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Hands-On Review: GoPro HERO4 Session

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Everyone’s favorite point-of-view (POV) action camera got a new look and design when the GoPro HERO4 Session was released. As an outdoor adventure photographer and filmmaker, GoPro cameras have always made their way into my kits for documentary or sports shoots, so I’m no stranger to their benefits in production.

I use the GoPro HERO4 Black whenever I’m hired to shoot for a company or to produce a project for a client. This camera offers the highest possible resolution and plenty of parameters to fine-tune an image for professional work. It seems to me that the new Session camera was built with the adventurer in mind, perhaps more so than the professional filmmaker. That’s not a bad thing; in fact, some of the features are extremely convenient and easy to learn. The flip side is that you lose some of the manual controls and options that owners of the more expensive HERO4 Black have at their disposal.

So, rather than test my Session camera on a video set or as part of a larger production, I used it in a way I felt was more in line with what I perceived to be its intended purpose. I took it on a rock-climbing adventure, and shot a simple, day-in-the-life style video, similar to how many other non-professionals use POV action cameras. Nothing was planned, no special gear or considerations were made—my partner, Jen, and I went rock climbing and the GoPro Session kit came along for the ride.


 

Here’s what I learned from that experience

The Session is purpose built for ease of use, right out of the box. First of all, the camera is waterproof to depths of 33'. There’s no need to put it in a housing for some sweet underwater footage. That’s great news for surfers or swimmers.

The operation of the Session has also been simplified; you can literally just push the top button once, and the camera powers itself on and will start recording HD video. It beeps to let you know it’s working, and a couple of small red LEDs flash. When you’re done shooting a particular clip, just press the button once more. The camera will pause, and automatically shut itself off. How cool is that!?

As I drove part of the way to our climbing destination in Kentucky, I handed the camera to Jen, saying sarcastically, “See if you can figure out which button to press.” On group trips I often see cameras being passed around, so the one-button operation keeps things simple for everyone who might use it.

When I wasn’t taking my turn driving, I fiddled with the free GoPro App to check out what settings existed. Here you can change things like resolution, frame rate (which can also be changed directly on the camera), but also check framing, set the metering options, ISO, and a few other parameters. Just as with the other GoPro cameras, setup of the app is pretty easy, and it’s handy for formatting cards, checking footage, and sharing content on social media from the field.

I had a handful of mounts that I threw into a small Lowepro Viewpoint CS 60, which I strapped to my climbing backpack. The mounts are from older GoPros, but were fully compatible with the new Session camera. I can’t stand it when new products come out that aren’t backward compatible with earlier models, so this pleased me greatly. The Standard Frame for the Session locks into the mounts with a thumbscrew, just like other GoPros, but what’s cool is that a second, Low-Profile Frame is included in the box. This will let you mount the Session much closer to the mount screw, which will enable you to use it in small spaces or get a different angle on a shot, something that is tricky at times with standard HERO cameras.

When we arrived, I just carried the GoPro using a handle accessory that screwed into the tripod mount, which is arguably the accessory I use the most. This let me get some easy location shots on our hike in to the climbing area. The smaller cube size also meant that I could easily stash it in my pocket when I needed to use both of my hands to move about rocky terrain on the trails.

Soon it was time for the action—rock climbing! I put a sticky mount on my climbing helmet and tied in. That’s when I noticed that the Session weighs much less than its counterpart HERO cameras. This thing weighs less than 3 ounces, so it’s ridiculously light—with other GoPros, their weight is enough to make the front of my helmet dip down over my face during the course of a climb. That never happened with the Session. I got some great shots of myself climbing with the Low-Profile Frame attached.

I know that POV shots of climbing can be a bit nauseating after a few seconds, so I needed to get other clips to add to the edit. But how? Well, the Session is so small that I was able to sit it inside cracks and holes in the rock wall, and record myself climbing past it! I climbed with it in my pocket, and when I saw an opening, I placed the camera and re-climbed a section.

I wanted to capture some time lapse while I belayed my partner, and on other climbs I planned to try. I changed the interval and checked the frame through the GoPro App, and then just let it run. Simple. Note that you can change the interval from the camera itself if you don’t have the app available.

It was nearing the end of the day, and as I was setting up for my third time lapse, when I noticed the battery life indicator dropped down to appear that it was just under a half. I’d been using it on and off again since 8:00 a.m. that morning, and it was about 3:00 p.m. Does the Session have longer battery life than other GoPros? It’s hard to say for sure, but I think you’ll get more use out of the Session battery because of how it functions; it automatically powers on to record and then powers off immediately when you pause recording. That means it’s not wasting any battery life. GoPros are notorious for poor battery performance, so this power-saving functionality is a big deal, and I think it will make a lot of users happy. Speaking of the battery, it’s important to note that the Session battery is built-in, so there’s no swapping it out if it dies. Realistically, if you’re using it off and on over the course of a day, it should last you for most, if not all of it. The battery can charge with a USB cable, so plugging it in while driving or not using it will help!

All things considered, the shooting went great! I didn’t notice the weight or bulk of the little kit I had and, with a couple of mounts, I got all the shots I wanted. How did it hold up in the edit, though? I wanted to approach things the way an amateur might, and not be overly critical of shaky camera or color matching or any of that, but instead judge how sharp the footage was, the clarity of the audio, and whether or not I was able to come away with a cool video after minimal editing.

Generally, I thought the footage looked pretty decent for a POV camera shooting only HD, and not 4K. In lower light, the noise wasn’t too bad, but I could tell the footage was a touch soft. In general, the exposure was good and so was the color. The sound clarity was slightly better than other HERO cameras that are used inside of plastic housings, so that’s a plus. The still photos are plenty resolute for personal and Facebook use, but I wouldn’t rely on them for any serious purposes—the base .jpg photo that comes out of the camera is decent but don’t expect it to hold up to a bunch of editing, the way a raw file would.

The time lapses look decent, but I will say that I’m surprised that the GoPro doesn’t automatically process time lapses in-camera or offer a Time Lapse Video feature like the HERO4 Black and HERO4 Silver. The GoPro Studio App will create them automatically when you import files, but not everyone uses that app. Modern mirrorless cameras are starting to offer this as a feature, so hopefully the next version of the Session will have it too—I could see people really appreciating it!

Overall, I think this camera does a few specific things, and it does them extremely well. If you’re a professional videographer looking for a POV camera to use on a paid project, you might not be so jazzed about it, but that’s because this product probably isn’t being catered to you. It’s made for a group of friends who want to go cliff jumping, parachuting, surfing, or on some kind of awesome adventure, and it’s built with that audience in mind. So, if you’re the type to go out and have an epic weekend with some friends, and you’d like a super-simple, high-quality way to capture it, look no further than the GoPro HERO4 Session.

Mike Wilkinson’s interest in sports and the outdoors have taken him across the country and back again, many times over. After years of living in Colorado, Wilkinson has “gone mobile” and completes video assignments for productions all over the United States from the back of his truck, with a little help from cafes with Wi-Fi. When not freelancing or producing video for Wilkinson Visual, he is an avid adventure photographer. In the last few years, his images and videos have been seen in Backpacker, Rock & Ice, Climbing, Red Bull, and Outside. Besides creating images, Wilkinson also loves to share his knowledge, giving presentations at national conferences while regularly contributing gear reviews and editorials to the creative blogs Resource Online and FStoppers.

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