GoPro cameras are best known for shooting video, but they can be surprisingly good for taking still photos too. The trick is to work with their quirks and limitations rather than fighting against them. And the best part is that they’ll be quite different from what you can get from your smartphone or “normal” camera.
GoPros don’t do everything the same way as other cameras. That can be both a plus and a negative. By default, all GoPros are set up to work in fully automatic mode. Some, like the HERO8 Black, let you take some, but not full, manual control by changing ISO and shutter speed. The ultra-wide fisheye lens isn’t a good fit for traditional people photos because it makes their features look distorted, but it can be very effective if you’re in close to the action or are looking for a dramatic wide look. The battery life on GoPro’s isn’t as good as many compact cameras, and there’s no control over focus or (real) zoom. But they also have some very strong features going for them.
GoPro HERO8 Black Bundle for $349.99
GoPro.com has a special holiday bundle that includes the new HERO8 Black, a Shorty grip/mini-tripod, a POV head strap, a 32GB SD card, and a spare battery (in addition to the one that's already included with the camera as standard), all for $349.99. It also includes free 2-day shipping within the US (place the order by 12/19 for 12/25 delivery). The deal ends 12/26. You can find it at GoPro.com.
GoPro model names can be confusing, and they’re not always consistent generation to generation. The HERO8 lineup has one camera in it; the HERO7 lineup had three.
The HERO8 Black is the flagship model and has the most extensive set of options for taking photos.1
Overall, the photo modes of the HERO8 Black are very similar to those on the HERO7 Black. There have been some tweaks here and there, as well as some handy new features, but there’s a lot of overlap between the two models in terms of the general approach and feature set.
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So here’s a rundown of the photo modes available on the GoPro HERO8 Black.
12MP Image Sensor
The GoPro HERO8 Black has a 12-megapixel sensor. It produces photos that measure 4000 by 3000 pixels. That’s an aspect ratio of 4:3.
While 12MP is on the smaller end compared to many other current cameras, including compact cameras, it’s still comfortably big enough to print at full resolution at larger than 8×10 prints. And it’s more than big enough for sharing on social media or online. For comparison, some of the most popular current smartphones, like the iPhone 11 and Pixel 4, also produce images around 12MP.
Some earlier models of GoPro had the option to save smaller images. Some had options for 7MP or 5MP. That was useful at the time when it when smaller-capacity memory cards were the most cost-effective. But now that 256GB and even 512GB SD cards are readily available and surprisingly affordable, there’s really no need to skimp to that extent on the image size anymore. Even if you’re shooting long time-lapse sequences or going hog-wild with the burst modes, you can easily fit many thousands of 12MP photos on a card.
There is an exception. If you’re shooting in the new LiveBurst mode, you can choose between 8MP and 12MP sizes.
Another important aspect is that the sensor is physically quite small—much smaller than many larger cameras. That’s relevant for two reasons. One is that it limits the low-light performance. The GoPro HERO8 Black has a relatively limited ISO range before the negatives of higher ISOs—things like grainy, noisy image, reduced dynamic range, less-accurate colors—start to become noticeable. The other is that the images right off the sensor can lack some sharpness. GoPro masks that by applying some fairly aggressive image sharpening as part of the default in-camera processing.
Photo Output Formats: RAW & Standard (JPG)
In most of the ways you can shoot in the Photo mode, you’ll have a choice of output formats. The first is now called Standard; it used to be called JPG.
The other is RAW. The past few generations of GoPro Black edition cameras have included the option of shooting photos in a RAW image format. It was first introduced with the HERO5 Black. It’s based on Adobe’s DNG format and uses the file extension .gpr.
NOTE: Some of the shooting modes have a couple of other output choices: Superphoto and HDR. I cover them separately below.
The RAW image files make available more of the information that was captured by the camera’s sensor. With all that extra image data available, it’s possible to produce better image quality. At least in theory. In practice, I’ve found that GoPros’ in-camera processing does a pretty good job in creating the JPG versions and that the RAW data doesn’t preserve as much extra dynamic range in the shadows and highlights as you might hope or expect compared to some other cameras.
