Action Camera Buying Guide: What to look for?
Footage from action cameras like the GoPro is everywhere these days, however buying an action camera can be an a bit overwhelming as the market has been flooded recently with models of wildly varying degrees of quality and price. Read on to find out what to look for when making your decision about which action camera you should buy.
What are action cameras?
Action Cameras stand out as tough little video cameras manufactured to do tough jobs, like being attached to your helmet and recording while you are cycling down mountain, skiing, or scuba diving. They might seem small but they can capture the world in high definition video and their small size but dramatic point of view can work wonders for you and provide amazing footage of your holidays or activities.
Which Action Camera Should you buy?
There is really no simple answer to this questions, as it will depend on your needs and budget. GoPro is still the most recognizable brand and for good reason, their HERO5 Lineup are some of the best action cameras in the market. However the top brand carries a hefty price tag and there are some very good alternatives depending on your needs and budget.
A lot of you will be going for the “Best Bang for your Buck” options and in this case there are a few very good options with the YI 4K Action Camera being our top choice in the “Cheap GoPro alternative” category.
However ultimately there are a lot of factors to consider before buying the action camera and this article will help you make that decision, and choose the best action cam for you. In order to do that there are certain factors you will want to know and understand in order to make an informed decision, so let’s get started.
You can find some more options on our articles:
There are two main aspects you will want to look at when it comes to video quality.
Video resolution is probably the most critical variable that you have to consider while picking a particular brand and model of action camera. At present, 4K video resolution is the highest video quality accessible on most top of the line action cameras, trailed by 1080p and 720p. These numbers are a representation of the number of pixels your camera captures and in general the higher the better.
While most users today don’t need 4K resolution specially if you don’t own an accompanying UHD screen or TV. Adoption of 4K has increased dramatically as prices have fallen over the last couple years and going with a camera that shoots 4K might still be a good a idea as a way to “future proof” your investment. Then again you can save a lot of money if you are happy to stick with HD video at 1080p.
Frame Rates (FPS)
You will notice most action cameras will list their video quality specifications as two numbers e.g. 1080p 60fps, that second number is the “frames per second” a representation of how many frames per second the camera captures when recording video.
The frames per second will directly impact how smooth your video will look at a given resolution as a minimum your camera should be able to shoot 24-30fps at the desired resolution, and if you want to shoot “slow motion” videos (some cameras have this as a feature, with others you will have to use editing software) you will want at least 60fps and preferably 120fps or more. Higher fps translates to smoother video and will allow you to slow down your footage more.
Field of view
The Field of view FOV of the action camera is the amount of area that your camera can capture at any given minute. Most action cameras have a wide-angle FOV, while a few allow you to pick between FOV modes like wide, medium, and narrow.
The camera’s FOV can be an important part of your choice; a wider FOV can not only capture a much larger area in front of the camera but will also make your action footage appear smoother and movement and vibrations will be less noticeable. The tradeoff is that wide angle footage shot with action cameras can look distorted. Though this effect is easy to correct in post-production and some cameras like the GoPro Hero5 even allow for in-camera correction, at the cost of losing part of your field of view.
A wide field of view is perfect for shooting action footage but no so much when you are recording people e.g when vlogging.
Just keep in mind that the more degrees of FOV on an action camera, the larger area you will be able to fit in the frame of your videos and photos.
Of course photos are not the main function of action cameras and as such they are at a marked disadvantage compared to DSLRs and mirrorless cameras and even compact cameras will generally produce vastly superior photographs.
That said sensor technology is improving rapidly and a few brands like GoPro and GitUp are now offering cameras with RAW Image support (more on this below).
Most cameras will advertise the number of megapixels MP their sensor delivers, and if you’ve had any experience with digital photography in the past you should be quite familiar with the term already, and while “higher is better” when it comes to megapixels, they only represent one aspect of the overall image quality.
RAW image support
RAW image support has only recently made it’s way to action cameras.
