Tutorial: GoPro Video with a Lightroom Photographic Workflow

Like many others, I wanted to find the very best workflow for working with video footage from my GoPro Hero 3 Black. I've seen most people try shooting in Protune with RAW white balance and then try some sort of transcoding prior to colour grading and editing. Typical workflows involve transcoding with GoPro Studio (formerly Cineform Studio). I've also seen people experimenting with DSLR tools like 5DtoRGB with varying degrees of success. Before we get started, here's a video I created using this workflow - so you can decide whether it's going to be worth it for you to adopt my workflow - please remember to watch in 1080p high definition & full screen!

Why transcode at all?

The reasons you'd want to transcode before doing anything else? Firstly there's the video format of GoPro footage. Like many cameras it delivers its footage in MP4 format encoded with the H264 codec. That’s a highly compressed delivery format designed for the Internet age. It requires a lot of horsepower to decode it. When you're editing you don't want to be wasting your limited horsepower on decoding video, so most people want to use an editing format such as Apple ProRes 422, or indeed Cineform. I was spending a lot of time transcoding just so I could edit my footage... so much time that I began to wonder whether there might be another way, perhaps one better suited to me as a photographer.

What is Protune?

It's worth saying something at this point about Protune on the GoPro, because although it's been covered in many places by many people, it's still very much misunderstood. Firstly, Protune is NOT raw video. It's still H264 encoded MP4 video. But it's rather less pre-processed by the GoPro before it hits your memory card. Firstly there's no sharpening. Second, there's no contrast or colour correction so it looks flat and dull. Third, the GoPro raises the data rate used in the encoding process. This means one thing - that each frame suffers less loss of data as it's turned into video. That's less loss, not none. It's still not raw, but it's better than nothing, and since each frame is going to be on screen for at most 1/25th of a second (apart from that damned pause button), it's ok that it loses something. What you hope it's not going to lose is too much colour or contrast depth, so there's still plenty of data to process later on.

Colour Grading

The next step is some sort of colour grading process. This is where you try to impose a particular look in your video footage. If you have footage from multiple cameras, this is the stage at which you try to make it all look the same. With GoPro Protune footage it's where you take all that flat-look, high data-rate video and give it some colour & depth. Adobe's SpeedGrade is a great place to do this, allowing a wide range of creative options to videographers. But I'm a photographer, and I'm accustomed to the richness you can get from RAW images by processing them in Adobe Lightroom. So I wanted to incorporate some of that richness into my video workflow too. Lightroom handles video these days, doing a reasonable job of trimming and colour-adjusting footage. But I wanted more. So I elected to ignore Lightroom's video features and approach my video workflow as a photographer.

My Workflow Process

1. Extract the Frames

Fortunately in the Adobe CC suite I found most of what I needed. Firstly I needed to get still frames out of my video. Adobe Media Encoder is the way to do this. Give it a video from the GoPro, then choose a stills output format and go! My short flight video, shot at 60fps, yielded almost 5000 frames. You can output in JPG, but remember it's a lossy format, so your still images won't be without artefacts. It's better to use TIFFs, although they'll be bigger. At least they're as good as your video frames and not reduced quality, which is what you want if you're going to be processing them further which is the whole point of this exercise.

2. Edit the frames

So… you have your frames. Next import them into a Lightroom library. Select one, and start editing it to look how you want it to look. Remember this is stills editing so you get to use everything Lightroom has to offer. Graduated filters are great. So is its noise reduction and sharpening. You could also use Lightroom's lens profiles to correct for the GoPro's fisheye distortion and chromatic aberration. When one frame looks how you want it, try syncing the settings to all the others. If a section of frames don't look how you like them, make adjustments. Just don't try to edit every one of the thousands of frames individually!

3. Export the frames

Once you're done, you'll need to export the frames with their edits in place. Once again you could use JPG, but it's better to go lossless with TIFF. The whole reason we're doing this is for quality, after all.

4. Reassemble the frames into a video

Then you'll need to reassemble the frames into a video clip. The simplest way of doing this is using QuickTime Pro. The Pro edition is an inexpensive upgrade to QuickTime offered by Apple. The feature we're after is the Open Image Sequence option on the File menu. It'll take a while but eventually a video appears on screen which you can save as a movie. Congratulations, you now have a movie clip freed from the MP4 H264 format and suitable for editing, having been colour-graded photographically in Lightroom. Please share them here by commenting below!

My Rig

I get asked a lot what hardware I'm using. So here it is. Afterwards I've laid out some of the rationale behind my choices. • Intel i7 4770K Haswell core CPU • 32Gb RAM (max) • 2 x Samsung 840 Pro 512Gb SSD • Loads of big SATA3 HDDs • Asus Sabertooth Z87 motherboard • NVidia GTX 770 GPU Hardware can make a big difference to your workflow, including whether or not a particular path is even viable at all. However I've seen people make silly uninformed hardware decisions that they've regretted. You shouldn't just blindly buy stuff hoping it'll make a big difference. The secret with hardware is, as with many things, science. Target your upgrades to your bottlenecks. That means using simple tools like task manager & resource monitors to work out where delays are occurring, thus identifying those bottlenecks. Then make an informed decision to purchase items which will alleviate specific bottlenecks. The slowest component by far is your spinning hard disk (HDD). Lots of people go on and on about defragmenting. But honestly, it's not going to make a lot of difference. You want stuff that's many times faster, not just tinkering around with milliseconds. So for the best speed, do all your work on an SSD, and archive onto cheap traditional electro-mechanical spinning hard disk drives (HDDs). Even the slowest SSD is 100s of times faster than the fastest HDD. SSDs are still several times more expensive than HDDs, but I recently purchased a Crucial 500Gb SSD for just £133 from eBuyer, making it a very affordable upgrade. Next in line is RAM. You can't really make RAM a whole lot faster, but you can often make it bigger. With RAM, size is everything. When you fill it up with running programs and their working data, your computer will start paging to disk. If that's an HDD then you're paging something very fast to something a hundred thousand times slower. So make it an SSD instead. But better still, fill all your memory slots to their maximum capacity so paging becomes less of a likelihood. But don't let all that memory go to waste. On a PC, use a 64 bit version of Windows with 64-bit versions of your tools. That way the PC will make use of all that RAM you've given it. Otherwise, your old 32-bit version of Windows will merely address the first 4Gb of RAM. If anyone has any other useful performance tips, please comment! A video of this tutorial is now available at http://youtu.be/fzTC6ecBogA
This entry was posted in Photography Blog.

4 Comments

  1. Jon Silver November 5, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    If you don’t use MOV, you may be missing out. Generally it’s best to transcode MP4 footage, recorded on whatever camera you’re using, to MOV using a YUV 4:2:2 codec such as CineForm, to reduce the on-the-fly decoding strain on your machine whilst editing, whilst preserving whatever detail remains after the original MP4 encoding… then render to a final, high-quality video format… before transcoding to your target delivery format.

  2. AB June 23, 2015 at 5:29 pm #

    I don’t use .MOV, only .AVI format. I already have the Adobe Master Collection CS6. Will Premiere do it?

  3. Jon Silver June 23, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

    You don’t have to be a Mac guy… QuickTime Pro is available for Windows chaps just like us… and it’s the fastest way to export all the frames. Registration costs about £20.

  4. AB June 23, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    Exporting the edited frames… I am a Windows guy, don’t have QuickTime Pro. What Windows program would work?

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