Before we launch into reviewing the best action camera for travel Vloggers, let’s explore how and why action cameras have become such a huge part of mainstream life.
A Little Action Camera Backstory (It’s A Good One, Promise!)
The year is 2003. Surfer bro and all-round extreme sports enthusiast Nick Woodman is hanging out at a world-class surf break in Indonesia with his wife and a few of his best buds. The water is warm, the surf is up, and perfect parabolic waves cascade one after another to foam along the pristine white beach. There are little jasmine flowers floating in the surf. Woodman is hanging out on his board, bobbing gently in the wash; waiting patiently for his wife to catch a wave so that he can capture this idyllic moment on a little disposable camera he wears strapped around his wrist.
The moment comes. A couple of seconds of furious paddling, then the amazing, weightless feeling of catching the wave and tearing down its glassy face propelled by the raw forces of nature. His wife is elegantly poised atop her board, framed by the surging wave and reflected in the deep turquoise of the Indonesian ocean. It’s a perfect picture. It’s poetry.
Nick does not take the picture.
This is because the surf has unceremoniously plucked the camera from his hand, and used it to smack him squarely in the eye. He falls off his board and the camera sinks.
After the swelling went down and his dignity recovered, Nick would go on to invent the GoPro action camera. He would also devise a range of mounts and accessories geared towards the prevention of face-smacking. They would raise enough capital to build the first prototypes by selling shell jewellery to sun worshippers out of the back of a beaten-up VW camper, and design and market the whole thing themselves. The first model used 35mm film, cost $20, and was about 3 inches square. Within ten years it would make him a billionaire.
Why Buy An Action Camera For Travel Vlogging?
Action cameras are awesome for travel Vloggers. They’re small, simple, and pretty much bulletproof. Don’t take me wrong, I love my Sony A7 – the full-frame sensor absolutely gulps down light, and with the right prime lens it spits out stunning portraits with vibrant colours, crisp details and gorgeous, dreamy bokeh. It’s a marvel of photographic technology.
But it’s not waterproof – or particularly rugged – and if I take it surfing or snowboarding, there’s a good chance that it too, like its ancestors before it, will smack me in the face. Or I’ll drop it off a chairlift, or in the sea.
There’s nothing quite as versatile and downright FUN to shoot as a top-notch action camera. It’s liberating to know that the camera can probably take more punishment than you can. You can take them places that DSLRs fear to tread, and capture surreal underwater landscapes or blazing close-up action shots. You can mount them to snowboards and speeding cars and bottles of rum. The latest models can shoot HD video at a blistering 240 frames a second and fit into a shirt pocket with ample room to spare.
We’ve been hankering after an action camera for travel vlogging our Two Get Lost adventures for quite some time. The rather lengthy gap between the onset of “gear lust” and actually being able to afford one gave us the opportunity to do quite a lot of research – so we thought we’d share some of our findings with you in the hope it’ll be of use.
Nearly 20 years after Nick lost a fight with a point-and-shoot, we’ve got a bewildering array of action snappers to choose from – ranging from 360-degree 4K machines to mechanically stabilised gimbal-cams to surprisingly capable £40 Shanghai Specials.
So how do you choose?
Well, let’s try to compare them.
The Image Quality Of The Best Action Camera For Travel Vloggers
My first action camera was a GoPro Hero 3. I took it snowboarding and proudly uploaded the footage to YouTube. The first comment: “cool vid bro. What kind of bread did you film this on?”
They had a point. The first action cameras really pushed the boundaries of what was possible in such a tiny form-factor, and the footage was grainy, choppy and sometimes downright unusable. But their modern descendants are totally different beasts – with amazing dynamic range, resolutions of 4K or more (four times standard 1080P HD), and triple-digit frame rates that slow time to a trickle.
We knew we wanted something with stellar image quality, because we’d be blending footage from our chosen action camera with the video from my A7 and Emily’s OM-D E-M10, and we didn’t want it to look out of place. We also knew we wanted something that could hit at least 120 frames per second, so we could freeze the action when we were doing something cool and adventurous.
That more or less narrowed it down to three options for us:
All three of these spit out gorgeous, crisp footage up to 4K without breaking a sweat, and all three of them serve it up in some variant of high-bit-depth codec that captures maximum information to give you more flexibility when editing and “grading” the footage on your computer.
