What are Action Cameras? 2020 Beginner’s Guide

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Usually, action cameras are for the recording of video, but most of them can also take snap still images as well. They are most well known for being attached to owners who are into extreme exploits – mountain biking, climbing, freestyle – anything… they capture video usually from the perspective of the person wearing the camera as the settings fly by.

There is also a small group of pre-cursor point & shoot compact digital cameras that can be placed in this category simply because they are so durable and made for “action” so to speak. They come in many shapes and sizes, but all of them hold true to the basic principle of an action-camera: They are sturdy, shockproof, and often waterproof.

Image by Iccy Ruoff from Pixabay

It’s very important to note that not all action cameras are waterproof. So, if you are looking for a waterproof camera or a submersible camera, be absolutely sure that the device you like actually qualifies for the work you need it to accomplish. 

As their price point becomes more readily available to the common consumer, these cameras are being found all over. 

When it comes to choosing which of these cameras is right for you, also look into their framerate (fps). Action cameras offer from 30fps – 240fps recording. 30fps is just fine if you’re going for standard playback. The fancier you get with your cinematics, however, the more fps you may need. Footage captured at 240fps can be slowed down and played back smoothly at one-quarter speed. 

Action cameras usually feature wide-angle lenses for an immersive experience that brings the audience into the world of the wearer. They are not suited for normal photography because of this. 

Editing these videos used to be a labor of love. However, newer application technology has given these cameras versatility like no other. Many come with editing and uploading suites that are smartphone and tablet friendly in design. You no longer have to rely on a desktop and plenty of space to edit your captured videos and upload them to your favorite social media sites. 

With this type of camera, you’re basically getting a compact camera fitted with inner workings that make them shockproof, stabilizing the video even while the camera is constantly moving,  along with armor that makes them waterproof and tumble proof. When they became popular on the market, they were not exactly geared for professional use (it has a small sensor, most don’t zoom or come with interchangeable lenses, etc…). However, like anything else that becomes popular in the tech industry, year-by-year they are improving. 

Types of Action Cameras

Compact Action Cameras 

Let’s go high-end first, shall we? 

One camera that kept coming to the top of my research was the Leica XU model. This camera is rubberized and waterproof. It has a very simple menu and dials that are easy to use both in air and underwater (though several people have complained that it’s a bit difficult if you happen to be wearing gloves). 

Also, it is capable of taking 16.5-megapixel shots, continuous shooting at 5FPS, and 1080p video. It can go to a depth of 49 feet / 14 meters and still function properly.  It does not have a viewfinder, but an LCD screen. This camera has a strap space for you to attach a strap so it can be on the go with you. It literally looks like a standard point and shoot camera.

The price of a camera like this?  Expect to pay over $3,000.00 or used from $2400.00. And Leica manufactures several models, so please be sure you are looking at the correct action-camera model THAT IS WATERPROOF for this company.   

Do not let the price discourage you for there are other waterproof action-cameras out there that can compare to the Leica, but they have a much lower price point. 

Olympus has a TG series that are waterproof and functionally touch action cameras.  I believe the newest version is the Olympus TG-6 which I can go over here. Its price point is only $379.00, which is a good all-around price for a camera, little on an action P&S.

It has similar stats to the Leica – Waterproof (50 feet / 15 meter ), dustproof, shockproof (7 feet / 2; 1 meter), crush-proof (100kgf), freezeproof (14 degree Fahrenheit / 10 degree Celsius ), anti-fog coatings…the list goes on. There are companies offering similar products, such as Fujifilm and Nikon.

Want even smaller and with a lower price point? Ricoh has you covered with their WG series. I believe the latest version of this is the Ricoh WG-60. And these cameras don’t just come in with a price point at somewhere between $220.00 – $350.00. Keep in mind that a lot of these price points include a bunch of accessories.

The drawback? These kinds of cameras have small sensors to begin with. When you get as small as the Ricoh WG series, you are talking about sensors that are 1/2.3-inch (a normal compact camera has sensors around the 1 inch size and the larger the sensor, the better the image quality can be). So, though they work well within the camera to give good images, they won’t be near as clear as high in quality as a normal point and shoot or compact camera might provide.

While I looked up this information for myself, I found one other waterproof camera that I wanted to mention that is used outside and in an action-possible space. It’s normally stationary, but it takes shots of things that move around it and so is motion activated. It’s a Victure Trail Game Camera.  

At first, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to place this kind of camera when it came to categories. But, to be honest, it doesn’t work with security cameras, though it could be used as one… it’s more of a sporting camera. It is capable of taking tumbles, it’s weather-resistant, and it’s designated use is out in the wilderness, so even though it’s mainly a stationary camera, I’m going to list it here with the rest of the Compact Action Cameras.

