Posted on March 9, 2011 by

GoPro Hero HD – First Impressions

The GoPro Hero HD has pretty much become the de-facto high definition point-of-view (POV) camera. Everyone from car enthusiasts, bike riders, fishermen, skiers, snowboarders, police, military, and even the MythBusters use them now! The Hero HD is a no frills powerhouse of a camera. On the actual camera you won’t find much more than a lens, a few buttons, and an LCD screen. The most versatile part of the GoPro is the waterproof shockproof case which can be mounted to just about anything you can think of, but this waterproof case has a small underwater problem.

Last sunday I purchased the GoPro Hero HD with the helmet mounts ($349 CDN), not that I’m going to use a helmet while I’m fishing, but because it was the only 1080p version (720p, 960p, and standard definition models exist) that I could find in Toronto. These things have apparently been flying off the shelves all winter, no doubt the snow sports crew have really taken a liking to these and it’s easy to see why. The POV style camera puts you in the action. Watching a video of someone going down a mountain on a snowboard is much more intense. You don’t just feel like you’re watching a video, you feel like you’re there, like that’s you going down the mountain.

The footage from the GoPro is simply fantastic, even indoors with poor lighting I was impressed with the image- much better than my Sanyo Xacti. It would be easy to say that the GoPro Hero HD is the perfect POV camera for anyone, but maybe it isn’t. Early in my testing I discovered something bizarre when putting my camera underwater the video was quite blurry and immediately noticeable when playing back on my 40″ HDTV. I thought at first it was a focal length issue since I was filming inside a small aquarium, but even after moving to our large 90 gallon tank (which I also used when testing the Sanyo) the resulting image was blurry at best.

Underwater Woes?

The curved lens on the underwater housing causes some minor (depends on who you ask) distortions when shooting underwater resulting in blurry and unfocused video. As a fisherman I’d say that almost half of the shots I’d be making with my GoPro will be underwater and when you’re shooting in high definition (1080p) even the slightest blur or lack of focus can ruin the scene. This is not an unknown issue, I only wish I had paid closer attention to some of the support forums. Here is GoPro’s official statement on the underwater clarity issue.

Due to the curved lens of the waterproof housing for the HD HERO camera and standard def Wide HERO cameras, you will notice a slight loss of sharpness with underwater images. We are developing a flat glass adapter / housing specifically for underwater use, thus allowing for the same image sharpness that you enjoy with your GoPro camera above water. Please sign up for our newsletter to receive an update for new product releases.

This is not the end of the world for the GoPro, there are hacks and replacements out there that fix this issue by adapting a flat lens. The most elegant solution I have found thus far is this flat replacement lens that fits the existing body, but I’m not sure many GoPro owners will be happy to know they have to shell out another $50 bucks just to get clear videos when underwater. Still there are even more expensive solutions like replacing the entire underwater housing, or building and hacking your own lens over the top of the manufacturer’s housing. The reality is that all of these are less than desirable for anyone that just shelled out 300-400 dollars on this camera.

By now you’re probably asking yourself how bad could it really be? To be perfectly honest, it’s not that bad for action shots or the occasional dunking, but once you see footage from a GoPro with a flat lens you’ll never want look at the blurry footage again. Take this example from Jazz and Fly Fishing where they created a DIY solution out of a UV Filter and the cap for a baby bottle. The comparison is quite profound.

As it stands I’m not sure how I feel about the GoPro, I’m actually considering returning it- but only so that I could by a cheaper version, or possibly one with the additional flat lens. I’m going to have to decide if the current mounts I have are worth it to me along with the additional price tag of the $50 flat lens replacement. I wrote to GoPro to get an update on the situation and to find out if the lens replacement will be offered to current owners or sold as an accessory. I’ve added emphasis to the most relevant bits.

Due to the curved lens of the waterproof housing for the HD HERO camera, you will notice a slight loss of sharpness/focus to underwater images. Currently, the camera is not marketed as an underwater camera. It is definitely waterproof, however, it was not designed to be primarily used underwater. We apologize if this was disappointing for you. We are developing a flat glass adapter / housing specifically for underwater use, thus allowing for the same image sharpness that you enjoy with your GoPro camera above water. This will be an accessory that customers can purchase separately. Please sign up for our newsletter to receive an update for new product releases.

So there you have it, the GoPro is not an underwater camera though the waterproof case will allow you it to go underwater and they are already developing a flat glass lens adapter and/or an entirely new housing. Fair enough, the overall quality of the GoPro is still fantastic, and solutions exist to address the issue and restore the amazing HD clarity to your underwater videos. Just know that if you’re serious about shooting underwater you’re probably going to need to buy or build a flat lens adapter.