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Although they haven’t been around for that long, the latest incarnations of popular action cameras from a range of brands have taken the world by storm.
As technology has improved, their popularity has soared, and many bloggers, vloggers, content creators and image-making professionals are sure to pack these portable, high-quality devices as an essential part of their gear.
They’re super lightweight, often shoot amazing 4K footage with a high degree of stabilisation and are as durable, resilient and shock-proof as they come.
With many examples on the market, it’s important to do a bit of research. The market leader is clearly GoPro, a name that has become synonymous with the action camera industry, but other manufacturers are catching up and many offer quality set-ups for similar prices that do the same job.
Almost all action cameras shoot in 4K these days, but watch out for the levels of stabilisation if you’re set on taking them out into the wild or using them for action sports – the quality differs in this respect. We found that those with a front-facing camera are highly useful, especially if you’re vlogging, but you can save a bit of money if you’re prepared to forgo that.
We put each of these cameras through their paces in a number of different lighting conditions (typically an area small sensor cameras like action cameras struggle with), weather conditions and filming set-ups. These ranged from more professional shoots to everyday footage recorded on walks and while exercising. We also tested stabilisation levels and general package design – assessing what comes with the camera in terms of mounts, a key area for the usability of these devices.
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The best action cameras for 2021 are:
Best overall – GoPro hero8 black: £259.98, Gopro.com
Best for latest cutting-edge tech – GoPro hero9 black: £329.98, Gopro.com
Best for 360-degree footage – Insta360 one R: £439, Amazon.co.uk
Best for all-out action – Garmin virb ultra 30: £389.99, Garmin.com
Best for budget-conscious buyers – Akaso brave 7 LE action camera: £139.99, Amazon.co.uk
Best for resilience and durability – DJI osmo action: £329, Dji.com
Best for slow-motion footage – Sony RX0 II: £729.60, Proav.co.uk
GoPro hero8 black
4K footage: Yes, at 60fps
We rate the hero 8 black as it offers great camera ability for the price, as well as GoPro’s class-leading capture and stabilisation systems. If you can go without a front-facing screen and a 5K recording mode, which we think most people will, you can get this version for nearly £100 less than the newer hero 9 black model. It still has the same “hyper smooth” technology and can film 4K video up to 60fps.
Buy now £259.98, Gopro.com
GoPro hero9 black
Best: For latest cutting-edge tech
4K footage: Yes, at 60fps; 5K at 50fps available
This latest version of the GoPro hero is perhaps the best camera on offer of its type on the market at the moment. 5K footage is the real selling point, but the addition of a front-facing screen without needing to buy additional extras adds to the camera’s value. GoPro is currently offering deals on a bundle, which includes a magnetic swivel clip, spare battery, a floating hand grip, 32GB SD card and a case.
Buy now £329.98, Gopro.com
Insta 360 one R
Best: For 360-degree footage
4K footage: Yes, at 30fps
This one is a little bit of a different option, offering a fully modular design that allows a 360-degree lens to be plugged into a conventional core action camera. Perhaps our only criticism is that for the full package, it does seem a little expensive when you compare it with the state-of-the-art GoPro, but we really liked the flexibility and versatility of this camera providing 360-degree recording, a nice and easy-to-use touchscreen and generally well-thought-out packaging and design.
Buy now £439.00, Amazon.co.uk
Garmin virb ultra 30
Best: For all-out action
4K footage: Yes, at 30fps
Waterproof: No (40m with case)
Stabilisation: Yes (not in 4K)
A nice large touchscreen and voice-activated operation make this offering from Garmin a good choice for those looking to record action quickly and easily. It doesn’t have stabilisation at 4K, which is a shame, and you do have to purchase the case separately, but in general we found footage from this camera to be excellent and the voice-operated “on/off” more useful than you might expect.
Buy now £389.99, Garmin.com
Akaso brave 7 LE action camera
Best: For budget-conscious buyers
4K Footage: Yes, at 30fps
Waterproof: 1m without case and 30m with included case
We’ve included this as a more of a budget option, but in all honesty, although it’s affordable compared with other options, it’ll be perfect for most people and adequately filmed what we wanted it to in a number of different situations. It can shoot 4K and 20MP stills, we thought its front screen was a really nice added extra for the price. There are downsides – the stabilisation is perhaps not quite what others offer – but in general this is a great package that anyone starting out in the world of action cameras would be wise to consider.
Buy now £139.99, Amazon.co.uk
DJI Osmo action
Best: For resilience and durability
4K Footage: Yes, at 60fps
We’ve come across DJI many times over the years creating excellent drone cameras, but this is the brand’s first action camera and it does not disappoint. A front-facing screen was introduced into this model before GoPro put one on its GoPro 9, which says a lot about DJI’s ambitions to rival the market leader in this respect. Durability is a key factor as well, and we’d recommend this option for those of you who want to take the camera into slightly more extreme conditions. It’s a smart system, and one of the best on this list.
Buy now £329.00, Dji.com
Sony RX0 II
Best: For slow-motion footage
4K Footage: Yes
Sony’s offering provides a 1in sensor and the ability to shoot incredible slow-mo in 1000fps bursts, which is a market leader in this respect. It’s an ultimate premium model – and very expensive – but we’d recommend this as the camera to look at if you’re dedicated to professional shooting and are looking for image quality, especially when it comes to slow-mo and low-light conditions, over anything else. As we said, it’ll set you back, but there are some deals to be had at the moment so it’s definitely worth considering.
Buy now £729.60, Proav.co.uk
The verdict: Action cameras
The standout for us is still the GoPro hero 8 black. Although it is showing its age in some respects (no 5K and no front-facing camera, for example), we found that you still get amazing high-quality, smooth footage and a great overall package for a really good deal – the camera is the second cheapest on our list. If you’re prepared to forgo the very latest model, this is the one we’d go for. If you’re in the market for a professional set-up, and have the budget, we’d recommend Sony’s offering, but if you’re just starting out, the Akaso really impressed us and is a fraction of the price of many other options.
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Looking for more camera inspiration? Read our guide to the best mirrorless models that are compact and user-friendly