For years, the sea has exerted a ferocious pull over us all. Whether it’s wading in the water or going in for a full dive, there’s something especially enchanting about the sea. In myth and in real life, heroes, artists, and human beings of from all walks of life have plumbed the ocean’s depths for that elusive creature, Inspiration.
Given our storied relationship with water, it’s easy to understand how underwater photography has evolved from being a mere hobby to a full time obsession. Photographers routinely go on dives to document the potent beauty preserved beneath the waves.
Whether you’re a professional or recreational photographer, the quest to take the best underwater photographs is very challenging. It all starts with the search or the best available camera. As you’ll quickly come to realize, selecting the ideal camera for your underwater exploration is no walk in the park.
We’ve done most of the legwork for you and waded through the mountain of information to present a few choice picks for your next purchase. This piece was written with the concerns of both seasoned and newbie photographers in mind. Let’s dive into the wealth of detail available and get you your ideal underwater camera.
The General Features of Underwater Cameras
Shooting underwater is a drastically different experience from taking photos on land. The primary difference, apart from the visual landscape, is the amount of light that you have to work with. Working underwater automatically means that you’ll be shooting in low lit conditions.
Enter the underwater camera. Essentially, underwater cameras come with features that are specifically designed to combat the issues that come with shooting underwater. While the wealth of features available for each camera type will differ according to its class (more on that later) the best underwater cameras share these identical features:
Waterproofing seals are in place to ensure that your camera stays, well, waterproof. The seals prevent water from leaking into the camera. Purchasing a camera without these seals in place practically guarantees disaster. Before you select a camera, make sure that these requisite waterproofing seals are in place. As a rule, you should always check these seals prior to a dive. Loose seals result in water leaking into the camera, leaving you dealing with a very expensive mistake.
Every camera is waterproof up to a certain level of depth. Check the camera’s specifications for the maximum amount of depth allowed on a single dive. Do not attempt to exceed the specified depth. Doing so damages the camera and may render it inoperable.
Viewfinder / Display Screen
The quality of your camera’s viewfinder needs to be sufficient enough to address poor lighting conditions. You cannot shoot what you cannot see so select a camera with an ample amount of screen real estate. The display screen also needs to be bright enough to accommodate viewing the images you’re taking beneath the water.
Optical Zoom Lens
An optical zoom lens is responsible for the quality of the images that you produce when you zoom in close to your subject. You need to be conscious of a camera’s optical zoom’s magnification capabilities if you intend to shoot a lot of underwater terrain or wildlife close up.
GPS capabilities are a fairly new addition to the photography game but the culture of sharing images online makes this feature a necessity especially if you have an active online presence. A camera with built in GPS tags every photo that you take live on location making this a must-have feature for aggressive underwater shutterbugs.
Purchasing an Underwater Camera
Buying anything is enough to give anyone a healthy amount of concern but purchasing a camera for underwater photography can quickly prove to be a nightmare without enough information. There is a need for you to deal with a few hard questions before you attempt to select a singular option for underwater photography.
Can you afford it?
The decision to explicitly decide on a budget will always be the lynchpin to any successful purchasing decision. Purchasing an underwater camera requires you to have a strategy in place.
A trap that rookie photographers can easily fall into is the decision to purchase the most expensive underwater camera available. Depending on what you want from your image, you may discover later on that the add-ons that you spend on accessories (lights, filters, etc.) can quickly outstrip the initial cost of purchasing a camera. As a hobby, underwater photography is expensive. Ideally, you should project a budget estimate THEN add an extra 50% to your initial figure. This should give you a more accurate idea of the amount that you need to have on hand before you buy anything.
What’s your level of investment when it comes to underwater photography? Are you more of a recreational photographer or are you a professional?
This one’s closely related to budget concerns. You need to think long term when it comes to underwater photography. Your camera selection and, consequently, the costs that you have to deal with will be dictated by the amount of control that you want over the quality of the images that you produce.
If you’re a recreational photographer who couldn’t care less about the quality of the images that you produce, selecting an inexpensive point and shoot camera for underwater use is the wisest decision for you to make. If you’re a professional photographer who’s thinking of expanding his oeuvre to cover underwater subjects, then you’d better be prepared to be in it for the long haul.
On a professional level, underwater photography will require you to invest in lenses, editing software, lighting, and camera housing to produce the best possible image. Figure out where you fall in the recreational / professional divide before you make an investment.
Are you shooting still photographs, video, or both?
This last question deals with the format that you want to work with. As we mentioned, shooting underwater is different from shooting on land.
Usually, a camera’s autofocus (AF) features are enough to capture decent images on land. Once you transition underwater, AF features tend to lose a lot of its potency. A camera that does not come with manual controls will suffer from the exposure, color, and light scarcity issues that are come with underwater photography. Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras come with manual controls making them the ideal choice for shooting still images underwater.
