Tips for Using GoPro Cameras in Video Production
Whether you’ve snagged a used GoPro HERO 1, or you’ve got three brand-spanking new HERO4s in your gear bag right now, you probably know how awesome these little cameras are. Alone, they can be a bit of a novelty, and certainly don't provide as much versatility as a $5,000 video camera. But in concert with your other A-roll cameras, GoPros are undeniably unique and can provide a captivating image that few other systems can create. In this article, I’ll tell you about how I use GoPros in video production; what settings are important to remember; I'll share the most versatile and useful mounts and accessories I've come across; and finally, how to get the most of out the footage once you start editing.
Worth more than their weight in gold
On countless productions, I’ve depended on GoPros to increase the variety in my video edits, and create a more compelling production—something clients and collaborators alike appreciate. Below are a few examples of how I’ve used them to enhance my productions.
Unique POV shots
While this is the most obvious of uses, you have to get creative. For example, one time I was able to get an impossible angle of a rock climber ascending a route by sticking a GoPro inside of a small crack in the rock. There’s no way an FS700R, or even small DSLR, would have been able to do that.
These are great in video edits to show the passage of time, or to use as transitional clips from one scene to the next. Once you’ve done some basic math, GoPros are quick to set and forget, to snag decent time lapses.
During fast-paced productions, I set my time lapses to an interval of 5 seconds. I set my stopwatch or iPhone to 20 minutes, and let it run. This will yield 10 seconds of video footage on a 24p edit, which is usually enough to get a usable clip. Here's the full math: 60 seconds divided by 5-second intervals equals 12 shots per minute. So, 10 minutes times 12 stills a minute equals 120 stills. 120 stills divided by 24 frames per second (your editing frame rate) equals 5 seconds. To end up with 10 seconds of footage, you just need to double 10 minutes to 20 minutes.
That might be hard to follow, so just remember that 20 minutes at 5-second intervals gives you 10 seconds of footage, or as I call it sometimes, the 20-5-10 rule.
When capturing behind-the-scenes footage a few months ago, after every half-hour I would find a new location to place the camera for a time lapse. They didn’t all turn out great, but the more I shot, the more usable sequences I ended up with. Like Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
GoPro: Upper left
Any time I can find an excuse to include an aquatic video clip, I do it. Underwater footage adds another level of production value. Waterproof housings for large video cameras are expensive and bulky, but with a GoPro inside a waterproof mount, you can place it in something as small as a wide glass, which makes for a really cool shot of someone pouring a drink. When shooting a series of promotional video clips at a city pool, I used a high-end camera for all of the shots on the deck, but then was able to edit in cutaways from below the water for reverse angles.
It goes where no other camera can
I’ve worked around suction mounts for DSLRs on cars, and they have always made me a bit nervous. GoPros have strong enough cases where if they were to take a fall at 70 mph, they would likely take a beating but keep on rolling. Using the GoPro Suction Mounts, I’ve been able to get video clips and time lapses from the outside of vehicles, which add variety to my edit.
Extra tip: I recommend using some strong string or fishing line to tie a backup loop around the mounting arm just in case the vibrations shake the mount loose! Camera tethers can work well for securing your gear, too.
GoPro Menu Settings
So let’s say you’ve got a GoPro already, or maybe you’re going to be on a job where you get handed a case with two HERO3s in it—that’s happened to me! You don’t want to be mucking about trying to read articles like this one online when it’s already too late. Take notes on the following, or do test shoots at home with your own GoPro, with these recommended settings.
Turn this on. It enables more shooting modes and settings for frame rates and resolutions, like 24p. On newer models, you can get neutral picture profiles as well, for easier color grading in post.
60p, 30p, or 24p?
Use 60p when shooting action that you might want to slow down. The footage will maintain its quality, but depending on your model of GoPro, you might have to take a slight hit in resolution (shooting in 720 rather that 1080, for example). Shoot in 30p or 24p to match what your A-cameras are shooting. Generally speaking, I always shoot the highest resolution that I can. No reason not to.
Field of View or FOV
Depending on your selected resolution, you will have an option to select different fields of view. For POV shots, I’d recommend the WIDE setting. For footage that's a bit more zoomed in, go with the MED setting.
When I know that a production day will be jam-packed, I’ll set up the GoPro to One-Button Mode. This setting will make the GoPro start recording video (or taking stills, depending on the menu settings) the moment I power it on. Mount it, power it on, and walk away. Done.
Unless you’re using the HERO4 Silver that has a built-in LCD, don’t forget that with the LCD BacPac, you can control all of these settings, and see a preview of your image. It takes a moment to set up, but once you have it going, it’s a huge help on set—especially if you're working with more than one GoPro. The built-in Wi-Fi functionality on select models in the HERO series is also really useful for monitoring. I’m not going to lie: clients are impressed when you can show them a preview on your iPhone of a hidden POV camera on set.
Having a wide array of mounts to choose from really opened my eyes to what is possible with these magical little video machines. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dumped a small box of screws, cases, sticky mounts, suction cups, and all kinds of other parts out onto the floor in an attempt to find a solution for a mounting idea I had. Below is a list of what I’ve found to be the most useful mounts and accessories in various video production settings.
