Eager to record your scuba diving adventures but unsure which is the right underwater camera for you?
Never fear! To help you along, we’ve reviewed the best dive cameras of 2021. We’ve highlighted the pros, exposed the cons and given each scuba diver camera a special title for what we think it’s best suited to.
Each scuba diver cam also gets a Diving Squad rating that takes into account image capabilities plus features like white balance, dive modes and video stabilisation as well as also overall value for money.
After the reviews section, we’ve included a broad overview of what you need to consider when choosing the best dive camera for you e.g. your budget, what you specifically want to use it for and more.
Finally, we’ll look at dive photography / videography issues like white balance, autofocus, low light performance and underwater exposure.
By the end of this article, you’ll be 110% familiar with the best underwater cameras currently available and ready to start immortalising your scuba adventures!
Without question, the Olympus Tough TG 6 is the best underwater camera for beginners thanks to its great image quality, simple user interface and excellent features.
The TG 6 is a rugged and compact underwater camera that is freezeproof, shockproof, and fully waterproof to 50ft / 15m without it’s underwater housing, and waterproof to 147ft / 45 meters with it’s separately purchased underwater housing.
It has the ability to shoot excellent quality 4K video at 30fps (frames per second) or 1080p at 120fps and has a 12mp sensor for snapping crisp, clear photos.
The image stabilization of the Olympus TG 6 corrects any lens shake to allow smooth and seamless footage, whilst the RAW support results in higher quality images and the ability to correct photos that would normally be hard to fix.
The Olympus Tough TG 6 is one of the best dive cameras for macro, thanks to it’s dynamic focus range of infinity to 3.9 inches / 10cm as well as an effective macro / microscope mode. Being able to also focus to a distance of infinity; it can shoot macro and wide angle on the same dive.
Furthermore, it has an 25-100m optical zoom lens that is fog resistant! For those who prefer wide angle photography, it’s also possible to mount separate wet lenses on the TG 6.
This waterproof camera doesn’t have full manual mode, instead relying on an easy auto mode and shortcut menu, which makes it extremely easy to use even for beginners, although more experienced underwater photographers/videographers may find this a little limiting. White balance can be manually adjusted with this dive camera.
Affordable, high performing and packed with useful features for novice underwater photographers and macro lovers, the TG 6 is currently one of the most popular underwater cameras among scuba divers and with good reason.
SeaLife are one of the only two companies (the other being Paralenz) to focus on providing cameras exclusively to divers and this is immediately evident by the fact that their Micro 3.0 dive cameras are permanently sealed within their waterproof housing and have three underwater shooting modes as well as three underwater color correction settings.
In it’s shockproof, special rubber grip casing, the Micro 3.0 can be taken to an impressive 200ft / 60m deep – which is significantly deeper than most other underwater cameras can go.
This dive camera has three large piano key buttons that are designed specifically for underwater use and are easily accessible, even with thick dive gloves.
The Micro 3.0 shoots high quality, full HD 4K video at 30fps (frames per second) and features image stabilization to allow for smooth shooting by correcting lens shake. It is one of the very best underwater cameras for scuba divers who mainly want to shoot video, although with an 16 MP sensor, it can also take crisp, detailed photos.
The Micro 3.0 allows upside-down shooting as well as time lapse mode and super slow motion.
This waterproof camera has a number of manual mode features allowing you to fine tune your underwater images and it’s intuitive, easy setup guide quickly walks users through the correct settings based on the shooting environment, depth and lighting accessories used.
For an extra charge you can also buy the SeaLife Micro 3.0 with a table mount and a mountable dive light with four modes and red and white light. A macro lens is also available, with a focus range of 10 – 15cm.
The fact that the Micro 3.0 dive cameras are so light, compact, durable and…well… stylish (!) is also very welcome. All in all, this dedicated dive camera is easy to use and offers superb video quality as well as excellent photos. It’s one of our favourite dive cameras of all time.
The Paralenz Vaquita has been made by divers for divers and is quite unlike any other waterproof camera currently available. For starters, you can take it deeper than any other camera. Straight out the box it’s waterproof to 350m / 1150 ft!
Another unique selling point, is the Vaquita’s automatic color correction system. These dive cameras know how deep you are and adjust the white balance accordingly, removing the need for any filters.
