Action Cameras for Travelers—Do you really need one?

An action camera (a.k.a. a GoPro-style camera) is the perfect travel accessory… for certain kinds of travelers. No, I really don’t think they’re for everyone. And honestly, when I bought mine, I had no idea what I was getting into. I did so much research on the tech specs and the mounts, but I didn’t really know how well an action camera would work for me and my travel style.

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Pros & Cons

GoPro Hero action camera
The GoPro Hero, only about $175, has built-in waterproofing.

I wrote this post hoping to create a resource that’s just that: a clarifying guide for anyone still on the fence. I own the GoPro Hero 5 Black a couple years ago and I’ve brought it on all my travels since. (Click to jump to my sample video.) By now, I recognize both its strengths and its limitations. As a DSLR-lover, it was initially very hard to decide whether I should just bring a DSLR with video capabilities, an action camera, or both. Interestingly, the action camera became my go-to, mostly for its portability. But there are some features DSLRs have that just can’t be replaced.

Pros: 

It’s taken some time to get used to it, but I still feel it was a worthwhile investment for me and the style of travel I enjoy.

  • Portability: When it comes to portability, you can’t beat an action camera. They’re literally made for that kind of thing. Buy just one cheap mount kit (like this mount kit I bought for my GoPro or just $15—click to check current price) and there are literally thousands of possibilities for attaching your camera to almost anything.
  • Range of prices: There is a range of options depending on your budget, from the Polaroid Cube to the newest GoPro. You can spend as little as $40 or as much as $500 to achieve the results you need.
  • High-quality video: Of course, you get what you pay for. But depending on your needs, you might not have a use for video shot in 4K. If you don’t know what 4K is, then you probably don’t need it. I have it but I hardly use it just because the files are huge and bog down my laptop so much when I’m editing.
  • Extra features: Buy the latest GoPro and you’ll have features like image stabilization, Facebook Live streaming capabilities, voice commands, remote control through your phone, and waterproofing without the case—all in the same small body size GoPros have always had.

Cons:

    • Funky stills: The wide-angle stills these cameras produce might not be aesthetic you’re looking for. You definitely aren’t going to get the blurry backgrounds you’re used to seeing from almost any other type of camera. Think less Instagramable, more sporty.

 

  • Battery life: If you record a lot of video, you’ll find you burn through battery power very quickly. Even if you’re traveling in locations where electricity is readily available each night, you might need an extra battery to get you through the day. On cheaper action cameras (like the Polaroid Cube), changing out batteries will likely not be an option.

 

 

  • Cost of accessories: Action camera accessories can definitely be a trap. You’ll probably need a memory card and maybe an extra battery. But do you really need a helmet mount in case you might go mountain biking someday? Be sure to only buy the mounts you will use. Or buy a cheap option with good reviews that will get you through that one vacation you need a very specific mount for.

 

 

 

Is an action camera right for you?

Types of travelers who need an action camera: 

  • Sporty travelers: Action cameras are perfect when you’re trying to capture, well… action, of course! They’re a must-have tool for outdoor and sporty travel opportunities like skiing or rock climbing.
  • Aqua travelers: If you want to capture video in the water, then your choice is clear. The newer GoPros, from the GoPro Hero Session and GoPro Hero 5 on are waterproof without any case.
  • Thru-hikers and campers: But action cameras also perfect for anyone who wants to capture video but can’t or isn’t willing to haul around a DSLR everywhere they go. If you’re a thru-hiker, I really feel this is the right option for you, especially if you need to cut the amount of weight you’re carrying in your pack.
  • Sneaky travelers: There are multiple reasons you might want to hide the fact you’re carrying or using a camera. For one, you might want to stash it away in your bag so it doesn’t get stolen. But you also might just want to capture the moment in a non-obtrusive way that a DSLR could not.
  • Lazy travelers: If you’re like me, you like to carry around as little as possible when you’re traveling. My GoPro can so easily fit in my pocket or purse. Even if I’m carrying a mount or two, everything fits in a little crossbody purse.
  • In-the-moment travelers: One of the best parts about traveling with an action camera is that you can strap it on with the mount of your choice and then forget about it… and the people around you might forget about it too. This is your best option for capturing natural video through your real, unposed experience.

Types of travelers who don’t need an action camera:

  • Those who won't use video on a daily basis when they travel won't need an action camera. A DSLR or point-and-shoot camera with video capabilities might be perfect.
    Those who won’t use video on a daily basis when they travel won’t need an action camera. A DSLR or point-and-shoot camera with video capabilities might be perfect.

    Still photographers: If you have little to no interest in video, you don’t need an action camera. Buying a $350+ GoPro won’t change that—at least not for long. This encompasses a majority of people so just be sure you’re being honest with yourself. A point-and-shoot camera or DSLR with video capabilities will definitely get you by. I’d recommend something like the Canon EOS Rebel T6i.

Still not sure?

Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do you already create video when you travel?
  2. Are you sure you’ll continue creating video after you purchase your action camera?
  3. Can your smartphone deliver the quality of video you need?

 

Video sample

Here’s a video (and a few wide-angle stills, including the thumbnail photo) my partner and I shot in Portland/Seattle (view my list of places featured in the video here) on my GoPro Hero 5 Black. We’re definitely not professionals—we just passed the camera back and forth and had fun with it—but I’m glad having an action camera has enabled me to preserve our travel memories this way.

Catch the travel bug yet? View my full Portland City Guide.


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