Slow motion is a ubiquitous term that all of us throw around, but to filmmakers, it means something very specific depending on how it’s employed. Slow motion is the process of playing back footage at a slower frame rate than it was recorded. For example, to a sports videographer, slow-motion is essential for slowing down key plays or movements such as those you see in instant replays. When the footage is slowed down, you can see more clearly what happens in each frame, whether it’s a “photo finish” or an aerial leap. With the Tokyo Olympic Games on the horizon, these high-speed, fast capture cameras will be widely used. In this article, you’ll learn the best slow-motion cameras of 2021 for every budget, as well as the best techniques for shooting slow-motion videos, whether you prefer mirrorless or DSLR.
But first, what is slow motion? How is it recorded? And how can you edit it in post? Read on to find out.
Understanding slow-motion cams
The first thing you need to understand clearly as a camera operator is frame rate. Frame rate per second is abbreviated as FPS, and this term is essential in choosing the correct settings to shoot slow motion. The more frames you record per second, the more image data you’ll have when you slow down the footage in the edit.
Standard slow motion is shot at 60fps, while super slo-mo cameras shoot up to 1,000fps. This speed, for example, can capture the trickle of a water droplet or the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. In the past, cameras could shoot higher frame rates in 1080 than in 4K, but fortunately, in 2021, you don’t have to sacrifice resolution for speed. Still, you’ll need to determine the best combination of frame rate and resolution for your particular project. For example, you might not need a super slo-mo camera and could save money on a more intermediate-level piece of equipment.
The best slow-motion cameras
GoPro Hero 9 Black
The GoPro Hero9 Black action camera shoots an impressive 240fps at 1080 and 60fps at 4K. (At 5K, the footage is a max of 30fps, which cannot be evenly slowed down in a 24p timeline, so choose your settings carefully.) This means you can play back footage at 1/8th of the speed—one second becomes eight. The brand’s Max HyperSmooth 3.0 digital image stabilization, TimeWarp 3.0 for real and half-speed capture, and ease of use make it a top choice for a basic slo-mo camera. As always, this slow-motion cam is waterproof up to 33 feet.
The “Max Lens Mod” upgrade makes all this beautiful, smooth action footage possible with an ultra-wide 155˚ FOV digital lens. Combined with a horizon lock to keep recordings on a set horizontal or vertical axis regardless of camera movement, the GoPro Hero9 Black is a slo-mo cam worth having in any filmmaker's arsenal for a quick draw. Then there’s “Max Timewarp,” the smoothest TimeWarp video yet from GoPro.
DJI Pocket 2
Vastly improved since DJI released its Osmo, the DJI Pocket 2 is right up there with the GoPro as one of the least pricey best slo-mo cams on the market. This model increases frame rate to double its predecessor to UHD 3840 x 2160p at up to 60fps in H. 264/AVC, MPEG-4 100Mb/s. It can also record in 2.7K or HD at up to 60fps in H. In addition, it has a larger sensor, wider 20mm lens and even better autofocus.
Rivaling its more expensive a6600, the Sony ZV-1 expands its features with increased autofocus and object tracking. So while you won’t get the smooth slo-mo 4K footage that more expensive slo-mo cams deliver, Sony fills the intermediate budget gap with the ZV-1, which shoots up to 119.88fps in 1080p. This is known as a vloggers camera, so keep that in mind depending on how you need to use it.
Sony DSC-RX100 IV
The RX100 IV can capture super slow-motion HFR movies at up to 40x slower than real-time. Choose shooting frame rates of 960/1,000fps, 480/500fps, or 240/250fps to playback in XAVC S at 1920 x 1080, in either 60p, 30p or 24p. This model is also easier to use than a DSLR with interchangeable lenses and can fit in your pocket, making it convenient for shooting high-speed action sports or events on the fly. It comes with an impressive ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T Lens. Image quality is nearly Full HD at 240/250 fps and HD at 480/500 fps in Quality Priority mode. The end trigger mode also enables you to capture 2 or 4 seconds before the MOVIE button is pressed, letting you capture the decisive moment.
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III Black
The PowerShot shoots up to 119.88fps in 1080p only, but the things that make this a good choice for shooting slow-motion videos are the content creator and vlogging features such as the flip-out touchscreen monitor and the live-streaming capability.
This slo-mo camera may have limitations on image stabilization, but its APS-C sensor records up to 120fps, producing excellent image quality. Unfortunately, like most cameras in this price range, the highest frame rates are only available in 1080p, not 4K. However, the Sony autofocus model is world-renowned, and it boasts a wide ISO range.
Released in late 2020, Sony has finally delivered a 4K cinema-quality picture capable of up to 120fps. The Sony a7SIII has been on the wishlist of Sony mirrorless users for many years now with its 4K at 120fps and an impressive bit rate of 10. Sony has also improved low-light quality, reduced rolling shutter by up to eight times, and improved stabilization. The newest Sony codecs mean much larger file sizes but offer more format options, higher quality output, and you can even shoot Pro-res RAW with this slow-motion cam.
Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K
Rarely do you find a slow-motion camera capable of recording 4K at 120fps. The Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera does just that while offering the choice of four different versions of ProRes 422 or Blackmagic Raw codec. The only drawback, this slo-mo cam doesn’t shoot stills; video only. If your budget expands, consider purchasing the 6K version which shoots high frame rates of 60fps in crisp 6K.
Panasonic LUMIX S5
An upgrade from its previous version, the full-frame Panasonic Lumix s5 features an improved autofocus tracking from the GH5 and you can record in 4K up to 60 frames per second and in full HD up to 180. Like the GH5, the S5 has one of the most robust image stabilization systems on the market in this price range. It records 4:2:2 10-bit video with unlimited recording time in 4K/30p 4:2:0 8-bit.
The dramatic effects and visual impact of shooting slow motion are worth the extra effort to understand frame rate and the best technology to capture it. So whether you’re looking for a slo-mo camera that is basic, advanced, or pro, this guide should help you get out there and start shooting!
Jessica Peterson is a travel and documentary filmmaker with a background in journalism and marketing. She has 20 years of experience producing content in 114 cities and 25 countries. In 2016, she directed and produced her own documentary about her then-home of Guam. Working under the name Global Girl Travels, her clients include CNN, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Matador Network, and Tastemade.