Given how far the latest phone cameras have come, it’s definitely possible to film sports with your phone. But if you’re looking to capture more professional-looking footage that can be published online, you’ll definitely want to explore other options.
Now for most of us common folk, buying a $50,000 Sony HDC-4300 camcorder and $25,000 broadcast zoom lens is simply out of the question. But then again, most of us aren’t responsible for broadcasting the next NFL Super Bowl or MLB World Series to millions of viewers.
So where does that leave us?
Thanks to huge developments in camera technology as well as the explosion in amateur filmmaking and vlogging space, we’re actually very spoiled for choice. There are plenty of video cameras at every budget that can be used to record fast-paced sports scenes.
To help you find your perfect sports video camera, I’ll first take you through the various types of cameras to consider and then list my respective favorites. At the end I’ll equip you with some extra buying tips to make sure you get the most out of your new camera.
Types of Video Camera
Video cameras come in all shapes and forms. Here are the most common ones that you’ll want to consider:
Flagship smartphones like the iPhone 11 Pro, Huawei P30 Pro and Google Pixel 4 all compete on camera quality. Their cameras are excellent and you don’t have to worry about bringing along your camera gear.
- Fits in your pocket
- Good image quality and stabilization on high end phones
- Smaller sensors compared to mirrorless/DSLR cameras and camcorders
In its heyday, the camcorder was the camera of choice for recording key family moments and your kids batting in their little league games. With the advent of digital cameras and iPhones, budget camcorders are nowhere near as widespread as they once were. But they still have their strengths: they’re lightweight, easy to use and have extremely high optical zoom capabilities for the price.
- Dead simple to use – turn on and hit the record button
- Great optical zoom, can record from the stands
- Out of fashion
The action camera is synonymous with the GoPro, something which needs no introduction. Tiny, robust and ready to be used with all kinds of accessories, they’re perfectly suited for recording extreme sports like wakeboarding, mountain biking and rock climbing.
- Tiny and robust
- Endless accessories
- Small sensor means grainy footage in low-light conditions (e.g. sports hall)
Mirrorless cameras are taking over the world. They’re slowly replacing DSLRs for photography and when it comes to video they’re simply better. Because they have larger sensors than compact cameras or consumer camcorders, their image quality is better and they fare better in low-light conditions. They can be paired with different interchangeable lenses to deal with every kind of situation, making them the most versatile kind of video recording equipment.
- Fantastic video quality
- Versatility – change lenses depending on what and where you’re filming
- Also takes beautiful photos
- Expensive and complicated compared to other options
DSLRs are fantastic for taking photos but for technical reasons don’t perform as well as mirrorless cameras when it comes to shooting video. Cheaper DSLRs are usually limited to 1080p@30fps and their viewfinders get blocked by their mirror when recording. High end ones like the Canon EOS 1D can take 4K@60fps footage, but you end up paying an unnecessary premium for the luxury. Lastly, they’re heavy and cumbersome.
- Same pros as mirrorless cameras
- Simply better off going with a mirrorless camera when it comes to video
These are the best in the business but cost a few thousand dollars at the very least. They are used by film crews and TV broadcasting studios and are by no means practical for the average home user. If you came looking for a professional camcorder comparison, this list isn’t for you!
- The best you can get
- Expensive and unnecessary for 99.9% of people simply wishing to record sports
Now that I’ve covered the various types of camera you can take to your next sporting event, here is my list of recommendations:
1. DJI Osmo Pocket
An excellent gimbal camera for filming on the move
The DJI Osmo Pocket is a more recent innovation on compact cameras, and it just so happens to be the perfect companion for filming sports.
It puts a dedicated camera on a gimbal stabilizer which counteracts camera shake to produce silky smooth footage. DJI are the best in the business when it comes to gimbal stabilization, and the 1.2/3-inch sensor is larger and superior to that of today’s best camera phones like the iPhone XS Max or Google Pixel 4.
The fact that it can record at 4K resolution at up to 60fps makes it a great option for taking fast-paced sports videos. While 1080p is perfectly acceptable, 4K is slowly but surely becoming the new standard and it also makes gives you more freedom in post-processing.
The camera has a 1-inch touchscreen to make sure you can preview the action you’re filming. You can also directly attach it to your iPhone or Android (using a Lightning/USB-C adapter) and use your smartphone’s screen as a viewfinder.
The DJI Osmo Pocket isn’t without its flaws. The in-built mic is decent but not as good as that of the GoPro or iPhone 11. It’s well-built but not as well built as a true action camera which can survive being tossed around. Despite these flaws, it’s by far the most convenient means to record high-quality and fully gimbal-stabilized footage.
Overall this is a great video camera if you want to film while running up and down the sidelines or are constantly panning from side to side.
