The Best Helmet Cam Review
Which point-of-view camera is best? We took the top six cameras and put them head to head to find out. Point-of-view cameras have been added to almost every quiver of sporting equipment and the internet has been flooded with footage from trout fishing to BASE jumping. However, these little cameras don't come without their flaws. By design, these cameras seldom perform at standards that non-POV style cameras provide. Thankfully, manufactures have been evolving designs since their inception, leaving us with capable and dependable cameras. Armed with our overkill helmet cam mounting system, we set out to find out for you which camera is best.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Helmet Cam
GoPro HERO 4 Silver
Best Bang for the Buck
GoPro HERO3 White
Top Pick for Snow Applications
Sony Action Cam HDR-AS100V
Top Pick for Image Quality
GoPro Hero 4 Black
Analysis and Test Results
Types of Point-of-View Cameras
It seems like almost overnight, our innocent ski resorts, surf breaks, and skate parks became bombarded with little tiny digital cameras. Seemingly the next day, YouTube had changed forever with the inception of the GoPro HERO version in 2006. Since then, our discussions have changed in the eddy or at the bottom of the crag to things like "does this look like it's pointed the right way?" and each brand has taken a bravado slogan to heart such as "No Proof, No Glory" (we're looking at you, Muvi).
Despite whether or not you think if there's no video proof (from two angles), then it didn't happen, POV cameras are pretty…sweet. Even if we aren't the boastful kind, it is nice to look back on some memorable ski lines, big waterfalls, or other times in the woods; or maybe you just want to get some new angles for your filmmaking that previously were impossible.
Point of view cameras have gone so far as to actually change our sports. Many of our friends now learn rivers via footage rather than by extensive scouting, and we get a chance to watch our action sport athletes from their point of view, letting us in on sometimes incredibly important technique we lack.
Luckily, POV cameras are pretty straightforward in terms of evaluation. In comparison to other outdoor equipment, all helmet cameras currently have a pretty similar goal—provide excellent footage within a durable and compact package. Though you may limit your search to specific things such as "I need an LCD screen" or "it has to fit on my helicopter", overall, these cameras all fall into the same category.
Criteria for Evaluation
Image quality seems totally obvious to most people. Who cares about the other things if the image looks junky? In a race to pack the most sophisticated electronics into the smallest package, the spread is large for image quality. We tested the most popular six cameras available, and had a huge range of scores for image quality.
The highly anticipated GoPro Hero 4 Black proved to provide the best image quality, with not only higher resolutions previously unseen (or at least at a usable frame rate) on helmet cameras, but also with improved optics and low-light capabilities which we dive into later. However, unlike the GoPro 3 White vs. GoPro 3 Black battle which ultimately proved the White was vastly inferior, the comparison between the GoPro Hero 4 Silver and the GoPro Hero 4 Black was much closer. Sure, the 4K footage looks good; but how necessary is it? 4K TVs are just starting to become affordable, and a few computer companies are starting to equip their high end desktops with high-resolution screens, but most of the time we're watching footage at 1080 at best. Even on the fastest of internet, sometimes streaming a 1080 video is a struggle. Some sites even automatically down-res what you are watching, regardless of your preset resolution. So when will your viewers really see your 4K footage?
This creates a pretty big debate in modern filmmaking, but just like megapixels for still cameras, we see it as a big race that doesn't necessarily translate to quality.
On the other hand, the 4K footage from the GoPro Hero 4 Black was nice for a few reasons: we could down-res the footage for beautiful imagery, we could substantially crop the image to reduce barrel distortion, and we could intensely stabilize the footage without dipping below our export resolution. Take a look at this great example of using 2.7K for cropping and stabilization: https://vimeo.com/101584491
This footage stands out from other helmet camera footage because of the field of view we are seeing; this is a huge advantage of having 4K, but it's something that needs to be used intentionally. So ask yourself, why again do I want 4K? If the answer is solely based off the logic "4K>LessK", you may want to think about saving your money, and being rewarded with a very usable touch screen on the GoPro Hero 4 Silver.