Comparing The Image Quality Of The Best Action Camera For Travel Vloggers
The Sony RX0 II even has a 1-inch, Exmoor CMOS sensor like the kind used in much larger cameras – nearly the same size as in Emily’s Olympus, and fully 2.5 times larger than the sensors in the GoPro or Osmo Action. I’m a sucker for a big sensor, because it drastically improves your ability to shoot in low light and reduces the depth of field for a more cinematic feel (that’s the short version. The long version can get very long!).
Images from the RX0 II really are stunning. But the GoPro and Osmo Action are no slouch, either. And while the RX0 II boasts that it can shoot “up to 1000 frames a second”, by the time you get to 1080P it’s capped at 120 frames – where its rivals can both hit 240. All of the cameras in test can shoot RAW stills (allowing much greater flexibility in editing); but where the GoPro can take 30 photos per second, the RX0 II caps out at 16 and the DJI just 7.
All three are capable of shooting HDR to get the most out of dim or starkly lit scenes; but again, the GoPro has a small edge – both of its rivals have to turn off their built-in stabilisation to capture HDR (more on this in a second). The Sony has a 24mm equivalent field of view (meaning it has a very useable wide angle); the Osmo has a 20mm equivalent but the GoPro takes the crown again with an ultra-wide 15mm.
So there are some differences – and in every case, the GoPro just edges out its younger competition – but let’s be clear, all three contenders have incredible image quality. You’re unlikely to be disappointed by the raw output of any of them.
So how else can we choose between?
The Stabilisation Of The Best Action Camera For Travel Vloggers
If you’ve watched any of our YouTube videos, you have no doubt noticed that I drink too much coffee and have ridiculously shaky hands. Shaky, jerky video can be distracting, immersion-breaking and sometimes even uncomfortable to watch (sorry about that, viewers). It makes it clear that stabilisation is important when looking for the best action camera for travel vloggers.
If you’re thinking about mounting an action camera to say, a moving vehicle, or bicycle handlebars, you might end up with something so shaky it’s totally unusable. Historically, there were two major ways to deal with this – you either bought a tripod or monopod to stabilise your camera, or you invested in a gadget called a gimbal that uses motors and gyros to smooth out your ham-fisted blunderings. (There is a third option – stabilising the footage in post-production, using something like Adobe Premiere’s Warp Stabiliser – but it’s no substitute for shooting stable footage in the first place).
Newer action cameras have magic software that stabilises the footage in-camera as you shoot; AKA Electronic Image Stabilisation or EIS. It typically works by shooting a larger image than the final video and dynamically cropping it to try to keep the frame stable while you flail around like a drunken camel (at least, if you’re all thumbs like I am).
All three of our contenders sport some variant of this magic technology, and we spent many, many hours poring over sample footage on YouTube to try to decide which worked best.
Comparing The Stabilisation In The Best Action Cameras For Travel Vloggers
We reached the conclusion that both GoPro’s “HyperSmooth” and DJI’s “RockSteady” were pretty amazing, and both capable of extracting silky-smooth footage from all kinds of rough-and-tumble scenarios. But DJI’s algorithm seemed to blur details a little bit more to achieve the same stabilisation, and as previously mentioned, turning on RockSteady disables HDR – and it can’t be used with 4K or even above 100fps when shooting 1080P. HyperSmooth, on the other hand, plays nicely with both HDR and 4K up to 60 frames a second. And it’s good. It really is. So is RockSteady – just not as flexible.
Here’s where the Sony really started to lose out. I love my A7 so much, I have to confess I was rooting for the RX0 II. But its stabilisation is markedly worse than its brethren – according to some reviewers, worse than the EIS found in the Hero 5 that came out in 2016.
The internet is rife with reports of unusably shaky footage and recommendations to invest in a good gimbal – and it’s a bit of a deal-breaker for us. As Vloggers outputting content on a weekly or even daily basis, we don’t want to have to spend hours sorting our footage out in post. And as adventure travel Vloggers, we don’t massively want to carry a gimbal around with us either. A huge part of the draw with an action camera for travel vlogging is simplicity and portability.
So after arguably the two most important rounds, we’ve got GoPro in a comfortable first place; the Osmo in a respectable second but slowly losing ground, and the Sony lagging quite a long way in the rear.
But what else should a travel-minded vlogger consider when looking for an action camera?
The Features Of The Best Action Camera For Travel Vloggers
Talking to camera can be quite disconcerting. It’s a bit like holding eye contact for wayyyy longer than is comfortable with someone who doesn’t blink or smile. In the pro video world, the “talent” usually have a field monitor facing back at them so they can talk to their own mirror image, and check for spinach in their teeth and so forth.
