GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition Review (Part 1 – Stills)

You can read my first post on the GoPro Hero 3+ for my first impressions on the camera and housing, this first part of the in depth review will focus on the stills that you can capture with the Hero 3+ Black Edition, and how they compare to something taken with a DSLR in a housing.

As you might know I bought the GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition the day it was released, October 1st 2013, replacing my Hero 2 GoPro which had worked great for a couple of years, this review will be most useful if you have an older GoPro camera, a silver edition or you haven’t got a GoPro at all yet.

Drawbacks of the GoPro Vs A DSLR Set-Up:

Here’s a jpeg straight out of the camera to kick us off:

Closeoutbefore

Handling:

The thing in the bottom left is either my Bobber handle, or my finger tip, unfortunately I managed to get my hand in the shot a couple of times, this is one of the things that is a little annoying about the GoPro Hero 3+ Black edition compared to a DSLR alternative, the lack of pistol grip, I’m in the process of making one for it but my first design didn’t work out.

Of course it’s small size is a huge advantage in nearly every other situation, it’s only when hand holding it for still photography that it becomes an issue, I’ve not got big massive hands and I’ve taken a lot of photographs with wide lenses and I still managed to get my fingers in the shot.

Focus Issues:

You might have read about issues with the focus of the Hero 3+ Vs the Hero 3, from what I can gather GoPro have adjusted the focus so that it keeps things in the foreground – up to about 5 feet away, in sharper focus, at the expense of better focus at long distance, if you’re a surf photographer or videographer, this is going to work out better for you, I like that the lip in this shot is nice and crisp.

Here’s a quote of a quote on the goprouser forum, originally from a company called Hobbymounts:

It’s not as bad as it sounds guys. There are TWO massive 10 page topics on other forums discussing the pros/cons of the new focal length and we’ve been following them with interest. One of them being rcgroups who are predominantly drone fliers, aerial photographers, etc.

In a nutshell, if you want the Hero 3+ Black Edition for Aerial Photography, Landscape or Landscape Timelapse, the long distance focus is a little bit softer, but is sharper on short distance focus 0-5ft. This is intentional by GoPro but it doesn’t suit everyones needs/requirements.
For video it is less obvious as the pixels are moving quickly anyway. Remember this is not a stills camera, but an action camera.

So, our advice is if you need the Hero 3+ Black purely for Aerial Photography Stills, Landscape Stills and Landscape Timelapse, consider the previous Hero 3 Black as the focal range is better for everything over 5ft(ish).
There are so many improvements on the Hero3+ Black that for most, the trade off with the focal distance will be unnoticeable but bear it in mind before buying.

I haven’t done any side by side tests, I’ve just used the camera every time I’ve been surfing since the 1st of October, and attached it to my new toy, a quadcopter about a half dozen times (full post on this coming up soon).

I might be a bit biased having already spent my money on this camera, but I wouldn’t have any problem recommending it to anyone for shooting video and stills of surfing, the video is amazing from such a tiny device. If you plan on taking mostly stills and you’re not going to get close to your subject, consider a different camera, otherwise, the advantages outweigh this one issue.

Setting your focus inside infinity is something a lot of fisheye surf photographers do, my Tokina 10-17mm fisheye has the focus more often than not taped just inside infinity to make sure I get the subject in focus, it’s for exactly this type of shot that I think GoPro have set the focus closer.

board

That’s a slightly processed image from a sunnier afternoon session, you can see my board is nice and crisp as it goes over the falls, the background is not quite so sharp, for surf photography this is the way you want it.

Auto Exposure and Burst Modes Only:

The GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition lens is fixed at 2.77mm and f2.8, the other exif data for the shot above is ISO: 100, shutter speed: 1/3000, easily freezing the water droplets in place and helping make it particularly sharp.

The 30 shots a second mode is the best one for surf photography as you’d expect, but it does have a couple of drawbacks, you get a lot of wasted shots, on nearly every burst there’s 10 or so that are underwater (not a problem in the tropics but useless for the UK) and it takes time to write those 30 shots to the card, even with my mega fast Sandisk Extreme micro SD card (there’s some more issues with this card and GoPro apparently but I’ll leave that for part two of the review) it takes a good five seconds or so before it’s ready to capture another burst.

What I’d like to see is a mode that allows you to take say 10 shots a second for as long as you hold down the shutter button, you can set it up to do a burst of 10 in one second, but this isn’t what I want, I want to be able to take 30 shots over 3 seconds or 5 shots in half a second depending on how long I hold the button down, basically I want it to behave like a DSLR with a fisheye lens on it, if I could also have control of shutter speed and ISO this would be a totally different beast and a much better entry to surf photography.

EDIT: There is a 30 shots in 2 seconds and 3 seconds mode, I’ll be testing this out soon too.

100percentcrop

Limited Post Processing, Jpeg Only:

Another example, you can see the background (about a mile behind) is not super crisp, but the bit of wave in the foreground that we want to look at is nice and sharp, it’s also coped well with shooting directly into the sun, this sequence started with the sun in shot before the wave moved in front of it.

This one’s not been processed as much as you’d think, and it’s a good job I didn’t need to because with only a jpeg to work with you’re far more limited in how much you can adjust thing’s after the photo’ is taken, getting it (nearly) right in the camera is a skill that can be learned when you have control over all the settings, but if it’s auto exposure only you’re going to need a little bit of help afterwards, and not having any type of raw format to work with is a pain, especially if you’re used to it.

Advantages Over a DSLR and Housing:

This only goes for still photography, I love this camera for shooting video and would even recommend it to anyone who wants a point and shoot surf water photography camera, but there’s only a couple of true advantages over a DSLR for stills:

  • Size – it’s smaller, lighter and much more manageable in big or heavy surf, you’re more likely to have it with you if you can carry it in a pocket, although you do need to be careful about getting your fingers in the way and it’s awkward to shoot hand held.
  • Cost – much cheaper than any DSLR, lens and housing combo, it’s unlikely you could get a fisheye water set-up for less than the cost of three GoPro’ Hero 3+ Black Edition cameras.

That’s all I can think of for capturing stills.

Conclusion:

I didn’t buy this camera for stills, I’m pleasantly surprised with the results but I knew it was never going to replace my DSLR and housing for taking photographs of surfing in the water.

If you really want to start taking photographs of surfing I would recommend spending your money on a DSLR or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera body and a reasonable lens, taking photo’s from the land with a set-up like this is hugely rewarding and you will get a lot of experience in how cameras work which you can apply to all types of photography in the future.

If you want to shoot amazing quality video of surfing, or anything else that happens quickly or in the water, or even just with the camera attached to something other than a tripod: check back for Part 2 where I go into detail about the video modes and which one to use when.