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GoPro for Runners

The idea of buying an action camera first struck me more than a year ago when running in Arizona. Back then I regretted that I didn’t have one. When I returned home, I started both reading and watching action camera reviews. Even before that, I had written down a few notes about what I was expecting from such a device. I wanted it to be suitable for shooting my day-long runs, which would put stress on the durability of the camera. I also expected such a gadget to be easy to use because I didn’t want to keep interrupting my runs to set the camera. And then, of course, the quality of the recording was essential.

This initial research yielded two cameras that seemed to be most suitable for ultra-running: the GoPro Hero 5 and Garmin VIRB ultra 30. They were identically priced and also had very similar functions. According to YouTube reviews, the quality of the image seemed to be a bit better with the GoPro. On the other hand, the advantage of the Garmin device for me was synchronization with my Garmin watch and the option of displaying additional information on the performance right in the recording. In any case, I had the chance to borrow a GoPro Hero 4 and test it for a few days in France. I suppose this was the reason I finally decided to purchase the GoPro. I have to admit, however, that this decision was based more on intuition than on rationality.

So far, I have been using the GoPro Hero 5 for little more than a half year. Recently a new version of GoPro, the GoPro Hero 6, was released on the market. A review of the older product might thus seem pointless, but I intend to write more about some specific issues rather than about this particular device.

First impressions
To be honest, my first run with the new GoPro Hero 5 camera was a complete disappointment. I ran a 100k loop in the region where I live. I got up early in the morning: roughly at 3 am. As I left the house, I wanted to capture a few initial shots but realized that the cover of the lens was fogged over. Since then I have learned that this happens whenever there is a substantial difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures. Even after several minutes, when the transparent cover cleared, the recordings reviewed on the device’s display still weren’t satisfactory. This time because apparently, it was too dark for the camera. Then, during the first hours of the run, it was raining, which also negatively affected the quality of the footage. Only in the afternoon as the weather improved did the recordings look better, at least on the small display.

In the post-production, I had a hard time selecting good shots from among all of the junk, to assemble a quality video of the run. You can watch this first trial here. At that point, I realized I needed some help. While trying to search out more on the internet, I came across an excellent book on using the GoPro Hero 5, which helped me to understand what to do to achieve better results. I learned some basic rules of shooting with this particular camera, so the recordings now look much better than the first one. But there are still limitations. Let’s take a look at them and see if there is a chance to overcome these by purchasing the new GoPro Hero 6.

Image quality
Without a doubt, you get the most out of the camera on a sunny day when shooting in vast open spaces: at a seashore, on plain mountain ridges or perhaps in deserts. In such settings, you only have to be aware of the position of the sun. When the sun is located behind you, you usually can’t avoid casting your shadow in the recording, which doesn’t look good. Furthermore, it is not recommended to record when the sun is hanging right in front of you (even though some such images might seem cool), so I suggest at least trying that. It might be wise to plan your run according to the position of the sun. Once I ran all day towards the sun, and most of the resulting recordings were useless.

Initially, I was struggling with using my GoPro in dense woods where direct sunlight couldn’t penetrate. All the recordings were somehow faded and dimmed. Only recently did I learn that this could be solved in the post-production by adding a bit of light and color saturation to the footage.

Another issue was the transition from light to dark spaces and vice versa. Either one part of the recording was too dark, or the other was too light. It just didn’t look right. However, according to reviews of the new GoPro Hero 6, this problem has already been solved in the new product, together with improving the poor performance in low-light conditions. I saw some GoPro Hero 6 video footage of Las Vegas at night, and indeed it looked awesome.

So far, I have not figured out how to deal with the fogging of the lens cover when it’s cold outside. Usually, I just wait until it gets unblurred. On the other hand, I have learned what to do when it is raining. I lick the glass covering the lens so that the raindrops do not stay on the glass but run down. Also, in wet conditions, it helps to lower the resolution to 1080p, and even the frame rate shall not exceed 24 fps. See my video taken from the Brno Slaughter race here – it was raining almost the entire run, but the recording doesn’t look that bad at all.

What I have been missing is the zoom in/out option. So many times it has happened that during a run I wanted to capture an exciting detail such as an animal crossing my path, yet the only way to zoom the recording was in the post-production. And this is insufficient given the resolution of the footage. The GoPro Hero 6 offers the option of digital zoom, but you can make it work only under specific camera settings. Of course, if there were an optical zoom, I would adore it, because the difference would be huge. Perhaps it could be provided in some extension attached to the camera.

Stabilization
I once read somewhere that sports videos are purposely a bit shaky to draw the audience right into the action. I am not so sure about that: I find the effect to be slightly annoying. When I borrowed the GoPro 4 and held the camera with the aid of a selfie-stick (#3), the results looked terrible (see here). A slight jolt went through my hand with every step, and it was apparent in the video. I thought the problem would be solved by purchasing the new GoPro Hero 5 thanks to the advertised image stabilization. The truth is that it helped a lot, but it didn’t address the issue entirely. That video I mentioned above from Vysocina/Highlands was taken with the image stabilization feature on and the GoPro Hero 5 on a hand-held stick.

