GoPro Hero4 Session review: enduring the unforgiving New Zealand terrain

It's significantly smaller and lighter, but how well does it record video?

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GoPro Hero4 Session
  • GoPro Hero4 Session
  • GoPro Hero4 Session
  • GoPro Hero4 Session
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • One of the smallest and lightest action cameras around
  • Proficient video recording
  • Easy user interface
  • Waterproof to 10 metres without housing
  • Strong range of mounts that don't add much bulk to its size

Cons

  • No still-photo mode directly from the camera
  • Can accidentally activate the wrong mode
  • Expensive

Would you buy this?

Ordinary cameras can’t capture some of our proudest moments. Most can’t withstand droplets of water, icy temperatures or sandy environments. They can’t follow us into the action. And this is why GoPro’s range has spawned a following of loyal, diehard fans.

The company’s latest camera is its most inspired yet. It is called the Hero4 Session, and because it is 50 per cent smaller and 40 per cent lighter, it can fit into places other GoPros find inaccessible.

It looks utterly inconspicuous. A tiny, black body harbours a digital display and two buttons. A small trap door casts protection over a micro-USB charging port and a microSD card slot. All of this has been crammed into the confines of a 74 gram cube, giving the Hero4 Session the look of a single die. You could pick it up and toss it around in your hand with the same ease.

Another party trick separates this camera from the range. It is the first GoPro camera that can be submerged in water without the need for protective housing. The company claims it will work in waters 10 metres deep; both in freshwater and saltwater.

The Hero4 Session from the back. It does not support microSDXC and therefore can't take cards larger than 32GB
The Hero4 Session from the back. It does not support microSDXC and therefore can't take cards larger than 32GB

The biggest problem facing such a small camera has to do with how it is used. Are two buttons really enough to cycle through a myriad of shooting modes and resolutions? GoPro makes it work, although there are teething gripes and imperfections.

It works by combining the functions of a power button with that of a record button. It powers on and instantly starts recording 1080p video at 30 frames. A longer, 3 second hold turns it on and commences timelapse photography. Stopping and turning off the camera happens when the same button is pressed again. It’s a bare-as-bones system that helps capture fleeting moments with minimal effort.

Matters do get a little complicated when the camera is mounted out-of-sight, such as when it is affixed to a helmet, as it is hard to gauge its shooting mode. It is easy to accidentally press the button for too long, or not long enough, and the result can be a bunch of photos instead of a video.

Any activity that involves gloves exacerbates this problem. The gloves we wore when snowboarding in New Zealand were large and numb. The camera's audio cues were drowned out by the gusty wind. Rarely could we tell if we were recording a video or a sequence of timelapse photos. We got it right — most of the time.

More functionality can be milked from the camera when it is connected to a smartphone. GoPro’s app can be used to change the resolution, tweak various settings and view the photos that have been taken. The display of your smartphone also doubles as a viewfinder to help frame shots. The two communicate over Wi-Fi direct and, when the GoPro has Wi-Fi enabled, it can be turned on and switched off remotely from the smartphone.

The GoPro mounted to 'the handler'. The camera could do with a dedicated sequence for still shots, perhaps a quick double press, as cycling in and out of timelapse mode grows tiresome quickly.
The GoPro mounted to 'the handler'. The camera could do with a dedicated sequence for still shots, perhaps a quick double press, as cycling in and out of timelapse mode grows tiresome quickly.

People considering using this GoPro as their primary camera should reconsider. It captures 8 megapixel still photos with varying success. The Session is a specialist camera and its speciality is landscapes. GoPro’s software renders bright blues and bold greens, all the while keeping image noise down to a minimum. Complex lighting challenges it, which is the case when a large shadow cuts through half the frame. The well lit side will be rich in colour and detail, while the other will be lacking, rendered mostly in a shallow shade of black.

It can be used to take the odd photo quickly if there’s no other camera around. Group photos and selfies are less convincing due to the camera’s extremely wide lens and its subsequent barrel distortion. When taking still photos, the Session is no better than the cameras found in today’s leading smartphones, which also edge ahead with an LED flash.

Taken with the GoPro Hero4 Session
Taken with the GoPro Hero4 Session
Taken with the GoPro Hero4 Session
Taken with the GoPro Hero4 Session

Videos are recorded with much greater success. The camera supports a wide range of resolutions, maxing at 1920x1440, and is capable of slow motion recording, with Full HD videos at 60 frames per second and HD videos at 100 frames.

Two microphones are used to identify, process and record audio. It will switch between the microphone at the front and the back for the best results, and because the housing for the Session is skeletal, the microphones are as close as possible to the action.

We tested the camera in a variety of situations while holidaying in New Zealand. The camera’s petite footprint meant its presence was barely intrusive. It was small and light enough for us to wear, mounted to a helmet, for a whole day without ever finding it inconvenient.

Recording a video when snowboarding down Coronet Peak was revelatory of the Session’s attention to detail. The sun shone on the snow for a shade of white that was blinding, and yet the camera captured all of its characteristics in clarity. There’s the large clumps, the fine grooves and the powder kicked up by fellow skiers. Sony’s rivalling X1000V camera proves better versed in its rendition of blue, with the sky captured by the Hero4 Session coming off as soft, but that is a camera several times greater in size.

We experienced the same softened colouring when riding a luge. The camera dulled the bright background in order to capture the details concealed in the shadowy track. All of the colours were softened as it strained to juggle the illuminated background with the dark foreground. It did achieve a commendable balance and managed to keep everything in focus as we raced towards the finish line.

The camera performed best during a jet boat ride in Lake Wakatipu, where the green of the foliage lining the river bed was bright and bold. It was mounted to ‘the handler’, a floating freehand grip, and although we were at pace and the camera was being helmed in all directions, the video was always crisp, with it quickly focusing and rapidly adjusting to suit the constantly changing light.

Read more: Olympus TG-850 review

Water sprayed onto the camera as the jet boat was performing stunts. The few drops that drizzled onto its lens required a quick wipe only, as it continued to work as normal.

It was while jet boating — and driving up Coronet Peak — that we noticed the GoPro’s software attenuating unwanted sounds. The microphones cancelled much of the engine noise and most of the wind. The soundtrack was legible, clear even, but certainly manipulated. Most will appreciate that the camera automatically tweaks the audio. Others might want to hear the engine burbling loudly. This is all a matter of personal preference.

Built into the camera is a rechargeable 1000 milliamp-hour battery. During a battery test, where we left the camera continuously recording Full HD video at 30 frames per second, it bested GoPro’s claims by lasting for 2 hours and 14 minutes.

GoPro pioneered the action camera category, and although rivals are clawing at its feet with competing iterations, the Hero4 Session is another large step forward. No competing camera can take it on in both performance and size. When it is worn, the small and light profile helps it hide in the background, for that sense of freedom.

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