Action cameras, the ubiquitous go-anywhere, attach-to-anything, record-everything video cameras, didn’t originally try to claim image resolution or fidelity as a key selling point. When GoPro, the company that really launched this market segment and then became the de facto leader in the field, created its first cameras, survivability was the key engineering consideration. It didn’t matter how lovely video footage from a camera would be, that camera couldn’t survive crashing to the ground along with the mountain biker it was attached to.
But in an era where 4K television sets are the doorbuster products at Best Buy and everyone’s mobile device includes a display that has more pixels than the human eye can detect, the value of high-fidelity video and still footage is critical.
When I attended the launch of the GoPro HERO6 Black and the GoPro Fusion in late 2017, the company rented out a science center and used the planetarium as a tool to display the 360º footage from its new Fusion. It didn’t just focus on the ability to grab wraparound footage; it also highlighted the detail and quality possible with the 5.2K sensor and the ability to create “stunning visual effects” with the GoPro app.
Action cameras have truly evolved, and they’re no longer just a toy for capturing a downhill ski run or a skydive; they’re prime video creation tools that can be combined. That said, this is a product category with a number of low-quality copycats.
You can find “4K Action Cameras” in the $20-$40 price point, and the number of manufacturers in this space is astounding. A recent search turned up names that, if read together, sound like they belong to characters in the Star Wars universe: Eken, Aukey, Wimius, Blebby and my favorite, Craphy. I can just hear Luke Skywalker reminiscing about Jedi Master Blebby Wimius, and his battle against the mighty Sith, Lord Eken. I even found a model for sale at Home Depot, and you know that if you get your $20 action camera at Home Depot, it’s going to be, well, returned.
That said, some of these unfamiliar brands make both dreadful low-end models designed to be put into someone’s Christmas stocking without much thought and higher-end cameras that turn out good images. Even the low-end models, though, create video that’s perfectly acceptable to document a vacation SCUBA dive or a day at the beach, and it’s certainly better to replace a lost $30 camera than a lost $400 one.
Fortunately, a quick YouTube search for any camera model will yield test footage, and that’s a great place to start when considering any video camera purchase, as it will give a pretty good idea of what a camera can, and more importantly, can’t, do. Many of the video tests are shot on exotic locals like islands and seaside, where it’s easy to see if a camera creates blocky images, overexposes in direct sunlight or has any issues with resolution.
Quality, Camera, Action
So what’s the difference between a $30 action camera and a $400 model? Largely, it comes down to the build quality, sensor quality, image quality, processor, interface and durability of the chassis.
Action cameras are all about miniaturization, and it’s very difficult to get high-quality components into a very small space. The leading companies (GoPro, YI, Sony, Nikon and some others) have engineers and manufacturing processes that specialize on this delicate process. The leading cameras have precision optics, sensors with good resolution and dynamic range, and processors that can handle moving big amounts of data quickly. If a manufacturer skimps on any of these, instead of capturing a moment, you end up cursing at having missed it.
Not only is it good to have an action camera that can capture good images and video, but it also helps to survive the rigors of all that “action” it’s going to be exposed to. GoPro, for example, has been able to build the waterproofing that used to only be possible with an external housing into its latest action cameras. The result is a device that can go into the surf without needing to be put into a hard plastic shell.
Don’t overlook those accessory shells and mounting gear, though, as they’re crucial to extend the system. Buy an action camera to shoot exterior motion from a speeding car, and if it doesn’t have a mount that will do the job, you’re going to find yourself duct-taping the camera to a car and trying to find it in the ditch where it fell off.
The reason the brand leaders all charge around $200 to $400 is that it takes that much to pay for the research, engineering and manufacturing of equipment that will consistently perform under pressure, in harsh environments, and produce a good-looking image at the same time.
That said, action cameras have their weaknesses. Most have microphones that produce sub-par audio, thanks to the padding and waterproofing built into them. Most of them have issues when the lens is pointed directly at the sun, and most produce noisy results in low light. These are all trade-offs for the small sensors that are at the heart of the units.
