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October 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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GoPro vs. a Standard Camera

which one fits your photo/video skills and needs?

from the October, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It was way back in 1968 when Andy Warhol predicted there would come a time when everyone would get 15 minutes of fame. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook, that time is now. Judging by the quality of some of the offerings, thank goodness it's only 15 minutes. Everyone now shoots video, whether it be on their phone, their GoPro, their compact camera, a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera or an Epic camera with 4k resolution (the latest must-have), and the Internet is jammed solid with the results of their labors.

It's no different with those who go underwater. The aft decks of dive boats are crowded with expensive photographic equipment, ranging from the inexpensive to the obscene. The big question revolves around whether those who invest heavily in gear can justify it when they come to the results. Nobody is denying that a HD 4k video setup produces better quality results, but do you actually need to spend vast sums of money for that?

The little GoPro Hero, now in its third incarnation, has been incredibly successful product, because it is available at an attainable price (list prices range from $200 to $400; ), and it neatly dovetails into whatever else you might be doing without turning it into a film shoot. I've seen people with these little cameras, around the size of a packet of cigarettes, attached to bike helmets as they hurtle in and out of city traffic. Rather like the little camera that sits at the front of my car and records the scene in a continuous loop, I don't expect to get a movie from it, just evidence in case of a road traffic accident.

If you intend to kitesurf, freefall from an plane, kayak over a waterfall, jump off the highest mountain or ski through an avalanche, the little GoPro Hero, or one of its clones (the Liquid Image Ego, the Drift, the Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15) can record your point of view in a way that no other camera could without being fatally intrusive.

The BBC's Natural History unit habitually uses banks of GoPro cameras on specially-made rigs to get "time slice" effects for its television shows, but these effects are never on the screen long enough that the quality is important. I recently followed a BBC crew into the water at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas when they asked me to look out for one of their cameras that had been grabbed by a shark. The cost to the BBC is such that these little items are essentially considered disposable. So the GoPro and its clones are cheap, compact and can shoot both video and stills. What's more, the GoPro is available with a specially-designed underwater housing for $50 that will let you take it along on a leisure dive.

It's all a question of results. Is a GoPro right for what you want to achieve? Once you go underwater, the limitations imposed by the medium affect all cameras equally. For example, daylight is filtered blue once you get more than a few feet from the surface. Those able to shoot in RAW mode (usually the top-end equipment lets you do this) are able to correct the color by playing down the blue channel, to the benefit of the red and green channels when they take their recordings to their post-production computer. With a big digital sensor, they can also run their cameras at very high light-sensitivity settings, around 60 times more than is available on a GoPro, without any grain spoiling the picture. They can also have the benefit of wide light-gathering lenses. Those with simpler cameras will need to supply some independent white light in the form of a suitable underwater lamp.

GoPro Hero3Don't expect to entirely solve the color problem by simply fitting a color correction filter over the lens. A filter does what it says: It filters out unwanted colors and passes only the color you want to record. However, if you are more than a little way from the surface, this will have detrimental effects on the ability of that little lens to grab what little light that's not blue, and very dark images will result. This means that the compact benefit conferred by these tiny cameras is already compromised by the addition of more equipment. You'll need lights. These will be best if they have a total output of 1,200 to 5,000 lumens. You cannot have too much.

If you've ever watched a Hollywood movie being made, you'll be aware of the extraordinary lengths film crews go to in order to maintain a steady camera. Holding a matchboxsized camera at arm's length, it's almost impossible to record a steady image. This isn't important if the user is flying down between the trees in parachuting gear, but underwater, we like to see the subjects move about rather than the camera. Your wobbly, hand-held point of view is enough to make your audience feel sick. I'm glad I was never tortured into watching shots from that cyclist's helmet. Do you really think a diver with a head-mounted unit would come back with anything more than passably watchable?

The GoPro Hero3 in Underwater HousingYou can solve this problem to a degree by fitting the GoPro to a specially bought rig with grips that will also carry the lights you'll need. Already, you'll notice that the camera you jump into the water with is not as conveniently small as you might have originally thought. In fact, it's now as big as some compact cameras in their housings. Similarly, if you want to shoot any real close-ups, you're going to need to add supplementary lenses to the mix.

If all you want is a simple visual document of your dive, these little cameras do a great job. If you are happy to see your dive recorded in glorious marine blue, it will do. Visibility is not as good in air either, and natural light shots will also lack contrast. If there's not a lot of ambient light, the images might be rather grainy.

In no way do I dis the GoPro Hero or its clones. Because of their tiny dimensions, you can get shots you might otherwise miss. The wide variety of mounting accessories available give a clue to this -- they even include a four-rotor miniature helicopter (but that's not for use underwater, unfortunately). Mounting a camera on the end of a pole can allow you to stick it down a hole or into a shark's mouth, something you might not be inclined to do if your head was closer to the camera. It's a question of using the right tool for the job.

A GoPro owner might feel a little smug at the airport check-in when he sees those with bigger photographic outfits jumping through the required hoops to get their gear on board. The GoPro stows almost unnoticeably in a pocket.

The success of these little cameras relies on the content of the shots they can get rather than the quality. If you are going to do something dramatic and want to record the sequence, the GoPro Hero and its clones are ideal. For example, grabbing the moment when you first jump in.

I habitually have a GoPro Hero 3 Black mounted atop my expensive Nikon camera in its housing, while shooting high quality stills. It is depth-rated to 195 feet, and will shoot slow-motion at 120 frames per second, which is very useful when recording fast-moving fish like sharks, but its lens behind the flat underwater port has a fixed angle of view. (At the 4k setting it shoots at only 15 frames per second, which is less useful since everything then gets speeded up.) I use the GoPro in case something happens during shooting that I would like a fly-on-the-wall recording of. Like that little camera that monitors my driving and will come in useful in the event of an accident, it hasn't happened yet.

A GoPro Hero 3 in top-of-the-line "Black" costs $500, but once you add lamps and a decent grip, that can escalate to as much as triple the price. If you go for an independent housing and separate monitor, start thinking in terms of doubling that again. However, when it comes to high end DSLRs, that can start to look cheap. On the other hand, a good compact, such as the Canon Powershot G15 in a submarine housing, can be acquired for around $1,000, plus the cost of lamps, and it will shoot video and much better quality underwater stills, too.

If you want to come back from dive trips with luscious underwater scenes to relish for their beauty, you might do better spending your cash on a compact camera, a Micro Four Thirds system or even a DSLR. Each will shoot progressively better defined images in video-clip form that are the equivalent of snapshots with movement. If you want stills, you will always be better off underwater with a camera that can work in conjunction with a strobe. It's a question of managing expectations. None of them will automatically provide you with a block-busting movie, though. For that, there are a few other skills you will need to acquire. Meanwhile, we hear the GoPro Hero 4 is on the way.

John Bantin is the former technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 20 years, he used and reviewed virtually every piece of equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and made around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer, and author of Amazing Diving Stories, available at

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