We don’t have a field monitor, and besides, attaching a 7-inch screen to a 2-inch camera rather defeats the point. Sometimes I get Emily to stand behind the camera and smile at me just to make it less awkward. Anyway…
Comparing The Features Of The Best Action Cameras For Travel Vloggers
One thing I love about the Sony RX0 II is it has a bright, beautiful screen that articulates right the way around until it’s facing the front. That’s a godsend for Vloggers – and also very useful when shooting from high or low angles, like over a crowd at a gig, or following a pet along the ground.
It’s a really nice feature, and one I use all the time on my A7 (which doesn’t even flip around to face the front). The Osmo has a similar thing going on, but instead of the slightly-fragile articulating screen, DJI went for a second, slightly smaller screen embedded in the front of the device. It’s not as bright and bold as the RX0’s, but it’s a very welcome touch and almost certainly a more rugged execution.
GoPro, on the other hand, has nothing. Well – that’s not strictly true – with any of these cameras, you can pair a smartphone and view a live camera feed in-app. But there’s a second of lag, which is super off-putting when you’re talking to camera. I don’t find it very useable – your mileage may vary. Personally, I find it much more useful when I’ve mounted the camera somewhere weird and you want to see what it can see.
But around the time we were making this decision, GoPro announced the Media Mod – an extra frame that fits around your camera and adds a bunch of features designed to expand its capabilities. The Mod itself has a shotgun microphone that ought to be far superior to in-camera audio (we don’t actually know yet, because it’s out some time in mid-2020) – it also has HDMI out, a standard 3.5mm mic port, and a couple of cold-shoes for connecting accessories.
And one of the announced accessories is – you guessed it – a front-facing screen. Again, we won’t know full details until early 2020, but it looks like it’ll have its own internal, rechargeable battery, an additional HDMI out, and a day-light viewable 2-inch LCD.
So for this round, GoPro drops right back into last place – and it’s arguably a tie between DJI and Sony. The Sony’s screen is undeniably nicer, but I worry about moving parts on an action camera. Which one is right for you largely depends on where you see yourself taking it.
We haven’t yet mentioned price.
GoPro cameras have always been relatively affordable – like, in the £300 – 400 range, which is a fair lump of money for most people, but still very much at the low end of what you can spend on camera gear. Even in the consumer world, it’s not unusual to see DLSR lenses going for £2,000.
The Hero 8 Black hit the market at £379, right in the usual GoPro sweet spot.
The Osmo Action, on the other hand, came out at £229 – which is an incredibly aggressive price, considering it’s very close on the Hero’s heels, and even better than it in a couple of areas.
The RX0 II retails for an eye-watering £730 – although it can be had for closer to £500 if you shop around. Either way, it’s way out of our budget.
So Which Action Camera Did We Go For?
It wasn’t an easy decision. At least, not when it came down to deciding between the DJI and the GoPro. I wanted to love the Sony, but the price alone was a total no-go.
Ultimately, the question for us came down to –
– Would you pay an extra £150 to have noticeably superior stabilisation, slightly better video and photo performance, and around 50% wider field of view? (But no front-facing screen!)
And for us, that did make sense.
We wanted a camera that would simplify our workflows, allowing us to put out content more regularly and score more usable shots – and that HyperSmooth stabilisation is already proving a godsend.
We already had video kit with focal lengths from 24mm to 90mm, so the GoPro’s 15mm was more useful to us than its 20-ish mm rivals. We haven’t used it yet, but we also liked that 30-frame burst capability for shooting sports and action, and there’s the LiveBurst mode that shoots 90 in 3 seconds if you want to be sure you get the shot.
But the real ace in the hole – GoPro have a trade-in programme where you send them any old digital camera, in any condition; they recycle it and give you £100 off the latest Hero Black. We had an old point-and-shoot kicking around, so off it went, and a few weeks later we had the Hero 8 Black for only around £50 more than the Osmo Action. With such a small price gap, our minds were made up. But honestly – it was close. The DJI Osmo Action is a really great camera, and you’ll likely be super happy with it if you’re on a tight budget.
I do still wish we had a front-facing screen. But maybe when the GoPro Media Mod comes out next year, we’ll pick one up. We’ll see!
If you’ve got any questions or comments, leave them below and we’ll be happy to help where we can!