Underwater photography is one of those hobbies that looks particularly forbidding at first glance. It requires a lot of gear, a lot of it is obviously expensive, and it seems like there are endless choices to be made before you snap picture one. It's not just a matter of picking out a good camera; you'll also need to consider housings, lights, lenses, ports, and much more. Even if you're dedicated to finding the very best bargains, you're still facing a mountain of research and some significant spending.
Good news! Picking out the perfect camera doesn't have to involve any excess stress. All you need to do is be patient and take the time to educate yourself thoroughly about your needs and what the market has to offer. We've assembled our best newbie-friendly diving camera buyers' guide to help you understand every aspect of the choices available to you and make smarter decisions. With us helping you out with the necessary research, you can learn the essentials faster and take a big jump toward the fun parts of underwater photography.
Stay tuned after the buyers' guide; we've also outlined the pros and cons of 10 of the best cameras on the market today. In both parts of our article, we'll be sticking to plain English and saving you from the more inscrutable tech-talk that sometimes overwhelms discussions of photography equipment.
By the time you go through this post, you should hopefully have some smart, usable ideas about how to pick out the perfect underwater camera. If you've got questions about anything you see here, feel free to use the comments section below to ask questions. We'll be happy to provide further guidance!
If your diving needs go beyond cameras, don't forget that we offer other guides for crucial diving gear - dive computers, lights, and much more. Now let's get down to business and find you the perfect scuba diving camera!
3 Factors To Keep In Mind When Buying An Underwater Camera For Scuba Diving
1) Housing Availability
The best camera in the world isn't going to do you any good if you can't get it wet. A diving camera absolutely must have an underwater housing, so you shouldn't waste time looking at cameras that don't fit in any housings.
Quality housing manufacturers provide excellent products for most major camera brands (Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Nikon, Olympus, etc.). However, not every model is supported, so check on housings early!
2) Budget Wisely
Though there's a wide price range available to you, you should start out with a clear understanding of the minimum threshold involved in underwater photography. Any useful combination of camera body and housing will cost you at least $1,000. If you're looking to economize, don't do it by buying cut-rate gear. It's much better to work up a realistic budget.
The most critical point to wrap your head around when budgeting for your gear is that the camera is by no means likely to be the most expensive part of your rig. Don't splurge on a top of the line camera and leave yourself with pocket change to try and buy a housing and strobes.
Start with a hard spending limit and then make reasonable divisions to account for ALL of the gear you'll need before you start making purchases.
3) System Choice: Compact Vs. Mirrorless Vs. DSLR
Three basic formats encompass virtually all of the quality underwater cameras on the market: Compact, mirrorless, and DSLR.
Now, there are some cameras sold today that were built from the ground up to be used underwater. Take the SeaLife DC1400, for example. It's a piece of gear that's accumulated a very mixed reputation from its users. Its Amazon customer reviews are full of horror stories, including malfunctioning flashes, stuck buttons, slow shutters, and many other problems you'd rather not deal with.
For reliability and quality of photos, the way to go is to buy a quality dry-land camera and stick it into a trustworthy underwater housing. If you've already got a nice camera, you might well be a step ahead. Combining a quality camera with a housing is expensive, but it's the only way to achieve good results.
- Compact Cameras
Simple point and shoot cameras can deliver effective results underwater. Cameras that are over-reliant on auto function aren't too useful for divers, though. It's worth the extra time and money to find a compact camera that offers full manual control.
- Light & portable (ideal for travel)
- Most affordable option
- With wet lenses, can handle both macro and wide angle photography
- Small sensors deliver modest low-light performance (some models are exceptions, like the RX100)
- Short battery life
- Shutter lag can make fast action shots (i.e., underwater wildlife photography) impossible
Mirrorless cameras are extremely popular for underwater photography, mainly because they deliver interchangeable-lens versatility without the cost and weight of a full DSLR. Experienced photographers who want maximum performance in a lightweight package may prefer mirrorless cameras.
- Larger sensors (4-8x) than compact models
- Still smaller than DLSRs
- Variety of lenses
- Will not work with wet lenses
- Each different lens will require a separate lens port
- Greater cost than compact
Great mirror-less cameras can come close to mimicking the quality of a DSLR. For perfectionists and professionals, close mimicry will not do. DSLRs offer the best low-light performance, the most significant amount of control, and the most extensive selection of lenses.
- Sharpest possible photos, even in low light
- Comprehensive control
- Widest range of lens options
- Bulk and weight
- Will not work with wet lenses
3 Factors For Picking A Dive Camera Housing
As noted above, sometimes an underwater housing ends up costing more than the camera that goes inside it. This is one of the most critical gear decisions you'll make. Housing's don't just keep water out, they also control pressure, give you access to camera controls, mount your lens ports, and hold key accessories, such as lights. Investing in a quality housing is vital!
Underwater camera housings are a complex subject, so we'll likely produce a dedicated post on them in the near future. For now, though, keeping these three key points in mind will help you start examining your housing options wisely.
1) Aluminum Or Plastic
With very few exceptions, quality camera housings are made from either aluminum or polycarbonate, a high-strength form of plastic. Which one is right for your needs? Take a look at their strengths and weaknesses:
- Cheaper prices, sometimes by thousands of dollars
- Button layouts can be inconvenient
- May fog in use
- Many models cannot be repaired; you'll have to replace the entire housing if it breaks.
