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  • Writer's pictureJon Bunker

The Action Cam is Dead: Long Live the Action Cam!

Why incremental updates might mean the next camera you buy in 2024 could be a Gopro Hero 13…



The simplest concepts are often the best, and I think we can all agree Nick Woodman struck gold by single-handedly inventing the action camera market in 2004 with his 35mm film then digital (2006) Hero camera line. Pairing the smallest available camera with an underwater housing and mounting it to a surf board for watersports fans to take their own shots in the middle of the action was genius. That was only the beginning of course, and the GoPro Hero quickly cemented itself as a camera for the masses enjoying the great outdoors and almost any sport.


Whilst the company has certainly had its share of tribulations; an overdue and poorly executed Karma drone as well as dents to its market share from legions of copycat systems, the product has so far overcome all contenders to its throne. The term ‘action camera’ will still confuse some today, but almost everyone has heard of a GoPro and knows what it looks like. Things have also undoubtedly slowed somewhat: the current pace of incremental upgrades is a far cry from the whirlwind of earlier generation shifts, where the cameras doubled in power and resolution from one to the next. Gopro has, very sensibly, learned from its lessons and quietly got on with pushing a premium alternative to the imitators. To date the most serious challenger is DJI with their Osmo Action series of cameras and proven success with drone photography- more on that in a bit.


I should really confess my lack of Gopro expertise before I get too far into this blog: if you’ve read the rambling chronicle of my experiences in underwater photography, you’ll know I’ve a real admiration for the footage and stills friends with Gopros have captured. Ultimately, I only got as far as picking up the entry-level Gopro HERO in 2014, which was terrific fun but extremely limited as an underwater camera. It came down to trying to maximise the available light (not bloody much, diving mostly around Portland as I do) that made me realise I needed to get myself a dedicated stills camera with a larger sensor.





All that said, a lot of friends today still carry a Gopro with them out on (or below) the water and they can’t all be wrong. Indeed, as long as you are prepared to use them in the scenarios that play to their strengths, the results can be truly impressive. They excel on sunny days with plenty of available light to let into the fixed f2.5 aperture, especially in shallow water when there is greater visibility. Last July, I was in awe of this shot by Paul ‘Duxy’ Duxfield, who has kindly let me post it here:




It was taken on one of his recent Snorkel venture photography trips and shows what can be achieved with a small action camera in the right hands. As Duxy himself has commented:

 'They’re very good at what they do, which is very wide angle uw photo and video, but they’re less capable of close up or fish ID pics.

However they’re small enough to carry alongside another camera, and accessories like the split dome I’m using here are ludicrously inexpensive.'


And that’s the key point, really, with so many of us venturing into relatively shallow water for our underwater photography, a lightweight camera that you can travel with easily still has a lot of appeal.


Speculation


I was fortunate to make my first trip to Malta last May, which included a bit of diving in addition to a lot of lounging around. I felt pretty pleased that I could pack my entire current underwater photography setup into my meagre Ryanair carry-on, but I must admit a Gopro would have been even easier, and would have yielded some similar shots.





I don’t want to get carried away with analogies though, especially in contradiction of my earlier feelings r.e. action cameras vs. compacts. I’m perfectly aware that I’m comparing apples to oranges here, and my rx100 can do much, much more than a fixed aperture Gopro. Yet these more recent Gopros have made strides to bump up the sensor size (literally upwards- thanks Tiktok) resulting in gains in dynamic range on the 1/1.9” Gopro 11. The push for better dynamic range and low-light performance is also clearly a big deal for DJI, as they announced the Osmo action 4 with a ‘class leading’ sensor. I guess this blog is asking if now might be time for the oft-requested larger-sensor Gopro to make its appearance?


To my knowledge, Gopro has been using Sony sensors since their third model, and the idea that had the rumour mill if not quite aflame, then, gently smoking toward the end of summer 2023 was that GoPro might -just might- surprise everybody and ‘go big’: @tech_insights4U posted these images on Twitter -sorry- ‘X’ suggesting the inclusion of a 1” sensor. This could only feasibly have been the Sony IMX989, a 50MP smartphone sensor being incorporated into higher-end camera phones, such as the Xiaomi 13 Pro.





The leaker also (more believably) claimed a September launch with a slightly larger screen and improvements to the 4k modes. 8k at 30 fps was also mentioned, but seemed absurd as there are relatively few individuals recording in that resolution for personal use.

Whilst the existence of the IMX189 didn’t make the sensor size leap impossible, it didn’t seem to quite fit that incremental business model of Gopro which I mentioned earlier. Nor could the upgrade be realised without trading off against some of the features and smaller form-factor that Gopro fans have come to love over the years. There might be further trade-offs in terms of focusing distance that could potentially alienate a segment of the fan-base, as it might not even be an ‘action camera’ any more.


The GoPro Hero 12


It's a moot point of course, as the GoPro Hero 12 was announced to the world on the 6th of September 2023. Unsurprisingly, it came packing exactly the same chip, form factor and maximum video resolution of the Hero 11, although with twice the battery life of its predecessor, upgraded hypersmooth image stabilisation and wireless mic support for the bloggers.

Despite that launch, I haven’t given up hope for a 1” sensor yet, though I appreciate I may be attaching too much importance to the sensor size alone. With DJI upping their Osmo Action Four sensor to 1/1.3” I suspect GoPro will -in their own time- follow suit, increasing their low light performance.


Interestingly -well I find it interesting at least- Gopro would not be the first to market a 1” action camera. Back in 2017, Sony released the quirky RX0, which was treated to an update in the form of the RX0ii in 2019.






Perhaps given its hefty price tag, Sony never actually marketed the rx0 as an action camera, despite the rugged build. Instead, the focus was on the syncing up fifteen of these together for multi-camera film and tv work. Fans of the cameras, or at least those who could work out who the camera was actually intended for, swear by this 15mp minibeast and I gather they have also been used successfully in stills photography by some travel and urban shooters. I was certainly tempted at one point, Sony fanboy as I seem to be, but the price tag was insurmountable and it seemed to me the form factor stripped away the controls you would easily access on something like my current rx100Va.


Back to GoPro then: it will be fun to see what this September brings from Woodman et al, and whilst a HERO 13 might not be the top of my photography gear wish list yet, if they keep on improving the recipe in this way, I could easily see myself persuaded next time round. But then again, I’ve been saying that since they produced ‘The Adventure of Life’ this masterclass in advertising back in 2014:




‘Life is either an incredible adventure, or it’s nothing at all' I can fully understand why for some, GoPro still appeals as a lifestyle as much as a camera!







Thanks again to Paul Duxfield for the use of his fantastic split shot.

If you’re interested in attending one of his underwater photography trips (I know I am) do check out: https://www.scubatravel.com/new/escorted/paulduxfield.html


Speculative GP12 mock-ups from @tech_insights4U


Thanks finally to GoPro for making some genuinely interesting products for the underwater photographer -and everyone else.


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