We’ve all seen how GoPRO advertises its cameras: often showing some person jumping out of an airplane or doing a triple cork on a snowboard.
But what about using a GoPRO as a travel camera? That’s what I most wanted to know when I got my hands on the latest GoPRO Hero 7 Black.
Of course, it’s an action camera at heart — and I do a fair bit of actioney stuff on my travels. I hike, I swim, I climb, I scuba dive. Whether it’s mountain biking down Death Road in Bolivia, exploring caves in Thailand, or diving through sinkhole caverns in the Mexican Yucatan, I’ve loved having a GoPRO with me in these situations. But… I also wanted to know if the GoPRO is versatile enough for normal use.
What do I mean by “normal use”? Well, anything you might want to do with a regular camera, such as taking travel photos, selfies, vlogging or short videos for social media, and other fun stuff like timelapse or timewarp videos. After all, travel isn’t all action all the time, and if you’re going to spend the money on a camera you might as well get one that ticks all the boxes.
This review will principally answer these questions:
- Is the GoPRO a good travel camera?
- Does GoPRO take good pictures (besides video)?
- And can you do cool stuff without having to be a technical genius?
GoPro 7 pros & cons
- Super light, rugged & pocketable. Can take it everywhere (swimming, climbing, etc.)
- Fisheye lens is no longer a limitation thanks to linear mode
- Improved user interface is easy to use
- Timewarp, timelapse, and other cool modes
- Not the best stills camera
- Only wide-angle shots, so have to get in very close for details
- Somewhat weak battery life
First of all, I should mention that this is the second GoPRO I’ve owned. My first model was a GoPro HERO4 Silver that I bought back in 2015, and it’s hard for me to resist comparing these two models.
Back when I reviewed the HERO4, I concluded that it was only a so-so travel camera. The user interface of this older version was cumbersome to use, the photos often blurry or foggy, and the files needed a lot of post-processing to actually look good.
My first impressions of the GoPRO Hero7 Black are much better. Photos are noticeably clearer and have much richer colors right out of the camera. The interface is also vastly easier to use than before.
The older GoPROs had real issues with this. The three physical buttons were of similar size and quite badly placed, which at times made me shut the camera down by accident. Due to these weirdly awkward buttons, I actually missed some epic shark encounters while scuba diving, as it turned out I had only switched modes instead of pressing the shutter.
I’m happy to report that’s no longer a problem. The physical buttons on the GoPRO 7 are much easier to use. They’ve also further unified and simplified the on-screen interface. It’s quite telling that the device doesn’t come with a paper manual; all you need to learn is now told via little help bubbles on the screen. It’s all very intuitive.
I only have three minor criticisms in terms of the usability:
- It would be nice if it took fewer steps to pair the GoPRO with the smartphone app. (The option is still like 4 menus down. It’s OK but not ideal.)
- Sometimes the gyro inside is a bit slow to respond, e.g. it’ll still stick to vertical view when you’re holding it horizontally.
- It’s still unclear sometimes if the GoPRO has actually shut down or not. Look for a beep and flashing red light to indicate it has actually shut down — if only the screen turned off, the actual camera might still be on and will still drain your battery.
If you can live with these minor flaws, operating the GoPRO is very easy overall. I’ll talk about the app and software integration in a bit, after we look at the camera capabilities.
Buttery smooth video
Let’s take a look first at video, which is after all the GoPRO’s primary function.
The HERO7 introduces a new video feature called HyperSmooth, which digitally stabilizes your footage on the fly. This effect isn’t any different from what you can achieve in a professional video editing suite like Adobe Premiere, but let’s be honest, it’s way nicer to have this done automatically and without any complicated post-processing.
The resulting footage is beautifully smooth, almost like using a gimbal. The difference with older GoPROs and other action cameras is just incredible. I love gliding the camera through a scene and achieving what almost looks like a cinematic long-shot from a film. It really does make your videos look twice as good, and all without a bulky and expensive gimbal accessory. This is without doubt a killer feature.
