It is no surprise that after the huge success of GoPro we are seeing a push from many top electronics manufactures to bring their own action cams to market. With their small form factor and weatherproof durability, one would be hard pressed to find a television show or production that hasn’t as some point incorporated the unique point of view perspective these small portable cameras can offer. While GoPro has historically been the personal camera of choice for fishermen attempting to capture their catches, new offerings such as Garmin‘s VIRB camera are beginning to rethink the approach to the POV cam.
Primarily known for their GPS related products, Garmin enters the action cam race with two flavors of their VIRB camera, the standard and the elite version.
Both cameras offer true 1080p recording, built in LCD display, digital stabilization, high definition photography, and rechargeable lithium ion battery. Those who opt in for the higher end Elite model will enjoy all the above features plus built in GPS, barometer, altimeter, and Wifi connectivity.
Upon first receiving my Virb Elite model for testing my initial idea was to compare its features side by side with the GoPro offerings: Resolution options, frame rates, recording times, yada yada. At that point I realized this might not be the best approach to really judge the value of this new product. After all, Garmin did set out to rethink the POV camera and how we use them from the ground up, so maybe I should set aside any reservations I have, particularly in relation to its top competitor.
While my experience with action cams has been primarily professional, utilizing the devices in conjunction with higher end production equipment to capture content for web and television distribution, my challenge here was to simply experience the device as the regular Joe fishermen would. Sure enough, this is where I found the VIRB to have several benefits over the others.
When Joe fishermen packs his action cam into his dry box accompanied by an assortment of attachments and mounting devices, he is setting out on a mission.
Whether its fixed mounted on a t-top, lashed to a gaff, or placed precariously on one’s forehead, Joe is hoping his action cam will bring home the bacon and be backup to his fishing story.
However, more often then not Joe will realize that despite his best efforts, something went wrong. Batteries died midway through the fight, the lens suffered from condensation fogging, the wrong frame size was used, or in the heat of the moment he didn’t notice the “beep beep” that put his camera in photo rather than video mode and he missed the whole scene. I would be lying through my teeth if I said it’s never happened to me.
In the professional arena, we have come to realize these shortcomings and have adjusted our methods to prevent such disappointments. Wrangling multiple batteries, anti fog inserts, custom multi charging blocks, and basically being a slave to our devices, we manage to make them work for us and keep them in our toolbox.
All I can say is that I wish this headache upon no Joe. If I’m going fishing, I want to concentrate on fishing. When I bring the camera out I want to know I can get it turned on and recording quickly and easily. Garmin must have felt the same way when designing the VIRB because the large, easy to use slide switch on the side turns out to be an ideal solution. By simply sliding the single switch located on the side of the camera, the unit powers on and begins recording instantly. No orchestration of button pushes and communicating with the device through a language of “beep beep beep.” Once initial recording options are setup in the easy to navigate menu, all that’s left to do it slide the switch. If you can operate a flashlight you will be in good shape to use the VIRB.
Garmin also decided they wanted their camera to do what others can only do with the addition of several add on devices. Rather than having to buy a separate LCD pack and having to keep up with software updates to support the added device, Garmin utilized a 1.4” Chroma display that unlike the competition, has a minimal effect on battery life. This is huge when it comes to navigating the menus, framing up a shot, or trying to review footage directly on the device.
Battery life itself is also a big plus to the unit. Garmin claims 3 hours of recording at 1080p. While I have not put a stopwatch to it, I can say that the battery dying on me has not been an issue. I was only provided one battery with the unit and so far have done very well without having to think about battery swaps.
When it comes to waterproof performance, the Garmin VIRB also has a distinct advantage over the GoPro in that the unit itself it water resistant to IPX7 standards right out of the box. While the optional dive case increases its water resistance to 50 meters, the unit can safely be used on the boat without having to fuss with any additional housings that ultimately introduce fogging issues that can ruin the shot. No need to use anti fog inserts here.
