Tips for the best GoPro settings when using AirDog
GoPro is so much more than a camera… (well yeah, it’s a company, hi Nick)
But it’s still a camera and its unforgiving nature will make one learn to not to mess around with the settings if you have no clue what you are doing. It seems that most are fairly acquainted with basics and the lingo of modern day videography, but sometimes the weather or the location might throw you a challenge and it’s always important to be ready for that (life is too short to be cruising on auto settings). Our crew has experienced many of these so called challenges (more like disasters) on our filming trips and I would like to share some learnings and tips so all of you can get some rockin’ footage from your AirDog!
First off you got the choice of the cameras, you got Hero3+, Hero4 or Hero5. I would call this the easy part, because the choice is simple - go with the newest one. Hero5 offers pretty ok-ish digital image stabilization (which is still better than not having any at all) and some notable usability advancements whereas the older ones don’t have any stabilization added but the setting features stay almost the same. So if you have the chance, I would suggest to go with the Hero5.
Now that you got your camera choice settled let’s dig into the settings.
Let’s start by looking at the popular RESOLUTION choices we have here - 1080p, 2.7K and 4K. The size matters (a popular misconception) and by looking at the obvious numbers here 4K is the biggest picture size offered, but it comes with some limitations (must have good lighting) which we will touch in a different subject. When thinking about resolution you should think about how much your are planning to do with it in the editing process. Most of the footage fixing effects (stabilizing, positioning and etc.) require zooming in and by doing that you might lose some quality if the resolution isn’t set for the purpose. From this standpoint I would instantly scratch 1080 as an option since anything you do to the footage afterwards will include zooming and by that you drop from 1080 to 720 (and that is not the way we do things in 21st Century) and even if you are not planning on doing much with the footage I would still avoid using 1080 unless you want to do some 120 fps super slow motion shots. So we are left with 2.7K and 4K and at this point it’s all up to you, keep in mind that shooting 4K requires more SD card space (64gb would be decent for 4K workflow) and you will be limited in WIDE field of view (might catch some propellers in the shot, massive lens distortion and makes the drone feel further away than it actually is) and 24-25fps. I would suggest using 2.7K as your everyday setting (provides frame rate options, field of view variations and still gives you room to work with the footage in post) and using 4K when you're feeling a little frisky (no fps or fov options, but gives you a wide and vivid look).
Next up we got FPS, Frames Per Second or frame rate which is the one responsible for slow motion possibilities. Every resolution has it’s frame rate options and the higher you go on the resolution mountain, the less choices you got in frames per second. Since you rarely know if and when you will want some slow motion elements in your production it’s wise to always leave some room for slowing the footage. As we concluded in the last paragraph, if we pick 2.7K as our go-to resolution you got 24, 25, 48, 50fps options whereas 4K offers us only 24 or 25fps choices and 1080 goes up to 120fps. If we shoot 2.7K we choose 50fps (the highest one available) not only for editing purposes, but for shutter speed effect as well (we’ll get to that in time young grasshopper…). 50fps can be slowed down up to 55% and that is enough to get that smooth looking slow motion when needed.
Your Field of View AKA FOV parameter options are Wide, Medium, Narrow and the newest addition, Linear.
Let’s start off with the new guy Linear (an original choice for a child’s name by the way), what this setting means is that it has the least lens distortion (fish-eye effect or warped horizon) possible on a GoPro, so if you don’t like the distortion and you like your movies to feel more like cinematography, then I would suggest using this setting when possible. The three brothers Wide, Medium and Narrow are quite simple to pick apart.
Wide is a no-go in most cases due to making the subject (you) a lot smaller in the whole picture, but it can work in some cases when you want this massive scenery effect in your shot.
Medium is the standard, you’ll never screw up with this one turned on.
Narrow is the most “zoomed in” setting you can have, I suggest using this if you have to set AirDog up high above the trees or whatnot.