It can take 12mp or 10mp wide photos – they’re not as detailed as that of some other dive cameras, however the color correction system means that they still look better than say any images taken by say, a GoPro that are deeper than 10m.
The Paralenz Vaquita is extremely simple to use, being operated via just one easy to control button and having an intuitive user interface that will be very useful for beginners although may seem a tad simple to more advanced photographers.
With the Paralenz app, you can edit, organize and share videos. Every video you take with the Paralenz cam shows your dive profile, the global location, depth and temperature of each dive. This is all displayed on the True Color OLED screen, which also shows what your recording.
Paralenz are the only underwater camera company to have partnered with dozens of ocean research companies. Sighted a rare species somewhere it hasn’t been seen in a long time? Witnessed strange behaviour that’s not been seen before?? Let those researchers know!
Once uploaded, your videos will become available to Paralenz research partners, arming them with more knowledge to help better preserve marine ecosystems as well as to other divers, whose videos you in turn can view.
With some of the best image quality out there, plenty of adjustable settings and easy-to-use controls, the Canon Powershot G7X III makes for the best underwater photography camera of all time. Unlike the other options we’ve so far reviewed, the Powershot is not specifically geared towards scuba diving but it does offer the best image quality.
The Canon Powershot G7X III has a 1” sensor that performs extremely well. Low light situations, once the bane of a compact cameras existence, are not a problem for the G7X III. Higher also ISOs look very good.
The lens of the Canon Powershot G7X III offers exceptional quality, with excellent macro work and it is also relatively fast for when you need some bokeh. Macro photos are of a stunning quality for a compact and auto focus is overall very good.
The Canon Powershot G7X III has an intuitive interface and is easy to use. Manuel control is possible with the G7X III as is RAW shooting. As is the case with most Canons, the white balance, in particular, is spot on with the G7X III and really shines underwater. With a huge, 3″ LCD screen, it’s easy to see the picture you’re framing and the settings being applied.
All things considered, this is an extremely capable underwater photography camera, one that can produce exceptional photographs, provided you use the settings correctly. For experienced underwater photographers, this will take your image quality to the next level.
Action cameras make for natural scuba diving cameras because they’re durable, easy to use and can be placed in cheap, underwater housing.
GoPro are a legendary brand in the action camera world – to this day continue to produce the absolute best action cameras going. Their newest model – the GoPro Hero 9 is currently the only diving camera that has the ability to shoot in 5K (30 fps), which results in superb video resolution!
It can also snap phenomenal 20MP images with it’s 23.6 (huge!) MP sensor! Image stabilisation has been improved once more – the Hero 9 features GoPros strongest stabilization technology to date: “hyper smooth blast”, which makes for ultra smooth, shake free video footage.
The GoPro Hero 9 is rugged, durable and waterproof to 30 ft / 10m without a housing and up to 196 ft / 60m with the housing. The GoPro Hero 9’s waterproof casing must be purchased separately, but it is extremely cheap at less than $20.
Other useful features of the Hero 9 are white balancing, live burst capture, RAW support and 8 X slow motion. An extremely cool part of the setup of this action cam is that it allows users to switch between settings to combine features: for example video quality with slow motion or time warp and screen size.
Despite it’s extremely high optical qualities, durability and being one of the most compact cameras, like all action cameras, the Hero9 is cheaper than most other diving cameras.
Action cameras aren’t as easy to operate underwater as more dedicated dive cameras. That’s because when encased in their underwater housing, they can only be controlled via a single button, which means it takes longer to scroll through settings and options.
However, barring this one minor frustration, action cameras are extremely affordable underwater cameras with lot’s of great features and high specs. And as we’ve now seen, the Hero 9 is the best underwater action cam of them all.
(We have a main article on the best underwater action cameras).
At less than $60, the Crosstour CT9100 is the most affordable underwater camera out there – yet it packs a serious punch in terms of the features and overall quality that it provides.
This cheap action camera’s waterproof housing, which allows it to be taken to 40m / 131 ft, is included in the main price along with various mounting accessories, a strap and a fixed base. Durable and lightweight, the Crosstour is extremely easy to travel with, being one of the most compact cameras out there.
It can shoot video in 4K at 30fps as well as having 20mp photo resolution; admittedly image detail is lower than that of other diving cameras; however it’s still of a decent enough quality to impress people on social media and youtube!
