Points in Focus Photography

GoPro Hero5 Black – First Impressions

Driving around the American Southwest, I lamented the fact that I didn’t have a camera in the car that could capture what we were seeing as we drove. This was especially the case since I usually couldn’t stop and take pictures of things regularly either. Many an epic road (like Utah 9/The Zion–Mt. Carmel Highway into Zion National Park) was recorded at best from a handheld VDSLR or mirror less camera, often resulting in increasingly shaky video as arms got tired.

I could say much the same about my Alaska cruise in 2015; lots of interesting views when sailing, but nothing to effectively capture them with.

Going back to Alaska again, I wanted to do it with a camera I could “set and forget” to record what and where we were going without having either the limitations of or having to multi-task my still camera. When GoPro announced a reasonable instant rebate program at the start of summer—$50 off if I remember correctly—I decided it was time to pick one up.

At the time of the writing of this, I’ve only had the Hero5 for a a couple of weeks now. So this is not in any way a comprehensive review. Instead I wanted to write up my first impressions, in part perhaps so that I when I have more time with it I can come back and see if any of them have changed.

Why an “Action Camera”?

I guess the place to start is by asking and attempting to answer the simple question, why buy an action camera in the first place? Why not something else, like a small camcorder?

Admittedly there are a lot of options when it comes to recording video. Virtually all DSLRs and mirror less cameras now can record video to some degree. However, most manufacturers impose a sub-30 minute time limit on their camera’s recordings[1]. The only exception I know of to this limitation is Panasonic, who only imposes a 30 minute limitation on EU sold cameras, and allows the rest of the world to record until the card’s space runs out.

Even in the situation I described earlier, driving around interesting places, having a big DLSR, or really even a moderately sized MILC stuck in the window area blocking my view isn’t all that attractive to me either. Moreover, mounting one on the outside of the car to keep reflections and bugs on the windscreen from showing up in the video isn’t all that attractive either.

On the other hand, a GoPro is small, even though the Hero series aren’t the smallest cameras GoPro makes, they are considerably smaller than even a small MILC and a lens.

Being small has a number of nice features for me. For starters, I can readily mount a GoPro in places I can’t readily mount one of my DSLRs. Moreover, in many places, like mounted in a window or behind a car windshield, it doesn’t block much of your field of view.

Moreover, it’s small enough that it can be easily and readily attached to the outside of a car with a single suction cup mount and lightweight grip gear.

And that’s before you get into things like strapping the GoPro to your head, or big SLR to shoot video of something while you’re experiencing it or shooting stills. Or taking or sticking the GoPro under water.

Since I already have big cameras that can shoot video, another big camera, even one that’s compact camcorder sized, wasn’t nearly as desirable as something small that I can put in new places.

GoPro or the Competition

Admittedly, I didn’t really put much effort into looking into this. I knew form the outset that I wasn’t at all interested in any of the $50-80 Chinese GoPro clones. I know a lot of people swear by them, but that was a direction I simply wasn’t interested in going.

That said, there are now quite a few options in the market that aren’t GoPros in the same performance class and price range. Nikon now has their Key Mission action cameras. Sony make a line as well. Even Garmin has gotten in on the act and makes their own line of subtly GoPro styled action cameras.

The trouble, well, is that when push comes to shove which ones will be best really comes down to details and what you find to be more important.

For example, Garmin’s VIBR Ultra 30 can shoot 300 FPS in 480p, while the Hero5 can’t. On the other hand, the Hero5 is waterproof to 10 m / 33 ft. without a housing while the VIBR is only weather proof.

There’s also options from Sony and Nikon, both of which again, win or lose on specifics details, but nothing is clearly better across the board.

I’m usually loathe to admit something like this, but in a very real way I kind of just went with GoPro because it’s what I’ve heard of the most, and not because of some over reaching technical performance metric. The truth is, while I’m more than willing to put a ton of research into some critical part of my kit, and agonize over every detail, this really isn’t that critical to me.

