Using GoPro as a Travel Camera – My Tips & Review

Is GoPro any good as an all-round travel camera? On a recent 2-month trip, I put it to the test.

During my globe-trotting adventures I often regretted not having an action camera. Whether it’s mountain biking down Death Road in Bolivia, exploring caves in Thailand, or scuba diving through sinkhole caverns in the Mexican Yucatan, I’ve often found myself without any way to record these experiences.

Regular cameras are either too unwieldy or too fragile for such situations, so I’ve had my eye on getting a dedicated action camera. I recently purchased a GoPro HERO4 Silver, the current mid-range GoPro model featuring an integrated touchscreen. I took it on a 2-month trip through Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to see what it could do.

Besides using it for adventure activities, I figured that having a small compact action camera would also come in handy for regular travel photography. Even though the GoPro is mainly a video camera, it does also have image capturing capabilities that I hoped would be of sufficient quality for casual snaps.

The new GoPro HERO5 is here!

This review is based on the GoPro HERO4 Silver, but a newer model has just been released. The GoPro HERO5 has a smaller and cheaper GoPro HERO5 Session model (without a screen) and a GoPRO HERO5 Black (with a touchscreen).

The differences: version 5 now has a one-button interface and a re-done user interface, addressing most of my complaints about version 4. The camera can now also be used underwater up to 10m without needing separate housing. Resolution and sensor are mostly unchanged, though a new Linear photo mode removes the fish-eye lens effect without any cropping, which makes taking normal photos even easier. You also now get digital video stabilisation, resulting in way smoother video for any resolutions below 4K. The shooting tips later in this post work for both the HERO4 and HERO5.

On my boat trip from Lombok to Flores, Indonesia. (Unedited)

Initial impressions

I spent a couple of weeks just playing around with my new camera while still at home, so that I wouldn’t have to learn everything during the trip itself.

The user interface does take some getting used to. Despite being an enthusiast SLR photographer and usually finding my way around user interfaces quickly, the GoPro’s menu system often left me confused. Since the three buttons on the device are not differentiated in size or color whenever it’s in its protective housing, it took a long time for me to develop the muscle memory to navigate the options quickly. Sometimes it took so long to find the right settings that I missed a cool shot.

Be sure to learn how to use the GoPro before your journey, as it can take a while to get comfortable with. The GoPro software for importing and editing your media is also far from intuitive. GoPro’s software user experience is not always as strong as I expected.

Stuck in traffic in Yogjakarta (Unedited)

Goat on the boat to Gili Trawangan, Indonesia (Level and saturation adjusted)

Using GoPro as a travel camera

I have always travelled with a Canon DSLR with two lenses, which is great for taking high-resolution and high-quality photos in more static and deliberate photography situations. Unfortunately, this gear is quite heavy to take along with you all the time and is not always appropriate for spur-of-the-moment snaps.

They often say “the best camera is the one you have with you”, and so I wanted to see how the GoPro would fare as a casual travel camera.

GoPro’s photos are of mixed quality, and sometimes you just need to be a bit luckyThe camera struggles particularly in broad daylight situations with lots of sunlight, as I found these pictures often to be quite washed out and lacking contrast or color depth. It does a bit better when light is less intense. To use my GoPro photos on this blog, I’ve usually had to correct them afterwards in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Blooming and overexposure can be an issue. This is of course a particularly extreme example, though it also frequently occurs when not shooting directly into the sun. (Unedited)

Fog and water droplets can be hard to notice until you view the photos on another device. In this photo water drops have blurred the people on the left. (Levels adjusted)

A few tips for using GoPro as a travel camera:

  • Make sure the lens isn’t foggy. This was a particular problem given the humidity in the Southeast Asian countries I visited on this trip as well as spending a lot of time in and around the water. Check if your lens might be foggy as this can significantly degrade the picture quality. I have not yet tried GoPro’s anti-fog inserts though these are designed to combat the problem. On a related note, remember to check the housing for water droplets if you’ve just been in the water! (i.e. give the housing a quick wipe)
  • Avoid overexposing the picture (check where the sun is). Often when there’s big bright sky with a big sun in your framing, the light will bleed out or sunrays will obscure part of the photo. This is something a DSLR usually knows to deal with better. With the GoPro I found it’s usually best to take pictures with the sun behind you.
  • Set the field-of-view to medium. The fish-eye lens photos that are typical of the GoPro can look good in certain situation, such as looking down a tall cliff or showing off a huge vista. However, the medium FOV is more suited for regular photography. A narrow FOV option is available as well, though this sacrifices a lot of pixel resolution and so I liked to stick with Medium. (On the GoPRO 5, I recommend using Linear mode. This captures as much of the scene as the Wide FOV, but without the fish-eye effect.)
  • For best results, use post-processing. Applying just a bit of auto-contrast, or using the magic wand enhance tools available in many image programs, can easily improve the picture quality. In Photoshop I often used the Shadows/Highlights tool to make pictures look less murky in the shadow areas. GoPro’s own software can be used for this as well.

