In the Instagram and YouTube age, your outdoor adventures basically didn't happen unless there are good images and videos to share. At least that's how it feels sometimes. So why is it that your photos and carefully curated montage clips don't visually pop quite as much as those of your favorite action sports athlete? It could be the gear you're using, the lighting or maybe your settings. Either way, it's probably more than something a filter can fix (even my beloved Clarendon).
To help you up your game, we spoke to several experts. From pro skateboarders to wingsuit fliers and YouTube creators to make sure you have all the tools you need. We hope that next time, you absolutely get the shot. (If you want to add Clarendon after the fact, that's up to you).
Before we get to the experts, though, there are a few basics to consider. When it comes to action shots, there's one name that's pretty hard to avoid: GoPro. Its Hero line of cameras has become synonymous with outdoor activities, thanks to the rugged design and extensive range of accessories. At the time of writing, the Hero 7 Black is the flagship, and that's the camera we're recommending. We love the built-in stabilization, and the waterproof design has stood the test of time. For aerial video and photos, we're recommending the superlative Mavic 2 Pro.
While your choice of camera is clearly important, it's what you bring along that can make all the difference. First, some obvious ones: spare batteries, additional memory cards and something to put them all in. Typically you can expect about two hours out of a GoPro battery (depending on use), so you'll want at least one spare (but the more the merrier). Official batteries are your safest bet. Aftermarket options are available, but the performance can be hit or miss.
As for SD cards, you'll want one with a high write speed, especially if you plan to shoot in 4K, otherwise you risk losing your hard-earned footage. GoPro recommends the San Disk Extreme UHS-I card, which costs around $15 for 32GB or $20 if you upgrade to the 64GB version.
Pelican R40 Ruck Case
If you're heading out into the wild, you don't want to lose your new batteries, memory cards, cables and other accessories (not to mention your phone) to the elements. There are many options out there, but Pelican has been in the rugged-gear game long enough to earn the trust of outdoor types and for good reason. The R40 Ruck Case is like a tank for your small accessories.
Despite its rugged design, the R40 isn't huge; it'll easily slide into a backpack without hogging all the space. Pop the R40 open and you'll see there's enough room for all the above items and not much else (this is a good thing). Keeping your items snug stops them rattling around or getting lost at the bottom of a cavernous bag. The R40's IP68 rating, meanwhile, ensures they're safe from the rain/snow/dirt once your adventure begins.
You might be thinking, "But where do I put my GoPro?" and that's a fair question. Given you'll be reaching for the camera/mounts more often, you won't want to mess with the R40's tough latches all the time. It's better to keep the actual camera and mounts stored separately. I'm a fan of GoPro's "Seeker" backpack with its easy-access top compartment.
The R40's removable tray insert is perfect for slipping a phone in, and there's a dedicated hole so you can keep it charging (bring your own battery) as you go. The rubber pouch inside the lid, on the other hand, is ideal for a few loose items like keys or even cash.
If you're on a multi-day adventure, you might want to pack a rugged hard drive to keep things organized. Of course, you're going to need something that can take a few knocks or survive the ocean spray. Fortunately, the ArmorATD from G-Technology, with it's IP54 rating, and 1,000-pound "crush rating" can tackle much more than that.
Not heard of G-Technology? Don't worry, it's part of the same brand family as Western Digital and SanDisk, so your data is in safe hands. The company claims the ArmorATD has "triple-layer shock resistance," which is a fancy way of saying it has a rubber sheath, tough aluminum casing and internal shock mounts.
Connectivity is kept pretty simple with USB-C 3.0/Thunderbolt 3, so even your standard GoPro charging cable will work, should you lose the one that comes in the box (which you won't if you have the Pelican case above, as you now know).
Toughness is cool and all, but it's the actual storage that counts. Fortunately, the ArmorATD hard drive is available in 1TB ($100); 2TB ($130) and 4TB ($200) configurations.
If you really want to pack light, then the Gnarbox is like a digital video Swiss Army knife. While smaller than most portable drives, the Gnarbox is actually a mini 4K editing machine that doubles as storage (128GB flash).
Connections? Gnarbox has them. Take your pick from full-sized SD, microSD, and a trio of USB ports (for both charging the Gnarbox, but also plugging in thumb drives). There's also WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n) onboard so you can send data over the air and a 4,000-mAh battery, which should last most of the day.