These things record in 1080p HD and also record high-quality audio along with the video. It has 3 shooting modes and an automatic day/night sensor that gives you the best quality recording based on lighting. They have designed this camera so that moisture is not a problem for battery reload or for the lens. You can also purchase a portable solar panel for use with this camera!  These cameras are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $50.00 – $89.00 and have a variety of uses, including outdoor surveillance.  Brands include names like: APEMAN, Victure, OUDMON, CamPark, and Usogood.   

Full Attachable Action Cameras

Normal action cameras are not only rough and tumble and usually waterproof, they can also be mounted in various places for maximum recording of action. These cameras are also lightweight enough that they can be pretty much mounted to anything – your body, your helmet, your bike, your skateboard, your car, your pets (though that last one is really taking a big risk, don’t ya think?).

They are made specifically to keep your filming quality high even though they are being used  while bouncing around a lot more than a normal camera would.Their internal stabilizers help keep the video at a decent quality. Some can move between video and still shots and come with remote controls that allow for an ease of switching between these styles and zooming, while others are video-only cameras in this category.

Some even have a 360° capability of recording all around, not only video or still photos, but also recorded sound. The accessories add even more possibility to these already ingenious cameras, offering remote control through Bluetooth and wifi as well as increased stabilization, and protection.

Many people who are Vloggers use these cameras – as they can easily adapt between a stationary setting and an action setting and still provide quality. Another desired feature for a lot of action camera users is the ability to immediately upload their videos to social media or an app that allows for editing quickly and efficiently.  

GoPro is a name that has become synonymous with action cameras. As a matter of fact, most people in my region of the country will call an action camera a “Go-Pro” even though it might be made by a different manufacturer. The GoPro HERO series is what keeps popping up with near-perfect 5-star reviews and of course the reputation that precedes it. 

Keep in mind, when purchasing a GoPro, you don’t often get accessories included other than the extra batteries and maybe an SD Card bundle. If you find a good bundle of accessories with the GoPro, it’s likely to cost upwards of $100.00 more than the camera bundle itself. Be aware that you can definitely purchase other brands of accessories that will also work with your GoPro.

The price point of these cameras varies by which level in the series you choose. Currently, we’re on GoPro HERO8. So if you go back and grab a HERO5 (brand new, not renewed or refurbished) you can get away with spending somewhere between $270.00 – $300.00.  For the brand new HERO8, you’re looking at $380.00 – $400.00.

C/net explains best why you should be willing to go with the newer model of the GoPro:

The camera was redesigned to get rid of the frame that was required to mount the camera. What you’ll see instead is that GoPro actually built its mounting fingers into the camera. This is fantastic for me since I hated that frame — I would occasionally forget it and then couldn’t mount the camera. It also blocked the battery and microSD card slot, which is now on the right side with a USB-C port. That means even when it’s mounted you can easily swap batteries and cards as well as charge it. And it’s still waterproof to 10 meters (33 feet).”

C/Net

Take note of that difference in submersible depth capacity. Full Action Cameras can usually go up to twice the depth of the Compact Action models. C/net continues to tell us about the HERO8 changes: 

GoPro also did away with the removable lens cover. The lens is made with Gorilla Glass that’s twice as impact-resistant as the glass on past Hero models. That change also made the camera slightly slimmer, making it easier to slip the Hero 8 into a pocket.

GoPro isn’t entirely done with frames, though. Announced along with the new camera are three modular accessories designed to make the Hero 8 a more vlogger-friendly camera. While the built-in mic is improved when it comes to wind-noise reduction, it still isn’t the best for recording voices unless you’re in a reasonably quiet place.

The new $80 Media Mod is designed to fix that by adding a built-in directional mic as well as a 3.5mm jack if you want to add a lav or some other mic. There’s also an HDMI output and two cold shoes. Those shoes can be used to hold a $50 Light Mod, a 200-lumen LED light, and an $80 Display Mod — each with its own power source so they’re not draining your camera battery.

C/Net

Xiaomi has several models that are not exactly waterproof but they are built with stabilizers in mind for impacts and a lot of action. They are capable of still shots, but their main purpose is to record video that is easily transferred (via their own app and wifi and Bluetooth capabilities) to be posted on social media. Their price points come in at under or very near the $100.00 mark.

I’m really not sure I would recommend these, when you can get waterproof action cameras that even come with accessory kits for the same price points. To make these cameras waterproof, you will need a waterproof case and housing bracket purchase separately. 

There are so many brands that offer everything together that you could look through reviews for days. One such camera is the AKASO V50 Pro Native – whose accessories can be fitted to most go-pros as well. 

