I’m not into extreme sports. I’ve never even skied.
Okay, let’s just admit it: Most of the time, I’m pretty sedentary.
For that reason, I never considered myself to be a prime member of the target audience for GoPros, the little cameras designed to let highly active people capture their activities and edit them into shareable videos. I took note of their popularity, but from a safe distance, as a mildly intrigued outsider.
Recently, though, GoPro invited me to an event it held to give journalists advance hands-on time with some new models. It provided some activities designed to make for fun GoPro videos. And my main takeaway was that GoPros are way more interesting than I understood them to be–even for those of us who won’t use them to preserve anything that’s particularly athletic or heroic.
The video at the top of this article, which I put together using GoPro’s Studio software, captures moments from one of the activities at the company’s event. It shows attendees tooling around the streets of San Francisco in GoCars, which are vehicles which look rather like motorcycle sidecars sans a motorcycle. (They’re usually piloted by tourists and–despite the similar name–are no relation to GoPro.)
More about the video in a bit, but first, a few details on the new models, all of which go on sale on October 5.
The new high-end GoPro is the Hero4 Black, and most of what’s new about it is better performance. GoPro says that its processor is twice as fast as any previous model, which translates into higher frame rates at higher resolutions. It’s the first version capable of shooting 4K video at 30 frames per second, for instance; at 1080p resolution it can capture up to 120 frames a second for super-slow-motion video. Also new is a feature called HiLite Tags: When something cool happens, you can press a button on the camera’s side to bookmark it for later reference as you’re editing video.
The Hero4 Black is aimed at people who prize versatility of shooting modes above all else: (At $500, it’s $100 more expensive than the Hero 3+ Black it replaces, even though it doesn’t come with the Wi-Fi remote which was bundled with that model.) But most people aren’t going to care about the highest resolutions and frame rates all that often, if ever–they can consume an enormous amount of storage space, and if you’re uploading your edited videos to services such as Facebook and Instagram, there’s no point in shooting in high-end formats which they don’t even support.
So another new GoPro, the $400 Hero4 Silver should fit the bill for most people for $100 less than the Black. Its frame rates aren’t as impressive: It can only do 4K at 15fps and 1080p at 60fps.
But it does most of what the Black does, and has a significant feature which is new to GoPro, period. That’s the small color touchscreen on its backside, which lets you see what you’re doing while you record video and shoot photos, as well as review them afterwards.
It’s not a transformative capability. For one thing, the interface isn’t particularly slick. For another, much of the time, you want to ignore a GoPro while it captures your activities. But if you’ve wanted to see what you’re doing with previous models, you’ve had to buy a bulky “BacPac” or use one of GoPro’s smartphone apps.
I got to try the Hero4 in both the Black and Silver variants, but didn’t get a sneak peek at another new model, simply called the GoPro Hero, in person. It’s far more basic, maxing out at 1080p video at 30fps. And while the Black and Silver can capture 30 12-megapixel still photos a second, the plain Hero only does five 5-megapixel stills a second. It also lacks the wireless capabilities and swappable battery of the pricier models. At $130, however, it knocks the starting price for a GoPro down by a substantial $70 compared to previous lineups.
The video at the top of this post includes footage shot with both the Black and Silver GoPros at a variety of resolutions and frame rates, all reduced to mundane 720p format for online consumption. For the first part of the action shown, I’m in the driver’s seat and the video was shot by Marshall Miller, a member of GoPro’s Bomb Squad whose normal job responsibilities involve stuff such as jumping out of a helicopter and flying like a bat. Then the video shows footage I captured after we switched roles.
Here are some of the things I learned about GoPro by putting together the video:
If you’re doing something interesting which you might want to share later–or simply save for your own future reference–a GoPro can help you tell the story. I want to take a GoPro on my next vacation, even if I don’t do anything more energetic than strolling around unfamiliar neighborhoods.
And not just because they’re designed to withstand being dropped and dunked in water. If you’re capturing video with a phone, you’re probably staring at its screen, which takes you out of the moment. But you can start a GoPro going and then get back to doing whatever you’re there to do, letting you get very high-quality video without feeling like you’re playing cameraperson.
You can mount a GoPro on a helmet or strap it to your chest, so the footage it captures approximates what you saw yourself. But GoPro sells an array of mounts which let you record video from different perspectives. As I rode around in the GoCar, for instance, I used a new extension arm called a 3-Way Mount to stick the camera a few inches from the vehicle’s spinning tire, capturing a view of the action which I hadn’t even seen myself.
As a GoPro pro, Miller pulled off some neat tricks which I only noticed once I reviewed his footage later: At the start of my GoCar video, it looks like somebody else outside the vehicle is shooting video of him and me from a variety of angles. But that was Miller doing the camerawork, using the 3-Way Mount.
GoPro’s Studio software is full of sophisticated settings and options which let you edit raw footage into exactly the movie you envision. Or you can do what I did, and simply drag clips into a canned template, with pre-defined cuts and music.
The biggest issue I had to deal with was that wrangling high-resolution video taxed my poor little MacBook Air in ways that most jobs do not. The GoPro Studio software sometimes felt painfully sluggish, and the conversion process required to prep raw footage for editing took so long that I went off and did something else while my Mac chugged away. I also needed to prune away some unneeded files to make room for my raw footage and the final video. (If you buy a GoPro and don’t have hundreds of gigabytes of spare disk space, pick up a USB hard drive–you’ll need it.)
In an odd way, my GoPro experience left me newly optimistic about the future of photography. As smartphones get better and better at letting you shoot and share high-quality still images and videos, sales of conventional cameras–especially point-and-shoots–are collapsing. But GoPro’s success shows that there could be life for stand-alone cameras yet. All they have to do is go places where smartphones can’t, at least for the time being. And GoPro sure does that–both literally and figuratively.