Don’t buy the GoPro Hero 7 for surf photography

Summary: Buy the GoPro Hero 2018 for surf photography. The GoPro Hero 7 has no major advantages over earlier Hero cameras for still photos, and the GoPro Hero 2018 can be turned into a GoPro Hero 5 with a firmware update

I haven’t owned a GoPro for a while, and I wrote about the leaked Go Pro Hero 7 specs and how it didn’t appeal to me for my surf photography.

A few things have happened since then that have made me re-assess the best Gopro for my needs as a surf photographer:

  1. I took my daughter surfing for the first time
  2. I discovered that someone figured out the GoPro Hero 2018 camera has the same hardware as the Hero 5 Black, and it can be unlocked with a firmware update
  3. GoPro announced the GoPro Hero 7 range of cameras

1: The perfect use case for a GoPro

I wanted to document my first surf with my daughter, even if it was just pushing her into some tandem waves on my bodyboard. It’s the first time in a while where I’ve needed a small, easy to operate waterproof camera. A GoPro would have been perfect.

Luckily my wife was able to capture the waves from the land angle, so I’ve got a record of the surfs despite not having a camera in the water.

2: GoPro Hero 2018 camera has the same hardware as the more expensive Hero 5 black edition

Someone figured this out, and since then a few people have made it easier for everyone to update their Hero 2018 cameras with some Hero 5 firmware that unlocks the hardware to provide higher end performance.

So you can buy a brand new GoPro Hero 2018 camera for $190 US, update the firmware, and get the same specs, with better hardware (removable battery, front LCD screen) than the GoPro Hero 7 Silver, which retails for $299 US. And it’ll probably be just as good for 99% of surf photographers as the new GoPro Hero 7 Black too.

3: GoPro Hero 7 is announced

This was expected after the recent leaks, and there’s no big surprises in the features that have been announced.

It’s got better built in digital stabilisation, I think that could be appealing for surf filming, but it’s not a huge benefit for me.

Interestingly, they don’t show any old vs new comparisons of surf footage in their promo video for the stabilisation feature:

I think this is because the best surf footage shot on GoPro is generally shot with a mouth mount, or hand held, so it’s already fairly steady. some of the board mounted angles could benefit from it, but surfing’s a lot smoother in general than cycling or running or white water rafting anyway.

I’d rather shoot at the higher frame rate (the smoothing isn’t available in the fastest frame rates) and slow it down. George Greenough was shooting high frame rate POV surf footage 50 years ago and it looks pretty smooth.

It can stream live video. I had assumed the last few generations of GoPro’s could do this already with the help of a computer, but I might be wrong. The GoPro Hero 7 can stream live to Facebook and other services though. I think this uses your smart phone for the internet connection, so it’s unlikely we’ll see many surf photographers using this feature.

If you’re already waterproofing your smart phone, with something like the AxisGo, you can just stream directly from the phone camera if you need to.

Alternatives to a GoPro for surf photography

A different action camera

There are now hundreds to choose from, from very cheap knock-offs, to good value Chinese imports, and other major brands like Garmin, Sony and many many more. The main reason I’d recommend GoPro for surf photography over these others is the availability of high quality accessories form companies like KNEKT.

Mobile phone housing

I could have used the AxisGo housing for my iPhone 7, but as it’s getting a bit old now the battery life is pretty bad, and I was on holiday in an area where I was using Google Maps a lot, and streaming music, and looking things up online. Basically I would have killed my battery in no time if I’d used it in the water. The AxisGo is also pretty bulky, especially with the pistol grip attached.

Waterproof point and shoot camera

Olympus make highly regarded waterproof point and shoot cameras, so if you want a dedicated still photo setup and don’t mind the limitations of the point and shoot form factor, that’s an option. It doesn’t really do the same thing as a GoPro because it won’t offer a super wide angle field of view, but it’ll get you photos in the water.

GoPro Hero 7 still photography specifications

The basic GoPro Hero 7 photo specs are the same as previous four generations, The Hero 3 can shoot 30 12MP jpegs in one second, the same as the GoPro Hero 7. There are a few new modes that have been introduced over the years though, none of them will really be of interest to surf photographers.

Raw photos were possible with the GoPro Hero 5, but they’re limited to one at a time, so not much use for surf photos.

Robbie Crawford says this in his guide to the GoPro Hero 5 camera: “if you are shooting action I recommend using one of the burst settings as it can be nearly impossible to capture the perfect frame with a single shot.”

The GoPro Hero 6 has an auto burst mode which slows the burst down in low light – not useful.

The Superphoto feature is an advanced auto mode that selects the best setting for you and applies some processing to it. I wouldn’t use it for surf action photos.

What about the GoPro Hero 7 Silver and GoPro Hero 7 white cameras?

Don’t bother.

GoPro Hero 7 white camera - you shouldn't buy it for surf photography

They both have no front LCD, which I always found useful, and can help preserve battery if you turn off the rear LCD screen when it’s in use.

You’ll want to preserve that battery too, because they both have built-in batteries. So if you run out, you’re going to have to wait for it to charge up again instead of just swapping batteries for a full one.

I can’t overstate how long the useful life of a GoPro can be. The things that end up dying are the batteries and accessories, so if you can’t swap them out easily then you’re making a bad investment.

GoPro don’t make it easy to compare the different generations of cameras, they disappear from their comparison page. I understand why, but keep in mind that the Hero 3, 4, 5 and 6 are all probably more valid options than these cameras for surf photography, and the Session range are different again and a better option for some people.

The best GoPro for surf photography

The GoPro Hero 2018 (with unofficial firmware update to make it a Hero 5 Black), offers the best combination of value and features for a surf photographer. You can shoot video in 4K at 30fps, or at higher frame rates in 1080p resolution, and it can shoot bursts of 30 jpegs in a second at 12MP resolution.

I’ve put my money where my mouth is and ordered a GoPro Hero 2018 which I intend to update with the Hero 5 Black firmware.