Most videos posted online are usually recordings of mundane segments of life, uploaded to social media channels such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. When it comes to documenting something more interesting, we don’t usually have our smartphones at hand to capture it – unless you’re incredibly brave, you’re unlikely to have your phone out when running, cycling or scuba diving. The best action cameras change that.
Whether you’re zip-lining under a rainforest canopy in Laos, scaling a mountain in Alaska or simply rolling down the motorway, you’ll need an action camera that’s both tough and versatile enough to be mounted where you need it. Here, we’ll guide you on what to look out for and help you pick the best action camera you can currently buy in the UK.
How to buy the best action cam for you
Sizing and mounting options
Action cameras come in different shapes and sizes, which can affect how they are mounted to helmets, chest mounts or even your windscreen. However, there is a standard that many adhere to, which enables mounts from different manufacturers to be used interchangeably from camera to camera. It makes sense, therefore, if you think you might upgrade eventually, to purchase a camera that uses the most popular two-prong standard, like the one used on GoPro action cameras:
It’s also worth considering whether you might want to use your camera on a tripod – to record timelapse videos of sunsets or sunrises, for instance – because not every camera has a standard 1/4in tripod thread built into the body of the camera. If the camera you’re looking at buying is missing this (like the GoPro Hero8 Black above), bear in mind that it is possible to purchase tripod adapters to attach to the standard two-prong mount.
Water and shock resistance
The main point of an action camera is that you can use it in the great outdoors, which usually means cameras are either water-resistant in some way or completely waterproof. Most cheaper action cameras rely on some form of waterproof case to add waterproofing but this adds bulk and weight to the camera and can prevent the microphone from working very well. Different cases add different levels of waterproofing, too. You usually have to pay extra for a case that’s suitable for scuba diving, for instance, because the water pressure is much higher the deeper you dive.
This could be a reason you’d want to pay more for your action camera. More expensive models from GoPro and DJI build in waterproofing (and shock-resistance), without the need for an external case. Aside from making these cameras smaller and lighter overall, which is exactly what you need when you’re bombing down a mountain on your bike, this means there’s less faff when changing batteries and SD cards.
What resolution do I need?
Most cameras will, these days, offer some kind of 4K recording; it’s not just limited to premium models. Do bear in mind, however, that not all cameras (especially cheap cameras costing less than £100) record native 4K footage and that quality varies hugely.
Many label their cameras as 4K but actually capture at resolutions lower than this and upscale the resulting footage. Pay attention to the specifications and if the sensor resolution isn’t specified, steer clear or choose a 1080p camera instead.
Another specification to look at is the bit-rate: a low bit-rate means the camera is compressing the footage a lot which leads to fine details looking soft or smeary. So what is an acceptable bit-rate? A camera that records 4K in H.264 format should offer the option of recording in a bit-rate of at least 100Mbits/sec. Cameras that record in H.265 format (also called HEVC) can record at lower bit-rates for the same quality because the format is much more efficient.
Finally, you also should be aware that not all 4K cameras can record at high frame rates. If you want your action videos to have that super-smooth look, you’ll want a camera that can record 4K at 50fps or 60fps, although be aware that the higher the frame rate, the bigger the video files that are generated.
Is a slow-motion feature important?
If you’re looking to create an impressive slow-motion video, you might be interested in action cameras that are capable of capturing a high frame rate. Most will allow you to record at around 100fps, while others go up to 240fps although usually at the cost of resolution. These are worth considering if you intend to capture a lot of fast-moving objects or want to do some fancy video editing during your highlight reel.
Are 360 action cameras worth buying?
There are now quite a few 360-degree action cameras on the market and some of these are quite good. They generally output video that’s lower in resolution than regular action cameras but have the advantage that you don’t need to remember where to point them.
With 360-degree cameras, you have two choices as to how to use your footage. You can choose to upload 360 video, where users can pan around in and pick their viewpoint. Or you can edit the video yourself first, choosing where the “camera” points in an editing app or desktop software, and output normal video for people to watch instead.
What about still images?
Action cameras aren’t just for video, they can capture still images, too. Bear in mind, though, that quality tends to lag some way most smartphone when it comes to simple snapshots. What action cameras are far better at is capturing a number of different shots and putting them together to deliver a speeded up timelapse video. Timelapses are great for capturing dramatic scene-setting clips of clouds rushing over the horizon, or sunsets and sunrises.