Though we focused mainly on video, the still images produced by the GoPro Hero 4 Black were really quite stunning; almost mind-boggling. With good light and a clean front element, the camera can really create a great image. Additionally, the GoPro Hero 4 Black and GoPro Hero 4 Silver both are capable of shooting still photos and video simultaneously.
Many backlit situations prove to be difficult for these cameras, and these flaws quickly help us pick out what is wrong with the camera. Even one of our favorites, the GoPro White, suffered from an unavoidable and unrecoverable failure when kayaking in a backlit situation; the image sensor appears to have become overloaded, creating an entire string of pixels turned to purple. Check out the still below.
The included water housing with each camera can create issues with image quality, mainly with back-lit situations. Some housings create ugly flares, but realistically, none of the plastic housings are going to produce an aesthetically pleasing flare like a cinema lens does. Additionally, not all water housings are created equal for underwater shooting.
One of the major design flaws in the previous GoPros is the spherical front element. This allows the housing to shed water and snow better, but makes underwater shooting difficult. Therefore, we really liked the housing design of the Sony Action Cams for snow use, but the GoPro design for diving. Above water, without splashing snow or water, the housings perform similarly.
Low Light Performance and Dynamic Range
Low-light performance is becoming a more important aspect for people as we move away from caring only about numbers, but the same aspects that make a camera good in low light often help it out in dynamic range.
Simply put, dynamic range is the camera's ability to display detail in bright areas and dark areas at the same time. Think back to a photo with dark faces and a bright background where there is no detail in the people's faces, nor the sky behind them. Or a great example we used frequently—whitewater illuminated by the sun, and dark green pools of moving flat water that are in the shade. Cameras cannot display nearly as much dynamic range as our eyes can (not yet), so it's easy for us to wonder why our photos look drastically different than what we see.
Point of view cameras in their very nature are more or less for "spraying and praying". The user more or less lines it up in the obvious direction of action, lets it roll until it's convenient to stop, and then has to hack away in the editing room to pull out the relevant or interesting parts. This takes away the control from the filmmaker—exposure is out the window, and regardless, none of these cameras allow for manual exposure.
This gives us problems. Lots of bright, over exposed problems. But a camera with great dynamic range helps mitigate these issues by holding detail in the highlights.
Low light performance is easier. Does the image look "grainy" when the sun starts to go down? How about on a grey day at the mountain? This "grain" is really digital noise, which is created as the sensor becomes more sensitive through automatic adjustment of the ISO.
With the GoPro line already a large lead over the rest of the field, the GoPro Hero 4 Black and the GoPro Hero 4 Silver both were outstanding in low-light. Not only do the images show very little noise, but the cameras also have multiple settings that help you dial in your photos during dark shooting times. The newly included "Night Photo" mode allows the user to set the shutter speed as long as a 30 second exposure, and the user can set a maximum ISO limit in any mode to further increase control.
Ease of Use
With limited screen real-estate and few buttons, helmet cameras can be miserably frustrating. Push for this, hold for this, tap twice for this—we shouldn't need to carry a manual around just to figure out how to push record. Thankfully, LCD screens have become more sophisticated, and manufacturers are slowly figuring out how to make their cameras more intuitive.
Incorrect aiming has caused more deaths of good footage than probably anything else in the outdoor world. Without preview LCD's, tons of first descent videos have been totally botched by cameras aiming directly at the athlete's feet, or straight into the air. Most companies have created smart-phone applications that can link via Wi-Fi, allowing the user to have a preview of the footage. This is a great addition, but we all know that most of our phones shouldn't be enduring the heinousness that we go through on our adventures.
Both the Drift HD camera and the Veho Muvi took it to the next step, however, and installed an incredibly useable color LCD screen directly on the side of the camera that allows the user to check the framing, and even play back clips. But this addition does not come without its drawbacks. For the Muvi, however, the screen isn't usable while in the housing since a cumbersome mounting plate blocks your view of the screen. The Drift, while not too much larger than the Sony Action cam, does not come with a water housing included unlike the rest of the tested cameras, and with the inclusion of a water housing, the camera would be too large for practical use.
