Action cameras, a sub-segment of the camera market originally popularized by GoPro, has come a long way. Designed to go wherever you go, today’s best action cameras are powerful, rugged, and versatile enough to capture even the most ludicrous adventures and exploits.
And they’re the perfect tool for the traveler looking to capture high-quality images where you’d typically cringe taking a regular camera. Or the outdoors enthusiast that wants to relive and share their best thrills. Sure, most of us have a smartphone at hand. But, there are certain situations, like skydiving or skiing, where you’ll want a more formidable camera unless you’re incredibly bold. In comes the action camera.
Now, when it comes to action cameras, GoPro is often the name brand that comes to mind. And they’ve grown into a complete all-in-one solution that typically dominates this market. However, they’re not the only players in town.
No, they’ve seen stiff competition in recent years, as popularity for these cameras soared. And now, there’s seemingly no shortage of competitive alternatives with similar quality, price, and features. Not to mention, more creators are opting for them, given their size, mounting options, and user-friendliness.
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But, ultimately, choosing the best action camera depends on your use case. And given the options available, it may prove slightly tedious to find the best one. In today’s post, we will cover a comprehensive guide on the factors to consider to pick the best action camera. And we will also cover the best action cameras on the present market.
Sony RX0 Mark II
Initially released in the spring of 2019, Sony’s RX0 II is their ultra-compact rugged action camera with radical updates. It features a large 1-inch stacked sensor, producing 15.3MP images, a 24mm equivalent Zeiss lens with Electronic stabilization, 4K 30 FPS, and 1080p 120 FPS video.
The Mark II combines a robust hybrid still and action experience by boasting a larger than average stacked image sensor and an updated processor. This combination realizes faster continuous shooting speeds, now at 16 FPS, and improves low light performance. In quality, this sensor thoroughly matches Sony’s premium RX100 compacts, which is quite a feat for an action camera. But, crucially, the Mark II now debuts much-needed internal 4K video, removing the need for an external recorder. And it also brings to market a 1.5-inch tilting screen that tilts 180º upwards for front-facing selfies, a first to lineup, and a top appeal for vloggers and content creators. Additionally, it also shoots super-slow-motion video up to 1,000 FPS, transforming mundane memories into the extraordinary. Plus, the device is waterproof to 10m without a housing, crushproof to 200 KGs, and shockproof to 2m. Other bonuses include built-in Wi-fi, time-lapse, picture profiles, time-code, a mini microphone input, a removable battery, and proxy recording.
Overall, while more expensive than rivals, Sony’s RX0 II offers top-level image quality. And it’s a powerful choice for creators wanting a luxury and premium tool that offers a unique tilting screen, incredible durability, and class-leading slow-motion video.
GoPro Hero 9 Black
Released in the fall of 2020, GoPro’s Hero 9 Black ups the standard in their lineup with more power, versatility, aimed to re-establish their dominance. It features a 23.6MP sensor that supplies 20MP still photos, 5K 30 FPS, 4K 60 FPS, or 1080p 240 FPS video, and HyperSmooth 3.0, their most advanced stabilization. And it has three lens options, a 16-34mm wide, 19-39mm linear, and fixed 27mm lens.
This model sports a new design, which is slightly larger than its predecessor. But, with that added size comes redesigned displays. In this case, the rear display is now 16% larger. And they’ve redesigned the front display, which now has a live view for framing and shows helpful camera information. It also sports the new HindSight Mode, which captures 30 seconds of video beforehand, ensuring you never miss a moment. And thanks to the 5K resolution, you can now capture 14.7MP stills during videos, too, using the convenient Save Frame feature. Additionally, the device is also waterproof, down to 10m, without needing the housing. Other bonuses include live streaming support, webcam support, a removable battery, time-lapse, HDR, RAW, TimeWarp 3, built-in Wi-Fi, and a removable lens cover for third-party filters.
