GoPro Hero 5 Black: First Impressions

I really love point of view (POV) cameras. As an adventurer, there are many times when a lugging around and shooting with big DSLR camera isn’t practical but I still want to be able to share my experience with others. Small, wearable action cameras make shooting on the go much easier and allow you to focus on your adventure and capture images at the same time.

GoPro has been a leader in consumer priced wearable action POV cameras since they became a thing. I was so psyched with the concept that I bought an early generation GoPro back when they first hit the market, but I ended up rarely using it. The first GoPro cameras were not user friendly – switching settings on the camera was not intuitive at all – and the image quality left much to be desired. With each new model GoPro made changes to the camera menus, settings, and operating systems as well as improvements in performance, and they started to become more popular with professional and amateur athletes, photographers, and filmmakers but I still refused to upgrade.

For a GoPro to be useful to me as a professional shooter, I really wanted the ability to shoot RAW photos not just JPEGs. Enter the GoPro Hero 5 Black with RAW still photo capability. Recently introduced, this camera finally had everything I wanted in a wearable POV model – ease of use, small size and low profile, a variety of mounting options, waterproof, and RAW shooting capabilities. I’ve now owned one for about 24 hours and can say this camera is truly night and day from my first GoPro. I can easily see this becoming an essential part of my regular kit as a photographer and everyday excursions as an outdoors enthusiast.

Here are my first impressions:

Image Quality – So much better. The GoPro Hero 5 Black handles high contrast and backlit scenarios much better than my first GoPro, as one would expect. Details are sharp, colors are accurate, and both shadows and highlights are nicely rendered. The camera does a good job of balancing details in light and dark areas while still producing an image with natural appearing contrast and saturation.

RAW Files – The Hero 5 Black produces JPEG files with sidecar .GPR files. Originally I thought the Raw files would be .DNG (Adobe Digital Negative) but it turns out the .GPR files are an extension of the .DNG format. You’ll need the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom to open and process these files – I had to upgrade from Lightroom 4 to Creative Cloud – or you can download GoPro Studio for free. Viewed in Lightroom, the .GPR files are ok. Compared to the native jpegs from the camera, the .GPR files are more saturated and have funky color vignetting caused the exagerated wide angle perspective of the lens – the edges of the frame are not only darker, but bluer in color. This was very evident in the photos I took of white snow – the jpegs did a better job of representing the snow as an even white color across the entire frame. Colors of the jpeg also appeared more neutral and natural – flesh tones and the magenta fleece I was wearing appeared a little greener compared to the RAW file. After tweaking sharpness and noise/masking levels in Lightroom, it was possible to get more fine detail in the RAW file. One nice thing is that the GoPro creates both a full size jpeg file and .GPR file when writing images to the memory card, so you have access to both. The jpegs straight from the camera are honestly quite good, but it’s nice to have access to a file with greater editing latitude. It is also important to note that RAW files are NOT created when the camera is in burst mode – something I didn’t realize until after my test run yesterday – and there are a few other scenarios where GoPro RAW doesn’t work, explained on GoPro’s website. Overall, I think the RAW files are slightly disappointing when viewed with the default settings in Lightroom, but things like color rendering and light falloff should be easy to fix in future software updates and better profile settings from Adobe. For the company’s first foray into RAW the quality is acceptable, and the fact that you get high quality jpeg images alongside the RAW files is a big plus. You can definitely take good images with this camera!

Menu Navigation and Settings – The Hero 5 is easy to use, something you could not say about GoPro’s first POV cameras. When you first start up the camera, there is a tour that explains how to do most things, and nearly everything on the camera is controled by two buttons and an LCD touch screen. Changing from photo to video mode is easy and adjusting important features like resolution and frame rate is simple and intuitive. The menus are well organized and make sense and give access to the most important things without being cluttered and confusing. The LCD provides a very clear image and appears to be high quality. The touch screen is responsive.

