How to buy the best action camera
By Ryan Shaw
There are many different types of action cameras available – whether you’re after a cheap camera or one that records 4K video, this expert guide will help you pick out the ideal action camera.
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What is an action camera?
Action cameras are made with outdoor enthusiasts in mind. If you want to take photos or video of anything that would be too risky to do so while carrying a regular camera, an action camera is a perfect fit.
An action camera is a small, portable and rugged device that can shoot video and still images. They also offer waterproofing, shockproofing and dustproofing, making them ideal for more extreme activities.
Typically, action cameras are compatible with adapters and mounts that allow you to strap or mount the camera to almost anything, such as your helmet, a surfboard or your bike, perfect for shooting videos of your adventures from a first-person perspective.
Read on for more buying advice, or take a look at our Best Buy action camera reviews, to discover the models that Which? recommends.
Action cameras: pros and cons
Made popular by the GoPro brand, these rugged devices capture hands-free video and are typically waterproof and shockproof. They're also small enough to be mounted on a helmet, a snowboard, or bike thanks to a range of mounts and accessories.
Pros: Very small and lightweight, very tough, and easy to use. Easy to mount. Can be used in places where you’d never take another camcorder.
Cons: No zoom lens, some models lack a viewfinder or LCD screen.
Would suit: Ideal for capturing extreme sports or family activities where other cameras fear to tread.
How much should I spend on an action camera?
You can find a basic action camera for around £50, but spend up to £250 or more and you’ll receive high resolution 4K video, built-in wireless connectivity, and a wide-angle lens.
Some of the higher-end models even include built-in waterproofing, image stabilisation, or the ability to live stream.
What makes a good action camera?
Action cameras can vary in price and features, and it can be hard to identify which camera will suit you. Whether you’re after a cheap action camera or a more advanced model that shoots 4K video, our expert advice can help you choose from the available cameras.
Thanks to our rigorous lab testing, we’re uniquely placed to offer you our essential action camera buying tips. And we assess the key pros and cons of owning an action camera.
- Resolution – This is the number of pixels in each frame captured by the camera, and the amount of detail. 1080p video format is Full HD (1,920 pixels wide by 1,080 pixels tall), and 720p (1,280x720 pixels) is considered as standard HD resolution. 4K resolution (3,840x2,160 pixels) is four times as many pixels as Full HD.
- Frames per second – The frame rate is measured in frames per second (fps). It’s a measurement for how many consecutive images a camera can handle each second. A typical camcorder shoots in 30fps and normal TV is at 24 or 30fps. Higher-end action cameras can shoot 60fps, which makes motion appear smoother and less blurry. Some cameras can support even higher frames per second, such as 120fps, which can be used to create crisp slow-motion footage.
- Field of view – A wide field of view is important for action cameras; it allows you to record video or stills in a more immersive perspective than a traditional camera or camcorder. In simple terms, the field of view is a measurement of the total viewable area at any given moment. Measured as an angle (eg. 170°), the larger the value, the wider angle of view.
- Still photos – Action cameras specialise in recording video, but they can also capture still photos. They don’t produce high resolution images as you would expect from a compact or DSLR camera, but generally, cameras with a larger megapixel rating will produce sharper and clearer photos.
- Mounting system – Almost all of the action cameras are designed to be mounted or attached to different surfaces or objects. Most cameras with come with one or two mounts in the box, but additional mounts cost extra. If you’re looking to attach your camera to a specific area, such as bike handlebars, you’ll need to source a specific bike mount. A good action camera will have a universal mounting system, which means you can clip your camera onto anything without the need to buy additional accessories.
- Water resistant and waterproof – it’s important to select a camera that is waterproof if you plan to use the camera underwater. Some models are water resistant, meaning they can only be submerged in water to a limited depth. Other cameras require a special waterproof case, called a housing, to be fully waterproof. Check the camera specifications for details on acceptable water depths.
- Battery life – Even the best action camera with a sizeable battery will only last a few hours, so it’s worth investing in multiple batteries, or a portable charger, to ensure your camera doesn’t run out of juice when you need it most.
What other action camera features should I consider?
Still struggling to make up your mind? We’ve singled out the key action camera features you need to be aware of when buying your action camera.
Memory – Buying the right type of memory card is essential for making sure that you get the most out of your camera. When filming HD movies, video files occupy a lot of storage space, so it’s worth choosing a large capacity memory card to ensure you can save as much footage as possible.
Most action cameras use micro-SD cards, and we recommend picking up a Class-10 card to ensure the best video quality. The higher the ‘class’ of card, the faster it can it save the video. If you use a slower class of card than recommended, recorded video will be jerky and there will be noticeable camera slowdown.
Wireless connectivity – Some of the high-end action cameras include wi-fi, Bluetooth, near field communication (NFC), or all three, so you can use your mobile phone or tablet as a screen. This means, you can easily control the camera via an app or adjust camera settings on the fly.
GPS - With a built-in GPS (Global Positioning System), your action camera will automatically geo-tag all your videos and stills. This means, when you get home you can link your photos and videos to an online map, pinpointing the exact location of your travels.