If you’ve been to a ski resort or on a bike trail in the past year or two, no doubt you’ve seen many GoPro cameras attached to every part of a person’s body. While there have been a number of personal POV(Point Of View) cameras available at a relatively inexpensive price, including Contour and the more expensive and sophisticated V.I.O, the GoPro is the most popular with action sports enthusiasts. Here at WatermanAtWork, we have many years of experience with POV movie, video and still cameras and we’ve been using GoPros for some time now, so we are in a pretty good position to provide a review of the GoPro product line.
User Profile and Cost
Who would want a GoPro camera and how much do they cost? If you are an action sports/video/photography enthusiast, especially if your photos and videos are going to be used on the internet, the GoPro is a decent way to get into making basic POV videos. Keep in mind that you are not going to be making any full length video productions with the GoPro, they are basically there to record your own personal adventures. As with any ultra wide angle/fisheye camera setup, anything more than a few feet away is going to be very small and things close to the camera are going to be very large. Wide angle and fisheye lenses also flatten the perspective, so that giant wave or huge mountain bike cliff jump is not going to look as dramatic as it does in real life. That being said, at this price, the GoPro is as good as you can expect to get.
GoPro cameras come in a number of basic packages. The HD Hero Naked is a GoPro HD Hero camera, waterproof housing and a few basic camera mounts, it retails for about $260USD. The HD Motorsports Hero comes with the GoPro HD Hero camera, waterproof housing, flat and curved adhesive mounts, suction cup mount and a pivot arm. As the name implies, this kit is targeted for automobile, truck and motorcycle enthusiasts who want to mount the camera on their vehicle or helmet. It retails for about $300USD. The HD Surf Hero is for surfers and other water based boardsport enthusiasts. It comes with the GoPro HD Hero camera, waterproof housing, board mount, FCS plug mount and leash. It retails for about $300USD. The HD Helmet Hero package comes with the GoPro camera, waterproof housing, head strap, vented helmet strap, curved and flat adhesive mounts and a three way pivot arm. It retails for about $300USD and it targeted for use by bicycle riders. It is also a pretty good all around package for other kinds of activities. GoPro also has the HD Hero 960. It comes with a GoPro Hero 960 camera, waterproof housing, headlamp-style head strap, helmet front mount, curved and flat adhesive mounts and a quick release buckle. The HD Hero 960 does not shoot in 720p @ 60fps or 1080p @ 30fps video modes and cannot be fitted with the GoPro BacPac LCD monitor or battery extension. It is cheaper than the standard HD Hero pacakages at about $180USD. All the camera packages come with a mini USB cable, component(HDTV) cable, composite video/audio cable, 1100 mAh lithium ion rechargeable battery and one year warranty. GoPro also sells a wide range of mounting hardware and accessories that will allow you to mount your camera just about anywhere your imagination will take you. GoPro also has a 3D Hero System to record 3D videos and photos, it costs about $100USD.
The HD Hero Camera
The GoPro camera has a fixed focus, f2.8 glass lens, a 1/2.5″ CMOS sensor and saves video with H264 compression in an MPEG 4(.mp4) format and mono audio in a 48kHz, AAC compression format. Automatic exposure control(center weighted or spot metering) and white balance.
The GoPro HD Hero shoots in three HD video resolutions:
1080p: 1920×1080 at 30fps NTSC(25fps PAL), 127° field of view, 16:9 aspect ratio, HD
720p: 1280×720 at 30 and 60fps(25 and 50fps PAL), 170° field of view, 16:9 aspect ratio, HD
480p(WVGA): 848×480 at 60fps(50fps PAL) 170° field of view, 16:9 aspect ratio, HD
And one standard definition resolution:
960p: 1280×960 at 30fps(25fps PAL), 170° field of view, 4:3 “Tall” aspect ratio
The GoPro camera also has a 5 megapixel still camera that shoots photographs in Single Shot, at 2, 5, 10, 30 and 60 second intervals, self timer and 3 photo burst modes.
The rechargeable 1100mAh Lithium-Ion battery will power the camera for just over a couple hours and takes about the same time to recharge via a USB computer connection or charger. There are also standalone battery chargers available.
