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How to Buy an Action Camera

Ready to record YouTube-worthy video on your outdoor adventure? Here’s what you need to know before you buy an action camera.

ALL ABOUT ACTION CAMERAS

An action camera is a lightweight, hands-free digital video camera capable of producing high-quality, wide-angle video in almost any outdoor environment. That means it must be impact-resistant, dust-proof and waterproof, and must operate in a wide range of temperatures.

When shopping, consider how the camera’s size and shape work with how you intend to use it, including where it will be mounted or carried, whether it has to fit into a confined space, whether you can see the cam during operation (you can’t if it’s on your helmet) and your desired angle of view.

SJCAM SJ6 Legend

For pure value, it’s hard to beat the SJCAM SJ6 Legend ($159, sjcam.com). It shoots stabilized 4K video for more than an hour on one full charge, and features built-in Wi-Fi, an external mic connection and a 2-inch touchscreen. The tiny (1.6-by-2.3-by-0.8 inches, 2.9 oz.) plastic body has a standard tripod mount — unusual on action cams — and comes with a protective case, outfitted with a GoPro mount, that’s waterproof to about 100 feet. The SJCAM Zone app gives you control of settings and functions from your smartphone.

FEATURES AND ACCESSORIES

VIEWFINDER OR LCD SCREEN: Compact action cams often lack a viewfinder or an LCD screen. If you want a camera with a built-in screen, make sure it’s bright and clear enough for easy viewing in sunshine or underwater. Similarly, good audio quality is rare, although some high-end models have an external microphone jack.

WI-FI CAPABILITY: Wi-Fi capability enables the easy upload of video to a computer or the internet, live streaming, some accessory apps and shooting remotely via smartphone. This last feature is useful when using an action cam that lacks an LCD screen for playback.

BATTERY LIFE: Even the camera with the longest battery life will last only a few hours, so if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip, you’ll need to buy additional rechargeable batteries or a solar charging device. Keep in mind that battery life between charges is shortened by shooting at higher resolution (especially 4K) and frame rates, having Wi-Fi turned on and temperatures well below freezing.

GoPro Hero7 White

The GoPro Hero7 White ($200, shop.gopro.com) might be today’s definitive action cam. At just 2.5-by-1.8-by-1.1 inches and 3.3 ounces, it shoots rich video and 10MP still photos in single and burst modes. Features include a waterproof housing, a touch screen and voice control. It’s waterproof to 33 feet and has a battery life of up to 90 minutes. The subscription service GoPro Plus adds video stabilization, pro-quality photos and auto upload to the cloud.

ACCESSORIES AND MOUNTS: Look beyond camera models to each brand’s entire line of products and accessories, including third-party accessories. GoPro has the largest reach in that area.

SIZE AND WEIGHT: Action cams are designed to be worn on a helmet or mounted to equipment, so size and weight are key. Go with the smallest, lightest model you can afford.

FIELD OF VIEW: Most action cams shoot wide-angle video. Just how wide is noted in degrees (for example, 160 degrees). The larger the number, the wider and larger the field of view and the more action you’ll be able to capture.

GoPro Hero7 Black

You can one-up the Hero7 White with the GoPro Hero7 Black ($400, 4.1 oz., shop.gopro.com), which features everything found on the Hero7 White but adds 4K video, 12MP stills, higher frame rates and GPS.

VIDEO RESOLUTION: In general, the better the video quality, the more expensive the camera. Right now, 4K is the highest resolution possible on an action cam. 1080p and 720p are considered high definition.

WATER-RESISTANT AND WATERPROOF: It’s important to pick a camera that can stand up to the weather. Some action cams are water-resistant on their own, while others require a special waterproof case called a “housing” to be waterproof. If you’ll just be in the rain and snow, one of the cams that doesn’t require an extra housing might be the best bet. If you’ll be shooting underwater, you need one with a waterproof housing.

VIDEO VS. STILL PHOTOS: Action cams specialize in shooting videos. Although they can also capture still photos, don’t expect super-high-quality images. The quality of photos is indicated by the number of megapixels (MP). In general, the more MP, the sharper and clearer the photos.

Wimius L1

On a tight budget? The Wimius L1 ($73, wimius.com) shoots good-quality 4K video at 24 fps, in 1080p at 60fps or at 720p at 120 fps with a 170-degree lens. It has built-in Wi-Fi, fisheye correction, image stabilization, an LCD and a waterproof housing that comes with a water-resistant case for diving to about 100 feet. Plus, it corrects color distortion of shooting underwater.

