My goal with having an action cam was something I could quickly pickup, turn on and aim while riding – to capture things when not able to pull over or just randomly for fun. I enjoy the size and shape of the Polaroid Cube which is easy to hold and operate while riding my motorcycle. The main issue I have with the Cube is it’s long shutter delay from pressing the button (can be a couple of seconds). This means many times the photo captured is of the handlebars as I am putting the Cube back away having pressed the shutter a few seconds prior. Enter the GoPro Hero 5 Session.
(Please read the long term update at the bottom, after a rosy start things went downhill) As you can see it is only slightly larger than the tiny Polaroid cube. Like the Cube it has some rubberized shell for shock resistance and is also waterproof without a case. Slightly larger but actually easier to hold than the Cube which could be slippery at times the case of the Session has far better grip when operating with gloves. There is no magnet on the base unlike the Cube that allowed me to place it on the tank while riding for quick access however I can source something like that aftermarket. I can put the Session cam in my regular motorcycle jacket chest pocket and access it easy while riding. How it goes in my summer jackets that have only side pockets is yet to be revealed. I will have the magnet base to also test in future and will update this review then.
My primary camera currently is a Lumix LX100 which is a micro four thirds sensor camera with a Leica branded 24 – 75mm F1.8-2.8 lens. My secondary casual camera is a iPhone 6S which much to my surprise (or disappointment in Panasonic) rivals the Lumix LX100 in landscape photos when used in its sweep panorama mode. At present the Hero 5 Session plays a minor role in my imaging tool box however that may change going forward as I try think outside the box to take photos from a different perspective. I am not going to talk much about specs, basics are 4K video, 10MP stills, however figures can no longer be relied upon as any indication of quality. The lens always plays a part but I see more and more the results of superior processing by the device making the difference as is so noticeable when my phone can repeatedly produce images that are superior to a much bigger sensor and higher quality lens on my camera.
Lets start with the positive. The quality of the images it captures when it works is very good, a huge leap forward from the Cube. I purchased this primarily for taking still photos while riding and the results so far have been excellent. The Cube photos are by comparison poor quality. The Cube is claimed to be 8MP which if you have been around cameras a while will seem a reasonably high number. I had a SLR camera not that many years ago with same pixel count that took amazing photos. However the Cube seemed to not take a true photo but rather a still from video. Thus the capture often looked like the images I used to capture on my old JVC Digital Video camcorder. Very similar low res quality the colour and detail lost. High contrast scenes it could not capture well at all.
No such issues with the Hero 5 Session. Below is pointed almost straight at the sun yet it manages very well to keep the detail and colours.
Below is a another worst case scenario. Low light is always a challenge for small sensor cameras but the Session 5 resolves this far better than the Cube. This was taken in really dim light despite how it appears below post processing. It was very gloomy conditions in the wet on a road with tree cover with some rain. The Cube in this situation produces something that is total mush but the Hero 5 Session turns out something quite useable while also dealing with me hand holding it thus bouncing up and down and the forward motion of the motorcycle. If I had stopped this would no doubt have been a better image but I want to show how it works as I intend to use it.
Another onboard still photo to give an idea of the image quality. I think it is quite good for a small sensor action cam and perfectly useable for blogging or Facebook or Instagram. The cam has inbuilt lens distortion correction which changes the perspective to a cropped view from the standard wide angle. I did not use this feature as landscape type photos are less affected but this mode would be useful for people who intend to use the cam for more regular type photography and would be the mode to select if using the cam with a drone to avoid that curvature look.
The above photos are from the combined video and photo mode. It can take a photo every 0.5 seconds while also recording the video with one push of the button to turn on and commence. When everything is working (more on that later) it has taken the first photo much quicker than the Cube could have. A small note that the combined photo and video works up to 4K video despite the manual saying only up to 1440 video. There exists a still photo from 4K video option in post processing. I tried this a few times but the results were not very good. I am sure with the right subject matter and video capture this could be useable occasionally.
