GoPro. Action cam. For many, the terms are synonymous. It goes to show you just how much success the the company has had in the point-of-view camera market. Its top-end model, the Hero4 Black ($499.99), is priced at a premium, but it’s also the most capable camera the company makes. The go-anywhere device (a waterproof case is included) can roll 4K footage at a smooth 30fps capture rate, and supports HD footage at higher rates—perfect for slow-motion fans. It’s expensive, but it’s our Editors’ Choice pick for action cams, ousting the lesser-priced Hero4 Silver ($379.00 at Amazon) from its perch.
DesignGoPro didn’t change anything, design-wise, with the Hero4 Black ($385.00 at Amazon) —it’s physically identical to the Hero3+ ($109.00 at Adorama) and similar cameras. When removed from its case it’s a tiny rectangle (1.6 by 2.3 by 1.2 inches, HWD) that weighs just 3.1 ounces, and 5.4 ounces when nestled inside the case (which increases the size to 2.6 by 2.6 by 1.4 inches). It’s not waterproof on its own, but when paired with the case and the solid rear door it can go as deep as 131 feet.
The color scheme remains the same as well, mostly black and fronted by a silver façade. There are three buttons on the camera—one on top, one on the front, and one on the right side—and a fixed prime lens that covers an ultra-wide field of view. When you look at the back you don’t see an LCD; you’ll need to add the LCD Touch BacPac ($79.99) if you want to see what your GoPro is shooting on the device itself.
But a more sensible choice is to simply use your smartphone. The Hero4 has built-in Wi-Fi, and there’s a free app for iOS and Android that lets you view the camera feed and adjust controls via your phone. You’ll always see a preview of your frame before you start recording, and in certain modes (including 4K) the video streams to your phone as it records—but others, especially high frame rate capture modes, black out during recording. Firmware updates can also be performed via the app, a process I found to be painless.
Pairing with your phone is also pretty easy. You just need to enter a short six-digit number to pair, and Bluetooth remains on even when the camera is off, so your phone won’t lose sight of it. You can even turn the camera on using the app (as long as it’s in standby mode with Wi-Fi enabled), a plus for remote control operation.
The small monochrome LCD on the front shows the various menus. It’s a little clunky to use, since the camera has only three buttons; I found myself mixing up which button advanced through settings and which changed them, and the LCD isn’t backlit, making it almost impossible to read when not under direct light.
But you can also adjust every camera setting via the Wi-Fi app. The camera has a lot of options available as far as video formats go, and you can also go beyond purely automatic operation when shooting in ProTune mode. Adjusting exposure compensation, the metering pattern, white balance, and the like is intuitive and quick via the app, but fairly tedious and frustrating when using the camera controls.
The Hero4 ships with two adhesive mounts—one flat and one curved—a low-profile mounting foot, a tall mounting foot, and a swivel arm attachment. The case includes the waterproof rear door as well as an open one. If audio is important, use the open rear door when filming at speeds less than 100mph. But don’t expect great sound, especially when doing extreme things with the GoPro mounted to your person or vehicle. You’ll need to buy an adapter ($19.99) if you want to use an external mic.
One of the reasons to choose a GoPro as your action cam is the sheer number of mounts and accessories available. The company markets plenty of its own accessories, and third-party manufacturers like PolarPro fill in the gaps with product lines that includes unique mounts and filters that serious videographers demand. One downside is that the camera itself doesn’t include a standard tripod mount—you’ll need to buy an accessory to add one.
The Hero4 Black isn’t going to win any endurance tests when it comes to battery life. GoPro states that you can expect to get about 65 minutes of 4K recording with Wi-Fi disabled. I actually found it to be a bit better, about 70 minutes, so at least that’s a plus. The GoPro Hero+ ($249.99 at Amazon) tops out at 1080p, but can roll footage for two hours before recharging.
But the Hero+ doesn’t include a removable battery, so when it runs out of power you need to spend time recharging it. With the Hero4 Black you can carry as many spare batteries as you need to extend recording time and swap them in the field. You can also stretch battery life by shooting at a lesser resolution, but even when rolling at 720p 120fps you’ll get a little less than two hours—and you’re probably not paying a premium for a 4K camera to shoot at 720p, especially when 120fps is also available at 1080p.
Resolution and Frame Rate OptionsAs you can gather, there are a number of resolution and frame rate options available with the Hero4 Black. You can shoot 4K footage at 30, 25, or 24fps. The 60fps rate preferred by some action shooters isn’t available, but that’s not surprising—I can’t think of any consumer cameras that support 4K at 60fps. Shooting at 30fps or 25fps matches NTSC and PAL broadcast frame rates, respectively, and 24fps is still used for projection in theaters.
There are two field of view options available for 4K: Ultra Wide and SuperView. The traditional Ultra Wide setting uses the width of the image sensor at a 16:9 ratio,. SuperView captures more information at the top and bottom of the frame by utilizing the entirety of the 4:3 image sensor, then compresses the footage into a 16:9 frame for playback on HDTVs and widescreen computer monitors.
Dropping down to 2.7K (1520p) boosts the top frame rate to 60fps, with 50, 48, 30, 25, and 24fps also supported. Shooting at 2.7K delivers footage that’s better than traditional 1080p, but doesn’t require as much computing horsepower to edit. It’s a pretty good compromise if you want to shoot at 60fps. There’s an in-camera crop mode available—GoPro calls it a Medium field of view—when shooting in 2.7K. Of course, Ultra Wide is available as well.
SuperView is also available at 2.7K, in 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios. You can roll footage at 30fps or 25fps only in this mode. All SuperView modes use the entire sensor, so the field of view is always Ultra Wide.
