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Is the GoPro Hero5 Black any Good for Photography?

My nea rnGoPro Hero5 Black just arrived in the mail and the first firmware update has dropped as well.  This made for the perfect time to start testing my camera.  I headed out to an aquarium and science center for an afternoon with the kids to test out the camera’s lowlight, burst, and specialty modes.

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The Hero5 Black is the flagship model

 

This is a make or break update for GoPro, which saw their stock tumble due to recent errors.  The product line has been streamlined to effectively just two cameras.  The GoPro Hero5 Black ($399 USD) and the GoPro Hero5 Session.  For this review I am only testing the Hero5 Black.

My Setup

To put the GoPro through its paces, I wanted to really test out the GoPro from a variety of angles.  I mounted the GoPro to a Platypod Pro plate which was perfect.  The camera was rock solid shooting from a wide-range of surfaces including shelves, glass, display cases and more. I mounted the GoPro using the standard tripod mount from GoPro.

A pocket-sized kit
A pocket-sized kit

In order to quickly adjust the camera’s settings, I used the CoPro capture app.  This made it easy to switch modes, frames rates, ISO settings, and field of view.  It also allowed me to update the firmware while on the go and even operate the camera hands free for comfort and stability.

Platypod Pro for discreet shooting
Platypod Pro for discreet shooting

What’s New for Photographers the GoPro Hero5

The next generation of the GoPro Hero5 has many improvements over the past.  Some of them are particularly of interest to me as a photographer.  While the GoPro Hero5 won’t shatter any image quality standards, the camera’s come a long way.  Its combination of size and features really matter and can solve some unique problems.

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Raw Photos

When I heard that the new GoPro offered raw capture… I was very surprised. The files are saved as a .GPR file with an accompanying .JPG image.  The new raw format requires the latest Adobe Camera Raw update (version 9.7) or Lightroom 6 (version 6.7 or later).

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The .GPR format is based on the Adobe DNG format.  It uses a newer compression standard (the VC5 Standard).  This creates a small file that can be written to the memory card quickly.  The compression is fairly lossless, making little impact on quality.  According to GoPro the files would have been a roughly 20MB raw file, but can be compressed to file sizes between 3-7 megabytes.

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Initial tests look good, but there are several limitations. You cannot use  the Raw format except on photos captured using the Wide Angle field of view.  This means maximum fisheye effect.  Fortunately, this is pretty easy to fix in post with the built-in lens correction profiles from Adobe and using tools like Adaptive Wide Angle and the Transform Tool in Camera Raw and Lightroom.

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Hopefully GoPro will figure out how to unlock the raw format for more options like timelapse and other field of view options. The documentation states that the only field of view it shouldn’t work in is linear (a fisheye corrected view).  Wide, Medium, and Narrow are all supposed to work, but as of GoPro firmware HERO5 Black update v01.20 this is not the case. The Burst photo modes would also be killer with raw, but would likely reduce the performance as well due to the camera’s buffer capacity.

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Wide Dynamic Range

If you want to capture better looking JPEGs right in camera, the new Wide Dynamic Range option really helps. This option is not compatible with raw capture, but works fine with all of the other standard photo settings for standard stills capture.  The  Wide Dynamic Range (WDR) retains a greater level of detail in the darker and brighter parts of an image.

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With WDR turned on, the resulting photo that is more likely to be properly exposed for extremes.  This is particularly useful for backlight situations.  Unfortunately Wide Dynamic Range cannot be used with the dedicated Night Photo or Timelapse modes.  Hopefully GoPro will expand its support in the future.

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Image shot with wide dynamic range and lightly processed in Adobe Camera Raw.

Lens Correction

The GoPro camera has become synonymous with wide angle shooting.  But not all like this fisheye look.  Recent GoPro models improved upon this by adding a Medium mode (for a midrange field of view) and a Narrow mode (which reduces fisheye distortion).  Both of these modes are on the new GoPro and fully support its 12 megapixel shooting resolution.

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The new field of view is called Linear.  It matches the mid-range field of view of Medium.  However it also effectively removes the fisheye distortion.  This is quite useful when capturing aerials, shots with strong perspective lines, or low angle shots.  The perspective correction is quite good.  This mode also is available and 12 megapixels shooting.

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Waterproof Natively

While I didn’t need it for today, the GoPro Hero5 cameras are waterproof without a housing.  The camera is rated for 10 meters (33 feet) and you can still buy a dive housing if needed for deeper (you’ll need a new one as the camera’s changed shape).

The camera is splash proof, dunk proof, and more.  Plus the new case has doors and latches that are much harder to open (a good thing).  Gone is the removable cover that held the memory card in.  Battery and memory card are safely sealed behind tightly latched doors.

Improved Controls

The menu system is dramatically easy on the new GoPros (especially if using the app). From the app you can easily update the camera and change settings.  You also get a wireless live view, so you can trigger the camera remotely or position it at an unusual angle without the need for yoga moves.  The Platypod Pro plus the app made it easy to shoot from a variety of angles.

