- New 20MP Image Sensor
- Photo Output Formats: RAW & Standard (JPG)
- Fields of View: Wide, Linear, & Narrow
- Things Worth Knowing About FOV on the HERO9 Black
- Manual Exposure Controls / Exposure Control
- ISO Range
- Manual Shutter Speed
- Exposure Compensation
- SuperPhoto & HDR
- Burst Mode, Continuous Shooting, & LiveBurst
- Burst Mode
- Continuous Photo
- Digital Zoom
- Night Photo
- Timed Shooting
- Scheduled Capture
- Responsiveness (or Lack of It)
- Photos Taken with a GoPro HERO9 Black
- Things Worth Knowing
GoPro cameras are best known for shooting video, but they can be surprisingly good for taking still photos too. The trick is to work with their quirks and limitations rather than fighting against them. And the best part is that they’ll be quite different from what you can get from your smartphone or “normal” camera. I’m lucky enough to have a bunch of different cameras, including some high-end DSLRs. But some of my favorite photos have been taken with GoPros. And the HERO9 Black has some big updates that bring big improvements for stills photos.
GoPros don’t do everything the same way as other cameras. That can be both a plus and a negative. By default, all GoPros are set up to work in fully automatic mode. Some, like the HERO9 Black, let you take some, but not full, manual control by changing ISO and shutter speed. The ultra-wide fisheye lens isn’t a good fit for traditional people photos because it makes their features look distorted, but it can be very effective if you’re in close to the action or are looking for a dramatic wide look. The battery life on GoPros isn’t as good as many compact cameras (although GoPro has made good headway on that with the HERO9 Black with its significantly larger battery). And there’s no control over focus or (real) zoom. But they also have some very strong features going for them.
They’re tiny, rugged, and waterproof. So you can shoot photos in places that most cameras can’t. There are options for controlling them remotely. And with auto-everything as at least an option, they’re quite close to foolproof.
GoPro model names can be confusing, and they’re not always consistent generation to generation. The HERO9 and HERO8 lineups have one camera in them; the HERO7 lineup had three.
The new HERO9 Black is the current flagship model and has the most extensive set of options for taking photos.1 The headline improvement of the HERO9 Black over the HERO8 Black in terms of taking still photos is that it has a much higher-resolution sensor: 20MP vs. the 12MP of the HERO8 Black (and a whole string of previous models). Now that I’ve had the chance to shoot with it for a bit, I’m finding the still images significantly better than those produced in earlier models. They have a higher resolution, obviously, but they’re also sharper and better balanced.
So here’s a rundown of the photo modes available on the GoPro HERO9 Black.
New 20MP Image Sensor
The HERO9 Black has a much higher resolution sensor than its predecessors: 20 megapixels. That’s a big step up from the HERO8 Black, which, like a string of GoPros before it, has a 12-megapixel sensor that produces images that measure 4000 by 3000 pixels. (The physical size of the sensor is the same.)
So the HERO9 Black’s images are significantly larger and higher resolution. The resulting images are slightly different sizes depending on which format you use.
- RAW (.gpr) images measure 5568 x 4192 pixels
- JPG images measure 5184 x 3888 pixels2
The extra resolution helps in two important ways. Most obviously, the larger images allow for more detail and, potentially, sharper images.3 GoPros have never been especially good in low light conditions-and the HERO9 Black still doesn’t compare with a good DSLR or mirrorless camera’s performance in that area-but there is a noticeable improvement.
Photo Output Formats: RAW & Standard (JPG)
In most of the ways you can shoot in the Photo mode, you’ll have a choice of output formats. The first is now called Standard; it used to be called JPG.
The other is RAW. The past few generations of GoPro Black edition cameras have included the option of shooting photos in a RAW image format. It was first introduced with the HERO5 Black. It’s based on Adobe’s DNG format and uses the file extension .gpr.
NOTE: Some of the shooting modes have a couple of other output choices: SuperPhoto and HDR. I cover them separately below.