With the Elite version Garmin also offers a plethora of other unique features such as GPS, barometer, accelerometer, and altimeter. These extra sensors will allow users to log the exact position and altitude as the camera records. If that wasn’t enough, the VIRB elite also utilizes Garmin’s ANT+ connectivity, which allows the unit to interact with several existing sensors to monitor things like heart rate, temperature, and bicycle pedal cadence. While there may not be a line of fishermen demanding a camera that records their heart rate, I can appreciate the creative possibilities Garmin is opening this device up to. It would be interesting to see what Joe’s heart rate looks like while we watch the final moments of his fight with a giant tuna while his buddy attempts to wire the beast boat side.
One thing that stands true for all action cameras is the more options you have for mounting, the more interesting your shots will be. Garmin paid special attention to the mounts currently available for other cameras and designed a system that I think works great. By using rosette style joints that basically have interlocking teeth, the VIRB mounts allow you to securely lock the camera into the desired position without worry about it moving loose with vibration or bumps. Garmin also uses a quick release cradle, which allows you to transfer the unit from one mount to another without having to unscrew anything. Anyone who has used a GoPro mount has probably had the frustration of dropping the small acorn nut opposite of the hand screw that seems to always fall out of the mount. Garmin solved this problem by making their mounts with these nuts permanently threaded in. For those of you who know what I’m talking about, this is a very welcomed feature. While I’m sure Garmin is proud of their mounting system, they were not too proud to realize that many people have invested in numerous mounts for their existing cameras, so they ship all VIRB cameras with what they call a “popular industry mount adapter.” This adapter basically allows you to attach the VIRB to existing GoPro style connections.
With all this said the big question still remains… how does the picture look? I will admit that before receiving my VIRB, I had my doubts. After numerous iterations of the Hero camera, GoPro has had a lot of time to figure out image quality and useful capture modes such as their protune setting. What were the chances that Garmin would get it right the first time. Well turns out I was pleasantly surprised when I looked through some of the footage.
The VIRB produces a sharp crisp image with great color saturation and minimal distortion.
One thing I particularly noticed while shooting some underwater stuff is how well the Virb handles color gradients. Often small CMOS sensor cameras suffer from vertical smearing and color banding. While I wont get into the specifics of exactly what these are, the result is usually harsh flares across the image when looking at a bright subject and unpleasant jaggedness in solid colors such as blue water.
While I have only had my VIRB for a short period of time, I look forward to exploring some more of its features in the future. One feature of particular interest is its ability to remotely control multiple cameras. I briefly had a chance to work with my good buddy James Massey on a new television series about Tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys. James had gotten a hold of several VIRB cameras and was hoping to rig a few flats boats in a way that the captain could, with the push of a button, start and stop all the cameras on the boat, effectively capturing the entire scene single handedly. The system performed flawlessly and consistently. By sliding the side switches on the main unit, the rest of the cameras instantly turned on and began recording! Hopefully I can get my hands on a few more VIRBs and really dig into the possibilities of this for Mr. Joe fishermen.
In conclusion to this first installment of my VIRB experience, I am realizing that the market did not really need another action cam. What it needed was a new take on the action cam. Garmin has paid heed to this calling, putting their extensive experience of designing user friendly electronics to use to produce a fresh new personal camera device that goes beyond simply laying video to an SD card. The VIRB series of cameras are going to speak directly to the average guy hoping to capture and share some of their adventures in a way that does not require a degree in production.
Ease of use, extended battery life, and expandable feature sets will translate into people having more fun and coming home with better photos and videos. I am impressed so far and look forward to sharing more of my experience with this awesome new device.
In the meantime, check out this spearfishing video I shot with my buddy and Florida Keys fishing captain Rush Maltz. All video was shot with a Canon 5D and my Garmin Virb Elite mounted to the spear gun. Once mounted to the gun no directions were given to Rush other than to slide this switch to start the recording. As Rush performed multiple dives and harvested a commercial load of grouper and snapper, he was easily able to start and stop the camera with his gloves on and focus on the spearfishing rather than fumbling around with a camera.