Cameras for Underwater Photography

Starting underwater photography can seem daunting at first. It’s challenging to understand what gear you actually need. Initial budgeting often gets shut down upon learning of necessary accessories that quickly add hundreds of dollars to the package.

I’m here to help as a camera gear advisor. 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. Email me anytime.

This article is essentially a basic guide to cameras for underwater photography. From there, we need to look at housings, lenses, ports (for mirrorless and DSLR), lighting and lots of little accessories.

slender crinoid shrimp supermacro
The right camera gear will deliver the sharp images you’re looking for, whether it’s a whale or a crinoid shrimp.

Cameras can be broken down into three main categories:

Compact Cameras

Mirrorless vs. DSLR Overview

Mirrorless Cameras

DSLR Cameras

Compact Camera Guide

Compact cameras are the smallest group in terms of size and weight, 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, and 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 your aim is a pro system and you choose high-quality lighting accessories that will upgrade systems when you’re ready.

The primary drawbacks of compact cameras are the smaller sensor (than those of mirrorless and DSLR cameras) and the focus lag (often called shutter lag). Both of these are not something a beginner underwater photographer would notice but that experienced topside shooters may quickly find frustrating.

Compact Camera Comparison

Updated: Jan 2019. Email me with questions.

compact camera chart 2019
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.

The Olympus housing is robust, affordable and compatible with a wide range of lens and lighting accessories. 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 HERO7 Black
gopro hero7 black

It’s GoPro – a super fun, small video camera. We look at the HERO7 Black edition for underwater video, since it is the only model compatible with the Super Suit dive housing (required past 33ft (10m).

GoPro is an affordable way to capture nice underwater video without much hassle. I recommend the camera for video but not for still photos (although experienced shooters can create nice raw images with a GoPro).

If you’re a casual underwater video shooter looking for a compact, easy way to shoot some underwater video, then the HERO7 Black is for you.

Pros: Easy to use, 4K60 / 1080p240, waterproof to 33ft without Super Suit, Protune manual settings available.

Cons:  Not great for macro. Not best option for stills.

$400 + $50 Super Suit | Learn More

HERO6 Settings  |  HERO7 Settings  |  GoPro Filters & Lighting

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.

The camera is also compatible with the SeaLife Sea Dragon flash and other 3rd party strobes.

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.

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.

Which RX100?: The entire RX100 series is still on sale, which can make the decision process challenging. Each model has some pros and cons. The latest model, the RX100 VI, features a new lens with longer optical zoom. While this makes it more versatile on land, I still lean towards the RX100 V due to its cheaper price.

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

$1,000 + housing | Learn More

OTHER GREAT RESOURCES

Mirrorless vs. 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.

Curious what I’m shooting? Check out my Underwater Camera Gear.

Mirrorless Camera Guide

Updated: Jan 2019. Email me with questions.

mirrorless camera chart 2019
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.

$1,600 | 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

$1,700 | 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: Jan 2019. Email me with questions.

dslr camera chart 2019 underwater
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 | Canon’s Complete Spec Sheet

Nikon D7200
nikon d7200 camera

The Nikon D7200 is a great option for those who don’t want to spring for the more robust D500, as both are crop DX sensors. 51 autofocus points, a fast processor, and crisp images make the D7200 stand out. It has 24 MP like the Canon 80D.

$800 | Learn more

Canon 7D Mk 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 | Canon’s Complete Spec Sheet

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Brent Durand

Professional writer and underwater photo instructor. Brent is an avid diver and surfer, and has led many intensive photo workshops around the world. BrentDurand.com.