GoPro accessories

As the next step in my effort to improve image stability, I bought a Steadycam hand grip (#2), a cheap gadget that was supposed to help. This purchase was apparently a misstep because the thing proved to be utterly unsuitable for running. Another acquisition, a headband mount for the GoPro (#4) was a much better choice. I was rid of those jolts I experienced when holding the camera in my hand. As you can see from these recordings of Moravian Ultramarathon race, the image was smoothened to a great extent compared to the previous videos. But… if you look at the edges of the screen, you can still observe an unnatural image deformation caused by the software stabilization of the camera.

A few months ago, I bought a Joby GorillaPod Action Tripod (#1), a tripod that can be used as a standalone stand or can be attached to branches, trunks of trees and so on. But this only helped to improve the static footage, not the dynamic one. Thus I had to keep on searching. Then, just a few days ago, after extensive research, I purchased a gimbal Feiyu Tech G5 (#5). Of course, there was also an original GoPro Karma grip available, but the Feiyu gimbal cost 30% of the GoPro Karma price. Besides, the advertised battery life of a Feiyu is much longer, and unlike the GoPro Karma, it is splash-proof. I was a little afraid that my purchase wasn’t entirely fortunate because the user experience with uploading and updating software for the Feiyu Tech G5 was horrible, but the first test of the gimbal wasn't that bad at all: see here.

And, to provide you with full disclosure, I should also mention that GoPro has been claiming that they have improved the stabilization tremendously in the GoPro Hero 6. According to the YouTube videos, that indeed seems to be the case, but it is too soon after the release to make any judgments. Let’s see what the future holds.

Ease of use
Controlling the camera is simple. There is a button on the top of the device, which triggers an action (e.g., recording, taking a picture). A smaller button on the side turns the camera on/off and allows for basic adjustment of the settings. For an advanced configuration, there are two options: You can either use a small display on the back of the camera or the provided app on your smartphone, both very well arranged and intuitive. Besides, the tiny screen in front indicates the camera setting, which increases the camera status awareness.

What I like very much about the GoPro is the next controlling option: the voice commands. It took me some time before I managed the right pronunciation through practice, since I am not a native English speaker and it doesn’t understand Czech, but now it works perfectly. I use it whenever the camera is on because it is so simple. The only thing I have been missing so far, turning the camera on by voice command when it is off, is now available on GoPro Hero 6. So, thumbs-up to that one!

Durability
The camera seems to be very solid. It withstands all possible conditions: heavy rain, dust, heat, and cold. So far it has fulfilled my expectations. Several times the gadget even slipped out of my hands and fell to the ground, yet the surface of the device only bears a few almost invisible scratches. Thankfully the impact that the gadget endured didn’t in any way influence its functions.

The last thing I would like to mention is the powering. When buying the camera, I also purchased a spare battery. I wanted to make sure that the energy of the device would last long enough to capture my long runs. In any case, I haven’t needed the extra battery that frequently. When turning on the camera just to capture some special moment and then turning it off again, one battery cell suffices for the entire day. So far, I have had to exchange the battery only twice or maybe three times.

Post-production
When editing the videos, I have a couple of simple requirements. I usually cut the single frames so that they last from 3 to 10 seconds. Then I put them together with or without transition effects, add some music, and write subtitles or a description. And that’s all.

In the beginning, I was trying to use the GoPro Studio; an application provided for free directly from the GoPro manufacturer. Unfortunately, the software was very slow and unreliable. It took multiple time-consuming steps before I could even start editing. What was worse, sometimes the application stopped working, and I had to start all over again. Consequently, I tried the iMovie, free software provided by Apple, and my experience at editing improved significantly. It is so much more straightforward, and the user experience is excellent. Of course, there is still room for improvement, and from time to time I even consider buying professional software in future, most probably Apple’s Final Cut Pro. But up until now, the iMovie has proved to be just enough for my requirements.

Conclusion
A year ago, I thought that to record my runs I would just have to purchase a camera and start shooting. It's not that simple by any means. It is instead an ongoing struggle to improve the quality of the recordings. And the more I learn, the more potential improvements I can see. For example, now I am starting to realize that for really epic videos it would be good to purchase a drone. There is always room for improvement, right?

All in all, I am satisfied with my GoPro Hero 5 action camera. If I had to rate it, I would probably give it four and a half stars out of five. I am not going to buy the GoPro Hero 6, mainly because I can’t afford to buy a new action camera every year. That's why I will probably wait until the next release. Anyway, I am glad for having chosen the GoPro, and I recommend it as a suitable camera for runners.