I often get asked whether GoPro cameras make good travel cameras and whether you can take a GoPro exclusively and leave the larger traditional cameras at home.
It’s a good question. GoPros have a lot going for them that make them an attractive option to throw in the backpack for a travel adventure. And while I’m focusing here on using them for photos, their video quality is excellent for the price and size. They’re small and light, rugged, and the image quality is remarkably good. And they’re very easy to use.
But there are also downsides, so before you rely exclusively on your GoPro for that once-in-a-lifetime trip, here’s a rundown of what I see as the main pros and cons.
I should also make clear that I’m talking here about non-professional travel photography. That is, when you aren’t creating the photos for clients, editors, or stock agencies. All of those have a different level of quality and technical requirements that GoPros mostly can’t meet—at least, not yet.
They’re tiny. They’ll fit in your pocket. So there’s no problem with trying to find space in your luggage or exceeding carry-on limits. And no security guard is going to stop you from using a “professional” camera.
They’re rugged. GoPros are built to go in places that cameras have no business going. Heading on a beach holiday? Sand and water is no problem. Heading to Southeast Asia during monsoon season? GoPros will handle the downpours without breaking a sweat.
Point and shoot. The automatic settings aren’t perfect for every situation, but they work surprisingly well across a remarkably broad spectrum of shooting. And with the new night modes, that includes night time and low light as well.
Wide-Angle. GoPros come with that distinctive ultra-wide-angle fisheye look. It’s possible to change the settings to a narrower perspective, but that’s just cropping the image. But wide-angle can be a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful for big subjects or if you can get in very, very close to take the shot. It can create a great immersive look that especially suits action shots. If you want to capture the immense scale of being under the main dome of St Paul’s Cathedral or the cramped quarters inside an Antarctic expedition lifeboat during a drill, wide-angle is the way to go. But most of the time it’s pretty terrible for wildlife unless you can get up close and personal with the animals, and it’s often not great for people shots unless your subjects don’t mind being a bit stretched.
The rule of thumb is that you’ll need to get in very close to your subject or it’ll be small in the frame. And you can remove the fisheye effect in post-processing.
To compare it with a perspective you might already be very familiar with, here’s an example compared with the perspective from an iPhone 6.
Here’s another example. They were both shot from the same spot, with the cameras one on top of the other, and haven’t been cropped at all in post-processing. You’ll also notice the very different in-camera results–I haven’t applied any post-processing or color correction to either of them.
Battery Life. This is a biggie. You’re going to spend a lot of time managing the battery life of your GoPro. In ideal conditions, you might get a few hours of use if you’re lucky, or maybe a little more. But most of the time you’ll run out of juice well before a day is out even with conservative shooting.
There are strategies you can use to overcome that. You can swap the battery out (Silver and Black only, but not HERO4 Session), use an external battery pack, or add a long-life battery (again, Silver and Black only), but making sure that your camera is ready to go when you need it will require some planning and dedication while you’re traveling and is likely to become a bit of a pain at some point. So have a plan in place before you go.
No Zoom. It’s a fixed lens, so there’s no zoom. There’s a narrower field of view mode, but that’s not an optical zoom-it’s just cropping the image.
Responsiveness. One of my pet peeves with GoPros is that their controls aren’t as responsive as they could be. What I mean by that is two things. One is that the shutter is mechanically spongy. That’s by design, to stop accidental shots, but it means that the shutter pushes back when you try to press it. The other is that the software simply isn’t as quick as it could be. The combination of those two things is like the old shutter lag problem on steroids—they are quite sluggish. It doesn’t matter much when shooting video, but if you’re trying to take photos of a fleeting moment or something moving, there’s a reasonable chance you might miss the shot. And that’s especially true if you turn the camera off to preserve battery life—they take a long time to turn on.
And come to think of it, there’s a third area of this responsiveness issue. GoPros have a notorious habit of locking up from time to time. I’ve owned a bunch of GoPros of different models, and although newer models seem to be less prone to it, it still happens.
