The philosophy goes something like this: it's easy to know what you need, it's a little more difficult to know what you want and it's very hard to push both of those ideas into the background and know what you SHOULD have. What you should have is whatever will satisfy both your needs and your desires, while meeting your target price point. Sounds logical, right? Well, it's a rarely that easy. It all comes down to knowledge of not only the products available, but how you will use them and what you want out of them.
Today we will apply this philosophy to action cameras. You know you want one. You know what you want it for. We're going to explore some of the market leaders in-depth and discover what makes them stand out from the crowd. Establishing a common baseline is the key to an ultimately satisfactory purchase. For this year's roundup, our baselines will be the GoPro HERO6 Black and the Sony FDR x3000. We will compare the two to establish what separates one action camera from another.
Starting with the Basics
Forget for the moment that these are cameras specifically geared for the action environment. Let's look at all the standard information. The HERO6 is a box-shaped camera, measuring 2.6 inches wide by 1.8 inches tall by 1.4 inches deep. It uses a 12 megapixelCMOS sensor with f/2.8 fixed focus optics and can get as close as 30cm. The highest recording format is 4K, meaning 3840x2160p (16×9) at 60 fps or 3840×2880 (4×3) at 30 fps if your shot requires more vertical information. You can also record up to 240 fps in full HD. There are three fields of view and zoom capabilities depending on which resolution you use: Super Wide, Wide (16-33mm 35mm equivalent) and Linear (24-49mm). The HERO6 now provides three-axis image stabilization (X, Y and roll). The battery will give you just under an hour if you're shooting at the highest resolution and it sports stereo mics (ACC and WAV). It saves in HEVC or h.264 MP4 to a microSD card at 60 or 78Mbps.
The FDR-X3000 measures in at 1.2 inches wide by 1.9 inches tall by 3.3 inches deep and is shaped more like a tube or bullet style camera. The sensor is also a 12 megapixel (8.2 effective) CMOS paired with an f/2.8 lens but has variable focus (50 cm to infinity). It sports optical and electronic stabilization and also provides three fields of view to choose from: 17, 23 and 32mm at 35mm equivalent. The shutter can vary between 1/30 – 1/10000 Second. Resolution maxes out at 3840×2160 (16×9 4K) at 30fps. If you require a higher frame rate, you can shoot 240fps in 720 HD mode or 120fps in full HD. Recording will either be in XAVC S or h.264 MP4 with stereo ACC or LPCM audio. The X3000 uses microSD or Memory Stick micro (m2) and can record at up to 100Mbps with about 1 hour of battery life at max resolution.
Both systems also include an extensive series of sensors and metadata handlers that, at first glance, might seem trivial, yet can be employed to great effect by a skilled user. These extras are some of the key elements that define an action camera. Both cameras also include GPS tracking to automatically record your location and speed of motion. You'll get timecode, date, time of day and more from each device as well. Each provides three capture modes: standard, time lapse and looping. The X3000 captures designated chunks of successive time which are later discarded to save space unless you tell it otherwise.
When it comes to picture quality, you'll have to make certain trade offs. X3000’s optical image stabilization, variable lens and larger data stream all add up to a phenomenally sharp picture. It sports a white balance range between 2500K and 9900K with natural and vivid color modes, although ISO can not be adjusted.
When it comes to picture quality, you'll have to make certain trade offs.
The HERO6, on the other hand, benefits from having a new sensor with greatly increased contrast ratio, decreased bloom in bright light and low light operation that is greatly improved over its predecessor, the HERO5. It even sports HDR in still photo mode. There are two color modes: GoPro color and flat (the latter is better for post-production grading). There are also eight white balance settings between 2300K and 2500K an you can set the ISO anywhere from 100 to 6400. The HERO6 also includes a new image stabilization system that, even though it’s digital, competes with the one offered in the X3000 due to its range of sensors and dedicated dewarp hardware.