The GoPro Hero5 is $399, the Garmin VIBR Ultra 30 is $399, Nikon’s Key Mission 170° is $399, and Sony’s FDR-X300 is $399.

That said, the Sony’s were out of the running just due to the deign and the need for an external monitor to use it (plus it’s a $550 kit for all of that). That left the Garmin, Nikon, and GoPro; of which at the time I bought it, there was a $50 rebate on the GoPro, and not on the others, so that’s what I bought.

In retrospect, after having looked at things more closely, I’m confident that the GoPro was probably the best choice for me.

The Garmin’s requirement for a housing to be waterproof to any depth is a little of an off-putting for me. I don’t need water proof operation to a tremendous depth, but I don’t want to have to put a housing on just to stick a camera in a river, my pool, or somewhere else shallow.

Nikon’s Key Mission 170, while very similar in feature sets to the Hero5, lacks the ability to adjust the field of view for the recording — at least as far as I can tell from reading the manual — which kind of kills that for me as I envision a lot of times where I’ll want to be shooting linear or medium instead of wide.

And as I said, the Sony’s lack of a built in display for monitoring and composing was pretty much a deal breaker for me straight away.

The Hero5 Black

I want to reiterate again, this isn’t a review but first impressions. As far as the Hero5 Black itself goes, I’m not at all disappointed with it at all.

Sure, I have gripes, and that’s mostly what I’ll be focusing on here. But a large part of that is most of my gripes are easy to touch on, while a quantitative or more in depth review of the good points (image quality, etc.) takes more time and experience than I currently have with the camera.

My first impression, taking it out of the box, is that it’s smaller than I expected it to be. I knew it small, but for some reason it still surprised me for some reason.

The two physical controls are, in so far as operating the camera goes, completely reasonable and adequate to me. Again, it’s an action camera not a cinema camera. Even in my uses, the premise is still start it rolling and forget about it, or at least not fuss with it.

GoPro has certainly embraced the concept of being able to get the camera rolling quickly too. Pressing the shutter button when the camera is off will power it up and automatically start recording video with the last video settings you used. Holding the shutter release for 3 seconds while the camera is off will kick off a time-lapse photos, again using the last settings you last used for time-lapse photos.

There’s also voice operation, where you can simply say, “GoPro, start recording” and it will start recording video. I’m not sure how useful this is going to be for me, but it’s cool to have it there if I want or need it.

That said, one of my broader frustrations with GoPro, the company more so than the product itself, is that there’s a pervasive lack of technical information in GoPro’s presentation of the Hero5 Black on their site. Unlike every other action camera manufacturer, they don’t provide a spec page or detailed specs when you’re looking at the camera on their site. For that matter, they don’t make certain aspects of the camera easily discoverable at all, either on their site or in the manual. Instead you have to go to their support page, and search for basic information like battery life, card capacities/recording times, and angle of view information.

I assume GoPro has some reasoning for doing it this way, but I’m at a loss as to what it might be. The simple reality is that you shouldn’t have to dig trough support sites for information that every other camera maker puts in their tech specs and especially in their product’s manuals. Moreover, it’s not like disclosing this paints their camera as inferior to the competition. In fact, in some cases the GoPro’s performance is better than its competitors.

Battery Life and Charging

Kicking off the obscured information train we have battery life. At a minimum, I’d expect to find this info in the back of the manual, but it’s not there at all. No where in either the manual or on the product page does GoPro provide an estimated battery life for the Hero5 Black. To find this information, like most things of any detail, you have to search through their support site for the specific camera model you own.

I’ve reproduced GoPro’s battery life estimate table below (source).

GoPro Hero5 Black Estimated Battery Life
Mode Video Only Video + GPS + Stabilization Video + stabilization + GPS + Wi-Fi
4K/30 W 1h 30m n/a 1h 20m (stabilization off)
2.7K/30 W 1h 49m 1h 40m 1h 30m
1080p/60 W 2h 1h 50m 1h 30m
1080p/30 W 2h 30m 2h 5m 1h 45m
720p/120 W 2h 20m n/a 1h 40m (stabilization off)

The thing is, when push comes to shove, I don’t really understand why GoPro wants to hide this information away anyway. It’s not like these numbers are any worse, or really for that matter any different than any of the competitors.

