All videos by Jamie Carter
GoPro cameras are primed for action. They’re waterproof, they’re drop-proof, and they’re designed to clip on to ski helmets, bicycle handlebars and the front of kayaks. So what can a GoPro possibly offer the astrophotographer?
Of course, being protected against the elements is good look for a camera designed to be used for long durations outdoors, but there’s more to the new GoPro Hero9 Black than that.
GoPros are widefield cameras, just like the lenses favored by those shooting nightscapes because it captures as much of the night sky as possible. The Hero9 Black’s 16mm lens is also fixed focus, which takes away any control over – or worries about – aperture and focusing on infinity.
However, what we’re considering here is whether a GoPro can be used as a backup camera at night. If you already have a GoPro, or you were thinking of buying the new Hero9 Black, what can you expect if you use it at night?
Don’t think you can replace your DSLR/mirrorless camera – that’s not going to happen – but there are reasons to believe that the new GoPro Hero9 Black (if you pair it with a GoPro Tripod Mount accessory kit so it can be used on a regular tripod) might be of use for shooting time-lapses and taking panoramic wide-field astrophotos.
So what’s new with the Hero9 Black? Despite the addition of a front-facing screen, the biggest change is a new 23.6 MP sensor that, as well as capturing video at 5K in 30 frames per second, can create “night-lapse” videos and 20-megapixel HDR photographs. The camera also now allows capture at a maximum of ISO 3200. Crucially, it allows photos in the original RAW data files as well as in compressed JPEGs.
All of that in a 71 x 55 x 33.6mm and 158g package that’s a little larger than previous iterations, but still pocket-sized. That slightly larger size makes room for a larger battery that GoPro says improves the performance of the GoPro Hero9 Black in very cold conditions.
So what’s the GoPro Hero9 Black like for night photos? Although you can get the camera to take night photos on auto, you can also tinker with the shutter speed (up to 30 seconds), adjust up to ISO 3200, and set a shutter release timer for either 3 or 10 seconds. However, one-off exposures of the night sky appear lackluster, with super-dark conditions required for any kind of starry sky.
What the GoPro Hero9 Black should really be considered for is its time-lapses, and in particular, its night-lapse modes. They can capture as either a series of photos – as you would do on a regular manual camera at night if you wanted to capture a “star trail” – or as a video of the stars appearing to move as Earth rotates.
For the first option, called “HDR Night Lapse Photo,” it simply takes and stores up to three hours of photos. Although it comes with a default ‘auto’ mode, you can change most of the parameters, with shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds, a maximum of ISO 800 (which is sensibly low), and with an interval between each frame of from 15 seconds right up to 60 minutes between images, while a ‘pro tune’ section gives you mastery over EV compensation, white balance and sharpness.
The end result from my 90-minute test HDR Night Lapse Photo was 300 individual photos totaling almost 1GB in size. The GoPro Hero9 Black saves them all in a folder so it doesn’t clutter-up the on-screen menus. It’s then a case of transferring all of those files manually to a desktop computer for processing in Adobe Photoshop or StarStaX, as you would normally do when using a DSLR, though arguably it should have a built-in stacking software for this purpose – some smartphones now do.
However, there’s another great new feature on the GoPro Hero9 Black —‘scheduled capture’. It allows the user to determine exactly what time the Night Lapse Photo will begin. That’s perfect if you want to capture a sunrise … without even getting out of bed.
Night Lapse Video works in a similar way, with a choice of resolutions of the finished video ranging from 1080p up to 4K resolution. It’s also possible to use the natively wide-angle lens or to digitally crop to a narrow or linear composition.
Crucially, while neither Night Lapse Photo or Night Lapse Video are gold-standard in terms of the stars they reveal, the GoPro Hero9 Black’s results are a lot cleaner than the GoPro Hero8 Black it replaces – and key to that is keeping to ISO 800. Users of crop-frame DSLR cameras will be used to that.
There’s another reason to consider the GoPro Hero9 Black for basic back-up astrophotography. Due to be launched imminently is GoPro’s Max Lens Mod accessory (MSRP $99.99), which is largely designed to allow the camera to swivel through 360º while locking the horizon, but it will also boast an ultra-wide 155º Max SuperView mode.
Overall, it’s the new GoPro Hero9 Black’s two Night Lapse modes that are of most interest to astrophotographers. If you’re after something to set down at night to take a starry sky time-lapse while you’re busy with your main DSLR or mirrorless camera set-up, the new GoPro Hero9 Black is worth slipping into your pocket. However, it’s certainly not yet time to replace your existing astrophotography gear for this pricey action camera.