The ubiquitous GoPro camera is everywhere these days, as are its distinctive images of extreme outdoor adventuring – from water skiing, hiking and other outdoor excursions to, of course, capturing selfies. My husband, Carl, and I acquired one of these compact and nearly indestructible little devices last spring. We aren’t surfers or skydivers or skiers screaming down mountainside slopes. Our idea of outdoor fun is a leisurely sail aboard our boat. We got the GoPro because we wished to use it in the production of an educational video about Lake Ontario.
The camera’s wide angle lens and incredible depth of field capacity provided a novel perspective on our shoreline world, while its small size and waterproof/shockproof case allowed for “thinking outside the box” photography. So we experimented. We took it aloft to the top of our schooner’s foremast, we thrust it among the weeds of our pond to photograph minnows and newts, and we floated it over a shipwreck in shallow water. Subsequently, the tough little camera survived being lowered 80 feet down to the bottom of Lake Ontario and being bumped, banged, crashed and dropped innumerable times.
Our fearless camera could fit into spaces and go to places we could never go. It gave us a fish or bird’s-eye view of the lakeshore, and GoPro excursions aloft and underwater made the world around us appear quite extraordinary – even surreal at times.
While the GoPro has proved to be surprisingly versatile, it does have its limits. We used the GoPro Hero4 model and I felt restricted by its lack of a viewfinder. Instead of trying to use a tiny screen or viewfinder, you may find it easier to use a smartphone to modify camera settings or view the scene. But then you have two pieces of gear to keep track of – and the camera is waterproof, but your smartphone is not. (Of course paddlers and other water sports enthusiasts can buy little protective “rain jackets” for their phones, if need be.) Using and orienting the camera through the smartphone viewfinder takes a little practice, especially when you are wearing the camera on your head. And once the GoPro goes underwater there’s no more wireless connection.
Our usual technique for submarine photos was to attach the camera to a 6-foot aluminum snow rake handle or a longer lightweight spar from a derelict Sunfish sailboat, using one or more of the GoPro’s pricey but handy plastic fittings. For good photo fishing you need clear water and plenty of sunlight. When I went stalking a trophy on overcast days, the flat low-contrast photos were less than inspiring.
Sometimes, it’s a bit tricky to tell if you’re actually taking a photo of that fish you see down there, and you may need to adjust your camera angle on the pole. Luckily, the camera has such a wide angle that you have a pretty good chance of capturing some sort of scene. Reflections and odd lighting effects made unexpected, and often extraordinary, effects underwater in some of my shots. I had great fun paddling around in the shallows “fishing” from my canoe with a camera. Taking their pictures was easier on the fish than catch and release, too.
Colors under water quickly wash out to become blue or green as you descend. Nearly all my underwater photos were from a dinghy or dock at depths of less than 4 feet. To go deeper, you may need to install a red filter. GoPro makes several according to the depth you plan to shoot at. On the surface, watch out for water drops on the case in front of the lens and fogging when you pull the camera out of cold water.
Holding the selfie stick or pole steady can be a problem. When I was stalking fish in shallows, I sometimes set the pole end and camera on the bottom near the subject. You may want to adjust your angle to look outward rather than straight down if you’re floating along in the dinghy “trolling” for a big one.
On land, the compact wide angle camera with its amazing depth of field can produce some unexpected but interesting effects. When I think of other cameras on the market, the GoPro comes closest to capturing the images produced by the human eye, although it does have limits when it comes to light and dark contrasts in a scene. Turning off the spot focus mode helps a little. And shooting at the highest available resolution gives you some cropping options later on. Sometimes you can adjust colors and contrasts during the editing process, but you may find your sky overexposed and washed out or your forest shadows too dark to show anything.
It’s extremely effective at showing sweeping landscapes, spectacular skyscapes or dramatic crowd shots. I have found my shadow (or knee or hand or foot!) sometimes intruding on the scene, however. And it’s not so hot for very close up “macro” work. The GoPro is fairly forgiving of excessive pan speeds when taking video, but it can be a challenge to keep the horizon straight. (See photos of sailing.) If you don’t want the fisheye effect (which sometimes adds to the drama of the photo) place the horizon in the center of the frame. The edit process can also remove some of this distortion.
I recently saw an article in a sailing magazine about using a kite with a GoPro to take photos of a yacht under sail. We haven’t tried that yet, but it might be an experiment in our future. Kites and small balloons are both possibilities for stunning aerial shots. And then there’s the killer application for GoPro photography, the small UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, aka drone). These things with their stabilizing camera mounts are not cheap. You can get a stable, easy-to-fly kite for a modest outlay, but a new drone will set you back at least $600, plus a couple hundred more for the gimble mount. Drones have a limited battery life, and must be used in a respectful and sensible manner, in accordance with federal and local regulations. You can get into trouble and hurt people (or other living creatures) with even a small drone. Never fly one over a crowd and be careful around wildlife. (There are a number of videos of drones being attacked by large birds – a hazardous business for both parties.)
Although we eventually purchased another video camera for our project, the GoPro has been great fun, and I plan to do more “fishing” in our creek next summer and maybe try for more shipwreck photos, too.
A one hour documentary video titled “Lake Ontario A Quest For Hope,” explores how Lake Ontario became the most polluted of the five Great Lakes and what is being done to improve its condition.
For more information and fun with Go Pro shots (including the use of phone to set up the shots), check out Sara B’s video at sarab.brownroad.com/video/sb2015
story and photos by Susan Peterson Gateley