The RAW image files make available more of the information that was captured by the camera’s sensor. With all that extra image data available, it’s possible to produce better image quality. At least in theory. In practice, I’ve found that GoPros’ in-camera processing does a pretty good job in creating the JPG versions and that the RAW data doesn’t preserve as much extra dynamic range in the shadows and highlights as you might hope or expect compared to some other cameras.
On most cameras, I instinctively set it to shoot RAW as one of the first things I do. But that’s not always the case when I’m shooting with GoPros. There are two main disadvantages to using the RAW output format on the GoPro HERO9 Black, and both are definitely worth knowing. The first is that you really need to process RAW files and export them in another format, such as JPG, before you can do much with them. That’s partly to make them look better—unprocessed RAW data doesn’t look very good—and partly to put them in a file format that other people, labs, and online services can actually use. That part is true of RAW files from any camera, but where it becomes more of an issue with GoPros is that there are very few apps that can read the GoPros’ RAW image format. Even though .gpr are based on Adobe’s dng format, there aren’t many imaging apps that can work with them.4 The most notable exception is Adobe Lightroom Classic. If you don’t use Lightroom, I’ve posted a workaround that uses a free app to convert GPR files to DNG.
In part because of that, GoPro has also built in a safety net. And that is that when you choose the RAW format for your photos, it actually saves both a GPR and a JPG version at the same time. So it’s really what other cameras would call RAW+JPG. That has a few advantages. One is the safety-net aspect—if you can’t open the RAW files, you can use the JPG as a fallback. Another is that the flexibility that you can use the smaller and ready-to-go JPG versions for quick sharing or using in the mobile app while also having the master RAW version available when you get around to downloading the files to your desktop.
That RAW+JPG behavior also has a couple of disadvantages. One is that saving both files at once uses up more space on your memory card.
But the main reason I often choose not to shoot in RAW on GoPros is that it slows things down. After all, it’s crunching the RAW and saving a JPG version. That means you have to wait for a few seconds before you can take the next shot, which can get annoying, especially in a fast-moving action scene. A workaround is to shoot in continuous mode, but that’s not always convenient or desirable and doesn’t so much solve the lag than delay it. If you’re just shooting one or two photos or one burst, it’s not much of an issue. But if you’re shooting bursts, in particular, there’s a long delay until the camera is ready to shoot a new burst. It’s enough of an issue to make me choose JPG over the RAW option, even though I nearly always shoot in RAW on all my cameras (when it’s available).
Something worth knowing is that RAW isn’t available for every shooting possibility on the HERO9 Black. Anything that generates a processed image will only be available when you’ve set the output format to Standard (if you’ve set the output to SuperPhoto or HDR, it will only save JPGs). Shooting modes that only work with JPG are:
- Changing the FOV (field of view) to Linear or Narrow
- Digital Zoom
- Time-lapse Photo and Night Lapse Photo when the interval is less than 5 seconds
- Continuous Mode
The way it’s handled with Continuous Photo is particularly confusing; more on that in the Burst Photos / Continuous Photos section below.
Fields of View: Wide, Linear, & Narrow
The fields of view, or FOVs, determine how much of the scene is captured. GoPro now has the FOV settings under the “Lens” label.
The HERO9 Black has the typical ultra-wide-angle view with its still photos.5 That’s great for creating an immersive look and for capturing a lot in the frame, but the distorted fisheye look isn’t a good fit for every scene or taste. And it works best when you’re very close to the scene, something that’s not always possible.
The default is called Wide, or W. GoPro says that it’s the equivalent of a 16-34mm zoom.
There’s also a Linear FOV, or L. This uses the camera’s built-in software to try to correct the optical distortion of the fisheye lens by straightening lines that would otherwise be bent. The scene also gets cropped from the sides. Linear FOV is especially useful when shooting from drones and trying to avoid massively curved horizons, but it can be useful whenever you want a more natural-looking perspective. GoPro says that the Linear FOV is the equivalent of a 19-39mm zoom.
Finally, there’s a Narrow FOV, or N. GoPro says that this is the equivalent of a 27mm lens on a full-frame camera (there’s no range with this one because the digital zoom isn’t available with the Narrow FOV.
