Is the GoPro HERO 6 a must-have action camera?

Rumour has it that GoPro’s HERO 6 isn’t selling well and that’s really a pity because this is a very fine action camera. In fact, I thought the HERO 5 was pretty amazing until I saw the results the HERO 6 can achieve. It’s the action camera we have been craving for.

If you put a HERO 5 and a HERO 6 next to each other, you won’t notice any difference. That’s why I stuck a label on their respective housing’s door latch. When the camera is on its own, the difference is an engraved label slightly backwards of the lens protection. The experience and results, though, are vastly different.

The first few things that I noticed spec-wise were that the HERO 5 has 400 as its lowest ISO setting, while the HERO 6 has 100 as its lowest value. The HERO 6 also lets you set a bracket for ISO sensitivity. That means you can choose to have 100 ISO as the lowest figure and 1600 ISO as your highest value. The camera will then decide for itself which value is best for a scene, saying within the bracket you set.

None of this is possible with the HERO 5. Let me tell you that it makes a huge difference when the camera can shoot at 100 ISO instead of 400 and that the noise levels are much lower when the intelligence inside the camera is allowed to make a choice. On noise, I’ll elaborate further on in the article.

The second spec that caught my eye was the ability to shoot HDR photos. Normally, HDR requires a series of bracketed shots. The HERO 6 can’t bracket shots and its HDR option, therefore, isn’t really HDR, but the camera does intelligently expose different areas in a shot. When that scene has a brightly lit window with the rest of the room rather dark, it succeeds at keeping the bright areas more in check with the darker areas. It’s not exactly HDR in that you cannot edit a series of bracketed photos in a HDR app afterwards, but it does a good job of having the entire frame exposed more or less correctly without sacrificing contrast too much.

I expected a lot of the new zoom option but was a little disappointed. For example, you cannot actually zoom in while you’re shooting video. Of course, you’re cropping the frame, not optically zooming, but I would have thought zooming to be available while shooting the video. And it has other limitations as well. For example, zooming won’t work in 4K or 1080p/240. Still, it’s kind of nice that you have more control over the subject, both in video and photo mode. It’s a bit like the other feature that I like a lot, which is manual exposure control.

That one is available in the HERO 5 as well and it works more or less the same with the HERO 6. You tap the screen until the focus area shrinks to a rectangle under your finger, then move that area to where you want the exposure concentrated on. You can then select whether you want to have that point as a dynamic or a locked-on exposure. Very nice.

Stabilisation in the HERO 6 is better than it was in the HERO 5, but I found the sharpness to suffer. I think it’s better to use a Karma Grip instead.

Now for the things that you will only discover when working with the HERO 6. Colours, for example. In Protune, Flat or GoPro colour setting, colours seem to be more accurate. The ColorChecker Passport colours were quite a bit off with the HERO5; they no longer are – not much, anyway – with the HERO 6.

A bit of a disappointment is the inability to shoot 720p at frame rates higher than 60fps. Granted, you can now shoot in 1080p at 240fps, but if you could have shot 720p/480, that would have been awesome. I fear, however, that unit temperature was the limiting factor here. After having experienced what high frame rates can do to a camera’s body temperature when I was testing the Sony RX0’s whopping 960fps capability, it comes as no surprise that GoPro chose to forget about it.

Having said that, the ability to shoot 1080p/240 or 2.7K/120 without the camera overheating after a few seconds is kind of mind-boggling, if you ask me. It’s also very nice. The ability to shoot 4K/60 is even nicer. If only because – when downscaled properly – the footage is crispier than you could ever imagine from such a small sensor.

What makes the whole thing superb is that the most demanding mode/speed combinations – 4K/60 and 1080p/240 – are recorded in HEVC (H.265), which allows for the decent bitrate and problem-free editing on even older Macs.

Another feature that makes this camera an object of desire is the level of noise you can achieve with it, even in low light. I’m not going to say there’s no noise at all when you’re shooting at dusk, but noise levels are much lower than with the HERO 5. Let’s just say you would expect that from a camera with a much bigger sensor.

But as with all things in life, there were disappointments too. One thing I am really disappointed about is that you cannot record to 4K via the HDMI out port. You can, with the HERO 5. You can’t with the HERO 6. That is a serious step back from the previous model.