From Gun Camera to GoPro: A Short History of Small Cameras

16 Nov


A little while back I bought a GoPro as I thought it would be a great way to add fantastic production value to our productions. I’ve used GoPro’s in the past and the image quality that comes out of that little black box never ceases to amaze me!

But how did we achieve those otherwise ‘inaccessible shots’ that gave an audience a radically different perspective before the GoPro arrived on the scene? In other words, how did we go from this:

to this:

The Lipstick Camera, a ground breaking piece of kit in its time.

The Lipstick Camera

I think it was back in the  the 1980’s when we used a tiny little video camera for these kinds of shots, this camera was nicknamed a ‘Lipstick Camera’ because of its shape and size. They produced rather fuzzy images but at the time they were pretty groundbreaking. (No HD in those days! – God I suddenly feel old !) But hang on a minute… it gets even worse.

I can remember that before the Lipstick Camera came out we used old RAF Gun Cameras to get those wacky shots.

The Gun Camera:

The Gun Camera was a 16mm film camera that was used primarily in combat aircraft during WW2 to help record the number of kills during dogfights and reconnaissance flights (pilots had a tendency to exaggerate their claims and the RAF needed a way to confirm the number of downed enemy planes). These cameras were triggered by the firing a gun and were installed in the aircraft wing.


The  ‘Gun Camera’ – When they worked they produced some amazing footage.

Below is a video showing how the gun cameras were installed on fighter planes during the Second World War – it’s an interesting glimpse into the past of camera technology but as you’ll see it’s also some pretty harrowing footage. Makes you realise what these brave pilots, on both sides, went through. It’s 10 mins long but the first minute or so tells the story of the gun camera and how it was installed:


When we used them for TV filming the results were all a bit hit and miss (pardon the pun!).

The 16mm film would be loaded into cassettes which would then be slotted into the camera body.The cassette had a film gate where you could see a small section (frame) of the 16mm film stock.

Gun Camera cassett

This was the 16mm film cassette. You just slotted it into the camera and off you go!

You had to mark the exposed film with an ‘X’ in the gate. The power was supplied by an external battery and the camera was ‘run’ by a cable switch operated by someone (e.g. if the camera was mounted on a car the driver would flick the switch at the appropriate moment for the shot). Now remember that felt tip pen mark i just mentioned ? Well after the shot we would pull out the film cassette and check to see if that little ‘X’ had gone, if it was still there we knew the cassette had not run, and we would have to try the shot over again. These things were notorious for jamming or just not running at all!

CAM helmet

The Gun Camera helmet… When men were heroes!!!

So guys when you next mount your GoPro on whatever it is you’re filming, spare a thought for us chaps back in the 70’s and 80’s and think yourself lucky that technology has paved the way for truly amazing GoPro images. It really is an incredible time for filmmakers – technology is making anything possible. So be grateful, grab it with both hands and go make some incredible stuff.

Hero 3

Another type of hero… The Hero 3 GoPro. So small you could lose it in your pocket! A feat of engineering brilliance indeed!

Even Steven Spielberg used gun camera footage in his early films – below is a video excerpt from the making of Saving Private Ryan where he talks about the early days of his filmmaking career!


I hope you enjoyed this little blog, just thought you might be interested in how things used to be. As you can see it’s come a long way!

Good luck with all your filmmaking endeavors guys… and talk to you again very soon.

All the best

Chris ebook NOW AVAILABLE banner

By the way… I run a course on Lighting & Cinematography, so click the link or get in touch if you’re interested in coming and learning in person!

Hope this helps!

Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.

One Response to “From Gun Camera to GoPro: A Short History of Small Cameras”

  1. reeldealfilmschool November 17, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Reel Deal Film School and commented:
    Another superb read from THROUGH THE LENS FILM SCHOOL

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