GoPro vs DSLR vs Mirrorless: which is best for video?

Can your GoPro action camera provide the same video quality as yours interchangeable lens camera? We take a look at the possibilities

GoPro vs DSLR: which is best for video
Buyers Guide

A few years ago, a GoPro vs DSLR comparison might have seemed like an unfair argument to make. But particularly since the launch of the Hero5 Black, GoPro cameras are fast becoming a go-to camera of choice for professional videographers who appreciate its size and versatility.

And the Hero9 Black also competes with many interchangeable lens cameras on image quality. But if video is your primary concern, well, bigger isn’t always better…

GoPro vs DSLR: Video Quality

Like shooting still images, with video the system that will best serve your needs really depends on the subject you want to shoot. However, the GoPro’s size and some of the advanced features introduced in the Hero5 Black onwards will likely make it the better choice.

This may sound like heresy if you’ve been shooting with a DSLR for some time now, but hear us out!

Let’s simply work through a list of things every videographer should consider before a shoot, and we’re pretty sure you’ll agree that a GoPro is the better option for video over a DSLR.

Size

You only need to glance at a DSLR and GoPro side by side to get a sense of just how much smaller and lighter the GoPro is. However, to be fair to DSLRs, they are also quite a bit smaller than standard pro camcorders. So they are quite versatile tools, as well, just not as flexible as a GoPro.

A GoPro camera allows you to shoot from vantage points and places where you’ve quite likely never filmed before. Their size has opened up a whole new world of creative possibilities for videographers who tether them to Frisbees, arrows, dogs… the possibilities are endless.

Your DSLR, on the other hand, offers the option to upscale with lenses and accessories, which is useful as it gives you more control. But this functionality contributes to their bulk and requires storage. A DSLR kit can quite easily fill an entire photo backpack and be quite heavy to transport around.

Meanwhile, you can fit a GoPro rig, stabilizer, card, batteries and the camera itself comfortably into a side pocket on your backpack.

 

Stabilisation

In-camera image stabilisation technology has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Many traditional interchangeable lens cameras offer 5-axis image stabilisation that allows photographers to shoot handheld at shutter speeds that were once impossible.

But despite these advances, the best way to ensure smooth, professional-looking video footage is to film with a dedicated stabilizer rig, such as the DJI Ronin.

The GoPro also offers built-in digital image stabilisation, which slightly crops your frame to give the appearance of stability. And it’s only got better over time. HyperSmooth is the name for GoPro’s enhanced in-camera EIS, and essentially GoPro has worked out how to give the footage a little bit more headroom to enable greater cropping into the image for the electronic image stabilisation. This means that it works for 4K at a 16:9 aspect ratio but not 4K at 4:3.

How HyperSmooth works with aspect ratio

GoPro’s HyperSmooth feature also affects the cameras aspect ratios. Introduced with the Hero6 Black, you had a 4:3 option at 4K and 2.7K. From the Hero7 Black onwards you can now switch between 4:3 and 16:9 by tapping the icon in the top left of the camera’s LCD.

The GoPro will then highlight if HyperSmooth will be used or not. A side effect of the way that HyperSmooth works is that it will be active in 4K 16:9 but not 4K 4:3, if you shoot 1080p then you can film at up to 60fps with HyperSmooth, then 120fps with standard stabilisation and nothing at 240fps.

At 240fps you also get a warning that the camera is switching to HEVC, which is one of the newer codecs, so you’ll need to ensure your computer can handle the footage.

There’s no doubt that the new frame rates and features with the various, HyperSmooth, Standard Stabilisation, aspect ratios add a little more complexity to the control of the GoPro, but mostly it’s easy enough to work out.

Stick to 16:9 which is the most common TV aspect ratio anyway, and you’ll be fine. Switching to 4:3 gives you a little more headroom if you want to crop into the shot.

In additional to HyperSmooth, which is built in, there are also numerous options on the market for handheld stabilisers to use with your GoPro camera.

Creative control

This is one key advantage you have with a DSLR vs a GoPro. With a DSLR – or any interchangeable lens camera – you have total control over your aperture and shutter speed, not to mention lenses. Having these exposure controls at your disposal means you can manipulate the look and feel of your footage to get a very particular style.

The GoPro Hero7 Black does allow you to control exposure settings such as the shutter speed and ISO, but it does limit you with a fixed lens and aperture. That said, you can make adjustments to the field of view in the Hero5’s menu system.

 

Resolution and frame rate

This might surprise you, but in a GoPro vs DSLR comparison the plucky action camera wins this battle hands down. Yes, a number of DSLRs record HD and 4K video at 30fps (and many mirrorless cameras can record 4K video at 60fps), but the GoPro has been able to do this as standard for quite some time, and each year the company raises the bar even further. 