We can already see a wide array of similarities and a few striking differences that alter the effectiveness of each camera, but we need to read between the lines. X3000’s optical image stabilization means it will be available in all modes. The HERO6’s digital stabilization, however, needs to crop the image so it is unavailable in 4K. The HERO6 can focus on objects significantly closer to its lens and its maximum frame rate recording and resolutions are both higher. According to various reviews, the X3000’s optics may give a little less edge distortion when shooting wide fields of view but the HERO6 manages superior contrast performance. Sometimes what sounds like a great feature can produce unexpected limitations.
As action cameras, these devices are expected to be small, extremely rugged and able go practically anywhere. Want to take it in the water? The HERO6 will perform down to 10 meters (or more with a separately sold housing). The X3000 will work down to 60 meters, but only with the supplied housing which we've found to lower the sound quality.
How will your video be monitored? Sony's X3000 will send real-time Wi-Fi video to a special remote that can be wrist mounted or attached to the camera itself with included accessories. It also uses a separate Bluetooth signal that can turn the camera on and off remotely. Need that live feed to broadcast even further? You can livestream via Ustream. You can also use the phone app to control up to five cameras at once.
Conversely, the HERO6 will stream to the GoPro App which can then share on the fly to platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It also lets you control every camera function remotely. Don't want to use a phone? Use voice commands to control basic functions. Some might also prefer the HERO6's touch-screen navigation and display screen. The X3000 lacks an on-camera video screen—you must use the remote or a phone—but some might prefer its more standard button menu system. It also has a built-in lamp to give you that tiny boost of light when you need it most. Would that make you look past the lack of screen?
Finally, you're going to want to take a dive into what accessories are available for your potential purchase. What's included in your camera package is only a small part of an action camera's arsenal. What accessories are available may be the key to your salvation when you're devising that ultimate shot of that ultimate experience. Chest, head and handlebar mounts are common, as are a variety of hand-held adapters and underwater housings for cameras that need them. For the X3000, Sony also offers a backpack mount, cable protector, dog harness and more.
GoPro has also made it a priority to provide their users with an abundance of accessories. They offer a variety of handhelds, articulated arms, flex poles, suction cups, hunting mounts, a variety of bike and helmet mounts, adhesive mounts and extensions.
Can you mix and match accessories to cameras? Possibly–since most mounts ultimately conform at some point to standard rigging screws but, as you would expect, there’s no guarantee things will fit and stay snug. You also have to consider proprietary systems. GoPro, for example, requires adapters to attach to standard ¼-20 mountings. And, if you can’t find what you need, there are always third parties making accessories for both.
When You're Done
What happens with your footage when you've finished shooting? Both offer auto-editing systems that will pick out what they think are highlights of your footage then piece them together into a montage complete with music. With GoPro, you can even do this on your phone. Its camera app also allows for auto cloud backup if you are a member of their paid Plus subscription (which also offers break it and replace it service). You can, of course, always edit yourself using either camera’s desktop app or your own favorite editing software.
What You SHOULD Get
We've had some fun comparing these two popular cameras, but we can't just delineate a "winner" and a "loser". How you lose is if you don't educate yourself about what you need and whether the camera will meet those needs. What you need to understand is that every camera has benefits, trade-offs and, in many instances, compromises. Look closely as well, because you might think you've found gold with a function you've been looking for, only to find it doesn't work in the mode you want to use. Ease of use and quick access may give way to flexibility or image quality. Read what people who are doing similar shoots are using and listen to their praises and complaints. Learn to aggregate reviews. If 20 customers complain about the same thing, you should probably take it seriously. If a review site praises something others dismiss, question their reasoning.
Hopefully we've provided some insight into what you need to consider and, more importantly, where to look for the quirks the camera makers don't mention. Almost any action camera will get the shot and there are plenty of recommendations out there telling you what you should buy. It's up to you to make the right choice and get the camera that's right for you.
Peter Zunitch is a video editor based in New York.