GoPro Hero4 Session: Does a small package still deliver?

Hero4session_top

I’m no stranger to GoPros and I’ve been accused of being a fanboy more than once. When the new Hero4 Session came out, there was no stopping me from getting my hands on a couple so I could share my thoughts with you fine folks.

The new Hero4 Session undoubtedly pushes the limits of how small a camera can be, but spending most of my time on two wheels, the real question for me is: How useful is it for motorcycling? I spent a number of weeks ripping around with the Hero4 Session and there are a number of things I like and a couple of gripes I have that might help you make a decision as to whether the Hero4 Session is worthy of capturing your moto adventures.

Form factor and usability

GoPro Hero4 Session“So small. So stoked.” That’s GoPro’s slogan for marketing the Hero4 Session. The form factor is what sets this camera apart from other selections in GoPro’s lineup. I was impressed not only by the ice-cube-like size, but also by how well GoPro's cases were designed. I found it incredibly easy to mount this camera anywhere and in any direction without the fuss of all sorts of extensions needed for the GoPro Hero4 Black and Silver.

One of my favorite additions to GoPro’s mounting hardware is the ball joint buckle that comes in the box. I’m amazed it took GoPro this long to develop, since third parties have been been doing this somewhat successfully for a while, but better late than never. I made the best use of this accessory while taking photos on a camping trip to Old Forge, N.Y. I was able to snap some pretty cool shots of my Dad and me riding together that I otherwise may not have been able to get so easily.

riding in Old Forge

GoPro has also removed the nut that always seemed so easy to lose from the mounting buckle. It’s about time they did away with those and moved to a more savvy design. Other GoPros also need a protective housing to use safely in water sports or rain, but that’s not part of the Hero4 Session package because it’s already waterproof down to 33 feet. This leaves the lens exposed to any rocks, pebbles, or bugs you might encounter on the road. I had good success with the durability of the lens in street and highway riding, but if you’re riding in really gnarly conditions and happen to scuff it up, GoPro does offer a lens replacement kit.

I also found the Hero4 Session very easy to use with its one-button control. Pressing the record button once boots the camera and it begins recording. Pressing the record button again stops recording and shuts the camera down. This helps the Hero4 Session save battery life. The battery is rated at two hours of recording time. I found I could get almost a full day's use of on and off recording.

GoPro recently released an update that now allows you to change basic settings with the buttons on the camera. Before this update, you had to use a WiFi remote or a smartphone to make those changes, so update your firmware ASAP if you decide to pick one up. Overall, I was impressed by the solid construction and usability of the Hero4 Session, but the small form factor didn’t come without sacrifices.

GoPro Hero4 Session

Video and audio quality

People always ask me how the good is the quality of one camera or another, and it’s always a tough question to answer. Judging video quality is very much subjective. What might look great to one person might not look so hot to another. However, there are certain aspects of the image you can look at that will allow you to compare one camera to another.

GoPro categorizes the Hero4 Session as a “Performance” camera, alongside the Hero4 Black and Silver, as opposed to their “Entry-Level” Hero+ LCD, Hero+, and Hero models. When compared to the Hero4 Silver, which is the step up in the Performance lineup, the most visible detriments to the image are sharpness and dynamic range. In the screenshot below, you’ll see a side-by-side comparison with the Hero4 Silver. Each image has been punched in 300 percent. Pay close attention to the details in the R6 brake caliper and in the trees in the background.

sharpness comparison

Even with both cameras in their standard mode (Protune off, no sharpness settings applied), it’s clear that the Hero4 Silver holds more detail. The Hero4 Session does offer two sharpness modes in Protune mode (On/Off), but I found that changing the setting to “On” didn’t seem to make a visible difference.

