Information: I made this article with the help of my GoPro Hero 7 Black, please note that GoPro has just released in mid-September 2020 the GoPro Hero 9 Black with even more improvements such as reinforced stabilization, an interchangeable lens module, and a front screen.
We’ve all seen how GoPro advertises their cameras: often showing a person jumping out of a plane or doing extreme spots.
But what about using a GoPro as a travel camera? That’s what I wanted to know most when I got my hands on the GoPro Hero 7 Black.
Of course, it’s an action camera at heart – and I do a lot of action stuff when I travel. I hike, swim, climb, scuba dive. Whether it’s mountain biking, exploring caves, or diving in sinkholes, I’ve always loved having a GoPro with me in these situations. But… I also wanted to know if the GoPro is versatile enough for normal use.
What do I mean by “normal use”? Well, anything you might want to do with a regular camera, like taking travel photos, selfies, vlogging or short videos for social media, and other fun things like timelapse or timewarp videos. After all, travel isn’t always about action, and if you’re going to spend money on a camera, you might as well buy one that meets all the requirements.
This study will mainly answer these questions:
Is the GoPro a good travel camera?
Does the GoPro take good photos (in addition to video)?
And can you do cool stuff without having to be a technical pro?
Let’s go !
First of all, I should mention that this is the second GoPro I’ve owned. My first model was a GoPro HERO4 Silver that I bought in 2015, and it’s hard for me to resist comparing these two models.
When I looked at the HERO4, I concluded that it was a travel camera so to speak. The user interface of this older version was cumbersome to use, photos were often blurry or foggy, and the files required a lot of post-processing to look really good.
My first impressions of the GoPro Hero7 Black are much better. The photos are much clearer and have much richer colours right out of the box. The interface is also much easier to use than before.
The old GoPro’s had real problems with this. The three physical buttons were similar in size and quite awkwardly placed, which sometimes forced me to turn the camera off by accident. Because of these oddly awkward buttons, I actually missed out on some great diving encounters with beautiful fish, as it turned out I had only switched modes instead of pressing the shutter.
I’m happy to report that this is no longer a problem. The physical buttons on the GoPro 7 are much easier to use. They have also unified and simplified the on-screen interface. It’s telling that the camera doesn’t come with a paper manual, everything you need to learn is now indicated by little tooltips on the screen. Everything is very intuitive.
A BIG HIGHLIGHT: VERY SMOOTH VIDEO
Let’s look at video first, which is after all the primary function of the GoPro.
The HERO7 introduces a new video feature called HyperSmooth, which digitally stabilises your footage on the fly. This effect is not unlike what you can get in a professional video editing suite like Adobe Premiere, but let’s be honest, it’s much nicer to do it automatically and without any complicated post-processing.
The result is beautifully smooth, almost as if you were using a gimbal. The difference with the old GoPro and other action cameras is just incredible. I love sliding the camera into a scene and doing what almost looks like a long cinematic shot from film. It really does make your videos look twice as good, and all without the help of a bulky and expensive gimbal attachment.
My only complaint is that HyperSmooth is only available for shooting at up to 60 frames per second. This is not a problem for everyday use, but I would have liked to shoot underwater footage while scuba diving that was both stabilised and shot at 120 frames per second (i.e. slow motion). Fish tend to move quickly and jerkily, so it’s always nice to slow things down a lot. Alas, at higher frame rates, you will have to do without any smoothing. But when shooting at 60fps, you can still slow the action down by 2 times.
Video is really where the GoPro shines. The video quality is fantastic, and the camera adapts well on the fly to different lighting conditions. You can shoot up to 4K and in a variety of modes, including timelapse and timewarp, and the new HyperSmooth setting makes a very noticeable difference in video quality.
The GoPro already includes two adhesive mounts. The GoPro is also rugged and waterproof right out of the box, and with the GoPro 7 and beyond, you can dive with it to 10m. So unless you’re doing deep diving, you won’t need an extra protective case. I recommend the very portable Shorty Mount for general video/photo use, or the head strap for recording adventure activities.
THE FISHEYE LENS?