Overall, while pricier and larger, GoPro’s Hero 9 Black sports more resolution, features, and versatility. And it fundamentally catapults the lineup to an unseen level. It’s easily their best release yet and one that shows action cameras are a formidable force.
Insta360 One R Twin Edition
Initially released in the summer of 2020, Insta360’s One R Twin Edition is their first venture into the action camera market. And it’s a unique proposition that combines the two most popular trends in today’s consumer market. This camera supplies 5.7K 30 FPS, 4K 60 FPS, or 1080p 200 FPS video, and their 6-axis FlowState Stabilization.
This device uses a two-in-one modular design, transforming it on the fly from a 360º camera to a 4K wide-angle shooter. And this modular design even allows you to flip the touchscreen 180º for front-facing selfies, a key lure for vloggers. But, besides the design, Insta360’s updated the FlowState Stabilization, which now achieves gimbal-like quality thanks to a new scene-detection algorithm. They also updated the Point To Track system, their AI-powered tracking software, that keeps subjects locked in the center of the frame, regardless of obstacles. And the device even outputs to the newer H.265 codec via ProRes 422 lossless, ensuring you get utmost detail. Plus, it’s even waterproof to 5m to boast, despite the innovative modular design. Other bonuses include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HDR, voice control, Auto Frame, Hyperlapse, timeshift, star lapse, and RAW.
Overall, the Insta360 One R Twin Edition is the perfect marriage between two separate realms. And it combines a powerful 360º experience and a 4K action camera into a single impressively small package. It’s a proper modular camera that truly pushes the bounds. And it’s the ideal choice if you want excellent stabilization, advanced AI-powered functionality, and an all-in-one tool for action and virtual reality.
GoPro Hero 8 Black
Initially released in the fall of 2019, GoPro’s Hero8 Black brings a fresh new design and more flexibility to the lineup to prove they’re not resting on laurels. The device captures 12MP still photos or 4K 60 FPS and 1080p 240 FPS video with HyperSmooth 2 stabilization. This model also brings a new digital lens, allowing you to toggle between Narrow, SuperView, Wide, and linear fields of view.
It also features a streamlined design, re-imaged to be more pocketable, durable, and flexible. This new design now has built-in mounting fingers at the base for housing-free mounting and a side door for hot-swapping batteries. Additionally, with Hero8 comes new expandable mods, allowing creators to purchase attachments to enhance its functionality, such as microphones, lights, or displays. But, the device itself remains waterproof down to 10m. Other bonuses include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, live streaming support, a removable battery, TimeWarp 2, LiveBurst, time-lapse, HDR, and RAW.
Overall, GoPro’s Hero8 Black remains extraordinarily capable and rethinks the line’s traditions. And given its features and excellent stabilization, it’s quite the bargain, despite its age. If you’re looking to get the best from the pricier Hero9, here’s your perfect opportunity, especially if you don’t need 5K or a front-facing screen.
DJI Osmo Action
Initially released in the summer of 2019, DJI’s Osmo Action is their first attempt at an action camera. But an endeavor that undercuts GoPro and gives them some stiff competition. The device features a 12MP sensor and an ultra-wide-angle lens that captures 4K 60 FPS and 1080p 240 FPS video with RockSteady image stabilization.
Unlike its closest rival, the GoPro Hero7, it packs a front-facing color display, useful for selfies, and a high-resolution rear touchscreen. DJI also configured the device to meter from the subject’s face, so they’re always well lit and the focus of attention. Additionally, they’ve also configured the camera to produce more vibrant skin tones and more saturated footage, reducing the burden of post-processing and editing. And the device is also waterproof, down to 11m. Other bonuses include HDR, a removable battery, time-lapse, RAW, voice control, a removable lens cover, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth connectivity.
Overall, given its feature set, image quality, and current price, DJI’s Osmo Action represents the best value for money. And it’s a surprising but brilliant feat by DJI to one-up GoPro’s continual domination in the action camera market. It delivers all of the essentials needed to document your life’s best adventures. And it does so with the best bang for the buck.
