GoPro Filmmaking: How To Make It Work For Your Film

This post on GoPro filmmaking was updated on February 6, 2016

GoPro filmmaking
GoPro filmmaking can be a key ingredient in your film production.

GoPro filmmaking is no longer confined to action video shoots. It can and should be a part of your camera arsenal. I refer again to what I call "The Crayon Box Principle."

I often refer to the this idea, and the metaphor of the crayon box when it comes to my craft as a visual storyteller. The backstory can be found here, but the general idea is that the tools you use rank a distant second compared to your passion for telling a story with the tools you have.

Does GoPro filmmaking fall into this category? Absolutely.

Using a GoPro for filmmaking

Of course, how you use those tools matters if GoPro filmmaking is your workflow of choice. GoPro videos require a certain amount of compromise, but that hardly means you can't make a great movie by incorporating a GoPro camera into your workflow, or even using it as your main camera. GoPro camera uses include, but are not limited to:

  • sports and action photography
  • Outdoor videography
  • Cutaway camera work
  • Drone photography
  • Dolly or tracking shots
  • Interviews (see below)

And of course, wherever your needs take you for GoPro videos. Without going too much into commercial mode, I am becoming a bigger fan of having a GoPro camera or two as part of the standard tools I use on a shoot, and judging by the number of GoPro videos out there, I'm  not the only one considering GoPro for filmmaking. I'm as surprised as anyone about this, because I am a proud gear head when it comes to camera equipment. Issues like appropriate ISO settings and the particulars of Canon versus Nikon cameras and lenses and the difference between DSLR and DSLM matter to me. Hey, I actually pine for the days when a camera was a to if it weighed less than 20 pounds. However, I also realize  once my video gets sent to YouTube, a lot of what I really care about gets lost in the compression no matter how hard I try. Figuring out how GoPro filmmaking firs in the mix is on the table in this world.

That's not a bad thing.

About half of the shots in this promotional video for the documentary/web series I'm creating right now were shot with a GoPro camera.  It was an incredibly useful tool and I'm sold on including GoPro filmmaking as an option on a shoot.

However, while goPro filmmaking is on the rise, like any tool, if you use it well, a tool can help you get a job done. If you don't use it well, it won't help. A hammer is a great tool... as long as you don't need to remove a molly bolt. So let's talk about how to use your hammer, your GoPro camera, to tackle all those nails sticking out on your shoot.

GoPro filmmaking works best in expansive outdoor settings

Like any camera that uses heavy-duty compression technology in order to shoot high definition and 4K footage that can fit on something as small as a micro SD card, you're going to lose something, and there's just no way around that. The footage is impressive, but the lower the light source, the harder the compression technology has to work, and you see the difference in the lower end of the midtones and the blacks. Grain is a problem and shadows are less textured than you may like, but it's less of a problem in sunlight and wide shots.

A GoPro camera is as small as it is because it has a fixed lens

We can use GoPro for filmmaking in a professional environment, but that does not mean it's a professional camera. What you see in the shot is what you get. There are visual tweaks you can make via the iPhone app. However, your zoom option is whatever physical distance you are from your subject. It's the rough equivalent of using a DSLR or SLR camera with a pancake lens (a lens with only one focal length.

While you can, with some GoPro cameras, mess around with frame rates and even tweak your ISO, bracket your exposure and switch color profiles, you still have to play in the GoPro playground. you should also keep in mind that many of these adjustments can only be made in the app. You are very likely running and gunning while using a GoPro camera or don't have easy access to the app, so your planning should include knowing how you are profiling the the camera for use on any particular portion of a shoot.

Of course, the audio options are limited if your production is relying on GoPro filmmaking techniques, and if you're shooting around water, you're very likely using additional waterproof housing, so the internal audio is going to be very muffled. I could write an entire article about audio for GoPro filmmaking, but it comes down to this: you need a dedicated audio capture device whose clips you can sync in post.

Getting professional looking footage from a GoPro camera

Accepting that a GoPro camera is, at best, a prosumer camera, is essential to understanding how to use it to get professional results. This is just the truth and again, there's no way around it. It's prosumer at best. So know going in that there will be issues professional cinematographers would never tolerate. Chromatic abberations, vignetting, jaggies and so forth.

So I want to offer even more tips to keep in mind. Remember, it's a balancing act.

