How to use your GoPro HERO3+ skilfully and dazzle your audience

Your GoPro HERO3/3+/4 Black Action Camera is quite a capable camera. How you make the most of it for any type of movie to look perfect, depends on how you set it up. The secret here is to tap into the best quality the sensor and electronics are capable of. This tutorial is based on my experience with GoPro cameras from the HERO2 to the HERO3+, and takes you through the most important settings and issues.

DISCLAIMER: After having tried to obtain a test unit of the HERO4 from GoPro for the past 14 months, I have given up on reviewing and learning about this model. As I lack the budget to buy one myself, I can’t verify that what I write below will apply to the HERO4 in exactly the way I’m describing it — if at all. The tutorial therefore currently applies to HERO3 and HERO3+ models only, as I have both of these.

Assumptions

This is not a user guide, so I assume you know your way around the GoPro’s menu system and settings. I will focus on optimising the use of the camera.

You should always have the latest available firmware installed on your camera and the broadcast standard set to NTSC. Finally, for post-editing, I’m assuming you have a copy of Final Cut Pro X. If you are using Premiere Pro, you should have an idea to convert the post-production advice given here into the Premiere Pro actions you must take to achieve the same results. I always refer to Final Cut Pro X when post-production is involved.

I am always referring to the HEROx Black model, which is the most feature complete.

GoPro HERO3+ action camera

Set your GoPro HERO3+ in 2.7K mode

Youtube and Vimeo both support 4K video, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get excellent quality. If you are shooting for Youtube mainly, the compression algorithm will make your 4K footage not really stand out from a good 1080p clip. On Vimeo, which offers much higher quality, 1080p is your highest frame size (at the time of this writing Q4/2015).

Sharpest picture modes for a HERO3+

After testing and evaluating the results, I can safely say these are the HERO3+/HERO4 modes (the HERO4 might have other modes that are equally sharp — read my disclaimer in the first chapter) which will give you the sharpest picture:

  • 720p — 120fps — Narrow
  • 1080p — 60fps — Narrow
  • 1440 — 30fps — Wide
  • 2.7K — 30fps — Wide
  • 4K — 15fps — Wide 1

If you don’t need slow motion, set your GoPro in 2.7K mode. This mode offers a number of advantages the other modes don’t offer (even if you own a HERO4):

  • It allows the camera to generate less heat than at 4K
  • It has advantages when editing in Final Cut Pro X and probably Premiere Pro as well.

The benefits for post-production come from the frame size itself. If you set Final Cut Pro X’s Spatial Conform option to its default of “Fit”, you’ll end up with black bars running along the top and bottom of the frame if you fit the frame to an HD format such as 1080 or 720.

However, you don’t need to set Spatial Conform to Fit. If you leave it at “None”, you can resize the footage at will. You’ll lose some of the scene as a result, but since you should always aim for the most important objects or the action to be dead centre, that shouldn’t be a problem.

In addition, if you set Spatial Conform to None and you don’t scale the clip, you can move the frame around. You can use this as a way to pan a scene.

Sharpness adjustment is located in the Capture Settings. I always set it to low.

Frame rate preferences

Depending on your needs and using a HERO3/3+, you can record in 24fps or 30fps when in 2.7K. I always opted for 24fps as this is the cinematic frame rate. However, the 24fps setting doesn’t yield the sharpest image, so it’s worthwhile using the frame rates that are proven to get you the sharpest results.

The reason why I bother so much with getting the sharpest picture by way of frame rate and frame size is that GoPro’s in-camera sharpening is done via a software algorithm. No software sharpening is capable of successfully competing with optical sharpening — the type that results from the quality of the lens as well as of the optimum frame rate and size.

The cinematic look revisited

In the previous chapter I said I used to pick the cinematic frame rate of 24fps. With this frame rate no longer a viable option from the sharpness point of view, the problem arises how you can still get that cinematic look anyway.

First, let’s see why the cinematic look is so interesting. The cinematic look is more than just a slower frame rate, but the 24fps frame rate is part of it. One reason is that it is easier on the eyes than higher rates, which look harsher and therefore remind us more of video. However, to enjoy the cinematic look, you need to view it on a large screen, not on your monitor using Vimeo or Youtube.