Taking better GoPro travel photos sometimes also takes a bit of luck. If lighting conditions happen to be in your favor, you can get great results right off the bat.

Post-processing can make a huge difference. This is me on the Komodo Islands, unedited…

…and this is the same picture with some auto-contrast applied.

Taking travel selfies

This is an area where I felt the GoPro excelled much more as a travel camera. As a frequent solo traveller I often lack good pictures of myself, so it’s been fun using the GoPro for this purpose.

I didn’t purchase the official Smart Remote accessory as at $100 or €90 it’s rather pricey. Instead, I attached my GoPro to a basic monopod and set it to Time Lapse mode with an interval of 0.5 seconds, then pointed the camera at myself and automatically shot a series of photos. This way I could try out a few poses and angles and then pick the best one later.

I like using a monopod in combination with the GoPro’s wide-angle lens as you get to frame so much more of your surroundings. Typical selfies show only a person’s face and a bit of background, whereas with the GoPro you can properly show off the travel locations and not just make it about you. It’s fun for group portraits as well, as you can easily fit 6 or 7 people in a picture while also showing where in the world you are.

As a selfie taking device, I’m extremely satisfied with the GoPro. Since the GoPro is so compact and easy to have with you in any situation, it allowed me to take some cool pictures of myself while I was swimming, on a boat, scuba diving, or on top of a mountain—even when I was on my own.

At the temples of Borobodur. Softer lighting conditions seem favorable to taking better pics on the GoPro (Unedited)

Selfie at the temples of Prambanan (unedited)

Sports/adventure activities

This is, of course, what the GoPro was originally made for. And it’s in these situations that I absolutely loved having my GoPro. I spent a lot of time scuba diving during my trip and managed to capture some phenomenal footage. As a video action camera the GoPro truly excels.

My only minor gripe is that sometimes the GoPro is just a tad slow in automatically adjusting the white balance. So when filming it would sometimes take a second to shift to a better range of color and contrast. Fortunately, you can usually edit around this later.

In the video below, which I took while scuba diving the Komodo Islands in Indonesia, you can see what sort of results you can get. Lighting conditions are far less critical with video than when taking photos. I felt that the GoPro knew what it was doing much more when I was filming than when I was taking pictures.

WATCH: video of my dives at Komodo Island, shot with GoPro 4 Silver with the FLIP 3.1 Color Correction System mounted on top

Conclusion

The GoPro makes for a good but not-quite-perfect travel camera. The introduction of medium and narrow field-of-view options no longer limit you only to fish-eye lens style pictures, which has finally made it more suitable for taking photos. Having an integrated screen on the premium model is very helpful as well, as this makes it much easier to frame and compose photos than with the GoPro models without a screen.

If you’re using a GoPro on the road, I strongly recommended buying some spare batteries. A GoPro will last through about 60-90 minutes of intense use (especially taking video), which is fine if you’re, say, recording some skating videos in the park and then going home to edit them. But if you’re on the road constantly, you will want to be able to use the GoPro throughout the day, and you won’t always have an opportunity to charge. I used three batteries, and bought a charger that can charge two batteries at once, and was happy with this set-up.

Boarding a water taxi to Railay beach, Thailand (level & saturation adjusted)

Overall I’m very satisfied with the GoPro, though I had to get over some initial disappointment with the image quality. You have to learn how to work around its limitations as a photo camera. Avoiding fog is a particular challenge that I did not foresee and that I will want to address more on my next journey. The footage you see on GoPro’s website was shot by professionals and has probably been color-corrected afterwards, and so your own footage may not immediately live up to this ideal. Some post-processing helps you get the best results.

