Thinking about a new camera, but not sure which is the best option for you?
Should you grab the small and easy to carry GoPro, with all the cool accessories?
Or the high-quality image producer that is the DSLR?
It's a tough choice and there is actually a lot more too it than just that.
In this detailed comparison I will go though all the ins and outs of each camera to help you make the best decision for your next camera purchase!
And, to help you get to the most relevant information fast, there is a handy navigation/links below - just click on the heading that most interests you.
Comparing the latest GoPro Hero 5s and some high quality (but reasonably priced) Nikon DSLRs you can see where these two types of cameras really differ.
The GoPro was designed and built as a video action camera and capturing quality images is secondary. The GoPro sensor is half the size of the Nikon DSLRs meaning that you can capture half the detail in the image.
The lens quality difference will also be significant (one is tiny, the other is large and can create stunning blurred background effects for example, as seen in portraits). But this is hard to compare because the lenses can be changed on a DSLR and not on the GoPro.
Another interesting measurement is the ISO setting with the DSLRs able to go a lot higher, giving them superior image capture ability in low-light. Of course, at the top end (25600) you will most likely experince some image noise, but still, the better lens (wider) with lower ISO means you can often shoot hand-held with no shake with a DSLR.
This is where the games switches leaders.
The GoPro, as an action camera, is all about video. And it has been optimized for taking action video with as small a camera as possible.
As you can see in the table below, the GoPro has a huge vareity of video formats and frame rates available. Which is super important when you are capturing action.
Low frame rates are going to be less detailed and harder to work with (slow down) in post production. Therefore, it is no surprise to see them taking the frame rates (fps) up to 120 in some formats.
In comparison, the DLSRs are rarely entering the 4K range (that is changing lately, but only just) and they only go as high as 60 fps, which is not bad, but for action-lovers is going to be a problem!
To get something that is really great at video in the DSLR family is going to cost you quite a lot. Unless you are ok with 1080p, at a 60fps frame rate.
4K @ 30, 25, 24 fps fps
2.7K (2704 x 1520) @ 60, 50, 48, 30, 25, 24 fps
1440p (1920 x 1440) @ 80, 60, 50, 30, 25, 24 fps
1080p (1920 x 1080) @ 120, 90, 80, 60, 50, 30, 25, 24 fps
960p (1280 x 960) @ 120, 60, 50 fps
720p (1280 x 720) @ 240, 120, 100, 60, 50, 30, 25 fps
480p (848 x 480) @ 240 fps
4K @ 30, 25 fps
2.7K (2704 x 1520) @ 48, 30, 25, 24 fps
1440p (1920 x 1440) @ 60, 50, 30, 25, 24 fps
1080p (1920 x 1080) @ 90, 60, 50, 30, 25, 24 fps
960p (1280 x 960) @ 100, 60, 50, 30, 25 fps
720p (1280 x 720) @ 120, 60, 50, 30, 25 fps
1080p (1920 x 1080) @ 60, 50, 25, 24 fps
720p (1280 x 720) @ 60, 50 fps
640 x 424 @ 30, 25 fps
1080p (1920 x 1080) @ 60 fps (1080 Full HD)
Video Resolutions Compared
If you are going to shoot video on the move then you will want to have some form of stabilization.
You have probably already seen enough "shaky" video to last you a lifetime which is why manufacturers have been working hard on solving this.
You can get built-in stabilization (software based / EIS) with the GoPro which does a reasonable job of smoothly out those annoying jerky motions you get. But, it is still far from perfect. To get to perfect you really need to either get a gimbal or buy a really expensive camera with built-in stabilization (even better in both the body and the lens).
Neither DSLRs in this comparison have it, as you normally have to spend a little more money. So, in that respect, the GoPro is the winner.
This is quite an obvious one, but worth mentioning anyway: size and weight.
GoPros are very small compared to a standard DSLR and with that comes a lot of advantages:
This is more or less the size difference in the images below. The exact specs are further down in this section.
The weights are also vastly different with ranges from 2.5 - 4.2 oz for a GoPro and 0.9 - 1.5 lb for our two Nikons! So, you will want to think twice before taking a DSLR out with you for the day. That is why they suit more the pro photographer/serious amateur more.
GoPro Hero5 Session
Another area worth touching on here (which extends the Image Quality discussion earlier) is the lens situation.
The GoPro has a small/fixed lens, so you will never get the quality images you will from a DSLR.
A DSLR lens is larger and allows more light (as well as having a 24MP sensor) and has a lot more options available.
You can add a big zoom which is great for capturing detail or shots from far away (which you can't do with a GoPro).
You can also add a wide angle lenses, which is great for landscapes and action (and the reason GoPro has that built-in).
With a DSLR you can also get lenses with low F-stops - which famously allows you to create that "blurred background" effect used most often in portraits. (see the blur in the black and white image here).
You are just never going to achieve that with a GoPro (you can try using software which mimics this effect, but it's not the same!).
The GoPro does have a few options in terms of wide-angle shots. They used to only shoot wide angle to give you the most view for your buck while on the move. Now the GoPro Hero5 has anything from Wide to Linear (which is their version of not distorting the image as happens when you use a really wide angle lens/GoPro normally).