- Highly durable (built for greater depths and saltwater exposure)
- Better ergonomics
- Individual parts (down to the o-rings beneath the control buttons) can be repaired or replaced; a good housing will last for years
- Cost (up to 3x as much as equivalent polycarbonate housings)
As a general rule of thumb, aluminum housings are the right choice for professionals, tech divers, and heavy users. Plastic housings are more suited to vacationers and those who will not use them more than a few times a year. Note that this rule is changing over time. Ikelite, for example, is working hard to bring professional convenience and reliability to plastic housings. The result is a near-professional grade housing at a fraction of the cost of an aluminum model.
If you're looking to economize, I would recommend an Ikelite housing. If you know you're ready to spend more on something highly durable and you know you'll get plenty of use out of it, I recommend a Nauticam aluminum model.
2) Ease Of Use
How hard or easy is it to reach the controls? Are the housing controls each dedicated to a single function or are they the multifunction type? Are the buttons too closely-spaced to hit while wearing gloves? How feasible is it to adjust the controls while also retaining a firm grip on the housing?
3) Size And Weight
Don't make the mistake of getting obsessed with lightweight housings. Remember, most models are going to be virtually neutral once you get them in the water. The one time weight is a factor is if you know you're going to be traveling with your camera a great deal.
Diving Camera Reviews
Our 10 Best Dive Camera Choices
Sony RX100 III
Small Body, Big Sensor
For photographers who are trying to balance simplicity, economy, size, and quality, the Sony RX 100 III is an excellent option. This is a slightly better version of the RX 100 II. The video bit-rate is better, and it has an electric viewfinder. The RX 100 delivers exceptionally fast focus; that makes it one of the best compact cameras for underwater use. If you want pro photos without the bulk of a DSLR, this is the way to go.
Balancing Economy And Quality
Delivering great photographic performance and easy wireless sharing, the Canon S120 wins big on affordability. It's the only offering on this list that retails for less than $500. Its 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor and DIGIC 6 image processor are ideal for achieving great clarity and color in low-light conditions. This is a perfect beginner's camera.
Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II
Noteworthy Mirrorless Performance
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II falls into the 4/3 mirrorless category of cameras. It normally delivers 16 megapixels, but in high-resolution mode, it can shoot at up to 40 megapixels or 64 in RAW format. The Mark II also features WiFi sharing for greater convenience. Between its affordable price and its compact size and weight, this is a terrific choice for photographers who are always on the go.
SONY a7 II
Compact Body With A Full Frame Sensor
The only mirrorless camera on the market today that offers in-body image stabilization, the Sony a7II delivers outstanding performance. The body's ergonomics are ideal for effortless, comfortable shooting, and it has a broad range of features that come in handy for taking both video and stills. With 24.3 MP resolution, Full HD video capacity, and fast auto-focus, the Sony a7 II packs a lot of performance into a petite package.
The Professional Compact Choice
Offered as a direct competitor to the Sony RXII, Canon's G7x distinguishes itself with its very underwater-friendly lens arrangements. The G7x's native lens is 24-100mm, which is wonderfully versatile and especially well-suited to macro work. At 25mm, it has a maximum aperture of f/1.8; at 100mm the maximum aperture is f/2.8. This captures more light, always an important concern for underwater work.
Real DSLR Performance - Fast & Powerful
When it comes to dynamic range and overall image quality, the Nikon D810 sets the standard. It's fast, precise, and reliable. This is a great camera for wildlife photography. The D810 offers 36.3 megapixels and combines a new full-frame sensor with Nikon's proprietary EXPEED 4 image processing. It can capture crystal-clear images anywhere from ISO 64 to 12,800. If maximum quality is your highest priority, Nikon's D810 is your ideal camera.
Go Pro Hero 4
Professional Quality In A Tiny Package
The Hero 4 Black is the latest and most advanced action cam being sold by GoPro. Particularly well-suited to shooting underwater video, the Hero 4 Black comes with SuperView, a proprietary wide-angle video capture system that delivers truly immersive results. When compared to earlier versions of the Hero, it captures significantly larger fields of view. GoPro heroes have fallen into a symbiotic relationship with professional still photography rigs; many a $20,000 pro rig has a tiny GoPro attached to it these days.
Sony NEX A6000
Best Value In A Mirrorless Camera
Sony's A6000 deliver's 24 megapixels and the "world's fastest autofocus" in a notably compact package. With a professional-grade APS-C sensor that's significantly larger than those typically used in compact digital cameras, the A6000 delivers superb image quality for a mirrorless model.
Affordable Performance For Enthusiast
The Panasonic LX100 connects a compact four-thirds image sensor with a super-fast lens. To enhance its strobe capabilities, it also has a TTL flash hot shoe so that you aren't forced to rely solely on the built-in flash. Its built-in lens is a quality Leica DC lens (24-75mm). It's also capable of capturing superb 4K video.
Canon EOS Mark III 5D
The Professional Choice
Canon's new EOS Mark III 5D is a top-of-the-line, accept-no-substitutes, full-featured camera designed strictly with professional photographers in mind. Its full-frame 22MP CMOS sensor is ideal for capturing premium video with minimal noise, even at high ISO settings in the 100 to 25600 range. The Mark III is the obvious choice for professional photographers who handle significant underwater work; it's also a great choice for experienced enthusiasts who are after the best - and have the deep pockets necessary to buy it.