Action cameras are small, lightweight, wearable, mountable, portable, and sometimes waterproof camcorders. They’re useful because you can mount them to pretty much anything—from skateboards, surfboards, and bicycles, to helmets, body parts, and even your pets.
They’ve all but replaced traditional camcorders in the marketplace. Family historians and budding cinematographers now use a GoPro or similar camera for wide shots and vlogs, while home movies are shot with smartphones and newer digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras.
And action cams also have a place in professional work. You’ll certainly want to use a camera with a big sensor and interchangeable lenses when you can, but modern action cams capture video that’s good enough to intercut. Think about shots that show the interior of an exploding car, a seemingly common event in dramatic television—they’re probably shot with a GoPro.
As a rule, an action camera is small, and has a lens with a wide, wide view of the world. There’s going to be some fish-eye distortion, especially if you mount it really close to what it’s filming, but newer models let you remove it automatically.
Some have dual lenses for spherical video capture, though not as many as we saw at the height of the 360-degree video fad. The cameras that survived are ones that serve a dual purpose, leveraging software so you can use video for both VR headsets and flat display screens. Software tools allow you to manipulate video in interesting ways, as you can see in the GoPro Max clip above.
There are also outliers in form factor. The DJI Pocket 2 has a gimbal-stabilized camera—it’s not rugged, but vloggers should take a look. DJI also has a traditional form factor action camera, the Osmo Action, included in this roundup.
Frame Rates and Resolution
Before you start digging into the reviews, a few notes on choosing a camera that’s right for you:
You’ll definitely want to consider frame rate, expressed as frames per second (fps). Some action cameras offer up to 240fps recording, while others only go to 30fps.
For standard playback, 30fps is perfectly fine. It’s when you want to slow footage down in editing to create dramatic scenes that frame rate matters. Footage captured at 240fps can be slowed down and played back smoothly at one-quarter speed.
You may also want to go for a cinematic look, in which case you’ll want a camera that has a 24fps capture option, the same speed used by most Hollywood productions.
Then there’s resolution and video quality. You want a camera that can record in 4K for sure. The top-end models from DJI and GoPro offer 60fps 4K with digital stabilization that’s absolutely incredible. They’re also not limited to ultra-wide views; you can set a narrower angle to remove lens distortion, making them solid choices for vlogging and travel logs.
If you’re more serious about video, look for a model with support for a flat video profile, so you can grade footage. We’ve not yet seen Raw video support in small form factor camcorders, but you can get it in larger models, including the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 6K.
You’ll also want to keep your specific needs in mind. Not all cameras are suitable for every sport, and certain form factors lend themselves better to certain activities. On top of that, different shapes allow for different mounting accessories and possibilities. If you want to catch a unique perspective, like an under-skateboard shot, you’ll want to pay close attention to size.
Waterproofing is important to consider if you’ll be recording footage underwater or even around water. Some waterproof cameras can go deeper than others, and some have built-in waterproofing so that you don’t need to think about extra housing. And if you’re already invested in a system, like GoPro, which uses a proprietary mount, then sticking with what you’ve got can help save money on extra accessories.
Editing Tools and Connectivity
Longtime editors may be happy working with desktop editing software, but adventurers may want to cut footage on a smartphone or tablet. Look for a model with built-in Wi-Fi at a minimum if mobile editing is important.
You’ll get better software support from name-brand options. GoPro and DJI include solid smartphone apps for on-the-go editing. Both will automatically create an edit from your shots, a plus when you just want to get a quick social post out.
If you go with a brand that doesn’t supply its own editing app, you’ll have to bring your own. It’s easy enough to use iMovie or Adobe Premiere Rush to cut clips together on your phone. If you need software for your desktop or laptop, check out our top recommendations.
Which Action Camera Should You Get?
We’ve filmed hours of footage with many of the major contenders to determine where each device stands in the field. Ultimately, your choice in action camera or camcorder should come down to performance and ease of use.