(A quick test while walking along Lisbon’s Pink Street)
My only quibble is that HyperSmooth is only available when shooting up to 60 frames per second. This is not an issue for everyday use, but I would have liked to shoot some underwater footage while scuba diving that’s both stabilized and shot at 120 fps (i.e. super slow motion). Fishes tend to move around in fast and jerky motions, so it’s always nice to slow things down a lot. Alas, at higher frame rates you’ll have to do without any hypersmoothing. Shooting at 60fps does still let you slow the action by 2X though, so I’m nitpicking here.
Video is truly where the GoPRO shines. The video quality is fantastic, and the camera adapts well on the fly to different lighting conditions. You can shoot up to 4K and in a variety of modes, including timelapse and timewarp, and the new HyperSmooth setting makes a very noticeable difference in video quality.
(A little test of the TimeWarp effect)
Quick Overview: My essential GoPro gear
GoPro HERO7 Black
- 4K video with 12MP photos
- Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- LCD Touchscreen
Spare Battery kit
- 3 spare batteries
- USB triple-charger
Kupton Accessories kit
- Waterproof housing for diving (up to 45m instead of 10)
- Floaty handle grip
- Loads of suction grips and harnesses
Samsung Memory 64GB Evo
- Compatible with GoPRO
- Great speed and performance
What about the fisheye lens?
Of course, action cameras have wide-angle lenses, so you may be used to seeing GoPRO footage with a round fish-eye-like effect. That is great for action moments, but less so for general use.
But if you don’t like the fisheye style, no worries. You can easily choose between wide and linear shooting modes. In other words, you can take pictures and images with a normal ‘square’ look. This won’t let you fit quite as much in the frame, but it will give you a much more natural look. I almost always keep it set to linear myself.
There are some minor limitations though. For example, timewarp videos can’t be shot in linear mode. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but from a user perspective it feels kind of arbitrary. For photos and normal videos, the linear mode does work great.
You can see an example of the difference between wide and linear mode here:
GoPRO for photography
While the GoPRO is not mainly designed for regular photography, you can use it for this. Just keep in mind the wide angle is great for wide landscapes and tight interiors, but not so great for close-ups or mid-length shots.
For my initial tests I walked around Lisbon while trying to use the GoPRO as a regular camera. It was often difficult to frame things well, as it simply captures so much of the scene at once, even in linear mode. I had the most success while taking photos of BIG stuff, like a big plaza or church or panoramic roofscape. I tried taking good shots of details, like a wall with some cool graffiti, and the results were a lot more mixed (though often still usable).
The overall image quality seems really good to my eyes. Photos from previous models had a faded look to them, and the older cameras struggled especially with glare. Now the still image quality is fantastic and feels at least on par with what you can get from your average smartphone.
Here are some quick shots I took (no filters or edits):
Using a GoPRO for selfies
While a GoPRO is just decent for general photography, I think it’s actually better than other still cameras for taking selfies. That’s because it’s super easy to capture not just yourself, but your surroundings as well. This is ideal for travel selfies as you’ll often want to capture as much of the location as possible, so you can really show off where you are (and not just your beautiful face).
Without using a selfie stick, I could easily capture myself while still leaving about two-thirds of the image free for the rest of the scene. You can also easily fit 3 or 4 people in a selfie taken by hand.
Add a monopod and you can truly put yourself in the scene, showing all the landscapes or other features behind you. The wide angle lens gives this a real differentiation from what you can achieve with other devices.
To take selfies, you can always use the self-timer. But another great way is to use the built-in voice commands to trigger the shutter. This means there’s really no longer any need for a GoPRO monopod with a built-in shutter button; any cheap GoPRO compatible selfie stick will do, as you can now simply trigger the camera with your voice.
Sharing and editing
Budding videographers often get discouraged when they realize that all the footage they’ve taken actually takes hours and hours to edit into something good enough for posting online. This is an area where GoPRO has fortunately made some big strides.
If you load your footage to the companion app, you can automatically generate a Quikstory. An algorithm will analyse your footage and try to make a montage, with dozens of templates or styles available. It will work best with short clips or with longer videos where you’ve already marked the highlights. The results are not perfect but it’s really easy, and with the right footage you can have a pretty good sizzle reel ready to share online in about 10 minutes or so.
Here’s a great example of a Quickstory:
All your phone’s usual sharing options are available, though the app also has built-in support for Instagram stories.
