Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in our May/June issue and reflects the products available at the time of publication. The recent big introductions in this market include the GoPro HERO6 Black and Sony RX0 cameras.
When Felix Baumgartner stepped off of a floating platform at the edge of space in 2012, seven GoPro cameras documented the process, from watching him stride into the freezing void of space, to seeing him hit supersonic velocity, to recording his safe landing on earth. Not only did Baumgartner shatter several records that day, but he also brought even more exposure to the action camera market, which was already enjoying high visibility thanks to virally shared videos of people jumping from helicopters or encountering sharks shot with a GoPro strapped to them.
The action camera market is a relatively niche one, but intense competition for market share has caused the manufacturers to keep increasing the video quality, with each looking to become the king of the mountain in a market of products designed to capture video of people literally tarrying to become the king of the mountain.
Certainly GoPro is the most famous action-camera brand, and it launched the market way back in 2004 when company founder Nick Woodman, an avid surfer, fulfilled his dream of taking a camera with him to document his adventures with the launch of the GoPro Hero 35mm, a film camera that attached to a strap Woodman made to hold cameras for his surfing friends.
In 2006, the GoPro went digital with the launch of the GoPro Hero Digital, which I owned and vividly remember strapping to my helmet when I went out mountain biking. Early controls and displays were rudimentary, and it was just as likely that I would come back without any footage or footage of nothing but my foot from when it was recording but I thought it was off.
Luckily, the technological issues were overcome pretty early on, and functionality is a key component of today’s action cameras. After all, if you come back from your active-lifestyle moments and don’t have the video, your action camera is just a heavy, expensive piece of jewelry. There are some models that have a back-to-basics approach for starting and stopping the footage, the Hero Session and Ricoh Theta S and Nikon KeyMission 360 among them, but these cameras take advantage of wireless communications to change settings or transfer video via dedicated apps. The GoPro Hero5 even uses voice commands to trigger video and photo capture.
Action cameras need to take high-quality video and shove that into a small, lightweight body that can survive impacts, extreme temperatures and the elements. Audio quality is often secondary to video quality (that’s why so much action camera footage is mixed with a thrashing audio track behind them), so don’t expect too much in the way of sound quality, though some cameras have support for external mics.
The market continues to expand, with traditional camera and electronics companies like Nikon and Ricoh getting into the market, fueled by the suspected upcoming demands for VR and 360 video capture systems.
Not every action camera can tackle every activity. Some are designed to be super-small, while others are designed to be super-durable. Before purchasing an action camera, be sure to check if it can tackle the conditions it will be experiencing. Some models, like the GoPro Hero5, are waterproof without a case—though only up to a certain depth, so a secondary case is required for deep diving use. Many models have bike, helmet, kayak and car mounts, while some also work with camera-stabilizing systems from their manufacturer or from third-party companies like DJI, if a special adapter is available for the particular camera. There’s probably a specialized housing for every type of specialized sport as well—you can get a mounting bracket that will connect an action camera to a kayak paddle, for instance.
Finally, most of the action cameras offer live streaming via their respective apps. Fire up the interface, log into your social media account, and strap on your hang glider while broadcasting over your phone’s LTE.
Here’s a look at some of today’s best action cameras, whether you’re choosing a model for personal use or
looking to incorporate footage into a production.
GoPro HERO5 Black
The GoPro HERO5 Black will be familiar to anyone who’s ever used a GoPro digital action camera. A clear descendent of the original Hero, this camera has the best of the company’s video technology in a small package. The HERO5 Black captures 4K video at 24, 25 and 30 fps in its Wide shooting mode and 23 fps in SuperView, which stretches the 4:3 image to 16:9, giving a wider aspect ratio yet obviously distorting the edges of the frame. The cameras can also capture 2.7K (2740×1520) at up to 60 fps, and at 1440p it’s possible to capture up to 120 fps in Wide or Narrow modes. You can capture 12-megapixel images from the HERO5 Black, and video stabilization helps take the jitters out of the footage. A single button turns on the device and begins recording, while settings can be made from the two-inch color touch-screen LCD or from the GoPro app. GoPro also offers a gimbal handle for the HERO5, and it can be connected to the company’s Karma drone.
