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Gadget Bag: Action Cams

These high-quality camcorders can do much more than skateboarding videos
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GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition

GoPro has transformed the action-sports world. Their rugged cameras have become mainstays of surf, skate, BMX, autocross and other gonzo videos that pop up on YouTube at an ever-increasing rate. The videos are wildly entertaining and inspiring, of course, and they allow all of us armchair action enthusiasts to live vicariously for a few minutes, but shooting gut-wrenching wipeouts isn’t the only thing these remarkable devices can do. Also, GoPro may be the most well-known maker of action cams, but they aren’t the only game in town. For nature enthusiasts, having a small, light, highly capable video camera in your bag can give you some very interesting shooting options. They deliver outstanding HD video image quality, and the huge variety of available mounts makes it easy to set them up in unique positions, wherever desired, and even use them as remote wildlife cameras. Here’s a quick look at some of today’s top action cams for outdoor photographers.

Drift Ghost-S
Featuring a Sony CMOS sensor and a seven-element aspherical lens that delivers a 160° field of view and rotates 300°, the Drift Ghost-S can shoot 12-megapixel still images at 10 fps and do time-lapse, plus 1080p video at 60, 50, 30 and 25 fps, 960p video at 60, 50, 48, 30 and 25 fps, 720p video at 120, 100, 60, 50, 30 and 25 fps and WVGA at up to 240 fps. A 1700 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery delivers up to 175 minutes of 1080/60p shooting per charge. Images are saved on microSD, SDHC or SDXC cards up to 64 GB. There’s a built-in microphone, a 3.5mm external mic jack and HDMI out. Low-light performance is said to be excellent, and there’s a 10X digital zoom. A two-way remote control is provided, and the Drift App lets you control the camera wirelessly from your smartphone. The Ghost-S measures 4.1×2.1×1.3 inches and weighs 6 ounces. It has a 2.0-inch Gorilla Glass LCD monitor, and it’s waterproof down to 9.8 feet (an optional waterproof case extends this to 180 feet). List Price: $399.99. Drift still offers the HD Ghost, the Ghost-S’s predecessor, which has top video rates of 1080p/30, 960p/48, 720p/60 and WVGA/120 and an older sensor ($299.99).

iON Adventure
The iON Adventure features a built-in GPS receiver, allowing you to add location, speed and altitude data to your videos. A vibration sensor automatically starts recording when it senses motion (if you want it to). The camera is waterproof down to 30 feet. The ultrawide-angle (120º-170° field of view), fixed-focus lens provides sharp images from two feet to infinity. Video modes include 1080p at 30 fps, 720p at 30 or 60 fps and 960p at 30 fps. The camera can also do 2.2-megapixel still images, with burst and time-lapse capabilities. A rechargeable 1200 mAh lithium-battery provides about two hours of shooting; an optional 1800 mAh battery booster allows the camera to charge in-unit twice with no need for an external power source and extends battery life to about seven hours. Images are stored on microSD cards up to 32 GB. As a bonus, each iON camera purchase comes with 8 GB of free cloud storage and sharing of video content. Dimensions are 4.3×1.5×1.5 inches and 5.0 ounces. List Price: $349.95. iON also offers three Air Pro models, with built-in WiFi, from $199.99 to $349.99.

Sony POV Action Cam
Despite being the lowest-priced of the devices here, Sony’s POV Action Cam provides Advanced SteadyShot image stabilization, WiFi control via smartphone, embedded GPS and built-in stereo microphones. The 17.1mm (35mm-camera equivalent) Carl Zeiss Tessar lens provides a 170° angle of view with the 1/2.3-inch, 13.5-megapixel Sony Exmor R back-illuminated CMOS sensor (120° when SteadyShot is activated). The camera itself is splashproof and comes with a case that makes it waterproof down to 16.4 feet (and shockproof to drops of 5 feet). The POV can do 1080p video at up to 60 fps, 720p at up to 120 fps and 480 at up to 240 fps for slow-motion effects. It can also do 13.5-megapixel still images at a touch, 10 fps bursts and time-lapse sequences. A recent firmware update added live streaming via Internet capability, plus Motion Shot LE, which captures traces of a moving subject in a single image. Images can be saved on Memory Stick Micro or microSD/SDHC media. Dimensions are 3.2×1.8×1.0 inches and 2.4 ounces. List Price: $269.99. Sony also offers the Compact POV Action Cam HDR-AS30V/B ($249.99) and HDR-AS20/B ($199.99), which are even smaller and provide 1080p/60 video, but slightly lower-res 11.9-megapixel still images; the AS20/B’s WiFi doesn’t have NFC.

GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition
GoPro started the action-cam craze, and the Hero3+ is the smallest, lightest GoPro yet. It can do 1080p video at up to 60 fps, 720p to 120 fps, 1440p to 48 fps, 960p to 100 fps, 2.7K to 30 fps and even 4K to 15 fps. Video is recorded in the easily shareable MP4 format. The camera can also shoot 12-megapixel stills at 30 fps, as well as do time-lapse sequences. The 1180 mAh rechargeable Li-ion battery can provide up to two hours of shooting (1080p/30), WiFi is built in, and the Black Edition comes with a WiFi remote control (which can control up to 50 cameras from up to 600 feet away) and an underwater housing good to depths to 131 feet.

The sensor, built-in ultrawide-angle ƒ/2.8 lens and auto Low Light Mode (which changes frame rates to enhance low-light performance) provide good low-light capability. SuperView mode provides an even wider view for videos. The camera records mono sound, with a 3.5mm jack for an external stereo mic. Dimensions are 2.3×1.55×0.08 inches and 2.6 ounces (4.8 ounces with underwater housing).

List Price: $399.99. GoPro also offers the HERO3 (1080p/30, 5-megapixel stills at 3 fps and WiFi, but no WiFi remote provided, $199.95) and HERO3+ Silver Edition (1080p/60, 10-megapixel stills, 10 fps and WiFi, but no WiFi remote provided, $299.95).

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
While the action cams considered here are designed for quick and simple on-the-go operation, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is a more serious video machine, but still very compact at 5.0×2.6×1.5 inches and 12.5 ounces. It doesn’t do stills, but it does 1920x1080p video at 30, 29.97, 25, 24 and 23.98 fps, in 12-bit losslessly compressed CinemaDNG RAW or 10-bit Apple ProRes 422 (HQ). It features a 12.48×7.02mm Super 16 image sensor, with a 13-stop dynamic range, and a Micro Four Thirds mount, so it can accept the full range of MFT lenses, plus (via adapter) high-end cinema lenses (and pretty much any lens for which an adapter is available). The readily available Nikon EN-EL20 battery provides about an hour of shooting per charge. A 3.5-inch, 800×480-pixel LCD monitor with peaking makes manual focusing easy. There’s a built-in stereo mic, plus a 3.5mm external mic jack. Files are stored on SDXC or SDHC media. List Price: $995.