Gear Guide for Small Underwater Cameras

This article will guide you through the essential accessories for GoPro, Insta360, SeaLife SportDiver, Oceanic+ Dive Housing, and other small underwater cameras.

Action cameras and smartphone housings are rapidly growing in popularity among scuba divers and freedivers, and for good reason. They deliver excellent underwater video with nice color and image quality regardless of whether you’re using them as a no hassle point-and-shoot or with carefully selected manual settings.

Like with larger interchangeable lens cameras, there is a wide range of gear we can use to create better underwater photos and videos in a wider range of dive scenarios. This guide will focus on how to mount your underwater camera housing, filters, and lights, along with my favorite gear – compatible with your action camera or smartphone housing – for each of these applications.



SECTIONS:

Dive Housings

Mounting to Trays, Handles, Poles & Large Housing

Underwater Filters & Video Lights

Arm Systems to Position Video Lights

2 Tutorial Videos on Light Positioning

Best Camera Settings and Comparisons


If you plan to dive with your iPhone, Samsung, Google, or other smartphone you will need to invest in a dive housing. Manufacturers like SeaLife, Oceanic, DiveVolk, and Kraken Sports create dive housings that fit a wide variety of phones, which means that once you purchase the housing, you can likely keep using the housing even once you upgrade phones.

You should also use a dive housing with action cameras. This is essential if you’re diving below 33ft/10m with the GoPro Hero12 or Insta360 Ace Pro, or 59ft/18m with the DJI Osmo Action 4. These are their respective depth ratings without a housing. I recommend using a dive housing if you frequently take your camera in the ocean even at shallow depths since salt water will beat up the camera unless you clean it meticulously after each use (e.g. salt buildup in the microphone holes).

Smartphone Housings

Check out my favorite smartphone housings in my article + video Smartphone Housing Basics.

Action Camera Dive Housings

GoPro Dive Housing (Hero 9-12)

Retail $49.99 | Backscatter Photo | Amazon Prime


Insta360 Ace Pro Waterproof Case

Retail $59.99 | Insta360


DJI Action 4 Waterproof Case

Retail $69 | Amazon Prime


There are many benefits to mounting your action camera or smartphone housing onto a steady platform like a tray. The first is ergonomics, which is more of a factor with smaller action cameras that are hard to hold, especially if using neoprene gloves underwater.

The second benefit to mounting your action camera or smartphone housing is that the larger “rig” helps you keep it stable in the water. Two hands are more stable than one, especially if you press your elbows into your body to keep compact. Sure, GoPro, Insta360, and our mobile phones have great image stabilization, but you really need to hold the camera steady to help the camera achieve stable footage without jumpy jitters to too much distortion in the edges of the frame.

There are three ways to mount your underwater housing: 1) on a tray, 2) on a selfie pole, and 3) on your larger camera housing.

Tray and Handle Systems

Tray and handle systems are the foundation for building a larger camera system. Not only do they allow you to hold the system with a strong handle or dual handles, but the top of the handle offers a mounting point for an arm that can hold a video light. Beyond that, you can even mount extra lenses to your light arm or the tray itself so that they’re safely stowed when not using them during the dive.

Action camera housings and smartphone housings can be mounted to nearly any tray… as long as they fit between the handles. Trays have open slots in the bottom where a universal 1/4-20 t-bolt can be used to attach the housing itself, or GoPro-style adapter, to the tray. These are my favorites.


Backscatter double handle tray

$79 | Backscatter Photo

This tray fits action cameras and some smartphone housings. It can be set up for flex arms or clamp arms (see lighting arms section).


Ultralight GoPro Tray and Handles

$156 | Backscatter Photo ($50 tray + 2 handles)

This kit fits action cameras and smartphone housings. These handles have ball mounts for video light arms (see lighting arms section). Cheaper handles are available for this tray if you don’t want the ball mounts.


SeaLife Sea Dragon single tray

$60 | Amazon Prime (tray + 1 grip)

This tray fits action cameras and smartphone housings. Light is pictured but not included in price to show how easy it is to connect and disconnect the Sea Dragon components.


SeaLife Sea Dragon dual tray

$110 | Amazon Prime (dual tray + 2 grips)

This dual-handle tray fits action cameras and some smartphone housings, although it likely fits larger smartphone housings if you remove one grip. Lights and camera pictured but not included in price.


Ultralight TR-DM2 Tray

$166 | Backscatter Photo ($60 tray + 2 handles)

This is a roomy tray for all smartphone housings. It’s a little big for action cameras, so look at the GPDW tray above if that’s you. Price includes two handles with ball mounts for video light arms (see lighting arms section). Cheaper handles are available for this tray if you don’t want the ball mounts.


$218 | Amazon Prime ($129 tray/handle kit + Shutter Extension Lever)

Diveveryday is making some very interesting accessories for action cameras like GoPro, Insta360, and DJI. The links above are to the tray + handle system as well as the bar on top with the lever for pressing the shutter button without moving your hand from the grip (excellent ergonomics). (Note that the threaded filter/lens adapter, threaded filter, and filter holder in the photo are separate accessories).