Voice Control – This feature is AWESOME. I haven’t exactly nailed the commands yet – I tended to make them overly complicated and said things like “GoPro Capture Still Photo” which is not a recognized command whereas “GoPro Take a Photo” is. Even so, it worked most of the time, and it’s possible that nearly all the times it didn’t were because of user error. The ability to take completely hands free photos is a game changer, especially when paired with a number of GoPro’s wearable mounts. I can think of so many scenarios where this is helpful – when paddling a kayak or helping your kid pizza down a ski slope. If you set beeps to on, you can tell if the GoPro heard you even if you aren’t looking at it thanks to audible cues.

Smartphone Apps – I downloaded all of the apps GoPro makes to my iPhone, but so far have only tested the Capture app. Setting it up with my camera was pretty easy. I synced the two via Wifi. The camera is also supposed to sync via BlueTooth but every time I connected to the camera I had to use the Wifi connection, which mean I could not connect to both my camera and internet at the same time – I’ll have to play around with it more to see if that can be fixed. When I was connected, it was easy to see the camera’s view on my phone, and I could also go through and look at all of the media I took and download photos or videos directly to my phone. This made sharing snapshots on social media a breeze – once I switched my Wifi connection back to the internet. I didn’t try using the app to shoot and control the camera out in the field because my iPhone’s battery life drains quickly in cold temperatures, so I only used the app briefly when I returned home to share a snap to Instagram.

Birthday play day! #goprohero5

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Battery Life and Performance – My camera shipped with a battery about 15% full, which died pretty quickly upon me fiddling around with it, but I was very excited and probably fiddling a lot! It comes with a USB charging cord and you have to charge the battery in camera (unless you get a supplementary charging port from GoPro). The media I read said it would take 2 hours to charge plugged into a wall and 4 hours plugged into a computer – I plugged mine into a wall and had a full charge within 1 1/2 hours. After about an hour of use, worn on a chest mount in temperatures right around freezing with the GPS on the entire time, I had about 55% of my battery life left. I wasn’t recording the entire time but did take a fair number of stills, bursts, and some video. Because so many factors affect battery life, including environmental factors, recording mode, and other things it’s impossible to say how long the battery will last in “normal” conditions. To better understand the many factors that affect battery performance and anticipated battery length in different recording scenarios, check out GoPro’s website.

I’ve only taken the camera out on one trip, a hike through the snow covered woods with my dog, and tried a limited number of settings during that time, but so far I really am enjoying the new GoPro. I look forward to using it more and can definitely see it becoming my “have everywhere” camera. It makes a great portable pockable point-and-shoot to complement my iPhone, and the fact that it shoots RAW will give me added opportunities to shoot professional quality work with a tiny, easy to use camera that I can have on me at all times.

Finally a GoPro that shoots RAW!

The GoPro 5 was just announced today (along with a GoPro drone that looks pretty sweet) and I’m so psyched about it! I own a first generation GoPro which I use very infrequently – it leaves much to be desired. Even though newer models are more user friendly and have better image quality, I held off buying an upgrade because I wanted the capability to shoot RAW stills. Now, finally five generations later, we have it!

RAW is an awesome tool. RAW files give you increased flexibility when it comes to processing images, and details such as highlights and shadows are much more easily recovered from RAW files than jpegs. You also have more latitude when it comes to exposure, sharpness, and color. With the GoPro, this is incredibly important because the wide shooting angle and field of view almost always guarantee a lot of sky and non-sky in your shot, which generally means a scene with a lot of dynamic range – bright highlights and dark shadows are super common. Wider angle shots are typically more challenging to expose for as well. GoPros are awesome because they have advantages big DSLRs don’t – they are small, portable, wearable, and can go underwater. Adding RAW suddenly makes the GoPro 5 a usable professional camera, all for just $399. I’m psyched!

Today GoPro also introduced a super cool Karma drone that comes with a game changing stabilizing grip, as well as an upgraded GoPro Session 5. File the drone and grip into “products I didn’t even know I needed” category of stuff. Of course now I want them. On the plus side you save $100 when you buy the Karma drone (grip included) and GoPro 5 together for $1099.