With the Hero6 Black GoPro kept the resolution at the same maximum of 4K as in the Hero5, but pushed the frame rates to 60fps (from 30fps), and boosted 1080p to 240fps. GoPro basically doubled the headline frame rates of the previous generation. And now, with the GoPro Hero9 Black, you can record 5K at 30p, 4K at 60p, 2.7K at 120p, 1440 at 120p and 1080 at 240p. That’s truly an impressive range of options.

Being able to record video at these sorts of frame rate opens up many creative opportunities, such as slow-motion movies that slow down a fast-moving action sequence in striking detail. What this means in real terms is that you can now shoot slow motion footage that will stretch 1 second of film over a staggering 8 seconds.

The full list of resolutions and their partnered frames rates is impressive, but something else GoPro did from the Hero7 Black is it quietly reduced the number of lower resolution options in the menu system. For instance, 480p is gone, all the additional 720p frame rates also disappeared, and 960p bit the dust as well.

This reduction of options makes sense. Best to keep it simple. That way when navigating the settings and options, the ones you want and use most often are quick and easy to select without wading through all the additional options you’re never going to use. One day we may even see a custom menu that enables you to select only the options you use the most.

TimeLapse Video

Many DSLRs from entry-level models like the Canon EOS 250D / SL3 on up to flagship models like the Nikon D850 offer built-in time-lapse modes. What’s more, you often have the option – particularly in Nikon cameras – of saving your time-lapse sequence as a batch of images or as a single movie file that automatically generates a video of your sequence.

Why might you want a batch of images rather than letting the camera automatically generate a time-lapse? It gives you more control, meaning you can remove frames where a small child may have run through the scene. For this, a DSLR is very handy.

GoPro gives you four options for time-lapse: TimeWarp video, TimeLapse Video, TimeLapse Photo and Night Lapse Photo.

New to GoPro cameras from the Hero7 Black onwards, TimeWarp is essentially a timelapse setting, but coupled with HyperSmooth you get a new ultrasmooth motion time-lapse that just hasn’t been previously possible. New to the Hero7 Black, TimeWarp is essentially a timelapse setting, but coupled with HyperSmooth you get a new ultrasmooth motion time-lapse that just hasn’t been previously possible.

 

Live-streaming

The other significant advantage that GoPros since the Hero7 Black now have over DSLRs is, of course, live broadcasting. This is accessible through the app.

Once loaded, activate the live view with a quick swipe across the bottom of the screen until you get to Live mode.

Log in to your Facebook or YouTube account and you’re then ready to start broadcasting to the world.

GoPro vs Mirrorless Camera

A GoPro vs mirrorless comparison is an intriguing case. While not quite as small as a GoPro, most mirrorless cameras pride themselves on their compact, lightweight body size. Filming with them over long periods will be less of a strain on your arms and shoulders than it would using a DSLR, but mirrorless cameras won’t be quite as easy as the pocket-size GoPro.

Many mirrorless cameras also feature in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) systems as well, providing 5-axis stabilisation. They may not be as adept as GoPro’s Hypersmooth at smoothing out jerky movements, but the image quality will be better.

As we explained earlier, HyperSmooth works by cropping into your frame to provide the effect of stability, while cameras with IBIS will physically move the sensor along with the camera’s movements. What’s more, if you mirrorless camera has IBIS and is paired with an IS-equipped lens, you can achieve even greater stability in your footage. The Canon EOS R5 or EOS R6 paired with an IS-equipped RF lens, for instance, provides up to 8 stops of image stabilisation.

Like anything, there are pros and cons when it comes to considering GoPro vs mirrorless for video. It depends on your needs and what you want to ultimately do with your videos.

GoPro vs DSLR: Photos

GoPro cameras are built for versatility and designed for videographers on the go. They’re ready for action and as such can record fast-moving subjects and sequences just about anywhere you take them – even underwater.

A DSLR or mirrorless camera, on the other hand, is bigger and less versatile. Recording video with an interchangeable lens camera is more of a process, from stabilising the camera to its controls (GoPro cameras going back to the GoPro Hero6 Black and Hero5 Black all offer voice-activated controls).

This, of course, is because DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are designed to shoot still images, and if you are wanting to shoot still images of your action sequences an interchangeable lens camera has the clear advantage here.

From the GoPro Hero7 Black onwards, GoPro added a new intelligent SuperPhoto mode for stills that enables the camera to read the scene and apply enhancements to exposure, colour and contrast to get the best quality picture from the GoPro as possible. Essentially HDR.

What’s more, the GoPro Hero9 Black provides 20-megapixel stills, as well as the option to shoot in both Raw and JPEG.

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