Shooting in RAW format will capture a lot more data in your photos and give you completely uncompressed image files.
Right out of the camera these images might look the same or even a bit worse than their JPEG counterparts, however they will allow for much more freedom in post processing, sometimes saving a an image that would be otherwise unusable.
However if you are not very concerned with the picture quality or have no intention of doing post processing on your photos you can safely skip this feature.
Action cameras are meant to shoot images or videos outdoors but the environment is not always electronic friendly and there might be snow or rain outside. Better yet, you might want to capture your memories while swimming or scuba diving. Here is where your camera’s waterproof qualities will come into play.
Some action cameras are water resistant out of the box. Thus, it is safe to utilize them even under water but you have to check the depth to which they can accompany you and most of these won’t be safe to take beyond 10m. So if you just need to stave off the occasional splash or swim that should be enough but if you intend to do any diving or apnea then you will most likely need a case.
Most action cameras will offer a special case or housing, while some cameras will include this in the package with others you will have to buy it separately. Again you will have to check up to what depth the housing is rated and see if this aligns with your requirements. Recreational divers will want a camera/housing rated to at least 30 meters (100 feet).
Water resistance is usually indicated in the number of feet or meters you can take your camera below water, but occasionally it will be indicated with an ATM or IP rating which you can read more about here.
Most action cameras offer just around one to three hours of the battery life before their battery will drain completely. Especially shooting higher-resolution videos depletes your battery quickly. So does having Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and other network connectivity and features turned on.
Of course a longer battery life is always preferred. Nevertheless, often, a camera with a more extensive battery life may be more costly, or might not have the features and qualities you are searching for. If battery life is very important to you, make sure your camera has a removable battery, allowing you to buy a spare battery and switch them as necessary (some cameras like the GoPro HERO3 Session have fixed batteries meaning you are out of luck and will have to wait for the battery to recharge once it runs out).
Battery capacity is usually stated in mAh (milliampere hour) unfortunately this is mostly used for marketing purposes and does not always express the real capacity of a battery, but it will give you a rough idea of its size and help you compare models.
A battery rated for more mAh will power a device for a longer amount of time, given the same usage pattern. The trade-off is that batteries with more mAh are generally also physically larger and heavier.
Modern action cameras are also equipped with the ability to take time-lapse videos out of the box. These videos are created by taking pictures at certain time intervals and then playing them at a much faster speed making time appear to be moving faster.
For example, an image of a scene may be captured once every second, then played back at 30 frames per second; the result is an apparent 30 times speed increase.
Some cameras will generate the video automatically but with others you will have to use a computer to stitch together the hundreds or thousands of images you took into a video.
It is ideal to have fast and simple techniques to transfer your video footage and pictures to the web, your PC, or cell phone, especially if your camera does not have a screen for viewing and playback.
While all action cameras will usually allow you to either remove the SD card and/or connect to your computer via USB, modern action cameras come with the special connectivity features. They mostly have WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity usually used in conjunction with a mobile phone app to transfer your footage or even control the camera remotely.
Shape, size, and weight
The shape of the action cameras can also matter as some of them will be more convenient in certain uses than others. For example Sony action cameras are ideal for those of you wanting to “sidemount” (usually done on the side of helmets) instead of the more common top mount.
Likewise, depending on your needs or choice of sport, how lightweight your camera is might be a big deal. Luckily there are a few ultra light options to choose from.
This one is pretty obvious, your budget will probably have the biggest impact on the quality and features that your camera provides, that said as with most gadgets the most expensive camera is not necessarily best, and there is usually “sweet spot” when it comes to price vs features. You can check out our Top 8 Best Cheap GoPro Alternatives for some affordable options that don’t skimp on features and quality.
That’s it! that was a quick roundup of the main action camera features, hopefully these will help you make a decision and make sure you buy the most suitable action camera for your requirements.
Did we miss anything? Still have questions? let us know in the comments below.