Now moving on from stills to video. As mentioned already this is up to 4K recording. I started using it in that mode then later realised that this was not the best choice for handheld on a bike as it does not have video stabilization at that resolution. I dropped the recording back to 2.7K which does include stabilization and on my computer which has a high resolution monitor this looks very good. Comparing to the Cube the video quality, like the still images, is significantly better. To publish online I chose regular Full HD 1080 on YouTube so I should have perhaps been using this from the start. In 4K mode it will fill a 32 GB micro sd card very quickly. I don’t have exact figures (I am sure some sites focused on cams will) but just recording a dozen small videos per day the card was full by end 2nd day. I now have a 128Gb card and have set the unit down to 1080 resolution for video and hope this will mean not needing to clear space on the card as often which since the app mostly refuses to connect is a hassle on the road. There is a small menu screen. This is high contrast TFT, better than a regular LCD but whilst moving on a motorcycle it is not possible for me to read it. Many times I thought I was recording but was not and I am still unsure why the device was not recording. The manual says simply press the button on top and recording of video and stills at your preselected interval will commence. Sometimes this happened sometimes it did not. I have the cam stored in my jacket chest pocket and when I reach in to remove it there is a chance that I have bumped the small rear button the device has. This button turns the cam on to menu/setup mode. The top button cycles options. So it may be I press the top button to start recording but the device is in menu mode then does not record. (update I have ordered a magnetic base to let me keep the cam on the fuel tank for easy access in future)
The Cube has foolproof operation. Hold the top button, a green LED on top of the cam illuminates to indicate turned on. Press button once to take a still photo the LED will change to red as it takes the photo then resumes green. Press the button twice in quick succession and it records video. The LED flashes red to indicate it is recording then press button once more to stop. When the battery is getting low the LED indicates this by flashing orange. I can see all this clearly while riding.
The Hero 5 Session has a red LED at the front and rear that flash when operating so I should be able to tell if it is recording but I cannot see these lights clearly in daylight use so far. Messages appear on the Hero 5 Session screen when powered on but mostly I do not see them as I am riding while operating the cam and not able to focus on that. One day I filled the sdcard and kept trying to use the device all afternoon not seeing the small message on the screen telling me the card was full. I did see the battery low message on the screen once as this shows in a larger font using the whole screen for a moment then clears. Anyway the fact that is has a screen to tell me things is good and I just need to try adapt to seeing the indications it provides.
There is a wind noise reduction mode for video on the Hero 5 Session but on a moving motorcycle the wind speed is often going to be too high however this still works better than taping up the mic as I tried to do on the Cube but still got very high wind noise with it. The Session battery needs to be charged every day, the Cube would last up to three days with similar use but I don’t mind this too much as the Hero 5 Session seems to recharge fairly quickly and you can see the charging level where as the Cube there was no information on it’s charging nor did it stop or give an indication when fully charged so I tended to leave the Cube plugged in all night not knowing.
You can access the Session via the GoPro Capture app. I have not used this much so far but you can view live from the camera on your phone screen giving you a monitor to operate the cam remotely. This opens up possibilities for some creative photos placing the cam away from you and I need to get my mind thinking about this more in the future. I can recall now a few places on the recent tour where I could have made good use of this to give a different perspective but my mind was only thinking of the photo aspect from handheld. Additionally it has a low light night mode which I discounted at first but if controlling the camera remotely from phone then this mode actually is going to be quite useful to capture things you might not be able to with your phone. You can also change the settings here rather than the camera menu, view and delete things and do simple edits. Someone wanting to share things quickly on the move can also do this via the app. (* well you could if the wi-fi connected but it is hopeless, more later)
GoPro provides two software tools for editing and file manipulation. There is the simple transfer and quick edit program called Quik and the more detailed editing and conversion program called GoPro Studio. Quik works well enough to transfer and manage files for viewing things quickly as the name suggests. I used the GoPro Studio to make the rough video below from a number of clips cutting a few seconds from each and compiling. This editor is very easy to use but it crashed a few times. Anyway I was not expecting any software to be provided so having these tools is great in my opinion and I hope the bugs in the Studio software will be fixed.