Using a DSLR to shoot video underwater isn’t necessarily the ideal choice. Typically, mirrorless cameras or dedicated video cameras are better at the job than DSLRs. On a DSLR, the AF system used for shooting still is different from the one it transitions to when recording video. Contrast this with the dedicated AF system that mirrorless cameras use for both video and still and you’ll notice the difference. Mirrorless cameras tend to capture video footage of fast moving aquatic wildlife better than DSLRs. The latter’s slower contrast-detection AF system just can’t compete with the faster AF system employed by mirrorless cameras when it comes to shooting video.
Types of Underwater Cameras
Once you’ve determined your level of investment in underwater photography, camera selection becomes an easier task. There are still some decisions to be made but your choices usually narrow down to three options.
Option 1: Entry level options / Compact Cameras:
Entry level options for underwater photography include cameras that come with waterproof features out of the box and compact point and shoot cameras that are retrofitted with waterproof housing. These cameras tend to be:
- Relatively inexpensive
- The lightest option when it comes to camera weight class
- Versatile in the sense that it can shoot both wide angle and macro sized shots without having to transition to different lenses in the middle of a dive.
Entry level options tend to pale in the face of the competition when it comes to:
- Producing the best image quality for underwater photography – Do not expect to produce DSLR quality images while using a compact, entry level option. The smaller camera sensors on compact point and shoots typically cannot compete with the other camera classes when it comes to producing rich images.
- Shutter lag – The delay when taking still photographs of fast moving wildlife is significant enough to drive you up the wall with frustration.
- Poor battery life – Shooting with an entry level option can be problematic during long dives because of their shorter battery lifespan.
Option 2: Mirrorless Cameras (waterproof with housing)
Mirrorless cameras manage to synthesize some of the best attributes of both the DSLR and compact entry level point and shoot options. When combined with a compatible waterproof housing, mirrorless cameras are best for:
- Shooting video on AF (versus DLSRs)
- Producing better still images than compact camera options (mirrorless cameras have larger camera sensors than entry level point and shoots)
- Photographers who like having multiple lens options
- Photographers who don’t want to be encumbered with the bulky weight of a DSLR camera
While laudable, mirrorless cameras aren’t perfect. You need to be aware for a few drawbacks when you opt for a mirrorless option:
- Before a dive, you need to choose between shooting purely wide angle or macro sized images. You can only change lenses when you come out of the water. Changing lenses mid — dive will damage the camera.
- Mirrorless cameras are a pricier option than compact, entry level cams.
- These cameras are ideal for hobbyists who want better quality images and some professional photographers who are looking for a more compact alternative to the DSLR.
Option 3: DSLR Cameras (waterproof with housing)
The gold standard when it comes to producing the best quality still images. For many professional photographers, the DSLR camera is the only option for underwater photography. The advantages of DSLRs include:
- Image quality – DSLRs are the best cameras for producing still images. These cameras easily outstrip the other alternatives when it comes to producing high quality images.
- Excellent performance in low lit environments – With full manual features, DSLRs are the ideal tool to use in low lit, underwater environments.
- Lenses – DSLRs have the most amount of lens options available.
In spite of these advantages, DSLRs aren’t for everybody. Some drawbacks include:
- Having to choose between wide angle and macro-sized shots. Like mirrorless cameras, you cannot swap lenses in the middle of a dive when you’re using a DSLR.
- Weight – The DSLR is the heaviest camera option for underwater photography.
- Expensive – Be prepared to shell out the big bucks. DSLRs are the most expensive camera option available.
- Not for the recreational camera user – Arguably, the DSLR is the only choice for professional photographers who know exactly what they want when it comes to their photographic output.
A Word on Disposable Underwater Cameras and Dedicated Video cameras:
While it is possible to use disposable underwater cameras and dedicated video cameras for underwater photographic work, it simply isn’t practical to do so given the alternatives available. While disposable cameras are cheap, the images that they produce are of poor quality. Pairing an inexpensive point and shoot camera with waterproof housing is a more practical long term option over purchasing several disposable underwater cameras.
Unless you’re a professional who’s only looking to shoot video underwater, purchasing a dedicated video camera is an impractical alternative as well. Dedicated video cameras are heavy and expensive. Using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera allows you to record high quality video footage, shoot still images, and eliminate the excess weight that comes with using a dedicated video camera.
Camera Features and Other Considerations
Now that you have an idea of what your options are, its time to take a more detailed look at camera features. Taking photographs underwater requires you to adopt a specific approach to your photography. These take precedence over anything else when you’re underwater:
Image Quality, Camera Sensors Size, and the Myth of the Megapixel:
We all want to take perfect photographs and in the rush of all that enthusiasm, it’s easy to get caught up in the megapixel hype. Camera manufacturers plaster their advertisements with seemingly impressive megapixel counts but a deeper understanding of photography will make you realize that a high megapixel count may not be an accurate gauge of the quality of the images that a camera produces.