Garmin, for the VIBR Ultra 30 says, “Up to 2 hours 15 minutes at 1080p/30fps; up to 1 hour, 15 minutes at 4K/30fps.” The Hero5 Black can claim better performance than that. Nikon’s Key Mission 170 does even worse, only claiming, “approx. 60 minutes,” for video recording.

Again, it’s not like they don’t make the data available, they just make it harder to find than it ought to be.

As far as battery life goes form a practical stand point, I’m on the fence about it. For the moment, I expect to be recording 1080p video not 4K, so I should be looking at about 2 hours on a full battery. Further, I have 2 batteries, so I should be able to get about 4-5 hours of record time before I’m out of power—which actually exceeds my storage capacity at the moment.

I mean sure, there’s always a the little voice that says, “more more more.” But from a realistic perspective, 2 hours of recording time per battery doesn’t seem like it should be a problem for me in practice.

Moreover, for really long running things, like multi-hour time lapses, I can always plug the camera into an external battery pack or power source (any 1A or more USB charger will work) and use that.

If I was to level a complaint against the batteries that’s more concrete than making me work to find out information, it would be that the external charger for them is expensive. An external charger isn’t a necessity. The batteries can be charged in the camera, and with a high current USB charger, you can charge them in about 2 hours.

Actually I have a secondary gripe here with respect to GoPro’s presentation of information in the manual and on their site. To start with, there’s some quite annoying conflicting information. In the manual for the Hero5 Black, it clearly stats that using a charger other than the GoPro wall charger can damage the GoPro device and battery.

Yet on GoPro’s site, in their article How To Charge your Hero5 Black they simply say, “connect the camera to a USB wall charger that outputs 5V 2A (idea) or 5V 1A minimum.” No dire warnings about using a non-GoPro branded charger at all.

The reality, once you get past the deceptive wording the Hero5 Black’s manual, is not nearly as crazy. The Hero5 uses USB to charge, as such any compliant USB charger (which is going to be anything from a reputable manufacturer) with the ability to supply a minimum of 1A will properly charge the Hero5 Black. As an aside, many USB chargers simply provide wattages instead of voltages and currents; 1A charger would provide 5W, and a 2A one would provide 10W.

For what it’s worth, I use this Anker 4-port USB charger. Though, even a Apple iPhone charger (5W), would meet the requirements for charging the Hero5 Black.

Angles of View

One of the things that I really do like about the Hero5 Black is that I can change the angle of view that’s recorded. When I was looking at the Nikon Key Mission 170, as I started writing this article, I was almost thinking I should have gone that way instead of with the GoPro. That was, at least, right up to the point I discovered that the Key Mission 170 can’t change the angle of view, it’s always super-wide.

That said, again, GoPro’s isn’t extremely forthcoming with information about the angles of view. They have it, it’s available on their support site if you search for it, but it’s not published in the manual for the camera. Nor, for that matter, is the lens marked with the focal length and aperture.

I’ve included a copy of the focal length and angle of view tables that GoPro publishes in their support site (source). Additionally, I’ve added a 10% crop factor that comes with having stabilization enabled.

