Buying an Action Camera – The Complete Guide
You don’t have to be an ardent explorer or hardcore sports extremist to own an action camera. In fact, for many, an action cam is a cool gadget that’s more robust than their smartphone or point and click pocket camera and the perfect tool to immortalize magical moments from their latest adventures no matter how sedate or extreme.
When buying an action camera most people think of the well know GoPro brand. Indeed GoPro practically invented the action cam category and has almost totally dominated the top end of the market since. But there are plenty of other options out there to choose from, each with different functions, features, and advantages. So to get you better acquainted with all the action cam jargon and what to look for when shopping for one of these portable sports cameras we have written this helpful best actin cameras buyers guide.
Video Quality Matters
Like any video capture device, the most important thing to look for when buying an action cam is video quality and that means resolution.
At present 4K is regarded as the highest resolution on most high end and many mid-range cameras. Some cameras will also offer 2K resolutions as well as the more common 1080P (Full HD) and 720P (HD) resolutions. While higher frame rate offer shaper images lower resolutions let you record at more frames per second. So it really depends on what you want.
The right resolution for your needs depends on how you will be using the camera and also what you will be playing back and showing the footage on. There is very little point being able to record in 4K if you don’t have the means to view such video on a 4K TV or computer monitor.
You can see the many different video resolutions in this chart from Wikipedia
The most common resolutions you’ll see on an action camera are listed below.
Note that while UHD and 4K are often used interchangeably they are not the same. The difference between Ultra HD and 4K is that “Ultra High Definition” is actually a derivation from the true 4K digital cinema standard. So while your local cinema shows images in 4K, 4096 x 2160 native resolutions the Ultra HD consumer format has a slightly lower resolution of 3840 X 2160. So when you see 4K on an action camera it will most probably mean the UHD 3840x2160P format.
Don’t miss a beat with high FPS
Perhaps as important as video quality is FPS, this stands for Frames Per Second. It lets the user know how many video frames the camera captures every second.
The more frames you can capture every second the more detailed the video will be. A high FPS is particularly useful when recording high-speed action and ensures a smooth video footage without jumps between the motions.
Additionally, if you are able to shoot in a higher FPS such as 120FPS you can play the video back at a slower rate such as 30FPS. This will give you a slow-motion replay as you’re playing back the footage at a quarter of the speed it took place. This makes for very nice action shots when showing off fast-paced sequences and is highly recommended for filming sports or wildlife in action. Some cameras will have slow motion recording options to make it easy to achieve this.
Field of View
The Field of view (FOV) is the area that the camera lens can capture at any given moment. Most action cams have a wide FOV of more than 100 degrees. Some may offer the option to film in different FOVs. Having a wide FOV is great for taking in more with each shot but remember that the high the FOV the more distortion you will get and the resulting footage will have a fisheye effect with very wide angle field of view footage.
There are two kinds of stabilization, optical stabilization, and digital stabilization. Optical Image Stabilization (OSI) works by physically moving the lens to counteract motion whereas digital stabilization is all done electronically. Both are tasked with making video recordings smoother by keeping the image steady and correcting for sudden movements.
Digital stabilization sometimes referred to as gyro stabilization uses a built-in gyro meter in the camera. This detects the vertical and horizontal motion of the camera. Software in the camera then processes the image and shifts it from frame to frame to counteract the motion of the camera.
To ensure silky smooth footage video bloggers and YouTubers will frequently use a gimbal as they have superior stabilization than you would typically get on any action camera, but this isn’t very practical if you want to take you action camera with you down the ski slopes or mountain biking. That’s where image stabilization comes in. It helps keep the camera balanced and adjusts for sudden movements which you would encounter when traversing a bumpy surface. The results vary but generally speaking optical is better than digital when it comes to stabilization although this will result in a slightly larger action camera.
It is becoming a more common feature on action cameras and digital stabilization is present on all most cameras over $100 while optical stabilization is normally only on higher-end models in the market, but it is usually significantly better than digital image stabilization.
You can see in these side by side images tie difference this can make.
Durability is a Must Have
Durability is a big deal for action cameras. Likely you want something that can stand up to recording in all kinds of weather and conditions as well as a device that isn’t going to fall to pieces at the slightest knock. If it’s not up to the job it’s not worth buying.