While my Canon DSLR remains my workhorse for travel photography, I find it hugely liberating to also have the small GoPro with me. Thanks to its waterproof housing I can actually take it with me while swimming, on boats, or on the beach, or even in dusty or sandy environments that can be harmful to a non-weather-sealed SLR. While the GoPro doesn’t replace my SLR, it’s an amazing addition to it, and it’s opened up all new possibilities for recording my trips.

check price on amazon

 

My GoPro gear

For your convenience, the links below go to your local Amazon store (US, Canada, UK, Germany, etc.)

GoPro HERO4 Silver (new: GoPRO HERO5 Black)
Price: $399.00
Samsung Memory 64GB Evo
Price: $89.99

This is the maximum amount of memory that the GoPro can take. While I always copy my footage over to a portable HD, I like keeping an original copy on the SD card.

Deyard ZG-634 GoPro Accessories Kit 
Price: Out of stock

I got this primarily for the selfie stick monopod which is of nice quality. While I didn’t yet have many opportunities to use the other accessories on this trip, I was happy to have a full set of straps and mounts for far less money than the official GoPro versions would have cost.

XCSOURCE Floaty Monopod
Price: Out of stock

This is awesome if you’re planning to take your GoPro swimming or diving. The bright yellow floaty grip ensures you won’t easily lose your GoPro.

Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) with Dual Charger
Price: $23.99 $16.99   -29%

Unmissable when using a GoPro for travel! At 1280mAh these batteries have a higher capacity than the ones supplied by GoPro itself. The dual charger is great.

FLIP3.1 Underwater Color Correction System
Price: Out of stock


A MUST-HAVE for scuba diving!
 The deeper you dive, the more distorted the colors will be; due to the way light waves work, red disappears from your color balance almost entirely after just a few meters. A red filter will bring life to your otherwise drab and blue footage.

Don’t be tempted by the super cheap ones like the XCSOURCE Red Filter. These are just red pieces of plastic from Chinese manufacturers that haven’t been tested underwater. I’ve met several divers who ended up with useless footage as a result. While the FLIP costs quite a bit more (which made me hesitant at first) it delivers amazing results, and the flip system makes it easy to switch them in and out. There’s now a newer FLIP 4.0 system.

 

This post contains some affiliate links, which help keep this blog free. All opinions are strictly my own.

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23 comments

  1. Quen Reply August 25, 2017 at 5:22 am

    I always have my GoPro Hero 4 silver with me. Most of my travels involve water activities or climbing mountains – so it’s a perfect fit! I suggest getting external microphone for better audio capture.

  2. Hayley Reply September 29, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Thank you, this is really helpful! You answered all the questions I was asking myself!

  3. Jonathan Reply September 22, 2016 at 12:25 am

    Made my first GoPro video of my 3 months spent in America and I’d love for anyone interested to have a watch
    https://youtu.be/ONQTIZsmZoM

  4. Klemen Reply September 7, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    Hey! If you know those sick over under photos, where half of the photo is underwater and the other half above water – you need a special housing to take them and it is called a dome port. Right now we are giving away a free Split dome port and I just thought you might be interested 🙂
    You can enter here: http://splitgadgets.com/giveaway/
    Klemen recently posted…Get a FREE Split GoPro Dome PortMy Profile

  5. Cultured Black Pearl Reply August 16, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    Hey, loved your article. I’m exploring new options for my travel camera and stumbled upon your blog. Very informative and enjoyed the video. I’ll let you know where I land once I make a purchase. Thanks for all the tips!

  6. Rai Reply August 4, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Hi Marek! I was wondering, if I don’t have either a GoPro or a DSLR, which do you think should I invest in first? Photo quality wise, as you have pointed out, a DSLR is much better. But it’s pretty cool to use a GoPro too when you’re documenting your travels around the world, right? I’m torn, so I’d really appreciate the reply. 🙂 Thank you!

  7. Matyáš Svátek Reply July 17, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    Hey Mark, I’m going on a 1 week trip to Tenerife (idk how to write it, I live in Czech Republic) and I always freak the hell out when it comes to the airport security check (security frames, x-ray etc.) and I wanted to ask: If I have a carrying case and a grip for my GoPro, will I have to open the case and tell them what is exactly inside? Or is it better to stick it into my big luggage (straight to the plane)?

