How we test action cameras
By Ryan Shaw
Which? tests all the latest action cameras, so that we can tell you which ones are worth buying, as well as the ones you should avoid.
What makes a Best Buy action camera?
Every action camera goes through exactly the same tests, where we assess not just image and sound quality, but ease of use and what the battery life is like. We recreate the conditions you’re most likely to use an action camera in, and try out the camera’s major features so that each action camera review answers all your questions, including:
- Does the camera take clear video with lifelike colour?
- How good is the sound?
- How easy is the action camera to use?
- How long does the battery last?
- What is the durability like?
- What is the still image quality like?
- Should I buy it?
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Does the camera take clear video with lifelike colour?
Video quality is paramount, and we put hours into testing each action camera in different conditions. We film in daylight, artificial light and in more dimly-lit settings, to see how the camcorder copes in different lighting conditions. We look for signs of image noise or graininess and check whether the action camera struggles to hold its focus or keeps changing the brightness level.
We also use colour charts and take video of objects in the studio to see how accurately the camera captures colour, so that the outdoor landscapes will look the right shade and skin will look natural, not red or orange. We also pan the camera left and right, to see if this causes the picture to jerk or break up, and we deliberately take shaky footage to see if any image-stabilisation features will keep your shots nice, smooth and steady.
How good is the sound?
Great video is one thing, but you need great sound to get the whole experience. That’s why we put each action camera through demanding listening tests.
First, we record specific test sounds, then compare our recordings to a best-quality reference recording to see how accurately it’s captured. We use the built-in microphone and check to see whether there's sound distortion, interference or any unwanted noises on the soundtrack. We then play back the recorded audio to an expert listening panel, who assess the audio they hear. It’s the only way to find out if you’ll get brilliant sound, every time.
How easy is the action camera to use?
We expect every action camera to be intuitively easy to use, so you'll be able to shoot video or stills without reading pages of instruction manuals first. We also expect any manuals to be free of jargon.
Our tests look at everything from the basic controls for recording and removing the battery, to the more advanced controls, such as capturing a still image without interrupting a video recording in progress.
We also get our expert testers to try attaching the camera to various mounts and attachments, as well as using the camera on a tripod, so that we know how easy it is to reach all the controls once the camera is secured in place.
Lastly, our testers also assess the video playback mode and the clarity of the LCD screen (if one is included).
How long does the battery last?
Poor battery life can mean running out of power only a couple of hours into a great day out. We test the battery life for every action camera we test, so that we can tell you how many minutes of shooting time you can expect from a charge. We also rate how long it takes to charge the battery as well, so that we can help you steer clear of the slow movers. If this is a weakness, we’ll let you know.
What is the durability like?
Durability for action cameras is important — they are designed to be used in extreme situations and this calls for extreme robustness and build quality.
For example, each action camera is dropped 20 times from a set height to simulate a drop impact. After 20 drops, the camera is then inspected for loose parts and visible damage, and we test that all controls still work as expected. If the battery or memory card ejects from the camera as a result of a drop test, this is noted, then the item is re-installed and the tests continue.
If the camera has a water resistant or water-proof claim, we'll put these to the test. Each camera is tested at a depth of 0.9m (3 feet) and if the camera comes with a protective enclosure, we'll test that too.
What's the still image quality like?
Action cameras can double up for shooting stills, saving you from carrying two cameras where one will do. Recent models do a better job with stills, so we test their photographic capabilities in a range of lighting to tell you which ones take great stills and which ones struggle.
Should I buy it?
Which? tests approximately 60 action cameras a year and puts each model through a series of meticulous tests. These are designed to be both rigorous and repeatable, so you can trust in the quality of your next action camera.
All the assessments described above contribute to a total test score, so that we can identify the best action cameras from the worst and compare the different models. We focus on video quality, battery life, sound quality, ease of use, durability, features, still image quality and don’t take price into account. The total score breaks down as follows:
- 30% image quality
- 20% battery life
- 15% ease of use
- 10% durability
- 10% sound quality
- 10% features
- 5% still photos
An action camera needs to score 70% or more in our tests to earn a Best Buy recommendation. Models that score 45% or less are labelled a Don’t Buy as a warning to avoid them.