Why get an action camera?
Action cameras are the new camcorders in today’s world. And they’ve thoroughly replaced the traditional handy-cam camcorders of years past. Of course, today’s smartphones are also capable of shooting high-quality 4K video. But, even so, the value of a dedicated action camera is that it can accompany you in places a phone would likely not survive. For example, mounted to the wheel of a dirt bike, aerial from the last mound. It’s unlikely you’d feel comfortable risking a $1,000 plus flagship phone here. Thankfully, this is where action cameras come into play.
Recent innovations have also dramatically improved today’s action cameras. And today’s options mix excellent image stabilization with outstanding video quality to create smooth footage, even in the most chaotic situations. Additionally, they’re now even more durable while being equally small and portable. Not to mention, you can even mount these cameras to pretty much anything, from surfboards, bikes, helmets, pets, and on the body.
In short, action cameras offer unrivaled portability compared to other cameras. As such, they’re an excellent traveling companion. Plus, they also capture an exciting first-person point of view that engages viewers. So if you lead an active lifestyle and want to document your adventures, these are a popular choice indeed. But, they’re also equally popular amongst vloggers and casual creators wanting a compact yet reliable solution.
Are action cameras good for photography?
Most action cameras offer sensors that are at least 12MP in image resolution and, generally, 1/2.3-inch’s in size. These values are the current industry-standard for today’s flagship smartphones. Therefore, image quality from a stills standpoint will mostly match a high-end smartphone, meaning it’s acceptable. But, these cameras won’t deliver printable images. Instead, they’ll be best reserved for sharing online. However, it’s important to note some action cameras offer higher image resolution at 20MPs. But, the difference isn’t dramatic, particularly compared to smartphones with 48MP multi-shot modes.
How to choose the best camera action
Choosing the best camera will depend heavily on your use case. There are many options on the market right now. So knowing what’s most important to you is essential here. For example, do you want maximum resolution, water sealing, a shock-proof design, wireless connectivity, or slow-motion video? Every camera in this segment offers different capabilities that are best suited to specific uses. So take some time to familiarize yourself with what’s available.
Below are the main factors and their best use cases. Some features, like stabilization and a rugged build, will prove a must for most. But, others like app functionality, a touchscreen, or 5K resolution may not necessarily make or break your decision.
Do know, this particular camera market is riddled with knock-offs and subpar options. So, while rare, we recommend researching before purchasing this style of camera. It’s wise to spend a little bit more here and opt for a reputable brand. And here is a list of the reputed players in this space: DJI, GoPro, Sony, Yi, Olympus, Insta360, Olfi, Garmin, and Akaso.
But with that said, below is a list of the significant factors to consider.
Video Quality, Resolution, and Frame Rate
What we signify as “video quality” is the combination of several factors.
Firstly, what’s the resolution used. In general, for the best image quality today, go for 4K. While shooting at this resolution requires more computing power, it’s a worthy trade-off. The image quality bump with this higher resolution is noticeable. And it’ll also ensure your camera is future-proofed as 4K eventually becomes the standard.
Second, what frame rates (expressed in FPS) are available. Today, most action cameras offer 60 FPS recording in some fashion, but some also provide super-slow-motion video at 240 FPS. The higher the frame rate, the smoother the playback and the greater the slow motion. So shooting at 240 FPS allows you to capture footage at 1/8th normal speed for a surreal and dramatic look. Additionally, you may want a more cinematic look. In that case, you’ll want a camera that offers 24 FPS, the same frame rate used in most Hollywood films.
Lastly, the final thing to consider here is the bit rate. This value determines how the camera compresses the recorded footage. In general, less compression creates better fine details and higher quality videos. And the standard for cameras with 4K video is 100 Mbs/second. Some cameras also use the newer H.265 HEVC format, which records at a lower bit rate, with the same image quality. Nevertheless, look out for 100 Mb/s. You can find this specification on the manufacturers website.
