How to buy the best action camera
By Hollie Hennessy
Whether you’re after a cheap action camera or one that records 4K video, this expert guide will help you pick out your ideal model.
The best action cameras capture clear images and crisp sound, are durable whether you're using them while riding a bike or swimming, and are easy to use.
Made popular by the GoPro brand, action cameras are made with outdoor enthusiasts in mind. If you want to take photos or video of anything that would involve too much risk carrying a regular camera, an action camera is a perfect fit.
They're small, portable and rugged devices that can shoot video and still images, and also offer waterproofing, shockproofing and dustproofing, making them ideal for more extreme activities. They don't have zoom lenses and often come without viewfinders or LCD screens.
In this guide, you can read out:
- What makes a good action camera?
- What other action camera features should you consider?
- How much should you spend on an action camera?
Want to find out about the best cameras on the market? Read our digital camera reviews here.
Action cameras can vary in price and features, so it's important 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.
- Resolution This is the number of pixels in each frame captured by the camera, and the amount of detail. 1,080p video format is Full HD (1,920 pixels wide by 1,080 pixels tall), and 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels) is considered as standard HD resolution. 4K resolution (3,840 x 2,160 pixels) is four times as many pixels as Full HD. Even if you haven’t got a 4K TV or monitor, if you’re buying a new action cam, it’s worth looking at 4K models first for top-quality video and stills.
- 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.
- Image stabilisation Even the best action cameras suffer from shaky video footage, looking like the Blair Witch Project film. If you want to ensure steady videos that are easy to watch, look for an action camera with built-in image stabilisation. You can also buy a gimbal, an accessory which stabilises the camera.
- Field of view A wide field of view is important for action cameras as 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 degrees), 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.
- 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.
- Weather proofing Recording high-quality video in tough weather conditions is no longer limited to extreme sports enthusiasts or adventurers. With an action camera by your side, you can instantly record video and still images without fear of breaking it. Typically offering waterproofing, shockproofing and dustproofing, these cameras are ideal for extreme activities.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, once you choose a camera, you’ll also have to think about other features and may want to buy some additional accessories to get everything that you want out of your new camera. Here are some important ones to look out for and remember.
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.
Mounting system Almost all of the action cameras are designed to be mounted or attached to different surfaces or objects, which is essential for shooting videos of your adventures from a first-person perspective. Most cameras 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 on to anything without the need to buy additional accessories.
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 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 smartphone 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 that when you get home you can link your photos and videos to an online map, pinpointing the exact locations of your travels.
You can find a basic action camera for around £50, but spend up to £300 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, top-notch image stabilisation or the ability to live stream.