Experiencing the GoPro HERO4 one year after its release

GoPro has rearranged its product range so I thought it might be a good time now to throw their current flagship camera, the HERO4 Black, a long and critical eye. In the wake of this review I’ve also planned a number of tutorials and presentations on this action camera as much has changed since the HERO3+ was unseated as GoPro’s top offering.

I don’t think I have to go through the specifications of the GoPro HERO4 after the camera has been on the market for a year, but in case you’ve been living on Mars: this is a 4K/30fps capable camera the size of a cigarette lighter. The 4K capabilities of the HERO4 have been described in detail by other reviewers, so I thought it’d be interesting to see how the camera does in other areas as well. I’ve therefore focused on the quality of the footage, the capabilities in terms of capturing scenes with the many options the HERO4 offers and for the more professionally minded: the post-production opportunities the footage offers.

The GoPro HERO4 I was sent came with a reviewers’ guide. I am not referring to a PDF you need to print out yourself. No, this was a printed, multicolour booklet on semi-glossy paper. Very luxurious, very nicely designed and very concise. The HERO4 we’re talking about here is the Black model, which is the most feature-complete of the range. The accessories that come with the standard version are the common ones: a few 3M adhesive mounts and a few quick release buckles and pivot arm.

HERO4 Black

New for HERO4 Black cameras is a music version, which comes with The Frame 2 instead of the standard housing. The housing that came with my unit wasn’t complete. It lacked the skeleton black door. It pays to thoroughly check the contents of your box to see that you’ve got everything you paid for. The battery is normally packed separately as well. My test unit had the battery already installed and fully loaded.

The HERO4 Black touts twice as high the performance of the HERO3+, and that will be about right. The HERO3+ is slower, but also gets less warm when shooting for longer periods of time. When you’re shooting in 4K, I would advise against running the unit for extensive periods. Half an hour uninterrupted shooting is more than enough for the processor, I think.

The HERO4 has better audio with a higher dynamic range than its predecessor, but inside the waterproof housing the improvement is barely audible. Luckily, there’s also a better audio input, so that adding an external microphone actually makes sense. Still, an additional sound recorder will be the preferred choice for many of us.

What makes the HERO4 the undisputed market leader isn’t so much its 4K capabilities and improved audio performance nor its impressive 240fps slow motion capability in 720p, but its shooting flexibility. In video mode, you now have time lapse video, video with photo and looping sub-modes.

All of these sub-modes have various settings of their own, which — were this a Sony or a Panasonic — would make the menu structure totally and utterly obscure. Luckily, GoPro engineers seem to understand that the user was at no point in time involved with the development of the product. As a result, the menu structure has been made extremely easy to use. To get there with all the possible modes, the HERO4 does have a completely different menu structure than the HERO3+ and every HERO camera before it.

The menus have been split up, which as an example, allows users to switch Protune on or off for individual shooting modes — video, photo, multishot. Another improvement in the user interface domain is the ability to set up your GoPro so it will start shooting in its default preferred mode as soon as you hit the record/select button. And yes, you read that right: you can shoot photos in Protune now as well.

There are more and different recorded files on your memory card compared to previous GoPro cameras. Although I read on GoPro’s website the HERO3+ is supposed to record the supporting data files that opens up new possibilities in the GoPro Studio app alongside the actual recordings, I have never seen them appear. They’re not invisible files either. On the HERO4 memory card, however, these files are always there. They’re not pure XML as some of them are clearly binary files that can only be deciphered by the GoPro Studio app.

One note of advice with regards to the memory card: the HERO4 is picky when it comes to writing speed as it requires a fast card to sustain a 4K data stream. I used a SanDisk Extreme (U3) of 32GB, which is enough to record one hour of 4K. Anything less will ruin your 4K footage with pixel blocks and dropped frames — if the camera starts up with your card at all, that is.

Video quality and using a HERO4 for professional use

In order to see the quality of a 4K videoclip, you’ll need a computer with a powerful GPU. My iMac mid-2011 with an 1GB AMD graphics card couldn’t properly render the 4K quality the GoPro shoots at 24fps or 30fps unless I restricted the view port to 1080p in Final Cut Pro X. When I did that and turned off the Spatial Conform — in essence zooming in (and possibly panning!) on parts of the 4K frame inside the 1080p frame — I could see the sharpness of the footage and the detail the camera is capable of.

Let me just say that 4K is impressively sharp and detailed. The bitrate at this resolution isn’t very high, but the GOP structure is better. than the HERO3+’s Using Switch — Telestream’s professional quality control application — I could see the HERO4 certainly sustains its claimed bitrate and generates more I-frames than did the HERO3+.

HERO4K 2.7K 30fps GOP structure
HERO4K 2.7K 30fps GOP structure: Each bar represents a frame, which can be selected by clicking it. Purple bars represent P-frames, which are predictive frames that only contain the changes from the previous frame. Blue bars represent B-frames, which are bi-predictive frames that contain both the changes between the previous and the next frame. White bars represent I-frames, which are intra-coded frames that contain the entire picture being displayed.

