I bet you know or have at least heard about action cameras sometime or the other. If not, well, in short, action cameras are meant to capture your action packed and thrilling moments, be it riding your motorcycle through the canyons and forests, skiing down the Alpine mountains, surfing in the Bahamas, skydiving off a plane, or heck, even scuba diving in the Indian Ocean. Apart from this, you can also use action cameras to turn your drone into an aerial filming device, or simply use one as a dash-cam.
In all earnest, your imagination is the limit in with action cameras. In this article, I shall attempt to explain everything you need to know before you spend your hard-earned money on an action camera, helping you select a suitable one based on your needs. So let’s get started, shall we!
First, you need to know what you need an action cam for.
1. Capture Action-Packed Video
If your primary intent is to capture good quality video of your action-packed moments, then you must not forget the following points:
- 1080p (30fps): Ensure your action camera can capture video at 1080p (30fps) at the very least, but definitely prefer a 60fps one.
- LCD Screen: Make sure a screen to live preview your video is present.
- Mounts: What you will also need are mounting accessories (you will not be able to mount the action camera otherwise) that may be included in the package or may be bought separately.
2. Dashboard Camera (aka dash-cam)
If using your action camera as a dash-cam is your primary motive, then ensure it has the following:
- Loop Recording: This is a must-have feature if you decide to use your camera as a security dash-cam. What this does is, it continuously records video till the memory card is full after which, video continues to be recorded by erasing the very first video, and so on.
- USB Auto Power-on/off: A must-have feature in my books, where connecting the USB cable to the camera starts video recording automatically and removing the cable switches off the device. You may have guessed it already, but turning your car key on and off is akin to plugging in or removing the USB cable from your action camera.
- Mount: Depending on the location you want to fix your camera, you will need an appropriate mount. A suction cup mount would suffice if you want to affix it to your windshield, else a flat/curved base mount with a 3M sticker will do if you decide to fix it on your dashboard.
3. First Person View (FPV)
If converting your RC drone/airplane/helicopter/car to an FPV-enabled one is on your mind, then this is what you need to look for:
- Small Size and Low Weight: Since your RC toy now needs to carry extra payload, you would be better off with a smaller sized and low weight camera like the Firefly 5s which we have reviewed here. Not having a screen that live previews video is an advantage, as it leads to better battery backup, lower size and weight.
- AV out: To FPV-enable your RC toy, you will need to connect your action camera to a video transmitter (an AV out port and an AV cable is needed for this) which in turn, would transmit live video to say, your screen-enabled remote controller or any compatible destination device.
Now that you are in a position to identify the type of action camera you need, let’s look at the important aspects of action cameras that you should know about.
1. Video Resolution and Framerate
Image Source: Nikon
This is undoubtedly the first thing you should look at while buying an action camera. If you are going to view the recorded videos on a computer, a smartphone, or any full HD compatible device, then 1080p video recording capability is more than enough. These days there are quite a few 4K video-capable action cameras out in the market as well, but I would recommend those for professionals who possess devices that can handle 4K resolution.
Coming to frame-rates, the bare minimum that the camera should be capable of is 30fps. For videos that bear fast moving objects or high-paced action, 60fps would be the need of the hour.
If you wish to record slow-motion videos, then a minimum frame-rate of 120fps at 720p or 1080p must be possible.Important Note: I have seen quite a few manufacturers who advertise their product as 4K video capable, but if you bother to look at the spec-sheet, you will notice the framerates to be 15fps when recorded at 4K, rendering it virtually meaningless.
Sometimes, manufacturers also manage to play around with software to falsely bump up frame-rates. What this means is: if you look at the properties of the video file, you will see the frame-rate as advertised, but that’s only on paper. In reality, the actual frame-rate is lower than what you see. The easiest and sure shot way to avoid being bluffed is by looking at the included chipset (SoC). There are a handful of standard chipsets used by most action camera manufacturers. Find out which one your camera uses by looking at the spec-sheet.
It is important to know that the resolution and frame-rate capability of a camera is primarily determined by the chipset it uses. So look up the properties of that chipset on the chipset manufacturer website and voila, you cannot get bluffed!