Sometimes you just need another angle for a multicamera shoot, or a basic behind-the-scenes time lapse. I have about three of these in my bag.
I bought four adhesive mounts when I got my last GoPro, and I’ve purchased a few more since. I’ve used these to place GoPros on kayaks, boxes, helmets, and various support beams in buildings and studios.
The POV from a head mount is a classic angle. Having this mount in my kit is a must, especially when I need to be hands-free.
Action from the first-person perspective is rendered very well with a chest mount harness. I’ll have talent wear one of these during a practice take, and then remove it for the actual shoot. Often, I’m able to use the footage in the edit for a unique cutaway.
One word: Cars. Traveling somewhere? A sweet POV shot of your ride makes for a great transitional clip, and suction mounts make it happen.
The smartphone apps are great for previewing and controlling the settings, but honestly I don’t always have the time to connect to my smartphone just to check the framing. Having the LCD Bacpac shows me what I’m shooting instantly, so it’s been a mainstay in my kit bag.
I keep a handful of spare batteries ready. Like it or not, the battery life isn’t that great for GoPros but, luckily, the batteries aren’t heavy and take up little space. Bonus item: Handwarmers! If you’re going to be shooting in cold weather, put a few handwarmers in a pocket with your GoPro batteries to keep them from draining!
Brunton solar charger
When I will be in the field for an extended trip, I bring a solar charger to give some juice to not only my GoPro, but the wireless back, my iPhone, and any other USB accessories I’ve got.
Sometimes the POV of the action you want to get is impossible to reach, or place a mount in. I use the Eye of Mine extension pole, but honestly, I go on outdoor shoots so much that I mostly use a hiking pole with a threaded top, like this one from Mountainsmith. I can thread my camera right into it, or with a small threaded adapter, I can place a small ball head on it. It’s like having a monopod, hiking pole, and extension pole in one.
In conjunction with the tripod mount, a basic grip handle lets me shoot handheld. I’ve had one of these in my bag since Day One of owning the original Hero.
You’ve got to have a sack in which to keep all of your mounts. I have two bags, usually one for batteries and cases, the other for screws and mounts.
After the shoots are finished and I’m starting to organize and tag my footage, there are a few key things I do with the media from my GoPro. Your results may vary depending on your HERO settings, the NLE you use, and how you like your footage to look, but I think there will be a little something for everyone in the following tips.
First of all, I dump all of the footage right from the memory card onto my hard drive. Once safely transferred, I use Adobe Bridge to batch rename the files from “GOPRXXX.MP4” to something a bit more descriptive and unique to the project. (Tip: if you are on a slower editing system, consider using the Cineform app to transcode your footage. Doing so can increase your editing speed.)
In the edit, I will often find myself trying to match the GoPro clips to the footage from my other cameras as closely as possible. Depending on the camera being used, there are many different looks that I might need to mimic. Using Adobe Premiere, I find that I’m able to get it close by using a combination of Luma Curves and the Three-way Color Corrector, tweaked to taste. Referring to my waveform and vectorscope helps me to dial things in.
I’ve also found that Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks has some nice controls for adding color “Looks” to the footage to improve it, especially if you have low-light video clips. Again, using Curves and some color adjusters is generally all I need.
If using GoPro clips in an edit where the POV shots really stand out, I might even add a special look to them, make them black-and-white with some vignetting or lens flares, so that they stand out even more. These added filters can make my standout footage look treated, as if I intended it to look that way all along. These colorful clips can be a nice break from my usual A-roll, and add lots of visual interest—an important thing to consider in an age of ever-shortening attention spans.
If my footage is a bit too shaky, the Warp Stabilizer in Adobe Premiere can seemingly perform magic on my clips, and can save otherwise unusable video.
The much-overlooked aspect of audio is still a crucial part of any edit. In most cases, you won’t need much of it from your GoPro, but in a pinch, I’ve had to use it as my A-roll audio and, unfortunately, my GoPro was in a waterproof housing. If you’ve ever listened to the original audio from a GoPro, you’re probably well aware that any slight bump or brush creates a very noticeable “tick” or “pop” sound in the audio track.
I tried many different methods to salvage the audio, and even tried to replace the dialog altogether in a studio. (I chose to not use it, because it sounded way too clean and didn’t match well). What I've found works the best is using the EQ filters in Adobe Premiere to ramp up the mids and highs while lowering the low end. This did quite well in rescuing some of the natural sound, but I also made it a little better by sending the audio to Adobe Audition (right from my Premiere timeline) to use its noise-reduction tools. Once back in Premiere, I key-framed around the “pops” using the pen tool, and the audio quality was much better than on the original track.
Mike Wilkinson is a quirky, award-winning multimedia director who is the head honcho of Wilkinson Visual. He has been working in production for more than 10 years as a shooter, editor, and production consultant, from directing documentaries overseas and editing feature-length digital films, to shooting live sports and travel photography.