Things Worth Knowing About FOV on the HERO9 Black
The Linear and Narrow FOVs are the results of software manipulation, not optics. That is, they’re processed by the camera’s onboard software. That means that they only work with the Standard (JPG) output format. If you’re shooting in RAW, only the Wide FOV (without the digital zoom) will be available. But you can get a similar effect in post-production using shots taken in the Wide FOV if you’re using Lightroom Classic.
The Linear FOV cannibalizes parts of the image to work, so you’ll notice some cropping from the edges of the scene and potentially some stretching as well.
And the HERO9 Black will have an even wider FOV available when the Max Lens Mod is released. It’s a clip-on accessory that goes in place of the existing lens port. It adds an ultra-wide-angle view of 155˚ FOV as well as an even more aggressive stabilization mode called Max HyperSmooth and Horizon lock.
Manual Exposure Controls / Exposure Control
GoPros are designed to work well on automatic everything right out of the box. If you want more control over the exposure when shooting photos, you can control two of the three sides of the exposure triangle.
Using the Protune options (more on those below), you can manually set the ISO and shutter speed. The one you can’t control is the aperture; GoPros have a fixed-aperture lens that’s rated at ƒ/2.8.
There’s also another option that gives you some control over the exposure that’s kind of semi-manual. That’s a feature called Exposure Control. The standard automatic exposure calculation is taken across the whole scene in the frame. Exposure Control lets you choose a more specific point in the scene to base the automatic exposure calculation on. An example might be if you’re photographing a person on the snow, but it’s exposing for the whole scene, and therefore, their face is dark. You can select the face as the area to expose for so that it brightens that up (and will probably overexpose the background at the same time).
The HERO9 Black doesn’t break any new ground over its predecessor regarding ISO. The range is still 100 to 3200.6
Something worth noting is that if you switch to Night Photo mode, the available ISO range is more limited, from 100 to 800.
The way to change the ISO is to go into the shooting options. You can set an ISO Minimum and an ISO Maximum. The automatic exposure will stay within those confines, preferring the lowest ISO it can get away within that range.
If you’re trying to match another sequence of images and want to assign a specific ISO, a simple workaround is to just set both the ISO Min and ISO Max to the same number.
Manual Shutter Speed
If you go into the Protune settings for the Photo shooting mode, you can set a manual shutter speed. You’re limited to some presets. They are:
They’re all rather quick, so they’re most useful for freezing fast action or reducing the risk of camera shake.
There is a way to get much slower shutter speeds, but you actually have to shift out of the main Photo mode into the Night Photo mode. There you’ll find different shutter speed presets of:
- 2 seconds
- 5 seconds
- 10 seconds
- 15 seconds
- 20 seconds
- 30 seconds
Exposure compensation is a partial form of manual control. Rather than designating a specific setting, it lets you influence the automatic exposure. If a photo is coming out brighter than you’d like, you can apply a negative exposure compensation value to underexpose it by a stop or two. Or if a scene is coming out too dark, you can boost the exposure compensation into positive values.
The GoPro HERO9 Black has up to 2 stops over and under available. This is useful if you want to partially override the camera’s autoexposure to make the scene a little darker or lighter.
The quickest way to access this setting is to use an on-screen icon for exposure control as a kind of quick menu. (On the HERO9 Black, you can customize which shortcut icons display where on the main shooting screen on the back of the camera.)
Like every other GoPro, the HERO9 Black has a fixed-focus lens. So you can’t adjust the focus.
But the upside is that it has an extraordinarily deep focus. It’s very hard to take a photo with a GoPro that’s out of focus (motion blur is a different issue), even if the subject is right up close to the camera.
SuperPhoto & HDR
There are two photo shooting features that can help in situations that have a lot of contrast: SuperPhoto and HDR. Both of these take advantage of in-camera processing to enhance the image before it’s saved to the memory card. Neither of these is new, as such—the HERO7 Black also had them, and previous models had earlier iterations of them sometimes under different names. But they’ve since been improved and enhanced. Neither of these will work with RAW—you can only use them JPG files.
