Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Use Your Head

Text & Photography By Tom Bol Published in Shooting
Use Your Head
One of my goals as an adventure- sports photographer is to convey the tension and adrenaline that goes hand in hand with participating in these sports. What does it really look like when you catch big air on a snowboard in a superpipe? How does it feel to ride a mountain bike across Moab slickrock at sunrise? What does a kayaker see as he crashes through big waves? To capture that perspective, you'll want to try a headcam.


For years, I've used a modified climbing helmet to hold my trusty Nikon camera and fisheye lens to capture this view. There just wasn't another decent headcam on the market. Now, that has changed. Today's headcams are lightweight, offer great resolution, and some are even waterproof. After numerous mountain-bike rides wearing a D3 on my head, my neck is happy to have some lighter choices for headcam photography. The next time you ride your bike, go skiing or paddle in a canoe, try out one of the options here for a new perspective.

Using Your DSLR

You can use your existing camera as a headcam; it just takes an old helmet to work. Find any plastic helmet that's comfortable, fits snugly and has a chin strap. Since the helmet will be carrying a heavy camera on the front, it must fit snugly. Drill a hole through the front part of the helmet and mount a small tripod head. Really Right Stuff makes the BH-30, which works well. Use the right-size bolt, and screw the tripod head down until it's firm. You might need some washers to fill the gap between the tripod head and helmet. Make sure it fits tightly, since you don't want your tripod head spinning on your head with camera attached! A fisheye lens is the best choice to get the most angle of view. A fisheye will include a biker's legs, arms and handlebars leading into the shot, giving a rider's perspective of the scene.

The next challenge is figuring out how to trigger the shutter while riding. The simplest method is to use your camera's self-timer and push the shutter while riding. This works fine, but it's hard to time the shot. Another option is to use a standard cable release. I have an extension cord for my cable release, which allows me to position the release on my handlebar for easy triggering. A third option is to use a wireless remote like a PocketWizard to trigger the camera. You can either hold this in your hand at the handlebar or have someone else trigger the camera as you ride by. For the PocketWizard system to work, you need to have a dedicated motordrive cable attached to the camera.


The beauty of this setup is that you're using your existing camera system, and the image quality will be excellent. The downside is that this rig is heavy. You're not advised to hit a big jump with a heavy DSLR on your head unless you want to visit your chiropractor. And if you happen to flip in your kayak with your SLR on your head, say goodbye to your camera. But there are other options.

Drift HD170 Stealth

One great headcam option that offers a lot of advantages is the Drift HD170 Stealth. Let's just start with the weight. Compared to a full-sized DSLR, you hardly know this 4.5-ounce camera is on your head. No more sore necks. But that's only the beginning.

The Stealth has a host of features that set it apart from many other headcams on the market. First, it has an LCD so you can see what you have in your frame. Framing a shot is challenging, since most specialty headcams don't have a viewfinder. Using the Stealth's LCD, you can preview exactly what you have in the frame, and review stills and movie clips after capture. To aid in the right composition, the Stealth has a rotating front lens that allows you to correct tilted shots.

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