The anti-shake feature, whilst not as developed as the image stabilization of more expensive diving cameras, is capable of considerably reducing camera lens shake, to result in smoother video.
Although the overall quality and number of features of the Crosstour isn’t on par with more expensive underwater cameras…for less than $60, what do you expect!? For the price it comes at, the Crosstour offers truly exceptional value for money and is a great first time dive camera for beginners or a good expendable, backup cam.
To discover other cheap scuba diving cameras, check out our main page on: Best Budget Underwater Cameras.
(Yes, we’re taking a moment out from scuba diving cameras to review an underwater camera best suited for snorkeling (or dives that don’t exceed 30m!). Skip past this section, to read about underwater cameras that can go deeper and are better suited to scuba divers).
Straight off the bat, we want to explain that although the Lumix TS7 feels more like a snorkelling camera, it can be taken on dives!
Whereas all the other underwater cameras we’ve reviewed can go to at least 40m / 131ft when in their casing, the Lumix TS7 is only waterproof to 30m / 102ft. Although many recreational scuba dives stay above 30m, experienced recreational divers do sometimes go down to 40m, a depth at which the Lumix TS7 would break! However, it’s fine for lighter depths.
This is a compact and durable camera – it’s drop proof from a height of 6.6 feet and also freeze-proof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The 20.4 megapixel, wide angle lens is extremely high quality and captures crisp, detailed photos. There is also a 4.6 X optical zoom which is especially useful for snorkelers wanting to get more detail on something far below.
You can shoot in full HD 4K video, plus a special feature allows you can turn 4K video frames (30fps) into decent 8mp mp equivalent high res images. The Lumix TS7 is also designed for use on land – the built in altimeter and compass are great for hiking through the mountains with.
What makes the Lumix TS7 uniquely well suited to snorkeling is that unlike other cameras we’ve reviewed, it has an electronic viewfinder, which makes it easy to see the image you’re trying to capture, even if bright sunlight is washing out the screen.
That said, an electronic viewfinder is less ideal as you go down deeper, which is why the Panasonic Lumix TS7 really is best suited snorkeling instead of diving.
So far, the diving cameras we’ve reviewed have all on the low to medium price point spectrum. Some, such as the SeaLife Micro 3.0 and the Olympus Tough TG 6 are high quality cameras with excellent features for divers such as underwater shooting modes and controls that are easy to access even with thick diving gloves.
However, if you’re willing to lay down some considerable dosh ($), you can buy an extremely high quality mirrorless or DSLR camera that will have unbeatable image quality thanks to a huge sensor size – although it won’t be orientated towards scuba diving.
Also, do realise, that underwater housing for high-end cameras must be purchased separately and usually has an expensive price tag attached.
You’ll need to be an experienced photographer in order to know how to operate these cameras often complicated settings, in order to get the best out of them underwater. But if you are able to do this, the results can be quite spectacular.
With an enormous Micro Four Thirds 21.7 mp sensor that offers superb image quality and excellent low light performance, the Panasonic LX100 II is our favourite high end point and shoot underwater camera.
It’s surprising but awesome to see a micro four thirds sensor, which is usually reserved for larger mirrorless cameras, in a point and shoot. However, doing so means that the LX100 II has some of the best low light performance and dynamic range of all compact cameras.
The LX100 II can go to 100m / 330ft with it’s Nauticam housing, which is made of Aluminum that has been moulded especially to fit this camera. Because any shape and design can be CNC machined from alumium, the housing for the LX100 II is extremely well contoured, with the buttons being easy to control and highly accessible.
This premium camera has a fast and very sharp leica lens that further helps in dim situations, not to mention renders great photos. Wide angle and macro shots are particularly good, which are the two types that divers will probably be using most. At 24-75mm, the focal range is notably short compared to other compact cameras.
The controls of the Panasonic LX100 II are extremely intuitive and allow for more manual mode customization than most other compact dive cameras in its class. Exposure is fully adjustable and the white balance metering is very accurate.
The auto focus keeps up very well regardless of the fps and even functions admirably in low light. To top everything off, the Panasonic LX100 can shoot in 4K Ultra HD video!
When the first Sony RX100 was released it was a groundbreaker, thanks to its exceptional image quality, blazing fast frame rate, and pint-sized package. The Sony RX100 VII is the latest and greatest of the line and so offers the best of all these things.