Controls. The GoPros in the current range offer some control over things like ISO setting, exposure compensation, exposure meter type, and shutter speed. But accessing those options is a real pain compared to most cameras. If your subject is staying still and you have time to fiddle, great. If not, your best bet is to treat it as a fully automatic camera.
Color Balance. The image quality for GoPros is excellent for brightly-lit outdoor shots. That’s the bread and butter shot for GoPros. But in other scenes, the color balance can be a little too cool. You can change it in something like Lightroom or Photos, but out of the camera, the color balance doesn’t suit every scene.
Where GoPros Beat Smartphones
These days, most of us carry a camera around in our pocket in the form of a phone. And the camera functions in them can be very, very good. As well as every-improving lenses and low-light performance, they have apps or functions that include time-lapse, burst mode, manual exposure control and, of course, HD video. And because they are by definition connected devices, it’s simplicity itself to share the photos even in real-time with friends and family or the wider world on something like Facebook, Instagram, or 500px.
So if smartphones can do all of that, why not just use your smartphone? That’s not a bad option, but taking along a GoPro does add some value.
They’re rugged. The obvious one is waterproofing and all-around ruggedness. And even in the most civilized travel you’re probably going to run into times when water is a factor, most likely from rain but perhaps it’ll be from the spray of Niagara Falls as you go out on the Maid of the Mist. There are a handful of phones available that are specially designed to withstand splashes of water or even a light dunking. But most phones are allergic to water. And getting a fully waterproof casing for a smartphone is possible, but it introduces other limitations.
And it’s not just about being waterproof. A GoPro in its housing is much better at dealing with being dropped and knocked than most smartphones and is less paralyzing if it breaks.
Mounting Options. GoPro realized early on that having a camera that could go anywhere wasn’t much good if you couldn’t put it everywhere. So they created an impressive array of mounting options that has since grown exponentially as third-party manufacturers got in on the action. If you can think of somewhere to attach a GoPro, chances are there’s a mounting accessory that will do the trick nicely.
Privacy. This is probably a second-tier issue, but there is virtue in a camera being a camera and nothing else. Stuff can disappear when you’re traveling. You might put it down and leave it on a sidewalk cafe in Rome or it might be pilfered by a pickpocket on downtown Bangkok. If that happens to a GoPro, you’ve lost a camera and perhaps some photos. If it happens with your phone, you’ve lost a phone, your photos, and your means of communication. And maybe the phone’s new owner now has access to all your email, contacts, and web logins. In short, losing a GoPro can be annoying, but losing a phone can be a major problem.
Where Smartphones Beat GoPros
GoPros are great, but there are things that smartphones do better.
Sharing. The big area where smartphones trump GoPros is in the ability to share your photos quickly and easily. Smartphones are natively connected; GoPros aren’t. This is an area that GoPro’s CEO has said they’re explicitly trying to improve looking ahead, and the new Quik and Splice mobile apps are a big step forward, but it’s still not as seamless as sharing a photo directly from a phone’s camera.
Battery Life. Even the most basic phone has much better battery life than a GoPro. And it’s not even close—smartphones win hands down.
Tips for Using a GoPro as a Travel Camera
Plan ahead for battery life. Whether that’s taking spare batteries, taking an external battery pack to charge the camera on the go, or adding a long-life battery. Most of the time you’re going to be away from your hotel room or cabin for more than 2 hours at a time, so if you want the GoPro to be ready to capture that magical moment, it’s going to need some juice left.
Get in close. The wide-angle perspective can be great, but if you’re standing back from your subject, it’s just going to end up a speck in the frame. So get in close and make the most of the immersive perspective that wide-angle provides.
Set the default to Single Photos. In the settings menu, you can specify what function you want as the default when the camera turns on. If you want to use the GoPro as a stills camera, set the default to Single photo. You can also specify other settings that apply to that such as ISO limits and exposure compensation.
Use some kind of case. They might be rugged, but the lenses of both the camera and the housings can still be scratched in the rough-and-tumble of travel. And scratches are bad news for sharp photos.