Selfie Poles

For underwater video I prefer using the tray and handle systems pictured above. They’re far more stable and allow you to capture lights. That said, sometimes you can’t hold a tray far enough away to take a good selfie… so you need a selfie pole. Just don’t poke the marine life or stick it in front of someone else’s camera from behind them.

The GoPro Max Grip + Tripod is my favorite pole for underwater video and photos. It’s compact and easy to pack while traveling and expands into a tripod for all sorts of uses (static shots, time-lapses, b-roll, etc.).

$53 | Amazon Prime


Mounting to Your Big Housing
GoPro mounted to underwater camera housing

Many avid photographers like to mount an action camera on top of their dive housing, which is used to record b-roll (or even vertical social media video) in between shots since you never know when something amazing will happen in the ocean. You could also mount a smartphone housing, but because they’re larger and it’s harder to quickly push the record button, we nearly always see action cameras used for this purpose.

The best way to mount a GoPro or Ace Pro to your dive housing is via ball mount. Some housings (e.g. Nauticam) have a third ball mount that works for this purpose or you can use a cold-shoe ball mount that attaches, well, to the cold shoe mount on your housing. This ball mount can also be used to mount a focus light for macro photography making it a good investment. You’ll also need a GoPro ball mount adapter and then a clamp to connect both ball mounts.

Below are the components linked in the paragraph above.

Underwater filters can often help bring the reds back into our underwater footage, particularly when using in clear water on sunny days. The game is changing, however, as the Insta360 Ace Pro color corrects footage as it’s recorded frame-by-frame. I’ve found that it works much better than filters on a GoPro.

Underwater video lights will really step up your system, bringing out vivid colors and contrast. The catch is that you need to be close to your subject, usually within 6ft / 2m, since light drops off exponentially underwater. So don’t worry about lights if you’re snorkeling with whales. But if you’re scuba diving and shooting reef scenes up close then you’ll benefit from video lights. One light is great for macro while I always recommend dual lights for wide angle scenes.

Learn all about filters, color correction, the best underwater filters and lights, and when to use filters vs lights in my detailed article GoPro Filters and Color Correction. The article includes several helpful videos!

Video lights can be mounted via an arm and clamp system, flex-lock arm, or SeaLife’s Sea Dragon system. The arm system you choose depends on several factors. Let’s take a look at each.

Loc-Line Arm System
Sample Loc-Line Arm System
Sample loc-line system from Backscatter Photo

Loc-line arm systems are light weight, simple and effective. They’re often recommended for action cameras and smartphone housing kits for these reasons. The only real downsides are that they offer less positioning freedom than arm and clamp systems, they squeak when moved underwater, and they could move in strong current or with sudden movements of the camera rig.

Here is a Backscatter Photo 12″ Loc-Line Arm (with YS-mount light mount). The base would attach to the handle of your tray, so you need to ensure you have the right adapter on the end of the handle.

SeaLife Sea Dragon Flex Connect System

The Sea Dragon Flex-Connect system makes setting up and breaking down your housing incredibly simple. The system clicks together and then releases with the large red buttons visible in the picture. Check out the Sea Dragon single tray photo (in the trays section) for a better visual representation of this.

The arm segments attach to the grip segment. You can also attach two arm segments if you like. At the end, you can use YS-mount adapters or ball-mount adapters, making the system universal with SeaLife lights and all other lights.

Check out this Sea Dragon Dual Tray with dual grips and arms on Amazon (the picture above).

Arm & Clamp System
arm and clamp system example

Arm and clamp systems provide the most versatility in light positioning. In other words, they have the largest range of motion. To understand just how important this is, check out my Underwater Light Positioning tutorial and video.

The downside is that these metal systems are much heavier underwater than the two options above and should be used with floats that help offset the negative buoyancy. The other downside is that they do require loosening the clamps at the start of the dive to provide full positioning flexibility and then tightening them at the end of the dive before exiting the water. Check out the light positioning video below for more details.

Arm and clamp system are the universal choice for mounting lights and strobes to larger camera systems. They last a lifetime, can be used with floats to achieve precise trim, and offer nearly unlimited light positioning options. So, if you plan to upgrade your GoPro, Insta360, or mobile phone housing to an interchangeable lens camera one day, you may want to invest in arms and clamps since they will carry over to the new system.

For a small camera system you will want one 8″ ball arm and two clamps (one to attach to handle and one to attach to your light). For even more flexibility like you would see on a large camera rig you can use both an 8″ arm and a 5″ arm with three clamps (the third clamp connects both arms together).

See Ball Arms at Backscatter Photo.

See Clamps at Backscatter Photo.

You can also check out SeaLife Cameras’ Flex-Connect Ball Arm Kit, pictured below. There is a ball mount adapter for the Flex-Connect Grip and then a second adapter for the that you would only use if you have the Flex-Connect YS Adapter for your video light. If your light has a standard ball mount, then connect that right to the arm with the included second clamp (you don’t need that second adapter in this kit).


Below are some links to videos and tutorial articles with more information on action cameras, smartphone housings, and more.

GoPro Best Underwater Settings

Insta360 Ace Pro Underwater Video Review

Ace Pro vs. Hero12 for Underwater Video

Ace Pro vs. DJI Action 4 for Underwater Video

Smartphone Housing Basics

Smartphone Housings vs GoPro

See you out there in the Wild Sea!

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.