By Brady Betzel
Every year GoPro outdoes themselves and gives users more reasons why you should either upgrade your old GoPro action camera or invest in the GoPro ecosphere for the first time. Late last year, GoPro introduced the GoPro Hero 8 (for review the Black Edition) and the GoPro Max — a.k.a. the re-imagined Fusion 360 camera.
If you aren’t sure whether you want to buy one or both of the new GoPro cameras, you should take a look at the GoPro TradeUp program where you can send in any camera with an original retail value of $99.99 or more and you will receive $100 off the Hero 8 or $50 off the Hero 7. Check out the TradeUp program. That at least will take the sting off of the $399.99 or higher price.
GoPro Hero 8 Black Edition
Up first, I’ll take a look at the GoPro Hero 8 Black Edition. If you own the Hero 7 Black Edition you will be familiar with many of the Hero 8 features. But there are some major improvements from the Hero 7 to the Hero 8 that will make you think hard about upgrading. The biggest update, in my opinion, is the increase in the max bit rate to 100 Mb/s. With that increase comes better quality video (more data = more information = more details). But GoPro also allows you to use the HEVC (H.265) codec to compress videos, which is a much improved version of the antiquated H.264. You can get into the weeds on the H.264 vs H.265 codecs over at Frame.io’s blog where they have some really great (and nerdy) info.
Anyway, with the bit rate increased — any video from the GoPro Hero 8 Black Edition has the potential to be better than the Hero 7. I say “potential” because if the bit rate doesn’t need to be that high, the GoPro won’t force it to be — it’s a variable bit rate codec that only uses data if it needs to.
Beyond the increased bit rate, there are some other great features. The menu system has been improved even further than the 7, making it easier to get shooting without setting a bunch of advanced settings. There are presets made to set up your GoPro quickly and easily, depending on what you are filming: Standard (1080, 60, Wide), Activity (2.7K, 60, SuperView) and Cinematic (4K, 30, Linear). Live Streaming has been upped from 720p to 1080p, but we are still stuck with streaming from the GoPro through your phone natively to the sites YouTube and Facebook. You can stream to other sites like Twitch by setting up a RTMP URL — but Instagram is still off the list. This is unfortunate because, I think live Instagram streams/stories would be their biggest feature.
Hypersmooth 2.0 is an improved version of Hypersmooth 1.0 (still on the Hero 7). You can stabilize even more if you enable the “Boost” function, which adds more stabilization but at the cost of a larger crop on your video. Hypersmooth is an incredible, gimbal-replacing stabilization that GoPro has engineered with the help of automatic Horizon levelling, GPS and other telemetry data.
Coming soon will be external attachments called “Mods,” which will include a Media Mod adding an HDMI output, 3.5mm microphone jack and two cold shoe mounts; a Display Mod adding a flip up screen to see yourself from the front (think vlogging); and a Light Mod, which will add an LED to the camera for lighting. These will require the Media Mod ($79.99) to be purchased in addition to the Light ($49.99) and/or Display Mod ($79.99). Keep an eye on the GoPro store for info on pre-orders and purchases.
GoPro cameras have always taken great pictures and video… when the lighting is perfect. Even with the Hero 8, low light is the Achilles Heel of GoPro — the video starts to become muddy and hard to view. The Hero 8 shares the same camera sensor as the Hero 7 and even the same GP1 processor, but the Hero 8 was able to squeeze some more tech out of it with features like Timewarp 2.0 and Hypersmooth 2.0. So you will get similar images and videos out of both cameras at a base level, but with the added technology in the Hero 8 Black Edition, if you have the extra $100 you should get the latest version. Overall, the Hero 8 Black Edition is physically thinner (albeit a little taller), the battery compartment is no longer on the bottom and the Hero 8 now has a built-in mount! No more need for extra cages if you don’t need them!
So last time I used GoPro’s 360 camera creation it was the Fusion. The Fusion was a hard-to-use, bulky, 360 camera that required two separate memory cards. It was not my favorite camera to test, in fact it felt like it needed another round of beta testing. Fast forward to today, and the recently released GoPro Max, which is what the Fusion should have been. While I think the Max is a marked improvement over the Fusion, it is not necessarily for everyone. If you specifically need to make 360 content or want a new GoPro, but also want to keep your options open to filming in 360 degrees, then the Max is for you.
The GoPro Max costs $499.99, so it’s not much more than a Hero 8 Black and it can shoot in 360 degrees. One of the best features is the ability to shoot like a traditional GoPro (i.e. one lens). Unfortunately, you are limited to 1080p/1440p 60/30/24fps — and maybe worst of all no slow-mo. You don’t always need to shoot in 360 with the Max, but you don’t quite get the full line-up of frame rates offered by the traditional Hero 8 Black Edition.
In addition, the bit rate of the Max — maxes out (all pun intended) at 78Mb/s not the 100Mb/s like the Hero 8. But if you want to shoot in 360, the GoPro Max is pretty simple to get running. It will even capture 360 audio with its six-mic array, shoot 24fps or 30fps at 5.6K resolution for stitched spherical video and, best of all, editing the spherical video is much easier in the latest GoPro phone app update. Unfortunately, editing on a Windows computer is not as easy as on the phone.
