The other day a friend challenged me to write an article on the best affordable action cameras that would be interesting in 2018… and, like a fool, I agreed! Later, when I tried to wrap up my mind around that task, I found out it is pretty overwhelming. Here’s why. More or less.
Right away, what’s “best”? What exactly is “affordable”? What is “interesting”, and why just in 2018? What kind of action the cameras should support, or even withstand, for that matter?
So it really is an equation with an awful lot of unknowns. Let’s not forget the fact that different folks use their cameras in very different ways – and I’d plain hate to be accused for wrong or irresponsible suggestions! So let me stumble over the self-set row of steeple-chase obstacles to still try and provide some sense in the matter.
In the beginning there was GoPro.
People saw what it can do and said it was good. GoPro was one and only, the company’s products were highly prized and priced. One only had to choose between two options: to buy or not to buy (that was the question). Everyone could decide alone, and the Sun was quiet.
Days passed and more companies (especially in the Far East) joined the race. More models, more abilities, more quality levels; these sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. Competition grew fierce, and the prices of small action cameras took a headlong plunge.
Every manufacturer was sharply prodded to provide “somethings”, so as to distinguish their product from everyone else’s. Options were multiplying, attractive software followed, and the sales grew, enabling larger series which in turn dropped the prices even more.
Big players joined the cavalcade of formerly never-heard-of manufacturers. Several well-known names in photography industry added their high-end versions to the general headache, and suddenly it wasn’t easy to choose any longer. In the end, people listen to the money in their wallet, and most times find some good enough model that isn’t too expensive for what they plan to do with it.
Nowadays you can decide upon the price of an action camera you’d be willing to pay, and then go look for a model that costs exactly so much and has the features you need! The prices range from $20 thru roughly $700 with more or less basic accessories.
So pick your own bestest, it’s easy!
Is it? Nope. Some of those original important questions still remain.
Let’s disregard how much you can afford – this is as protean as the face of the Ocean. The priceless element is usually motivation – and thus highly personal. Any specific usage narrows down the choice significantly and so can be discussed to some distance.
The very first question is “what do I need it for”, and it is equally valid for cameras as for the shoes. So anyone should try to realistically answer this one to themselves.
If the camera is to be used for recording of fast movement, the choice will prefer a minimum of visual deformation known as “rolling shutter”. If it does not matter, any camera will do.
If the camera is to be used for recording in low light, a larger sensor and wider apertures are to be preferred; the requirements here steeply affect the camera price! If your actions happen in bright daylight, this can be disregarded – and the prices go down.
If you need extremely wide-angle lens, that’s easy. Most cams have it. Such lenses are simpler to make and to use. Don’t like the fisheye effect? A bit of software corrects it to rectilinear.
If the camera is to be used for recording underwater, or in highly polluted ambient, you’ll need quality protective case. Most of the concurrent cam models already have some such casing, but while most encasements can withstand lesser depths (say 3 – 10 meters), some can endure 20 Bar over-pressure, or 200 meters water depth without any special protection.
Typical example is Paralenz Dive cam.
This might be the determining factor for the camera model as well, since all those many manufacturers only offer the casings that protect their own models – so far no casing of manufacture A can be used for cameras B. But do you need an extra encasement?
Maybe not. Look at this camera here! Could you even imagine it some short years ago?
If the camera is to be used for long recording times, you have to consider its battery life, or whether an outside power source can be added to your working configuration. This might narrow down the choice drastically, especially if your camera must be powered while working inside its protective case. If you let the camera gather some time-lapse sequence or footage in adverse weather conditions, there should be ways to add a powerbank and have sufficient power for the whole recording duration.
An example would be the SJCAM Legend Air in special case.
If the form factor of your camera is important, that would also help in choosing. Some models are not your everyday small box within another box, as their designers preferred to encase their cameras in tubular bodies. Some place the optics on the smaller surface of otherwise box-like body, so as to expose the surface of less resistance to air- or water flow.
An example is seen in Sony action camera line.
There are split camera designs where the sensor and its optical elements are in a small tube which is cable-connected to the box containing the rest of the electronics and power supply.
Rare example of such solution is Elmo SUV-cam.
If you require to record more than light and sound, some cameras will include data related to geo-locating, temperature, acceleration, and ambiental pressure, allowing you to use as a choice of overlays and other kinds of application. If you don’t need such data, it gets cheaper.
Typical examples are Garmin VIRB cameras.
If your usage requires wider or narrower lens angle… If you need add-on lenses or filters… If you need 360⁰ input… If you use outside microphone (mono or stereo)… You get it.
Similar logic applies to all tech, be it action cameras, cars, TV, or household blenders. Production follows general interest which determines variance, prices, and finally the abundance which then forces an upgrade. From there, the cycle repeats itself.
I hope you can see by now how hard would it be to suggest the best affordable action cameras that would be interesting in 2018! Whichever side the question is approached from, it manages to open its own labyrinth of sub-questions, each of those ending in their own personal preferences and technical cul-de-sac. That’s why I’m just offering some links and occasional illustrations, instead of direct pointers.
How will it continue? Whence we do know, but whither bound remains foggy.
To me, the most probable indicator for the future of action cameras resides in what can be gleaned from the general photographic trends throughout the industry.
Newer and larger sensors with way better performance have appeared, and one has found its way into the Sony RX0 camera, which is not exactly a typical action cam, but rather something between a camcorder and a photo camera. It does have an action camera appearance, though. Very good in various lighting situation, this model roughly points down which road the new photographic devices might move.
It is already noticeable how the cheap point & shoot photo cameras are pushed off the road by very advanced smartphone cameras. The rarefied space is now filling with higher-end compact cameras able to compete on the new level of recording quality. The sensors preferred in 2018, and in the years to come, will range from 1” type to APS-C to FF (full frame, or ex-135 format) to MF (medium format). Action Cameras are sure to follow.
Every new technology level keeps the prices high for a while. Once it has established itself as a new standard, the prices drop and the market becomes balanced – a state good for buyers, alarming for manufacturers! Then, along comes better tech to dethrone the current one.
In that respect, nothing changes and nothing significantly deforms the universal waveline of all natural occurrences.
And we keep on photographing under the same old, quiet Sun.