The Other Action Camera


It’s 2004, and a group of young entrepreneurs is working on a wearable camera geared towards action sports.  Their experimentation results in a multi-million dollar company that launches a series of versatile waterproof cameras that can be attached to a person or vehicle in any number of ways. Their products have been used to film everything from spear fishing to paintball battles. Oh, by the way, I’m not talking about GoPro.

I’m talking about Contour, an action sports camera company founded by Marc Barros and Jason Green that bears a lot of interesting similarities to their better-known competitor.

Both were founded around the same time and both were born out of a desire by their creators to record their own lives. Barros and Green wanted a durable camera to wear while skiing, while GoPro founder Nick Woodman needed something similar to photograph him and his friends while surfing.

There is one big difference though: Contour shut down over the summer, while GoPro is posting record profits.

Contour’s cameras, like the Contour+2 and Roam2 featured a sleeker, more aerodynamic design than boxy GoPros, and offered a number of unique features such as GPS tagging. Despite this, and despite $27 million in earnings just a couple of years ago, the company closed down quickly and unexpectedly this August, begging the question: why did GoPro succeed where Contour failed?

One of the big reasons is a difference in marketing strategy. Marc Barros, one of Contour’s founders, discussed this problem in a recent Wired article:

Spending our money to get into a retailer, we quickly realized we had nothing left to drive consumer demand in a meaningful way. We lost to a company that built a much stronger brand, allowing its customers to emotionally connect with it. For years, our competitor GoPro’s insanely focused approach on inspiring consumers went well beyond the technical performance and functional specs of its cameras, enabling them to create a movement rivaled by few companies in the world.

Through sponsorships, advertising and exhibitions, GoPro’s energetic branding definitely served to set their product apart. And perhaps that sometimes caused them to put the cart before the horse. The GoPro Hero 3, in particular, was maligned for software glitches. But despite the occasional misstep, the GoPro certainly struck a chord among photographers, both amateur and professional.


And those photographers, once struck, built up a community dedicates to promoting GoPro photography and videography. There are websites, Flickr groups and subreddits that exist entirely separate from the company itself. And with every viral video on YouTube shot on a GoPro, the following grows stronger.

Contour’s sound defeat became final this August when its doors closed for the last time. But even with their departure, the action sports camcorder sector continues to grow more and more crowded. Pyle Audio is trying to beat the GoPro price point with its sub-$100 Hi-Speed HD Camera, while Sony and JVC are putting forward their own offerings. It will be interesting to see how the market unfolds, but these competitors are definitely late to the game.

It’s often said that photographers spend too much time worrying about the minuscule details of their equipment, but perhaps the same thing could be said of camera manufacturers. Based on comparisons of their footage and spec sheets alone, the technical differences between GoPro and Contour cameras wasn’t exactly vast, but the gap in market share was still staggering thanks to the way each camera was presented to the public.


Instead of technical perfection, GoPro excelled because its marketing inspired consumers, and established it as a marker of a type of lifestyle that people wanted to buy into. That’s not an alien concept to the still camera market either. There are plenty of low quality film cameras out there, but Lomography has carved out a healthy niche for itself because their cameras represent something to their customers: a certain type of aesthetic or personality.

To use another example, Nikon  is trying to do the same thing with their Df, which sacrifices more typical body design for one that screams “VINTAGE!” and “REFINED!” It’s not about what the camera does, it’s about what the camera means.

For camera manufacturers today, especially those with unestablished brands, it’s not enough to just make a good camera. True success comes from effective marketing, branding, and community support.

  • MattSH

    I own a Contour, and much prefer the design over the boxy Go Pro. The image quality is close, with the edge going to the Go Pro, but not by so much you could tell without an A/B test.

    I see the Sony as the strongest competitor to the Go Pro (it has a form factor that is very similar to the Contour), with the company’s vast resources, entrenched name, and years of experience with video. It also seems to have technological advantages, especially with anti-shake. What I don’t see is any sort of marketing push to go after the more entrenched Go Pro in the action cam world.

