Review of the Game Changing Paralenz Action Camera
In August 2018, one year after the Paralenz was launched on the open market, the company teamed up with blue o two for an experiment. Paralenz SEO Martin Holmberg and Marketing Director Jacob Dalhoff brought 25 cameras on board the M/Y blue Melody for a 'Simply the Best' Red Sea itinerary, to see if the diving guests would be interested in trying them out. With renowned Mission Blue photographer Kip Evans joining the team, DIVE went along to see what happened,
After a short presentation, almost every diver on the boat volunteered to participate, including a group of divers from Hong Kong. By the end of the week, Paralenz had some new fans, and other brands of action camera were suddenly in a distant second place. One of the divers on board described the Paralenz as 'Worlds above the GoPro' – a comment made by somebody who had never seen a Paralenz before the liveaboard and was, himself, a GoPro user.
Paralenz Action Camera Overview
Originally a Kickstarter-funded project, the pioneering team of Danish inventors – all of whom are divers themselves – sent out a test product to every diver who made the necessary pledge. Over 250 divers around the world took part, and their feedback was incorporated into the action camera's design. It is – quite literally – an action camera designed by divers and built by divers, for divers.
The aerospace-grade aluminium casing is rated to 200m (now 250m with the new Paralenz Plus). There are only two controls: a rotating selector switch which cycles through the modes of operation, and a 'trigger' which operates the menu system and features through either a long or short pull of the trigger. It films in up to 4K and has an automatic depth colour correction facility (DCC), which removes the need for filters. It has a 140° wide-angle field of view (FOV) and can be hand-held, mask mounted, or stuck on the end of a selfie stick. It recharges via USB, records to micro SD, and has an inbuilt WiFi transmitter enabling dive profiles and recorded footage to be downloaded to a smartphone via the Paralenz app.
Very importantly, the Paralenz doesn't need a housing. The triple-o-ring sealed end cap screws into place and the camera is ready to dive. I have seen the dismay on the faces of divers whose expensive cameras have been destroyed by a flooded housing. It’s a double-whammy to the finances, as no standard travel insurance will cover a replacement without absolute proof that the housing was at fault, not the user.
When I first became aware of the Paralenz, I was impressed by the concept, if slightly sceptical. Taking on the might of GoPro was an audacious move by a small startup from Denmark. I thought if it worked, it might be a game-changer. Now I've been using one for over a year, I think it is.
Getting Started With the Paralenz
The menu system is very intuitive once you've mastered the short-and-long pull of the camera’s trigger, which takes no time at all. Each pull is accompanied by haptic feedback, which varies depending on the mode of operation. For example: rotating the selector switch to 'power' and a long pull of the trigger switches the camera on, and a long vibration lets you know it's worked. A long pull turns it off again, but the vibration judders, so you can be in no doubt that you've turned the camera off. There are visual cues from the small display screen, but as the camera can be mounted on a mask strap, the haptic feedback is very important.
Rotating the selector switch to 'settings' allows the user to cycle through the menus with a series of short pulls, and a long pull enters the required sub-menu. The same pattern of long-and-short is used to adjust each setting. The menu system is uni-directional in that, if you bypass the setting you wish to change, you have to cycle through all of them until you reach it again. It’s no different to a lot of dive computers. All of the settings can be configured from a smartphone using the Paralenz app.
Charging is via USB and takes approximately one hour to full from a mains power adapter, and two hours from a computer. Battery life is excellent with at least two hours of continuous recording in 4K, and much longer at lower resolutions. The battery does discharge significantly during travel – it lost 13 per cent of its charge during the 24 hours between packing my bags and boarding the blue Melody. That's still more than enough for two dives, if you're not using 4K.
Video and Snapshots
Video resolution is 720p at 60/120/200 fps, 1080p at 30/60/100fps, 2.7k at 30/60fps and 4K at 30fps. The 8MP still snapshots are 3840x2160px in either JPG or JPG+RAW. The higher the video resolution, the shorter the battery life, but the Paralenz will easily get through two dives filming in 4K before a recharge is necessary.
Custom modes for slow motion, timelapse and burst photography are also available, with a range of settings available to the user, programmable through the camera and also via the app.
In video mode, a long pull of the switch starts or stops the camera recording. A short pull of the switch can be used to tag a particular highlight of the dive for ease of reference when viewing the post-dive footage in the app. An optional auto-record feature starts and stops the recording at 1m, particularly useful for freedivers. As a word of caution, there is a time-out feature which should be checked and changed otherwise you run the risk of having the camera shut itself down just as the whale shark passes by.
The photo mode has been updated to include a 'snap record' feature. A lot of the divers on the liveaboard found this was their preferred method of use. A short pull of the switch takes a picture, a long pull starts recording video and will keep recording until the trigger is released. Very useful if you don't want to wade through an hour of footage to find the two minutes of excitement.
DCC and White Balance
The Paralenz has the option to use either white balance (WB) if you are using lights, or Depth Colour Correction (DCC) if you’re filming in natural light. White balance can be set to auto, or 3500, 5000, 5600 and 6500K, depending on your lighting rig. The DCC, however, is one of the most outstanding features of the Paralenz.
DCC automatically colour-compensates based on your depth, without having to change any settings, add physical filters, or faff about with post-processing. For amateurs who find themselves constantly disappointed by pictures and videos of blue fish against a blue background, this is a proverbial godsend.