There are also two main disadvantages to using the RAW output format on the GoPro HERO8 Black, and both are definitely worth knowing. The first is that you really need to process RAW files and export them in another format, such as JPG, before you can do much with them. That’s partly to make them look better—unprocessed RAW data doesn’t look very good—and partly to put them in a file format that other people, labs, and online services can actually use. That part is true of RAW files from any camera, but where it becomes more of an issue with GoPros is that there are very few apps that can read the GoPros’ RAW image format. Even though .gpr are based on Adobe’s dng format, there aren’t many imaging apps that can work with them.2 The most notable exception is Adobe Lightroom Classic. If you don’t use Lightroom, I’ve posted a workaround that uses a free app to convert GPR files to DNG.
In part because of that, GoPro has also built in a safety net. And that is that when you choose the RAW format for your photos, it actually saves both a GPR and a JPG version at the same time. So it’s really what other cameras would call RAW+JPG. That has a few advantages. One is the safety-net aspect—if you can’t open the RAW files, you can use the JPG as a fallback. Another is that the flexibility that you can use the smaller and ready-to-go JPG versions for quick sharing or using in the mobile app while also having the master RAW version available when you get around to downloading the files to your desktop.
It also has a couple of disadvantages. One is that saving both files at once uses up more space on your memory card.
The other is that it slows things down. After all, it’s crunching the RAW and saving a JPG version. That delay means you have to wait for a few seconds before you can take the next shot, which can get annoying. A workaround is to shoot in continuous mode, but that’s not always convenient or desirable and doesn’t so much solve the lag than delay it.
I generally use the RAW option when it’s available. And one of the notable upgrades with the HERO8 Black is that RAW is now available in more still photo modes (it was more limited with the HERO7 Black). That includes even the fastest burst modes.
That said, it’s still not available for every shooting possibility on the HERO8 Black. Anything that generates a processed image will only be available when you’ve set the output format to Standard (if you’ve set the output to Superphoto or HDR, it will only save JPGs). Shooting modes that only work with JPG are:
- Changing the FOV (field of view)
- Digital Zoom
- Time-lapse Photo when the interval is less than 5 seconds
- Continuous Mode
The way it’s handled with Continuous Photo is particularly confusing; more on that in the Burst Photos / Continuous Photos section below.
Fields of View: Wide, Linear, & Narrow
The fields of view, or FOVs, determine how much of the scene is captured. The HERO8 Black has the typical ultra-wide-angle view. That is great for creating an immersive look and for capturing a lot in the frame, but the distorted fisheye look isn’t a good fit for every scene or taste. And it works best when you’re very close to the scene, something that’s not always possible.
The HERO8 Black, therefore, has some different fields of view available when shooting photos. And GoPro has given it some new names to make it sound more impressive, matching it roughly to 35mm equivalent focal lengths. These are mostly grist for marketing—it’s not actually any different in practice than FOVs on the HERO7 Black or HERO6 Black. With the two FOVs where a focal length range is given, that’s accounting for using it in combination with the digital zoom.
The default is called Wide, or W. GoPro says that it’s the equivalent of a 16-34mm zoom.
There’s also a Linear FOV, or L. This uses the camera’s built-in software to try to correct for the optical distortion of the fisheye lens by straightening lines that would otherwise be bent. The scene also gets cropped from the sides. Linear FOV is especially useful when shooting from drones and trying to avoid massively curved horizons, but it can be useful whenever you want a more natural-looking perspective. GoPro says that the Linear FOV is the equivalent of a 19-39mm zoom.
Finally, there’s a Narrow FOV, or N. GoPro says that this is the equivalent of a 27mm lens on a full-frame camera (there’s no range with this one because the digital zoom isn’t available with the Narrow FOV.
