How to Choose an Underwater Camera

Starting underwater photography can seem daunting at first. The gear itself is challenging to navigate, and initial budgeting often gets shut down upon learning of necessary accessories that quickly add hundreds of dollars to the package. My goal is to help figure out which camera is best for you and then which accessories will complement your budget and desired photo subjects. The article is essentially a guide to cameras for underwater photography. Email me anytime for help and advice in selecting the best system for you.

Do You Travel? Be sure to also read my guide to Packing Underwater Photo Gear

 

cameras-for-underwater-photography

 

Cameras can be broken down into three main categories:

Compact  –  Mirrorless  –  DSLR

 

Compact Cameras

Compact cameras are the smallest group in size, making them easy to travel with and carry around on the surface. As a result, the underwater housings are the smallest as well. Compact cameras are a great choice for beginners, however most now feature great image quality, 4K video and manual settings, making them worthy of even the most seasoned pro. Compact cameras are generally the most affordable, which helps those who are on stricter budgets. Maybe you will get the camera and housing to see if you like shooting underwater, or maybe you really want two strobes plus accessories and build a nice compact system knowing you’ll upgrade the camera later and still be able to use all the accessories. The drawbacks of compact cameras are generally the smaller sensor in relation to larger cameras and the focus lag (often called shutter lag). Both of these things are not something a beginner underwater photographer would notice, unless you’re already an experienced shooter on the surface.

 

Compact Camera Guide

Updated: March 2018. Email me with questions!

Compact-Camera-Comparison-for-underwater-photography

 

Olympus Tough TG-5

olympus-tough-tg-5-underwater

I highly recommend the TG-5 as an entry-level camera with the Olympus PT-058 or the Ikelite TG-5 Housing. It’s a nice underwater camera at a great price and ready to withstand all sorts of abuse above and below the surface. Read a complete review on Backscatter here.

Pros: Easy auto, manual aperture selection, raw file format, great macro, waterproof to 50ft without housing

$400 + $300 housing | Learn More

 

GoPro HERO6

gopro-hero6-underwater

It’s GoPro. Super fun, small, camera that can deliver exceptional raw images. You’ll see many pros with GoPros mounted on top of their DSLR rigs. I’d recommend this if you want a tiny camera and to casually push Record now and then, or if you’re serious about video in a small package and understand the color grading benefits of ProTune mode.

Pros: Easy to use, raw file format, waterproof to 33ft without Super Suit

Cons:  Not great for macro

$400 + $50 Super Suit | Learn More

 

SeaLife DC2000

sealife-dc2000-underwater-camera

If you’re looking for simple operation and great images, the SeaLife DC2000 is for you. SeaLife’s piano key controls are easy to see and press, and a 1″ 20MP Sony sensor delivers great images.

Pros: Very easy to use, full manual options, large image sensor, ultra-fast shutter response

$700 includes housing | Learn More

 

Canon G7X Mk II

canon-g7x-markII-camera

A powerful compact camera that produces stunning images. The G7X II also has a 1″ 20.1MP sensor, with fast, crisp, selectable autofocus. Drawbacks include a more tedious sequence for manual white balance and vignetting with wet lenses. Popular underwater housings are available from Ikelite, Fantasea, Recsea, Isotta and Nauticam. Email me about which is my favorite!

Pros: Selectable autofocus points, excellent image quality, manual flash power (great for shooting strobes on manual power)

$600 + housing | Learn More

 

Sony RX100 V

sony-rx100v-camera

The Sony RX100 V produces stunning images with fast autofocus. It records 4K video and even has a super slow motion function. At this price however, we’re past the beginner realm and I would suggest looking towards Sony’s mirrorless a6300 or a6500.

Pros: Selectable autofocus points, 4K video, Super slow motion video, excellent image quality

$1,000 + housing | Learn More

 

Mirrorless & DSLR Cameras

Housing manufacturers separate mirrorless and DSLR cameras into two groups because of their different lens sizes; mirrorless camera lenses are generally much smaller and lighter than DSLR lenses. These smaller lenses have the same high-quality optics, however require different underwater housing port systems designed for their smaller size. Mirrorless camera performance has come a long way in the last few years, putting high-end models in the same performance class as DSLRs. Now it’s the size of the camera + lens combos (and as a result, housings and ports) that differentiates the cameras into two different consideration sets. As a result, I group the Sony a6500 with the other mirrorless cameras, and move the (also mirrorless) full frame Sony a7R III into the DSLR category. This is the best way to evaluate these cameras for underwater photography. And if you’re curious about what I’m shooting, check out my underwater camera gear.

