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17 Mar 2022

Watch: Shoddy action camera testing footage leaves us reaching for the sick bag

Image stabilisation comparison

Action cameras should deliver crisp, clear and stable footage that's guaranteed to make viewers ooh, aah and go green with envy. Pick the wrong action camera and they'll go green with nausea instead.

Our tests pitted cheap action cameras against premium ones from the likes of GoPro, Insta360 and DJI to find out how much you really need to spend to get the essential features and specs you need to record the best footage.

Watch our video above to see why good image stabilisation is a must-have for anybody looking to buy an action camera, and how stark the difference in quality is when action cameras either don't have it or do a poor job of it.

If you get dizzy easily, brace yourself!

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Skydiving with an action camera

Why does an action camera need image stabilisation?

Action cameras are intended to be mounted onto a person or object for filming high speed, high intensity activities. They're the go-to camera for filming action sports, especially from the point of view of those taking part.

With these sorts of activities come lots of shakes, bumps and wobbles. Action cameras with image stabilisation work to counteract the shakes by capturing a slightly larger image than you'll see on the camera. They use that extra space to buffer the shaky footage and smooth it out, frame by frame.

This results in video that looks as though the camera is gliding elegantly through the air, when it's actually bouncing around with every bump.

With poor or non-existent image stabilisation, you'll likely find recording a ride on your mountain bike will give you unwatchable footage.

Even when the footage is paused, as it is in the image above, the contrast in quality is obvious. The constant bouncing around from the camera on the right also adds plenty of motion blur, so individual leaves and twigs on the ground lack definition and look smudged.

Action cameras we tested that have image stabilisation include The GoPro Hero 10 (£479.99), Hero 9 (£329), and Hero 8 (£279.99), the Insta360 One R 4K Edition (£269), and the DJI Osmo Action (£299). We found two outstanding Best Buys that we described as 'the best action cameras money can buy'.

But having image stabilisation alone isn't everything. Our tests found that even among action cameras with image stabilisation, some are much better at it than others. Some still gave us wobbly, unusable footage that left us feeling a bit dizzy.

Read our action camera reviews for the complete picture of how each fared in our tests.
Close up of a GoPro action camera

Four more action camera must-haves

  1. Weather and waterproofing - Most action cameras come with a certain level of shockproofing, waterproofing or dustproofing, and all are essential if you're planning on taking your action camera into tough environments. With waterproofing, make sure to also check how deep the camera can go. Most are unlikely to cope at depths lower than 10 metres, so if you're a scuba diver your options will be limited.
  2. Decent resolution at high frame rates - If slow motion footage is important to you, you'll need an action camera with a higher frame rate. But you also need to make sure your action camera still provides good image resolution at high frame rates. Almost all action cameras sacrifice image resolution at higher frame rates, so check the tech specs of your chosen action camera carefully before buying. The GoPro Hero 10 that we tested, for example, can record at 4K at 120fps, whereas the DJI Osmo Action can only record at 60fps in 4K.
  3. Universal mounting system - Almost all action cameras usually come with at least one mount, but you can usually only fix that mount to one spot, such as a bike's handlebars. If you're going to want to mount your action camera in more than one spot, it'll be worth your while investing in a universal mount, as you'll then be able to mount your camera on multiple objects rather than buying five separate mounts.
  4. Spare batteries - Depending on how demanding your recording settings are, even the most expensive action cameras can record for as little as two hours. Be sure to check whether spare batteries come with your action camera, or if spares can easily be bought. You'll want fully-charged spares to hand if you're going on lengthy adventures.
Still weighing up which type of camera is right for you? See our advice on which type of digital camera you should choose.
Eight action cameras on test

How we tested action cameras

We bought and tested eight of the UK's bestselling action cameras and shot a wide variety of footage for our in-house video expert to independently review.

Each camera was tested using similar settings and each bit of footage was shot under the same conditions to ensure fair comparisons. The footage included being mounted to a runner's head during a jog, on top of the helmet of an electric scooter rider, recording underwater, and self-shooting using a selfie stick.

We also judged each action camera on ease of use and durability. Every camera we tested was frozen, submerged underwater and dropped several times on hard concrete to see how well it stood up to extreme conditions.

Overall our tests discovered that, although you don't necessarily need to buy the newest or most expensive action cameras to get what you need, you'll likely need to pay at least a couple of hundred pounds for it to be a worthwhile purchase.

Several of the very cheapest action cameras we tested fell wide of the mark in key areas, and will likely be unable to handle the exact sort of activities that people buy action cameras for.

Looking for more outdoor tech to get stuck into? Check out our electric bike reviews.