2. GoPro HERO8
Involved in the action? Here’s the camera for you
By definition, action cameras are designed to withstand rougher conditions and film fast-paced action making them perfect for filming any sport.
Despite the action camera market being flooded with cheap knock-offs and serious competitors like the DJI Osmo Action, the new GoPro Hero8 is the ultimate action camera. You simply won’t find the same image quality and electronic image stabilization (EIS) performance offered by GoPro’s proprietory Hypersmooth 2.0 technology in any other action camera.
You can shoot from 1080p@240fps through to 4K@60fps, and it is capable of capturing 100Mbps footage over the 78Mbps footage offered by its predecessor, the Hero7 Black.
Whether it’s filming underwater, attaching it to your helmet or filming in the dark with the brand new GoPro Light Mod—the GoPro Hero8 has a huge ecosystem of accessories which makes it possible to film in every possible situation you can think of.
With all that said, the GoPro Hero8 isn’t for everyone. If you want to capture POV recordings of yourself mountain biking downhill or going underwater it’s a no brainer. But if you’re simply looking to record a soccer game from the sidelines, then all that ruggedness and all those accessories are going to waste.
3. Canon Vixia HF R800
Filming from the stands? You’ll want this level of optical zoom
Although smartphones, GoPros and mirrorless cameras have taken over, the good old cheap camcorder still has its place in the market. They’re simple to operate and substantial optical zoom capabilities make them a great option to take to your next football or basketball game.
The Canon Vixia HF R800 is a very traditional digital camcorder with a 3.28 Megapixel Full HD CMOS sensor and 32x optical zoom. While it won’t film in 4K, the 1080p image quality is good with little to no noise distortion. Phone cameras and action cameras have very limited optical zooms, but with this Vixia HF R800 you’ll have no problems zooming in on that special dribble or layup.
This is truly a set and forget type of camera that doesn’t require playing around with your smartphone or switching out lenses. The only thing you might want to bring is a tripod to keep things steady when you’re zooming in—the built in image stabilization is good but gets begins to get shaky upwards of 8x. You might want to consider getting the bundled version which includes the likes of a tripod, spare battery and 64GB SD card to make sure you have everything you need.
4. Sony FDR-AX53 4K HD Camcorder
Best Semi Pro camcorder
If you like the idea of going with a more traditional camcorder but want something at the prosumer level, look no further than this Sony offering.
It has a 1/2.5 Exmor R CMOS sensor that is capable of recording at 4K, with bigger pixels that mean far superior image quality and low-light sensitivity compared to cheaper 4K cameras. The ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T* wide angle lens can fit more things in frame and can zoom up to 20x.
The premium pricing doesn’t just improve the picture quality, but gives you a solid built-in mic that captures all-surrounding ambience and reduces noise. Perfect for when you want to record all the cheers as the ball hits the back of the net.
It’s worth adding that this camcorder has a lower spec counterpart, the Sony AX33. The AX33 is the best-selling semi-pro camcorder, but for shooting sports I believe paying extra for the AX53 is worth it. You get 20x optical zoom instead of 10x and 1.6x bigger pixels for big improvements when recording at night.
5. Vlogging Full HD Camcorder
A budget camcorder that gets the job done
Sticking with traditional camcorders but looking at the ultra budget range, this generic brand camcorder gets the job done at minimum cost.
The resulting output video footage is very respectable and even comparable to the Canon Vixia HF R800, especially when filming under optimal conditions.
The cheap package includes a generous number of features. A built-in flashlight, a large 3-inch screen that can tilt back and forth and a hotshoe which you can mount accessories onto—including the external microphone that it comes bundled with.
It’s a decent camcorder for filming sports and the external mic can be attached to better capture the ambient noises at sports events.
However, the lower price tag does mean you’ll miss out on some of the luxuries offered by the Canon Vixia. It doesn’t have optical zoom, only 16x digital zoom. It also has no auto focus or manual focus, it is fixed and therefore won’t work for filming things that are up close. For the purposes of recording sports however, this likely won’t present any issues.
A YouTuber favorite, a versatile and rugged 4K mirrorless camera
The first of the two mirrorless cameras in the list, the Panasonic G85 is one of the cheaper mirrorless bodies capable of capturing at 4K/30p, 100 Mbps footage. Being a mirrorless camera, its larger sensor provides superior image quality and low-light shooting performance compared to the aforementioned options.
The G85 is considered one of the best budget mirrorless cameras for video among amateur filmmakers. It won’t make much financial sense to purchase one for the sake of recording sports clips to share on your Facebook feed, but those filming sports events or aspiring YouTubers will appreciate the leap in video quality.
Two things that make the G85 particularly stand out as a sports video camera is its stabilization and rugged enclosure. Panasonic added an in-body gyro sensor to provide 5-axis body stabilization that reduces camera shake. The weather sealed splashproof and dustproof body mean it can withstand the elements when filming outdoors.
