We live in an age where everything is recorded and shared. Mountain biking might serve as your escape from a device and digital media saturated day, but not even the great outdoor pursuit of off-road cycling has remained immune from digitisation.
The year was 2004 and a young entrepreneur named Nick Woodman managed to produce a robust (if rudimentary) little action camera which was small enough to attach to handlebars. That camera was the original GoPro and ever since, we have been boring (and occasionally thrilling) friends with footage of our singletrack exploits and mishaps.
Action cameras have mirrored all other digital device technologies by evolving with impressive speed. Since the original GoPro, there have been seven iterations and the market for a handlebar, chest or helmet-mounted action camera is now wonderfully diverse, with many options.
Purists might judge the action camera phenomenon for diluting the zen of riding - and pandering to a peculiar vanity of the moment unique to a social media generation. But it has practical uses, too.
There is no better way to learn a new trail, before riding it, than meticulously replaying somebody else’s footage. For coaches and riders wishing to improve their cornering and technical riding posture, footage of you doing it wrong, it a lot stronger evidence for correction than some cursory words of advice.
BEST MTB ACTION CAMERAS: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
The purchasing decision for a new mountain biking action camera was always wonderfully uncomplicated: you simply ordered the latest available camera from GoPro. That has all changed and in 2020, there are some excellent alternatives.
What are the features and technicalities you need to ponder when considering a new action camera? Although many brands market it as a convincing technical specification, resolution is not critically important. That might appear to be a contradictory statement but it is true and applies to nearly every rider.
You are never going to try and capture a still image from your rolling action cam footage and attempt to print it to A3 wall poster size. At best, you want to view it 4K, but even that is a bit much of a muchness as most people will digest any digital media edit on their Smartphone and the required resolution size to service any small screen is 1080 x 1920.
2. Dynamic range
What is greatly more important than pure resolution is dynamic range. This is the ability of a camera sensor to capture the broadest possible detail in a scene, between its brightest and darkest tones.
The human eye has much better dynamic ability than almost any camera, which is why you can drop from an exposed trail in direct sunlight, to a gloomy forest singletrack, and not struggle to see where you are going. A camera would struggle having to capture all the detail of a scene in dappled light, with sharp drops of sunlight and deep shadows. For a mountain bike action camera, dynamic range is crucial – not resolution. You don’t need the most pixels, but rather the best ones.
The other issues that really matter with any action camera are ergonomics. Is it easy to attach to your handlebar, chest-mount or helmet? Does it have image calming properties to balance recording when you are being ping-ponged along a rock garden, stabilising the field of view and capturing footage that is viewable instead of nausea inducing? And are the buttons and function easy to operate with gloves out on a trail? Perhaps you don’t wish to bother with buttons at all, and prefer voice prompting?
Our top picks
Which cameras can handle trails with wildly diverse lighting conditions, remain stable while you are charging along and feature intuitive controls?
In 2020you want a camera with voice control. Most action cameras are small and that means heir buttons are even smaller – which are awfully inconvenient to operate with gloved fingers, especially when it is cold or muddy.
The GoPro Hero7 Black remains top of the class, incorporating excellent image stabilisation and an array of 12 different voice commands. It remains an expensive purchase and if you seek value, there are rivals which offer much the same with regards to voice command convenience and image quality, for less.
Perhaps the Hero7 Black’s most credible rival is from Chinese brand Yi, with its 4K. For a lot less than the American action camera, this Chinese alternative does much the same. If you are a traditionalist and prefer your cameras to be of Japanese manufacturer, Sony’s RXO is massively expensive but it does offer sensor technology capable of capture footage to a quality that no other rival can.
THE BEST ACTION CAMERAS FOR MOUNTAIN BIKING
GoPro’s product development people have analysed their customers and know exactly which features are useful – or superfluous. The Hero7 Black addresses all the issues you could possible encounter with a mountain bike action camera.
It won’t render unusable footage in tricky forest lighting conditions, due to its wide dynamic range sensor technology and its HyperSmooth image stabilisation works a miracle on potentially bumpy footage. The rear screen allows you perfectly frame your point-of-view riding composition on any handlebar mount and its brilliantly robust too, with waterproofing up to 10m.
Best of all are the voice commands, which mean you can trigger functions and control the camera whilst on the move – instead of having to dismount and fiddle with gloved hands applied to frustratingly small control surfaces..
In the world of consumer electronics, we have all come to accept that not all Chinese products are awful. Yi is an enormous Chinese camera manufacturer and its simply named 4K is a terrific value offering.
As the naming convention indicates, you’ll be recording your ride in broadcast quality 4K footage and to ensure it looks even more professional, there is electronic image stabilisation, to make those rooty trail sections watchable.
Other standard features include excellent audio (to ensure rider commentary or hub noises are accurately rendered) and voice control. Everything you’d get in a GoPro Hero 7, for nearly half the price. The only caveat is an absence of weather sealing, which means you’ll have to buy a waterproof casing.
The Dutch brand might be more renowned for its navigation technology and devices, but since 2015 it has marketed quite a potent action camera too.
Footage is 4K, but it runs at quite a pedestrian 15fps – which limits your ability to create slow-motion action sequences. This is a pity because TomTom also has an excellent creative app which dovetails with its camera to help ease your editing burden. Special sensors analyse which parts of your ride feature the most impressive action (using bike lean angle, gradient and pressure) and suggest an edit. Very clever.
Battery life is a stupendous three hours too, if you are keen on creating some endurance riding edits. Debits? It is splash-proof at best, but certainly not comprehensively weather sealed.
This Welsh product mimics the original GoPro formula of a compact action camera in a separate weatherproof casing.
What is very distinctive about the Olfi is its orientation: it mounts in the portrait view, instead of landscape – which makes sense for a cycling camera. The lens’s field of view is a generous 166-degrees and it captures footage via a 16mp Sony sensor, which means that is you want to process still images they should be of very usable quality.
Downsides to the Olfi are is its lack of a touchscreen or sophisticated voice commands. But for the price, this remains a compelling 4K action camera. And you can control it via your Smartphone, thanks to WiFi integration with an App.
Sony produces its own sensors and that means that wit the RX0, it markets a compact action camera which dwarfs the image quality of all rivals.
The large 1-inch sensor can capture footage in a manner no competitor can. This Sony action camera will also shoot up to 1000fps, which unlocks an entirely new realm for producing incredible slow-motion action sequences in post editing software.
Its comparatively large sensor also means that high-contrast lighting situations are handled with aplomb. If price is of no consequence and image quality is all you desire, it must be the Sony.