Timelapses are not to be confused with hyperlapse videos, which are captured using video instead of still images. This technique slightly reduces the quality of the resulting footage but allows you to add electronic stabilisation, smoothing out handheld shots, and also means you can interact with videos on the fly. The latest GoPro cameras, for instance, allow you to slow clips down to normal speed while recording and then speed them up with a simple tap of the touchscreen.
What battery life should I look out for?
Battery life isn’t typically all that long even among the very best action cameras with most providing only an hour or two of recording before needing a recharge. That means you should think carefully before choosing a camera that doesn’t have a removable battery or where spares aren’t readily available, and budget extra for a second battery if you’re going to need to record longer clips.
It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that many action cameras can be charged on the fly using an external power bank so you may be able to charge your action camera while you’re out and about. Here’s our selection of the best power packs.
Remember also that the temperature can also affect battery life, particularly extreme cold. Low temperatures can greatly reduce your battery life and if you plan on visiting the Arctic, you might want to consider extra batteries or an appropriate case for your action camera.
What other settings can I expect to find?
Some action cameras have touchscreen displays, which allow you to quickly change settings from max resolution and frame rate to adjusting the automatic power-off time. Others will feature a means of tweaking the settings on the camera or through an app on your smartphone when connected to Wi-Fi.
Below, we’ve picked some of the best action cameras you can currently buy in the UK.
Best action cameras 2020
1. Apeman Trawo: The best budget action camera
Price: £104 | Buy now from Amazon
The Apeman Trawo is an affordable, feature-packed action camera. It’ll record up to 4K at 30fps (with EIS), 1440p and 1080p at 60fps and 720p at 120fps; is waterproof up to 40m with its bundled case; has a 2in display and takes fantastic 20-megapixel photos. It also has built-in Wi-Fi allowing you to connect and control the camera via a smartphone app.
To top it off, you get a comprehensive set of accessories in the box, including an additional 1,350mAh lithium battery and a set of mounts, too. As for performance, it’s excellent for the price: both audio and recording quality are impressive and still image capture is good, too.
Specs – Sensor: Panasonic MN34120; Sensor pixels: 20 megapixels; Max recording resolution: 4K (30fps); AV connections: micro-HDMI; Size (HWD): 45 x 24 x 61mm; Weight: 76g; Warranty: One-year RTB
2. GoPro Hero 8 Black: The king of action cameras
Price: £379 | Buy now from Amazon
GoPro might be the biggest name in action cameras but it never seems to rest on its laurels when it comes to its annual hardware update. The GoPro Hero 8 Black is a prime example of this and it has a huge raft of improvements up its sleeves.
First up is a new mounting system that sees an end to the awkward clip-on cage of old. Just fold out a pair of legs from the bottom of the camera and you can attach it to any existing GoPro mount.
Audio-recording has been improved, with a new microphone and lens design that reduces wind turbulence at high speeds. There are also upgrades to the camera’s stabilisation system, its software and overall video quality, plus GoPro’s Media Mod accessory adds superior microphone quality and cold-shoe attachments for those interested in using the camera as a tool for vlogging.
With video recording up to 4K at 60fps, now fully stabilised, the GoPro Hero 8 is the undisputed king of action cameras. For capturing your outdoor activities there is no better camera.
Read our full GoPro Hero 8 Black review for full details
Specs – Sensor: 1/2.3in CMOS; Sensor pixels: 12 megapixels; Max recording resolution: 4K (60fps); Size (WDH): 66.3 x 28.4 x 48.6mm; Weight: 122g; Warranty: One-year RTB
3. GoPro Max: The easiest to use 360 action camera
Price: £480 | Buy now from Amazon
We’ve tested 360-degree cameras before but never been very impressed with either their quality or ease of use. The GoPro Max changes all that. Not only is the video quality very good but the GoPro Max stitches together footage from its twin-fisheye lenses in-camera, which makes it child’s play to edit and process the resulting 360 footage.
Simply record your footage, transfer it to your phone or tablet and you can either upload to YouTube as an interactive 5.6k, 30fps 360 video that viewers can pan around themselves, or process it using GoPro’s amazingly simple “reframe” editing tool. This lets you take any angle from your 360 video, turn it into regular 1080p video and cut between them; it’s like having multiple cameras in one tiny package.
Alternatively, you can use the GoPro Max as a regular action camera, using either one of its two back-to-back lenses. In this mode, the camera’s amazing Max HyperSmooth stabilisation and in-camera horizon levelling comes into play, keeping footage incredibly smooth, stable and dead-level even if the camera itself is upside down.
With top-quality audio from six onboard microphones and a built-in touch screen, the GoPro Max is an incredibly flexible camera. For outright quality we’d still recommend the GoPro Hero 8 Black, but the Max offers so much more.