2. Field of View (FOV)
Being action cameras, you would like to capture as much detail as possible in one frame, to try mimicking the human eye as much as possible. That is why most of them adorn a wide-angle lens that typically ranges between 120- and 170-degrees. Note that the very nature of wide-angle lenses translates into a curved appearance as you move to the edges of the image. This is commonly known as the fisheye effect, and has been universally accepted as the way action cameras function.
The lens being wide-angled, results in still images carrying the fish-eye effect too, which does not look too pleasing to the eye. So I wouldn’t recommend an action camera just for still image photography.
3. Chipset (SoC)
Image source: Ambarella
In action camera terms, you can look at the the SoC (system on a chip) as the camera’s processor. The chipset is what defines the major characteristics of the action camera including the resolution and frame-rate, among others. A few well known SoC manufacturers are AllWinner, Ambarella and Sunplus, with each action camera equipped with one of them.
4. Image Sensor
Image Source: Engadget
The image sensor is responsible for converting incoming light into electrical signals. Sensitivity to light and image quality are some of the key factors governed by image sensors. The most common ones used by action camera manufacturers are CMOS ones from Sony, OmniVision, Aptina, etc.
A key aspect often misunderstood is the fact that sensor size matters much more than megapixels. As a thumb rule, bigger the sensor size, better the image quality.
Most action cams feature a 1.5 or 2-inch LCD screen at the back that allows you to live preview the video and look at various notifications. It is quintessential to have a screen that is bright enough to be read on a bright sunny day, unless you wish to squint each time.
On the other hand, some sport cameras targeted for dash-cam or FPV-use simply sport a small notification screen at the front of the device, just besides the lens.
6. Dimensions, size and weight
Most action camera manufacturers stick to common dimensions exhibited by various GoPro models. This allows for interchangeable accessories and mounts between various action cameras.
As a thumb rule, you must look for cameras on the lighter side, without any compromise in build quality obviously.
Another clan of action cameras are mini-sized ones. These are usually pretty minuscule ones like the Soocoo G1 and do not come with too many accessories. They usually attach to surfaces through sticky bases, magnetic bases, etc and are easy to carry around.
The battery is one sore point when one talks about action cameras. Since action cameras are supposed to be as small and light as possible, putting in a high capacity battery would not be practical. So what you generally get is a replaceable Li-ion battery with a capacity of around 1000mAh or more, that usually lasts for just about 2 hours of usage: clearly inadequate if you plan to capture a whole day’s worth of footage. For this reason, I suggest carrying spare batteries along.
Generally, action cameras without an LCD screen consume lesser battery power, and some come with auto switch-off and auto screen-off options that help preserve battery life a bit.
Nowadays, each and every action camera is WiFi enabled, allowing you to control the camera from your smartphone and in most cases, allow you to live stream video too. This feature is particularly useful in situations when you cannot access or have your action camera in eyesight, like when you have the camera mounted to the side of your helmet. Moreover, this feature is a must-have in sport action cameras without an LCD screen.
9. Remote Controller
More and more manufacturers are coming up with small remote controllers like the Amkov AMK7000S that comes with a watch remote control. This makes it extremely easy to control your action camera from the tip of your hands.
10. Mounting Accessories
An action camera is virtually unusable without mounts, unless you want to use scotch tape, ropes and the likes, which should honestly be the last thing on your mind. Standard mounting accessories are generally provided in the package, which includes bike handlebar mounts, backpack clip mounts, flat mounts, curved mounts, adhesive tape, cable ties, connectors, screws, etc. Not to forget is the waterproof case that is mandatory if you want to use your camera under water or if you want to use any mounts, as almost all mounts fix onto this case, and not directly onto the camera.
In case accessories are not provided, you would still be able to buy them separately. Moreover, you get additional accessories like gyro stabilizers, auxiliary lights, dog mounts, chest mounts, etc as well.
Click here to have a look at the best accessories for your GoPro action camera.
Action Camera Buying Guide: Conclusion
Et voila, you now have all the vital information you need to purchase an action camera depending on your requirements. One deciding factor I haven’t mentioned in this article is price, but since that is subjective to each individual, I shall leave that decision to you. That being said, you get decent quality Chinese action cameras starting at about $60 and high-end ones like the GoPro Hero 4 Black that retails at $499.