Of course, action cameras have wide angle lenses, so you may be used to seeing GoPro footage with a round fisheye effect. This is great for action moments, but less so for general use.
But if you don’t like the fisheye style, no worries. You can easily choose between wide and linear shooting modes. In other words, you can take pictures and images with a normal “square” look. This won’t allow you to fit as much in the frame, but it will give you a much more natural look. I myself almost always set it to linear mode.
There are some minor limitations though. For example, time-lapse videos cannot be shot in linear mode. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but from a user’s perspective it seems a bit arbitrary. For normal photos and videos, linear mode works fine.
GOPRO FOR PHOTOGRAPHY
Although the GoPro is not primarily designed for ordinary photography, you can use it for that. Just keep in mind that the wide angle is great for wide landscapes and narrow interiors, but not for close-ups or medium shots.
For my first attempts, I tried to use the GoPro as a regular camera. It was often difficult to frame things well, as it simply captures a large part of the scene at once, even in linear mode. I had the most success taking pictures of BIG things, like a large square, a church or a panoramic roof. I tried to take good detail shots, like a wall with cool graffiti, and the results were much more mixed.
The overall image quality looks really good to me. The photos from previous models looked washed out, and the older cameras especially had trouble with reflections. Now the quality of the still images is fantastic and seems at least equal to what you can get with an average smartphone.
USING THE GOPRO IN SELFIE MODE
Although a GoPro is just decent for general photography, I think it’s actually better than other cameras for taking selfies. That’s because it’s super easy to capture not only yourself, but also your surroundings. This is ideal for travel selfies as you’ll often want to capture as many places as possible, so you can really show off where you are (and not just your pretty face).
Without using a pole, I could easily capture myself while leaving about two thirds of the image free for the rest of the scene. You can also easily fit 3 or 4 people into a handheld selfie.
Add a monopod and you can really get into the scene, showing any scenery or other features behind you. The wide angle lens really sets you apart from what you can achieve with other cameras.
For taking selfies, you can always use the self-timer. But another great way is to use the built-in voice commands to trigger the shutter. This means you don’t really need a GoPro monopod with a built-in shutter button anymore; any cheap compatible GoPro sticker will do, as you can now simply trigger the camera with your voice.
SHARING AND EDITING
Aspiring videographers often get discouraged when they realise that all the footage they’ve taken actually takes hours and hours to edit into something good enough to post online. This is one area where GoPro has thankfully made great strides.
If you upload your footage to the companion app, you can automatically generate a Quikstory. An algorithm will analyse your footage and try to make an edit, with dozens of templates or styles available. It will work best with short clips or with longer videos where you have already marked the highlights. The results aren’t perfect but it’s really easy and, with the right footage, you can have a good reel ready to share online in about ten minutes.
It can be a bit tricky to get the device and app to communicate via Bluetooth at first. I had to change the WiFi band to 2.4GHz in the settings in order to connect my phone. But once that was done, new footage was automatically loaded onto the phone, and the editing process is then fun and intuitive.
GOPRO OR CAMERA?
Overall, the GoPro is a pretty versatile tool. But is it really comparable to a DSLR camera?
Honestly, no. If you’re looking for a camera for photos, then you shouldn’t get a GoPro. You’ll be able to get much better results with an SLR or even a compact camera, as you’ll have the ability to use the zoom, and you’ll have more appropriate focal lengths for a wider variety of subjects. The sensor of an SLR is likely to be larger, giving you better image quality and higher resolution for the pictures.
One of the great advantages of the GoPro is its robustness and portability. Dust and water are two things an SLR doesn’t like.
I am impressed with the GoPro HERO7. It’s a great travel camera, especially if you like video. You don’t have to be into extreme sports to benefit from it, as it’s useful even in normal travel situations, especially if you have the GoPro HERO 7 Black or later. When you buy a GoPro for your travels, I highly recommend getting a spare battery so you never run out of battery.
The GoPro brand keeps reinventing itself, and improves its models every year. Moreover, the accessories are more and more numerous and allow you to enjoy them in all conditions. I recommend it!