Of all the resolutions I tested, the sharpest and most detailed were 4K and 2.7K. The 2.7K resolution is a charm by all accounts and in my opinion the sweet spot of the HERO4. Of the two highest resolutions, the 2.7K mode offers just a bit more flexibility — in NTSC mode you’ll get to choose between 60fps, 48fps, 30 and 24fps in Ultra Wide and Medium field of view (FOV). In 4K you get 24fps and 30fps and only Ultra Wide. The HERO4 gives you the same flexibility in 2.7K as it does in 1080p, except for the Narrow FOV! That’s quite an achievement, especially because it allows you to use 2.7K within a 1080p frame in Final Cut Pro X as a virtually zoomable and panning-ready clip inside the 1080p picture frame.

HERO3+ 2.7K 30fps Bitrate
HERO3+ 2.7K 30fps Bitrate

Lower resolutions are sharp too, depending on the field of view you choose. For example, 1080p/60fps and 720p/120fps are sharpest in Narrow mode. Overall, the HERO4 will give you a sharper image than the HERO3+, which got a sharper result than the HERO3, which was sharper than the HERO2, which…

Whereas I remember the HERO2 having been used by the BBC to cover the sail-by of boats and ships on the Thames when Queen Elisabeth celebrated her jubilee, I also remember the cameras to be strapped to whatever lamp post or bridge thing their engineers could strap it to, powering the cameras off external batteries and the whole contraption wrapped inside plastics to protect against rain.

HERO4K 2.7K 30fps Bitrate
HERO4K 2.7K 30fps Bitrate

The pageant lasted almost a day, so everybody will agree the small battery inside the GoPro won’t pull of that trick, but the HERO4 has a battery that should last longer than its predecessors. And it does, provided you’re shooting in one of the lower resolutions at normal frame rates, e.g. 1080p48 or 720p60. Once you go higher, the battery in my unit gave up as quickly as the old version. I did notice that the battery gauge isn’t as accurate as the HERO3+’s.

Of course the HERO4 offers more capabilities for professional users as well as enthusiasts. For example, the video with photos mode is brilliant if you want to shoot a normal video but simultaneously, and from the same viewpoint, some photos of the scene or action. No need to use a still camera as you can shoot photos and video simultaneously. The highest video resolution in this mode is limited to 1080p/60fps, though.

HERO4K 2.7K 30fps GOP structure
HERO4K 2.7K 30fps GOP structure

As I said before, the menu is easier to navigate. In practice — when trying out different combination modes — you’ll appreciate the button on the HERO4’s side to be a quick menu button that instantly gives you access to sub-modes like the video/photo combination. When you hit that button, the submenu appears and you’ll get access to all features for that mode only. Easy, simple and above all: fast.

The HERO4 for photographers

Photographers who use DxO Optics Pro 10 or better won’t have any problem with the lens aberrations as DxO Optics Pro has a GoPro lens module that automatically corrects for the geometric deformations that come with its fisheye FOV. The previous GoPros were somewhat crippled in their photo capabilities, but not the HERO4 Black.

For example, I expected Night to be just as bad at noise as the previous GoPros, but it wasn’t. It was actually better than my trusted old Sony Alpha 700. Even the white balance was set correctly. Except for the number of modes — Single, Continuous, Night and Multi-Shot modes like Burst, Time Lapse and Night Lapse — you’ll be pampered with some basic control over shutter times in Night Photo and Night Lapse.

You can also set your own interval times at either 3, 5 or 10 photos per second. Due to the new menu structure, the Spot meter can now be on for photos only or for video only, or for both. The same goes for Protune. Previously, you couldn’t shoot photos in Protune mode. With the HERO4 Black you can. You might ask why you would want this as GoPro cameras don’t output RAW files, but it does make sense to shoot in Protune if you plan unleashing your creativity on photos in Photoshop or Affinity Photo.

Except for Night, Night Lapse and Protune, I have always found a GoPro camera to be better than a smartphone camera for street photography. Especially if you want to shoot scenes that require you to draw as little attention to yourself as possible, a GoPro is your best bet. Turn off its LEDs and its audio alerts, and you have the ideal camera to shoot street action in the most spontaneous ways possible.

Conclusion

It’s been the better part of a year since the HERO4 has been introduced. Since then, GoPro has updated the camera’s firmware to the state it is in when I got it for testing. With the latest firmware, the HERO4 is really a very, very good action camera. It’s good enough to record video and photo in low light conditions. It’s good enough to be used in theatres and music halls to record shows and music.

A lot of people have written about their experiences with the HERO4. Many of them were quite happy, some of them were disappointed, but I have not read many people saying they would switch to a different brand. That touches the crux of the matter: most people stay with GoPro. It is the technology leader others follow and it has the smallest camera with the largest number of different accessories, mounts, etc.

My personal belief — and hope — is that GoPro will keep on innovating. If they do, I’m sure the next GoPro HERO will be usable in yet more environments and circumstances. And that’s a good thing. At around €500 for the HERO4 you get a fine piece of kit that you can use as B-roll camera and even your primary camera in many circumstances.

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