GoPro’s most recent releases are the most significant of all. Three new models have been released, essentially hitting a reset button at every action camera manufacturer in the industry. The models consist of a basic HERO, the GoPro HERO4 Silver and the company’s new flagship, the HERO4 Black.
In much the same way Kleenex has become synonymous with tissues, GoPro has become the proprietary eponym for action cameras. They have, in a phrase, redefined the very industry they themselves spawned.
The beauty of the GoPro HERO series is their ability to fit within any workflow, at any level. Those who just want to film their kids at the park and have no camera experience will enjoy the HERO4 every bit as much as the Red Bull aeronautics team will enjoy attaching them to their air racing planes. At their current pricing and near-universal placement at thousands of on and offline retailers, they’re more than just accessible. They’re ubiquitous.
How do the latest entries to the HERO series stand up? Videomaker was fortunate enough to go hands on with GoPro’s latest Black and Silver models to put them through their paces.
Design, Layout and Ergonomics
From an aesthetic standpoint, there’s no question that the new HERO4 is a GoPro. From the very first HERO, GoPros have stuck to a tried and true minimalist form factor. The HERO4 takes shape as a matte silver box, with controls and inputs on the every side of the device, a small LCD display, power button and protruding lens on the camera’s front side. The HERO4 Silver differs from the Black with an integrated touchscreen LCD display on the back of the device. It’s a shame that the Black doesn’t include the same feature, but they must’ve needed the extra internal space for the HERO4 Black’s upgraded innards.
Like previous GoPros, the HERO4 has three buttons. The large power/selection button anchors the front of the camera, while the record button sits on top of the camera where you would expect it. Replacing the HERO3+’s Wi-Fi button, there is now a settings button on the side of the device.
That subtle button change helps with getting around the HERO4’s menus, but we still ran into challenges and confusion when clicking and adjusting settings.
While adjusting the HERO4 felt pretty much the same as when using previous models, the GoPro menu system is still a bit of a stunt to navigate. It’s always been tricky to use, and changing settings on the fly can get confusing if a wrong button is pressed. The touchscreen on the Silver model, or using the remote control or iPhone app simplifies operation greatly. We’re hoping future models find space on that tiny camera body to even put a couple of simple scroll buttons for changing settings.
The GoPro HERO4 is a truly solid entry into an already exceptional series of cameras.
For those of us interested in the power of the HERO 4 Black, but looking for the simplicity of using a touchscreen, GoPro offers an optional LCD Touch BacPac add-on, which ships with new hard cases to enclose the bulkier screen-camera combo.
Continuing around the GoPro HERO3, other externals include a small door on the bottom of the camera for the battery, a proprietary GoPro port for accessories on the back, and a bevy of ports on the right side of the camera, including a mini USB for charging and file transfer, a micro HDMI for output to a monitor, and a MicroSD card slot.
To recap: mini, micro, mini. It seems that GoPro knows that good things come in small, mini or micro packages.
From an aesthetic perspective, the HERO4 looks similar to the 3+, but there are some subtle changes. The indicators for recording and Wifi have been slickly added into the front display panel of the camera. This small change doesn’t affect operation, but cleans up the look of the camera quite a bit. Some users will find the record light a bit trickier to see than the old “lighthouse beacon” when performing quick checks on GoPros in some environments. Fortunately, GoPro was thoughtful in that regard, kindly adding a recording light on the bottom of the camera, which is pretty viewable from any angle.
Aside from the camera itself, the GoPro HERO4 ships with two hard plastic housings which facilitate the integration with GoPro’s growing lineup of accessories through a moulded hook up on the bottom of the case. The first of the two cases is a fully-sealed, waterproof case, good to go about 131 feet underwater. The second is the “skeleton” case, which allows for more sound to make it into the camera. It also keeps the temperature of the camera down during continuous shooting.
Our tests didn’t really yield any amazing audio, but there was definitely a notable improvement over the HERO3+’s audio performance. While the mic input was appreciated, there doesn’t appear to be a great way to hook up a microphone and keep the camera safely encased.
It would certainly be cool to have some in-case access to the HERO4’s microphone input, and perhaps future models could include a headphone jack to monitor audio. Like the Canon 5D Mark II, the widespread use of the camera in production necessitated the addition of real-time audio monitoring when Canon rolled out the Mark III. The same will likely occur with the HERO series.
