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)
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 lucky. The 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)
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
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.)
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