Nearly all action cameras will come with a toughened plastic cast that is waterproof, dustproof and shock resistant, this case should lend the camera an IP (ingress protection) rating when used inside it. However, this will also add to the size and weight which can make the camera more cumbersome especially if wanting to use a gimbal or mounting it on your helmet.
There are a few cameras out there such as the Hero 6 which have great durability without a protective case and while you will pay a premium for that feature it can be worthwhile for some users.
Remember if you go for a camera with optical stabilization you should be aware that as the camera will have moving parts (regarding the lens or image sensor) it will be more susceptible to damage from knocks so may not be as durable as other alternatives.
Weight, Size, and Shape
The most common shape for a sports camera is the iconic rectangular back box that is associated with the GoPro brand, and almost anything in this style is referred to as a GoPro clone. However, Sony, Panasonic, and a number of other brands do make action cameras more akin to the camcorder shape only smaller. There are other cylindrical cameras as well as cuboid offerings. All things considered, you probably want the most compact size without skimping on features or functionality. However, bear in mind that the very small cameras may well lack a view screen so playing back video and framing shots won’t be an option unless the camera has Wi-Fi or other connectivity.
Connectivity is Key
Ideally, you want a quick and easy way to transfer your video footage and images to the web or your computer. Sure, taking the micro SD card out is always an option but doing this outdoors in the wet or cold is a real pain and carrying a card reader with you is extra baggage you can do without.
Many cameras now feature a mini HDMI port which offers fast connectivity for transferring your files but again this means you need to have a compatible device with you. This leaves WiFi which is perhaps the best all be it not the fastest connectivity option, it makes it easy to frame shots if your action camera doesn’t have a screen and means you can quickly edit and upload videos and photos to the web from your smartphone or tablet device. There’s no better way to inspire your friends or make them jealous of your latest adventures.
Memory Shouldn’t be Overlooked
The higher the recording rate the faster the memory you will need. Action cameras rarely have any built-in storage and rely on SD cards or recording to your mobile device if they have Wi-Fi. For the best performance, you should get a micro SD card with fast read and write speeds. A class 10 card is probably the minimum you’ll require, particularly if you want to record FHD or better quality and 60FPS or more. If you try using a storage card that doesn’t have a fast enough performance you will probably end up with dropped frames or jerky video and some cameras just won’t recognize lower class cards.
When it comes to memory size go for the largest card your camera will support.
Battery Life – The Longer the Better
All action cameras have a built-in or removable battery. I recommend a camera that has a removable battery, especially if the camera has Wi-Fi / Bluetooth as this drains the battery faster. There are two reasons for getting a camera with a removable battery. Firstly you can usually buy a second battery and some cameras will even come with one. This means when the first battery runs down you can simply switch batteries and get a second round of recording straight away without the need to recharge in between, this is fantastic for when you’re on holiday or out enjoying the world.
Secondly, if the battery becomes faulty or when it reaches the end of its life you can simply replace it and needed investment in a costly new camera.
So Many Accessories
This all depends on what you will use the cameras for, however perhaps one of the most useful accessories is a remote control. Many cameras with Wifi let you use your smartphone as a remote camera trigger while other will come with a dedicated wrist strap remote. These are great for controlling the cameras when participating in activities where you wouldn’t want to take your phone, particularly water sports.
Other accessories include gimbals and camera mounts. There a plethora of mounts to attach the camera to everything from your surfboard, helmet, chest harness or even dog harness.
Fortunately nearly all of the mounts have a universal fitting so if the camera you’re buying comes in the iconic GoPro shape and has a plastic protection case you can most likely pick up any sort of extra accessories and mount that you need which wasn’t included from the manufacturer, however you will normally find most cameras come with a waterproof case and a few different mounts for bike handlebars, cycle helmets and the like, the rest you can easily pick up online.
You can pay anything from under $50 to over $500 for an action camera. You don’t need to spend $400+ for the latest GoPro or other high-end offerings as you can find plenty of cheaper cameras with the exact same sensors for less than half the price.
The important thing is to consider what you want the camera for, how will you be using it and evaluate if the extra features are something you will make use of and appreciate. Set yourself a budget and a tick least of desirable features and shop around to find the best match for your needs and you won’t be disappointed.