If you’re not sure about the technology of action cams, but you’re definitely curious and have about $65.00 – $130.00 total to toss into that curiosity, perhaps you should try something like the AKASO above or one of many from their line. The price usually comes not only with spare batteries, Wifi/Bluetooth capability, but also a full accessories kit. Other brands include: YI, Apeman, DragonTouch, VanTop, CamPark, Victure, Crosstour, and even GoPro has a less expensive version out there for you to play around with.  When you’re looking at these cameras, ALWAYS look over the accessories you get with them and get yourself the best quality but also the best value for your money.

And remember, one thing that I like about the accessories for most of these cameras is that – so long as the camera size is the same, the accessories can be used on other camera purchases.

Video Action Cams

Thus far we’ve covered the kinds of true action cameras that can be both point and shoot or video cameras. There is another group of action cameras that are made for filming mostly video. They have a lower profile design compared to most other action cameras, so they are less obtrusive when attached to a helmet (or, well, anywhere for that matter). 

A normal video action camera is one that can handle the extremes of recording the action at a good quality, with stabilizing technology as well as being weather or waterproof. For example, the TomTom Bandit is waterproof up to 40 meters! It has built-in sensors to monitor Speed, G force, Altitude, and Rotation. Using an accompanying app, you have the ability to drag and drop footage into an editing suite and then upload it on the go. Some people complain that the stabilization within these kinds of cameras is not up to par with the likes of other action cameras such as GoPro. The price point of these kinds of cameras – particularly this brand – will be $250.00 – $300.00.

Another maker of these kinds of cameras is Contour. They have one in particular that was recommended called the Contour ROAM3. This camera is safe in water without a casing, up to 30 meters. The lens can rotate 270° allowing for some spectacular shots compared to other cameras. However, I’m left wondering if it’s worth the money compared to other action cameras since there are no batteries to replace, you simply have to recharge it once it’s finished and though the battery lasts 3 hours, it also takes 3 hours to charge. Even the entry-level version of their line of action video cameras costs $199.00. Contour makes several other, similar models that carry more features at a higher price point.

Want other options? Try DJI, Sony, and YI. I will caution you that DJI has really steered into the drone craze and so their products’ price points reflect that. I won’t cover cameras that are used for drones in this article, but that article is definitely going to be available in the near future.

360° Action Cameras

The next section of action video cameras I will be covering are those that have the capability to record footage at 360° – all around it.  360° Cameras are also known as Omnidirectional Cameras. They were first introduced to be used in the fields of science, robotics, and surveillance. Now they are being used to capture your world, from literally every angle. The footage can be used with VR (virtual reality) equipment for any number of uses, though this niche has died down significantly. 

Some normal action cameras have the versatility to also record in 360° – take the GoPro Fusion for instance.

The practical applications are still fresh and marketable. You can pull up a 360° video or picture of a house you want to rent or a hotel room you’re thinking of getting without having to be there to check the space in-person. Security companies are using these cameras to capture footage covering more areas. Dash-cams are often using 360° technology to capture every detail needed. Companies use it for video-conferencing. 

When you don’t necessarily have to be in constant motion and you want the 360° footage, cameras such as can be in motion or be used stationary. These are not quite as tough as other action cameras, so keep that in mind.  The Ricoh Theta SC2 360°  has a better price point at $299.00 and has a framerate of 29.7fps / 4K and the company’s technology has improved over the past few years. The Insta360 OneX has a higher price point at $429.00 but is capable of a 50fps mode and apparently the app has a lot to offer for editing perks. Both require waterproof housings – so additional purchases.  Again, it’s all about what you’re comfortable with and what you can afford.  

Smartphones are cashing in on this technology with a quickness, pairing with camera makers to come up with attachments for your normal smartphone camera that provides you with the capability to take 360° still shots or video footage. For example – take a look at the Insta360 Air.

Conclusion

All-in-all, action cameras are varied and many. My suggestion would be to whittle down your listing to which kind of action camera you want – compact action cams, full attachable action cams, small attachable video action cams, or 360° capable action cams. Once that decision is made, you can compare the features each brand of that particular type of camera offers you – not to mention the price points. I hope this article has helped you understand the basics at the very least.

I have taken the time to research and have compiled the best action cameras for the money so be sure to check it out. Also, take a moment to read my Beginner’s Guide on Basic Cameras if you are interested in learning more about other types of cameras on the market.

Rachel Adams

I have used a wide variety of cameras over the years and wanted to share my experiences and knowledge with my readers. I don't have a degree in photography and I don't do this professionally. So, if you were looking for a photography expert - sorry. But if you prefer a practical person who admits she’s been a noob to photography and has learned from good people and through trial and error? I’m here for ya!

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