That WiFi also has a second purpose -- video editing. Inside the Gnarbox is a 1.9GHz Intel quad-core processor, which allows you to edit video right on the device (via your phone). With the companion app, you can crunch 4K video with ease, create smooth edits and share your video before the dust from your mountain ride has even settled -- no laptop required.
If you're patient, you might want to wait for the forthcoming Gnarbox 2.0, which adds faster (802.11ac) WiFi, more ports (including micro HDMI) and a faster processor (2.4GHz), along with more choices of onboard SSD storage (256 GB, 512 GB or 1TB).
Now that you have some essentials, what about the gear (and techniques) the pros use?
In the city: Chris Cole (Pro skateboarder)
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You might know Chris Cole from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series or one of his many videos (like the one above). Chris is also a GoPro-sponsored athlete, so he knows his way around an action camera.
With skateboarding, self-shooting has always been a challenge. If you don't have a buddy to roll behind you, you'll need to get creative -- or do what Cole does: "In order to get the widest, most impactful shot, I almost always set the camera about 45 degrees from the obstacle I'm skating, toward the landing." Cole says GoPro's "Shorty" pole/tripod hybrid is his go-to for such shots. "My camera's always just off from the landing, off to the side, so that I can get the takeoff and a little bit of the ride away." To maximize this, Cole sets his GoPro to "SuperView" mode, which dynamically stretches a tall shot into 16:9.
That's great for linear movement (tricks that go left to right, etc.), but what if you're going to be going up and down -- which is just as likely with skateboarding. Cole says that for this, he uses the GoPro app on his phone as a remote viewfinder to ensure he stays in shot. "If you're skating something like a set of stairs, where you're not only going left or right, but up and down, you've got to tilt your camera up, and to see the screen you've got to get really low down and it's kinda hard."
But what if you want to wear the GoPro? Skateboarding is often problematic for POV shots (or worse, shooting with a selfie-stick). The sport's jerky body movements make this a challenge. If you do want to include some personal perspective in your footage though, Cole suggests wearing the Chesty mount, which will keep things more stable. Once you're done, you can throw everything into a Nomatic backpack, which Chris mentioned as one of his preferred options for taking gear on the road/ride.
On the mountain: Tim Humphreys (Professional snowboarder / media creator)
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Tim Humphreys is a pro snowboarder and avid media creator. He's been filming his snow-bound escapades for years. The white stuff poses many challenges (snowflakes on the lens, the high contrast). Basically, even more so on the slopes, there are some basics to get right first.
"The one thing that's the most important is the framing. I'll see a lot of people at ski resorts with a GoPro mounted directly on top of their helmet. For skiing and snowboarding, you're not seeing anything there — you're not going to get your body, your skies or even the sky." Tim's tip: Mount the camera on the front of your helmet, just above your goggles.
"If I'm shooting POV, I pretty much only use the 4:3 modes." (These include SuperView/1440 etc.) These modes offer a taller shot, which is better suited to first-person videos. Humphreys is also another advocate of using the GoPro app, so you can frame your shot and see what the scene looks like while the camera is perched on your head. "Or you can take a quick test photo of where you're looking and take your helmet off to check it," he added, if you don't have your phone with you (or it's deep in some insulated pocket).
Beyond the basics, Humphreys encourages you to try something different and avoid the staid helmet/selfie-stick shots that everyone goes for. "Something I've been doing a lot this year is using the [GoPro] Fusion, and holding that on a pole or mounting on my backpack." Humpreys says that (non-360) footage extracted from GoPro's all-seeing camera can actually look like a follow-cam, thanks to the depth and variety of angles it offers. He recommends the Freewell Pro M3 for the Fusion, as the mount is centrally placed which improves the 360-stitching.
He's also a fan of sequences (those multi-shots in one photo while performing a trick). You've probably seen them before, when a burst of shots is layered and you "edit" yourself back in with Photoshop. Humphreys has been experimenting with these on video too (as seen in the clip above). The process is similar but uses chroma key or color key to remove/add yourself back in, while picking short sections of movement that don't overlap.
There's one caveat: Humphreys wore blue on the day he shot the example above, which the editing software also removed, so make sure you're wearing colors different to the one you'll be using to extract yourself from the top "layer" shot.
Humphreys' last tip is one you might not have thought of while on the slopes: Get better audio. There's a good chance your skiing clips are dominated by the sound of wind. An easy fix to this is the "Windslayer" GoPro accessory. It's cheap and dramatically improves your audio, leaving just the sound of carving snow. Humphreys says even the old Windslayer (for GoPros with the "circular" lens cover) will work on the newer cameras, you can just stretch the lens hole to fit (though third-party solutions for the newer cameras are also available).