But past alignment, features such as menu control, button size and usability, and indicators to whether you're actually recording were very important to us.
The Sony Action Cam HDR-AS100V and the Sony Action Cam HDR-AS30V (based off the same body design) both impressed us with the overall usability, but still couldn't knock of the reigning champion GoPro models, especially with the new user friendly features added to the GoPro 4 line up. Mixed with the sharp and responsive touchscreen on the GoPro Hero 4 Silver, and you get a camera that is easier to operate than ever before.
In addition to the screen, GoPro also clarified quite a few of their menu items, and also reassigned the Wi-Fi button on the side to be a multi-function button for settings. With a quick tap on this button, and the shooting settings for your current mode pop up on screen. Instead of relying solely on pictograms to describe the functions, the GoPro now sports a small bar at the top of the screen that spells out which feature you are selecting.
Judging reliability of electronics is difficult at best—some folks have told us their POV cameras have never messed up; other owners of the same models, we've had to stop them from throwing it off an Alaskan peak. Certain models are finicky, firmware changes always claim to fix everything, and two identical cameras sitting next to each other seem to have different bugs. To the defense of the camera manufactures, that's a whole lot of electronics to squeeze in a little box. Remember when we were duct-taping full sized tape recording camcorders to our heads not that long ago?
For reliability, we considered a few main attributes: did the cameras ever quit recording? Did the cameras turn off sporadically? What about file corruption or strange artifacts?
We found the GoPro Hero 4 Black to be the most reliable, though we weren't entirely thrilled on the battery life. That being said, the battery meter seems accurate, and the only issues we have encountered have been user errors. The GoPro Hero 4 Silver is also very stable, but we found the screen to be finicky in terms of shut off, which led us to prematurely draining batteries.
Mounting Options and Accessories
For wearable, mountable cameras, your options of how and where you can mount them drastically affects your creativity, as well as the end result from your camera. Cameras such as the Muvi came with numerous mounts, but was less effective due to its large size. Other cameras such as the GoPro Hero + Black came with very few mounts, but GoPro offers the widest selections of mounts, and the camera's size and shape lends itself to countless mounting options. The Helmet Front Mount the Vented Helmet Strap Mount and the Jaws Flex Clamp are a few of the many mounting options they offer.
The GoPro products were equally the easiest cameras to mount by far, partially due to the impressive spread of available mounting accessories, but almost more so due to the inclusion of a simple tilting feature which is included in the basic housing. We initially took this feature for granted, but once we started diving into the testing of the other cameras, we realized that they were severely limited in their use solely because of this. For example, you may want a different tilt while riding a snowmobile, and then a different tilt for the ski descent to make sure you include important references (such as ski tips or handlebars). With the other camera mounts, you were fixed permanently with your adhesive mount, with exception of the Drift HD which has a tilt/pan adjustment built into the camera, but only when mounted on the side of a helmet.
GoPro's original dominance of the market also has created an entire industry behind manufacturing POV mounts; most of which are solely made for the GoPro. The availability of creative mounts, such as pole mounts for kayaks, intricate cages for the "Matrix" effect, and even external bodies that allow for cinema lenses, strengthens the usefulness of GoPro cameras.
In addition to copious mounts, many remote control helicopters (let's avoid the term "drones") accept GoPro bodies natively, which can really open up creative doors if you're willing to learn a new skill and accept some responsibility of a flying object.
Turn Back Time
It wasn't so long ago that action cameras weighed a pound or much more. Here is footage from 2008 when OutdoorGearLab founder Chris McNamara jumped a new exit in Baffin Island with a Sony HD cam. At the time it was state of the art and the size of a nalgene water bottle! We've come a long way.
POV cameras have come a long way and are now all over the internet. We hope that our tests and observations will help you to find the best camera to record your outdoor adventures or extreme sport experiences. Read through our Buying Advice article for detailed information on what aspects to consider when making your purchase.
— Tommy Penick
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