Specs – Sensor pixels: 18 megapixels; Max recording resolution: 5.6K (30fps) 360-degree video; Size (WDH): 64 x 24 x 69mm; Weight: 163g; Warranty: One-year RTB
4. GoPro Hero 7 Black: Still good and cheaper, too
Price: £259 | Buy now from Amazon
The Hero 7 Black might not be the best GoPro any more, but it is still superb and, now the Hero 8 Black is out, it’s now considerably cheaper than it was. It’s able to record up to 4K 60fps with smooth gimbal-like HyperSmooth stabilisation, it’s fully waterproof, captures HDR photos and has great audio quality. It’s a brilliant action camera, and the best value GoPro money can buy.
Read our full GoPro Hero 7 Black review for details
Specs – Sensor: 1/2.3in CMOS; Sensor pixels: 12 megapixels; Max recording resolution: 4K (60fps); AV connections: Micro-HDMI output; Size (HWD): 44.9 x 62.3 x 33mm; Weight: 117g; Warranty: One-year RTB
5. Insta360 One R: A 4K and 360-degree action cam in one
Price: Twin pack – £440 | Buy now from Amazon
The Insta360 One R is an action camera like no other. It’s modular, meaning that you can shoot crisp 4K footage on it at up to 60fps one day, then the next capture stunning 360-degree footage with the 360 mod. Image quality isn’t quite up to the best standalone cameras that GoPro offers but it’s close, the price is very competitive considering you get two for one, and there’s also a pro camera mod which has a large 1in sensor available as an upgrade.
The cameras also have some interesting features and our favourite is the tracking mode. In 360-degree footage this lets you select a person or a pet on the screen of your phone and have the virtual camera follow that subject around the scene without having to fiddle around moving the view manually.
In summary, the One R offers something unique and although neither of the camera mods supplied in this twin pack is quite as good as the GoPro equivalent, there’s nothing else that gives you both types of action camera in one for this price.
Read our full Insta360 One R review for details
Specs – Sensor: 1/2.3in (4K build), 2 x 1/2.3in (360 build); Max recording resolution: [email protected] or [email protected] (360 build); AV connections: USB-C; Size (WDH): 72 x 32 x 48mm (4K build) or 72 x 43 x 48mm (360 build); Weight: 128g (4K build) or 131g (360 build); Warranty: One-year RTB
6. DJI Osmo Action: Excellent 4K footage and stabilisation
Price: £329 | Buy now from Amazon
The DJI Osmo Action is a more conventional-looking action camera than the firm’s ingenious Osmo Pocket and a direct rival to the GoPro Hero range. It records up to 4K at 60fps, is waterproof to 11m without a case and has dual colour LCD touch displays, with a 1.4in screen at the front and a 2.25in screen at the back. Having the front screen is great for selfies and vloggers and makes it easy to keep your face in-frame.
As for performance, both stills and videos look stupendously good on the Osmo Action, and its image stabilisation is seriously impressive. Like the Hero 8 Black, you can use it on all modes, right up to 4K at 60fps. At a price of around £315 it’s now a little more expensive than the GoPro Hero 7 Black but a strong contender nonetheless.
Read our full DJI Osmo Action review for details
Specs – Sensor: 1/2.3in Sony IMX377; Sensor pixels: 9 megapixels; Max recording resolution: 4K (60fps); AV connections: USB Type-C output; Size (HWD): 42 x 65 x 35mm; Weight: 124g; Warranty: One-year RTB
7. DJI Osmo Pocket: 3-axis stabilisation
Price: £329 | Buy now from Amazon
The DJI Osmo Pocket is a teensy tiny action camera that sits on top of a small, lightweight 3-axis motorised gimbal – it’s certainly got a different look about it and differs in the way it stabilises video, too. That integrated gimbal provides rock-steady stabilisation that’s much smoother the best electronic and optical image stabilisation systems on other cameras.
As for the performance, it shoots up to 4K video at 60fps and adapts extraordinary well under low-light conditions; auto exposure works a treat. The only downside is that it’s not waterproof unless you pop it in a case and the mechanism is a little delicate so you’ll have to be careful with it.
Read our full DJI Osmo Pocket review for details
Specs – Sensor: 1/2.3in CMOS; Sensor pixels: 12 megapixels; Max recording resolution: 4K (60fps); AV connections: USB Type-C output; Size (HWD): 95 x 27 x 27mm (total); Weight: 117g; Warranty: One-year RTB