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September 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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GoPro as a Still Camera for Divers? Still Not Good Enough

from the September, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In his first review of GoPro as underwater cameras, back in our November 2013 issue, our veteran gear tester, John Bantin, didn't recommend it as a still camera. In his latest review of GoPro's new Hero4 model, he focused on shooting footage, not stills. Ken Kurtis, who runs the dive trip company Reef Seekers in Beverly Hills, CA, gets a lot of calls from people thinking about getting a GoPro to use both as a video and still camera, so he recently tested the Hero4 as a still camera. Here's his review.

While I was able to get some very good still pictures from my GoPro during a Palau dive trip last spring, the still-picture ability of the camera is spotty at best, and there are numerous limitations you need to learn to work around.

Based on the EXIF information, the aperture is fixed at f2.8. Although this would seem to limit depth-offield, it doesn't, as far as I can tell. Objects from about a foot out to infinity seemed, to my eye, to be in focus. However, with such a wide lens opening, you would expect fairly fast shutter speeds to help freeze the action. Not so. I rarely got anything faster than 1/30 underwater, and frequently got speeds as slow as 1/3. (Topside, with bright sunlight -- was a different matter.) Underwater, even though the lens is short (EXIF data says it's a 3mm lens, with a 35mm equivalent of 15mm in Wide and 20mm in Medium), it's almost impossible to hold the camera that steady underwater, especially if you're suspended mid-water. That meant a lot of my shots were blurry due to camera movement, subject movement or both.

The camera will also alter ISO at the same time, and while you would think it would give you a high ISO to allow for a faster shutter speed, that doesn't seem to be the case. In fact, it left the shutter speed fairly slow and raised the ISO to account for differences in light levels. I'd rather it was the other way around. As a still camera, the Hero4 has no option for Narrow. Your only choices are Wide (12MP and 7MP) or Medium (7MP or 5MP). It's nearly impossible to shoot anything small. For shots of a yellow leaf scorpionfish, I had to have the camera maybe six inches away from him (with a +10 macro lens on), running the risk of going closer than the minimum focus distance.

Overall, it's better than nothing, but the GoPro Hero4 is a fairly difficult camera to use for stills, with many limitations that affect what subjects you can shoot and how you can shoot them. It's a lot of work and planning/thinking to get an acceptable picture -- more work than it ought to be for a camera that's basically pitched as point-and-shoot.

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