A Traveler’s Review of the GoPro HERO4 Session (and 5 Reasons to Choose It Over the Black and Silver)

GoPro HERO4 Session: A Traveler's Review

Compact: check. Lightweight: check. Waterproof: check.

These are three VERY important characteristics when it comes to a travel camera (and three key areas where the Session beats the other GoPro cameras HANDS DOWN). However, there are several GoPro options available today, and it can be tricky to determine which one to choose.

We spent the last month testing out the new GoPro HERO4 Session (on loan courtesy of B&H Photo), and [SPOILER ALERT] we liked it! But is the GoPro HERO4 Session the best GoPro camera choice for you? Let’s find out! 

GoPro HERO4 Session Review

North Ave Beach, Chicago, photo captured with the GoPro HERO4 Session using burst mode on the free GoPro app (see video below for compilation sequence of this shoot)

My Previous GoPro Experience

Let me start by telling you I am familiar with GoPro cameras (and more specifically with using them in water environments). In the past I used the HERO2 while stand up paddleboarding at my old job in Santa Monica, and I frequently did editing with both the photo and video files. So the whole GoPro user interface wasn’t foreign to me going into this review. I was also accustomed to not having a display on the back of the camera for framing and review captures.

So with those factors in mind, below you’ll find my thoughts on the Session, compared with GoPro’s other two HERO4 line options. Let’s start with an overview of the three options.

Overview of GoPro’s HERO4 Line of Cameras

If you’re shopping for a new GoPro, you’ve got three options in their HERO4 lineup:

The Session’s Biggest Pros and Cons

When considering what all three cameras have to offer, these are the Session’s three biggest pros and cons:

The Session’s Biggest Pros

  • waterproof to 33′ (only GoPro that doesn’t require an additional housing for waterproofing)
  • lightweight (lightest GoPro yet)
  • compact (smallest GoPro yet)

And one more vanity point I have to add is that the HERO4 Session is definitely the best looking GoPro yet.

The Session’s Biggest Cons

  • only waterproof to 33′ (take it snorkeling, but not SCUBA diving)
  • no display
  • video and photo quality more limited than other models

Notes: Both other HERO4 cameras are waterproof to 131′ in their appropriate housings. The Silver offers a rear touch display to see what you’re capturing and to review and trim video in-camera. The Black will give you nearly 4x the video resolution of the Session, and both Black and Silver capture 12MP photos (compared to 8MP on the Session).

Those pros and cons, in my opinion, are the biggest factors to consider when deciding which GoPro to buy. Now here’s a little more about my experience testing out the GoPro HERO4 Session.

selfie with the GoPro HERO4 Session and free GoPro app

Figuring out how to use the GoPro HERO4 Session with the free GoPro smartphone app

My Experience with the Session

Capturing Actions with Burst Mode on the GoPro HERO4 Session

We wanted to capture a jump shot with the Session, and we accomplished this by using the camera in burst mode via the free GoPro app.

Burst mode allows you to take 10 photos in rapid succession, which is great for ensuring you’ll have some good options to choose from when capturing a fast action like a jump. Below is a video compilation of several burst mode sequences we cycled through to capture some of our best stills during this shoot.

Capturing Travel Video with the GoPro HERO4 Session

We found ourselves mostly in cities while working with the GoPro this month, so most of our footage is from Chicago and New York. Below is a short clip of random sample footage taken with the Session.

It’s certainly not our best video work, but it’ll give you an idea of what the video looks like in different scenarios (while walking, in water, etc.) and how the microphone does in crowded city environments as well as aquatic environments.

A Night Photo Test with the GoPro HERO4 Session

The Black and Silver both boast “Protune” settings, which essentially unlocks manual controls of the camera so you can do nifty stuff like long exposures. While you can’t control your settings on the Session, it manages to do okay at night (at least when you’re aiming at a bright city skyline):

New York City Skyline at night with the GoPro HERO4 Session

New York City Skyline at night with the GoPro HERO4 Session, edited

A Few Additional Notes on the Session

Below are my key notes from my experience with the Session. Some of them apply to GoPros in general (not just the Session), but they’re important things that anyone shopping for a GoPro should consider.

  • GoPros are pretty useless without accessories. If you don’t carefully select your package to have the mounts and casings you’ll need (or maybe you don’t know what all you’ll end up using it for when you buy it), I recommend at least getting an affordable version of GoPro’s The Handler. We tested the GoPro without accessories and actually didn’t end up using it for many activities since we didn’t have the appropriate accessories. Kayaking in downtown Chicago on the 4th of July and playing Whirlyball for the first time would have been GREAT to document with the GoPro, but without a head or chest strap, we opted to not bring it along at all. (Bummer, right?) See a few worthy starter accessories I’ve listed below.
  • GoPros are best for two things: video and timelapse. They really aren’t great for capturing single stills (i.e. selfies, group photos, etc.), especially if you want to frame your shot. You have two options for capturing those types of shots: (1) enter in timelapse mode, do your best to aim, take a series of shots, and have a selection to choose from (2) bust out the app on your phone to switch the GoPro to single shot mode and frame and capture a single still. When using the Session with the app on my Nexus 5 phone, it was a little bit slow to connect, so capturing one-off still shots wasn’t as easy as I thought it’d be with the app. All this mean is if you’re planning to use your GoPro to capture a lot of single, framed stills, you should probably either (a) rethink whether you should actually get a GoPro, or (b) choose the Silver so you don’t have to mess with the app all the time.
  • GoPro’s app isn’t compatible with all phones. Specifically, it didn’t work with Ian’s OnePlus One. We were able to download another app, developed by someone else, that worked just fine after some initial trouble figuring out how to pair the camera to the phone.
  • The housing is tricky to line up correctly. It’s easy to put it on backwards. Having it on slightly off kilter prevents the doors that cover the memory card slot and the cable input from fully opening so you can’t access them fully with the housing on.
Diana and Ian at Oshkosh 2015 with the Seabee Warbird