So do we like it so far?
Ultimately, the HERO4 is a pleasantly laid out camera with a straightforward learning curve. It is comfortable for handheld shooting, yields great results even without stabilization and can be mounted to just about anything. Basically, a HERO4 can be placed anywhere comfortably.
The GoPro HERO 4 is certainly an action camera, from the perspective of features and abilities. There is no option to zoom in, the depth of field is locked in at deep to keep images sharp and in focus and the camera is forced to overdeliver on what innards this size should theoretically be capable of.
Sensor & Image Quality
The GoPro HERO4 benefits from a higher performance sensor and better image processing than previous models, boasting the ability to shoot up to 4K at 30 frames per second, and the chops to handle lower light situations than the HERO3+. The HERO3+ was groundbreaking by introducing 4K in an action camera, but was gimped substantially with a nearly useless 15 frame per second frame rate.
In practice, the 4K 30p footage looks good, particularly in ideal outdoor conditions. The HERO4 eats up bright sunlight and blue skies, turning out incredibly clean and crisp images with a look bordering on epic in many cases. Well-lit studio environments were also good, with results looking balanced, dynamic, smooth and cinematic. Skin tones in all environments were accurate, and could be dialed in even more accurately using the manual Protune settings.
For such a small sensor, the GoPro HERO 4 delivers excellent dynamic range, with great separation between bright colors, as well as delivering very nice results with subtle color differences.
The image starts to get rough, however, when lighting is less than ideal. Like previous GoPro models, performance in lower light conditions isn’t amazing. There is a new auto low-light mode, which kicks in when the sun goes down, which certainly helps, but don’t expect miracles.
The image quality also seems to suffer a little bit at 4K 30, though only when closely compared to smaller frame sizes. The sensor is tiny and the images are huge, and it seemed as though the HERO4 was not handling the immense data at 4K as well as it was, say, at 2.7K, even at higher frame rates. We picked up what could only be described as a hint of digital distortion. More testing will be required to see if this is truly an issue with the camera, or if this is simply a result of test conditions or a bum MicroSD card. Is it a massive issue? Heck no. Just something we noticed when being extra critical.
On the photo side, we got better low-light performance when using the Night Photo and Night Lapse modes. Images showed minimal noise, and time-lapse sequences were very usable.
For the first time ever, an action camera can now be configured for a scene. The GoPro HERO4 now offers Protune, which gives the option to manually adjust settings for Color, ISO Limit, White Balance, Sharpness and Exposure. While this is a welcome feature, this writer found the feature much easier to adjust settings when using an LCD BacPac, as opposed to through the menu system.
The Protune settings add a fair bit of flexibility to the HERO4, starting with white balance settings ranging from an auto setting to 3000K, 5500K, 6000K and a native setting for industry standardized optimized color.
Color has two options: GoPro Color and flat. GoPro Color is the same color setting the GoPro defaults to when Protune is turned off, which tends toward dynamic, saturated images. The flat setting is interesting, as it allows for greater color correction in post-production. This is hugely valuable when the GoPro is part of a larger camera setup and the footage needs to be matched to other cameras.
ISO Limit for video can be adjusted from the default setting of 6400 all the way down to the less-noisy, much darker 400. For photos, the GoPro HERO4 can be adjusted from 800 down to 100.
When Protune is turned on the sharpness can now be chosen from three settings, low, medium and high. Lower sharpness produces softer images with good latitude for adjustments in post-production, with the higher settings tending toward super-sharp images.
Shutter and exposure settings can also be adjusted, with custom shutter settings helping out the Night Photo and Night Lapse modes.
To put the HERO4 through the ringer, our test model ventured north of the border for some of Canada’s chilliest days. Braving weather regularly dipping into double-digit negative temperatures, the HERO4 performed well, however we noticed a decrease in battery life after extended periods of time outdoors. The enclosure was also very prone to fogging up in temperature changes, though this is an issue with most cameras. We have simply come to expect near-indestructibility from GoPro, so anything preventing shooting nags at us.
