Smartphones can do a lot of impressive things these days, from augmented reality and video editing to on-the-fly GPS navigation. But their big screen, the very thing that makes them so usable and nice to look at, holds them back from being an action camera. Sure, you can strap your iPhone to your helmet and bomb down that dirt track on your bike, or throw it on a selfie stick and hit the best ski resorts, but it likely won’t make it out alive.
Action cameras still have their place as a travel essential and required piece of equipment for anyone who wants to jump cliffs, bomb steeps, or do any other activity where bad weather and gnarly crashes are not just possible but likely. For the rest of us, action cameras are compact, shock-proof, slow-mo-capturing video and photo cameras that can go anywhere and do anything. We’ve created a list of the best action cameras to capture all your wild and fun outdoor adventures. Let’s get into it.
The original action camera, GoPro started it all. The first GoPro was terrible quality with few features but it went anywhere. Eight versions later we have 4K video, stabilization so good it could be on a gimbal, automatic editing apps, 8x slow motion, and 30-foot waterproofing. That’s a mouthful. Let’s unpack all those.
Most video we see these days is between Full HD (1080p) and Ultra HD (4K). The Hero8 easily films them both and they look incredible. You get more slow-motion modes at the 1080p resolution, up to 240 fps (frames per second). This is the way to go if you want slow motion since you can slow it down up to eight times.
The HyperSmooth 2.0 software in the Hero8 takes your shaky, unwatchable footage and converts it (as you record) to silky smooth, professional-looking video. Instead of lugging around expensive, cumbersome equipment to smooth out the camera, it just does it for you.
If that isn’t enough for you, it’s waterproof to 30 feet without a case and can livestream to Facebook and YouTube in 1080p. Not bad for a 4-ounce camera.
Bringing its drone and camera expertise to the action camera market, DJI introduced the Osmo Action camera in 2019. Like the Hero8, the Osmo Action is waterproof to 30 feet, can record up to 4K at 60 fps and 1080p at 240 fps, but it has a few other tricks up its sleeve as well.
To help see yourself when you’re cruising down the powder, the Osmo Action has a tiny screen on the front. With a quick tap of three fingers on the back screen or by holding the QuickSwitch button for 2 seconds, the playback switches to the front screen. The back screen is also larger than a GoPro with smaller icons.
To help with stabilization when you’re running down the mountainside, DJI’s RockSteady software smooths out all your footage. Make sure you update the firmware (easily done through the phone app) after getting yours as there are major improvements to this and other features. Round out the features with a standard camera tripod mount on the bottom and replaceable lens covers and we have a worthy GoPro opponent.
With the Hero8 and Osmo Action prices rising into the hundreds even when on sale, cheaper alternatives have come to market. AKASO has quickly been deploying action cameras of its own over the past couple of years.
The V50 Pro SE is their top of the line action camera complete with 4K at 60 fps and 1080p at 120 fps. The stabilization and interface isn’t quite GoPro Hero8 level but at half the price, you could buy two V50’s.
One of the best parts of the Akaso cameras is they come right out of the box with a ton of mounts and accessories. GoPro and DJI ship with one mount. The V50 comes with 10 mounting parts, a wrist strap, a watch-like remove, and a small case. The first thing you do with an action camera is to buy extra batteries and the V50 comes with three.
The SE or Special Edition of the V50 bumps up your specs and donates a portion of the sale to Leave No Trace or the Access Fund, a climbing group that protects access to climbing around the U.S.
With limited options to innovate left in the action camera world, Insta360 started life with a 360 camera. It records 360 degrees and then you select the thing you’d like to focus on while editing. No need to point the camera at it when shooting.
Insta360’s second camera, the One R, is shaking up the action camera industry with a modular design. A battery module makes up the bottom, then you attach other modules on top. Three different versions let you capture different kinds of footage. You can get one or all three of the modules.
The 4K Edition ($300) comes with a 4K lens module and a screen that can point backward or forwards. This kind of setup is similar to the Hero8 or the Osmo Action. If you want to take 360 footage, then get the 360 Edition ($430) that comes with two fisheye lenses and lets you take the wild-looking 360 footage you can edit and re-edit after you’ve taken it all.
For top-of-the-line action camera quality, the 1-Inch Edition has a massive 1-inch sensor which increases the resolution of the video you can take from 4K to 5.3K. It also puts what might be the highest quality lens on an action camera, a super-wide 14mm lens co-engineered with Leica, the Lamborghini of the camera world.
In the last few years, Sony has aggressively pursued the camera market, taking over a large chunk of the interchangeable lens space. The brand’s last action camera, the FDR-X3000, was released in 2016.
The more recent RX0 II straddles the line between action camera and ridiculously small travel or adventure camera. Sony doesn’t say it’s an action camera but it sure looks like one. Out of the box, it is waterproof to 33 feet, shockproof for 6.5-foot drops, and can withstand crush forces of up to 440 pounds per square foot.
Inside the tough body, there is a 1-inch sensor capable of 4K 30 fps video and 15 MP photos. The Zeiss 24mm is not very wide when it comes to action cameras but a perfect focal length for walking around and taking photos. At much lower resolutions it can shoot up to 1,000 frames per second for extremely slow motion.
If those aren’t action-worthy camera specs, I don’t know what would be.
The Tough TG-6 is technically a point-and-shoot camera, but it brings some action cam features to the table that make it great for adventurers. Built to endure the elements, the Olympus Tough TG-6 is tough and rugged enough so you don’t have to worry about dropping the camera on the sand, water, or snow.
While it’s bigger compared to the other options we’ve listed here, what you’re getting in return is a bigger sensor along with better optics. It also boasts sensor-shift image stabilization and is able to shoot bursts of up 20 fps for action sequences. The microscope mode is also an incredible function that can capture images super up-close, a feature that isn’t present in action cameras yet.
Another great contender aside from the GoPro Hero8 listed above is the GoPro Hero7. This action camera is built to last with its rugged and waterproof exterior. The Hero7 can survive under 33 feet of water without an additional housing, so you can capture your underwater adventures without any worries. On top of that, you get smooth footage with the GoPro Hero7’s gimbal‑like stabilization. Your time-lapse videos can also be stabilized as you move around with its TimeWarp feature.
Share your experiences outdoors with GoPro’s Livestream option. Forget about blurry, pixelated footage. With the GoPro, you can show your scenery live in high-definition 720p quality. Aside from taking top-notch videos, the GoPro Hero7 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to capturing crisp photos. The SuperPhoto feature automatically reduces noise and optimizes your pictures. If you want a camera that balances out great action footage and photos, the GoPro Hero7 is worth the investment.
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