Now, I just need to find an extra thousand dollars of spending money between dog, car, and house bills and updating my website. Ugh! Maybe everyone I know can chip in and get me one for my birthday and Christmas.

Check out the new GoPro 5 family of products and Karma on GoPro’s website.

It’s Loon Season!

By now you’ve probably figured out that I LOVE loons. They are seriously cool birds and make very interesting subjects to photograph. Yesterday, I headed out to one of my favorite ponds to see if the nesting pair I had photographed a couple of years ago had returned. Sure enough, they were there and had a little baby in tow!

This pond is less than 20 minutes from my house now that I’ve moved, which means that sunrise shoots are super manageable, even during the summer, when days in New England are quite long. I woke up at 4am in time to photograph yesterday’s sunrise and then spend a couple of hours with the loons before the light got too harsh.

Here are a few quickly processed shots from yesterday. I haven’t even put them live on the website yet, and still have to edit a bunch of images, but I’m pretty happy with my first real photo shoot of 2014.

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I also created this quick video with some GoPro footage (from my ancient first generation GoPro) to show you what it’s like to spend a morning on the pond. As you’ll see I use both my iPhone and 5D Mark II to capture images. I love having the ability to instantly share photographs from the field using the iPhone, but the DSLR beats it hands down when it comes to quality.

Behind the Scenes of The Power of Place

Jerry Monkman and I have been logging a lot of hours of filming for The Power of Place over the past few months. We are working on a documentary about the Northern Pass transmission line project, a proposed high voltage power line that would cut through 180 miles of New Hampshire, impacting some of the state’s most iconic landscapes, including the White Mountain National Forest and Appalachian Trail. So far we have interviewed more than a dozen people and visited and filmed areas all along the proposed route. The process has involved many long days, thousands of miles on each of our cars, terabytes of disk space, and hundreds of emails back and forth, but we are accumulating a ton of good material and both of us feel like this documentary is going to actually turn into something that just might catch people’s attention.

Most days after filming I am too tired or too busy to blog about it (although I do tend to post iPhone photos I shoot while out in the field to my Facebook page or to Instagram and Twitter), but I feel really guilty not talking about this project more because 1) working on it has been awesome and 2) not enough people, particularly New Hampshire residents, are well informed about this important issue.

Last night, Jerry and I spent the night atop a mountain under the stars to shoot sunset, sunrise, and the night sky in between. We’ve done this a couple times before by now, and I’d like to say it’s getting easier, but I’m not sure that it is. Even if so, it’s still hard! We rarely get much sleep (believe it or not, it is COLD in August in New Hampshire on a bald mountain summit overnight), and we are always lugging a ridiculous amount of hardware up and down steep rocky trails characteristic of New Hampshire. Regardless of how tough the journey might be, it’s always a pretty awesome experience, and we are getting some great footage thanks to our efforts, so it’s been 100% worth it every time.

Here is a small glimpse of what we’ve been up to. Jerry and I are both trying not to publish too much material that might make it into the film, but I’ve been taking pictures with my iPhone and even turned on my GoPro yesterday to capture some “behind the scenes” footage of the documentary process. Enjoy these snapshots and be sure to check out The Power of Place page on Jerry’s website to learn more about the project.

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Should you worry that our documentary is going to contain imagery of similar quality to the shots above, taken with a first generation GoPro, fear not! Despite my snap happy ways I still know how to use a high resolution DSLR and capture images that more accurately reflect how awesome the state of New Hampshire is. Here are a couple sneak peaks of the beauty we experienced last night. These are straight from Lightroom, so the sharpening and fine detail aren’t quite up to my usual standards in these web versions, but I can assure you the RAW files look pretty sweet!

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Jerry and I are hoping to wrap up the majority of our filming within the next month as hints of autumn are already appearing in the north country and even the swamp maples are starting to turn at lower elevations and latitudes. That means there is a lot to do between now and the end of September, so I probably better get some sleep!