Last year I went on this 9-month trip to South East Asia that was amazing. We were in Myanmar, a country with amazing rivers and lakes. I was a part of a kayaking trip and at one moment I saw distant bling straight ahead. I rowed there and, to my surprise, it was a very small action camera. It was covered in mud and looked as it had been there forever. I was amazed to learn that it worked perfectly after charged. I haven’t got a clue how much time it was submerged in the water. I resumed my trip owning two cameras: an action camera and a phone camera. I was able to get the most out of each and decided to put together this post to shed some light on this controversial matter.
Should I get an action camera or use my regular phone camera? Documenting and uploading to the internet is a growing trend around the world. An action camera can do things that a regular cellphone can but at a much lower risk. Action cameras are prepared for everything and do not hold half your life causing a major disruption when lost. On the other hand, they are also something extra to purchase and bring with you everywhere. My verdict is that they are complementary and that bringing an action camera to a trip for vlogging or capturing the amazing beauties of the world is a definite must.
Now, that is the short answer to a big question. If you want to know the whole story and some pro tips on how to use your cameras, just read on and enjoy.
Why action cameras?
Action cameras and phone cameras share a lot of ground but also have some particular features that make them ideal for different scenarios. Let’s see which the strong points of action cameras are:
Safety, price & risk
This is, I think, the best feature for action cameras versus a phone camera. For example, in this kayaking tour we did in Myanmar I was not going to bring my iPhone 8 because of its price and the value of the information inside of it. Most phones are much pricier and much more fragile than action cameras. For adventures and outdoors there’s no beating action cameras in safety, price, and risk.
Action cameras perform perfectly in mostly any scenario you can think of. I’ve seen with my own eyes people doing bungee jumping holding an action camera in their hands or even parachuting with one on the helmet. If they can stand falling from a plane, they can stand your adventures as well.
Action cameras are great for capturing the whole picture when you are at breathtaking scenarios. They emulate our human sight closer than regular cameras and hence allow you to show a much better picture of the wonders you are seeing to those who are not as lucky as you are.
Why my phone’s camera?
We’ve been through some of the characteristics that are special to action cameras; let’s take a look at the features of cellphone cameras that make them a great option too.
The first aspect most of us bear in mind with regards to camera phones is that you’re bringing the phone with you anyways. I mean, most of us go everywhere with our phones and thus we are always ready to immortalize a moment.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but having flash on your phone for video and photographs is a lot when the situation requires it. Most action cameras do not include one.
While this is not a feature inherent to the camera itself; it is something you can do with your phone’s camera when capturing images with it. With action cameras this would require post production on different software. A great example of this is the fact that much of Instagram’s relevance in the world began with applying filters to photos.
The app world for iOS and Android is always growing exponentially. If you can think of something, there is usually an app for it. The software applied to go with the increasing quality of cameras on cellphones can really bend limits and take productions to the next level.
Adding to the apps that work great with phones, you also have the chance of doing it all in one place. You could be sitting in a room waiting for your dentist appointment and editing footage from your wild weekend in the snow on your phone. Once done you can upload it from the same device; how’s that for convenience levels?
What to look for in an action and cellphone camera?
This can be a kind of brief buying guide you can use for your next purchase; let’s see which the features you should be looking for are:
The definition on most cameras today is more than enough to meet internet standards. You shouldn’t go mad over 4K, especially when starting out. I would say that it is way more important that the content you create is appealing as long as you can upload a minimum of 1080p. This being said, never settle for anything below HD; 720p at 60fps should be your absolute minimum.
Purchasing an action camera with exchangeable batteries is a definite plus. Just picture for a second that you are on the most amazing trek to a breathtaking view with the camera attached to your shoulder and suddenly, it runs off power. You would miss a lot if you had to stop and charge it. With exchangeable batteries you could just pop a fresh one in and you’re good to go. This is another plus of action cameras over cellphones because although there are power banks to charge it on the way, most clamps and selfie sticks do not support them. Modern cellphones do not feature exchangeable batteries.
Ease of use & features
The fastest you can have your camera ready and filming from idle mode, the better for most case scenarios. Newer action camera models from different brands will go from being off to recording in a second at the push of a button. Ease of use for most action cameras is at its absolute best. On the other hand, cameras in cellphones usually offer more fine-tuning options but are more difficult to summon even those having a dedicated button for it. Look for easy to use action cameras and phones with manual mode so you can tailor your shot to your liking before snapping.
Placing your action camera
Ok, so let’s say that you did what I did in the second part of my Myanmar trip and decide to use an action camera for the wildest parts of the trip. How do you go about doing it? Let’s take a look at the different options with the place where you’ll position it to capture and share the adventure.
On the helmet
Helmet cameras have pros and cons. On the positive side, you can grant your audience a POV video which might make them feel the adrenaline you felt going through it. On the other hand, placing the camera on your helmet makes access more difficult and you might not have a free hand to press "record" at the right moment.
Side mount vs top mount vs Bottom Mount
Top mount - This is the most common way of installing the camera on your helmet. The top mount opens up the visual range and thus you can capture surroundings much better. On the other hand, it is not as easy to start and stop recording.
Side mount - This is perfect for those who want to give real POV sensations to the viewers. The only drawback in my opinion is that you can’t separate your POV from that of the camera and this can be annoying when you just want to look at the rear-view mirror, for example. There is much more editing involved in this scenario usually.
Bottom mount - With bottom mounted cameras you get a great sight and feel of the road or track you are riding or walking through but it is not very comfortable for the user. Within maybe half an hour you’ll find it utterly annoying not being able to move your neck around freely.
On the vehicle
Another option to place your action camera is on the vehicle itself. For example, if you are riding a motorcycle or a bike and want to give the viewers the idea of how fast you are going, you should install it close to the asphalt. Many people also do it on the handlebar to show the road and maybe the speedometer as well. For those who do it on cars, it is possible achieve different results placing it on the forward part of the hood where the lights are or close to the wheel for a more immersive experience, for example.
Using self-adhesive mounts vs screw-clamp mounts
Depending on the harshness of the endeavor you’re about to face, a screw-clamp mount might be better than a self-adhesive mount for the camera. The good thing about clamps with screws is that you can be going at 70km/h downhill on your mountain bike jumping all over the place and be certain that the camera will not fly away. On the other hand, the clamp is the only place where you can install the camera and it must be fixed in that position.
Self-adhesive mounts are great for sightseeing and giving different angles to the shot. For example, you can use the sucker cup of a mount to place it on different parts of the helmet or the bike to capture different parts of the journey and using the same mount at all times. Just make sure you installed it correctly and that you don’t pull too hard when removing it so you won’t break any parts.
Before enjoying the benefits of an action camera into the wild I was one of those saying "don’t spend money on an action camera, just bring your phone". Now, after seeing what one can bring to my adventures, there is no turning back. They are complementary to the one you’ll very likely bring anyways with your phone. Investing money on an action camera is opening a whole new world of possibilities. You will no longer risk exposing your expensive phone and this will make your footage bolder and more interesting for a certain audience. Besides, you can do some things like taking a look at the GPS and film at the same time with two small devices.
In my opinion, action cameras and phone cameras combine to allow you to document all case scenarios. If you have the chance and the budget, you will not regret it.
Happy (adventure) filming!