Image stabilization is mostly standard in this segment. The function of stabilization is to reduce bumps or handshakes while filming, to create smooth, shake-free videos. And it’s an absolute must, as the footage will be shaky and mostly unusable otherwise. However, some cameras do offer better stabilization than others. So you may want to look at videos detailing the stabilization efficiency prior.
Durability is key with these cameras, as you’ll likely mount them and use them in tricky situations. The durability level will likely depend on the hobbies and interests you have in mind for the device. Some cameras offer shock, freeze and crush resistant designs. Others don’t. And these extra protective measures are essential to prevent damage under more rigorous environments.
Many cameras offer waterproof constructions, so you can confidently film underwater. Others offer water resistance, at a minimum, which gives you peace of mind during a sudden downpour to prevent lasting damage. But, know, the level of sealing here varies.
High-end models offer protection down to 10m and waterproofing as standard. Others lack protection outright. Instead, you’ll have to purchase an optional waterproof housing for this capability, at an extra cost. And doing so will add bulk, weight and often reduce the camera’s microphone quality. Additionally, every waterproof case offers a different degree of water sealing. And not all will support the higher pressure or depth of deep scuba diving. Even so, this is an essential consideration if you want to record underwater. Check the camera’s specifications list for details on the acceptable water submersion depth.
Battery life is a critical consideration, as even the best action camera will only last a few hours per charge. So it’s wise to invest in multiple batteries or a portable charger. This will ensure that the camera doesn’t die before a critical moment. Ideally, look for a camera with removable batteries, so you can always bring a backup. Alternatively, look for products that support USB charging so you can charge on the go.
Most manufacturers design their action camera for mounting to different surfaces and objects. And most cameras use the popular two-prong universal mounting system, enabling you to switch easily between cameras. But, not always. So for this, you’ll want to keep your specific needs at the forefront, as not all cameras are suitable for every mounting configuration.
Additionally, differences in shapes and sizes also change the mounting accessories and general possibilities available. Thankfully, most cameras come with at least one or two mounting points by default. But, if you want or need additional mounts, that’ll be an extra cost. Also, keep in mind that if you’re going to attach the camera to a specific area, you’ll need to find that particular mount, for example, a bike mount for bike handlebars.
You may also want to consider if you’re going to use the camera on a tripod, as not all cameras have a 1/4″-20 thread built-in. And this feature is essential to mount the camera in this fashion for, say, timelapse videos. Thankfully, you can purchase tripod adapters for the two-prong mount, and those can give you this functionality.
Connectivity & Editing Tools
Some cameras have included wireless modules, allowing you to pair them to a smartphone and control them wirelessly. This feature is particularly beneficial if you’re working remotely and want to edit footage on a smartphone or tablet. So if editing on-the-go is important to you, look for models with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity.
Higher-end name brand manufacturers also include dedicated smartphone companion apps. Some of which will automatically edit the highlights from your footage or have social media integration. But, if the manufacturer doesn’t include software, you can always use iMovie or Adobe Premiere Rush to do so.
Built-in GPS allows the camera to automatically geo-tag all of the footage or stills it captures. It’s a handy feature if you want to link the photos or videos to a map to pinpoint exact locations. For example, say you want to document a view on a mountain top, beach, or other site.
We discussed this above. But, it’s important to reiterate here that an action camera specializes in recording video. While action cameras can capture still images, most don’t produce high-resolution images that match larger compact cameras. Instead, action cameras are best for recording videos or stitching together captured stills into a time-lapse video to emphasize drama in a scene. Nevertheless, if still image quality is crucial to you, it’s a factor to consider. And in that case, look for cameras with 20MP 1-inch sensors or higher.
If you’re more serious about video, look for a model with a flat video profile so that you can grade footage. A flat picture profile helps preserve dynamic range and ensures you get the best possible footage the camera produces.
Last Updated on September 10, 2023 by Photography PX Published January 22, 2021