Things Worth Knowing About FOV on the HERO8 Black
The Linear and Narrow FOVs are the results of software manipulation, not optics. That is, they’re processed by the camera’s onboard software. That means that they only work with the Standard (JPG) output format. If you’re shooting in RAW, only the Wide FOV (without the digital zoom) will be available. But you can get a similar effect in post-production using shots taken in the Wide FOV if you’re using Lightroom Classic.
The Linear FOV cannibalizes parts of the image to work, so you’ll notice some cropping from the edges of the scene and potentially some stretching as well.
Manual Exposure Controls / Exposure Control
GoPros are designed to work well on automatic everything right out of the box. If you want more control over the exposure when shooting photos, you can control two of the three sides of the exposure triangle.
Using the Protune options (more on those below), you can manually set the ISO and shutter speed. The one you can’t control is the aperture; GoPros have a fixed-aperture lens that’s rated at ƒ/2.8.
There’s also another option that gives you some control over the exposure that’s kind of semi-manual. That’s a feature called Exposure Control. The standard automatic exposure calculation is taken across the whole scene in the frame. Exposure Control lets you choose a more specific point in the scene to base the automatic exposure calculation on. An example might be if you’re photographing a person on the snow, but it’s exposing for the whole scene, and therefore, their face is dark. You can select the face as the area to expose for so that it brightens that up (and will probably overexpose the background at the same time).
The HERO8 Black doesn’t break any new ground over its predecessor regarding ISO. The range is still 100 to 3200.
Worth noting is that if you switch to Night Photo mode, the available ISO range is more limited, from 100 to 800.
It’s still working within the confines of a small sensor, though, so the image quality at high ISOs is decent but not great. In practice, the higher ISOs start to show degraded image quality relatively quickly. For photos taken indoors or in lower lighting, you’ll notice increasingly noisy/grainy photos with reduced color accuracy and reduced dynamic range (i.e., the images will look harsher).
The way to change the ISO is to go into the shooting options. You can set an ISO Minimum and an ISO Maximum. The automatic exposure will stay within those confines, preferring the lowest ISO it can get away with within that range.
If you’re trying to match another sequence of images and want to assign a specific ISO, you can just set both the ISO Min and ISO Max to the same number.
Manual Shutter Speed
If you go into the Protune settings for the Photo shooting mode, you can set a manual shutter speed. You’re limited to some presets. They are:
They’re all rather quick, so they’re most useful for freezing fast action or reducing the risk of camera shake.
There is a way to get much slower shutter speeds, but you actually have to shift out of the main Photo mode into the Night Photo mode. There you’ll find different shutter speed presets of:
- 2 seconds
- 5 seconds
- 10 seconds
- 15 seconds
- 20 seconds
- 30 seconds
Exposure compensation is a partial form of manual control. Rather than designating a specific setting, it lets you influence the automatic exposure. If a photo is coming out brighter than you’d like, you can apply a negative exposure compensation value to underexpose it by a stop or two. Or if a scene is coming out too dark, you can boost the exposure compensation into positive values.
The GoPro HERO8 Black has up to 2 stops over and under available. This is useful if you want to partially override the camera’s autoexposure to make the scene a little darker or lighter.
The catch is that it’s somewhat tedious to use. There’s no one-button way to access it while you’re shooting (it would be great if you could just slide up or down on the screen when composing a shot, for instance). To change the exposure setting, you have to go into the shooting settings.
Like every other GoPro, the HERO8 Black has a fixed-focus lens. So you can’t adjust the focus.
But the upside is that it has an extraordinarily deep focus. It’s very hard to take a photo with a GoPro that’s out of focus (motion blur is a different issue), even if the subject is right up close to the camera.
SuperPhoto & HDR
The sensor in the HERO8 Black isn’t very strong in low-light or high-contrast conditions. That’s not a problem in brightly and evenly lit scenes, but if you have a lot of shadows and highlights, you can end up with some less than ideal exposures. If you’re shooting in Standard or RAW output modes, the results in those types of shooting situations might be a bit disappointing.