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The built-in touchscreen display (previously a $100 add-on for the Black model) is simply to use.  By tapping different areas of the screen you can bring up the controls you need as well as review captured media. The swipe and tap gestures are easy to learn.

 

gestures

Additionally, the GoPro now offers voice control. You can use 13 different voice commands to switch shooting modes, shoot a photo, burst, or video, as well as turn the camera on or off.  What’s great is the ability to quickly switch into a mode like timelapse without having to even touch the camera.

I also love the ability to easily fine-tune exposure.  With EV controls for +/- 2 in half stop increments, its easy to shoot brackets photos for high-dynamic range.  Using the Platypod Pro I had a rock solid surface to shoot from, I then adjusted exposure with the app for manual bracketing.  Auto-bracketing would be a welcome feature if you’re listening GoPro.

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I then easily merged the files together into a 16-bit float DNG file with Adobe Camera Raw.  You can also do this with Lightroom 6 or newer.

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I also like that the camera allows for precise control over white balance, ISO, shutter speed, and sharpening.  ProTune really unlocks a lot of great options.  The dedicated modes for night shooting also help a lot and extend the usefulness of the camera.

A Connected Camera

The camera now features a built-in GPS.  This means that photos are now geotagged without a dependence on your smartphone.  This GPS data is useful if you want to look up where an image was captured.  Video doesn’t support the GPS tag, but you can use the Video+Photo mode to capture both a still and a video at the same time.

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The GoPro can now also auto backup to the cloud.  It requires a $4.99 USD a month subscription plan called GoPro Plus.  When the camera is on a known WI-FI network and plugged in, it uploads optimized media to the Cloud.  This content can then be edited in the GoPro apps or shared. The GoPro Plus membership also offers discounts on gear.

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For instant sharing and editing, you can still wireless copy media using your smartphone and the capture app.  You can review photos and videos that have been shot and then easily make basic edits and post to a variety of social networks.  You can also save these items to your camera roll for future tasks.

Improved Battery Life

batteryThe camera’s battery life has been improved too. First, the battery’s capacity has increased to 1220mAh (from the previous 1160mAh).  While that’s only. a slight boost, the camera has gotten smarter.  It’s easy to set auto power off modes and screensaver modes to reduce power consumption.  I also found it easy to wake a sleepingg camera using the remote or by tapping the shutter button.  I was able to shoot for almost 3 hours on a single battery.  Mind you I was mostly shooting photos and not video.  I would recommend picking up 3-4 batteries for your GoPro.

 

Does a photographer need a GoPro?

While it won’t replace a DSLR or mirrorless camera, the GoPro is on par with a smartphone.  What makes it different is its many shooting modes and advanced software.  I think a GoPro camera is quite useful for many reasons.

  • Behind the Scenes Video. The camera is light and small which means it can be easily mounted or worn for behind the scenes footage from your shoots. The camera now offers image stabilization as well which leads to smoother camera moves.
  • Easy timelapse movies. Want to dabble in timelapse?  You can record both still sequences for additional processing or even ready to share 1080p timelapse video with the newest model.
  • Incredible Burst Speed.  The GoPro can capture up to 30 shots in one second.  There are many more options too for spreading those bursts over multiple seconds.  This is great for capturing 12 megapixel stills of something moving fast.
  • Durability. A GoPro is simply more durable than a smartphone.  With a range of protected cases, or even outside of a hard case, the GoPro can be dropped, banged, dipped, splashed, and even submerged.  If you need a social media friendly camera or something else to use on set, it’s a good add on.
  • Cinemagraphs and SlowMo. With up to 4K video, the GoPro is great at capturing video clips for cinemagraphs.  I also like that the device allows for frame rates of up to 240 frames per second (at lower resolutions) for advanced slow-motion effects.

The bottom line

The GoPro Hero5 Black is essentially $200 cheaper than its predecessor (the camera is priced $100 less and you don’t need to also buy a LCD display).  GoPro has simplified the product lineup and not made customers choose between 3 different models with dwindling feature sets as well as a confusing budget model.  At $399 the camera is a good buy.  Chances are you’ll want to pick up some extra batteries and a charger as well as screen protectors.  You’ll need a fast micro SD card as well (I got best performance from a SDXC card).

Stable on any surface, great in lowlight

Stable on any surface

For previous GoPro owners, batteries and cases are a wash.  Those are camera specific and won’t fit the new camera (but that’s nothing new, GoPro’s been doing that for years).  Other options like tripod mounts, grips, poles, and general accessories will still work with the new cameras.

I commend GoPro for stepping up their game and lowering their prices.  The past model camera often left me disappointed.  The GoPro Hero5 Black is a delight to shoot with and let’s you make many creative shots in unusual places.  The option for wide dynamic range and 12 megapixels for all field of views is quite welcome.  Hopefully raw support will make the jump to more field of view and shooting modes with future firmware updates. Improved software controls really let you dial in the settings you need for custom shooting. The GoPro Hero5 Black is an excellent addition to a photographer’s toolkit yet rugged and simple enough for hobbyists and kids as well.

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