Getting the device and the app to talk to each other via Bluetooth can be a bit fiddly at first. I had to change the WiFi band to 2.4 GHz in the settings for it to be able to talk to my Android phone. But once this was sorted, it loaded new footage onto the phone automatically, and then the editing process is fun and intuitive.
Differences between the 3 editions
There are 3 editions of the HERO7: White, Silver, and Black.
The Black edition has the highest price, but I also think it is the best GoPRO for travelling. Firstly, it has a removable battery instead of a built-in one. This is a biggie!
If you’re using a GoPRO all day, it eats up battery really fast. Don’t underestimate how quickly they drain! While you can charge the camera via USB or a powerbank, I find this isn’t as good as just always having a fresh battery or two that you can swap out instantly. I highly recommend you get this USB charger with 3 spare batteries from Amazon. This only costs about $20 and it will guarantee you can keep using it all day.
Video is a particularly big drain. When I go scuba diving I normally just keep the camera rolling, but since most dives are about 40 to 60 minutes, I need at least 2 or 3 batteries to get through a set of dives. I couldn’t do this on the GoPRO White or Silver, which have only one battery that’s integrated.
The HERO7 Black has some other features the others lack:
- The new Hypersmooth image stabilization
- 8X slow-motion instead of 2X
- TimeWarp and Time Lapse video modes
- Stereo audio instead of mono
- 3.5 mm Audio Mic In (this is great for vlogging)
- Auto Low Light, which drops the framerate in favor of exposure in low light situations, leading to better image quality.
Finally, it’s the only GoPRO with their own advanced GP1 chip. The others use a third-party chip that’s likely to be phased out in future generations.
The HERO7 White and HERO7 Silver aren’t too bad if you’re after a cheaper camera just to mess around with. But it sucks they only have built-in batteries, and the footage isn’t nearly as slick.
GoPRO versus a DSLR
All in all, the GoPRO is a pretty versatile tool. But is it truly comparable to a DSLR or mirrorless system camera?
Honestly, no. If you are looking for a camera mainly for stills, then you shouldn’t get a GoPRO. You will be able to get much better results with a DSLR or even a compact camera, as you’ll have the option of using zoom, and you’ll have more appropriate focal lengths for a wider range of subjects. The sensor inside a DSLR is also likely to be larger, giving you better image quality and higher resolution for stills.
One great advantage of the GoPRO though is that it’s so rugged and portable. Dust and water are two things a DSLR doesn’t like. I eventually bought a weather-sealed Panasonic GX8 with a weather-sealed lens, but this set me back about €2000. And that’s still a very delicate device and not nearly as shock-, dust-, or waterproof as a GoPRO.
Still, if you’re really in this just for travel photography, a GoPRO is not the obvious choice.
I’m impressed by the GoPRO HERO7. It’s a great travel camera, especially if you’re into video. You don’t need to be into extreme sports to get a lot out of it, as it’s useful even for normal travel situations, especially if you get the GoPRO HERO 7 Black edition.
While I tested it in the city this time, I’ve often gotten the most out of my previous GoPRO 4 in the outdoors. On a boat trip in Indonesia, I could just strap the camera to my wrist, jump off the boat, and swim to an island, where I could take some videos of some resident monkeys and wild pigs. On my way back to the boat, I took some great shots of a passing reef shark. There’s no way I could have done this with my DSLR, not even if I had the world’s best drybag.
I’ve also mounted it on scooters and cars for great timewarp videos. Recently, I was in Armenia during the festival of Vardavar where everyone throws water balloons and buckets of water at each other, and this was a great time to use a GoPRO. It’s great for sandboarding in Peru or Nicaragua where the sand might keep you from using a regular camera. Since a GoPRO is so super light, it’s a great little swiss army knife to always have in your pocket.
When you buy a GoPRO for your travels, I do highly recommend getting some spare batteries. I normally go through about 2 batteries a day.
Finally, GoPRO is definitely best for videos, and only decent for photos. If you’re getting it just for the stills, there are probably more dedicated travel cameras you can choose from.
Where to buy: you can check the latest price on Amazon (link goes automatically to your local Amazon site).