Need a small compact camera to capture any moment? Try these action cameras on for size.
You should probably own an action camera. Along with a few other pieces of kit like a tape measure, a pair of leather gloves, and lens cleaner, an action camera is just something most creators should have in their bag.
Obviously, if you are doing sport-focused work, the ability to strap one on your subject, or run with it at the end of a monopod, is going to be useful. But even in traditional documentary and narrative work you see more and more action camera spots sneaking their way in. Have a character diving into a pool? Shoot the dive from the outside with your cinema camera, and rig up an action camera under the water to get another angle, just in case you need it.
Most are not going to record quality audio, but they are useful in a lot of different situations as a backup, crash cam, or even your A-camera.
After years of domination by a single manufacturer, the last few years have seen some real competition in image quality and feature set open up in the action camera space. Let's see who is at the top.
Best Overall: GoPro HERO9 Black
For a few years there, it felt like GoPro lost a bit of direction. They tried and failed to break into the drone market. Their model updates didn't feel worth investing in, and it became harder to jump into the latest version.
That all changed with the GoPro HERO9 Black, which feels like a return to leadership from GoPro.
The biggest change with the HERO9 is the addition of that front-facing screen, which we first saw in the DJI Osmo. While the front-facing screen got most of its attention as a selfie screen, for creators it means something different as it allows us to rig the camera in different ways and easily check the shot.
That front-facing camera isn't the only improvement. The HERO9 delivers 5K video that allows you to pull 14-megapixel stills. Even more useful is that the mount for the lens cover also works as a mount for ND filters or lens adapters. These aren't true interchangeable lenses (the built-in lens remains, but adapters in front can change the field of view), but it's a nice touch.
GoPro also updated their Media Mod for the HERO9. The Media Mod adds a better external microphone, HDMI output, and cold shoe mounts for mounting accessories.
GoPro has also added a new Scheduled Capture feature for presetting the time for a timelapse. If you are doing any sort of event work, the ability to do a timelapse of the event is a wonderful thing. With Scheduled Capture, you can set up the GoPro when you arrive at the event and tell it when to start the timelapse, then forget about it while you do the rest of your setup. This saves either wasted footage and battery shooting a timelapse of parts of the event you won't use or having to remember to run to your HERO9 right before the event starts.
GoPro has also revised its famous HyperSmooth internal stabilization algorithm to HyperSmooth 3, and it's truly impressive. Moving shots feel just astoundingly smooth even when handheld or rigged onto moving objects, and its ability to keep the horizon is truly impressive.
In addition to all that, GoPro has worked on battery life with a special focus on extreme condition battery life. Batteries are notoriously short-lived when working in the cold, which is something GoPro has taken seriously with this revision. GoPro claims, and users are experiencing, longer battery life in the cold. This is obviously good for the skier and snowboarder market, but it's also good for filmmakers working in temperature extremes.
Table of Contents
- Best Overall: GoPro HERO9 Black
- How We Picked
- Best Alternative: Insta360 One R (1" Edition)
- Best Budget: DJI Pocket 2
- Final Thoughts
How We Picked
We've been sure to have some sort of action camera on hand for our productions since the GoPro Hero 2. In addition to our own personal use, we evaluated reviews from both professionals and real-world users, compared footage and specs, and evaluated the entire ecosystem around a specific camera to get to our final results.
Best Alternative: Insta360 One R (1" Edition)
The Insta360 One R is a great action camera in many different ways and it comes in several models. The Insta360 One R 1-Inch Edition is the standout.
Insta360 joined forces with Leica to level-up the action cam. A premium 1-Inch sensor, legendary Leica optical design, and stunning dynamic range—all in a rugged, compact body. It can record up to 5.3K at 60fps or 4K at 60fps. It also has the ability to capture 19MP still images.
Having a massive 1" sensor in an action camera gives you better low-light imagery and also just more pleasing everyday images. Combining that with all the other features we love about action cameras, like FlowState stabilization and a small and durable form factor, and you have a really fascinating unit. But even cooler are some of the options you get into with the lens swaps. There is a default lens that is somewhat action cam like, and there's also a 360° lens.
The waterproof design resists water up to 5m (16.4ft), so there's no need for a cage if staying near the surface. Other cool features include timelapse, hyperlapse, HDR photos, and Night Shot. On top of that, it can be controlled by your voice.
Best Budget: DJI Pocket 2
Pocket-sized and extremely portable, the DJI Pocket 2 is a tiny camera that lets you single-handedly record memorable moments. Equipped to stabilize movement and take sharp photos and smooth videos, Pocket 2 gives you the freedom to create magic at hand.
The Pocket 2 features an upgraded sensor capable of recording 4K UHD video up to 60fps at 100Mbps via a 20mm F1.8 lens. The lens is mounted on a 3-axis gimbal to help keep footage smooth. Additionally, Pocket 2 offers an 8x zoom option in 64MP mode or a 4x lossless zoom in 1080p or 16 mode.
Autofocus has been revamped to use DJI's Hybrid 2.0 AF, which is said to lock onto subjects faster with higher accuracy. HDR video will also be added to Pocket 2 at a later date. For the photogs out there, stills can be captured in 16MP or 64MP flavors.
While it is compact and lightweight, the Pocket 2 doesn't skimp out on audio quality. DJI incorporated four microphones in the device for better sound, as well as some new features. Directional Audio will allow you to pick up sound from specific microphones, SoundTrack will adjust the audio based on where the camera is facing, and Audio Zoom will narrow the sound field as you zoom in. DJI also added a wind noise reduction option.
GoPro had a few years out in the wilderness. While other camera makers moved into space, their year on year upgrades didn't justify the expense. With the HERO9, they are truly back in the game offering an action camera that will easily intercut its footage on a wide variety of productions.
Add on top of that the accessories and mods, and you have a clear choice for the camera that is going to get the most use if you add it to your filmmaking package. However, if you need something that is just as good, the DJI OM4 is worth considering.