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The best action cameras for 2021

The best action cameras don’t just stand on the sidelines — they become part of the action themselves, no matter how wet, dusty, or bumpy that action is. The best action camera is the GoPro Hero8 Black. The company that started the action cam craze has returned with another winner, and keeps pushing the limits of what’s possible with electronic image stabilization and other features.

GoPro is far from the only name in the action camera game, however. Rival DJI entered the fray last year with the excellent Osmo Action, while budget options undercut GoPro by a fair margin if you’re just looking for a quality camera on the cheap. There’s now even an action camera that converts into a 360 camera. Here are our picks for the best action cameras you can buy in 2021.

Best action camera overall: GoPro Hero8 Black

Why you should buy this: Its super-smooth electronic image stabilization makes for a great user experience.

Who it’s for: Extreme athletes and vloggers.

Why we picked the GoPro Hero8 Black:

When it comes to action cameras, GoPro is a household name. It’s the brand that started it all and it continues to lead the way. The Hero8 Black is the first physical redesign since the Hero5 Black, incorporating a built-in mount that lets you forego a frame or case. This makes it faster and easier to set up, while also allowing you to swap batteries and memory cards while the camera is mounted to something. The camera is also thinner overall, making it more pocketable.

GoPro also turned up it’s impressive HyperSmooth stabilization to 2.0 in the Hero8, offering gimbal-like steadiness that smooths out the roughest trail runs or mountain bike rides. It’s beyond impressive, and probably the number one reason to buy the Hero8 over other action cameras. It’s far from the only new feature, however. TimeWarp 2.0 offers new ways to create incredibly polished hyper-lapse videos, automatically choosing the time-lapse speed based on camera movement and allowing you to slow down to real time at any point. New microphones and audio processing algorithms make voices easier to hear, even in windy and noisy conditions, and improvements to the interface make the camera even friendlier to use.

GoPro also rolled out a new line of accessories for the Hero8 called mods. The current mods let you add an LED light, mini shotgun microphone, and even a flip-up selfie screen. For the vlogger, there’s never been a better action camera than the Hero8 Black.

GoPro also continues to update its mobile app, which is simply the best in the business. The QwikStories feature, previously its own app, is now built-in and lets you combine GoPro footage with photos and videos stored on your phone into fun, automatically edited clips that can be shared on social media.

Of course, not everyone will need the latest and greatest and you can still pick up the Hero7 Black brand new, now at a reduced cost. To see how it stacks up, see our GoPro Hero8 Black versus Hero7 Black comparison.

Read our Hero8 Black review.

Most versatile action camera: Insta360 One R

Why you should buy this: This modular camera is both a standard action cam and 360 camera in one — there’s even an option with a larger sensor.

Who it’s for: Adventurers that can’t decide between a traditional action cam and 360

Why we picked the Insta360 One R:

The Insta360 One R is unlike any other action camera on the market. A modular camera, the One R allows adventurers to swap out mods to go from a traditional wide-angle action camera to a 360 camera or even an advanced action camera with a large, 1-inch-type sensor. Think of it like the mirrorless camera of the action camera category, only instead of swapping lenses, you swap mods. Despite having multiple parts that plug together, the One R is still small and waterproof to 16 feet.

Besides the versatility of those mods, the camera integrates Insta360’s excellent image stabilization. Using the 360 mod, stabilization is nearly perfect as it can reframe the image infinitely without cropping away pixels. Stabilization with the wide-angle lens mod isn’t quite as spectacular, but compares well with the other action cameras on the market.

The list of features for the Insta360 One R is long — there’s also tracking, invisible selfie stick mode, hyper lapses, time-lapses, and much more. Image quality is what we’d expect from an action camera on the wide-angle and 360 mods, and we’re getting ready to try out the 1-inch Leica mod next. Sensor size plays a huge role in image quality, so the Leica mod may give the One R a leg up over GoPro.

While an excellent action camera for video, it’s not ideal for still photos since there’s a slight delay that makes it difficult to time the shots just right. Some of the controls can also be a bit finicky. But, for the versatility, the Insta360 One R is unmatched — and the price isn’t too bad either.

Read our Insta360 One R Twin Edition review

Best action camera alternative to GoPro: DJI Osmo Action

DJI Osmo Action Review
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Screw-on filters, front-facing screen, good stabilization.

Who it’s for: Adventurers and filmmakers who need easy filters and a good screen.

Why we picked the DJI Osmo Action:

Pick up an Osmo Action and the first thing you’ll notice is that it has two LCD screens, one on the back and one on the front. It’s a clever twist on the tried-and-true action camera recipe that allows you to easily frame selfie shots — a nice touch for vlogging — or preview your shot when the camera is mounted in such a way as to make the rear screen inaccessible. It also has the best rear screen of any action camera we’ve tested, with a true 16:9 aspect ratio and better resolution than GoPro.

DJI’s other innovative feature with the Osmo Action is support for screw-on lens filters. If you need to add a diving filter, polarizer, or neutral density, simply unscrew the default protective glass and replace it with a filter. It’s a standard thread size which means filters are available from many manufacturers and aren’t difficult to find.

The DJI Osmo Action also has impressive electronic stabilization, at least at the level of the Hero7 Black, but we’d put it below that of the Hero8 Black. Its interface is a near copy of GoPro’s, which means it’s easy to use, but it does lack some features. It’s also waterproof without a case, can shoot 4K/60p video, and is otherwise everything you’d expect from a flagship action camera — all for less money than the Hero8 Black. Where DJI falls behind GoPro is with its mobile app, which simply lacks the features and ease of use of GoPro’s, but hopefully, this will evolve into something more full-featured over time.