Next down the quality run is 1440p, which is available in Ultra Wide only at 80, 60, 50, 48, 30, 25, or 24fps. Unless you’re taking advantage of the 80fps mode, it’s probably best just to skip this one.
Traditional HD, 1080p, is available at 120, 90, 60, 50, 48, 30, 25, and 24fps, with Ultra Wide, Medium, and Narrow field of view options. Shooting at 120fps is a boon to slow-motion fans—you’ll be able to slow footage down to one-quarter speed while maintaining smooth motion. And SuperView is also available at 1080p at 80, 60, 50, 48, 30, 25, or 24fps.
Another in-between resolution, 960p, is available at 120, 60, or 50fps, but only with an Ultra Wide perspective. Again, it’s a fine option, but you’ll be better off shooting at 1080p. The original HD resolution, 720p, can be shot at 240, 120, 60, 50, 30, or 25fps with Ultra Wide, Medium, or Narrow field of view options. Again, slow motion shooters are going to be fans of the 240fps option, but it’s only available in Narrow mode.
Finally there’s 720p SuperView—120, 60, or 50fps—and good old-fashioned 480p standard definition, which is available 240fps only, but with the full Ultra Wide field of view that you won’t get at 720p240.
Video Quality and SoftwareYou have a lot of options in terms of resolution and frame rate when shooting with the Hero4 Black, but how does the footage look? First off, be prepared to see a lot of what’s in front of the lens when shooting in Ultra Wide mode—the diagonal field of view is 170 degrees (similar to a wide fish-eye lens on a full-frame camera). There’s significant barrel distortion (you can remove this using the GoPro editing software, at the cost of some frame coverage). The Medium field of view, 127 degrees, is still in the ultra-wide territory when talking about SLR lenses, and the narrow field of view, 90 degrees, is similar to a 21mm lens on a full-frame system—still very wide angle.
To get the most quality out of the camera you’ll want to set it to ProTune mode—even if you leave everything set to automatic, ProTune records footage at a higher bit rate when shooting in some modes. It will reduce the amount of recording time you get on your memory card, however.
In addition to control over ISO, exposure, and metering, ProTune gives you a couple of different color settings. There’s a flat Log profile that you can shoot in when you’re planning on performing color correction during editing—it gives you the most latitude to adjust contrast, exposure, and the like. If you simply want to cut footage together without worrying about color correction, leave the default GoPro Color setting enabled.
The 4K footage is exceptionally crisp—each frame is 8 megapixels—with strong detail up to the edges. Video shot at lower resolution doesn’t have quite the same pop, but that’s simply based on its resolution. Action shooters may feel a little limited by the 30fps capture rate—many prefer 60fps for the way that it appears to make motion appear faster and hyperrealistic—and it can be slowed down to half-speed while still maintaining acceptably smooth motion.
Aside from that, video quality is resolution-dependent. I did notice that the 720p240 footage was a little soft when compared with other options, but the 480p240 video was quite crisp when you take its limited resolution into account.
Still images are captured in JPG format at 12-megapixel resolution. They’re on par with the image quality of the 4K video—the still is basically a video frame with a bit more room above and below, matching the 4:3 sensor aspect ratio. They’re fine for quick snapshots, but this is primarily a video camera. There is a time lapse mode built-in. You can set the GoPro to take images at set intervals and they’ll be combined into a time lapse video at up to 4K resolution.
I found low-light footage to be grainy, but still very useable. A drone flight at dusk captured the twilight well, and when I was shooting a scene with decidedly mixed lighting—pointing the camera into the setting sun with the land below in shadow—I had no problems balancing the exposure properly with an automatic color adjustment in Adobe Premiere Pro CC. And that was while shooting with GoPro Color enabled, not the flat Log profile.
There’s no image stabilization, but the ultra-wide field of view certainly helps to minimize camera shake during normal use. If you’re mounting the camera to a helmet, for example, footage is as good as if you had it on a tripod—just one that you could move easily. But when mounted to an ATV, the shaking of the body caused by the engine shows true in the video above. Image stabilization could help make handheld footage just a little bit smoother, but it won’t do much for the violent shakes and stutters.
If you don’t already have video editing software that you like to use—I cut together the videos embedded in this review using Adobe Premiere Pro CC—you can use the GoPro Studio software, a free download for Mac and Windows systems. Despite being a pretty basic editor, it does support 4K footage, a feature that’s often absent from entry-level software. If you don’t have a lot of experience cutting video it’s a good starting point. You can mark in and out points in clips for use in the final video, remove barrel distortion, add Instagram-style filters, and adjust video playback speed (perfect for slowing down footage shot at a high frame rate). There are also templates available, complete with music tracks, if you need some help compiling clips.
ConclusionsThe Hero4 Black is the best camera that GoPro makes, and the best action cam that we’ve tested—and it’s priced accordingly. It maintains the small, go-anywhere design that make GoPros the favorite of adventurers and indie filmmakers alike, while adding 4K video capture that’s smooth at 30fps and trounces 1080p video in terms of resolution. And GoPro is a popular brand, so mounts and accessories are plentiful. The Hero4 Black isn’t perfect—battery life is certainly a concern, so you’ll likely want to keep a few spare batteries ready and charged for extended use—and I wish that a standard tripod mount was included. But despite these drawbacks, the 4K video quality wins out here, and makes the Hero4 Black our Editors’ Choice for action cams. If $500 is too rich for your blood, consider the Hero4 Silver as an alternative—it shoots in 4K, but only at a choppy 15fps—for $100 less, or the $200 Hero+ if you’re on a tight budget.