The ins and outs of action cams
Even today, many serious photographers still cringe at the very mention of using an action camera. It’s a stigma probably not helped by those dreaded shaky GoPro videos and terrible photos of a few years back when everyone was using one to document every mundane detail of their lives.
But then again, give the camera user a Red camera or a medium format Hasselblad, and they’d no probably come back with equally sub-par results too. This is where we, as more knowledgeable photographers, can use our experience to produce great things from these tiny little boxes of tricks. But where do you begin? Let’s take a look.
Why action cams?
Most users buy action cameras for making action-orientated videos, which is, after all, what they were designed for. However, if you just use them for this purpose, you’re probably selling yourself short.
Used creatively, an action camera’s robust build and compact size makes them universally suited for places and situations where a regular camera would be all but impossible to use. And importantly, the image quality of almost all the models on the market today is fantastic.
So, what kind of images can you take with them? Point of View (POV) shots are synonymous with action cams, and thanks to the seemingly infinite number of mounting options available, you can come up with all sorts of unusual shots, including helmet-mounted, surfboard-mounted and just about everything else, including underwater and those amazing half-in half-out of the water shots. To capture these normally would require an expensive underwater housing if you wanted to do them with a regular camera – which is probably not viable for occasional use.
As they’re so unobtrusive, action cams can also make for great travel and street cameras. Mount one on a long selfie stick and hold it high and you can grab drone-like shots in a matter of seconds.
Most also have dedicated night modes, which make capturing super wide astro images, star timelapses and stacked star trail shots a breeze.
By taking manual control (which is best done through the native phone apps) you can also shoot really nice long exposure images after dark, and thanks to the many accessories out there you can also add an ND filter to slow things down even more if you wish.
The majority of recent model action cameras have RAW shooting options (.DNG in most and .GPR for GoPro – which Lightroom/Adobe now recognises) and they also shoot JPEG at the same time, giving more latitude in post processing if you need it.
GoPro remain the undoubted market leader, and although their sensors maxed out at 12MP in earlier models, the most recent Hero 9 Black captures 20MP images, which when combined with the latest processor, is noticeably better in all-round quality compared to past models. That said, from my experience anything from the Hero5 onwards produces great stills.
It’s not quite a one-horse race though, with many other brands now giving GoPro a run for their money. The DJI Osmo Action is a good and cheap alternative, as is the SJCAM SJ8 Pro – which is a great budget option that also has a solid app (a major bonus!).
If the best possible still image quality is what you’re after, there are now cameras with 1-inch sensors, which give better performance in low and contrasting light situations.
The Sony RX0 Mark II is a good example. It is a superb but comparatively expensive action camera that has a 1-inch sensor and captures 15.3MP still images. The camera also has a flip and tilt screen, ideal for capturing selfie images - although it does lack continuous autofocus.
Finally, the Insta360 One R and especially the 1-inch edition developed with Leica are also well worth considering.
In the field
- Try shooting in portrait mode, especially for super wide POV and action shots. The results tend to really stand out from regular landscape action cam images
- Use the burst mode (30fps on GoPro) for action shots (JPEG) and then combine them in post for fascinating results
- If you’re shooting sunsets or sunrise on your regular camera, set up an action cam on a separate tripod and make a timelapse of the scene (or yourself) in action. Using the inbuilt timelapse modes area great way to do this as it produces a high res finished timelapse straight out of camera (although to post process you may need to use regular timelapse mode)
- Attach an action came directly overhead for layout images or to make stop motion videos
- If your camera has the option, set up voice activation which can help you capture action and selfie shots at the precise moment.