Small and Powerful? The GoPro Hero3 Black Edition

The GoPro Hero3 Black Edition for Yacht Photography:

Within the action camera segment “GoPro” is successful since a while marketing their cameras for swarm like applications. They also started a very successful marketing campaign  when they introduced the GoPro Hero3 and launched the camera with a mind blowing teaser video. Nikon did an attempt to position the Nikon 1 System in a comparable niche but they basically failed to do that, although the Nikon 1 system is much better suited for still photography than the GoPros but it lacks the crazy movie modes, the under water housing is an addon and it isnt as compact and versatile and has no WIFI. The new  Garmin Virb is likely the closest competitor right now.

So how about using the GoPro as a camera for the submerged out of the water “from below” shots. For those shots usually you buy yourselve into one of the various under water housing systems (Ikelite, Aquatica or AquaTech). They all provide DSLR housings for various cameras and they will set you back for around 1500-2500 Euro. Doing so you in fact put your DSLR and a wideangle lens in that housing and you trigger quasi-remotely by cord. IR receiver or high freq. receiver are not directly mountable within these housings.

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The Hero3 Black Edition side by side with an iPhone – the camera is just tiny – there is no viewfinder no display and you basically operate this camera with only two buttons. The camera however makes a solid and well build impression and the water proof housing is made of tough plastic and will likely take some beating.

The GoPro H3 Black comes with an integrated Wifi connection with remote control and can be even triggered, controlled and previewed with an ipad or iphone. The GoPro H3 Black Edition (the top model of the Hero3 with integrated Wifi ) costs only about 450 Euro (with battery BacPac).

The critical question is the one about image quality. The GoPros are clearly optimized for 1080/60p footage (movie recording in FullHD and 60 frames/second). There are various other movie settings avail with the “Black” edition – just check the following sites for reference:

http://abekislevitz.com/understanding-your-new-gopro/

http://abekislevitz.com/understanding-your-gopro-part-2/

http://www.dpreview.com/articles/1284782993/gopro-hero-3-black-setup-guide

The most interesting footage setup for the still photographers however is the 4K movie mode!

With this mode you capture nearly 8 Megapixel motion files with 12-15 frames/second. You can also shoot in a JPEG still burst mode but these bursts (f.e. 30 shots in 1 second) create compressed JPEGs that have lots of artifacts.

The 4K movie mode delivers astonishing sharp and well defined stills if you activate “Protune”. The Protune setting will switch off some of the automatic color balancing and saturation settings – also compression seems to be handled better. From a 4K clip you simply drag the stills you need. Overall this is imo. the best choice to create stills with the GoPro H3Black and you have lots of material from the dense time series of the 4K footage available. Adobes MediaEncoder is also able to drag all Frames into one directory. That is handy because scrolling frame/by/frame through 4K footage really istnt too much enlightening –  especially when the footage is upside down ; ). Large movie files quickly generate thousands of JPEGs. It than really gets difficult to find the few keepers that you wanted.

The question remains: how good is this tiny sensor (its just 5,73 x 4,29 mm – 1/2,5″). This is just ridiculous from a signal to noise ratio point of view. And if you look at the area statistics of these different sensors its even more obvious.

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Sensor sizes from different imaging systems (source: wikimedia commons, wikipedia)

 Obviously the sensor cannot compete with a full frame DSLR sensor. Dynamic range is disappointing if you are used to work with full frame 14Bit RAW files. Highlights are easily blown out. Sharpness is also a bit compromised but not as much as one would expect from frame captures of 4K film. There is also some color fringing with the GoPro Wide angle (blue/yellow) but this is easily corrected in post processing. More difficult is the precise color correction and white balance. The files clearly do not “behave” the same way as original RAW files from a DSLR. I would rate the 4K frame grab at somewhere around 5-6MP instead of 8MP. These files do not qualify for huge plots but they are good enough to work for the usual plot size around A3 sizes.

Overall I believe the GoPro H3Black is a good addition for these extreme low “below water” perspectives and it is a system that can be setup very quickly and can be controlled and positioned to generate crazy perspectives easily mounted on a 2 – 3m monopod.

What is missing:

  1. larger files (4K is limiting when you are used to full frame 35MP DSLR Raws) and the 12MP still jpegs are full of compression artifacts!
  2. dynamic range is disappointing, you need all the light you can get.
  3. raw modes (or fine detailed artifact free jpegs) are missing for stills (why oh why is a real raw format missing? – a real bummer for the high image quality fanatics out there)
  4. battery performance is a joke – buy the battery BacPac addon (also adds 50 Euro),
  5. needs all the light it can get to create dynamic range! not a low light hero at all (tiny sensor)
  6. make sure you update the firmware! the camera needs the last firmware update to work with some accessories
  7. no control over exposure parameters – its fully automatic – your flying in P Mode only

What there is to like:

  1. small and powerful video FullHD machine – gives clean and sharp 1080/60p footage, also 1080 frame captures are clean and sharp.
  2. various video settings, also usable for time-lapse projects
  3. Wifi setup works out of the box and the GoPro is very well controllable from iphone or ipad devices (though with 2s delay in liveview update -> this is unusable for action)
  4. size and format makes it the perfect “go everywhere” trick of a tiny camera for water sports and outdoors.
  5. endless options for mounting the tiny thing through additional accessories.
  6. “4K cine” footage still capture with Protune set to “ON” is very usable

Overall:

the GoPro Hero 3 Black is a powerful addition for very specialized still applications. It is optimized for 1080&60p footage but its super compact size makes it a very interesting for extreme viewing angles. Its likely the most affordable solution for the semi-dived shots where a full water proof housing would bee needed. Due to the low weight the GoPro H3 has the potential for extreme shooting positions that are hard to achieve with standard housings. But imo we are not there yet. The still captures are just not good enough for full professional use. The camera works fine if you only use the footage options – want film in FullHD 1080/60p. Photography is however not the focus of GoPro and it shows. It is really strange that they do not provide a RAW option or an JPEG uncompressed option and even if this means 5fps – that would be fine but this option isn’t there! So finally  I am right now also looking furtively at the Nikon V1 and might give that camera also a test drive. Its still capabilities and AF with full frame lenses has also some potential for slomo filming using the burst modes but the accessory list seems to be a bit of problem because the “1” must be triggered together with my usual DSLR /Tele combo for the slomos and there is no wired trigger avail. for the “1”.

There is also one other aspect: you get used to these extreme viewing positions and the original “wow” perception effect just vanishes quickly imo. So the whole concept should be used only in low concentrations.

Some examples from the last regatta shootings:

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Original 4K capture unprocessed with ProTune “On” taken from a 5 min 4K footage

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4K footage still capture with Protune after Adobe Lightroom 5RC2 color correction, CA correction, lens correction (distortion and vignetting) and WB correction and with additional sharpening using a high masking setup (LR: 48/1.0/25/77).

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Overview with Lens profile applied

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Full Resolution subset from above.

Overview

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Full resolution subset from above

Some more shots from the 4K frames:

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For those interested here is a full res version of the file above