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The GoPro MAX: First Impressions After a Day of Filming With GoPro's Brand New 360 Camera

The GoPro MAX: First Impressions After a Day of Filming With GoPro's Brand New 360 Camera

GoPro has just launched the GoPro MAX, a 360 camera that’s quite difficult to sum up in a few words. Videographer Claudiu Voicu and I had the opportunity to play with it for a few days last week, and even though we ended up destroying it by accidentally dropping it off a roof, first impressions are that it is a lot of fun, especially for content creators seeking to create interesting footage on the fly.

The marketing blurb claims that the MAX is three-cameras-in-one: a 360 camera, a regular action cam similar to the GoPro HERO 8 Black, and a vlogging cam. It’s definitely a versatile tool, but these claims do come with a couple of minor caveats.

When GoPro sent me the camera last week, being something of a noob when it comes to 360 filming, I decided to get Claudiu Voicu on board, a gentleman who knows a thing or two about keyframes and transitions. Voicu has been more than a little creative using his GoPro Fusion over the last year and was keen to check out the upgrade. The trailer released by GoPro had certainly piqued his interest:

Voicu was immediately keen to get hold of a Wiral LITE and see if we could create some interesting transitions by switching seamlessly between first- and third-person using magnetic mounts. The Wiral LITE essentially turns any small camera into a 100-meter zip wire, allowing you to get drone-like footage in non-drone-friendly places and proved to be simple and fun to use. A full review of this unique device is on the way.

For those who are not familiar with GoPros and the world of 360 cameras, here’s an overview: GoPros are small, sturdy video cameras that hook up to a ton of accessories, allowing you to shoot in strange places and from unique angles. More recent developments from GoPro have enabled gimbal-like stabilization in-camera, allowing users to create silky-smooth footage with minimal gear.

Fresh out of its rather smart (plastic free) carry case, the MAX with Voicu's metal disc attached for attaching to magnetic mounts. Photo by Claudiu Voicu.

Also emergent in the 18 months is the affordable 360 camera, essentially an action cam with two lenses that captures everything around itself, stitches it together — fully stabilized — and allows you to choose your angle of view during the edit. Action cameras are ideal for sticking next to the wheel arch of a speeding car or on the end of a surfboard, but 360 action cams offer a new degree of freedom if simply because you don’t need to worry about which way they are pointing. The stabilization means that a pole is all you need for creating a camera that seems to be floating freely. This is exceptionally useful when shooting hyperlapse footage (which GoPro calls “TimeWarp”), as you don’t need to worry about making sure that you’re pointing the camera at whatever it is around you that seems the most interesting.

The predecessor to the Max was the GoPro Fusion, a slightly larger, slightly heavier unit that features two cameras writing to two micro SD cards. By contrast, the Max is smaller, lighter, and features a color touchscreen and writes to one memory card. The biggest difference is that it allows you to edit stabilized footage on your phone or tablet immediately after having captured the shot.

Possibly one of the most stand-out features of this camera is the ease of use. You shoot your stunningly stabilized footage and then launch the app (iOS and Android), where you can choose your angle and level of zoom, creating transitions and exporting straight to social media. It automatically levels horizons and drops in keyframes to create camera movements (if you can call them that).

As soon as you receive your GoPro MAX, find some freerunners and head to the roof. Just don't drop it off said roof, like we did. Oops.

The other features packed in are impressive. It’s waterproof to 16 feet (5 meters), has a very functional touchscreen, solid battery life, and, as well as offering what GoPro claims is gun-mic quality audio when vlogging, it has six microphones to capture 360-degree audio. It shoots TimeWarp (a.k.a. hyperlapse) footage with ease, which looks useful for generating quick and simple B-roll and panoramic shots that strike me as nice, albeit comparatively useless. 

While Voicu described the stabilization as the best he’s ever seen, he was a little frustrated by the resolution. That said, this is a $500 camera and it’s not going to compete with the 12K rigs that Voicu is used to working with. The full 360-degree video that the MAX creates is 5.6K and has no option for slow motion, offering only 25 and 30 frames per second. The Fusion shoots 3K60, so this is probably an omission that will be fixed via a firmware update in the near future.