 

Mirrorless Camera Guide

Updated: March 2018. Email me with questions!

mirrorless-camera-comparison-for-underwater-photography

 

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

olympus-omd-em5-II-mirrorless-camera

The E-M5 Mk II is a great way to get into the mirrorless camera world. Sure, the E-M10 Mk III is cheaper, however the E-M5 Mark II has much improved autofocus speed, image stabilization and burst shooting.

Pros: Small body, powerful mirrorless performance.

$800 | Learn More

 

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II

olympus-omd-em1-II-mirrorless-camera

The E-M1 Mk II is Olympus’ flagship mirrorless camera. It’s packed with a 20MP Live MOS sensor, great 4K video, fast processor, 5-axis image stabilization and has rugged weather sealing.

Pros: Fast, responsive and powerful. Excellent image quality.

$1,700 | Learn More

 

Panasonic LUMIX GH5

panasonic-lumix-gh5-underwater-video

This one is for the videographers. It shoots 4K video at 60fps, allowing for slow motion as well as a variety of file formats for various post-processing needs. Even with a micro 4/3 sensor, the GH5 produces beautiful color tones and vivid still photos.

Pros: Best in class video

$1,999 | Learn More

 

Sony a6500

sony-a6500-mirrorlesss-camera

The Sony a6500 packs an APS-C sensor (the same 1.6 crop factor found on Canon EF-S and Nikon DX cameras) into a small mirrorless body. Tack sharp images, stunning 4K video, and 120fps video at 1080p make this a solid choice for underwater photographers. Note that the Sony a6500 does not perform as well tracking subjects underwater (dark conditions) as the Olympus 60mm macro lens used by the Olympus and Panasonic mirrorless cameras.

Pros: Super sharp and great color

$1,400 | Learn More

 

DSLR Camera Guide

Updated: March 2018. Email me with questions!

dslr-camera-comparison-for-underwater-photography-1

 

Canon 80D

canon-80d-camera

The 80D is a great DSLR for those who want performance without a major price tag. 24MP sensor, 7fps burst, and Canon’s dual-pixel autofocus for fast still photo AF and exceptionally fast focusing in Live View mode (e.g. video).

$999 | Learn More | Canon’s Complete Spec Sheet

 

Canon 7D Mark II

canon-7d-mark-ii-dslr

The 7D brings dual DIGIC 6 processors into a tough body for excellent still image quality, great video, and lighting-fast autofocus. This is the move for Canon fans interested in a crop sensor.

$1,500 | Learn More

 

Nikon D500

nikon-d500-camera The D500 has been getting much acclaim from the underwater photo community since launch, and for good reason – beautiful image quality with impressive dynamic range for an APS-C sensor, quick autofocus and solid low-light performance. If you’re interested in 4K video, however, move along because the D500 applies a heavy sensor crop factor to shoot 4K.

$1,897 | Learn More

 

Sony a7R III

sony-a7r-iii-camera-for-underwater-photography Sony’s newest full-frame mirrorless camera has bumped up the high speed performance of the a7R II. It still sits below the a9 in terms of speed, but now has dual card slots, 10fps burst, 425 autofocus points (up from 25), bigger battery, 4K video that records on the entire full frame sensor, and 1080p @ 120fps for slow motion.

$3,198 | Learn More

 

Nikon D850

nikon-d850-camera-for-underwater-photography

The Nikon D850 has quickly followed up the D500 with a very impressive camera – Nikon has really stepped up. This beast features a 45.7 MP sensor with the processing power to handle 7 fps bursts, 4K video recorded across the entire full frame sensor and even 120fps slow motion at 1080p. Add fast autofocus and beautiful dynamic range and we have a real winner!

$3,297 | Learn More

 

Canon 5D Mark IV

canon-5d-mk-4-underwater The 5D Mk IV is my underwater camera. I have always owned Canon DSLRs and love the color tonality in the full frame 5D sensors. The 5D4 is a great all-around camera, combining beautiful dynamic range with power for fast action (fast AF, processing, etc.). 4K video is recorded with a 1.74x sensor crop factor, but I haven’t found it to be limiting. The 5D4 was an easy choice… but that was before the much newer D850 was released. That said, I love this camera and it produces all the new photos you see on my social feeds.

$3,300 | Learn More | Canon’s Complete Spec Sheet

 

 

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