It’s been a wild ride for GoPro. It went from a niche camera company for surfers, to a media behemoth that was printing money, and now to a company undergoing large-scale layoffs, and publicly considering selling itself. Oof. Rather than piling on, we decided to flash back to happier times. So, I went on Amazon and bought the very first GoPro Hero camera, to see where it all began.
The original Hero launched in 2004 and sold for $20, which is exactly how much I paid in 2018 for a used one, so kudos to GoPro for making a gadget that really retains its value! It didn’t shoot video. In fact, it wasn’t even digital. It was, essentially, the glorified disposable film camera from my youth, except it wasn’t disposable, and it was rugged and waterproof. You just pop in a roll of 400 speed film (Google what “photographic film” is), seal it up, wind it for a really long time, and then you’re good to go.
I’ve used just about every action camera of note since I started writing for Gizmodo, nearly seven years ago now. I used the first GoPro Hero HD, and have used virtually all the GoPro, Sony, Garmin, Contour, Yi, etc. cameras right up through the Hero6. I tell you this because, man, it’s hard to imagine that this giant, clunky thing evolved into these tiny little super cameras.
GoPro’s CEO Nick Woodman came up with the idea because he was a surfer and wanted a way to capture some photos when he was out with his friends. The camera featured a thick, waterproof housing and strap for attaching it to your wrist. It lays down flat against your arm, then when you’re ready to take a photo, you undo a Velcro strap, and the camera hinges up into position. After you snap the pic, you reattach the strap. Easy, right? “You don’t have to have an expensive camera to get great photos,” Woodman said on in an appearance on QVC back in 2005. “You just have to have the camera on-hand the moment something exciting is happening.” So, I took it and a Hero6 snowboarding in Mammoth and Aspen to try it out.
First of all, this camera is not small and unobtrusive like its modern-day brethren and sistren. It is a big brick of a thing, and even when it’s strapped down it feels very bulky on your arm. I worried that I’d take a fall and somehow it would break my wrist, but luckily that never happened. Actually, the strap system felt extremely secure and I never felt like I’d lose it. Then again, losing a $20 camera isn’t going to ruin your vacation. Lose a $400 Hero6 and you’re going to be pretty pissed at yourself.
The most annoying thing about the mounting system is that the strap that holds the camera down is positioned just above the viewfinder, so it’s liable to get in the way of framing your shot. Also, you have to wind your camera in between every shot, which is a pain in the ass, especially when you consider that “action cameras” are meant for high action situations. With the Hero6, I can fire off a burst of high-resolution stills at 30 frames per second. If I were really fast with the Hero, I could maybe fire off one photo every three seconds, and at a much lower resolution thanks to the crappy plastic lenses.
And that brings me to the most startling revelation about the original Hero: It actually kind of sucked for action! Even with 400 speed film on a bright day, it just doesn’t have the shutter speed to capture a fast-moving subject. I tried standing still while my friends went by me, and I tried shooting a photo as I followed them down. In both cases it was blurry as my uncle on Christmas.
Another big shock was just how much narrower the field-of-view on the original Hero is compared to its contemporaries. GoPros these days have the rough equivalent of a 15mm lens, which gives it about 120 degrees horizontally. The original Hero is only about half that wide, coming in at 28mm. That means you get way less of the landscape in your shot.
More interestingly, one of the things that action cams are most used for is that selfie angle, because their wide lenses get a lot of you in the shot as well as plenty of background to provide context. The original Hero just isn’t great for that.
Also, man, this thing really struggles in low light, which isn’t surprising considering it’s limited to the ISO 400 film I popped in there, whereas the Hero6 can crank its ISO up to 6400 and still be fairly usable. This became especially clear during an underwater test I did in a pool just as the sun was going down.
But lest you think this whole thing is just going to be me crapping on a 20 buck camera from 14 years ago, let me tell you what I like. The photos this thing produces have such an awesome vintage feel to them. They make something that I took last month look like it was taken in the 1970s. It’s a real life Hipstamatic filter… that you can’t remove.
The photos are grainy, focus isn’t great, and there isn’t much in terms of color. Those dings aside, though, I really kind of love it.
That said, would I trade it for the Hero6? Of course not, what a ridiculous question! Even if we set aside that the new breed of action cams can shoot video (at incredible resolutions and frame rates), the stills are so much better, sharper, more lively, and easier to work with. The camera is smaller, too, and it has a million useful options and features (hello, wi-fi). Really the only two things the original Hero wins on are price (I mean, it’s 20x cheaper), and the fact that the battery will never die on you, because it doesn’t have one.
There was something else that I forgot that I loved and hated with old film cameras: The waiting. There’s no instant gratification. You take a few photos you’re excited about, cool, but now you have to wait until you’ve finished the roll before you get to see them, and you don’t want to waste that film on nothing, so it takes you some time before you’ve found enough worthy subjects. Add in the modern problem of trying to find a place that actually still develops film and it’s going to be a while before you get to see your shot. There’s something about the anticipation that was always so bittersweet. You wonder if the shots turned out like you hoped, like the scene looked in your memory, and it makes you feel positively giddy until you get to open that envelope and find out.
In this case, what was inside the envelope wasn’t super amazing, but that wasn’t really the point of this exercise. We wanted to see the prototype. The cheap, niche camera that would end up creating a billion-dollar industry. Even if the product wasn’t great in this iteration, the idea was, and without that seed, well, we wouldn’t know what it looks like to fly a wingsuit through tiny gaps in cliffs, what an eagle sees as it hunts, or any number of incredible things that have left us slack-jawed over the last decade. I can’t predict what the future holds for GoPro, but it was fun to reach back into its past and see how it started.