    • Marek Reply July 17, 2016 at 11:12 pm

      I don’t think you have anything to worry about. A GoPro is a perfectly innocent item to have with you. 🙂 I’ve had mine in my carry-on luggage many times (attached to a monopod grip) and have never been asked about it. Just send it through the x-ray machine with your other belongings.

  8. Pete Reply June 22, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Hi Marek,

    I already have a gopro and I am about to embark on an 8 month backpacking adventure (S.E. Asia and Aus/NZL). I am debating whether to buy a laptop so I can edit video as I go or simply store it all on an external HD and edit when I get home. On the one hand the laptop is extra cost (need to powerful but small I guess = £££), fear of loss/damage and putting in the time to edit on the go, BUT it would mean I can update people with my adventures as I go and no daunting mountain of footage at the end. I know my trip is longer than your 2 month one here, but I was wondering what you did regarding the laptop situation and what you would recommend for me. Thank you!

    • Marek Reply June 22, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      Hey Pete. I’ve done previous trips of similar length as yours and have taken a full-featured laptop with me. I just didn’t want to face an enormous backlog of photos and videos at the end. I have some info on travel laptops here. You do need at least a mid-range one for editing videos comfortably. I would be somewhat less worried about loss/demage in Asia/Oceania as security is pretty good around there, and a laptop is likely to mostly sit in a hostel locker or in a locked hotel where it’s safe. (It’s not like a camera which you carry around everywhere.) Cost is obviously a factor though. It’s hard to say what to recommend, though I can say I’ve personally always taken a laptop on really long trips, but left it at home for some medium-length ones (e.g. 2 months).

  9. Nathalie Reply May 27, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks! I take my all my underwater photos and videos with my GoPro 4 Silver and I use a red filter when I dive below 30-feet to bring out the colors. I also added a macro lens that clips on the case for close-up photos of small creatures or marine life in the distance.

  10. Stefan Reply May 27, 2016 at 12:50 am

    I have two gopros that I am taking to India/Sri Lanka this summer for two months. I’m wondering, did you bring an external HD with you to put all your pictures/videos on? Or how do you have enough memory to do a trip of that length without bringing a computer?

    • Marek Reply May 27, 2016 at 9:53 am

      I have a 64 GB SD card, which I believe is the maximum that the GoPro supports. It’ll last for a shorter trip. On a longer trip I bring my laptop with external HD. You could also consider just bringing an external HD and USB SD card reader and then transferring files every now and then on a public computer or in an internet cafe.

  11. PurringPigeon Reply March 21, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks. Been trying to see if a GoPro can replace my point and shoot. Your blog gave me the confidence to make the investment. Glad it works well for standard picture taking. How do the prints come out?

    • Marek Reply March 23, 2016 at 11:46 am

      I haven’t tried making prints yet – I mostly just use it for digital. At medium field of view you get 5 megapixels which should be okay for small prints. At wide field of view it’s 12 MP which is a great print resolution.

  12. Lori Reply March 13, 2016 at 1:55 am

    Doesn’t appear you used a special housing for you scuba footage. If you did, please advise. Won’t be deep. New at scuba. Will be in Belize.

    • Marek Reply March 13, 2016 at 12:30 pm

      The housing that comes with the GoPro is fit for diving up to 40m. Realistically you won’t go any deeper unless you’re a very advanced diver, so you’re all set.

  13. Will Reply February 23, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    This is so cool. I love seeing people actively using GoPros around the world!

  14. Amanda Hannuksela Reply July 23, 2015 at 12:11 am

    Hi Marek!
    Funny to see that you have visited many same places in Indonesia as my sister and I did last Christmas break. I did not afford to buy a GoPro action camera back then so I only used my system camera Nikon 3200 for taking pictures. Now I am leaving less in a month to travel to California and then to exchange to Canada. I have been thinking to buy an action camera to record my whole journey as short video clips (from departure in the airport to exploring in cities, to visiting attractions, to swimming in the sea to all the exchange activities during my whole exchange year) and then make it a longer video with mostly music in the background as a memory. Therefore I am wondering do you think goPro device would be suitable to use for these situations? Or would you recommend some other video camera or action camera? Thank you and greetings from Finland 🙂

    • Marek Indietraveller Reply August 7, 2015 at 11:00 am

      Sorry for my late reply Amanda – somehow I didn’t see your comment before! I would say the GoPro is perfect for making one big montage of your journey. If you can afford one, then it will definitely be suitable to that.

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