Should I buy a GoPro?


Can a GoPro be your 'go to' camera? Or can a smartphone, DSLR or video camera suffice as your action camera?

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The GoPro name is synonymous with action photography and video. Manufacturers such as Sony, Nikon, Tom Tom and Garmin have all released action cameras, but the GoPro is still the brand most people think of, in much the same way people quickly associate "Dyson" with vacuum cleaner. For many people, GoPro is the go-to brand when they want to capture unique footage in extreme situations such as skydiving, surfing, skating and diving, or for capturing aerial footage when attached to a drone. 

The GoPro is what's known as an HD action camera, but we want to know if a DSLR, compact, or smartphone camera can perform just as well in extreme situations. And could the GoPro replace those other cameras for everyday photography and video?

First, we explain:

Then you can compare the GoPro's features to a:

What is an action camera?

Action cameras are small, light and tough: they can fit in the palm of your hand and are designed to take a beating, even underwater. 

The GoPro can:

  • dive up to 10 metres underwater, or 60 metres when housed in waterproof casing
  • film ultra-high resolution (4K UHD) video stored on a removable microSD card
  • take good quality photos
  • attach to a wide range of mounts and accessories that let you use and control the camera in a variety of environments.

But it's not without limitations:

  • The small form factor and waterproofing means the GoPro lens has a limited focal length.
  • Everything is shot or filmed in ultra-wide, which adds distortion at the edges.
  • This means almost all GoPro footage has a 'GoPro look.'

While the 'look' can be stunning in the right situation, the fixed lens and limited settings leave little room for creativity.

The GoPro 'look'

Types of GoPro

There are two models on the shelves – The GoPro Hero 5 Black and the GoPro Hero 5 Session. The Session trades out some features for an even smaller form factor. It only has a small LCD menu panel with three buttons for navigation, the idea being that you can snap or record straight out of the box.

Each model supports:

  • video resolution up to 4K
  • image stabilisation
  • time lapse settings
  • waterproofing without the housing up to 10 metres
  • voice controls
  • cloud connectivity
  • support for GoPro mounts and accessories.

But in the Black 5 you'll also find:

  • higher frame rates. The session can't reach 120 frames per second in 1080p like the Black
  • RAW image capture
  • GPS tagging
  • improved low light performance (the Black has a larger sensor)
  • touchscreen navigation
  • longer battery life.
The GoPro Hero5 Black (left) and Hero5 Session (right)

A third version known as the Fusion is due for launch towards the end of 2017. It can capture 360° video which can be viewed in 2D or in a VR headset.

Want to compare the GoPro to other action cams? 

Other options

So the GoPro can pack an impressive amount of tech into a tiny box, but is it worth the extra investment for your action-filming needs, or will a DSLR, compact, or a smartphone camera perform just as well? Conversely, could the GoPro replace a typical camera for day-to-day photography and video work?

Smartphones

The Apple iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8

Even though the humble smartphone camera has come a long way, it still isn't built for the demanding environments that action cams are thrown into on a daily basis. Smartphones are handy for happy snaps, sunny days and photography in exposure-friendly environments.

CHOICE verdict: Don't take your smartphone into a scenario better suited to action cameras. It will die.

Compact cameras

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 M4

While compact cameras were once regarded as the basic beginner sibling of DSLRs, the gap between these markets is starting to shrink. Some models run well over $1000 but have the advanced manual settings usually reserved for DSLRs. They:

  • offer a lot more flexibility in terms of manual settings
  • have greater flexibility in low light
  • have a broader range of focal lengths.

But without the same environmental protection as the GoPro, they're much more susceptible to damage.

CHOICE verdict: You can take a compact camera into most outdoor environments and protect it from the elements as best you can. But when it's guaranteed to get muddy, dirty, dusty or wet, or if you're going into an extreme situation where the risk of damage is much greater, take a GoPro.

