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Professional-Quality POV Video: Action Cam Advances in GoPro’s HERO4 Black

It’s been a good year for GoPro. First, a segment on 60 Minutes, which has to be a first for a camera, followed by a $3 billion IPO. Contrary to much of the company’s marketing efforts, GoPro does not sell POV cameras only to adrenaline junkies capturing their adventures on skis, skateboards or bikes. I’m seeing GoPro cameras used as tiny HD cameras for reality television, webcasts (e.g., Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee) and TV news magazines. GoPro itself is pursuing new markets with its HERO4 Black/Music kit.

In the fall of 2014, GoPro released the HERO4 family, which includes HERO4 ($129), HERO4 Silver ($399.99) and HERO4 Black ($499.99). HERO4 Silver and Black are similar models, though Black alone offers 4K UHD video at 30 fps, 2.7K at 50 fps and 1080p at 120 fps. While Silver lacks Black’s higher-performance video capture modes, it offers a touchscreen for camera control.

GoPro HERO4 Black in standard housing.

On one side of the camera, under a cover that comes completely off and is likely to be lost within a few hours, are Micro HDMI and Mini USB ports, as well as a microSD card slot. Check the GoPro web site for a list of recommended cards. I purchased a SanDisk Extreme Plus 32 GB UHS-I/U3 (80 MB/s rating) microSDHC card that supports a write speed up to 50 MB/s.

My review HERO4 Black shipped with its traditional waterproof—to 131 feet—plastic case. I would prefer it if Black shipped with the standard GoPro frame ($39.99), which provides easy access to all ports and controls and enables the connection of a GoPro microphone adapter. This $19.99 adapter has a stereo female jack and supports—with the HERO4 Black—popular mics including the Shure SM57/SM58, Countryman lapel mics and Sony ECM-CS3.

When you power on a HERO4 by pressing the front button, information is displayed on an incredibly small B&W screen. I found the information too small to be readable, so I turned to the obvious solution: set up the camera using the free GoPro Android or iOS app. Alas, the app required many tries to register the camera. And only after many more tries did the camera and app finally pair.

At this point I requested the $79.99 LCD Touch BacPac from GoPro. Frankly, I can’t imagine not having a viewfinder on my camera, especially now that GoPro has enabled photos to be shot using ProTune. BacPac was a joy to use.

Grading a GoPro clip with flat color in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve.

The ProTune shooting option available on HERO4 Silver and Black offers a menu of additional options, such as white balance (auto, 3,000° K, 5,500° K, 6,500° K, native), color (GoPro or flat), video gain limit (6400, 1600, 400), photo gain limit (800, 400, 200, 100), sharpness (high, medium, low), and exposure compensation (-2 to +2, in 0.5-step increments). In ProTune mode, the HERO4 Black’s data rate is 60 Mb/s.

I recommend the following:

  • Set a specific white balance color temperature.
  • Use GoPro color.
  • Select a gain limit of 400 (which still yields a fair amount of image noise. A limit of 200 should be offered.)
  • Employ high sharpness except when fine detail (like tree leaves) is in a scene. In that case, use medium sharpness to prevent excess aliasing.
  • Set an exposure compensation of -0.5 in high-contrast situations.

The terms “native” and “flat” color are GoPro-created terminology. “Native” likely indicates that no in-camera white balance color matrix is applied to the sensor output. GoPro is more definitive about the term “flat” when they state, “Due to its log curve, flat captures more details in shadows and highlights.” (See my article about this in the March 2014 issue of Digital Video.)

If you hope to shoot 3840 x 2160 video, then the HERO4 Black’s ability to shoot UHD at 24 or 30 fps makes it an obvious choice over the Silver. Both the Silver and Black offer GoPro’s SuperView function that works with frame sizes of 4K UHD, 2.7K, 1920 x 1080 and 1280 x 720. In SuperView mode, the capture aspect ratio is 4:3. Non-proportional horizontal scaling then distributes pixels into a recorded 16:9 frame. Although it might seem SuperView is a “super wide” mode, it isn’t. It’s really a “super tall” mode. Areas near the edge of the frame are stretched horizontally more than in the middle area. Most HDTVs support a similar function to fill their 16:9 display with 4:3 content. People and objects become fatter/wider as they move toward the edge of the screen.

Flat and native video corrected in Resolve.

Black can shoot UHD only at low frame rates (24 or 30 fps). This raises an issue that is relevant to the other HERO4 formats. At low frame rates, scene motion will “stutter” unless you use a slow shutter speed: 1/48th second for 24 fps and 1/60th second for 30 fps. To prevent stutter, a videographer first sets the desired shutter speed and only then dials in the correct exposure by adjusting the aperture and, if necessary, gain (ISO). Unfortunately, GoPro’s cameras do not have these controls.

I found motion to look smoothest when I shot at 60 fps, which makes sense because NTSC video presents images (fields) at a rate of 60 per second. Therefore, you have two choices: establish 60 fps as your minimum frame rate (although for “fast motion” you can shoot at 30 fps) or shoot 24 fps/30 fps by following these cinematographer-inspired rules:

1. Select only Wide (or SuperView) to keep the “motion vector” of a subject moving through the frame at a minimum.

2. Always use a stable mount such as a tripod—which also dramatically decreases rolling shutter artifacts.

3. Pan across a scene very slowly.

4. Strive to keep moving objects out of shots.

5. When a subject is moving in a scene, always pan with the subject.

The Black’s 1920 x 1080 mode supports the same 120 fps maximum frame rate as the 1280 x 720 mode, so there is no advantage to shooting with less resolution. For slow motion shots, choose 90 fps or 120 fps in Wide or Narrow modes.

Selecting different FOV settings on a GoPro camera is much like choosing different focal length lenses for a DSLR. However, as the table below shows, the selection of FOV options is determined by your frame rate setting.

The HERO4 Black performed well in my testing. As long as there is adequate light and you want a very wide FOV, a GoPro camera is a smart multipurpose choice. Although GoPro has competition, their brand name almost assures continued success.  

Product:GoPro HERO4 Black


Pros: Incredibly small and lightweight. Large collection of camera accessories support a huge range of activities.

Cons: Needs lots of light to avoid video noise. Problematic Wi-Fi connection to GoPro smartphone app.

Bottom Line: Perfect for those applications for which GoPro has gained fame and built a worldwide brand.

MSRP: $499.99