Read our DJI Osmo Action review.

Best action camera for travel: Olympus Tough TG-6

Olympus Tough TG-5 Review
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: It is a sporty camera with optical zoom and larger sensor.

Who it’s for: Those who don’t mind a larger camera in exchange for better optics and larger sensor.

Why we picked the Tough TG-6:

Yes, we admit this is a stretch: The Olympus Tough TG-6 is technically a rugged point-and-shoot camera, and while it is compact enough to fit in your pocket, it’s bigger than your typical action cam. So why buy it? The TG-6 has some notable action cam attributes, but in a body that operates like a still camera, making it perfect for adventurers who want a camera with capabilities that go beyond capturing POV footage.

Like an action camera, the TG-6 is built to withstand the elements (and without a case, no less), so you can drop it in the snow, sand, or water without worry. It also has a larger sensor, a 4X optical zoom lens, and sensor-shift image stabilization. For action sequences, it can shoot bursts up to 20 fps.

Finally, the TG-6 lens also has a microscope mode for capturing things incredibly up-close, something no action camera can do. It shoots RAW photos and 4K video, uses GPS to record your location data, and leverages Wi-Fi to let you share online.

The Olympus Tough TG-6 is a minor update to the popular Tough TG-5, with new lens coating and… not much else. The design and features are otherwise identical, but the TG-5 was so far ahead of its time that the TG-6 is still one of the best point-and-shoots you can buy. Our TG-5 review below will let you know what to expect from the TG-6, too.

Read our Olympus Tough TG-5 review.

Best cheap action camera: GoPro Hero7 Black

Hero7 Black (left) next to Hero8 Black.

Why you should buy this: The best of the previous generation, now for less.

Who it’s for: Anyone who doesn’t need the latest and greatest but still wants a solid camera.

Why we picked the GoPro Hero7 Black:

The Hero7 Black was the flagship of the previous generation, and it remains in GoPro’s lineup today — but now at a reduced cost. This is the camera that introduced HyperSmooth stabilization, and while GoPro improved upon it for the Hero8, it’s still an impressive feature here.

The body is the older style, so you’ll still need a mounting frame to attach the camera to anything, unlike the Hero8 Black with its integrated mount. The good news is that it’s the same design as cameras going back a few generations, so if you’re upgrading from a Hero5 or Hero6, you can use the same frames you already have.

As far as video quality goes, you don’t sacrifice much by choosing the Hero7 over the Hero8. It still shoots 4K at up to 60 frames per second, and you get all the advanced settings within ProTune. The main difference in quality will come down to HyperSmooth stabilization, which isn’t available across every frame rate as it is on the Hero8.

While we love the new lower-profile design of the Hero8 and fun features like TimeWarp 2.0, the truth is that the GoPro Hero7 Black remains more than enough action camera for most people. We don’t hesitate to recommend it.

How we test

To find the best models, in addition to image quality, we factor in criteria such as usability, speed, low-light strength, video performance, durability, form-factor/compactness, and any unique features that help them one-up the competition.

Our selections are based on our long- and short-term testing; experience with earlier models; familiarity with the companies’ technologies; consultation with industry experts, fellow journalists, and users; online forums; lab results (such as DxO); and other third-party reviews. We look across the board – not just our own experiences – to find consensus on what we think are the best-performing cameras you can currently buy. We also look at list pricing to determine if a product is worth the cost, its availability, and is future proof enough to recommend. We may even recommend cameras that aren’t new, provided the features are still best-in-class.

The camera market evolves constantly, with manufacturers often introducing better models with new features. So, you can expect our picks to change, as well. But don’t worry: The models you see here will be with you for some time. If we anticipate that better models are on the horizon, we will state that upfront to help you decide whether you should buy now or wait.

What is an action camera?

An action camera’s main function is to record the user’s perspective using a compact camcorder. Most action cams can shoot video, stills and are typically easy-to-use and durable. As action cameras evolve, we benefit from increasingly advanced features that make one model vary from another along with several budget offerings. 

GoPro is basically the same as action cameras at this point. We all acknowledge that it’s the best option for videotaping extreme sports and entertainment. You’ve probably seen countless GoPro cliff diving videos, but you can use the GoPro for numerous other adventures, including everything from weddings and moviemaking, to name just a few. The GoPro’s condensed size makes it an ideal choice for active situations and extreme conditions where it’s impossible to take a bulky camera or smartphone. A few examples of where you can use your GoPro include riding a snowboard, on an animal, and even floating in outer space. Since we’re on the topic of GoPro, we’d be careless if we didn’t fill you in on all the Black Friday GoPro deals going on so you can benefit from the holiday sales and start your own GoPro adventure.

Action cameras are tiny, including sensors that are much more petite than standard point-and-shoot cameras. Notwithstanding, famous brands like Sony and GoPro still succeeded in creating new models with superb image quality, including 4K video ability.

You’re bound to get excellent results for 4K videos if you’re in a place that has adequate lighting. If you’re looking for the best lighting, we highly advise experimenting with your videos in natural daylight or high-quality artificial lighting. Several high-level action cams use Wi-Fi, making data transfer and video sharing a fast and easy process, more so than ever before.

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