Now when all the basics are covered it is time to slip into something more complicated - Protune. If you think that using this mode makes you a Pro GoPro user you might be mistaken, but you sure are on your way there. If you don’t want anything to do with this Protune sorcery you can be well off without it, but it does give you a couple of advantages for post production (the part where you edit the footage) and an overall increase of video quality (by enabling Protune you gain a slight increase in bitrate - how much information aka data is captured per second - but keep in mind that it will take up more card space). The settings under Protune tab require some advanced knowledge about the video capturing process and how it all works together, but I will go through the settings for both - those who just want an extra couple of bits per second and the ones who would like to understand the correlation between the parameters.
Color panel lets you pick between GoPro color scheme or Flat. Basically, you choose between GoPro coloring the shot for you or you do the color grading yourself in post. Flat profile reduces the contrast (it makes the shadows and midtones brighter) and saturation of the shot, giving you more neutral colored material to grade afterward. If you know how to color grade footage then the Flat profile is the one you should use for the maximum efficiency, but if you are not that familiar with this process I suggest you sticking to the provided GoPro color scheme. All of the videos produced by AirDog are done in the Flat color scheme unless it’s a quick and simple project where post production time is limited.
Next in line is the White Balance AKA WB. This setting is all about the temperature of the shot. Usually, you can see if the temperature is right by looking at the whites in the shot, if they are white it’s good, if they are blue or yellow then the temperature is either too low or too high. The numbers are pretty simple - the higher the number (light temperature is measured in Ks, Kelvins) the warmer the shot, for instance, the basic temperature of a sunny day outside is approx. 5600K. Temperature is the one thing which is easily fixable in post production (really, it’s just one slider bar), but if you get it wrong while shooting it might cause some problems while trying to properly color grade the footage. I would suggest using Native (~6500K) setting, which is fixed and set in the camera by default, you can do some white balance tweaking in pretty much any basic video editing software. Of course using the proper white balance setting at the start is the best way to go (since it is one of the most basic things people do in any camera), but I would strongly suggest not using the Auto setting since it will change the temperature of the shot according to the environment, meaning the temperature will constantly change in the shot (sometimes for no particular reason) and that doesn’t look good (plus you will hate yourself when you’ll try to balance out the temperature in the post since it is almost impossible). So to sum it up - use Native if you don’t want to screw around too much (keep in mind that this will require you to tweak it in post in some weather conditions) or try to find the right Kelvin number for your conditions (3000K - early mornings/late evenings; 5600K - average daylight; 6500K - cloudy/shade) and never use Auto white balance. Since the Hero5 has a screen it gives you the chance to see if the shot has proper white balance so you should be able to figure this out quite easy.
When the color and the temperature is set, it’s time to head over to the brightness department. The ISO number describes how sensitive the camera will be to the light, meaning the higher the number, the lighter the scene. GoPro doesn’t provide a fixed ISO, what you are actually setting in the camera is the ISO Limit, so if the ISO is set to 1600 then that will be the maximum ISO the camera will be allowed to reach. Remember that if you set a high ISO you will see artifacts (image noise) on the footage (you can’t get rid of it afterward), so it’s wise to keep the ISO limit to a minimum if possible. Another important aspect is that even if you set the ISO to 3200 or more, the camera will only go to that number if the scene is too dark (because it is not fixed to an ISO, you’ve just set a limit), if you set it on a sunny day GoPro will keep it at the lowest ISO possible. If you are going out on a shoot in daylight set the ISO to 400, but if you’re planning on shooting in an early morning or evening (or just a cloudy day) you can set it up a bit higher (shouldn't exceed 1600, because that is the number where you can start seeing the image noise and, possibly, some hallucinations).
The shutter control is the newest addition to the Protune panel but for now it’s the one that is less impactful on the AirDog GoPro setup. As for now Shutter was set to auto and would change depending on the brightness of the scene together with ISO. If you lock your Shutter speed in any of the given values you’ll most likely end up with an overexposed shot at some point of your ride (actual shutter speed for a sunny day on a GoPro would be about 1/1000sec but that value is not presented in the list). So what does the shutter actually do? It tells you how long it is exposing each frame in the video, meaning that slower shutter speed means blurrier shots and faster shutter speed means more crisp looking shots. There is a distinct correlation (since the beginning of time) between shutter speed and frame rate - to capture a smooth looking detailed video the shutter speed has to be twice as the frame rate: 25fps = 1/50sec; 50fps = 1/100sec and so on. Less than half will result in blurry and smudgy footage, but it will never drop less than the frame rate. So if you set 2.7K with 25fps shutter can go as low as 1/25sec (if the scene is too dark) and that will result in blurry footage, to avoid that you can set it to 50fps, meaning it will never drop lower than 1/50sec even shooting in a darker environment and that will never result in blurry end result. Leave shutter speed on auto and don’t touch it until GoPro introduces shutter speed limit setting like it is in ISO panel.