If you’d like good-quality video and images from your action camera, you can’t go wrong with one of these models.
GoPro HERO6 Black
GoPro is the leader in action cameras, and for good reason. The company not only was the pioneer in the market, but it continually upgrades its gear and has a collection of mounts that attach the GoPro HERO to just about any object. Like the previous HERO5 Black, the new GoPro action camera has voice command support, because saying “GoPro, start recording” is a better way to start capturing video than fumbling for a button when you’re bombing downhill on a bike.
The new HERO6 Black captures video at up to 4K at 60p and can capture slo-mo 1080p HD video at 240 fps. A new processor gives the camera better-looking images with higher dynamic range and improved low-light performance. It also can capture photos in HDR and records in RAW. The HERO6 Black has a new touch-zoom feature for on-the-fly cropping, can upload to WiFi over the much-faster 5 GHz bandwidth, and has GPS plus accelerometer and a gyroscope to tag image location and direction. The HERO6 Black doesn’t even need a housing to dive as deep as 33 feet.
The GoPro HERO6 Black can also attach to the company’s gimbal or to its Karma drone, for image-stabilized use on the ground or in the air (respectively). It’s a good way to extend the value of the $500 action camera. GoPro also offers a $99 “You break it, we’ll replace it” plan.
YI 4K+ Action Camera
YI Technology is one of those semi-obscure but growing names in the camera market. Lacking a big presence in the U.S., the company makes action cameras, a Micro Four Thirds camera, VR cameras (see below), home security cameras and dashcams.
The YI 4K+ action camera captures in 4K at 60 fps, has built-in stabilization, and after an “upcoming” firmware update will be able to live-stream from the camera and offer voice control and RAW shooting support. The YI 4K+ uses the built-in USB cable to provide charging and connectivity and connects to external microphones. It’s not waterproof, so the $350 action camera comes with a waterproof case.
Garmin VIRB Ultra 30
Anyone familiar with Garmin’s family of GPS units will appreciate the company’s focus on data capture with the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30. Built-in sensors and GPS receivers track speed, distance and location with every frame, so you can, as Garmin says “prove how far, how high and how fast you went.”
The camera captures 4K/30 fps (hence, the 30 in the name) and uses built-in three-axis physical video stabilization to smooth the capture, and the camera has a high-sensitivity microphone that works even in the waterproof case. Voice control is available in the VIRB, and the company’s app allows users to livestream while controlling multiple cameras. The $400 camera is waterproof with the case down to 40 meters, and a range of mounts are available.
Sony’s take on an action camera focuses a lot on image quality, and its image-centric camera has an odd form factor as a result. Instead of housing the components in a flat body, as do most action cameras, the FDR-X3000 looks more like a lens at the end of a pack of cards. The 4K camera uses that body shape to provide Optical Steady Shot motion reduction, and it houses a Zeiss Tessar lens for low distortion and can capture at a huge data rate for high-resolution video.
An awkward-but-useable finger grip pairs the camera with a remote control unit, a unit that can also be mounted to a watchband or connected to handlebars. The camera can be controlled with the same PlayMemories app that works with the company’s still cameras.
The $400 body is splash-proof and freeze-proof, and the (provided) underwater housing is also dustproof, shockproof and waterproof up to around 200 feet. The Body+ Live-View Remote kit brings the system up to $550.
If the Sony unit looked odd, the Olympus TG-Tracker takes it to a whole new level. Available in a neon frog-green or black finish, this member of the Tough series of cameras takes 4K video and adds to it the ability to record GPS, barometer, temperature, direction and acceleration, and transmits the data to a mobile app for real-time evaluation of data and map tracking. The backlit CMOS sensor captures images and video in low light and a five-axis image stabilization system for high-quality results in any condition.
Speaking of conditions, the $350 camera can survive (without any housing) dives to 100 feet, up to 220 pounds of force, temperatures down to 14ºF, and drops from up to 7 feet. The monitor tilts out for better composition, and a unique 60-lumen front LED headlight allows for capture after dark.