For the purposes of comparison below, here’s a photo taken with the regular Standard JPG mode.
SuperPhoto is a collection of tools rather than a single image enhancement technique. Alongside the HDR element are local tone mapping and multi-frame noise reduction. The camera analyzes the scene and decides which of the tools to use, if any. Aside from using just HDR or turning the whole thing on or off, you don’t have any other control over the tools in SuperPhoto.
Here’s an example. When you compare it to the photo above, you can see that it’s tried to bring out more detail in the water and cut through some of the reflections.
The HDR function is narrower. It specifically enhances the detail in both the highlights (lighter parts) and shadows (darker parts) of the image. While I like the concept of recovering detail from highlights and shadows, HDR is something that can look strange when not done well. The version in the HERO9 isn’t of that ugly, garish variety, and it can be quite effective.
One important consideration with using either SuperPhoto or HDR is that they’re slow. Once you click the shutter, the camera’s processor gets to work to process the image. And the HDR feature doesn’t work well with fast-moving subjects, since the way it works is to take a rapid bracketed sequence of images to pull out the best exposure from each of them and blend them into a single image. So you’ll likely be waiting for at least a few seconds before you can take the next shot. If you’re looking for quick response between shots, use the Standard mode to save JPGs and have a memory card that’s fast enough.
The HERO9 Black uses the same method of accessing the Protune options that was introduced with the HERO8 Black.
With earlier models, you had to turn on the kind of expert mode before you could access these enhanced settings. I’ve never been much of a fan of that approach. While I can see the appeal insofar as simplifying for users who don’t want the clutter, it also means that it adds unnecessary clicks, steps, and menu items to those of us who do want to access those controls.
With the newer cameras, the Protune name is still there, but the settings aren’t segregated out anymore but are more directly accessible. It’s an improvement and complements the new custom shooting presets feature nicely.
I’ve already covered a number of the main Protune options that are relevant to shooting photos with the HERO9 Black in the manual controls section above. Other things you can control include white balance, sharpness, and color mode. These have been standards on several generations of GoPro Black editions, and as usual, they only apply to JPGs and when using the Standard output setting.
Here’s a master list of the Protune options in the photo mode and how they compare to previous models.
Protune OptionHERO10 BlackHERO9 BlackHERO8 BlackHERO7 BlackHERO6 BlackHERO5 Black ColorVibrant (default) Natural FlatGoPro Color FlatGoPro Color FlatGoPro Color FlatGoPro Color FlatGoPro Color Flat White BalanceAuto 2300K 2800K 3200K 4000K 4500K 5000K 5500K 6000K 6500K NativeAuto 2300K 2800K 3200K 4000K 4500K 5000K 5500K 6000K 6500K NativeAuto 2300K 2800K 3200K 4000K 4500K 5000K 5500K 6000K 6500K NativeAuto 2300K 2800K 3200K 4000K 4500K 5000K 5500K 6000K 6500K NativeAuto 2300K 2800K 3200K 4000K 4500K 5500K 6000K 6500K NativeAuto 3000K 4000K 4800K 5500K 6000K 6500K Native ShutterAuto 1/125 1/250 1/500 1/1000 1/2000Auto 1/125 1/250 1/500 1/1000 1/2000Auto 1/125 1/250 1/500 1/1000 1/2000Auto 1/125 1/250 1/500 1/1000 1/2000Auto 1/125 1/250 1/500 1/1000 1/2000Auto 1/125 1/250 1/500 1/1000 1/2000 ISO Min3200 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1001600 800 400 200 100 ISO Max3200 (default) 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1003200 1600 800 400 200 1001600 800 400 200 100 SharpnessHigh Medium LowHigh Medium LowHigh Medium LowHigh Medium LowHigh Medium LowHigh Medium Low Exposure Compensation-2 to +2-2 to +2-2 to +2-2 to +2-2 to +2-2 to +2 * The shutter settings were added to the HERO5 Black with a firmware update in April 2017 (v.02.00).