Weighing just 302 grams, it is an exceptionally lightweight and compact camera, with an overall size of 4″ x 2.29″ x 1.68″, the Sony RX100 takes up very little packing space indeed.
It has a full 1” 20.1 Mp sensor that renders gorgeous photos. The built-in 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 performs very well but is a little short focally. Macro photography is not the Sony RX100 VII’s forte either and it only creates decent photos up close. You’ll need to buy additional wet lenses for proper macro photography.
On that note, the auto focus of the Sony RX100 VII is also very fast and snaps to in a blink of an eye. Effective image stabilization also limits hand shake. For those who like to capture sharks or other nimble sea critters, the Sony RX100 VII maybe be the best compact camera for you.
The Sony RX100 VII also shoots full HD 4K video without any fisheye distortion and with a phenomenal optical zoom with a range of 24-200m it is superb for macro photography!
Few other underwater mirrorless cameras can compete with the stellar combination of the Sony Alpha line’s size, performance, and accessibility.
The Sony Alpha a6600 continues this trend by blowing photographers away with its a whopping 24MP APS-C sized sensor; which provides ultra detailed images and ultra HD 4k video with no fisheye distortion, whilst supporting multiple aspect ratios including 4:3 (17 mp), 3:2 and 16:9, without any change in focal depth!
The well developed image stabilising technology of this camera also results in smooth, shake free video footage.
Despite it’s stellar specs, the Sony a6600 is extremely compact, being about the size of a cell phone; albeit thicker. Because of this, it lacks many physical controls that are normally present, which will appeal to some, but may be frustrating to others. You can still change all of the usual settings via one of the many in-camera menus.
Using WiFi integration, you can hook your Alpha A6600 to the Panasonic Image APP to easily edit share videos and photos on social media! This is the best underwater camera of a mirrorless design out there.
Currently the Nikon D780 is the best underwater DSLR camera on the market, having a formidable 24.5 mp full frame image sensor and being able to capture UHD 4K video, whilst also featuring a rich selection of advanced controls.
It offers improved time-lapse movies to shutter speeds of 1/8000 to 900 s as well as diverse movie functions including 4K UHD/30p with HDR (HLG) support. Plus, there’s 20 unique high quality creative picture controls.
The D780 may be expensive – as is it’s separately purchased underwater casing, but combined, these two items are a truly special bit of kit for any advanced underwater photographer.
Used correctly, this camera will capture incredibly rich and detailed photos, even at the low lighting levels associated with deeper dives.
Plus, it’s 51 point AF system can detect and track subjects better than virtually any other underwater camera can.
However, the one thing the Nikon D780 is missing is in body image stabilisation when shooting video. It can be hard to avoid lens shake underwater! Without image stabilisation, the Nikon D780 can only really shine through for photography, not underwater videography.
Despite it’s small size and lightness, the Olympus OMG EM-5 Mark III is insanely durable – it’s has an IPX1 protection rating, which means it’s fully weather resistant and the exterior is made from tough, composite plastic.
Of course, in order to take this camera underwater, you’ll still need to purchase the underwater housing separately but at least it’s still relatively affordable compared to other high end cameras. With it, the Mark III can go to 600 ft / 200m.
The OM-D E-M5 Mk.III excels at still images thanks to its superb auto focus, shooting speed, and 5-axis image stabilization. It can shoot stills up 30 fps with full stabilization and neither the auto focus or buffer lag behind. Olympus also makes some of the finest and most impressive lenses in the business so you should have plenty of optical options.
The E-M5 II does use a smaller Micro Four-Thirds sensor so it still can’t compete with larger APS-C or full frame camera in dim situations. That said, this sensor has 20 Mp and so it still renders very attractive images.
Most impressively, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III can record videos at 4K UHD 2160p! Also, the improved image stabilisation offers up to 5.5EV shake even when recording in video, meaning the Olympus is a great camera for shooting underwater video to!
With the Lumix GH5, you are able to capture stunning 4k videos and stills that are comparable in quality to much more expensive full frame bodies.
The Panasonic Lumix GH5 shoots some of the best videos in the game thanks to its full-sensor-width 4k shooting, which can shoot up to 60 fps with a staggering video resolution of 4096 X 2160. Videos shot by the GH5 are extremely sharp and don’t suffer from any pixel dumping at all. Fisheye distortion is entirely non-existent with the Lumix GH5.