GoPro Hero5 Black 35mm Equivalent Focal Lengths
AoV 35mm Equiv. Focal Length Focal Len 10% crop
Wide ~14 mm ~15 mm
Medium ~21 mm ~23 mm
Narrow ~28 mm ~31 mm
GoPro Hero5 Black Angles of View
AoV/Mode Vertical Horizontal Diagonal Vertical (s) Horizontal (s) Diagonal (s)
4:3 Wide 94.4 122.6 149.2 85.0 110.3 134.28
4:3 Medium 72.2 94.4 115.7 65.0 85.0 104.1
4:3 Narrow 49.1 64.6 79.7 44.2 58.1 71.7
16:9 Wide 69.5 118.2 133.6 62.6 106.4 120.2
16:9 Medium 55 94.4 107.1 49.5 85.0 96.4
16:9 Narrow 37.2 64.4 73.6 33.5 58.0 66.2

That said, there are still some omissions from GoPro’s table. To start with, Super View is missing, and it’s wider than the wide setting or at least it appears so. Linear is also missing, though it’s similar to medium, the distortion removal does change the angles of view. Shooting in 720p240 narrow’s angle of view is also narrower than the angle of view of the normal narrow.

Finally, when enabling the built in image stabilization there’s an approximate 10% decrease in angle of view for that process to work. That in turn changes

Even then, my complaint isn’t that the table GoPro provides isn’t absolutely complete, it’s that it’s not even provided in the manual. I had to go search their support site to get this information.

Does knowing the focal lengths matter much?

On one hand, not really. At least for a lot of people knowing the focal length simply isn’t going to matter.

On the other hand, as a photographer, I tend to think in focal lengths when making a lot of decisions. For me, “narrow” isn’t real useful. Knowing that “narrow” is equivalent to 28 mm on my SLR, puts things more if a frame of reference that I’m use to working with.

That said, even if you don’t care what the angular angle of view or the equivalent 35mm focal length is, I still stand by my position that I shouldn’t have to search GoPro’s website to find this information, it should be in the manual.

Angles of View and Image Quality

As far as I can tell, the Hero5 achieves it’s various angles of view by cropping into a smaller area on the sensor. In other words, all of the “zoom” capabilities are digital not optical. This also means that there are compromises in image quality, or at least potentially compromises in image quality.

In short, when you’re using the widest angle of view, the camera uses the full sensor area to capture the image, then down sizes it to the resolution you’re recording in. If you’re shooting in a crop mode, then the camera crops in to that angle of view, and down or upsizes the resulting image data to the size you’re recording in.

What this means in practice is that a narrower angle of view may, and probably will, have more noise than a wider one for a given format. This is especially relevant when it comes to still images, as they’re all 12 MP JPEGs regardless of angle of view. However, the sensor itself is only rated at 12 MP.

That said, you do see effects of this in other places. I noticed it most obviously in shooting video in low light at 1080p. In Super View a noise was less noticeable than when shooting in narrow.

Again, I’m not sure that this is a major issue. Noise really only becomes a problem when shooting in low light at the edges of the day. For most uses as an action camera, there will be plenty of light. Yes, when it gets dark, the picture gets noisy and that’s kind of expected form this kind of camera; after all we’re not talking about a $3500 DSLR or a $50,000 cinema camera.

File Sizes / Record Times

Again, GoPro doesn’t have put clear information about the file sizes or record times for the Hero5 Black in the manual. In fact, this time they don’t even have the info specifically for the Hero5 Black on their site either.

What they do have is this table for the Hero4. Which according to some posters on their forum/FAQ also applies to the Hero5 black. And from what I can tell from a limited set of test cases, seems to be correct.

Paraphrasing, most 1080p content will be recorded at 30 Mbps, which results in about 4m 26s of video per gigabyte. A 32GB card will be good for about 2h 5m of video, a 64GB card will hold about 4h 10m of video.

All 4K formats will record at 60Mbps, resulting half the recording capacity of the 1080p videos. 720p at 240 FPS also is recorded at 60 Mbps. Turning on ProTune, will generally increase the recording bitrate from 30Mbps to 45Mbps.

As for the bitrates themselves, I don’t really have a problem with them. 30 Mbps is comparable to what Canon uses on their 5D series for 1080p IPB recording. 60Mbps for 4K is a bit more of a squeeze, as a 4K frame has 4 times as much data as a 1080p frame, but the bitrate is only doubled. Unfortunately, I lack a 4K display, so I can’t make any kind of good assessment of the 4K quality or whether the bitrate is sufficient or not.