Burst Mode, Continuous Shooting, & LiveBurst
The HERO9 Black has three ways to capture rapid sequences of images: Burst, Continuous, and Live Burst mode. The first two have been available on GoPros for several generations. LiveBurst was first introduced with the HERO8 Black.
The first is the Burst mode. It captures a predefined number of images over a predefined length of time. They’ve actually dropped back the fastest and longest sequences from the HERO8 Black to the HERO9 Black. With the HERO8, you could get up to 60 frames in 10 seconds or 30 frames in one second.
With the HERO9 Black, the longest sequence is 30 photos (in 3, 6, or 10) seconds, and the fastest is 25 photos in one second.
These are the burst rates available on the HERO9 Black:
- 30/10, 30/6, 30/3, 25/1, 10/3, 10/1, 5/1, and 3/1.
There’s also an Auto option, which is the default setting. It captures up to 25 frames in one second, but it works slightly differently in that it will capture as many images as it can while still prioritizing exposure. Put another way, in low-light conditions, you’ll probably get fewer than 25 photos in the sequence. I have a more detailed explanation and examples here.
A similar feature is Continuous Photo. Rather than capturing a predetermined number of photos, the Continuous capture feature will keep shooting while you hold down the shutter button. That is, if you press the shutter and release it right away, it will take a single photo. If you press the shutter and hold it down, it will take a sequence of continuous photos. It can shoot at either 3 or 30 photos per second, depending on the lighting conditions.
One somewhat confusing thing about using Continuous Photo is the way it reacts to different output settings. Continuous Photo only saves JPG files-you can’t use it with RAW. If you’re pressing and holding the shutter and it’s only taking a single photo, it’s most likely because you’ve got the output set to RAW, SuperPhoto, or HDR. If you change the output setting to Standard, it should fix the issue.
LiveBurst is another of the HERO9 Black’s rapid-fire photo modes. While it shoots a rapid sequence, as both Burst and Continuous Photo do, it does it a bit differently. It’s very similar to the regular burst mode, but it’s especially useful for fast action when you’re not exactly sure when it’s going to start.
That’s because LiveBurst pre-rolls the shutter to capture 1.5 seconds before and after you hit the shutter. When you press the shutter, it saves a rapid sequence of 90 still images. You can then choose which photos you want from that sequence or save it as a short video clip (a 3-second 4K video clip). (The HERO9 Black also adds a brand-new HindSight feature, that’s conceptually similar to LiveBurst but is specifically for shooting video.)
The upside is that it greatly increases the chances you’ll get the shot you want. The downside is that you’ll have to sort through large sequences of images to find it.
There are a couple of things worth knowing about shooting in LiveBurst mode. One is that it doesn’t use the full 20MP sensor. You can select between 8MP and 12MP image sizes; the default is 8MP.
Another thing worth knowing is that Protune options are not available in LiveBurst mode.
The lens on GoPros is fixed. While it’s technically possible to attach an external lens, I’ve yet to come across one that actually works well. So, for the most part, you have to work with a fixed ultra-wide focal length.
Like its three predecessors, the HERO9 Black does have a zoom. But that’s not as exciting as it might sound at first. That’s because it’s a digital zoom, not an optical zoom. In other words, it’s basically a glorified crop.
Zoomed in, the camera will still create images that are the same size, but they don’t have any more detail than you’d get by cropping a non-zoomed image.
Here’s an example shot with a HERO9 Black.
You can find more details on GoPro zoom and examples here.
You access it with a slider on the back screen. When shooting photos, the Zoom option is only available when saving JPGs. If you’re not seeing the zoom slider on the screen, it could be one of two things. The most likely is that you have the output setting set to RAW, SuperPhoto, or HDR. If so, changing it to Standard to make the zoom slider reappear on the camera’s screen.