Take some anti-fog inserts. This is mostly relevant if you’re going anywhere that’s damp and/or humid (or for snorkeling or diving). GoPro housings can fog up in some conditions. An anti-fog insert can soak up the humidity that’s caught inside the housing and help prevent blurry, foggy photos. They’re cheap and light and easy to pack just in case. You can find them here.
Take a Combination Self-Stick/Tripod Stand. Like this (and don’t forget a tripod mount adapter). These lightweight and collapsible options come in very handy in all sorts of settings. And they pack away much small and lighter than regular travel tripods.
Use the Highest Quality Photo Mode. Yes, the files take up a little more space, but it’s not that much in the grand scheme of things, and you won’t end up regretting that you skimped on resolution when you want to blow that once-in-a-lifetime shot up as a print to hang on your wall.
Plan Ahead for Backing Up Your Photos. This isn’t specific to GoPros, but it’s pretty easy to fill up a memory card quickly with a GoPro if you’re shooting high-resolution video, although that’s much less of a problem with still images. Here’s a post on how much footage or photos you can expect to fit on different-sized memory cards. There are various strategies to not running out of space, from taking spare memory cards to backing up to a hard drive or the cloud on the go. I use one of these, which has a built-in card reader (although not a native microSD slot), but it’s probably overkill just for a GoPro (I use it for all my travel shoots.) A more cost-effective option for traveling with a GoPro is something like the WD MyPassport Wireless which also gives you the benefit of being able to take your data like movies, files, or music with you just like a regular portable hard drive (it has a built-in SD slot, so you’ll need to take a cartridge adapter as well, but they’re very cheap and come with many microSD cards). Oh, and make sure you get a memory card that’s fast enough to take advantage of all the GoPro’s video modes–here are some recommendations.
Settings and Accessories
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a GoPro out of the box and shooting with it as-is. But when using a HERO4 Silver or Black as a travel camera, there are a few minor things I’ve settled on for my own preferences. [I hope to update this section soon for the new HERO5 Black.]
Aluminum casing. When water and sand aren’t factors, I put my camera in an aluminum casing. It’s not waterproof, but it’s very strong. It leaves the buttons, ports, microphones, and memory card slot easily accessible. You can use either the GoPro mounting system or a traditional regular tripod screw. And you can choose to either leave the lens exposed, which is great for preserving maximum image quality (and there’s a clip-on lens cap). (And yes, as you can see I’ve taped over the brand-name. I tend to do that with all my cameras because I often end up in places where it’s best not to flaunt expensive brand-name equipment.)
Gekkopod. The Gekkopod is a tiny, bendy tripod. It can wrap around a pole or handlebars as well as stand up on a table. You can also use it as a handle for shooting handheld. They really are incredibly versatile, and they’re so small and light that it takes up basically no space in my bag.
Softcase. I use a small fabric pouch. It’s nothing fancy and doesn’t have any padding, but the advantage is that it takes up next to no space in my camera bag. But it does protect against scratches on the lens, which is mainly what I’m going for.
Small external battery. I keep a small, light external battery similar to this one in my camera bag. It means I can charge the GoPro while on the go or even connect it to shoot when the internal battery is dead, if need be.
Exposure settings. There’s no “right” answer for what to settings to use, and it’s well worth experimenting for what best fits your preferences, but here’s what I have mine set on most of the time:
- Wifi: Off. I only turn the wifi on when I’m using something that requires it. Otherwise, it does drain the battery a bit.
- Default Mode: Single. This sets the shooting mode that the camera is in when you first turn it on. It saves time scrolling through the options.
- Protune: On. Turning Protune on opens up a suite of options that aren’t available with Protune is turned off. Protune doesn’t produce RAW photos—they’re still JPGs—but think of it as something like a basic “professional mode.” The photos aren’t going to look as snappy out of the camera, but it gives you more flexibility if your post-processing in something like Lightroom or the GoPro app.
