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The Little Camera That Could
Have low-cost “selfie” cameras cast a dark shadow on commercial photography?

by Zack Seckler

There’s a sense of awe the first time you see footage shot with a wearable camera. It’s as though you’ve been trans-ported into someone else’s body. But in this case it’s not John Malkovich we’re inhabiting—it’s surfboarders and stuntmen, artists and astronauts.

The wearable camera is a piece of technology that not long ago would have been considered science fiction. Now, not only does it exist, it can be lost, dropped, crushed and easily replaced for about $200. GoPro, the brand leader in the market, makes a camera that is about the size of a large pack of gum. It comes inside a waterproof housing, shoots HD video and stills, and can be easily mounted to your body or practically any object, creating camera angles and viewpoints that were previously unachievable and often unimaginable.

Surfer-turned-pro photographer Clark Little would never trade in his $10,000 rig for a GoPro, but “having that cheap option is what got me to try photography. And then by some great fortune, that led to a career.” Still, he has fun mounting a GoPro outside of his camera housing to capture video while he shoots stills in the large waves. “It helps people see what goes on while I shoot—it’s my ‘fly on the wall.’”

Set it and forget it; that’s the magic of these cameras. Strap one on your forehead and hit “record” to document your every moment, hands-free. Ice-climb Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba dive with great white sharks or try that new mashed potato recipe at the family barbecue (hey, we’re not all daredevils). For a culture obsessed with sharing everything, the wearable camera is the ultimate toy, bringing your audience right into the moment. “It’s like you’re somebody else for that split second, biking through the mountains or riding waves on surfboards or skiing down incredibly steep mountains,” says Jake Brusha, producer at Leo Burnett. “Those aren’t normal things I would do in my life, but it’s a really cool experience to almost be there.” The feeling of almost being there, that sense that there is no filter—no art director, stylist or retoucher—between you and the shot, is what makes this footage so unique. Plus, anyone can create it.

The Internet has witnessed an explosion of user-generated content (UGC) created by wearable cameras, along with other consumer cameras (hello, iPhone). It’s an ocean of imagery, and the sea level is rising. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, more than six billion photos are uploaded to Facebook every month and, according to Yahoo, 880 billion photos will be taken in 2014. As more and more UGC is created, amateur film-makers and photographers are starting to leverage their content with the goal of becoming professionals. Particularly with wearable cameras, a clever idea can quickly attract Internet stardom—and clients. Take Jeremiah Warren, for example. The 23-year-old launched his filmmaking career when he strapped an 808 micro camera to a firework and uploaded the footage to YouTube a few days before July 4, 2011. The video received more than a million hits, and the limelight helped Warren land film projects with clients such as Google, Sony and Microsoft.

Likewise, accomplished North Shore surfer Clark Little eagerly traded in his board for a low-cost consumer camera when he realized he could cheaply put together a suitable waterproof rig for less than $400 (this was before GoPro). He set out to capture the breathtaking view from inside a powerful Waimea Bay wave for his wife, who wanted the picture as décor for their bedroom wall. Now, seven years later, with lots of practice and a much better rig, Little has become a widely exhibited, award-winning photographer whose surf shots are sought by such publications as National Geographic, the New York Times and, of course, Surfer’s Journal. The wide appeal of in-your-face action shots in advertising has several commercial clients calling as well, including Anheuser-Busch, Apple, Nike, Nikon, Toyota and Verizon.

You may be thinking, “How does a wearable consumer camera affect me, the image-maker or advertising creator?” Do professionals have to worry about armies of amateurs creating UGC and stealing all of the advertising dollars? Perhaps not. But Einav Jacubovich, associate creative director at Publicis Kaplan Thaler, has noticed an alarming trend. “Brands are getting scared,” she says. “For the first time, they’re not only competing against other brands, but against the genuine creations of everyday people.” In a time when cheap consumer drones and do-it-yourself array rigs make it possible for just about anyone to capture never-before-seen imagery and create special effects like the frozen “bullet time” sequence first seen in The Matrix, the competition has certainly widened. Even out in the treacherous surf, Little has begun to feel crowded by the hordes of amateurs toting GoPros in the last few years. “It puts some pressure on me to bring my A-game, since so many others out there are capturing amazing shots.”

Still, few doubt that professional imagery will ever be replaced by amateur UGC. “Of course there will be competition between professional content and UGC, and sometimes, the UGC will win the public’s attention,” says Mark Williams, director of social strategy and content programming for LiveWorld, a social content marketing company. “But just as the widespread availability of self-publishing on the web didn’t put high-quality professional writing out of business, UGC is not going to dramatically affect professional advertising or the distribution of ad dollars. The success of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity didn’t really affect James Cameron or Martin Scorsese.” Seckler
Zack Seckler ( is an award-winning commercial photographer who enjoys putting an uncommon twist on common situations, creating images that inspire humor and imagination for such clients as Bank of America, GQ, New York, Travelers Insurance and Vicks.