There are two DCC settings, blue and green, based on the colour of the water in which you're diving – the equivalent of a red or pink filter, but without any loss of light. The results are impressive. Footage taken at depth remains as vibrant as if it were taken at the surface, subject to in-water visibility and available surface light. The Paralenz reveals colour that is unavailable to the human eye without a direct light source. It's so powerful that if you poke your Paralenz into the dark interior of a wreck, the resulting footage will reveal more than you could ever see without a torch.
Torches do not go well with DCC, however. If you're diving in natural light and somebody shines a torch to highlight something within the camera’s field of view, you get a shiny red beam of overexposure. If you are diving where you need to switch between natural and artificial lighting – wrecks, for example – then you can flip between DCC and white balance with three rapid pulls of the trigger. Either way, it's a momentary inconvenience and better than having to go through a menu system, adjust settings, or remove filters mid-dive.
No Viewscreen – Positive Or Negative?
The most common complaint about the Paralenz is the lack of a viewscreen. The team are looking at ways to add this as an optional extra, but from my perspective as an amateur videographer, I don't think it's so important. The camera's field of vision compensates for the lack of a viewfinder somewhat, but you do have to take care to keep the Paralenz level. If you're holding it in your hand, you tend not to notice the tilt of the camera, resulting in a lot of lopsided footage. Photographs can be cropped and rotated but it's not so easy to correct video. Fixing the Paralenz to a camera tray or the third person viewer (see below) helps to keep it pointing in the right direction.
From my perspective as a dive professional, I actually think the lack of a viewscreen is a good thing. The Paralenz removes some of the problems that divers can cause when they spend their whole dive looking through a viewscreen, twiddling knobs and forgetting about the coral, the dive team, and their air supply. I lost count of the number of times my colleagues and I had to separate divers from their cameras as a result. Not having a viewscreen also means that you actually see everything with your own eyes, not through a 320x200 digital display, which I think enhances the enjoyment of a dive, and creates a better experience for the group.
A universal mount and a mask mount come packaged with the Paralenz. The mask mount is great but videos are subject to wayward regulator exhaust bubbles and every turn of the head. I swivel my head like the child from the exorcist when I'm underwater, but if you're a little less mobile, or need both hands free, then it works very well. It is extremely useful for recording underwater tasks that involve the use of both hands. Search and recovery dives, for example, cave dives, surveys, or other underwater projects. The team at Ghost Fishing UK have been trialling the Paralenz for this reason.
Ball mounts are available to affix the Paralenz to other camera trays which, I joked, if you’ve got a high-end DSLR is like fitting a £20,000 view screen to the Paralenz, but it's good to be able to capture video from the same perspective when you're shooting stills.
The third person viewer is basically a selfie stick with a pair of floats that fit either side of the camera to keep it stable and level. It is particularly handy at keeping the camera level, as mentioned above. The floats at the side create a level plane to keep track of the camera's position, whether the stick is extended or not. Fully extended, it's great for getting close-ups of animals with sharp and pointy teeth without worrying about getting bitten and – more importantly – without disturbing the animal. Morays and octopuses are far less bothered by a small blue cylinder than 2m of huffing and puffing diver invading their personal space.
It can, ostensibly, be towed 'hands-free' behind the diver but I never really managed to do this successfully. It only really works if you’re moving forward at a constant rate, which I never do, although freedivers have demonstrated its use successfully. It also doesn’t work hands-free from behind if you're drifting, as the current tends to push it out of position. It’s great if you keep hold of it, or use it to film from the front where you can keep an eye on it, though.
The Paralenz App
The Paralenz has a built-in wifi transceiver, the app is free to download, and your dive profiles and all of the footage you have recorded can be instantly viewed after a dive, assuming you have a smartphone with you. It’s great for post-dive sharing and chat, and has already proven itself a safety feature after a recent incident where the divers involved were able to send data to the hospital while they were still out at sea.
All the camera’s settings can be altered through the app, which also acts as a logbook allowing you to record all dive details and GPS location for your memories. Firmware updates for bug fixes and new features can be downloaded and applied through the app. The Android version of the app can be a little flaky at times, mostly because there is such a wide range of Android-based devices out there that the programmers are still developing the app to work with all of them. Restarting and reconnecting usually fixes any issues, and the team are working on updates continuously. It also seems to insist on dumping all footage onto the phone’s memory and not the SD card – something else the team is working on.
Footage and photos can also be transferred directly to a PC or Mac either from the SD card, or using the Paralenz as a USB device.
There are loads of great little features all packed into the marvel of modern technology. There were some teething problems with the camera but the Paralenz support team is excellent and when mine flooded due to a problem with an older end cap, it was mailed back to Denmark and replaced (at the expense of Paralenz) within the same week.
Of all the people on the liveaboard that week, there was nothing but high praise from those that participated in the demonstration, even from team Hong Kong, a centre of technological excellence where ‘second-best’ is pretty much equivalent to 'failure'. More than one GoPro user on the liveaboard said that they preferred the Paralenz.
The only reservation that anybody had was the lack of viewscreen which, in my opinion, is not that much of a problem. Used correctly, the results from the Paralenz are outstanding.
Priced at £659, the Paralenz is more expensive than a GoPro, but once you take into account the additional costs of filters, housing and other accessories that the GoPro requires, there's not so much in the way of difference. The Paralenz' 250m depth rating without the need for a housing, and the DCC facility without the need for additional filters, packaged into a camera that was built with the dive community in mind, makes it an excellent choice for underwater enthusiasts.