The GoPro HD Hero uses SDHC memory cards up to 32GB. There have been some compatibility issues with some SDHC cards, GoPro suggests Kingston or Patriot Class 4 SDHC cards, we use Kingston 16GB Class 4 SDHC cards; the 16GB cards are much cheaper than a 32GB card and we’d rather have two 16GB cards instead of one 32GB card for security reasons, and the Class 4 seems to be fast enough to capture even the highest resolution HD video, so no need to buy a more expensive, higher class card(higher class cards are faster).
The camera is 1.6″(42mm)x 2.4″(60mm)x 1.2″(30mm)(H x W x D) and weighs 5.3oz.(150g) including the battery and 6.3oz.(179g) with the waterproof housing.
The GoPro HD Hero has an expansion port to accommodate the LCD BacPac and Battery BacPac, but not both at the same time.
Waterproof Camera Housing
The HD Hero camera comes with a polycarbonate and stainless steel waterproof camera housing as well as a “skeleton” back that will allow better sound recording, but obviously will not be waterproof. The skeleton back is only to be used on dry land.
The housing not only protects the camera from the elements, but it is what all the mounting attachments use to attach the camera to the various GoPro camera mounts. GoPro claims the waterproof housing has a depth rating of 180 feet(60 meters), personally, I would not go anywhere near that deep with it. Might want to take the housing down first without the camera in it to check it out.
The housing camera control and case seals are very small; a grain of sand between the control shaft and rubber ‘O’ ring seal might cause the housing to leak and ruin the camera. The housing has a replaceable lens should it become scratched.
GoPro Camera Accessories
GoPro sells all kinds of mounting hardware to attach the GoPro camera to just about anything. Adhesive mounts, helmet mounts, wrist, chest and head strap mounts, suction cup mounts, roll bar and handlebar mounts; just about everything you can think of. Part of the challenge of using a POV camera is to design the mounts to get the perspective you want.
GoPro also sells what they call “Premium Accessories”. They are the 3D Hero System; the stuff you need to shoot, edit and view 3D movies and photos, the LCD BacPac; an LCD viewer that allows you to see what you are shooting and playback footage and photos you have taken and the Battery BacPac that allows you to use two Lithium-Ion batteries simultaneously for extended recording time.
The LCD BacPac comes with the LCD viewfinder/monitor and comes with waterproof and skeleton camera housing backs(the LCD BacPac will not fit in a standard GoPro Hero HD housing). It has a control button and built in speaker. The LCD BacPac is pretty cool and can be helpful in situations where you need to see what you are shooting or to set up a shot.
There are a few things to consider with the LCD BacPac. It adds a little weight to the camera; this may not seem like a big deal, but in situations like on a helmet or surfboard, every gram makes a difference. When used in the waterproof housing, the extra heat of the LCD screen and faster discharging battery may cause condensation inside the housing.
Battery life is the major concern with the LCD BacPac; when using it, battery life is cut in half. If you leave the LCD on, the battery will only last about an hour or so. The LCD BacPac comes with waterproof and skeleton camera housing backs for the HD Hero and HD Wrist housings and costs about $80USD.
If battery life is an issue, perhaps if you are using the GoPro for time lapse photography or shooting a lot of footage/photos between battery recharges, there is the Battery BacPac. It attaches to the back of the GoPro HD Hero camera and holds an additional 1100 mAh battery for extended shooting times. The Battery BacPac can also be used as a standalone battery charger. The Battery BacPac comes with an 1100 mAh battery, waterproof and skeleton backs for the camera housing, and a USB cable for about $50USD.
So what kind of HD video does this little camera produce? Overall, it’s not too bad, but there are a few things you will want to look out for to get the best video quality you can. As with all video and photography work, the lighting is the most important thing.
