GoPro exploded on the video production scene about five years ago. The ubiquitous action cams are seen everywhere in production, sports, reality shows, and even some feature films. They are worn by police and military to document their work in the field. GoPros are sold everywhere from video and camera stores to auto repair shops. In its short history, the company has gone public and performed well on the stock market.
What attracted me to the GoPro Hero 4 Black (H4B) was its ability to shoot 4K video at 30fps. It's not that I deliver anything in 4K right now, but—as I mentioned in my review of the Blackmagic Design 4K production camera—being able to do tracking and zooms on 4K clips in post without losing quality on a 1080 timeline gives you huge creative latitude.
Another great feature is its ability to record 1920×1080 at 120fps. That will give you extremely smooth slow motion down to 25 percent speed. If you want to try the best of both worlds, you can try doing 2.7K at 60p. That gives you some latitude to re-frame shots in post and a smooth 50 percent slow motion.
Outside of seeing GoPro at their monster booth at NAB 2013 and 2014 (this year it was smaller and more sedate) and on the helmets of a number of local motorcycle riders, I hadn't actually touched one until now. I ordered my “review pack” with the underwater housing, "BacPac” LCD touchscreen attachment (pictured above), an extra battery, a vehicle mount, and a 533x speed 32 GB MicroSD card. Once you get a few different mount sets, you can mix and match parts and come up with some really interesting mounting contraptions. I actually used the mount in the box (you are probably expected to just throw it out) to make a platform that would allow easy stationary placement of the Hero 4 under water. I used this in a local creek to get some great footage of fish and other underwater creatures. (More about that later.)
Additionally I had a Steadicam Smoothie with a GoPro mount that had been sitting unopened in its box since I won it in a raffle at NAB 2012. Needless to say, I finally opened it.
For whatever reason, I love using cameras underwater. I'm not a big beach person. I'll go swimming maybe a dozen times during the summer. But there is something about shooting underwater that I love. Maybe it was all those Jacques Cousteau shows I watched as a kid. The first submersible camera I had was a Sportster review unit from the now defunct DXG camera company. It takes nice underwater video but is about six times the size of the GoPro 4. The DXG would also leak a little bit and shut down after a half hour, but drying it out in the sun or with a hair dryer would bring it back to life after 15 minutes. The GoPro had no such problems being submerged. The creek I tested it in was one to two feet deep in most places. There isn't a huge variation of aquatic life, but there are small, one- to two-inch mosquito fish and crayfish.
I like to call my creek adventures “photo fishing.” Basically, I put the GoPro 4 in record mode and placed it on the creek bottom with a grabber arm I picked up at a hardware store. I had no idea what it was recording until I got back to the studio. What I did see when I put the 4K video into Adobe Premiere Pro was pretty incredible. Color richness of the crayfish's red body was super vibrant. I recently got a Samsung Galaxy S5, and one of the things I was hoping to do with it was control the GoPro's functions while it was submerged, as you waste a lot of storage and battery waiting for fish to swim into frame. Unfortunately, the water kills the wi-fi signal. Based on my testing, when you put the camera one inch under water, the signal is gone, even though you can connect to it from 100 feet away out of the water.
My H4B review unit was also used in a music video for an up-and-coming Indian pop musician breaking into the US market. The scene was a close-up shot of the star singing in the shower, from the POV of the shower head. Unfortunately I had to surrender the H4B to their DP for filming, as the pop princess only felt comfortable with the original DP. The DP didn't realize the LCD shuts off after not touching it for one minute. That feature is meant to save battery power, but had he said something we could have gone into the menu and disabled it. We also tried to view the live footage remotely, but no one could get their iPhones to talk to the GoPro—including an Apple employee who happened to be at the shoot. Unfortunately, no one had an Android device, as most work great with the GoPro. Eventually, the water heater broke and the scene had to be done with cold water. The pop princess was just chillin'. Everyone thought the footage was great, though.
I was also excited to use the H4B as a b-roll camera on one of my regular shoots. As budgets spiral ever downward in the corporate, industrial and event video fields, clients are expecting more and more from smaller and smaller crews. Years ago we'd bring multiple cameras and camera people on a given shoot, but now we are often down to one. Of course, the client wants the same multi-angle look. One technique many of us use when the primary camera is on a tripod, is to look for a chance to leave it unattended and get some cutaway shots with a camera phone. That usually nets a few seconds to a couple minutes of valuable b-roll that can be added when needed, but not much more than that.
Because the H4B is so light it is easy to mount anywhere, I was able to mount it above my main camera. To do this I use the same mount for clipping it into the clip, with one extender to give it a tiny bit more height, and then use a heavy-duty rubber band to attach it to a K-Tek T-Bar. This allows you to capture an extreme wide angle while your main camera may be zoomed in on a subject. For instance, if you're recording a stage play, you can have the main camera zoomed in on a soloist while the H4B gets a wide shot of the entire stage. Even better, when shooting in 4K and delivering in 1080, you zoom in on the 4K to get tighter shots if needed.
I recently experimented with this shooting strategy at a wedding and found it extremely useful. Because the whole thing was outdoors, it was close to impossible to see the H4B's viewing screen. When I put the footage in Premiere Pro, I was happily surprised to see that the vast majority of the footage was useable. There was a bit where I saw the photographer standing next to me, but he was easily cropped out due to the plethora of extra pixels. During the dancing, while the main camera was zoomed in on the bride and groom, the H4B was able to record the entire dance floor, allowing me to cut back and forth.
There are accessories out there that attempt to transform the GoPro into an ENG camera or main cinema camera. Don't be tempted. By time you attach XLR audio adapters and lens attachments, you've negated the whole reason you got the GoPro in the first place—its compactness. If you are doing a dialog scene, or a news interview, unless you have an emergency, use a regular camera that will give you great audio and proper lens control.
The image quality on the H4B is generally very good to excellent depending on what you are shooting. Highly detailed scenes such as trees in the wind or ground covered by fallen leaves will cause some artifacting. The highly compressed footage is really challenged by some shots. Transcoding to the intermediate codec in the GoPro application didn't help it at all. But if you are shooting in well-lit areas that aren't super-detailed, you won't see much in the way of artifacting.
One issue with the previously mentioned set up, especially when working outdoors on a sunny day, is that you can not see the LCD view screen to better angle the GoPro. As with much of the GoPro experience, you point, shoot, and hope for the best. Most of the time you will come back with something usable. And the luxury of shooting in 4K for HD delivery, with the ability to recompose your shot in post, makes the risks low and benefits high.
While there is a free GoPro editing application, it is meant for consumers. While it can perform tasks like transcoding the recorded video to an intermediate codec that is less CPU intensive (but less space efficient), and it can remove some of the fish-eye look of wider video shots, pro editors will find it lacking. Premiere Pro CC 2014, on the other hand, has no problem editing the files right out of the camera without converting to another codec, and has similar GoPro image-correction filters. After trying them both, I found that Adobe filters did a better, higher quality job of removing the fish-eye distortion.
Going downmarket, the Hero4 Silver has basically the same physical features as the Black, but lacks 4K, 2.7K, and 120fps 1080p, topping out at 1080p 60fps, for $399. The GoPro line up also includes the older Hero3+ Silver $299, Hero3 White $199, and newer entry-level Hero $129, each with features to match the price.
The GoPro Hero4 Black is an amazing little camera that can get big shots. While the image may not be as good as you're accustomed to, it is still a great picture that can be intercut with footage from your more expensive cameras. Even if you don't think you need the GoPro Hero 4, if you get one, you will use it. And you will be more creative, thanks to the latitude it affords you in picture sizes and frame rates.