Essentially, while this is definitely a fun and versatile tool, it is not going to produce “professional” (I use that word advisedly) quality footage that can be used for VR or dropped seamlessly onto a timeline that combines footage from more expensive 360 cameras. For that, you need to quadruple your budget when it comes to buying a camera, forking out for something that’s probably not ideal for strapping to the front of your snowboard.

The other frustration for Voicu was that the Android app wasn’t quite finished, and as yet, there’s no desktop software that would allow him to drag it into Premiere and start doing funky things. We shot a couple of interesting setups in and around London's Arch Climbing Wall (big thank you!), and Voicu will be editing these in the next month or two once all the desktop plugins and gubbins become available.

Creating 360 videos on the fly does open up a new world of possibilities, especially when it comes to quickly generating engaging B roll. Check out this short video by GoPro creative director Abe Kislevitz. It’s evident how a couple of people walking out of a hotel room can be made to look cinematic through seemingly impossible camera movements made possible thanks to a little choreography, a three-meter pole, and five minutes of editing.

As well as 360 footage, the MAX also gives users the option to shoot with just a single lens, creating “MAX SuperView” footage that is incredibly wide-angle, with Wide, Linear, and Narrow also available. All of this is similar to the GoPro HERO 8, with the huge difference being that the resulting footage is only available at 1440p (at a max of 50 frames per second) — a significant step down from the 4K offered by the HERO 8.

Another significant difference: the field of view is 148.8 degrees in MAX SuperView, which means that it's slightly wider than the regular SuperView offered by the HERO 8 (122.8 degrees). For climbing and parkour, this wider angle is ideal when using a mouth mount, giving a greater sense of what someone's hands and feet are doing:

For vlogging — with that impressive stabilization and front-facing touchscreen — the drop in resolution when compared to the HERO 8 Black is not a problem, and given the array of features that the MAX offers, this strikes me as a reasonable compromise. As Voicu mentioned after spending an hour with the MAX: “It’s a great camera if you don’t care about 4K. If you want 4K, buy the HERO 8.”

Given that when shooting 360 footage, a screen is fairly redundant, you might wonder why GoPro has included it on the MAX when omitting it would have kept the price down. Firstly, it will come in useful when vlogging and shooting non-360 video. Secondly, it’s definitely handy to be able to review footage immediately after shooting, with the added bonus of being able to bookmark the best bits, which then speeds you up when you go to begin editing on your mobile device. Thirdly, changing camera settings has been made significantly better over earlier models of the GoPro, and the interface is surprisingly good. The screen is small, but the menu items are crisp and responsive.

While Voicu and I had a lot of fun playing with the MAX, especially when paired with the Wiral LITE, we managed to drop it off a roof and scratch both lenses before we got around to testing the audio quality and the TimeWarp functionality. With that in mind — and given the fact that the Android and Windows software is still in the pipeline — a more in-depth review will be coming soon. Some buyers will be keen to see how the quality compares to the Fusion, wondering whether the easier workflow will be worth the slightly lower bitrate. Others will be wondering how it compares to the Insta360 ONE X, a camera that’s currently $100 cheaper, but lacks a touchscreen. Watch this space.

For now, initial impressions are good, assuming you don’t mind the relatively low-resolution footage that’s not out of place at this price point. This is a six-camera rig squashed into a tiny box and made usable for idiots like me. GoPro’s software doesn’t have a great reputation, but the brief window spent playing with the iPhone app was refreshing and suggests that creating online content will be quick and easy. 

Even if you’re not wingsuit flying or jumping between rooftops, this seems to be a solid vlogging tool and easy B roll generator, as well as a fun toy for creative experimentation. If the Insta360 ONE X didn’t get every influencer under the sun making 360 footage, this almost certainly will. Given how much fun it is, I hope it doesn’t get worn out too quickly.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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