Or there might be another culprit. On the HERO9 Black, you can customize which shortcut icons appear where on the main screen. And you can customize them for each shooting mode. Restoring them back is easy enough, but a bit beyond the scope of here. Basically, if you go into the options for that shooting mode, if you scroll down, you can find the on-screen controls. For a more detailed version, check out the GoPro HERO9 Black manual on page 33. You can also use that to move the slider to elsewhere on the back screen.
GoPros have a regular Photo mode and also a Night Photo mode. The difference comes down to shutter speeds. Regular Photo mode uses fast shutter speeds. That’s great for freezing action and in bright conditions, but it’s not good in low-light conditions. Night Photo uses much slower shutter speeds to let me light in.
The available options are:
- 2 seconds
- 5 seconds
- 10 seconds
- 15 seconds
- 20 seconds
- 30 seconds
There are some other minor differences once you switch to Night Photo. There’s a more limited ISO range available, from 100 to 800 (compared to 100 to 3200 in the regular Photo mode). And you can’t choose HDR or Superphoto as output options (you can only choose between Standard and RAW).
With those long shutter speeds, you’re obviously going to get motion blur if the camera or the subject are moving. So it’s a perfect candidate for using a tripod or other secure and still mounting point (unless you’re deliberately shooting for motion trails, of course).
In addition to a traditional self-timer, the GoPro HERO9 Black adds a new scheduling function that lets you set a time to capture a shot. It works with all preset shooting modes.
A self-timer doesn’t sound like much of a feature. Cameras have had them for decades in either mechanical or electronic form. But surprisingly, it’s something that has only been available on the past few GoPro models. And it’s especially useful in two situations: when you want to be in the shot, or when you want to fire the shutter without making the camera move (another option for that would be using the GoPro mobile app for remote control, of course).
The self-timer on the GoPro HERO9 Black has three options:
- 3 seconds
- 10 seconds
A brand-new feature with the HERO9 Black is the Schedule Capture mode. It lets you schedule a shot up to 24 hours in advance. The camera stays in a low-battery standby mode to preserve battery power and then turns on and makes the capture at the designated time. The camera stays on for as long as you’ve got set in the separate Auto Power Off setting.
What it doesn’t have yet, but would presumably be a straightforward thing for GoPro’s codes to add to future firmware, is a repeat function. That is, to take a shot at a specific time every day or after an interval of X time.
Responsiveness (or Lack of It)
One of the things I don’t like about using GoPros for still photos is that they’re sluggish. The HERO9 Black isn’t much different in that respect. It’s great at taking rapid bursts of photos in preset sequences in the Burst and continuous modes, but if you’re shooting individual photos, the shutter is very sluggish to capture the shot, and then it takes quite long to process and save the image files. You’ll notice that especially if you’re shooting with the RAW, SuperPhoto, or HDR image output, where it can take from one to a few seconds to be ready for the next shot.
The camera also takes too long to power on—much longer than most other cameras.
GoPro has made some improvements in recent models that don’t really address that aspect of sluggishness but do help make it quicker to change settings and take shots. The most important of those new features is in adding custom shooting presets. So you can create your own shortcuts for specific setting combinations you use often. These can really help speed up switching between groups of settings. Another improvement that speeds things up is being to customize the on-screen shortcut buttons.
Photos Taken with a GoPro HERO9 Black
Here are a few sample general travel-style photos I’ve shot with a HERO9 Black. I realize these aren’t the kinds of photos that you see in GoPro marketing materials, but that’s rather the point—I want to focus on how GoPros can be used for a wider range of uses than just extreme action shot and to provide something different to the marketing shots.
These were taken in RAW and have been lightly processed, in part because I find that the camera tends to underexpose a little for my tastes, so I’ve often had to nudge up the exposure and contrast slightly. I haven’t used any lens profile corrections to fix the fisheye distortion, although that’s certainly an option available.
You can click on each image to open a full-size version. And I have a larger collection of sample images taken with the HERO9 Black separately.
Things Worth Knowing
Most previous models have been compatible with one of the GoPro remotes. The HERO9 Black is not compatible with the Smart Remote-or, currently, any remote, including the REMO or older Wifi Remote. There is no option in the camera’s connection menu to connect to a remote.