These are however just options within the lens, not different/dedicated lenses you might have on a DSLR. Which, by the way, almost always result in a better result and higher quality image.
The GoPro is all about the accessories, especially in terms of mounts. This plays more to the ability to put it on anything that moves or carry it around when you are doing sports or out for the day traveling or having fun.
You can see a mount kit you can buy from Amazon below. It comes with a chest mount, head mount, a tripod a swivel mount, lots of stickies for mounting on anything you want etc. And next to it is a three part hand grip for giving you lots of shooting or selfie options.
GoPro 3 Way Mount
In comparison, a DSLR is more suited to your traditional tripod or just to be slung around your neck and use as a handheld.
They are also more about image quality so it is no surprise that this includes lens filters to help give you even better results. This can range from simple UV filters to ND or polarizing filters to help give you great results in specific circumstances.
The GoPro has filter kits too, but the options, flexibility and fitting of them is just not at the same level as for DSLRs. This also includes color correction filters for underwater shooting, not something you have to often worry about with a DSLR.
As far as external audio goes, it is usually far easier to get something great for a DSLR. However, that is not to say there are no options for the GoPro. There are lapel mics, attached mini-boom mics and a few other options for external mics for a GoPro if you want to get one.
DSLR Lens Filter Kit
The GoPro was designed as a waterproof camera, so there is not much competition here.
It is worth nothing that the Hero5 (latest as of 2017) is now waterproof down to 33ft (10m) without a separate housing. In previous versions it came with a housing to make it waterproof, but then you could not easily control the camera via the screen.
With the housing from GoPro you can go down to 196ft (60m).
DSLRs were never really meant to get wet. They are quite open and full of complex and sensitive electronics.
Some manufacturers have tried to address this, but is difficult because of the design of them.
You can grab a waterproof "cover" of sorts to help protect it in situations where there is a lot of water (think beach, river, rain etc). They often claim to be full waterproof (even down to 16ft) but personally I am not going to risk so much money on a cover that is under 50 bucks!
What serious photographers do instead is use a dedicated underwater housing for their DSLR cameras.
The one shown here is quite typical for the pros, and costs quite a lot (around one and a half G) But again, this is for serious DSLR lovers who have already spent thousands on equipment and want that quality image!
Both of these cameras have a bunch of settings you can play around with which makes it not so easy to learn.
But, the big question is can you take it out of the box and just press GO. Is it simple for a beginner to just grab it out of the box and get started?
With the GoPro Hero5 it's pretty darn easy. There is a big red button on top and you just hit that to start shooting. But, you have to make sure you are either in video or photo mode first. That is the only complicated part. And, with the new screen on the back which enables you to control everything it's pretty straight forward to figure that out.
A DSLR in comparison looks a whole lot more complicated when you look at all the options.
But, on the positive side, you just need to throw it into Auto (or video) and in most cases you will be good to go with the default settings.
You do need to learn a few more buttons to get started (the focus, zoom, mode dial) as well, but it's actually not that difficult - if you don't give into the more PRO settings.
The GoPro has perhaps a slight edge in that it looks a lot simpler and less intimidating and you really only need the one button
GoPro have tried to provide a bunch of settings in their cameras, including an area they like to call ProTune where you have more advanced stuff. You can set frame rates, amount of wide-angle, color corrections, audio corrections etc.
But in the end, the camera is really limited to being an action camera with lots of video resolutions and frame rates, lots of burst modes and built-in time lapse. This thing is all about capturing motion!.
When compared to a DSLR, the level of control you get is lacking in many areas and difficult to do on the fly (you always have to go though the menus).
With a DSLR you can:
With the GoPro it is more of a set, then go. If you want to change as you are going along, it is not as easy because you have to use the screen or main button (which you can on DSLR too but they have dedicated dials/buttons).
Of course, the DSLR is weaker in the video settings as many of the models lack either 4K or the frame rates many action shooters need. But, as I mentioned in the image and video sections the DSLR excels at producing quality images and video (at 1080p at least).
I am not going to give you exact prices here because they change too often, but instead give you a range and comparison so you can see what you would pay - roughly.
GoPro Hero5 Session
So, the GoPro is really in the lower end price range, with the simpler Session model being quite cheap. And, if you are willing to accept a more recent trend of GoPro-like devices, you can check out the Yi 4K+ or Yi Lite which are almost exactly the same (but sometimes cheaper).
And, the DSLRs listed above are not the only ones you can get. The prices can get a lot higher, especially when you start buying separate lenses. So, it is far more of an investment.
There is no easy answer to this question, so I will try to break it down into columns to help make the decision clearer. In each is a PRO of the camera in question:
In the end, the GoPro is just easier to use and carry and can create great videos up to 4K in almost any situation. They are not PRO level cameras though and were never meant to be. However, pros often use them as cheap options for difficult video shots like on the hood of a car in an action shot, or on moving objects. They are also great for placing in hidden locations.
The DSLR is the king/queen of quality images. The sensors are larger, the lenses better and the settings available mean you will always be able to get a better image. But, the learning curve for this level of setting is steep. Both DSLR and GoPros have a simple point and shoot auto mode though, in case you just don't want to worry about it.
There is no way I can cover all situations and everyone's questions in this comparison, so if you have comments, be sure to leave them below.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!