But there are two other photo shooting features that can help with those: Superphoto and HDR. Both of these take advantage of in-camera processing to enhance the image before it’s saved to the memory card. Neither of these is new, as such—the HERO7 Black also had them, and previous models had earlier iterations of them sometimes under different names. But with the HERO8 Black, they’ve been further refined and improved.
You find both of these in the output settings. Both will save JPGs only—because they’re processed images, they’re incompatible with the RAW output option.
Superphoto is a collection of tools rather than a single image enhancement technique. Alongside the HDR element are local tone mapping and multi-frame noise reduction. The camera analyzes the scene and decides which of the tools to use, if any. Aside from using just HDR or turning the whole thing on or off, you don’t have any other control over the tools in Superphoto.
The results aren’t always dramatic, but they’re usually an improvement. And while I’ve been a bit ambivalent about Superphoto in the HERO7 Black, the version here does seem to be an improvement from my initial tests. The contrast tends to be better, and the colors richer. And there’s often more striking detail. Most importantly, the results are starting to look more natural than in previous iterations.
But there’s something important to know: SuperPhoto isn’t compatible with the RAW format. I generally shoot RAW when possible, and while the benefits of SuperPhoto do often result in a somewhat better image, they’re not really anything that you can’t do in an imaging editing app worth its salt (such as Lightroom). If you’re sharing your photos straight out of the camera, it’s a nice feature to have, but if you’re already planning to process your photos in another desktop imaging app (or something like SnapSeed on mobile), it’s less compelling.
GoPro is calling the HDR (high-dynamic range) feature in the HERO8 Black “Improved HDR.” They’ve tweaked and improved the algorithm, but it does fundamentally the same thing as the version in the HERO7 Black. While I like the concept of recovering detail form highlights and shadows, HDR is something that can look strange when not done well. And the HDR coming out of GoPros, including the HERO8 Black, often has an unusual color tint that makes it look too unnatural.
One important consideration with using either Superphoto or HDR is that they’re slow. And the HDR feature doesn’t work well with fast-moving subjects, since the way it works is to take a rapid bracketed sequence of images to pull out the best exposure from each of them and blend them into a single image. So you’ll likely be waiting for at least a few seconds before you can take the next shot. If you’re looking for quick response between shots, use the Standard mode to save JPGs and have a memory card that’s fast enough.
GoPro has revamped the way you access Protune options on the HERO8 Black. With earlier models, you had to turn on the kind of expert mode before you could access these enhanced settings. I’ve never been much of a fan of that approach. While I can see the appeal insofar as simplifying for users who don’t want the clutter, it also means that it adds unnecessary clicks, steps, and menu items to those of us who do want to access those controls.
With the HERO8 Black, the Protune name is still there, but the settings aren’t segregated out anymore but are more directly accessible. To me, it’s an improvement and complements the new custom shooting presets feature nicely.
I’ve already covered a number of the main Protune options that are relevant to shooting photos with the HERO8 Black in the manual controls section above. Other things you can control include white balance, sharpness, and color mode. These have been standards on several generations of GoPro Black editions, and as usual, they only apply to JPGs and when using the Standard output setting.
Burst Mode, Continuous Shooting, & LiveBurst
The HERO8 Black has three ways to capture rapid sequences of images: Burst, Continuous, and a new Live Burst mode.
The first is the Burst mode. It captures a predefined number of images over a predefined length of time. The fastest is 30 images in 1 second. The slowest is three images in 1 second. The options have been extended on the HERO8 Black. They are:
- 60/10, 60/6, 30/10, 30/6, 30/3, 30/1, 10/3, 10/1, 5/1, and 3/1.
There’s also an Auto option, which works slightly differently in that it will capture as many images as it can while still prioritizing exposure. I have a more detailed explanation and examples here.
A similar feature is Continuous photo. Rather than capturing a predetermined number of photos, the Continuous capture feature will keep shooting while you hold down the shutter button. That is, if you press the shutter and release it right away, it will take a single photo. If you press the shutter and hold it down, it will take a sequence of continuous photos. It can shoot at either 3 or 30 photos per second, depending on the lighting conditions.