The GoPro automatic exposure has a very slow response to changing light conditions, like if you are riding a bike through sunny, then shaded areas. This is really annoying and lets anyone who knows anything about video that you are using a consumer camera(professional videographers and photographers generally hate AUTO anything). Not much you can do about it in the editing process either. The GoPro does not do well in really bright, sunny conditions (overexposed, “washed out”) or low light (pixellated, video “noise”) conditions either. You have to have good lighting conditions to get the best footage. The ideal lighting for the GoPro would be sunny, with high, thin clouds so it would be fairly bright but without harsh bright or shadow conditions; “even” lighting would be a good way to describe it. The GoPro does allow you to choose between center weighted and spot exposure metering, sometimes that helps.
The GoPro uses a CMOS sensor with a rolling shutter, also known as line scan. When the camera is moving, like with a typical POV situation, the rolling shutter will sometimes be distorted. This is called the jello effect. No real way to get around this, pretty much all cameras that use CMOS sensors are susceptible to the rolling shutter effect.
There is also a blurring of the edges of the video when it is in the camera housing. That’s because the manufacturing process for the housing’s lens port plastic distorts the material at the edges and causes the blurring of the video. Not a deal breaker, but it is noticeable.
The camera has a microphone to record audio, but it is pretty poor. Mono sound that is poor quality. Add in wind noise if you are using the camera while you are moving and you will quickly see why most GoPro videos have some kind of musical soundtrack.
What can be done to get the best quality video? Being in tune with the lighting conditions as described earlier is the biggest thing. Shooting at 60fps will cut down on the jitters and jerkiness if the camera is moving around a lot. Try the center weighted and spot exposure metering, see if that helps.
Video Viewing and Editing
As with all HD video, you are going to need a fairly powerful computer to view the GoPro video and an even more powerful computer to do any meaningful editing. To view 1080p HD video, you will need a 2.4 GHz dual core processor, 2G RAM and at least a 256 MB Video RAM, 600 MHz video card. A 7200rpm hard drive or SSD is a big plus. You can view GoPro videos with recent versions of Windows Media Player and Quicktime, but we prefer the VLC Player (VideoLan).
To edit and render the H264 .MP4 video files produced by the GoPro cameras, you will need a quad core processor; an Intel i5 might get you by, an i7 is better. 8G of RAM would be the minimum; we have 8G of DDR3 in our i7 video editing workstation, we are bumping it up to 16G of DDR3 1600 RAM for smoother operations with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and Sony Vegas 9. Of course, to use that much memory, you have to run Windows 7 64bit operating system, which we do. A video card with a minimum of 512MB 256bit DDR3 video RAM should do the job, if you can swing it, 1G would be better. A dual video card setup like Crossfire or SLI is not necessary unless you plan to do a bit of gaming with the computer as well as video editing. Definitely at least two hard drives; one 7200rpm drive for your programs and another “work/capture” drive. We’ve been running a 120G SSD as the program/boot drive and a 1G 7200 rpm work drive, it’s a sweet setup.
All the top shelf video editing software like Adobe Premiere Pro, Sony Vegas and Final Cut Pro will handle GoPro video files. Results may vary with cheaper or free software, you might have to do some transcoding to get the files to work. We’ve found that MPEG Streamclip is very handy for lossless conversion of the GoPro .MP4 files if they don’t work natively.
You can take a look at some video taken with the GoPro HD Hero; here are some road bike POV videos and here are some mountain bike videos. These videos were edited with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and rendered with the Adobe Media Encoder CS4. More videos are on the way.
Despite a few shortcomings, the GoPro is a pretty decent POV video camera. You really aren’t going to get much more at this price point. It’s fun to play around with and everyone likes to see themselves on video, but be prepared; the “big airs” are a lot bigger in your mind than on the video screen. One more thing; most of the gear you buy from GoPro has a one year warranty, which is a good thing. We have two GoPro cameras and an LCD BacPac; all three of them had to be returned under warranty because of manufacturing problems. GoPro is pretty good about replacing defective cameras, but the cost shipping the gear back to Half Moon Bay kind of jacks the overall price up and you are without your camera, so keep that in mind.
As with all product reviews on WatermanAtWork.com, we do not get anything free, we pay for them just like you do, our reviews are made by people who need to get their money’s worth out of the things they buy. As we continue to use the GoPro cameras, this review will be updated accordingly.