Time-Lapse Video

Time-lapse video (and photo sequences) are the mode I suspect, at least for the moment, that I’ll be using the most.

The time-lapse video mode produces a 30 FPS video file (mp4) from the time-lapse using the interval you specify. These can be shot in 4K 16:9, 2.7K 4:3, or 1080p 16:9, with intervals of 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, and 60s between shots.

Interval Actual Time per Playback Minute
0.5s 15m
1s 30m
2s 1h
5s 2.5h
10s 5h
30s 15h
60s 30h

There are also time-lapse photo options, though I’m not yet convinced of their utility for me. A great deal of that simply goes back to the fact that I have DSLRs that shoot much higher quality still images than the GoPro does. If I was inclined to shoot stills to produce a time-lapse video, I’m simply going to use one fo my DSLRs and a high quality lens instead of the GoPro.

This is especially the case with what GoPro calls “night-lapses”, that is time lapses shot at night with long exposure times. The simply reality is that I have far more light collecting capabilities with my DSLRs than I would with the GoPro.

About the only place where the GoPro really outshines my DSLRs in terms of time-lapse images, is if it’s raining or there’s a very high risk fo that. While I have rain gear for my DLSRs, and they’re all “weather sealed”, they’re also significant more expensive and as such I’m more reluctant to leaving them out in that kind of weather.

That said, I’ve shot several time-lapse videos with the Hero5 Black so far, and they’ve all come out quite nicely, and the video feature is one I intend to use extensively.

Mounting System

One other nit I have with GoPro is their mounting system. Actually, both the mounting system itself, and the lack of a 1/4-20 tripod mount in the box. I get it, GoPros are action cameras, and not necessarily something someone is going to mount on a tripod. However, the 1/4-20 thread is standard all around the camera industry, and any existing grip equipment (arms, clamps, whatever) that someone might have is going to support 1/4-20 mounting.

I find this doubly interesting, as the box did contain two adhesive mounting plates—a flat one and a curved one—as well as the mount that is built into the top of box the camera comes with.

It seems completely reasonable to me that GoPro could, and I would argue should, provide a 1/4-20 threaded mount in the box as well. It’s not like they’re all that expensive. The 3rd party mounts I bought (a 4-pack of Sametop brand adapters(Affiliate Link) ) were only $7 (regularly $12), and I’m pretty sure there were cheaper options available as well.

As for the system itself, the Hero5 Black has to be put in it’s frame (case) to be mounted to anything. I don’t have a problem with this approach, per se, but it also makes it harder to do things like change the battery or download content without messing around with the camera.

Opening both the side and battery door are blocked by the GoPro housing. There is an opening in the housing for the ports on the side of the camera, but you have to remove the side door to use that. In doing so, removing the side door, you also remove the camera’s waterproofing.

In short, you can either have a camera in the frame that’s not waterproof, but you can connect to external power or download the content from easily. Or you can have a waterproof camera in the frame, that you have to remove to charge and download content from. And of course, if you want to attach the camera to anything, even a selfie stick, you have to have it in the frame.

A simple 1/4-20 thread in the bottom of the camera, something Nikon and Sony do, would make simple mountings without compromising the waterproof integrity so much easier.

First Impressions

Like I said, this isn’t a comprehensive review, as I’ve only had the camera for a couple of weeks now. So far, I’m defiantly pleased with the camera. I do have complaints, however almost all of them are ultimately minor points. Over all, I’m still very pleased with the Hero5 Black. For my needs, at least, it seems like a much better fit than it’s competitors.

  1. The most reasonable explain ion that I’ve ever seen for this arbitrary limit is that in the EU, cameras that can record video for 30 minutes or longer are taxed under a much higher tariff than ones that can only take stills or record video fro less than 30 minutes. As such virtually all camera makers simply limit their cameras to either 29 minutes or 1 frame less than 30 minutes. ↩︎


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