The DJI Osmo Action 4 has convinced me that action cams beat mirrorless for vacations

 DJI Osmo Action 4 camera on a rock on a beach
DJI Osmo Action 4 camera on a rock on a beach

We’re packing bags for a two-week vacation; clothes on the bed ready to be split into take-it or leave-it piles, kids tasked with collecting must-have toys and our favorite family games. Now, and most important of all, I’m onto camera gear (I jest. Maybe).

Carefully selecting gear will take me longer than picking clothes, but I usually opt for my go-to mirrorless camera – the Nikon Z6 II – in case I get opportunities to head out for a sunrise, snap some portraits of the kids, or capture the feeling of the new places we hope to visit. Throw in a couple of lenses. Lens filters. Gear soon adds up.

This year, I also have the DJI Osmo Action 4 in my possession for testing. It’s the latest action camera from the industry-leading maker of the best drones, and a polished GoPro rival, so naturally it’s going in the bag, too.

Spotify playlists are made for our time on the road, a few downloads on the iPad for a peaceful journey (on the inside of the car, at least). And after a game of Tetris, also known as cramming all the bags in the trunk of the car, we set off for some family time on the UK coast.

Going where no mirrorless camera can sensibly venture

It’s the first morning of the holiday and my son is up early and keen to go to the beach. My kids – especially my son – love the water, even the fresh stuff in the UK, and although I’m super tired, I’m glad he’s woken me up.

Swimmers, a towel, a camera, too? This could be a good chance to make some seascape photos at first light, but actually I don’t fancy lugging my Z6 II with me, let alone leave it unattended while we’re in the water, or get grit in its controls and a potential costly repair. The tiny Osmo Action 4 on the other hand – waterproof up to 18m – that could work.

DJI Osmo Action 4 camera closeup of lens by a pool with water droplets on it
DJI Osmo Action 4 camera closeup of lens by a pool with water droplets on it

It’s a beautiful morning; low-lying golden sun, calm water, a peaceful cove, and we go for a swim. I’ve got the Osmo Action 4 in hand shooting stabilized 4K 60p video above and below the surface as I front crawl. We make it to some rocks, scramble up and bomb a few meters down and into the water. This video is going to be great.

I stay in the water and my son climbs and jumps in again, captured from below in Full HD, 8x slow motion. This is fun. From the rocks we spot jellyfish in the water and in goes the camera, attached to DJI’s 1.5m Extension Rod. The camera is unobtrusive, and it’s going places that I wouldn’t sensibly dream of taking my mirrorless camera, and even my smartphone.

Simple fun

My kids have very little interest in the Z6 II. It’s serious kit, and me – their dad – goes on serious walks with it, taking seriously good photos (seriously). Or he's coercing them into portaits when they’re not in the mood, and in a grump when they don't oblige. But the Osmo Action 4 – they can’t get enough of it.

Its front touch screen makes talking to camera a breeze, which it turns out they love doing when they’re in control (and the Action 4's in-camera mics are pretty good). We can take it aboard a kayak no problem, out walking the dog in the woods, at the accommodation’s private swimming pool, in and out of the water for hours. They are loving it, and so am I.

An action camera such as the Osmo Action 4 is unadulterated fun; a happy feature of our family vacation making memories where any of us can use it with ease, without worrying it’ll break, or about the aesthetic quality of the images being made. And from my perspective, it’s a highly polished video tool with superb image stabilization. The 1.5m Extension Rod accessory – aka a selfie stick – gets honorable mention, too, enabling super interesting angles, including drone-like aerial perspectives (see above).

As much as it pains me, a keen photographer, to say it, the Z6 II doesn’t get a look in, and the entire vacation I don’t take a single picture with it. There are times when I think I might – when there’s a nice view, or a lovely moment with the family - but a smartphone can handle that. Not to the same quality as my full-frame mirrorless camera, but on a vacation it’s enough, and spontaneity is more important.

Yes, my mirrorless serves an important purpose, a tool for my own focused creativity, but the next time we’re getting ready for a vacation, the camera bag itself will probably stay put (gasp), and I can throw in a tiny action camera into any of our bags instead. The Osmo Action 4 has showed me that a capable action camera – and we've rounded up the best action cameras, if you're looking for one – is the one inclusive camera for our family to enjoy and capture those special memories. I didn’t see that coming.