Price: $300. Website: gopro.com
GoPro HERO5 Session
The GoPro HERO5 Session is an impossibly small 4K camera, with up to 30 fps shooting in 4K, up to 90 fps in 1080p and 120 fps in 720p. Like the larger HERO5 Black, the HERO5 Session has voice control and a single button to power on and start recording. The HERO5 Session can reach the same 33-foot depth of the HERO5 Black, and a number of mounting accessories are available.
Price: $150. Website: gopro.com
YI Technology has come out of seemingly nowhere to challenge the action camera, 360 and drone markets. The YI 4K+ Action Camera shoots 4K at 60 fps, 50 fps, 30 fps and 25 fps, and 4K Ultra at 30 fps and 25 fps. Plus, 1080p footage can be captured at up to 120 fps. Images from the 12-megapixel sensor can be saved in a RAW format. In addition to WiFi and Bluetooth, the YI 4K+ has a USB-C port for charging and playback, which can also be used with an adapter for recording audio, and it features a 2.2-inch touch screen. The YI 4+ isn’t protected against the elements, so it needs an optional case for rough use. The company’s accessory YI Gimbal 3-Axis handheld stabilizer can be used with the YI 4K+ for smooth video recording.
Price: $340. Website: yitechnology.com
The Polaroid Cube added live streaming to the company’s compact, cute, no-frills action camera. The Cube+ can capture in 1440p/1080p/720p and can capture 8-megapixel still images. The 124º wide-angle lens captures good panoramas, and the accessory case allows it to dive into the water.
Price: $140. Website: polaroid.com
The Ricoh WG-M2 doesn’t look like your typical action camera, with a flat-rather-than-wide design and a top-mounted LCD screen. The front has a 204º ultra-wide-angle lens that looks different than any other action camera we’ve tried. It can shoot in 4K and without a housing is submergible to around 60 feet, can be dropped from 6 feet and taken down to 14º Fahrenheit. Because of that flatter design, it’s easy to hold underwater and point at your subject by extending your arm toward the action. The wide ƒ/2.0 aperture allows for good image quality as far as we’ve taken it snorkeling.
Price: $249. Website: us.ricoh-imaging.com
Nikon KeyMission 360
Nikon recently introduced a few cameras in the KeyMission line, the most interesting of which is the KeyMission 360. As the name implies, the camera can capture a full 360º image, thanks to a front-facing and rear-facing camera, producing 4K videos, time-lapse photos (at 23.9 megapixels) and slo-mo. Nikon’s built-in SnapBridge allows for always-on connections between the camera and your mobile phone. A standard tripod socket allows it to be connected to a mount or stand, so the videographer isn’t caught in the frame. The KeyMission 360 can be dropped from 6.6 feet, taken down to 98 feet underwater and operated down to 14ºF. Combine the KeyMission 360 with a VR setup for
Price: $500. Website: nikonusa.com
Sony FDR-X3000 4K Action Camera
With built-in GPS, the Sony FDR-X3000 not only can capture 4K footage and stills, but can place the content on a map. Sony’s optical stabilizing system, SteadyShot, doesn’t crop the footage as do some electronic stabilizing systems. The camera has a bundle available with a remote control that can be used with different (accessory) mounts to control the camera from the wrist, from the handlebars of a bike or while holding the camera pistol-style with an integrated camera/controller mount. Because the FDR-X3000 is tall, rather than wide or flat, it’s a bit cumbersome to hold without the accessory finger grip or without a mount, and it feels like you’re using a blaster out of Star Wars, but the Zeiss lens and optical stabilization provide image quality that’s worth it.
Price: $399 (with body plus waterproof case); $549 (for bundle with the remote). Website: sony.com