Best Action Cameras of 2020
An action camera is a must-have device for capturing your most treasured, action-packed moments. Our shopping guide is here to help you find the best action camera to record your next adventurous outing.
Action Cameras: Time to Get in on the Fun
Adrenalin junkies and extreme sports devotees have long known that the thrill of catching a gnarly wave, jumping out of a plane, or kayaking through rapids is best recorded, so those epic moments can be savored and shared.
A bulky camcorder simply wouldn't do. The recording device of choice had to be lightweight, rugged, weatherproof, and extremely compact—the smaller the better. It also had to be able to mount to just about anything, from helmets and handlebars to surfboards and skis.
Thus, the action camera was born—a shrunken camcorder that fits in the palm of your hand. Or on the top of your head.
Today's action cams are no longer aimed strictly at thrill-seekers. They're so user-friendly and fun that they've become a must-have gadget for documenting exotic travel, capturing the intensity of fast-action sporting events, or recording awe-inspiring hiking trips and festive family outings. The high-definition mini movies you can now produce with little effort are certain to entertain and delight for years to come.
Most action cameras are built tough and are either waterproof or come with a waterproof case, allowing for dazzling diving and snorkeling videos. Many are equipped with sophisticated image stabilization systems that smooth out the bumpiest of rides. The latest generation of the devices adds touchscreens and hands-free voice control. It couldn't get much easier!
Another incentive: As more companies enter the multibillion-dollar global market, prices have dropped. A top-quality action cam capable of shooting high-speed action sequences in 4K UHD can now be purchased for much less than a new smartphone.
Of course, with all the choices available today, picking one can get a bit dizzying. Read on to find out how to make the right choice for you.
GoPro Makes the Best Action Cameras
When shopping for your first action cam, you may want to start with GoPro. That company built the market for them, and it remains the gold standard. Even though there are now plenty of business rivals, GoPro's HERO line remains the state-of-the-art in terms of performance and quality.
That said, GoPro action cams tend to be more expensive, and with the competition racing to catch up, top features and stunning video quality can be found elsewhere for less. Major reputable companies offering action cams today include Sony, Toshiba, Polaroid, Garmin, YI, and Olympus.
Prices range from around $700 for professional-grade cameras to under $100 for bare-bones models. Split the difference, and you'll walk away with an excellent, versatile device.
Action Cam Features
Before making a purchase, it's important to know what action cams have in common.
All action cameras are ultracompact, lightweight (usually under five ounces), and have an especially durable housing designed to protect them from shock and the elements. That makes them a far better choice for shooting action videos than your general-purpose smartphone. Some action cams look like tiny boxes; others are cylindrical.
Today's action cameras feature a fixed wide-angle lens that boasts a field of view from 140 to 170 degrees, allowing for more of the action to be captured than with a traditional camcorder or phone. They run on batteries that can be recharged with a USB cord and can shoot high-definition video for up to three hours.
Almost all modern action cameras have built-in mounting access for tripods and other accessories. Some come with handy suction and adhesive mounts, but if yours does not, no worries: A wide array of mounts to suit your needs is available online.
Now it's time to think about what you'll be using your miniature video camera for.
- Are you a daredevil who will be performing a lot of stunts? If so, your action camera needs to be especially rugged and able to shoot in 4K at a high frame rate. A slow-motion option would be useful. Image stabilization is a must.
- Do you plan to shoot under water in the ocean or a backyard pool? To create those videos, a fully waterproof action camera is your best bet. If you're a diver, be sure to check the cam's depth rating before you buy.
- Are you going to be shooting travel or backcountry adventure videos and posting on social media? If that's the case, you'll need an action camera that supports Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
- Will you want to make movies or document concerts, festivals, and other events? Live-streaming capability and time-lapse recording could be useful options.
Image Quality Is Paramount
For all action cam applications, the biggest difference between models will likely be the quality of the footage produced. It should be your top consideration. After all, why bother recording yourself ziplining through a jungle if the video isn't smooth and crystal clear?
Familiarize yourself with the cutting edge in visual clarity—4K—that is becoming standard with new televisions. That's what you also want in your action cam.
Another big factor is the frame rate. That's the number of images your camera can capture per second. The more frames, the smoother the results. Standard playback for film and video is 24 frames per second (fps), but higher rates are available.
Most experts recommend at least 60 fps for producing hiccup-free action and sports videos. If you're planning to shoot a lot of slow-motion sequences, you'll need up to 120 fps to get the most out of your high definition. While a lot of cams shoot in 4K, cheaper models use a frame rate of 15, which makes the video look jumpy. Avoid that disappointment by checking the manufacturer's specifications.
The other key feature you'll want is image stabilization—especially if you're immersing yourself in the action or intend to shoot video while walking. Most quality cams offer this, but again, check to make sure.
Other Important Features
Besides excellent video quality, consider a few other useful features.
Waterproofing: Some action cams are good to take snorkeling and diving with you out of the box, while others include waterproof cases. Warning: "Splashproof" does not mean watertight.
Voice control: OK, this hands-free option is pretty cool. Telling the cam to start shooting while you're in motion is bound to impress.
Wi-Fi/Bluetooth: This built-in connectivity is a must for anyone who wants to share videos quickly and not have to wait to edit a memory card.
Q. Why should I buy an action camera when my smartphone shoots high-definition video?
A. If you're only going to shoot occasional short videos under normal conditions, you can get by with a smartphone. But if you want to shoot in all weather conditions, capture sports and other intense action, or attach a camera to yourself or your equipment, an action camera is a must.
Q. What kind of mounts are available?
A. Action cams can attach to just about anything these days. There are the standard connections to tripods. There are clip-on, suction, and adhesive mounts. Then there are the more exotic helmet mounts: the ones that fit over your ear, the ones that connect to your bike handlebars or axles—even one you can strap on your dog for interesting POV footage.