Camera Review: GoPro Hero HD

A useful tool for videographers over the past decade or so has been the tiny “point-of-view” or “lipstick” camera that modern image sensors have made possible. POV cameras are great for getting tricky shots, so they are often used on sports shows or documentaries. They’re easy to Velcro onto a car’s dashboard, boom over a cliff edge, or snake down a groundhog burrow.

The Sony HXR-MC1 is a solid recent version, with a splash-proof 1.5” wide camera head tethered to a larger camera body, which records 1080i into 16mbps AVCHD. It’s made by a professional video camera company so it has a lot of professional features, like a proper zoom lens and a 1/5” sensor, but its downsides include the short nine-foot tether and the large $2,500 price tag.

If that’s a bit too much to spend on a camera that you will use rarely or you’re looking for something more rugged, there is an alternative available from the extreme sports crowd. It may not have manual controls, moving lens elements, or even a viewfinder, but it’s waterproof to 180 feet, fits in the palm of your hand, and shoots full HD video
for around $250.

The original GoPro Hero was a relatively popular wide-angle helmet cam for the BMX and skateboard set, but their new, HD capable version has much wider appeal. The HD Hero is one of the most interesting cameras I’ve played with recently, partly because of its extreme flexibility and partly because it really shouldn’t perform as well as it does.

When I bought the camera, I hoped that the (relatively) giant lens port on the body contained a giant lens in front of a giant sensor. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It’s a tiny fixed lens like many cell phones have. It has a very small aperture, which means almost infinite depth-of-field, which means no worrying about autofocus. The 170° field of view is about as distorted as a normal fisheye.

Behind the tiny lens is a tiny 5 megapixel sensor, also like many current cell phones, but this sensor’s refresh speed is very fast, which minimizes rolling shutter skew pretty well. This is important, since it’s meant to be an action cam for extreme sports. It’s also meant to be used outside during the day, which means that it hasn’t been built with low-light performance in mind. It gets very grainy very quickly in the dark.

In the daytime, however, it is excellent. It has pretty good dynamic range and passable auto-exposure, and the images are saturated and sharp – almost too sharp for the codec. The 1080 footage is compressed to h.264 at around 12 Mbps, which is just on the low end of usable, but if there were some sort of image stabilization, it would be better. However, there are times when consumer features trump professional ones, like the way this camera charges from a standard miniUSB cable and records to cheap SD or SDHC cards.

High detail image but low speed, some smearing

Here are some screenshots, and I’ve uploaded PNG files taken directly from the MP4 files with no adjustments. Some of the shots are stationary, some are fast moving, but all of them are high detail images that are stressing the limits of the codec and the latitude of the sensor. Turns out chicken feathers are a great compression test, since they have a high contrast area and lower contrast area and anisotropic, iridescent highlights.

High detail and high speed, codec starting to break apartNotice the shadow detail on the black cow in the shade

There are five video modes and four photo modes available on the HD Hero. These can be finicky to set, since there are only two buttons on the camera and the LCD screen is miniscule. Fortunately, most users will be able to set the camera to a single video mode and not worry about it much after that. The photo modes allow a click of the shutter button to shoot a single image, a burst of three images, set a ten second timer, or begin timelapse shooting at 2, 5, 10, 30, or 60-second intervals. As I’ve said before, timelapse is a handy tool for videographers, so it’s a nice addition to the Hero.

The video modes are a 848×480 square-pixel widescreen SD at 60p, 1280×720 at 30p, 1280×720 at 60p, a bizarre 4:3 HD at 1280×960 at 30p, and finally, full 1920×1080 at 30p. Interesting, the four lower resolution video options shoot using the full 170° FOV of the lens, while 1080p crops the sensor to a somewhat narrower 127° angle. This is a very good thing, firstly because the nearly 180° fisheye is pretty excessive for non-snowboarding video, and secondly because it means that 1080p video is apparently a non-scaled 1:1 crop of the sensor, which means fewer moiré and aliasing issues.

Sky starting to overexpose, but detail still in the shadows to some extentLots of detail in the forground, still a pretty good gradient in the sky

Furthermore, the HD Hero has a new firmware upgrade that enables us to switch between NTSC and PAL shooting modes, which changes all the framerates to 50p and 25p at the same resolutions. This is excellent news for those of us who predominantly work at 24p. The recorded audio is still almost useless from a production standpoint, but it’ll usually be good enough for a PluralEyes sync.

At the end of the day, a camera this small that shoots a crisp HD image this wide offers a lot of new creative possibilities to the documentary filmmaker. The ability to snap it onto a monopod and boom it around or suction cup it to a windshield and get a wide-angle view of a car interior is pretty amazing. It’s also an interesting reminder of how far digital cameras have come recently; apart from the lack of stabilization, the HD Hero’s footage compares very favorably to the Canon HV20 I reviewed three years ago.

  1. It’s an interesting web-site with a lot of useful information.
    Considering some of us are really low on budget, is there any chance you could recommend some photo SLR which can shoot HD video or just give some general recommendations in this category? E.g. in the range of canon 500D (there seem to be some really good examples of videos on youtube captured using this one).

    Thank you!

    - dk
  2. Is the “GoPro Hero” a good camera for beginning filmmakers who would like to improve in their film making skills?

  3. The Hero is not a good beginning camera because it has no manual control whatsoever. Also, the extremely wide-angle lens makes it really good at only a few things. If you don’t know why you need this camera, you probably don’t. But, if you do need this camera, it is superior to other alternatives.

    For a more useful one-size-fits-all beginner’s camera, one of the Canon sDLRs would be a better option, and the Rebel T2i or 60D would both be good entry-level options.

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