GoPro Hero3 Black Edition and LCD Touch BacPac review

When GoPro announced its Hero3 and we learned about its 4K cinematic capabilities, it inspired awe and enthusiasm. Even when we learned the 4K capability of the device was only like 15fps, it still was an enormous accomplishment to see this high resolution included in such a tiny package that also included WiFi out of the box.

Now that the dust has settled and the hype has faded, what’s left of the GoPro Hero3? Does it deliver on its promises? I tested the Hero3 Black Edition with the new LCD Touch BacPac and the new minimal-design housing, The Frame. The Black version is the most powerful of the three versions GoPro has of this action camera. It can do all the nice tricks that you can see in the marketing communications of the company.

The LCD Touch BacPac is a new LCD screen that not only allows you to frame your shots properly, but also command the unit from the live screen. There’s even a special housing that transfers your touch to the actual screen. You can also play movies from this screen. Of course, your battery life will decrease when using the screen, but not as fast or as much as I initially thought it would — it might surprise you as well.

Hero3 LCD Touch BacPac

GoPro Hero3 Black video capabilities

The Hero3 Black can shoot video and photos (12MP), and allows for burst photography and time lapse. If you have a LCD Touch BacPac or if you connect to a TV set, there’s also a Play mode. You can switch on the unit’s built-in WiFi feature and then operate it with the included Remote Control or with any iOS/Android device that has the GoPro remote control app running.

Contrary to its predecessor, the Hero3 writes to MicroSD cards. There’s no MicroSD card in the box when you buy the Hero3, so you’ll have to buy one yourself. A 16GB card is good for approx. 45 minutes of 1080p/60fps video or 2200 highest resolution photos.

The Hero3 can shoot video at 4K/15fps, 2.7K/30fps, 1440p/48fps, 1080p/60fps, 960p/100fps, 720p/120fps, and WVGA/240fps. There are more fields of view (FOV) to choose from with Medium and Narrow FOV at 1080p and Narrow FOV at 720p.

The 4K capability, while still very impressive, was what got the most attention in the press when the unit was first announced, but there’s plenty more to be amazed by when you go through the Hero3′s menu structure. I would even be inclined to call the 4K capability the least important from a user’s point of view.

GoPro Hero3 Black Edition kit

Impressive resolution and frame rates don’t always translate into high quality output, but with every clip I created and every picture I took, I was surprised about sharpness, detail and noise-free image quality. In low light environments, there still is noise, but it’s a far cry from what the GoPro HD Hero generated and I would even dare to say it’s better than many semi-pro video cameras.

The combination of output quality and FOV options in my opinion make the GoPro Hero3 suitable for more than just action. I wouldn’t hesitate to say this camera is an all-round video camera with the sturdiness required for action shooting — although still prominently obvious from the build and accessories — as a secondary feature.

To me, the only thing the Hero3 lacks when used as a general-purpose camera is a lens that allows for focus and aperture settings. But even without those, I can see the GoPro Hero3 being used for a lot more than just action photography/video production. I’m thinking street videography/photography here, with the user having the added benefit of having an even smaller form factor than the average smartphone.

Hero3 Black Edition

Documentary makers should consider GoPro Hero3 cameras as their B-cams as far as I’m concerned, especially when they’re thinking of shooting in dangerous areas, or if they want to capture video without others knowing.

Features that will make you want to use the Hero3 whatever you do

New for the Hero3 and a great addition in my opinion is the capability to shoot continuously. Continuous Photo takes a series of photos for as long as you hold down the recording button. You can set the Hero3 to take three, five or ten photos every one second.

The Photo Burst default stands at 30 photos per second. You can set this to a lower figure, both in terms of photos shot in one second as well as number of seconds the shutter will stay open. The camera does take some eight seconds before it’s ready to take the next burst, though.

Time lapse capabilities haven’t changed, so the shortest interval still is one photo every 0.5 seconds, provided your MicroSD card is a Class 10 device.

On the video front, Protune was the big announcement for the GoPro HD Hero2. Log curves like Protune have an advantage over gamma curves when your goal is to preserve as much of the source dynamic range for later colour correction. In addition, Protune records at 35Mbit/sec, which reduces compression artefacts and increases picture quality.

In the Hero3, the Protune log curve recording capability is more professionally implemented, with customisable white balance and even a Camera RAW setting, which saves the image almost pure from the sensor. I personally consider the latter another more important feature than the camera’s 4K capability, because again it allows for greater creative freedom. With a bitrate of 35Mbit/sec, the GoPro Hero3 isn’t yet within the 50Mbit/sec bitrate required by the BBC for A-cameras, but nevertheless is a truly professional device.

It’s no coincidence GoPros were omnipresent in London last year at the Diamond Jubilee Pageant — and those were still the less well performing HD Hero 2′s. With Protune turned on, expect to see Hero3′s used far more often for this sort of high profile video production.

The output from Protune/Cam RAW is awesome because it gives you the ability to colour grade your footage exactly as you want. The footage fresh from the camera looks faded and washed out, but that’s simply because all image data, including a respectable dynamic range, is present in this raw file. Process it through Da Vinci Resolve, SpeedGrade, Technicolor Color Assist or Red Giant’s Colorista II and you’ll end up with a look that you define, not the camera manufacturer.

Other new features that you do not see mentioned in the press very often are simultaneous video/photo shooting capabilities and looping video. The latter allows you to capture video for a preset time or until the card is full, after which the previous recording starts to be progressively overwritten.

The simultaneous photo/video feature takes a photo every five, ten, 30 or 60 seconds in one of the four supported video resolutions. For example, shooting a 720p video with this feature turned on is best done with a photo resolution set to 8MP, the megapixel dimension GoPro advises.

GoPro Hero3 Black Edition package

Sound should have improved as well with the Hero3. However, I didn’t test sound quality as I lacked the USB-to-jack adapter cable.

The accessories

The Frame is an option, as is the LCD Touch BacPac. The Frame is a nice, minimalist housing. It’s a frame (now there’s a surprise!) that you need to open wide in order for the Hero3 to fit in. It’s a bit scary the first time you do this, because you expect the plastic to break, but apparently it’s a special kind of plastic that can withstand the considerable force you apply.

The Frame allows you to mount the Hero3 with the lens exposed — perhaps on a tripod — just like any other camera would be. There are areas in the Frame that allow for cables to run through and less thick plastics to keep the microphone and loudspeaker working well. The Hero3 buttons are easily operated as well.

The LCD Touch BacPac was a real revelation to me. It helps you frame your shot or recording and mounted on a Hero3 you can also customise settings much quicker than you can from the menu displayed on the front of the camera. You can use the LCD Touch BacPac on a Hero2 as well, but then you lose the Touch screen capability.

The LCD Touch BacPac comes complete with a set of housings, including one that transmits your touches!

The conclusion

It won’t come as a surprise that I like the GoPro Hero3 Black Edition very much. Its 6-element aspherical lens, 48kHz, AAC compression with Automatic Gain Control, support for a 3.5mm stereo mic adapter, frame rates, FOVs, Protune log curve, and resolution power… And all that in a cigarette lighter compact camera; they all contribute to a magnificent user experience.

Regardless of whether you want to use the Hero3 for action only — at the earth’s surface or under water — or as a very capable B-camera, you end up with professional results. The Black Edition can compete with more expensive, bulkier videocameras except for the focus/aperture setting. The Hero3 Black Edition will cost you €449.00.