Action cameras aren’t just ruggedized and protected against the elements, they offer ultrawide viewing angles to capture the full experience of ski runs, skateboard tricks, snorkeling adventures or just pet antics (several companies make harnesses for your dog). And after testing a number of action cameras in a variety of conditions, including a mountain biking trip and a rafting adventure, we have action cam recommendations for every budget.
The GoPro Hero7 Black ($399) is our pick for the best action camera overall, because it offers the best video quality, has excellent image stabilization, is waterproof to 33 feet without requiring a protective shell, has a built-in touch screen and responds to voice commands. If you're looking for something a bit less expensive, the Yi Lite ($99) is our current favorite budget action cam. For less than $100, you get electronic image stabilization, a responsive touchscreen, and 4K video at 20 fps—though you'll want to stick to 1080p.
Looking for something in-between? Although we haven't tested it yet, the GoPro Hero7 White ($199) has some of the same features as the Hero7 Black, such as a waterproof body and a touchscreen, but shoots video at a max of 1080p/60 fps and lacks image stabilization and livestreaming.
Looking for a camera that can capture everything around you? Check out our best 360-degree cameras.
Latest News & Updates (September 2018)
- GoPro has released three new action cameras: The GoPro Hero7 Black ($399), the GoPro Hero7 Silver ($299), and the GoPro Hero7 White ($199). The top model records video at a max resolution of 4K/30 fps, has a 12MP camera, takes 8x slo-mo video, and has other features such as image stabilization and livestreaming. The Hero7 Silver has a 10-MP sensor, records 40K video at 30 fps and 2x slo-mo capture; the Hero7 White uses that same 10-MP sensor as the Silver but captures 1080p video. Both the Silver and White lack image stabilization and livestreaming capabilities.
- As a result of its new cameras, GoPro will be phasing out the cube-like Hero5 Session ($199), so if you like its design, you may want to get one before inventory runs out.
GoPro's flagship camera looks the same as the Hero6 (waterproof to 33 feet; rear 2-inch color touch-screen LCD; voice control) but captures 4K video at 60 fps, and has new image stabilization that made all our footage look super-smooth. Plus, it can livestream to Facebook using the GoPro app.
For less than $100, the Yi Lite is a well-designed camera that can shoot image-stabilized video at up to 1440k; it can also shoot video up to 4K/20 fps, but we found that 1080p offered some of the best video. Among budget action cameras, it had the most intuitive interface. Gorilla glass protects its 2-inch touchscreen, though you'll need to spend an extra $40 to get the camera's waterproof housing if you plan to take it diving.
The Virb records data such as speed, altitude, and heading, which can by overlaid onto your video, making it all the more immersive. Like the GoPro, it also responds to voice commands. And, you can link it to Garmin's fitness devices.
The Hero5 Session offers image quality comparable to its larger siblings (4K/30 fps), but in a much smaller package. It's waterproof to 33 feet, and includes image stabilization, Bluetooth, and voice control. GoPro has phased out its Session cameras, though, so get it while supplies last.
How We Test Action Cams
We review action cameras based on a number of factors, including video and image quality, ease of use, features (including waterproofing) and value. In order to provide the most meaningful comparisons, we test cameras side-by-side, shooting at 1080p resolution and 60fps, when possible (some cameras can do only 30fps). We also shoot 4K videos from the cameras that support that resolution. We take the cameras biking, canoeing and running (among others), and see how they hold up in the elements.
What to Look for When Buying an Action Cam
Your choice of camera depends mostly on the kind of activities you want to shoot. Love the water? Most action cameras are waterproof, but some can only survive just a few feet underwater, which is fine for surfing or boating, while others can withstand depths of up to 160 feet meters, which is makes those much better for SCUBA divers.
Size and heft matter, especially if you will be mounting the camera on helmet. Weights vary from 2.6 to more than five ounces. Another feature you want to consider is mounting options. The most versatile action cams, such as those from GoPro, will have accessory mounts for just about any situation, from surfing to skiing.
Image quality, especially in daylight, is the most important consideration. However, ease of use is also critical, as confusing controls can cause you to miss that killer clip or shoot it on the wrong settings. Some cameras can even be paired with a smartphone for wireless shooting and image sharing.
Three Action Cam Features that Make the Most of Motion
As the name implies, action cams are generally used by those who are active and engaged in activities that depict a lot of motion, like skiing and sky-diving. It’s why no matter what type of action cam you use, you’ll want to make the most of motion when shooting. Here are three action-cam features that make the most of your movements:
Burst Mode: Most digital-imaging devices, from high-end stand-alone cameras to smartphones, include the ability to fire off lots of photos in a row. Action cams do this as well, but often present it from a great point-of-view vantage point. So, when you’re hitting a baseball, it can be a great way to feel like you’re taking part in the game. Newer models, like the GoPro6, use voice command features and let you activate the feature by saying “GoPro, shoot burst.”
Time-lapse: Action cams have had the ability to create time-lapse movies for some time now, which are created by taking one photo a second or slower, such as one photo every ten seconds. The results, when played back in normal speed (generally 30 fps), speed up the movement of time.
Slow-Motion Video: This feature works in the opposite way that time-lapse does. In other words, if you speed up the frames per second to 120 or 240 fps, when you play it back in regular speed, motion slows down.
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