Your best friend in the brightness department is Exposure Value compensation AKA EV. It basically increases or decreases the brightness of the overall scene. EV is going to be the setting that you are going to use when the scene is too bright or (in rare occasions flying AirDog) too dark. For example - if you are using the Flat color profile (which makes the shadows brighter) on a sunny day and you are rocking through the woods, you’ll notice that the woods that are in the shadows look good but the highlights are too bright and that's when you lower the EV by -0.5 or -1 depending on the situation. If the scene is too dark, start by increasing EV and only then turn to ISO limit if needed, the same if the scene is too bright just crank down the EV value.
Last but not least is Sharpness, which comes with basic options - High, Medium and Low. We always use Low sharpness, because you can always sharpen the image in editing, but you can’t properly unsharpen it. Setting it high might cause some rough edges on the scene and some artifacts. Set sharpness to Low, you can always turn it up a bit (you will always notice rough over-sharpened edges in a video, rarely the other way around).
There are some more settings like Automatic low light detection, which should be turned off due to it changing the frame rate to a lower setting (so it can change the shutter speed to a lower setting) which makes the footage go blurry. The same goes for Spot Metering - since the camera exposes light automatically (EV compensation is still just compensation) you can set it to expose the brightness based on the centre of the frame (if you’re in a car and want to film outside through the window), when using AirDog, turn this feature off, because you don’t want the exposure to jump up and down overexposing the shot just because the camera is aimed at a shadowy part of the scene.
Another big part of the whole GoPro game are the accessories. There are some accessories that can help you be more prepared for any unexpected weather conditions, I’m gonna introduce you to some which we use in our productions.
The first thing we are rather keen on is using filters. There are ND (natural density) filters which reduce the shutter speed and there are PL (polarising) filters that reduce the glare of the reflections as well as make the sky pop (there are filters that offer both ND and PL). We use PolarPro GoPro filters which are (in our opinion) the best ones available and work best with GoPros. The Hero4 has different variations of them, but all of them attach externally to the GoPro or the housing, whereas Hero5 has filters that are attachable to the GoPro itself (lens cover on the body is removable by pulling and twisting it counter clockwise). The price range differs and there are notable differences between them - the cheaper filters can add a tone (color tint which is added in manufacturing to make them darker in a cheaper way) on the footage, while more expensive filters are clear and without a color tint. We use ND/PL filters if we shoot on a clear sunny day, where decreasing EV to -2 wouldn’t give the same results (if the whole scene brightness can’t be properly decreased with EV compensation and we need to tone the brightness down for the whole scene not only highlights).
Secondly, we just started using Rain X water repellent in some shoots. This can come in handy when shooting snow sports when it's starting to snow or there is some small raindrops coming from the sky (of course if the weather allows flying AirDog). It’s a spray you put on a sheet of paper towel or a lens cleaning cloth and just go over the lens protector plastic with it. It won’t repel the water, but it will make it drip down the lens so no drops are in the way of the lens.
Lastly, we sometimes use is a custom 3D printed lens hood. If you don’t like lens flares in your shot this is the way to go.
So this is pretty much it, no Copperfield magic tricks (disappointment, huh?) here in AirDog production house, just plain common sense. If you feel like getting to know these settings better, head out and try to change the settings and then compare the footage to see the difference. It’s all about experience, stick to this guide and you will be making outstanding videos in no time!
You can’t spell Action without Action Sports Drone (well, you shouldn’t)!
Stay safe out there and have fun!
Words: Toms Upitis • Airdog Team