Plus, it has a 20MP image sensor that snaps extremely detailed and clear images!
The GH5 performs very well underwater (when inside it’s housing!), thanks to excellent metering, autofocusing and image stabilization. It also features improved white balance metering, which particularly helps out when shooting at greater depths, where light is more limited.
Although it’s more expensive than most other premium underwater cameras, the Lumix GH5 offers truly exceptional quality – it’s a superb choice for anyone whose serious about underwater videography.
If you can lay down some serious money and you’re after a professional camera that can be taken underwater (with a separately purchased underwater case), the Sony Alpha A7R IV is the number one choice to go for.
With it’s truly gargantuan 61 MP sensor (the first in the world!), this professional underwater camera offers image detail and quality that no other camera can come even close to matching.
The Sony Alpha A7R IV is packed with features including advanced image stabilization, exceptional autofocus and countless shooting options.
There’s really very little to criticize the Sony Alpha A7R III in regards to image/video quality. Dynamic range and high ISO performance are spectacular in the A7R III. Videos can be recorded at 4k and are predictably gorgeous. You can also mount extra interchangeable lenses on this camera, which expands the shooting opportunities with it immensely.
Even though the Sony Alpha A7R VI can at first seem like an intimidating camera, it is actually not that hard to use. The physical controls are all fairly easy to understand the in-cameras are effective. Once you figure the many modes and features that this camera has, like focusing peaking, your underwater photography will be taken to a new level.
The Canon 5D Mark IV shoots stunning 4k video, which, in addition to all of the aforementioned features, makes it one of the best underwater video cameras for professionals as well.
Below is a list of features that one needs to think about before choosing the best dive camera for themselves. Consider all of these points and then revisit over our choices one more time. With some research and enough time to brainstorming, the best diver camera for you will become clear.
We’ve also written an entire separate article about nailing Underwater Photography.
Generally speaking, you can turn just about any camera into a dive camera so long as you have the proper housing for it. Good news is that the majority of digital cameras have their own special waterproof shells thanks to third-party manufacturers. This means that you have a lot of options when it comes to choosing the type of dive camera best for you.
(GoPro, Garmin, TomTom Bandit…) – Action camera make great underwater cameras because they are designed to survive in various conditions and to take great videos.
They are very affordable as well, which makes them some of the best dive cameras for beginners. Action cameras are on their own waterproof but usually only to a minor degree – you’ll need to use an additional housing if you’re going diving. Action cams are often very poor at still photography.
(Canon GX7, Sony RX100, Olympus Tough TG 6…) – Compacts make some of the best dive cameras because they usually offer a good mix of size, image quality, and affordability. They’re also very easy to use thanks to their lamens design.
Compact cameras sacrifice a lot of functionality for ease of use. Many lack the advanced features that are necessary for higher-grade photography. Most also have smaller sensors, which struggle in low light. You’ll have to buy a good compact camera to regain these features.
Some point-and-shoots are built to be waterproof and shockproof, thus making them rugged compacts. This means, depending on how deep you’re going, you may not have to buy and expensive dive housing.
(Sony a6000, Panasonic GH5…) – Mirrorless cameras are a step-up from compacts and are one step closer to DSLRs. They offer excellent image quality, portability, and usability thanks to a plethora of features and technology.
Unfortunately, mirrorless cameras usually suffer from short battery life. They can also be big investments as you’ll definitely need an underwater housing and multiple lens ports. Granted, most mirrorless cameras are still not as big or pricey as DSLRs.
(Canon 5D, Nikon D7200…) – DSLRs are often considered to be among the best dive cameras for professionals. They are very powerful, have great battery lives, and huge libraries of lenses to choose from.
DSLR cameras are also the biggest, heaviest, and most expensive cameras for underwater photography. Adequate dive housings cost at least $1,500 and can be a whole lot more. This plus the learning curve that DSLrs usually demand make them inappropriate for first time underwater photographers.
Size and weight play an important part in both the transport of all of your gear and, to a lesser extent, how it interacts with you in the water.
You’ll want to keep the total weight of your equipment under 50 lbs because a) it sucks to carry around more and b) you’ll get hit with an excess baggage fee at the airport for anything more.
