Action cameras have been designed to primarily take videos, which is why they are perceived as not being very good at taking photos. However, are they usable as a still camera as well, or is the bad rep as a still camera unfounded?
The same things that make action cameras great video cameras also apply to still photography.
They’re small, light, and almost unbreakable. They’re waterproof, too, so they’re pretty much the default choice on a rainy trek or on a trip to the beach. Their small size allows you to take photos from perspectives that you wouldn’t dream of taking with an expensive phone or DSLR.
Action Cameras do especially well to take action stills that emphasize speed through motion blur, as they can be mounted on the extremes of a vehicle or held out wide, close to whatever is rushing by.
They inspire confidence to be mounted in these dangerous places as well, thanks to their hardy construction.
Their wide-angle lenses mean that you don’t have to worry if something is in the frame; with a 170-degree field of view, you’re not going to miss much. That wide lens allows for some very interesting landscape-type photography, too.
The compact size means a small sensor size, which in turn means that low-light photography isn’t something that action cameras do well. The more premium ones do allow you to shoot in RAW formats, which allows you much more control in post-processing.
The battery life is also an issue; you’ll be lucky to get more than a half day’s worth of still shooting from an action camera, so you’ll need a backup plan if you plan to use it as your sole camera throughout the day.
The ultrawide lens doesn’t allow for shallow depth of field, so if you’re looking for the bokeh effect, you’re going to be disappointed. They also lack optical zoom, choosing to crop the image instead for a ‘digital zoom’ type effect.
Another area where action cameras don’t do so well is in the social media sharing aspect – you can’t take a photo on an action camera and share it instantly on your social media platform of choice. This is now mitigated by the fact that they have apps that connect them to the mobile phone you carry, and can transfer the photos quickly over WiFi.
With action cameras, you trade in low-light capability and an all-day battery capacity for their lightness, compact form, and all-weather indestructibility.
If you purchase an action camera that allows you to shoot images in RAW, allows you manual control over some shooting parameters, and connects with your mobile phone through WiFi, you can mitigate some of its negative points. Shoot your images in the RAW format, transfer them to your phone via the bundled app, edit the photo to your satisfaction with an app like Adobe Lightroom, and upload it immediately.
Carry around a power bank to charge the camera during your lunch stop or have a spare battery handy, and you can keep it going through the day. Like most things, action cameras are a compromise. You merely have to decide if that compromise works for you.