GoPro 3 Black: Hero or Zero?

March 02, 2013  •  4 Comments

The video marketing material for this tiny box of tricks is Really. Check it out here. It reminds me of those 80's adverts for tampons that showed gorgeous women hot-air ballooning and parachuting, as if merely purchasing the product conferred immediate access to these sporty pursuits. 

And so it is with the GoPro: the pre-ownership fantasy involves carefree admission to a world of surf boards, off-piste ski areas, balmy climates and gnarly waves. Helicopters are a given, as are sylvan biking trails and hordes of slender, young people jiggling around on white beaches. Kayaks are ten a penny and white water rushes around every corner. So naturally I had to get me a GoPro Hero3 Black. It just seemed so right, so spontaneous, so 'let's put the hot back into photography'.

Trouble is, it is a PITA to use and for every thirty seconds of adrenaline rush final footage, I suspect a good few minutes might be spent with some poor gnarly dude off-camera, swearing, cursing,  jabbing at buttons, removing and re-inserting batteries and shouting at blank faced iPhone app screens while the surf dies and the powder turns to crust. Because, if my experience is anything to go by, this camera and its associated ecosystem of hardware and software bits is not quite ready to hit the road, let alone the piste. I'll list the crap now so as to get it out of the way before moving onto the positive stuff.

  1. Mine seems to have done something to my brand new Sandisk card such that Macs and iPads have 'Sent it to Coventry' and only the Hero itself, via a USB cable, can reach it. Support case unsolved, though they did offer a replacement camera, which seemed disproportionate if generous. 
  2. The iOS apps crashed completely last weekend - and judging by the on-line buzz I am not the only person who was afflicted. I think it related to the extremely irritating 'video and photo of the day' feature built into the app, which you cannot turn off, and which seems to stop it functioning when it can't find the media server.  If this becomes more than a one-off occurrence, it will be really annoying because...
  3. ...the Hero has no rear screen, just a tiny front-panel monochrome LCD for accessing menu items via what appears to be the haptic equivalent of binary (two buttons to access all menus items, some two levels deep) but you can't use it for framing or to review captures. 
  4. The on-camera menu system is a trial. For example: pairing the included WiFi remote control requires something like 17 button presses, alternating between the two buttons and God forbid you get the wrong sequence because if you do, the camera can freeze or require you to start the process again.
  5. The optional LCD Touch BacPac screen is not very accurate or responsive. It also sucks up battery life. And get this: the add-on Battery BacPac (your best chance of a decent shooting life) can't be used at the same time as the LCD BacPac. My camera with standard battery will shoot at 1080p 30fps for 68 minutes with the LCD screen on, 58 minutes with the LCD screen on and WiFi enabled and 88 minutes with no WiFi and no LCD. But if you spend any time with it powered on whilst you fruitlessly jab at buttons trying to get the menu setting where you want them, you'll be needing a spare battery or two. And a third-party charger, since the Hero charges its batteries in-camera via a USB connection.
  6. When removed from the protective housing (which you have to do in order to change or charge batteries or to access the memory card) the camera's lens is very vulnerable: its convex front element protrudes from its housing such that if the camera falls on its front, which it often does under the curl-tension of the USB cable, it risks damage. There is no lens cap supplied.
  7. Mine keeps locking up completely, requiring that it be taken from the housing, have the LCD screen unclipped, the battery removed and replaced and then everything re-assembled. GoPro support suggested that I re-install the firmware update that I first installed a few days ago. I did so and it still locks up. Case unsolved but the support guys are really helpful...

So let's move on to the good stuff. People who have access to surf boards, kayaks, helicopters, gorgeous mountain bike trails and balmy or raging waters will be able to make freakishly cool videos at a wide range of resolutions and frame rates - though a cursory review of the user videos available online will demonstrate that those who lack such facilities are reduced to strapping their GoPros to their dogs or putting them into their dog bowls or chasing their dogs with them.

I, however, have proud access to a swing. So I made a video of it at 720p and 120 fps and then slowed it down to make this lovely video:

Swing Hot, eh?

But seriously folks, despite that list of peeves above, this thing is actually very cool when you get it working. Its fixed F2.8 lens has a focal length of 2.77 millimetres and a very wide field of view. Heavy barrel distortion...GOPR0003-2

...makes for a mid-fisheye look which, though irritating in stills, has the effect of speedifying action shots: everything that moves seems to accelerate towards the edges of the frame. And of course, at this focal length, nearly everything is in focus.