You’ll have to consider the size and weight of all of your gear and not just the camera when packing/hauling your bags. The mass or additional accessories like strobes, extra lenses, and monitors all add up, very quickly. They may not feel as heavy in the water but they will feel heavy when you try to leave the house.
You’ll definitely need a special bag or carrying case to protect your equipment. Depending on how much you have and how much you travel, you might need a hard case like the Pelican 1500. At that rate, you should always have some sort of insurance as well; disaster can strike at any time.
Buoyancy and maneuverability are somewhat influenced by the size and weight of a camera system though not by much. Most camera housings are already designed to be neutral in water so whether you like them to be more or less buoyant is really up to you. How hands-free you like to be or how easily you like to move around is a little more relevant.
Do you mind swimming around with a kit that’s the size of a large steering wheel? Then a DSLR with a housing is possible for you. Do you want both of your hands-free and feel less encumbered? Then a rugged compact, which can fit in a pocket, is probably for you.
When choosing the best dive camera, it is very important to make sure that the controls are understandable and accessible. On that note, it is also crucial to have the right controls that will allow you to change settings manually and really nail a photo. The best dive camera for you will strike the right balance between usability and customizability.
Controlling a camera underwater is a similar experience to controlling one on land. You’ll still have to change settings like exposure, white balance, and shooting modes via a series of physical and in-menu controls. Being able to access and understand these is very important. Consider buying a camera with good manual controls and, if you struggle with these, learn how to use them.
Underwater camera housings are designed to work specifically with certain cameras and are usually pretty responsive. Not every button may be available though when a housing is installed and those present may not be perfectly tuned. Some underwater housing controls may be finicky or tedious to use.
Those who prefer to shoot in automatic modes will probably be frustrated underwater because cameras often struggle to get a proper reading when submerged. Strange lighting conditions tend to cause autofocusing systems to search and exposures to be thrown off. Unless a camera is specifically designed to be used underwater, most will have greater difficulty with metering while diving.
In particular, some cameras really struggle with white balancing when underwater and may not even be capable of registering the temperature of the scene. If your camera cannot get a proper WB reading, you may need to invest in a red filter to compensate for the extra blue castes. Thankfully, more and more cameras these days have broad enough temperature scales to get a proper WB reading while underwater.
Finding the best underwater camera housing is equally as important as choosing the best camera for underwater photography. The housing provides crucial protection against water, trauma as well as pressure.
Not all underwater housings are created equal and divers should be very particular about the quality of a potential housing. All sorts of features should be taken into consideration like maximum depth, building materials, accessory ports, and internal components.
Each dive housing will be rated to go up to a maximum depth before compromisation becomes a risk. Depths range from 150 to 300+ feet. Take note of how deep you usually dive and which rating is best for you. If you should spring a leak, some housings come with a leakage alarm, which is pretty useful.
The internal components of an underwater camera housing can be physical or electronic. Electronic components may be faster and more responsive but can fail more easily. Physical components can sometimes be tedious to use but work for the most part at least. You must also consider if a housing can accommodate additional accessories, including lights, floats, and lens ports.
Build-wise, underwater housings are usually made of either high-grade plastic (polycarbonate) or aluminum. Polycarbonate is lighter and cheaper but is more prone to breaking as well as internal fogging. Aluminum is the strongest, most reliable material and can last for years but costs an arm and a leg. Aluminum housings generally offer smoother operation as well thanks to higher-quality design work.
We made the Ikelite our go-to dive camera housing because they’re relatively (big emphasis on relatively) affordable and effective. Being made primarily of polycarbonate though, Ikelites are not the most durable camera housings currently available.
If you want something supremely hardy, that can go deeper and take more of a beating, then we suggest going with Nauticam brand dive housings. Made from strong aluminum housing materials, Nauticam housings are among the best underwater camera housings currently available. They are (no surprise) extremely expensive.
If you just want to snap a few photos while diving and don’t care about having the best camera for underwater photography, then stick with an easy and inexpensive dive camera. These cameras are very easy to use and provide images that are good enough. You may not have to worry about buying extra lenses or lighting accessories either.
If you wanted to take the best images possible, there are many things to consider. Several factors play a role in image quality and you’ll need to think about each. Most importantly you need to be aware of the sensor, lens selection, and lighting.