Tough cameras

Olympus Stylus TG-4

In terms of build quality, tough or "rugged" cameras pack the durability of a GoPro in the body of a standard compact. They:

  • can handle a similar amount of environmental stress, with a protective casing to protect against water and dust ingress as well as the occasional drop
  • often use a zoom lens, although the range is usually no more than 3X
  • mostly take great pictures in well-lit environments, and some do a serviceable job in dark situations too
  • are generally larger and heavier than their action cam cousins, but much more compact than a DSLR.

However:

  • our test results show that the rugged build tends to come at the expense of image quality
  • you'll be hard-pressed to find one that can match the GoPro's video resolution and frame rate for a similar price
  • you won't find as many surface mounts for tough cameras, which rules out capturing action footage.

CHOICE verdict: While the differences in photo quality aren't that pronounced, a good-quality tough camera will outperform GoPro stills in most circumstances. Settings are limited, but they still offer a little more freedom compared to those in action cameras. The situation reverses when you switch to video, and extreme sports fanatics that want to capture their antics should bypass a tough cam and go straight for the GoPro.

DSLR cameras

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

DSLRs, aka the big fancy cameras that look utterly intimidating to newcomers, deliver the tools to control your photography. Full manual mode, a variety of video and photo settings and an extensive collection of lenses give you the freedom to shoot in just about any style you can imagine.

They:

  • have superior picture quality and low-light performance, thanks to larger image sensors and higher quality lenses
  • offer a broad range of lenses that can cover numerous photography styles. This increases creative flexibility, whereas the GoPro only has the "GoPro look"
  • give you extensive control over technical settings such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance. Your image is less beholden to the camera
  • have some protection against the elements, ranging from dust resistance to full-blown weather sealing
  • can be submerged when housed in suitable waterproof casing, built by the manufacturer or third-party brands
  • also support HD video in the latest models.

However:

  • creative freedom comes at a price. The Nikon D7200, for example, will set you back around $2250 with a lens, while a Canon 5D Mark III with a pro-grade lens can run as high as $4150
  • entry-level kits cost less than $1000, but build quality is likely to be less resistant to the elements
  • they're larger, heavier and much more susceptible to damage. This makes it harder to mount in tight spots where a GoPro will excel
  • there aren't many models with the same 4K and 120 frames per second in high-definition capabilities that the top-end GoPro can deliver.

CHOICE verdict: A good quality DSLR will outperform a GoPro at almost any technical level, but they're much more expensive, far less convenient and easier to break. While you can take them into the field, the GoPro's size and weight makes it a much better option for most action-scene environments, particularly those in the water. Capturing stunning footage from the heart of the action with a DSLR is difficult, and risky. Drop a GoPro and you'll probably get some cool footage out of it, drop a DSLR and all you'll get is a hefty repair bill. Even if you decide to go with a DSLR, it still may be worth adding a GoPro to your arsenal.

Mirrorless/bridge cameras

Panasonic DMC GX8

Mirrorless/bridge cameras are basically a smaller version of the DSLR. They gained a foothold in the market due to their similar capabilities, in a reduced form factor.

Bridge cameras:

  • fit between compacts and mirrorless models
  • are generally cheaper
  • typically have a fixed lens.

Mirrorless (often called micro 4/3):

  • are essentially small DSLRs
  • fall into similar price ranges
  • let you switch between different lenses.

Because of this, all the pros and cons that apply to DSLRs are essentially the same here, save for size and weight.

CHOICE verdict: See the DSLR verdict.

Video cameras

Canon Legria HF G25

A good camcorder will deliver better quality video than a GoPro, particularly under less-than-perfect conditions. And when we want to watch our video on a screen larger than a few inches wide, HD-quality video produced by a dedicated video camera really comes into its own. Like a DSLR, the main advantages of a camcorder are:

  • an optical zoom glass lens that gets you much closer to the action
  • better quality components in higher end models. This will improve image quality
  • extensive control over technical settings such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance.

However:

  • they can be much more expensive
  • they're larger, heavier and much more susceptible to damage
  • most aren't ruggedised and built for extreme conditions. You may find some high-end models with weather sealing.

CHOICE verdict: See the DSLR verdict.


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