normal 16:9 modes, and narrower, where the camera only shows fleeting glimpses of the front of the boat, and it pretty much just looks like a camera waving about erratically in the wind while hands holding onto a stick occasionally waft past. There’s no sense of perspective or object reference. Which brings me to the next part, getting the angle of the camera right.

Once again, along with using more limited viewing angles, a lot of people simply set up the camera angle wrongly. Number 1 rule. You need to be able to see the front of your boat! The purpose of head cam shouldn’t be to hide your boat. Remember, you are trying to convey an immersive version of what you are seeing,

If you can’t see your boat you end up with the ‘waving about in the wind’ look. It’s confusing and tiring to watch. The great thing about Superview and 4:3 modes is that the increased angle of view means that you can see more of the boat nose, and gives a good perspective of it so there’s a good point of reference for the viewer. But only if you adjust the camera nicely.

Setting the right level

A lot of paddlers set their GoPro’s looking straight ahead and level. Wrong!

All this achieves is cutting out the nose of your boat from the shot, thus loosing shot reference, and instead showing a lot of sky, which isn’t very interesting, and doesn’t exactly help the camera with exposure.

Instead aim the camera down a bit. I tend to adjust it so that the surface of my helmet is just out of view (since I have my camera mounted more on top of my helmet). Remember that action cameras give a very wide angle of view, so if you draw a line from the centre of the lens to just in front of the boat, you will still capture pretty much everything, including giving enough sky reference. In other words do not worry that all you’ll be seeing is the floor/river. The only caveat to this is if you are one of those people who constantly stares at the front of your boat. Stop it! This is important because if you have angled the camera down *and* you have a habit of looking at the nose of your boat, you won’t get a decent view either.

This is similar to when you take a selfie with a GoPro. You should aim the centre of the lens at your belly button, otherwise things are framed too high. I’ve included some screenshots below to illustrate the camera positioning in action, as well as a ‘don’t do’.

Narrow-GoPro

This is a random shot off YouTube showing not the greatest positioning in that it is angled too high. The field of view is only showing a small amount of the kayak nose. The effect is of a wild camera with paddles flapping around. (Apologies to whoever shot this video, I had to find an example from somewhere, sorry!)

Wide

This is standard wide mode. It’s okay if angled correctly, but not as good as it could be and is more claustrophobic than 4:3 or Superview.

Superview

I’ve angled the camera down a bit too far so the helmet is in view, although this might not be a totally bad thing given the context of a head cam shot in the first place. So it could be argued that this is okay. Superview gives more height so more of the spray deck is in view, and the nose of the kayak stretches into the shot more. There is also a little bit more width to the shot, and the dynamic stretch of the edges makes it seem like the boat is moving faster as well.

Clean the lens

Even in my wide shot above I have those dreaded water droplets. Water droplets are bad, and you won’t be able to avoid them completely. But there are a couple of tips I can give you.

  1. Lick your lens just before any section/feature of the river that you want to make sure that you record. Don’t ask me how it works, but it temporarily keeps droplets off.
  2. Take care of your lens. The more knocks and scratches your action camera lens has, the more problems with water droplets and other problematic issues such as lens flare you’ll have. Use a lens cap/cover when the camera is not in use between kayaking trips. I use a high quality optical quality lens protector, which works in much the same way as your smart phone screen protector. These are made from scratch resistant glass based material. But if it gets scratched up over time you can simply replace it with a new one.
  3. If your outer lens has already had hard use and is showing signs of wear, GoPro outer lenses are cheap and replaceable. So get a new one!

You *are* the camera!

Lastly remember that you are the camera. You need to learn how to make your head movements less erratic. Especially if you are getting reactions from friends etc, don’t go waving your head around all over. Nodding while talking and laughing are big culprits for ruining head cam shots of reactions.

Right, so that’s head cam. Next time around, other types of shots.

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