One somewhat confusing thing about using Continuous photo is the way it reacts to different output settings. Continuous photo only saves JPG files. If you’re pressing and holding the shutter and it’s only taking a single photo, it’s most likely because you’ve got the output set to RAW, Superphoto, or HDR. If you change the output setting to Standard, it should fix the issue.
LiveBurst is new for the HERO8 Black. It pre-rolls the shutter to capture 1.5 seconds before and after you hit the shutter. When you press the shutter, it saves a rapid sequence of 90 still images (or a 3-second 4K video clip). You can choose between 8MP and 12MP image sizes.
It’s very similar to the regular burst mode, but it’s especially useful for fast action when you’re not exactly sure when it’s going to start.
The lens on GoPros is fixed. While it’s technically possible to attach an external lens, I’ve yet to come across one that actually works well. So, for the most part, you have to work with a fixed ultra-wide focal length.
Like its two predecessors, the HERO8 Black does have a zoom. But that’s not as exciting as it might sound at first, because it’s a digital zoom, not an optical zoom. That means it’s basically a glorified crop.
Zoomed in, the camera will still create images that 4000 by 3000 pixels, but they don’t have any more detail than you’d get by cropping a non-zoomed image. You can find more details on GoPro zoom and examples here.
You access it with a slider on the back screen. When shooting photos, the Zoom option is only available when saving JPGs. If you’re not seeing the zoom slider on the screen, it could be one of two things. The most likely is that you have the output setting set to RAW, Superphoto, or HDR. If so, changing it to Standard to make the zoom slider reappear on the camera’s screen. If that doesn’t fix it, the less likely culprit is that you’ve changed the personalized onscreen shortcuts. You can find more about how to resolve that in the GoPro HERO8 Black manual on page 32. You can also use that to move the slider to elsewhere on the back screen.
GoPros have a regular Photo mode and also a Night Photo mode.
The most important distinction with the Night Photo mode is that you can select longer shutter speeds. The available options are:
- 2 seconds
- 5 seconds
- 10 seconds
- 15 seconds
- 20 seconds
- 30 seconds
There are some other minor differences once you switch to Night Photo. There’s a more limited ISO range available, from 100 to 800 (compared to 100 to 3200 in the regular Photo mode). And you can’t choose HDR or Superphoto as output options (you can only choose between Standard and RAW).
A self-timer doesn’t sound like much of a feature. Cameras have had them for decades. But surprisingly, it’s something that has only been available on the past couple of GoPro models.
The self-timer on the GoPro HERO8 Black has three options:
- 3 seconds
- 10 seconds
One of the things I don’t like about using GoPros for still photos is that they’re sluggish. The HERO8 Black is no different in that respect. They’re great at taking rapid bursts of photos in preset sequences in the Burst and continuous modes, but if you’re shooting individual photos, the shutter is very sluggish to capture the shot, and then it takes quite long to process and save the image files. You’ll notice that especially if you’re shooting with the RAW, SuperPhoto, or HDR image output.
The camera also takes too long to power on—much longer than most other cameras.
One nice improvement that GoPro has made with the HERO8 Black is adding the ability to use custom shooting presets. So you can create your own shortcuts for specific setting combinations you use often. These can really help speed up switching between groups of settings.
Photos Taken with a GoPro HERO8 Black
Here are a few sample general travel-style photos I’ve shot with a HERO8 Black. I realize these aren’t the kinds of photos that you see in GoPro marketing materials, but that’s rather the point—I want to focus on how GoPros can be used for a wider range of uses than just extreme action shot and to provide something different to the marketing shots.
Some of these were taken in RAW and some in JPG. Many have been lightly processed, in part because I find that the camera tends to underexpose a little for my tastes, so I’ve often had to nudge up the exposure and contrast slightly. I haven’t used any lens profile corrections to fix the fisheye distortion, although that’s certainly an option available.
You can click on each image to open a full-size version.