I bought my GoPro Hero3 Black Edition from Best Buy along with chest and head straps for the sole purpose of doing first-person action scenes. The FPS movie (“found footage”) genre is one of my favorites, and I think it’s criminally underused, especially in the action cross-genre, so my hopes have been to create solid action content for the FPS and found footage fans out there with our special brand. With it we shot a Star Wars fan video that went viral, a videogame-like weapon fight in the vein of Super Spy, and a Redneck’s guide to fighting a zombie without a weapon. As an action filmmaker who’s used the GoPro for almost two months non-stop, here’s what I’ve got to share.
The GoPro is dainty and can fit in your pocket along with the head strap and some extra batteries, so in terms of picking it up and going it’s a hell of a piece of equipment. The on-board buttons are tough to push, and pushing them might move your GoPro from whatever position it’s in. Often we found it easier for someone other than the wearer to push the buttons. The remote control, included with the Black version, solves this problem, though you’ll then have to deal with the Wi-Fi issue (below). As with any equipment that prides itself on being compact and easy to pick up and shoot, the side effect is that it’s a pain to change batteries and eject the memory card. Small and compact, but a pain to swap out accessories.
The Hero3 Black has a wide range of resolutions and frame rates, from standard definition widescreen at 240 frames per second, to 4k @ 12fps. My favorite resolutions have been the SD 240fps for doing super slomo, 1440×1920 24fps for HD (giving you 360 pixels of vertical buffer) and 2.7k cine just to show off. 4K caps at 12fps, so from an action perspective it’s pointless using this resolution. Hero3 Silver does SD @ 120fps, so if you want the best in terms of slomo, get the Black, though the amount of noise in the slomo mucks up the footage to the point where it’s best used as a novelty. Otherwise the Silver will suffice, though you’ll lose out on the 1440 resolution option.
The lens is super wide, around 170 degrees, with the option to narrow significantly to something resembling a 45mm lens. So keep your crew completely behind the camera when filming because it sees everything. Since it’s so wide, your action will look comically fast, so whoever’s moving toward the lens needs to move at about 75% speed. The person behind the lens will have to move at normal speed.
Low light capability is very good, almost as bright as night vision, without the annoying green glow. Shutter speed gets blurry automatically with low light, since manual image controls are largely nonexistent, and the video compression gets pretty crazy when you’ve got any haze or UV light sources. Lots of shooting modes and great low light, but mid-grade compression in low light that won’t please videphiles. Action filmmakers probably won’t mind.
The sound is better than you’d expect from a tiny mic located on the side of the GoPro. Surprisingly good, but get an external mic for dialog. The main issue is the sound is usually out of sync with the video. A quick slide in your video editor can fix this.
Monitoring and Reviewing
The primary issue using the GoPro is figuring out how to monitor what you’re shooting. The GoPro transmits video and audio over its own Wi-Fi network to an Android, iPhone, or iPad using the GoPro app, which can then monitor what’s being shot. There’s a delay of about 2-4 seconds, but the app is invaluable. You absolutely MUST use it.
I tend to monitor with an iPad 2. My experience has been that the Wi-Fi signal is very weak, and it’ll often just cut out for no apparent reason. If you reset the camera, switch into review mode, or do anything besides just leaving the GoPro in camera mode, you risk losing your monitoring capability for who-knows-how-long. You’ll need to restart the GoPro AND its Wi-Fi (two entirely different functions), then reconnect to the Wi-Fi using your monitoring device, restart the program, and by then you’ve wasted five minutes. In an eight-hour span of time, we ran into this issue no fewer than ten times, so for a delay that happens more than once an hour, the GoPro just becomes annoying. By the end of the day we’re wondering why we didn’t just duct tape DSLRs onto our foreheads. (Okay that’s harsh, but those are raw thoughts for you.) I’ve used the Android app, but not extensively enough to determine if it’s more stable than using an iPad.
The other major issue with the monitoring software is that it has no option to review footage that you’ve already shot. To do that you need the LCD backpack (below), or you’ll need to connect the cam to a computer to review what’s on the SD card. Having to remove the GoPro from someone’s head or chest just to review footage makes it yet another annoying hangup in the production.
Heads up – the GoPro glitches pretty regularly. The LCD backpack seems to add more reasons for the GoPro to crash, perhaps due to its added heat. Usually we have to pull the battery, open the box and lay all the tiny pieces about. After a firmware update, crashes are less common, but still happen at about 20% of the original crash rate. Random Wi-Fi disconnection happens at almost the same frequency.
I’ve had a few frames glitch due to fast movement, but if you can get away with cutting those frames it’s nothing too problematic. So far, no ruined shots.
- LCD Touchscreen Backpack – You’ll want to fork over eighty bucks for the tiny LCD screen to watch what you’re shooting live and review footage. The LCD for the Hero3 is a touchscreen, but the edges rarely register and I find myself just using the camera buttons to navigate it. If you’re hanging the GoPro in front of your face your nose will probably inadvertently push a button too. The LCD also seemed to display a lower quality image than the iPad did, giving us an inaccurate display of our footage. It’s best used for framing purposes. Get the footage onto a computer to see how it actually looks.
- Extra Batteries – Battery life is around 2 hours (with the LCD), but charging time is nearly double that, so your workflow will suffer if you don’t have enough batteries to power through the day. The Wasabi battery pack is a good deal at $25 for 2 batteries and a charger. Get three of em if you plan on doing long days with the GoPro.
- Head Strap – If you’re doing a fight scene, this is the strap to use. You can adjust for different head positions so it always captures the moves. Fast head movements might knock it off your head so get a chin strap and secure it that way. The screws don’t hold the GoPro as tightly as I’d like, so you’ll have to constantly readjust them.
- Chest Strap – Not as useful as the head strap because any body movement will move the GoPro, but better for acrobatics.
I like my GoPro. It’s a unique way to make action (or genre) films, and the end result always seems to entertain. Glitches and annoyances aside, you can sidestep all this by just getting two of everything. I have two GoPros now, which came in handy when the Wi-Fi for one of them randomly cut out and wouldn’t come back, so we just swapped everything over to the second GoPro and made it through the day.
I give this thing a B+ until they fix the heating issue and release one that’s got a better wireless transmission mechanism. Bluetooth maybe?