A selfie at Oshkosh Air Show 2015, edited

If you’re not sure the Session is the best GoPro choice for you, consider these 5 reasons to pick it.

5 Reasons To Choose the GoPro HERO4 Session

Below are 5 tell-tale indications that the new GoPro HERO4 Session is a great camera choice for you.

1. You’re a fish.

Okay, so maybe not a fish, per se, but a hard core water enthusiast, perhaps. If you spend a decent amount of time on the water, it’s nice having the waterproof feature built in to your camera. No special case required.

That said, if you’re a ‘fish’ that swims in waters deeper than 33′, you can’t take the Session with you.

2. You don’t mess with waterproof cases.

You could easily make the argument that you don’t NEED your GoPro to be waterproof since GoPro makes waterproof housings for their cameras. And while the waterproof housing is usually included (if you choose a package that includes it) for no extra cost, they can still be a pain in the ass. I’ve had problems with them fogging up when taking them out on the ocean (you have to be sure the inside is totally clean before you close it up), and you have to be sure to clean and dry your case before removing the camera (if you want to keep your GoPro saltwater and sand free).

The Session takes the guesswork out of waterproofing.

3. Size matters most.

If you want the smallest GoPro you can get, then this is it. It fit very nicely in my tiny purse for the month I toted it along with me. While other GoPros are only slightly bigger, it’s a big enough difference that size could be your deciding factor (as it would be for me).

4. You don’t need to see what you’re capturing.

While the GoPro HERO4 Silver (a worthy alternative to the Session) boasts a back display to see what you’re capturing, the Session (and most other GoPros) have no back display. If you need to see what you’re getting on the Session, you can use the free GoPro app, but honestly it’s pretty annoying to wield both your GoPro and cell phone at the same time.

It’s important to note that the whole point of a GoPro is to have an easy, hands-free way of capturing epic activity. Messing around with ‘framing’ your shot just slows down the process, and the GoPro’s lenses have a wide field of view anyway, so basic aiming skills should always get you what you need.

But if you still think you can’t live without a built-in display, check out the Silver.

5. Regular HD quality suits you just fine.

Need 4K recording capability? There’s a GoPro for that. But it’s not the Session. The Session will get you awesome 1080p60 video and 8MP still photos, which is certainly enough for grabbing fantastic footage for personal use and sharing.

If you plan to sell your footage (and have a computer and storage space to support the massive file sizes you’ll produce), you should check out the GoPro HERO4 Black for 4K Ultra HD and a higher frame rate for better slo-mo captures. Note: The Silver apparently also does 4K, but it’s limited to 15fps (not ideal for smooth playback) at that resolution (the Black will do 4K30).

GoPro HERO4 Session Accessories

As I mentioned above, GoPros are pretty useless without accessories. Some packages may include accessories, so make sure you take a look at all of the GoPro package options available before you buy.

Here are three I’d recommend to really get the most out of this camera.

Conclusion

The GoPro HERO4 Session is a quality piece of camera gear. It’s sleek, lightweight, compact, and it does everything it says it does while also maintaining a simple design that makes it easy to use with very little reading required to get started.

With our minimalist travel lifestyle and my high standards for travel gear (I am EXTREMELY picky about adding anything at all to our travel gear collection), and despite its high quality and easy usability, we actually opted to not keep this camera. We’ve already got Ian’s Sony a7 II, my RX100 III, plus two film cameras, PLUS our cell phones, and adding this to the collection seemed too excessive. So let me emphasize: the reason we chose not to keep it had nothing to do with the camera itself. It’s just that we discovered we don’t really need it (for the time being, at least). A GoPro is a great tool to have for the action-packed or daredevil moments in life, but our current road trip travels haven’t offered up enough extreme sports experiences to really justify us having one in our camera arsenal right now.

And now that I’ve read more about the HERO4 Black’s supposed ability to capture the Milky Way, I’m wondering if Ian will be itching to try that one… We’ll see!


What do you think of the GoPro HERO4 line of cameras? Which one would you choose?

About the Author

Diana Southern
In March 2014, Diana called it quits on her traditional American working life and set out to explore the world with her partner in crime (and love of her life) Ian Norman. They now live a sustainable life of full time travel, working for themselves and seeking adventure at the same time. Here on North to South, Diana documents their journey in achieving and maintaining this "road less traveled" way of life.

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