In the next screenshot, you’ll see both cameras set to Protune mode for a dynamic range comparison, which is the measurement of how much detail is visible between dark and light areas of the image. Compare the dark area on the wall behind the bike in each screenshot, as well as the light area in the building and sky outside the window.

dynamic range comparison

In the Hero4 Session screenshot, the wall appears much darker and the top of the building outside almost gets lost in the sky. The Hero4 Session can’t quite capture the same range of light that the Hero4 Silver can. The Hero4 Silver has a more substantial sensor and more Protune settings, like the “Flat” color setting used in the above screenshot, that allow you to get a wider dynamic range and are meant to be manipulated in post.

color comparison

Does that mean the quality of the Hero4 Session is terrible? Absolutely not. These are things that are more difficult to substantiate when you’re not looking at images side by side, especially when viewed on smartphones or laptops that are so many people's prime resource for viewing content online.

riding photoThe Hero4 Session still puts out a good image that will be perfectly acceptable to many action camera users out there. The image is not necessarily one that you have to tweak a lot in post-production. You still get a high resolution of 1080p in up to 60fps, which is a great frame rate because of the heavy motion and vibration associated with riding a motorcycle. The option of shooting at 100fps is available in 720p as well, in case you want to have some fun with slow motion. These features are solid for the average GoPro user.

When considering audio quality, the Hero4 Session has two microphones, one on the front and one on the back. GoPro claims that when filming such activities as high-speed motorsports, the camera has the ability to switch between the two microphones, utilizing the one that is optimal to avoid wind noise. While testing the Hero4 Session, I got very comparable results in audio quality to the rest of the Hero4 lineup. As a matter of fact, your ears may not even be able to tell the difference and you certainly won’t notice a difference if you’re not listening to side-by-side comparisons.

On the bike, however, I had varied results, specifically when attaching the Hero4 Session to my helmet. Looking around on the highway or turning my head to check my blindspots yielded huge gusts of wind in the audio that made it unusable. This isn’t much of an issue with other GoPro cameras because of the protective housings and various back doors you can use to help deaden wind noise. I had better success with the Hero4 Session mounted directly to the bike, but results will vary based on the orientation of the camera.

Hero GoPro 4 Session

Photo quality

On my camping trip to Old Forge, we decided to take a ride up to Lake Placid, the location of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. I spent a lot of my time snapping photos on and off the bike. I linked up a Hero4 Session via WiFi and used my iPhone to preview the images. Having my iPhone RAM-mounted to my handlebar created a pretty cool experience when combined with the ball joint buckle I mentioned earlier. I could frame a shot quickly and snap photos on the go. This setup wasn’t as ideal off the bike, where a standard point and shoot camera would be more appropriate, but I came away from the trip with a lot of great photos.

Old Forge

My one gripe around the Hero4 Session Photo mode is that you’re limited to 8MP (3264 x 2448 resolution) and there is no option for ProTune, which is a feature I really enjoy having in photo mode on the Hero4 Silver and Black. Contrarily, the average user might not want to have to tweak and edit photos in software programs, but instead upload them straight to the web, where 8MP is perfectly acceptable. And when you consider the new price point of the Hero4 Session, this is an area where I’d be willing to make a trade-off.

GoPro Hero4 SessionGoPro initially released this camera at a price point of $399. That’s the same as a Hero4 Silver, which packs more premium features and has a built-in LCD screen. This gave the Hero4 Session a bad rap among action camera aficionados and consumers alike. Since then, GoPro has dropped the price of the Hero4 Session to $299, making the camera a much more viable option in the action camera market and in GoPro’s lineup.

The Hero4 Session is quite the departure from anything GoPro has released in recent years. With a new form factor, focus on ease of use, and new mounting hardware, the Hero4 Session sets itself apart. While the video and photo quality may not be on par with the pricier Hero4 Black and Silver, it still packs a punch in a tiny package. It’s also comforting that GoPro is listening to their customers. I’m sure dropping the price point $100 and updating the firmware to allow for setting changes sans smartphone or WiFi remote brought smiles to a lot of faces.

If you’re a rider looking for something easy to use on trips, commuting, or weekend track days, the Hero4 Session should be a consideration. If you’re looking for top-notch video quality, stick with the Hero4 Black or Silver. As for me, I’ve convinced the boss man I’m not done testing these quite yet, so I’ll be keeping a couple in our kit.

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