- ISO Limit: 800. Higher numbers give a brighter image in low light, but it often comes at a cost of more grain and image noise. Lower numbers are finer and have less image noise, but the image will be darker in low light. It;s important to note that this setting isn’t specifying shooting at a particular ISO but rather setting a limit for the auto-ISO. The camera will choose the lowest setting it can get away with, so even if you set it to 800, if you’re shooting on a sunny beach it’s going to shoot at ISO 100. But if you’re shooting in lower light, it will try to use the best option up to the ISO limit you set.
- Color: GoPro. The other option is flat. If you truly want maximum control in post-processing set it to flat. The GoPro setting gets you part of the way there.
- Sharpness: Low. I prefer to apply sharpening in post-processing, and it’s much easier to add sharpening than remove its effects. But unless you plan to add sharpening in post-processing, the High (default) or Medium settings are a better bet. I have a detailed explanation of Protune sharpening options here.
- Exposure Compensation: 0. When shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless, I’ll often underexpose slightly to bring out rich colors. But GoPros don’t have an especially wide dynamic range, and they don’t shoot in RAW, so there can be limited latitude to recovering shadows or highlights. Aside from some specific situations that have difficult lighting, applying no exposure compensation works very well.
- Default Mode: Single. This is the mode that the camera starts in when you first turn it on. It saves fiddling with the controls every time you turn it on.
- Auto Power Off: 5 mins. It’s easy to forget to turn a GoPro off, and it doesn’t take long for the battery to run out. So having it turn off automatically after 5 minutes of not being used helps preserve the battery while also keeping it on long enough to be convenient.
Charging and Compatibility
GoPro’s charge with the USB standard. So long as you take an AC adapter or travel adapter like this that’s compatible with the socket in whatever country you’re in, you don’t need to worry about things like 110V vs 220V (or 240V) (at least, not when it comes to your GoPro or most other mobile devices). Nearly all USB AC chargers on the market now are 110-220 switchable, but that’s something worth checking on your device before jetting off.
So whether you’re headed to Europe, Australia, or Africa, just be sure to take a standard travel adapter and you’ll be all set. I take one of these to charge all my USB devices at once.
When I first posted this, I recommended the HERO4 Silver, largely because the built-in LCD screen is very convenient to have when traveling. It means you can see what you’re shooting and frame the shot with more than guesswork. There are ways to do that with the other GoPro models, including the Black and Session, but they involve either attaching an LCD screen on the back (HERO4 Black only) or using some kind of remote option like the GoPro phone app or dedicated remote viewer.
The HERO4 Silver is still an excellent choice, but since then, GoPro has released a new model: the HERO5 Black. It takes the best of the HERO4 Black and HERO4 Silver and combines them into one camera. It also has GPS, which is very handy for traveling. And it has better photo modes, including a new RAW image format, which is good to have if you’re shooting once-in-a-lifetime photos. For the same reason, but applied to videos, the built-in video stabilization helps with smoother footage. And, finally, the new models is compatible with GoPro’s new cloud service, which is useful if you’re traveling without a computer. So the HERO5 Black is the camera I’d recommend now if the price difference between the HERO4 Silver and HERO5 Black isn’t an issue.
That said, any of the GoPros will work well as a travel camera. So if you already have one, there’s really no reason you can’t use what you already have.
I have more detailed comparisons between the models at these links:
- HERO5 Black vs HERO4 Silver
- HERO5 Black vs HERO4 Black
- HERO4 Silver vs HERO4 Black
- HERO5 Black vs HERO5 Session
So can you use a GoPro as a travel camera? Absolutely. So long as you work with its limitations and play to its strengths, you’ll end up with some spectacular photos of your adventures, and probably some that there’s now way you could have gotten with a more traditional camera. And as a nice bonus, you can shoot some top-notch video to boot.
It’s especially suited to things like beach holidays, anything involving water sports, and anything adventure-y. It’s also great for holidays with the kids. It’s less suited to urban travel visiting the sites, but it will work for that. They’re generally not very good for going on safari because the wide-angle lens will just leave the wildlife as tiny specks in the frame.