I am using a computer with Windows 10, Intel i7 6-core CPU, 32 GB memory and an Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU — so not a slow laptop. You can find all of the Windows software and plugins for 360 video on GoPro’s website. It seems like GoPro is trying to bury software for computers because it wasn’t easy to find these Windows apps. Nonetheless, you will want to download the GoPro Max Exporter and the Adobe GoPro FX Reframe plugins if you plan on editing your footage. Before I go any further, if you want to watch a video tutorial, I suggest you watch Abe Kislevitz’s tutorial on the GoPro Max workflow in Adobe Premiere. He is really good at explaining the workflow. Abe works at GoPro in media production and always has great videos, check his website out while you’re at it.
Moving on, in MacOS, iOS and Android, you can work with GoPro Max’s native 360 file format via the GoPro built apps. The 360 file format is a Google-created mapping known as EAC or Equal Area Cubemap. Get all the nerdy bits here.
Unfortunately, in Windows you need to convert the 360 videos into the “old school” equirectangular format that we’ve been used to. To do this, you run your 360 videos through the GoPro Exporter, which can use the power of both the CPU and GPU to create new files. This extra step stinks, I can’t sugar coat it. But with better compression and mapping structures come growing pains… I guess. GoPro is supposedly building a Windows-based reframer and exporter like the MacOS version, but after trolling some GoPro forums it seems like they have a lot of work to do and/or came to the conclusion that most users are going to use their phones or a MacOS-based system.
Either way, the process to reframe your 360 video and export as 1920×1080 or 1080×1920 goes: convert your 360 files to a more usable Cineform, H.265 or H.264 Quicktime > import into Adobe Premiere > create a sequence that will match your largest output size (i.e. 1920×1080) > apply the GoPro FX Reframe plugin and identify your output size (i.e. 1920×1080) > keyframe rotation, edit, reframe, etc. > export.
It’s not awful as long as you know what you are going to get yourself into. But take that with a grain of salt; I am a professional video editor that works in video 10-12 hours a day at least five days a week. I am very comfortable with this kind of stuff. It seems like it would take some more work if I wasn’t an editor by trade. If I was to try and explain this to my wife or kids, they may roll their eyes at me and just ask me to do it… understandably. If you want to upload to a site like YouTube without editing, you will still need to convert the 360 videos to something that is more manageable for YouTube like H.264 or H.265.
When working in Premiere with the GoPro Reframe plugin I actually found the effect controls overlay intuitive when panning and tilting. The hard part when keyframing panning and tilting in Premiere is adjusting the bezier curve keyframe graph. It’s not exactly intuitive, which makes it a challenge to get smooth starts and ends to your pans and tilts… even with Easy Ease In/Out set. With a little work you can get it done, but I really hope GoPro gets their Windows-based GoPro Max 360 editor up and running so I don’t have to use Adobe.
But after I did a couple of keyframed pans and tilts to my footage I took while riding It’s a Small World at Disneyland with my three sons, I exported a quick H.264. For about 50 seconds of footage took four minutes to export. Not exactly speedy. But playing back my footage in a 1920×1080 timeline in Premiere at ¼ resolution when using the GoPro plugin was actually pretty smooth.
You can check out the video I edited with the GoPro FX Reframer plugin in Premiere on my YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/frhJ3T8fzmE. I then wanted to take my video of our Tea Cup ride at Disneyland straight from the camera and upload it to YouTube. Unfortunately, you still need to convert the video in the GoPro Max Exporter to an H.264 or the like but this time it only took 1:45 to export a two-minute 4K video. You can check out the 4K-360 Tea Cup ride on YouTube.
Are the GoPro Hero 8 Black Edition and GoPro Max 360 camera worth an upgrade or new purchase? I definitely think the Hero 8 is worth it. GoPro always makes great cameras that are waterproof down to 33 feet, take great pictures when there is enough available light, can create amazing hyperlapses and timewarps incamera with little work, fine tune your shutter speed or flat-color footage with ProTune settings, and all of this can fit in your pocket.
I used to take a DSLR to Disneyland, but with the Hypersmooth 2.0 and the improved HDR images that come out of the Hero 8, this is the only camera you will need.
The GoPro Max is a different story. I like what the GoPro Max does technically; it films 360 video easily and can double as a 1440p Hero camera. But I found myself fumbling a little with the Max because of its larger footprint when compared to the Hero 8 (it’s definitely smaller than the old Fusion 360 camera though). And when editing on your phone or doing a straight upload, the videos are relatively easy to process, as long as you don’t mind the export time. Unfortunately, using Premiere to edit these videos is a little rough; it’s better than with the Fusion but it’s not simple.
Maybe I’m just getting older and don’t want to give in to the VR/360 video yet, or maybe it’s just not as smooth of a process as I would have hoped for. But if you want to work in 360 and don’t mind a lack of slow motion, I wouldn’t tell you to not buy the GoPro Max. It’s a great camera with durable lenses and exterior case.
Check out the videos on YouTube and see what amazing people like Abe Kislevitz are doing; they may just show you what you need to see. And check out www.gopro.com for more info including when those new Hero 8 Mods will be available.