I have been a fan and avid user of 360 cameras over the last several years. As they’ve trickled into affordability and respectable image quality they’ve become a viable addition to our kit bags. I’ve used just about all of the consumer 360 cameras on the market. Some I love for their quirks; others I don’t for the very same reasons.
It’s not always fair, but sometimes you just fall in love with a camera. The GoPro Fusion is a camera I thought I would fall in love with.
As 360 cameras have become more mainstream there have been plenty of options for consumers, from Ricoh’s Theta line to 360 Fly, the Vuze cameras, Yi and, of course, Insta360. But GoPro’s foray into 360 video brought along a certain street cred.
GoPro Hero Black cameras get rave reviews with each generation. GoPro’s image and build quality and user-friendliness have won it legions of fans. So the expectations on the Fusion were immense.
When it finally arrived, my initial reactions were positive. The body and build reflected the quality I’d become accustomed to with the Hero Black range. It feels solid in the hand. That rubberised grip, familiar interface and whole ecosystem of accessories makes you feel like you’re about to embark on something special.
I wanted to love the Fusion. I tried hard to love the Fusion. But 18 months into my ownership of the Fusion GoPro’s app still didn’t support my then-current flagship phone (Huawei P20 Pro) to operate the camera remotely. And that was just one straw.
The Fusion also has a unique design where each lens has its own dedicated microSD card. These are situated on either side of the battery, and there is a small gap between each slot. The first time I put my cards into the camera I accidentally forced them down that gap beside the battery. I had to remove the battery and get some tweezers to remove them. And that kind of set the tone.
The dual memory cards also mean that stitching images and videos has to happen off-camera in GoPro’s Studio software. And even that’s not easy. Firstly, the Fusion, by default, separates your files into GoPro_Front and GoPro_Back folders. But to stitch content you must make sure all files are in the same folder, and only then does it work. Be prepared to wait, though. I noted in my review of the Fusion that rendering 360 videos in 4K – not even its top resolution – took four-plus hours on a Mac with better-than-average specs.
In short, I could have set my videos to render, got in my car and driven from my home near Bristol all the way up to Manchester before the videos would be finished.
The Fusion just wasn’t suitable for how I wanted to use it nor, I imagine, for most consumers. To GoPro’s credit, the company has issued regular firmware updates to correct many of its bugs and performance issues. But the base-line problem remains: you need to record media to two separate locations and stitching off-camera makes it cumbersome to use.
Which brings me to the Max. It’s a long preface, I know, to get to this point, but I think we need to understand the journey of the Fusion to understand why the Max holds so much promise.
I think it’s telling that GoPro has ditched the Fusion moniker altogether with its second 360 camera and chosen to go with a new brand. To me, that signals the company knows it perhaps rushed its last 360 camera to market while it was still more prototype than finished product.
And when you look at what the GoPro Max offers, on paper it appears to have corrected a lot of those limitations that held the Fusion back. With the GoPro Max you – most importantly – record media to one memory card. Stitching is achieved in-camera.
GoPro has also updated its app quite significantly since 2017, incorporating its once-separate Quik app and its set of video editing tools.
What’s more, the Max inherits some of GoPro’s signature technology from the Hero range, such as its HyperSmooth and TimeWarp stabilisation technologies.
GoPro has also added a touchscreen display for playing back your footage, which could be a game-changer for the 360 market. No other 360 camera offers this without the need for your smartphone, and in my opinion this puts the Max in its own league.
You’ll also find the new folding fingers mount, which opens the Max up to a wider range of accessories and mounts.
360 imaging technology runs the risk of being the next 3D – a gimmicky fad that hangs around for a few years but fails to take off. 360 cameras have been more popular with the gadget-lover crowds than with photographers and vloggers, and they just haven’t been able to cross over. I believe the GoPro Max could mark that turning point.
Insta360 has tried, and the ONE X is very close to being a viable piece of kit in a professional videographers bag, but If GoPro has learned its lessons from the Fusion, and if the Max can bring the complete package of ease of use, advanced technology, wide range of accessories, durability and simply stunning image quality, then 360 imaging might well and truly become the next big thing.
And just something else I’ll throw out here. My colleague Angela and I were talking about the Max, and she makes a great point: if GoPro has got it right with the Max, it could very well become the action camera that beats the Hero Black.
The biggest issue that many people have with action cam footage is that they shoot from one location and create dull moves. If the Max is really easy to use and you can create a video that cuts from one angle to another, anyone can create an interesting movie from just one mounting position.
Take the biking example GoPro shows on its website. Hypersmooth makes the video watchable. Most people would film with the camera pointing forward and maybe do a repeat run with it pointing at them, but there are always one-off moments that you only get from one angle. With the 360 capability, they don’t need to worry about making repeat runs or turning the camera around. I know that’s an argument for 360, but the Max seems like the whole package now. The Max seems like an action camera whereas before it was a 360 experiment.