A photo’s resolution doesn’t increase exponentially when you decide to upgrade to a camera that has twice the amount of megapixels. Purchasing a camera that has double the amount of megapixels than what you previously had will only increase a photograph’s resolution by about 40%.
A camera’s sensor size is the more accurate predictor of picture quality. All you have to do is to compare a DSLR and a compact point and shoot camera that have an identical megapixel count to notice the impact that camera sensors have on the produced image. A DSLR will come out producing better images every time for the simple reason that it has a larger camera sensor than a point and shoot camera does. A larger camera sensor embeds more information on every individual pixel in a photograph. As a rule, large camera sensors produce rich images.
Ease of Use
You need to choose a camera that you can easily work with and manipulate. Comparing the controls of a compact camera and a DSLR can be akin to comparing two different worlds. In terms of ease of use, compact cameras are easy to pick up. However, shutter lag, smaller camera sensors, and lack of manual controls may not be enough for photographers who are looking to create only the best images.
When it comes to image creation, nothing comes close to the DSLR. With a superior camera sensor and zero shutter lag, DSLRs are a dream to use for underwater photographers . However, a DSLRs controls are far more elaborate than a compact camera’s and you need an in depth understanding of the tool you’re using to really get the most out of your photography.
If you’re more of a casual photographer, spare yourself the grief by choosing a quality point and shoot camera over investing thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment that you aren’t familiar with.
This becomes an issue while you’re on land. Weight class shouldn’t be much of an issue underwater…until you factor in the amount of traveling that you have to do to get on location. Weight becomes even more of a concern if you’re carting along a lot of camera accessories. While you don’t need to be concerned about a camera’s weight beneath the water, you may find hours of carrying heavy camera equipment wearying.
Lenses and Housing Compatibility
DSLRs have a generous selection of lenses for underwater photography while compact point and shoots do not. Regardless of this difference, lenses and camera housing compatibility is a concern for every underwater photographer. Be sure to find a camera with lenses that are compatible with the housing that you intend to use while you’re underwater.
The quality of a camera’s housing is also something that you need to pay close attention to. Usually, camera housing options are either made out of plastic or aluminum. Plastic housing options are significantly cheaper than their aluminum counterparts. While aluminum camera housing options cost more than one made out of plastic, it also outstrips the alternative in terms of ergonomic control layouts, superior build quality, and durability over time.
Choose aluminum camera housing if you intend to play the long game with underwater photography. Plastic housing alternatives are best for vacationers who only intend to use their camera underwater on rare occasions.
Editing your photographs in the RAW
This is more of a concern for pro photographers. The amount of editing that you intend to do needs to guide your choice of cameras. Choose a camera that automatically stores your images in RAW format if you’re big on editing your photos. Photographs that are saved in RAW come as uncompressed files. RAW files give you more data to play around with during post production. This detail isn’t much of a concern if you don’t intend to edit your output.
Manual White Balance and Strobe Lighting
Once again, this is more of a concern for professionals. If you’re planning on using pure ambient light as a light source for your photographs, you must choose a camera that comes with manual white balance features. Shooting photographs in natural light without this feature will give your photographs a bluish color cast.
If you intend to bring along a strobe or two, manual white balance becomes less of an issue. Using strobes as a light source for underwater photography will drastically improve the quality of your images. The use of strobes becomes even more important as natural lighting gets scarce over the course of a descent into the ocean’s depths.
Reviewing Camera Options
Whether you’re using a compact point and shoot, opting for a mirrorless camera, or choosing to go pro with a DSLR, we’ve got you covered. We’ve rounded up some of the best camera options available per category.
Entry Level / Compact Camera Option 1: GoPro Hero 5 Black
GoPro, Inc. is a relatively new company (established in 2002) but they’ve quickly made a name for themselves with their line of HERO cameras, drones, and other accessories. Recently, GoPro released the latest iteration of their Hero line. The GoPro Hero5 is being positioned as the company’s flagship action camera improving on the features of its predecessor, the Hero4.
The Hero5 improves on the Hero4’s video resolution significantly. With its 1/2.3″ sensor the Hero5 captures rich 4k videos at 30fps and RAW or Wide Dynamic Range 12 MP still images. Out of the box, the Hero5 is waterproof up to a depth of 33 feet. Dives beyond this range require the use of a compatible camera housing.
In spite of its compact size, the Hero5’s features and reasonable price offers a lot of quality for recreational camera users who are looking to document videos and still images underwater. Pros can also fit this camera with the right camera housing to document video during a deeper dive.
Entry Level / Compact Camera Option 2: Sony RX 100 III
For underwater camera enthusiasts who are looking to use a compact camera during a dive, the Sony RX 100 III is an attractive option. An upgrade from its forerunner, the RX 100 II, this camera manages to merge decent image quality, a reasonable price tag, and ease of use in a compact package.