Another YouTuber favorite, but this one costs a little more
Sony have been dominating the mirrorless camera market for years and it is only recently Canon and Nikon have entered the market to try and get a tasty slice of the market share.
The Sony A6400 is one of their APS-C sensor mirrorless cameras, and probably the best value (although it is worth considering the lower and higher end A6XXX models). For those unaware, the APS-C sensor is bigger than the micro four thirds standard adopted by Panasonic and Olympus, which yields various advantages when it comes to image quality.
Like the Panasonic G85, the A6400 is also capable of filming crisp 4K/30p footage. However, where the A6400 really shines is its ultra-fast autofocus capability. This makes it especially adept at filming fast moving scenes where the primary subject is constantly changing. Think about when you’re switching to a different soccer player who just received the ball—the last thing you want is a blurry figure until the camera correctly autofocuses. The A6400 will make sure that doesn’t happen.
For those serious about buying a mirrorless camera for recording sports, you might want to check out this YouTuber’s comparison between the Panasonic G85 and Sony A6400 to give you a better understanding of the differences between them.
iPhone 11 Pro
The best camera you’ll find on a smartphone
It might seem strange to see a smartphone make the list but the reality is smartphone cameras have become truly viable pieces of recording equipment. The iPhone hasn’t changed that much over the years, but with each iteration you can count on the camera being better than ever.
While Android manufacturers like Samsung and Huawei boast impressive camera specs on paper, in practice the iPhone cameras have consistently produced the best results, with natural colors and superior depth of field.
The iPhone 11 Pro costs an arm and a leg, but it is easily the best phone for recording video on the market right now. The fact that it has an ultra-wide angle lens (13mm, f/2.4), standard lens (26mm, f/1.8) and 2x telephoto lens (52mm, max aperture of f/2.0) is pretty crazy, but will surely set the trend for upcoming flagship phones.
It’s capable of shooting 4K@60fps footage with video quality that is superior to the GoPro HERO8 or DJI Osmo Pocket. Apple’s proprietary OIS is good but you’ll want to invest in an iPhone gimbal if you’re going to be filming your next sports event on the move.
Sports Video Camera Buying Tips
Frames Per Second VS 4K Resolution
When it comes to recording sports, 60fps better captures the motion and makes everything appear more fluid. 30fps is perfectly acceptable (it is what you see when you watch live sporting broadcasts on TV) but 60 fps also has the advantage of allowing you to produce slicker slow-motion effects in post-processing.
Right now, even high end cameras and camcorders do not offer 4K at 60fps. The latest GoPros and iPhone can do it but no one is claiming they are better cameras than the Sony FDR-AX53 4K camcorder, for example.
So given that, in most cases you’re going to end up choosing between 1080p@60fps or 4K@30fps. I’d recommend 1080p@60fps for shooting sports, because a higher frame rate is more important than image quality. If you’re planning to publish video to video platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, you should upscale the 1080p source to 4K beforehand as it provides numerous image quality benefits.
Do I Need An Action Camera?
By design, action cameras like the GoPro are perfect when the cameraperson isn’t simply filming from the sidelines. They can be worn or be attached to the end of a monopod, be controlled using voice controls and take a good beating.
Standard cameras simply don’t offer that flexibility. If the GoPro is out of your budget, check out my recommended under $100 action cameras.
However, if you are filming from the sidelines, a GoPro or similar action camera is a needlessly expensive option. A good phone camera will do the job just as well, while a mirrorless camera or quality camcorder will produce better looking videos.
- Basketball/Volleyball/Hockey – Indoor sports all have one thing in common: low-light. The larger sensor found in a mirrorless camera or DSLR make them much better suited to filming in those often dimly-lit sports halls.
- Swimming/Water Polo – In addition to being indoors, there is a small risk of getting equipment wet if you’re near the action. Keep a lookout for ‘splashproof’ or ‘weather-sealed’ cameras (most cameras are).
- Golf – This isn’t any different to filming any other sport, but if you want to follow the ball fly across the sky like they do on TV, you’ll need some special equipment and camera operating skills.
- Baseball/Football/Soccer – These outdoor sports present optimal recording conditions, but if you’re recording from the stands you’ll want a camcorder with a high optical zoom or a mirrorless camera with a zoom lens.
- A lightweight tripod should be used if you plan to film from a set spot
- If you filming on the move, a gimbal stabilizer can drastically reduce unwanted shake
- An external microphone can dramatically improve audio quality
- Extra memory cards (if your camera uses external memory) and spare batteries or a powerbank
- A Pop up LCD hood to block out the light and see the display under the sun
- A good camera/camcorder case, screen protector and rain cover
I’m a photographer and the chief editor of Capture Guide. I now live in Santa Barbara, California but spent several years across parts of South America working as a journalist with my trusty old Nikon D7100.