That leaves us with one benefit: it’s a single frame rate all over the world, while broadcast rates like 30fps and 25fps are geographically specific. That in its own right, makes it useful. I’ll explain why.

There are roughly two broadcast standards: NTSC and PAL. The first came from the US, the latter from Western Europe. Does it matter at all if you’re never going to broadcast your footage anyway? Well, yes, sort of. Let’s say you decide to shoot in PAL consistently. What will happen when you need to use an NTSC clip with your GoPro footage? You’ll need to convert, concern yourself with pull-downs, etc. Even if you stay within the GoPro realm, with PAL you don’t have a 120fps option at 720p, but only a 100fps rate. In “normal” speed mode, PAL records at 25fps instead of the 23.97fps of NTSC.

In other words, you’ll lose sharpness when shooting at 100fps Narrow as opposed to 120fps.

Keeping your GoPro set at NTSC frame speeds has another advantage in the slow-motion area. If you output your footage to 24fps, you can slow down the 120fps clip to 20% of the original. If you try to do the same with 100fps, you’ll end up with dropped frames, audio sync problems and an ugly result altogether.

So, if you’re living in Europe or a country that uses PAL as a broadcast standard, only use that if you’re going to be viewing your footage on a TV-set.

ISO settings (only for HERO3+ and higher)

The HERO3+ allows you to set your ISO value. While the default setting is quite high, I would never go higher than ISO 400. Higher values generate too much noise, even when there’s enough light. And when there isn’t, you will need to reduce noise in post-production. For that, you’ll need a plug-in such as Photon Pro for Final Cut Pro X or the Neat Video plug-in, which is available for almost every NLE on the market.

While this is certainly an option, you must take into account that it takes a lot of time to reduce noise in clips that may span several minutes. It will take much longer to get rid of noise than the clip spans. So, the best strategy is to avoid it altogether.

You will find the ISO settings on a HERO3+ / HERO4 only. They’re located in the Capture Settings.

Exposure compensation.

You can use exposure compensation as a simple, software-driven exposure feature on a HERO3+ — and not just for the photography part of the device, but also for the video functionality. Exposure compensation lets you add f-stops or subtract them from the default, automatic exposure setting. You may want to use this when the overall lighting circumstances are such that the automatic exposure engine can’t set a proper exposure level you’re happy with.

You can adjust exposure compensation from -2 f-stops to +2 f-stops from the Capture Settings sub-menu.

Spot meter

For the spot meter settings, I’ll refer you to my previous article on the subject.

Why you should use Protune CamRAW Flat

The short answer: to match colours from a GoPro with those of a different brand camera, e.g. ARRI, Canon, etc. With the help of 3D LUTs (LookUp Table) you can convert the tone curve applied when you’re in Protune CamRAW Flat mode into something else. A LUT is a colour table that converts one colour space into another space.

By using LUTs you can start with the Protune Flat recording and convert that washed out look into a film look or into the look — a tone curve — of another camera. For professional shooters, this is important because they can then colour correct and colour grade all of the footage using the same adjustments.

If you use the GoPro camera in its default colour recording setting, it has already applied a tone curve and “look” in-camera. Changing that look into something else in post-production may be impossible because you will quickly introduce clipping, colour shifts and mottling. This is due to the limited way HERO action cameras record colours (8-bit colour — 4:2:0 colour space (See: “Color Subsampling, or What is 4:4:4 or 4:2:2?”). If you want to have more headroom to play with colour grading, then you should record to a monitor/recorder such as the Atomos Ninja range, which records in 10-bit — 4:2:2 via the HDMI-out port.

However, this is impossible when you’re shooting action or close by water, as none of the current monitor/recorders are waterproof or splashproof even. The next best thing then is to record in Protune CamRAW Flat, as this sets all colour rendering “parameters” to zero, so you can at least start from a clean slate.

With plug-ins like Color Finale, FilmConvert and to a lesser degree Koji Advance, you can convert and grade colours right inside Final Cut Pro X. My personal favourite is Color Finale, because it’s a true colour correction/grading solution. Color Finale 1.1 integrates with X-Rite’s brand new ColorChecker Passport for Video, making colour correction extremely simple.

  1. The 4K mode on a HERO3+ is only good for time lapsing. ↩︎
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