  • Renato Murakami

    Contour lost in market sense, but yep, they hit the nail on the head pinpointing the reasons: it’s all about the community and marketing efforts of the brand.
    Back when GoPro was just starting, I do remember that Contour had some advantages specs wise and I was really interested in it.
    GoPro had a particular vision similar to brands like Red Bull.
    Shure Hero 3 had it’s share of problems, but spec wise it’s competitive enough when compared to other brands. But most important of all, is the strong community part, constant support and showcasing of costumers works, sponsorship deals in several sports and extreme sports which makes their cameras look good, paying close attention to alternative uses of their products, and heavily basing their own marketing campaigns on usage of their products by costumers.
    From the beginning they made a very big and right move on giving up or borrowing their cameras to projects they see fit for spreading the brand.
    People who buys the cameras on specs alone are out there, but they are on the minority. Most of the people who’ll buy a GoPro will check the ads and go “that’s the sort of stuff I want to do with an action camera”.
    All that depite arguably being the less fitting shape for sports cams – a box. Most of the competition will have the more traditional lipstick shaped design.
    And then, with all the profits being reinvested to perfect the product, it becomes hard to beat.
    Let me say for instance that GoPro is among the few action cameras which actually have an app for Windows Mobile 8. They just updated the app to work with Hero 3+, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m considering buying one.

  • Marco J Perez

    I personally believe the Df is going to be a failure and shouldn’t be considered unique in the market. If anything else it is a knee jerk reaction to the success of other brands (much like their m43 competitor was). It doesn’t capture the refinement that Fujifilm and Olympus have been able to create. Those two companies (along with Panasonic) have done far more to disrupt the market by creating niche products. The Fujifilm x100 was a major contributor and that camera had a fixed fast prime and an odd but compelling viewfinder. However, it was precisely these features that drew photographers from all brands.

  • Lightingbryan

    Petapixel! Contour was just purchased and will be coming back online. Your article should reflect this!

  • Mike

    Unlike Fuji and Olympus though, Nikon makes money.

  • Guest

    Sadly, Nikon’s (everyone’s) profit is dropping. However, Nikon is falling from a high place and they’re falling fast. Oly lost less than last year after rebounding from an accounting scandle and Fujifilm is breaking pretty close to even. Both are making strong products in the prosumer arena, D7XXX territory (<I owned/love this), while Nikon has reacted to the market with mirrorless (Nikon J) and retro (Df) clones. Sony, another player, is pretty even, also. The threat to Nikon is found when you look at market share and contrast that with the company's overall diversity; they have nowhere to go but down and they'll do it without a parachute. Oly, Fujifilm, Sony and definitely Panasonic have other robust markets that will help them weather the storm. I am not doomsday-ing Nikon, I am just saying if the overall camera market is plummeting Nikon is going to feel it the most. So yes, they are profitable… for now.

  • Lauren

    Not Pentax/Ricoh ;) They are making a profit.

  • Truthseer

    Funny that the stock prices of both Fujifilm and Olympus outperformed Nikon over the past year, 5 years, 10 years and just about any other period of time you care to compare. And that includes the massive hit Olympus have taken due to the accounting scandal.
    Either you have more insight than all of the investors combined or are talking out of your ass, I’ll leave others to decide that

  • Mike

    Did I say anything about stock performance? I simply said profits, and my statement is correct. If you are talking stock, look at market cap as well. Also, if your stock is at a penny and it goes to two pennies, that is a 100% jump in stock price. Big deal.

  • Ben Woodworth

    I’ve shot a good bit with a bunch of different POV cams. GoPro’s whole system is just better. That’s why they lead the market. They give you all the features you could possibly want whether you’re a pro or a beginner. The video and photo quality is better than other offerings. And, what rarely gets mentioned in articles like this are the wide array of mounts that GoPro offers. No other company includes the number of mounts they do and nobody offers the quality and selection of mounts they do. Sony, for instance, has terrible options for mounting their ActionCam. The helmet mount doesn’t articulate and the goggle strap mount causes the camera to flop all over the place when you’re biking, skiing, etc.

  • Ralph Hightower

    Looks like a Kickstarter project to me…

  • darylcheshire

    Replay XD1080 is good and more elegant as a cylinder

  • Steve Maxfield

    I love the gopro’s honestly thought contour had the best hardware design. Such as the Roam/Roam2. Water/dirt/dust proof without a case, ridiculously great battery life, rotatable lens, tripod support, laser guided shot leveling, not-too-fisheyed UWA FOV and it just plain worked and worked really well.

  • Dov

    It may fail but at the same time having handled it and used it the camera does succeed at exactly what it was made to do. As someone who grew up on film and manual mechanical cameras I found my thumb reflexively trying to cock the film lever each time I took a picture. It succeeded at retro in its feel and handling not because someone slapped a wood grain panel on the frame and called it retro.

    I don’t think Nikon expected it to bring their sales up but it did make a note and say something about cameras and photography today that I wish nikon would integrate into their models over all