MEMORY CARDS: All action cams record videos onto small removable memory cards. Most cams use tiny microSD cards, while some still use postage stamp–size SD cards. Either way, buy a couple of extra memory cards so you’ll have plenty of space for your videos. All cards are sized in gigabytes (GB). The higher the GB number, the more space you’ll have — and the more expensive the card will be.

16 Comments on How to Buy an Action Camera

  1. Check out the IronX cam listed above! It comes with a wrist-watch you can control it from. Also, you can buy (not included with camera package) an another wrist-watch were you can watch what you are capturing in real time! I have not seen an action cam with this feature.

    • Eagle11/13/14 // February 6, 2015 at 7:19 pm // Reply

      Actually, you can do this with the GoPro using the mobile app. You can see real time video/pictures, hit pause/record/stop, take a picture, or put a ‘bookmark’ in the video to mark somewhere you did something awesome that you want to be able to find easily.

  2. That One Anonymous Guy // November 2, 2014 at 10:41 am // Reply

    Obviously, when the thought of Polaroid comes in, one thinks of instant cameras. Polaroid had added a new line of action cameras, their most expensive $170-180.
    Some nice action cameras they made. Not thinking of Polaroid as some one who makes action cameras, it’s easy to see why it’s not on the list. Still, the Gear Guy should have added one of them!!

    • I use the polaroid cube as a hidden camera in my room! It is perfect for catching my little bro snooping around!

  3. go pros are the best camera yet for recording things. my school uses them for the rock band for the half time show at football games every Friday. then they upload them to You Tube.

  4. Fire Balls006 // October 22, 2014 at 7:32 am // Reply

    I really want this and my friend and me really really really want the Hero+3 Badly so I Hope I can win it!

  5. I love this camera because it can go under water I really really want this my friend really wants this so I really Hope I Get it!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. First Class Scout, Running and LeapingSix Point White Tail Deer Patrol, Troop 870 // October 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm // Reply

    Is there any camera that is good for use as a helmet camera for someone who is either canoeing or kayaking Class 5 White Water Rapids on the Colorado River or the Yellowstone River or the Columbia River or the Niagara River or the Potomac River and would like to photograph the action filled adventure of navigating the Class 5 White Water Rapids? Is there any action camera that has an f/x shutter speed that is so fast that it can photograph flying ducks, flying hummingbirds and flying yellow jacket wasps and flying paper wasps without the photograph becoming blurry or not a good photograph of flying birds or insects? Is there any really good action camera that has the resolution of a wildlife camera that is used by the biologists in our nearby parks and state forests and national forests to photograph wildlife around the clock (twenty-four hours a day using motion detectors) such as nocturnal animals such as owls, eastern brown bats, raccoons, opossums, eastern striped skunks and coyotes?

  7. The problem with monthly print media is that you’re always printing information a month out of date. GoPro has completely revamped their lineup with the addition of a cheap model.

    I also feel like you should have mentioned Monoprice’s offering. While they are no long beating GoPro’s prices for the camera, the mounts are much less expensive.

  8. What about the new Gopro Hero for $120?

    • GoPro Adventuering // October 21, 2014 at 5:55 pm // Reply

      Or even the GoPro 4. Expensive as it is, it wipes the floor with the competitition. It is the best camera out there, in my opinion, but if you’re to get any, get the 3+ black. Less expensive and the best look, aesthetically, and the most powerful. The new Hero, really, is not worth it because it can’t even come out of the case. Even the 2 is better. But that’s my opinion.

  9. i think those cameras were pretty cool. i espcially liked the waterproof camera because it can take pictures underwater.

  10. Idaho DH Biker // October 17, 2014 at 12:28 pm // Reply

    Upset to not see the Contour Roam 2 or Contour 2+ in this roundup. I use it for my biking edits and they turn out epic. Check the above cameras out before you go for any of the ones listed. **Contour’s have fantastic battery life and sound quality. I charged it twice during the national scout jamboree. The battery is that good!

    • GoPro Adventuring // October 21, 2014 at 5:59 pm // Reply

      I think it really depends on how often you use the camera. Plus, the camera isn’t as powerful with use in the water, and has gps and Bluetooth which really are not worth the money. It’s a camera. It’s barely keeping up with the rest of the pack, especially GoPro, and it looks like a mini flashlight.

      • Idaho DH Biker // November 4, 2014 at 3:42 pm //

        Have you seen the new Contour Roam 3? It is much better than a gopro if you consider battery life and video quality. Sound quality is much better as well. It is much less awkward on your helmet than a gopro and the colors are pretty rad. Trust me, I own a gopro as well. Plus you are just advertising for GoPro obviously, so you won’t listen to anything else. I will give you the fact that GoPro is better for resolution in the water. But you have to use the bulky case.

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