The GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition: A Familiar Tale

It appears that teething problems with focus/sharpness are not reserved exclusively for the Nikon D800. After purchasing a GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition last week, I subsequently began reading about a potential issue that affects early batches. It seems that the new lens was designed to be sharper and more in focus at closer rather than longer distances. Hence, a number of complaints began appearing about the overall quality of still images and the video being actually softer than its predecessor, the Hero 3.

Unlike Nikon, GoPro seem quite happy to acknowledge this and will replace units without question as long as they are under warranty. There is a video, however, on youtube which demonstrates a ”quick fix” to the problem which looks a fairly straightforward operation albeit some bravery is required to twist the lens a couple of mm clockwise with a pair of pliers. By many accounts, it actually seems to do the trick. It’s an alternative to sending the GoPro back with the only but pretty serious downside of invalidating the warranty.

From the serial number, I noticed my GoPro was from an early batch. Now, my first D800 had the well documented left AF problem and sharpness on images did seem to be a very hit and miss affair but, in general and after post processing, I could be happy with the results most of the time. I could have sent it back to Nikon for repair but I didn’t. A huge amount of faff to convince Nikon there was a problem to begin with. Then there was the packaging, posting the thing off and a wait of a few weeks in which you were without the camera. There was no guarantee that it would come back any better than it was and I’d read a few horror stories where returned cameras were actually worse. After two years of using the camera and getting reasonable results for the majority of that time, I eventually traded it in for a D800E which appears to be fault free and provides excellent images.

The first thing to do with the GoPro was to shoot some sample still images which I did. However, these were indoors in the evening, at relatively low light. The results weren’t going to be perfect which they weren’t. They weren’t too bad either. It was hard to say whether there was an issue here or not. Of course, there is a very real danger here of becoming ultra-paranoid, begin to pixel peep and find problems that don’t really exist. What one should do is look at the image or video at the size it is going to be published at and ask themselves the question, “Does that meet my expectations and needs for the investment I’ve made and does it compare favourably to all the other published images and videos from a GoPro Hero 3+?” If you find yourself looking too hard and long for the answer then it almost certainly does.

I decided there and then to have a go at the quick fix. It shouldn’t end up being any worse (as long as I didn’t slip with the pliers and trash the lens). The operation ended up being every bit as straightforward as the guy on the video said it would and I used a pair of long-nosed pliers as opposed to the monkey wrench he used. I didn’t even mark the case when prising the two lens covers off. After this, I tried a better set up shot on a tripod and in slightly better light in the kitchen.

GoPro-Hero-3+-Sample-Image

Now, I really couldn’t say whether I had actually improved the lens’s distance focusing but the results, to me, were pretty impressive under the circumstances. After a little PP which I do with most of my images, it looked nice clean and sharp. At this point, I could have started comparing the image to others, put the image under a microscope and analyse it for all sorts of flaws but let’s get this whole thing into some perspective.

The GoPro is a fixed-focus action camera costing £360. Roughly the same price as the new Nikon AW120, a 16 MP all-weather compact. Not exactly bargain basement money but nothing like the kind of money you can pay for entry to medium level Canon or Nikon DSLRs plus lens. Now, this image looks as sharp as from any compacts I’ve owned in the past. As you look at the more distant image elements they do get somewhat less detailed but this is common of any tiny-sensored camera with wide (or superwide) lenses. You really have to balance your expectations with the physical limitations of having only a few pixels per actual image component. Unfortunately, the excessive image compression of the JPEGS from a GoPro will only make this worse, not to mention any blurring from camera shake or movement.

The bottom line is only yourself can decide what’s sharp enough and good enough for what you want out of the camera. The truth is, the above example beats the pants off any of the similarly priced compacts I owned merely a few years ago. I could have returned the GoPro, waited weeks for a new one and missed out on taking it on South America/Canada adventure which is the reason why I bought it in the first place. I could have then struggled to have seen any difference or improvement in the new one when finally taking receipt of it.

 We have tools these days that just make it too easy to be overcritical of equipment and technique. Do your images/video capture the moment? Could you use any other device under the circumstances and get better results? How will you be using the images/video? If the biggest they’ll ever get will be on an iphone, post-compression via facebook or your youtube channel, do they need to have superlative image quality?  Are you wanting 40” x 60” inch exhibition prints with walk-up access so they can be viewed from inches?  Well, I’ll let you in on a secret – If you’re looking for that, they ain’t gonna be coming from a GoPro. Period. In my particular case, I’d simply use my Nikon D800E.

The whole point is that if you’re reasonably happy with the results you’re getting in the setting or usage you need them for,  then be happy and enjoy. Don’t beat yourself up over that billboard sign that can’t be read far into the distance of your GoPro still image because some guys on a forum are telling you that you should be able to. The quest for that extra ten percent of performance and/or quality will end up costing thousands rather than hundreds more and drain any enjoyment right out of, what is essentially, a cheap and cheerful means to capture magical moments in your life.

Last but not least, to have achieved the kind of videography that’s possible today with a GoPro would have been far out of the reach of the average Joe just a few years ago, much less 5 or 10.

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