Battery life was one of the gripes HERO3+ users shared, and the issue still exists with the HERO4. The newer, not-backward compatible, 1160mAH rechargeable lithium ion battery struggled to reach the estimated — and already short — hour of continuous recording time out in the cold with Wifi turned off while shooting in 4K 30, 2.7K 48 and even 1080p 120. Fortunately, there is an option to add an external battery BacPac, which promises double the battery life. Other frame size and rate options increased the battery life significantly, however, with 720p at 120 frames per second clocking in at over 90 minutes of continuous recording time.
From the moment the GoPro HERO4 is pulled out of the box, there is a unique connection that happens. The camera fits easily in the palm of the hand and has a pleasant texture and shape; a tactile love affair commences immediately. Once charged up, encased appropriately and mounted to a car, handlebar, dog, head or guitar headstock, the GoPro — any GoPro — becomes more than just a tool for shooting. It becomes a locked and loaded, go-anywhere, shoot-anything companion. This writer will absolutely be armed with a GoPro HERO4 when attending industry events like NAB and Adobe MAX this year.
It’s light enough to use with drones, shoots well enough to use in any production, and now has the settings to at least roughly match footage look and feel with other cameras. The large frame size also means bringing a HERO4 along on 4K shoots is now a reality.
The GoPro HERO4 had the benefit of entering a space already dominated by it’s very capable predecessor, the brilliant HERO3+. It builds nicely on the feature list of earlier models, with usable 4K 30 shooting, better ergonomics and manual image settings.
Unfortunately, some of the issues plaguing earlier HERO models still exist here in the HERO4, including challenging battery life and the lack of a really intuitive menu system. A $20 extra battery fixes the first issue, and some simple scroll buttons would fix the menu issue, if GoPro is reading this article in time to update the HERO5.
Not necessarily an issue, but puzzling and likely a purchase barrier for some users, is the absence of an LCD touchscreen on the HERO4 Black. While the addition is a welcome one on the HERO4 Silver, it certainly creates an “I want one, but I want it to have that” factor when shopping for the best possible GoPro model.
The GoPro HERO4 is a truly solid entry into an already exceptional series of cameras. With each iteration, we have come to expect usable updates and new features, and the HERO4 does not disappoint.
This action camera has graduated to action hero status.
Black – $500
Silver – $400
Format: H.264 codec, .mp4
Video Effective Pixels: 12MP
Frame Rate: 24-240fps
Maximum Frame Rates: 4K: 30fps, 2.7K: 50fps, 1440p: 80fps, 1080p, 720p: 120fps, 480p: 240fps
Minimum Frame Rate: 24fps
Lens: f/2.8 6-element aspherical glass
Program Exposure Modes: Auto
Focal Length: Fixed
Image Stabilization: No
White Balance: Auto, 3000K, 5500K, 6500K
Display: GoPro App via iOS or Android (free), (optional for HERO4 Black) LCD Touch BacPac (79.99)
Progressive Scan: Yes
Resolutions: 4096×2160, 3840×2160, 2704×1524, 2704×1440, 1920×1440, 1920×1080, 1280×960, 1280×720, 840×480
Video Out: Micro HDMI (certified up to 1080p)
Audio Recording: On camera mic, Mono, 48kHz AAC with AGC
Microphone In: (sold separately) (3.5mm) stereo mic adapter
Manual Audio Level Controls: No
Headphone Jack: No
Media: microSD class 10 or higher required, up to 64GB capacity supported.
Wireless Remote: Yes
External Battery Charger Provided: No
Battery Type: 1160mAH, 3.8V, 4.4Wh rechargeable lithium-ion
Field of View: Narrow (90°), Medium (127°), and Ultra Wide (170°)
Still Resolutions: 12MP, 7MP, 5MP
Burst: 30 photos/one second, 30 photos/two seconds, 30 photos/three seconds, 10 photos/one second, 10 photos/two seconds,10 photos/three seconds, five photos/one second, three photos/one second
Continuous Photo: one, five, 10 photos per second
Time-lapse: 0.5, one, two, five, 10, 30, 60 second intervals
Simultaneous Photo + Video: 12MP + 1440p 24 fps, 8MP + 1080p 24/25/30 fps, 8MP + 720p 50/60 fps
Weight: Camera: 3.1oz (88g), Camera with housing: 5.4oz. (152g)
- Nearly indestructible
- Functional form factor
- Can mount to anything
- Short battery life
- Creeping price point
Russ Fairley is a writer, producer, dogwalker and musician.