Focusing on zoom

The lack of an optical zoom lens is the number one drawback to using GoPro for filmmaking, and I want you to consider this solution: shoot in 4K, edit in 1080. GoPro cameras started including a 4K at 30p option in the high end model of theHero 4 line and yes, as I write this advice, I can see the heads of videographers and DPs exploding in rage, visions of blurred edges and jaggies driving their meltdowns, but I want you to keep an open mind about this.

If you're shooting at at 4K, but importing your footage into a 1080 timeline, that footage you import, in its native resolution is more than twice the size of the canvas you're using to edit on. Think of it like placing a 3x5 index card on top of a business card.  This bears repeating - when you edit, you are importing clips that are larger than your editing canvas. Your editing software may automatically scale you footage down to fit the canvas, but the native resolution in all its oversized glory s still there.That means you have a bigger picture than you may need, and you can scale it up without going over the 1:1 pixel rule for editing. Layman's terms: 4K footage you scale up in a 1080 timeline won't look as fuzzy as 4K footage scaled up in a 4K timeline.  If you're happy with your shot, great. Scale it down to fit in a 1080 timeline and you're good to go. If you want to see a closer shot of something in your shot, scale it up. You can scale up quite a bit and still not reach the 1:1 pixel ratio of a 4k clip in a 1080 timeline.

When I've found myself away from my other cameras and needed to shoot an unexpected interview in a hurry, I've used a GoPro Hero 4 came that can shoot 4K, and when the subject says something with a particularly powerful impact, I can do that slow push in during post production and still maintain a sharp picture. I can add snap zooms and pans if I need them b y including the wide shot in the production and scaling it up in post.

The downside, of course, is that you can't scale up a 4K image (or rather, you shouldn't)  in a 4K timeline without getting blurry shots with the scaled up pixel ratios. In a 4k timeline, you're back to "what you see is what you get," so you're forced down to a 1080 or less timeline. However, I think we need to ask ourselves this big question: how badly do we really need to present a 4K film? Will distributing in 1080, or even 720 be enough? Yes, 4K is the latest new toy, but how many viewers are playing with it? I present in 1080. I have yet to meet a single viewer who has complained that the resolution wasn't god enough. Overshooting the intended distribution resolution gives you more freedom when applying GoPro filmmaking workflows to your project.

Carry external lighting

There's really no way around this. We've talked about the compression technology in current GoPro cameras. You notice it if you're shooting indoors. That's why GoPro cameras are still mostly marketed to outdoor videographers shooting GoPro movies. If you're pushing a GoPro camera to its limit by using it as an A-cam an indoor shoot, or as a B-cam indoors for cutaways,  you should have at least one external light, and potentially two or three (key light, fill light and back light). I like Lowel lights and recommend them for both kits and as standalone units.

Carrying more stuff does seem to be the exact opposite of everything a GoPro camera  and GoPro filmmaking stands for... mobility and spontaneity. But here's the truth: you're using a GoPro camera in a way it was not originally intended to be used, and you're probably doing it because it's the camera you can afford, or it's the camera you have when you find yourself in a pinch. That's OK. If it's guerrilla and budget filmmaking we're talking about, unconventional solutions are the name of the game. Rule number one of production: get it made. We make do with what we have. So this is how we solve problems. It's our crayon box, remember?

Get the app

If you haven't downloaded the GoPro camera app, do it as soon as you can, and learn it well. It gives you a scaled down version of what no shoot should be without: a production monitor. You will, of course, not be using your GoPro camera app for critical color decisions, because an iPhone or an iPad is not a professionally calibrated monitor. We know this. But you need to know what you're framing, and you also need to know where you're getting potential vignetting and the fisheye distortion (GoPro uses a fisheye lens). If you're shooting in 4K for that 1080 timeline, you can overshoot your footage by at least 10-15% and crop out the more offensive fisheye effects in post.

Yes, these are all make-do solutions that you don't have to contend with if you're shooting with a Red camera, or even a midline DSLR. However, we are in what I call the "Deep Water" age of filmmaking... or the "Paranormal Activity" age, if you prefer, and it's why GoPro filmmaking is on the rise. Literally anything can make the big screen and an audience will tolerate it, especially if the flaws ot the camera become parts of the story (for example,if it's supposed to look like found footage). Further, as the article I referenced points out, if you need an underwater shot, an overhead tracking shot, a camera mounted to any kind of vehicle or craft, this is more than your best friend. It's your lifeline on the way to seeing your story come to life.

Items mentioned in this post on goPro filmmaking include:


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