The RX 100 III rises above its compact camera competitors by featuring a huge 20.9 MP 1″-type Exmor R CMOS sensor. This camera’s pop up OLED viewfinder makes viewing images and video a treat. Speaking of video, the RX 100 III has a better video bitrate than the RX 100 II. Rounding up this raft of features is the RX 100 III’s stellar autofocus system. This camera focuses faster than most compact cameras in its class. If you’re looking for a compact camera that gives you a well rounded package of features underwater and on dry land, this one’s for you.
Mirrorless Camera Option1: Sony NEX A6000
For photographers on the lookout for a mirrorless camera, the Sony NEX A6000’s hard to beat. This mirrorless option’s reputation rests on the strength of its 24 MP APS-C CMOS sensor. Sony’s particularly proud of this camera having the “world’s fastest autofocus” (at 0.06 seconds)
The NEX A6000’s CMOS sensor is a drastic departure from the sensor sizes of typical compact point and shoots. Compared to compact cameras, the APS-C sensor of the NEX A6000 is 13 times larger, delivering rich, detailed images with each shot. Portability, interchangeable camera lenses, 24 megapixels, fast AF features, and an excellent camera sensor make the Sony NEX A6000 a premium mirrorless camera for discerning shutterbugs.
Mirrorless Camera Option 2: Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II
The Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II is another mirrorless camera that features powerful features in a compact package. Its 16MP Live MOS sensor can transition into a 40MP High-Resolution Shot Mode making it unique in its class.
Olympus aggressively promotes this camera’s image stabilization technology as well. The camera’s proprietary 5-axis voice coil motor image stabilization system combined with its 16MP Live MOS sensor reduces, if not eliminates, image blur making it an appealing option to use in low lit conditions.
The camera captures rich video as well. In terms of construction, the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II was built to be splash proof, dust proof, and even freeze proof. You’ll still need to retrofit this option with housing if you plan to go in for an immersive underwater.
DSLR Option 1: Nikon D810
With its dynamic range and renowned performance, the Nikon D810 is an excellent DSLR to use when you’re shooting fast moving wildlife in and out of the water. Pros will be drawn to the camera’s 36.3 MP FX-format CMOS sensor. This camera’s fully compatible with Nikon’s full range of lenses making this the ideal choice for pros who already own a selection of the manufacturer’s lenses.
The Nikon D810 houses an EXPEED 4 image processing engine. This combined with the camera’s 36.3 MP FX-format CMOS sensor, results in detail rich images and video that are devoid of image noise issues like poor color saturation. In the hands of a true pro, the Nikon D810 captures and produces incomparable high quality photography.
DSLR Option 2: Canon EOS Mark III 5D
The EOS Mark III 5D is one of Canon’s premier, top of the line full frame DSLRs. Its 22MP full frame CMOS sensor captures high quality images at high ISO ranges (all the way up to ISO 25600) making this ideal for underwater photography. With a 61-point AF system, the MarK III 5D delivers more focus points than most of its competitors.
When compared to other cameras of its class, some photographers won’t be thrilled by Canon’s perceived lack of improvements to this full frame DSLR. The biggest issue with this camera option is its lack of range in comparison to the competition. Still, it’s difficult to argue against the fact that the Mark III 5D’s bitrate is more than powerful enough to capture the pin sharp images that every professional photographer wants. Also, if you’re heavily invested in Canon’s ecosystem of available lenses, this is the only camera that you should work with for underwater photography.
A Final Word on Underwater Photography
After all is said and done, your choice of cameras relies heavily on your level of dedication to the art of underwater photography. Identifying your needs as a photographer is paramount. If you’re adopting a casual approach to underwater photography, using a compact point and shoot would be the ideal investment. If you want to produce high quality images underwater without having to deal with the physical weight and punitive prices of a DSLR, choose to go for a mirrorless camera option. Without question, a DSLR will always come out producing the best images if you know how to manipulate it as a photographic tool.
Knowledge of the type of content that you want to capture will also guide a purchasing decision. Regular deep sea dives will always require you to bring along other accessories like strobe lights and filters to properly capture the image that you have in mind. If you’re going to go in shooting a lot of video, you need to be aware of the fact that you’re going to need extra memory cards and other storage options to preserve all of those files.
Finally, always remain faithful to the practice of backing up all of your data. Given the nature of underwater photography, it’s very easy for you to lose all of your work as a result of a minor miscalculation. Bringing along a laptop and saving all of your files in an external hard drive can save your work if something goes awry with your camera. While all of this may sound arduous, being in the water and shooting all of that aquatic beauty will more than make up for your trouble. Come in with a plan, know what you want, be practical, and before you know it, you’ll be shooting all that marine wildlife with ease.