Since many of us think of drones as essentially flying action cameras, it’s no surprise that drone industry leader DJI has introduced a more traditional action camera of its own. There is absolutely no question how the product is being targeted, as it looks almost identical to a GoPro, and its mounting system is compatible with GoPro accessories. But it has a few tricks up its sleeve, including a full-color forward-facing display for easier vlogging. We took a review DJI Osmo Action camera to Alaska with us last month and put it through its paces.
A GoPro Clone With a Difference
If you’re familiar with the current GoPro lineup then most of the specs for the Osmo Action will be familiar to you. For starters it is nearly the same size, at 65 x 42 x 35 mm and weighs 124 grams. The traditional back screen and viewfinder is 2-1/4 inches and 640 x 360 pixels. The Action adds a unique front screen, though, which measures 1.4 inches and a lower resolution. Both displays are rated between 700 and 800 candelas-per-square-meter. The Action includes a replaceable 1300 mAh LiPo battery and can be charged over USB. The battery should be good for between one and two hours of video depending on your settings and how much you use the displays. A full recharge takes about 90 minutes, so if you plan on a heavy shooting schedule you’ll want at least one spare battery.
The sensor is about the same as you’d find in an entry-level DJI drone. It is a 1/2.3-inch form factor with a 145 degree Field Of View and 12MP resolution. ISO can be adjusted from 100-3200 and the shutter from 120-1/8000 second. There are lots of photo modes, including Countdown and Time Lapse, as well as Auto-Exposure Bracketing. Video can be captured at up to 4K/60fps, or 30fps with HDR. At 1080p you can up the frame rate all the way to 200 fps.
Shooting With the DJI Osmo Action
As you’d expect for such a tiny device, the UI takes a little getting used to. But overall it is quite intuitive. Swiping from one of the values on the home screen lets you change it. Similarly swiping from the left brings up a Playback mode and from the right brings up photo and video settings. The first version of the interface could make it confusing to see whether you had RockSteady enabled, but it seems more straightforward in the current version with updated firmware. For a more extensive interface, you can use it with DJI’s own app on your mobile device.
The Action boots very quickly when you press the power button. In addition to power, the shutter/record button is also on top of the camera, and there is a “Quick Switch” button on the left that can be programmed to one of a number of features. The battery is under a pop out cover that also locks for extra protection, and the microSD slot and USB-C charging port are under another cover. That’s about all there is to it, although there is also a clever, programmable, Quick Switch button. I found the camera easy to operate, even with one hand.
For photographing glaciers on our boat tour, the wide FOV was ideal. However, that also makes it less than ideal for photographing wildlife — where a conventional camera with longer focal length would be preferable. I did take it out several times while we were photographing brown bears and it did a good job of representing the overall scene. The Action’s 4K video even held up pretty well zoomed in 200% in Adobe Premiere. Here is a sequence composed of wildlife clips I shot with the Osmo Action, some of which have been zoomed:
Recently DJI released updated firmware for the Action that cleaned up some of the issues I found using the initial version. Until the update I found I needed to use the app on my phone sometimes to configure the camera’s settings the way I wanted, but now I find it pretty easy to get everything right on the camera itself.
Works Well Underwater
When I first received the Action, I thought the little case it came with might have been necessary to make it waterproof. However, that case isn’t actually a full enclosure, (DJI calls it a Frame) and is only needed for mounting the camera. The camera itself is waterproof down to about snorkeling depth (11 meters), or you can also use an optional waterproof housing that is rated down to 60 meters.
Alaska’s waters aren’t all that conducive to snorkeling, but we were near a creek with Salmon returning to spawn. So with the help of Mark, our guide, we suspended the Action upside down at the end of a DJI-provided selfie stick and looked for them. The water was pretty silty, but with a little enhancement in Premiere Pro, sure enough we could see the Salmon. Of course I also had to flip the video 180 degrees:
Note that this video was captured before the recent firmware release from DJI, which improves underwater white balance.
The Osmo Action Offers an Impressive HDR Mode
Action cameras frequently get used in terrible lighting conditions, especially harsh light and high-contrast scenes. To help with this, the Osmo Action offers an HDR video mode at up to 30fps. I did a quick test of the HDR mode while filming a glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. I have the RockSteady image stabilization off in both clips, as it is not usable when shooting HDR:
In its default shooting mode without HDR, the sensor can’t capture the full range of detail between the dark rock and bright ice of the glacier.
With HDR turned on the improvement in detail capture is clearly visible in the area between the ice, snow, and sky:
I didn’t have a current model GoPro Hero to allow me to directly compare stabilization systems, but DJI’s RockSteady did a competent job of smoothing out motion caused by being on a boat and walking. It is an entirely electronic/digital system, so stabilization means aligning, cropping, and scaling — all of which mean some loss of image quality. So those needing the ultimate in stabilization performance are still going to want to use a mechanical gimbal or at least a camera with optical image stabilization.
Getting Your Hands on a DJI Osmo Action
You can get a DJI Osmo Action for as little as $310 discounted, or with some accessories for closer to the list price of $350. That makes it about 10% less expensive than current prices for GoPro’s Hero 7 Black camera. So you get a color front LCD and an HDR mode for less money. However, some people may miss the Hero 7’s ability to record using an H.265 codec. DJI also offers an interesting Trade-Up option where you can sell them your phone, tablet, drone, or camera in exchange for store credit. As you’d expect from a trade-in program, the prices aren’t great (a used Mavic Pro is worth $236, for example) but it is convenient.
[Image and Video Credit: David Cardinal]