A simple yet detailed guide to choosing your first underwater camera

best underwater camera
GTS girl Renata in Egypt | Photo by Ahmed Gomad

So you're in the market for your first underwater camera, but you have no idea how to start, no background in photography, and are utterly lost. Picking a camera that is right for you can be a mine field and an information overload, especially when you’re spending a lot of money and investing in equipment. So you need to make sure you won’t be disappointed with your underwater camera’s abilities once you start using it. 

 

We've spoken before about underwater photography tips, but in this article we will help you compare the differences between types of underwater cameras, then look at features to look for in cameras when making your decision on which one to purchase. It's a beautiful world down there, so let us help you capture it in the best way possible!

What are the different types of cameras?

Action cameras – simple point and shoot cameras that usually feature a built-in fish eye lens or more recently, a 360 lens. While these are super simple to use and are an easy way to document your dive, if you’re really looking to get into underwater photography, you may find the features quite limiting. You would have seen us talk about action cameras before when we reviewed the Paralenz.

 

Compact cameras – essentially a point and shoot camera, compacts come with a huge range of features depending on how much money you want to spend. While the cheaper ones can leave a lot to be desired, the top of the range models pack some incredible capabilities and sometimes rival dSLRs for a fraction of the price. These are a great place to start with underwater photography as they will allow you to grow your skills without being too overwhelming to start off with. 

 

Mirrorless cameras – these are a great middle ground between compacts and dSLRs – better optics, larger sensors, interchangeable lenses and great image quality, they are smaller than dSLRs but still produce professional grade photos.

 

dSLR cameras – dSLRs are the best type of camera you can get. They provide the best images as they have the best sensors, best lenses and all-round best performance and have very little lag between pressing the shutter button and capturing the shot. However, they are huge, they weigh a lot and the camera and housing will easily set you back a few thousand pounds. It’s important to note, that buying great gear doesn’t equal great shots, so wait until your photography has really developed before splashing the cash on the professional rigs. 

underwater action cameras
We check out the Paralenz action cam

Deciding factors when picking a camera

  • Can it shoot in full manual mode?

If you can considering purchasing an external strobe at some point, you really need to be able to shoot in manual and have full control over exposure and how much ambient light enters the camera.

 

  • Housing availability 

Does the camera you’ve chosen have housings available from different brands so you can shop around? And are they reasonably priced? Are all of the camera’s controls accessible through the housing? What type of connections are available for external strobes? Can you get wet lenses to fit this housing?

 

  • Good macro mode and the ability to get close to your subject

Look at the closest focussing distant. This is usually around 5cm in compacts (although some can get closer… Olympus TG5!)

 

  • Ability to shoot in RAW

Always good to have the option, especially if you plan on working on your images afterwards in Lightroom or Photoshop

 

  • Manual white balance

This makes a huge difference in underwater photography, make this feature high on your priority list. Especially important if shooting with ambient light as it will reduce the overwhelming “blueness” of your photos. A red filter on the front of your lens will not do anywhere near as good a job as custom white balance. 

 

  • Housing accessibility

Can you adjust aperture and shutter speed easily underwater? Are all features on the camera accessible through the housing?

 

  • Strobes 

Can you attach strobes easily and how do they fire? Some use sync cords, others use the cameras pop up flash which can be slow to recycle and can use up battery life.

 

  • Megapixels vs Sensor size

Don’t be fooled by the megapixel count, sensor size is a much more indicative measurement of image resolution.

 

  • Other features

Shutter lag time, battery life, ability to view a histogram, good auto focusing capability.

underwater cameras
GTS Gemma

The best underwater cameras and their pros and cons


GoPro Hero6

Pro's Con's
  • Much improved image quality compared to Hero 5
  • Great wide-angle capacity
  • Relatively cheap way to get into underwater photography
  • Waterproof to 10m without housing
  • Lots of filters and lenses available.
  • Good electronic stabilisation
 
  • Touch screen controls can’t be used with housing
  • Limited exposure controls
  • Fixed focus lens, no zoom
  • Can’t trigger strobes for still photos
 

Sealife Micro 2.0

Pro's Con's
 
  • Designed for underwater photography, meant to be used by divers
  • Engineered to handle lighting conditions underwater
  • User friendly – large piano keys, easy menu
  • Factory sealed body, no o-rings to maintain and no risk of flooding.
  • Built in fish eye lens
 
  • No manual controls for advanced photographers
  • Cannot show in RAW.

Paralenz

Pro's

Con's
 
  • Only camera out there with depth colour correction – uses software to change white balance depending on depth
  • Integrated housing – 200m rating. Cannot fog
  • Shock resistant and can handle extreme temperatures
  • Long battery life that isn’t affected by cold water.
  • Easy to use even with thick gloves
  • Records dive profile
  • Really small and light, similar to a torch.
  • No screen so difficult to know what you are shooting
 

Canon G7x Mark II

Pro's Con's
 
  • Great custom white balance colour
  • Great macro capability
  • Manual flash exposure option for quick shooting
  • Produces stunning images,
  • Often perceived as easier to handle and more user friendly than RX100 V, also cheaper
  • Sequence to set custom white balance is long
  • Doesn’t shoot 4K video
  • Housing is as expensive as the camera
 

Sony RX100 V

Pro's Con's
 
  • Arguably known as the best compact camera to date
  • Small in size
  • Sharp lens, produces stunning photos and videos with superb clarity and colours
  • Can shoot stills at 16 frames per second!
  • Short battery life
  • Expensive
  • Lack of manual flash output
  • Can’t white balance at depth.
  • Maximum 5 minute clip length when shooting video.
 

Olympus Tough TG-5

Pro's Con's
 
  • Unprecedented built in macro capabilities
  • Halfway between an action camera and a compact
  • Can handle rough conditions and abuse
  • Excellent image quality and allows for plenty of additional accessories
  • Waterproof body
  • Automatic modes for underwater
  • Great autofocus speed and accuracy. 
  • Smaller sensor than its rivals
  • Can’t do custom white balance in video mode
  • Cannot shoot in manual.
 


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