In the water: Mitch Bergsma (YouTuber and GoPro expert)
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With 13 years in the game, Mitch Bergsma is a bonafide YouTube veteran. But it was his GoPro tips and outdoor video advice that caught viewers' attention. Bergsma's channel is now exclusively tips and how-tos for the outdoor videographer. With nearly half a million subscribers, Bergsma is one of the go-to channels for the budding outdoor camera buff.
Bergsma's first tip is an oft-forgotten classic: "Always make sure the lens is clean! And no water spots." If you're surfing or snorkeling, this is something you will have to repeatedly check, every time you emerge from the water. The fix? Simple: "Always lick [the lens guard] to get water spots off, always check it before getting your shot." He also recommends using a pole, and he advises a transparent one often looks best (he even has a tutorial on how to make your own).
But what about those moments when you're under the water? "When shooting underwater, full sun is best to get more colorful pictures and video," Bergsma adds. "If you don't have sun, it will look dull and flat." Light isn't the only factor here. As Bergsma notes, you'll want a red filter to make sure underwater shots look more natural -- Polar Pro makes a popular line of filters for exactly this.
"If shooting underwater make sure the water visibility is good. It makes for a sharper shot." This might seem obvious, but spend five minutes trawling vacation videos on YouTube and you'll realize it catches most people out. And what about those tricky shots with the camera half submerged? Simply trying to hold your GoPro at the water-level won't cut it, you'll need a dome, which Bergsma demonstrates in this video.
In the sky: Jeb Corliss (Wingsuit pilot)
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"I was a professional photographer before I got into base jumping," explained Jeb Corliss, whose adrenaline-charged flying videos are the ones to beat. If you thought skydiving and base-jumping videos were mostly about slapping a camera on your helmet, you'd be wrong. For starters, Corliss told Engadget, he used to fly with a minimum of six cameras at any one time (three on his helmet and one each on his wrist, belly and ankle). These days though, he's streamlined his setup. At least a little.
"Right now the GoPro Fusion is my favorite camera to use." Corliss explained. "What's really cool with 360/VR is that with Overcapture, we can pretty much capture what we want from the flight after the fact. Being able to stabilize and capture any angle possible? That's a big deal!"
The benefit of the Fusion for action sports isn't just that it'll capture everything going on, you'll also be able to use that to your creative advantage -- spin the shot around, or have the scenery rotate (instead of you) while you barrel roll.
There is one small problem though: The Fusion's all-seeing-eye will also capture the pole you've mounted it to. Corliss has a solution for that though. "We use these things called 'narwhal' mounts." (A colloquial term for simple GoPro extension arms.) "I usually have it extended about 10 inches off of my head, and it seems like that's the magic number for the camera to automatically erase the stick it's attached to." In short, this eliminates the ugly mount in your shot, but as a bonus, it also means the camera looks like it's "hovering" in front of (or behind) you.
For Jeb, it's not just about setting up the shot, in fact, much of the work comes later. "I always have ProTune turned on [...] I turn auto-sharpening as low as I can and set the color to flat -- that gives you a lot more range in post to do a really beautiful color grade in post." Corliss recommends the Davinci software for color correcting. And this goes for photos as well as video: "If you're asking someone how do I get it to the next level, then nine times out of 10 that's because that person is doing post on their photos."
The last thing Corliss (and, in fact, nearly everyone else above) recommends -- nay, insists -- that you do is make sure your darn lens is clean. "You'd think that'd be very obvious... but for some reason it isn't!"
Ground to air: Stephen Loewinsohn (Aerial cinematographer)
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Stephen Loewinsohn is a professional aerial cinematographer and all-round drone fan. (You may remember him from our Mavic 2 Pro review.) Not only does Loewinsohn have several years general photography experience, but he's progressed to even filming drones with... other drones (how else do you think you get those aerial close-ups?).
All of Stephen's tips and gear recommendations can be seen in the video above, but in summary:
- For beginners, fly high to start. (There's less stuff to hit up there.)
- Don't take off without GPS lock, it'll stop the drone "thinking" it's somewhere it isn't.
- Don't be afraid to use manual exposure, zebra stripes, and histogram to get the best possible exposure.
- Keep your shutter speed at double the framerate for video.
- Use tripod mode for smoother hyperlapse shots.