Talking of stills: largely, don't bother. Fine for a snap but that distortion, plus the necessarily rather basic level of control over exposure and shutter speed (respectively: none and none) added to small-sensor dynamic range, make it a fun-and-emergencies-only type of thing. There is also very strong purple fringing:


So this camera should be used for what it is good at: videos of fast things in wet/cold/high places where other cameras don't dare to tread. It is probably more weather proof than you are.

Assuming that our putative gnarly dude manages to push the right buttons in the right sequence to get his setting as he wants them before the battery dies or the killer wave crashes, the range of what the GoPro can do is amazing. 4K Video? You got it, though only at a frame rate of 15 fps, so action shots are out at that resolution. 4K Cin (that's an incredible 4096x2160) at 12fps. If you want frame rates suitable for capturing subject motion (24fps or better) then there's 2.7K and 2.7K Cin or a whole range of better-known resolutions from 1080p down to WVGA. 

Some of the coolest tricks are to be had at 720P (still technically HD) where you can shoot at frame rates of 120 fps. Now that really is amazing, because you can slow it down by a factor of 4 and STILL have 30 fps, so very, very smooth slow motion video is easy. And if you're aiming at web'n'phone display rather than HDTV and are happy with WVGA (848 x 480) you can shoot 240fps. Which means a slow-mo factor of twenty four, if conformed to 10 fps. Though even at these conformation ratios, some events are still 'blink and you'll miss it"...


The upshot is that if you're heading for the beach, mountain, forest or river, you can make videos that speed up and slow down, for dramatic impact, pretty much as far as you want. And due to the very effective underwater housing (included) you can do all this at depths of up to sixty metres. You can't do that with any other camera without third-party housings that cost a great deal and are a hassle to use. Whereas the GoPro clips into its own housing in half a second and is, so I hear, pretty safe therein. 

Other useful tricks for the creative photographer: time-lapse from every half second to every sixty seconds; burst rates of up to 30 full-res JPEGS per second. So as well as lower resolution movies of balloons popping, you can capture flowers opening at 12mp, if you can live with the optical restrictions alluded to above. But do be aware that, though DOF is almost infinite with this lens, it does have its limits are very close range as the following video shows... 


Made from around 900 time-lapse 12mp frames over several hours, the nearest daffodil was never in focus (though it looked to be so on the LCD) and the furthest daffodil left the focus zone as it opened. This sort of thing is still much better done with a decent DSLR and macro lens, the irony being that GoPro's free CineForm software makes importing hundreds of JPEGS and turning them into a movie an absolute breeze. One note though: an SLR with a shutter rated at 100,000 frames is going to waste 1% of its life on an exercise like this!

To conclude: there wasn't a ticket to Everest or Bondai in the GoPro Hero 3 Black's box. Chamonix remains frustratingly distant and the shoals and reefs of the Maldives are but a distant fantasy. But this thing smells of all those things and has the mojo to capture them thrillingly. It may have some operational idiosyncrasies and your lifestyle may not suit its capabilities but, like an unreliable friend, it is a whole lot of fun.

Hero? Hell, yeah! This thing will turn you into James Bond.



Tim Ashley Photography

If you're not aware of the relationship between depth of field and focal length/field of view, there's not an awful lot I can do to help you. Where I can be helpful, however, is to note that with a name like Tim Ashley, I'm not so likely to be 'writing articles with my ovaries' because, you see, men don't have ovaries.

Hope that helps! Any more questions, please feel free to ask!
"And of course, at this focal length, nearly everything is in focus."

The focal length has nothing to do with everything being in focus, that has more to do with aperture and this lens is an F/2.8 which does a shitty job at keeping everything in focus. An F/8 aperture lens would help keep backgrounds in focus if that was desired, but an F/2.8 lens helps isolate the subject and will blur the background of non subject matter which would be good or bad depending on your uses.

You clearly do not know anything about cameras or how they work, so please stop writing articles with your ovaries instead of your brain.
Gregorio A.(non-registered)
Totally agree. Thanks for your post, one of the most honest and informative reviews I've stumbled across for the GoPro H3.
jon do(non-registered)
thanks alot! this was the best, and only helpful review i've come by. I have seen no other review that is honest, but at the same time, lets people no that it is built very well for what it is made for. I have noticed most of the problems that you've mentioned, and until now, I thought i was the only one who saw them... Thank you so much.
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