We list the best action cameras you can buy for capturing all of life's greatest adventures.
Action cameras can go where your average camera or smartphone wouldn't even dream. Thanks to ruggedised and waterproof designs they can endure the rigours and extremes of any adventures. That could be hanging 100ft in the air as you abseil down a sheer cliff or while having a splash kayaking through whitewater rapids.
But even for more mundane activities action cameras can prove their worth, getting video and still images from unique perspectives thanks to their small size and mounting abilities. A good action camera can prove to be your best travelling companion.
One name that’s become synonymous with action cameras is GoPro – so much so that the company name almost risks becoming a generic term, with any and all action cameras being referred to as ‘GoPros’.
But GoPro has become incredibly popular for a reason, and its newest Hero 5 action cameras in particular are fantastic. But that doesn’t mean other cameras aren’t worth considering, as you’ll see from our list of the very best.
Make sure to read the full reviews to find out more about each model, as well as to check out test video and still images, and check back regularly as we update this list with new models that deserve a place in our list.
Hit the ‘Next’ arrow or use the dropdown menu above to view the list, or carry on reading below for more advice on what to look for in your next action camera.
Resolution and frame rates are a big area that separates different action cameras. More expensive action cameras will be able to shoot in 4K resolution, typically at up to 25fps, which might be overkill. Almost all action cameras will be able to shoot 1080p at 30fps at a minimum. Essentially, a higher frame rate, measured in frames per second (fps), means smoother footage.
Particularly high frame rates such as 120fps or 240fps will also give you more frames to work with if you want to slow the footage down for silky slow-motion footage. Not only can this look more dramatic but it’s also great if you want to use an action camera for critiquing technique such as a golf swing. You might have to drop the recording resolution in order to use higher frame rates, however.
Don’t get too bogged down in the megapixel rating of an action camera’s sensor for still image capture unless you plan on printing massive poster-size prints. A high-megapixel sensor doesn't equate to stellar image capture. Things like the physical size of the sensor and the lens used will have far bigger impact on the actual quality and low-light performance, an area that even traditional cameras struggle with.
All action cameras are waterproof, but if you’re a keen scuba diver, you’ll want to check what depths they’re safe to go down to. This can be anywhere from 30m to 100m.
Most action camera models will also require you to put the camera in a dedicated waterproof housing, which adds some size and bulk and can negatively impact the microphone’s ability to capture sound, but does mean your expensive camera won’t go to an early watery grave.
Some cameras, such as the new GoPro Hero 5 Session, are waterproof without the need for any form of external housing. This is great for keeping the size and weight down, and for less muffled sound recording, but it can only go underwater to 10m in depth. Any deeper and you'll need to throw it inside a case.
The strength of action cameras is the ability to capture your adventures from interesting perspectives. Action cameras often come with adhesive mounts in the box, perfect for sticking to a dashboard or helmet to get you started.
You'll probably want to look at optional accessories to make things more interesting. A wide range of accessories are also available such as chest mounts and head mounts, which let you capture first person perspective viewpoints. Then there are other accessories such as floating hand grips, ‘selfie sticks’ or clamps, and even mounts for your pets.
Be sure to check what kind of mounting point is used by your action camera of choice. There’s the typical ‘GoPro-style’ mount or alternatively some action cameras use standard tripod threads, such as many of Sony’s action cameras. If your action camera uses the latter, fret not, adaptors are available, which might be a worthwhile idea as this will open up your accessory options.
Related: Best GoPro mounts and accessories
The sound that accompanies your video can be an important element that can easily be overlooked. A good action camera will not only have sensitive microphones but also some wind reduction, which is especially useful for any outdoor activities if you don’t want the audio ruined by wind.
Some action cameras will also let you connect an external microphone if the audio is particularly important for your recordings. This will typically either be through a standard 3.5mm jack or through an adaptor although the latter might be an optional accessory.
Most action cameras will come with free downloadable software to help you edit together your footage. You can always consider a raft of free smartphone and tablet apps, such as GoPro's Quik, which can automatically edit together footage for you complete with transitions and music. Another app called Magisto takes a similar approach for those of us who are short on time or editing ability.
Not all action cameras will have a built-in display for framing your shots or changing settings. While these are always useful, they’re not completely essential as action cameras will have a companion app.
These apps pair with the camera over a Wi-Fi direction connection and provides a live view of the camera’s sensor on your phone as well as letting you change settings. You can also use a wireless connection to transfer your video and images to share or edit on your smartphone or tablet.
Image stabilisation is important if you want steady footage. Most action cameras use electronic image stabilisation, which crops in the image slightly and analyses the pixels to account for image shake. This does a relatively good job at the expense of some resolution but often isn’t available at 4K due to the computing requirement and lack of pixels.
Sony surprised everyone with its FDR-X3000 Action Cam, which uses optical image stabilisation. This is a superior method to EIS and sees the camera use a floating-lens unit that moves in order to counteract your hand movements and any camera shake. This was a first time OIS was used in an action camera having been used in camcorders and smartphones in the past.
Some of the more advanced action cameras will include extras like a GPS receiver. If you’re involved in outdoor sports such as cycling or skiing, this can be great for adding an extra layer of information to your videos through captured telemetry data. Action cameras such as the GoPro Hero 5 Black and Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 can track data such as your route, speed and elevation.
More action cameras are also appearing with voice controls, allowing you to remotely trigger recording or snap a photo without fiddling with the camera or your smartphone. This is great if you have your action camera mounted out of the way or your hands are tied.