Despite repeated forays into the video world via formats dating back to 80’s Sony Handicam 8mm, Mini VHS and Micro DV. And with much better editing than the quick and rough video above – I still find I never again view videos after the final edit. However even my poorest photos I enjoy revisiting. I actually threw away all my older videos when I moved to Japan realising I had never viewed them since they were made and was never going to. I don’t envision doing a lot of video in the future despite recognising that video blogging is the preferred source now days thanks to small phone screens becoming the main viewing device. However GoPro Studio allowed me to throw the above together literally over a couple of glasses of red one night so it is nice to have an easy option open going forward. The Hero 5 Session came with the usual style GoPro mount so it can be attached to other items in the GoPro range of accessories. Likely I will get a couple of mounts in the future to try expand it’s use. Technology is changing so rapidly I wonder if the Lumix LX100 will end up being the last traditional camera I own and things like this and a phone will be what I use going forward. Already more than half the photos on this blog come from my phone and with new models sporting dual lens to give greater depth of field they march on ever closer to being able to replace a camera for all but a few occasions.
To sum up then despite some small things that I am still getting used to I like the Hero 5 Session cam at this early stage. The quality of the images has really come a long way from the old model GoPro’s and is a good step up from my Polaroid Cube. I think Polaroid has better operation method and the 3 colour LED on top is easier to see what is happening. I am going to put the missed recording down to user error for now, I see no problems with operation when I am testing it at home. It is not cheap but already discounted prices are appearing online so I managed to bring the purchase cost down from full retail. So far it delivers the results I was seeking so feel it was worth it.
Update Jan 2017 – below is what it looks like fitted to the supplied case and then attached to a magnetic base to sit on the fuel tank which I will test in a couple of weeks. Still having difficulty to get the app to operate the cam remotely…
Update February 2017. Well my initial satisfaction has faded due to ongoing issues. I have been using the device on a extended ride and it refuses to work correctly. No matter what mode I selected it operated otherwise, and I ended up not getting any still photos at the end of each day even if it was in photo only mode it would revert to video. Trying to connect to the iPhone to see what it has recorded is a joke. It takes so many attempts I was giving up most nights. Then when it does connect I am unable to access the menu. Not sure how such a big company could produce something so poor at wi-fi connection. I wanted to use the camera via the phone by placing it somewhere then putting myself into the frame but sitting around for 10 minutes trying to get it to connect I gave up. So while it has great potential it also has some annoying issues in my experience.
Long term update. Well I am not having a good experience mainly as I find the device often does not record still photos. I have done a factory reset twice, each time this seemed to get things working again. Then the other big issue is it started out recording a still image every 1/2 a second, this was the default when I first turned it on and that still suits me perfectly however now the device no longer does that at all and there is no setting that actually matches that in the menu either. I get a photo sometimes every 5 seconds but then other times every second, then it switches to time lapse mode of it’s own accord… Another issue is connecting it wi-fi to a smart phone is hopeless. You would never be able to use your phone as a monitor to take a photo or video because to connect takes so many attempts and so much time you will have given up. Once you connect one time if you disconnect then try again it refuses and you need to shutdown the device and start from beginning. Bluetooth connection I have never managed to pair once yet. How could they make this so woefully bad. It is not my phone which connects perfectly to my Lumix LX100 it is the GoPro.
Final update I sold it May 2017. It started to have delays on power up taking a couple of seconds before it would operate unlike when I got it which was another annoying element but the main reason I sold was not knowing if it was going to work each time. Nothing worse that finding out at the end of the outing that today the GoPro decided not to take any images and everything you thought was being captured was lost. With the Cube at least it worked every time and never once did not take a photo or video when asked to do so. I won’t be buying any GoPro products again.