Early in 2010 I eagerly opened a box containing my brand new GoPro HD Hero. It was a small (practically tiny) $300 video camera that I would be able to take anywhere. And I did. Over the last year and a half, I have dragged that miniature camera across snow, through deserts, over rocks, down into the ocean, through canyons, over waterfalls, alongside canoes, and wherever else I remembered to take it. Some of that footage has appeared in various videos in my Vimeo GoPro Album. Because of those videos, people often ask me about the GoPro—if they should buy one, what model, what attachments, etc. Thus, I’ve decided to put together this post answering all of those questions (and maybe some people haven’t asked).
Which Model? Original or 960?
The GoPro HD Hero can shoot both flavors of HD: 720p or 1080p. It can also shoot at 960p which is essentially 720p with 240 extra lines of pixels. 960 is a squarish picture instead of 720s rectangular widescreen picture (4:3 ratio instead of 16:9). I almost always shoot in 960 mode. Yes, the image quality is much better at 1080 and yes, the fisheye distortion is more prominent in 960 and 720 modes. Why do I shoot mostly 960? The GoPro (as I use it) is rarely operated by a person. It is usually attached to some person or object, aimed in a direction and turned on. The lens is very wide angle, but without an operator it can’t be expected to always compose the most interesting shot. I shoot at 960 and edit at 720. That gives me 240 extra lines of pixels along the top and bottom of my image that I can use to recompose my shot. It makes a huge difference. GoPro now offers a cheaper version of the HD Hero (the 960) that eschews the 1080 mode. When I buy my next GoPro, I would consider that model if it wasn’t missing one other feature: 720p at 60 frames-per-second. Why is that important? Most of us edit our videos at 30 or 24 frames-per-second. If we shoot at 60, we can get some decent looking slow-motion shots. I used that feature several times in my Hesperia Swimstream video. If only 960 mode could shoot at 60 fps (I’m sure GoPro knows we all want this)! The other reason I will probably buy another original HD Hero and not the 960 is because of the recent release of the LCD Bacpac. It’s a screen that attaches to the back of your camera. It lets you see what you are shooting and review your footage in camera. No, the base GoPro does not have a LCD screen attached. Often times you wouldn’t be able to see the screen anyway since the camera is designed to go where you can’t. When I am in a situation where I can operate the camera and compose shots, I absolutely shoot in 1080 mode. My advice when choosing a model is to decide if you need the higher resolution and slow-motion capabilities. If not, get the 960 and save 80 bucks. Just keep in mind, that 80 bucks may not seem like such a big deal when you find yourself in a situation where you would love to get a slow-mo shot or a less distorted higher resolution 1080 shot of something.
I bought the Helmet Hero Pack. Within a year, I bought almost every other attachment. I’ve yet to use many of them. Here’s what I’ve learned. The GoPro on a headstrap showed me just how much we move our heads. POV (point-of-view) footage gets boring very quickly unless other people are in the shot. The headstrap and helmet attachments are very useful. They capture great footage for you to edit in with other footage. Don’t rely on them solely. I recommend buying whichever attachments most fit your sport. For most people, my strongest recommendations are the chest harness and tripod mount. I use the chest harness more often than every other attachment combined. It is not right for every circumstance, but it often gets the camera where you want it and keeps it stable and focused in a general direction. It also keeps the camera easily accessible. You can quickly see when you are and aren’t recording, quickly detach it and catch a shot from a different angle, or flip it upside down and aim it at your face. Keep in mind, you can also wear the camera on your back. That’s how we got a few of the cooler shots in Big Bear Slipstream. So, why the tripod mount? Isn’t the point of the camera that it can move around, go anywhere, and not be locked to a tripod? Yes. Buy the tripod mount, but don’t put it on a tripod (unless you need to for a shot). Attach it to a monopod—an extendable stick. A GoPro on a six-foot-long stick can capture lots of great footage from almost any angle. I only recently bought the tripod mount and I wish I had bought it much sooner. A few weeks ago I was using it to hold the GoPro over the edge of a waterfall to get footage of my friend rappelling from above. I see videos online all the time of people using this approach to get amazing skydiving and surfing shots. I’m also pretty fond of the suction cup mount. It’s great for boating and for mounting to cars. It’s how I got the canoeing shots in Black Canyon (You can also see some 720 60fps slow-motion action in that video). Do keep a safety line attached to it just in case. There are lots of other attachments. I’ve liked each one I’ve used. Get the ones you need for the shots you want to get.
Should I get it as my still camera?
The GoPro isn’t just an HD video camera. It also shoots stills. It can even shoot time-lapse (a photo every second or so until you tell it to stop or the battery dies). I almost never use these features. I do intend to start experimenting with the time-lapse options, but I see little use for the single photo feature. You can’t see and compose the shot unless you have the newly released LCD Bacpac attached. If you are trying to capture an action, you are probably better off getting it as a video. The photo function is a nice additional feature and can be used in clever ways other cameras can’t, but I would not recommend buying the GoPro instead of a proper still camera.
I love my GoPro. For a $300 video camera, it is amazing. It is tough as hell. I saw a posting online where someone dropped it when skydiving and it still functioned when they retrieved it on the ground. I’ve taken it 60 feet under the ocean with no problems. There are a number of things you need to keep in mind, although. It is an inexpensive camera. It is fully automated. You will have no control over aperture, ISO, or other features you may expect from a prosumer level camcorder or DSLR. It shoots to SD cards in MP4 format. This keeps it fast and inexpensive, but does mean lower sampling rates for your data. Do expect some artifacting and pixelation. If you like to take it wet places, water will stick to the lens on your housing and affect your images. I recently read a piece of advice online that said Rain-X combats this effectively. I have not tried this out yet, but I intend to very soon. The inside of the housing will fog up because of temperature changes (especially dunking it in cold water on a hot day). Thankfully, GoPro sells anti-fog inserts that work spectacularly. I have been pleasantly surprised with the battery life of the GoPro. I’ve yet to run out of juice when I’ve needed it. If you are not like me and prefer to run your camera non-stop GoPro does offer a battery bacpac that prolongs your record time.
For a $300 (now even cheaper) camera, this thing is pretty fantastic. If you want to get video places you normally can’t, buy one. I’m looking forward to their next generation of cameras and I hope we will eventually start getting prosumer features at a modest price.
Note: I took both of the photos in this post with a Panasonic GH1 Micro 4/3 camera with their 20MM pancake lens. These photos were not taken with a GoPro.