Camera sensors play a huge part in how images turn out. Larger sensors generally have greater dynamic range and function better in low light situations, the latter of which is near constant underwater. Lots of mirrorless cameras and DSLRs have full frame sensors but know that they will be heavier and more expensive.
Lenses also influence image quality and directly affect aspects like sharpness, contrast, DOF, and distortion. Choosing the right lens really depends on which camera company you invested in and what’s available from them. The Broke Backpacker has already written guides on the best Canon lenses and Nikon lenses but know that Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony all make excellent lenses as well.
Lighting is very important in underwater photography. Because water absorbs so much light, aquatic scenes are almost always dim and lacking color. To really capture the vibrancy of an underwater subject, you’ll need extra lighting equipment. Extra equipment adds extra weight and costs, of course.
Artificial lights or strobes come in varying outputs and sizes for varying scenes. For macro, you may just need one decent strobe. For wide angle shots, you’ll definitely need two. Underwater videography requires special video lights.
You’re going to need a good dive camera that can keep up with you while diving. Depending on what kind of shooter and how demanding you are will determine which dive camera is best for your needs.
Many of the features that are most important to terrestrial photography, like autofocus, burst rate, and battery life, are just as crucial if not more so in underwater photography. Each camera does one of these better or worse and offers its own unique set of performance-related benefits.
The best dive cameras will have very good autofocusing systems. Visibility and contrast will be limited in water, especially when it’s cold and murky, so you’ll need all the help you can get.
Camera speed can be crucial when shooting very fast moving subjects. To capture those elusive sea critters, you’ll need a camera with high burst rates and buffering speeds, just like on dry land.
Battery life is also very important to consider when looking for the best dive camera. If your camera battery dies, you’ll have to take it out of the housing and insert a new one, which can be a tedious process especially if you’re mid-dive and have to resurface.
Your strobes will also need their own batteries, which usually come in the form of AA or AAAs. Depending on how long you’re submerged this may not be a problem but for a full days’ diving expect to change batteries at least once.
Aquatic videographers who need the best underwater camera for video may also find 4k shooting indispensable. As the current industry standard for professional video, 4k is an absolute must for many. Thankfully, many recent cameras come equipped with this tech; it’s just a matter of which ones use it best.
Lenses play an enormous role in image quality and greatly influence the nature of your photos. Depending on what kind of underwater photos you want to take and what kind of underwater housing you’re willing to invest in, you’ll have to take lenses largely into consideration.
If you’ve chosen a cheap underwater camera like a compact or point-and-shoot, then lenses play a lesser role. Since compacts come with a built-in lens already, their respective underwater housings should be designed to accommodate them (there are rare exceptions).
Compact cameras offer inferior image quality and sometimes unacceptable FOVs (fields of view) when compared to interchangeable systems. Wide angle photography and macro photography is really the way to go while diving and most compacts only do one or neither of these things well. You can invest in wet lenses, which essentially act as adapters, that add a little extra macro or wide angle capability but these are often underwhelming.
To really have full photographic control, you’ll need a camera that can change lenses. The best dive cameras have excellent wide angle or macro lens options.
Note that when using different lenses with a underwater housing, you’ll need the appropriate lens port. A lens port is, essentially, a separate housing for your lens that varies in size and shape. Since no lens is the same neither physically or optically, each lens port will be unique. Check to see if the port comes with a focus and zoom ring and if you even need these.
Wide angle lens will need a dome-shaped port to avoid vignetting and maintain proper FOV. Macro lenses generally use flat ports. Some larger lenses may need additional extensions as well.
Lens ports are made with glass or acrylic. Glass is more durable but is heavier and more expensive. Acrylic is cheap and light but is prone to scratching.
Underwater photography is not a cheap hobby. Between the camera, lenses, and underwater housing, you could easily spend more than $1000, which is not an insignificant amount.
At the end of the day, finding the best dive camera really comes down to how much you’re willing to spend. If you’re a novice or casual hobbyist, you may find that an inexpensive underwater camera is the best thing for you. On that note, you may not even need a strong (and expensive) dive housing as you will not probably not be going anywhere near the limits of say 150 or 200 ft.
If you’re a professional with a more flexible budget, then the sky’s the limit when it comes finding the best underwater camera for photography.
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