Underwater Digital Cameras

Review of the best Compact, dSLR & Mirrorless cameras for underwater photography
By Scott Gietler

Choosing the best underwater camera can be difficult, even with an underwater camera guide. The digital revolution opened up a brave new world for underwater photographers.  Underwater digital cameras allow us to immediately see the results of our photos, and share them with our friends when we get home. Very few users of film have tried an underwater digital camera and not switched.

If you are looking to purchase a new underwater camera, we recommend also checking out Bluewater Photo's Best Underwater Camera Guide.

 

 

 

 

Jump to:

Best Compact Cameras for Underwater Photography

Best dSLR Cameras for Underwater Photography

Best Mirrorless (Micro Four Thirds) Cameras for Underwater Photography

 

Links to:

Camera Reviews

Underwater Housing Reviews

Bluewater Photo - Expert Advice on Underwater Housings & Accessories

 

 

 

Compacts vs. dSLR Cameras for Underwater Photography

 

Which type of underwater digital camera should you buy? What is the best underwater camera? Read this comprehensive guide to find out.

There are compact cameras, mirrorless, and dSLRs. Read more about mirrorless cameras.

After shooting with a compact underwater camera, many people consider switching to a mirrorless or a dSLR. The obvious advantages are lens choices with superior optics and different focal lengths, better image quality from a larger sensor and reduced shutter lag and focus delays. These are huge advantages, and shooting with a dSLR is quite a joy. Very few people regret changing. However, a compact camera in the right hands can sometimes take shots that rival a dSLR shot, and the dSLR advantages of shutter lag and focus delay can be less important with non-moving subjects.

The largest difference between a compact camera and a dSLR or mirrorless camera is that a dSLR or mirrorless can take different lenses, while a compact camera has one attached lens. This is a very big difference that limits the flexibility of a compact camera, although wet lenses can help bridge this distance to some extent.

The best camera for underwater photography may be a full-frame mirrorless camera. New models like the Nikon Z7 and the Canon EOS R are setting a new standard for stills and video in one package.

 

best underwater camera

 

Mirrorless camera - E-M5 II bundle deal

The Olympus OM-E-M5 II underwater bundle deal is the best deal out there currently for an underwater camera set, $1,299 instead of $2,499 - get one while you can!

Let's look more advantages and disadvantages of a compact camera, when compared to a dSLR:

Compact underwater camera advantages:

  • Smaller size for travel

  • Less drag underwater

  • Ability to change lenses underwater (Wet lenses). Note that lenses like the UWL-09 and Nauticam WWL-1 now let you use wet lenses with some mirrorless cameras.

  • Much less cost (although the cost of a high-end housing, wet lenses, adapters, etc. can start to add up)

  • Less weight, easier to carry and beach dive with

  • Shoots video underwater, although many dSLRs now do video, and the current Canon dSLRs can auto-focus quite well during video

  • With wet lenses, you can shoot macro, wide-angle, and video all in 1 dive

 

Compact underwater camera disadvantages:

  • Smaller sensor (more noise, smaller dynamic range, etc.), although the Sony RX-100 series offers a larger sensor

  • Increased shutter delay and focus delay over a dSLR - this is the biggest complain of many people

  • Optics are a lesser quality

  • Less choices for good quality lenses

  • Only a couple models can shoot in raw and use a true fisheye lens

  • Very slow raw write speeds, if raw is offered - although this has improved in a couple recent models

  • Less battery life

  • Noisy at high ISO's, although high ISO has limited use underwater, so this is not a big factor.

  • Less control over depth of field. A larger-sensor dSLR will have a smaller depth of field at a large aperture, giving a blurred background that is difficult to accomplish with a compact camera.

 

For more information on how compacts differ from dSLR's underwater, and how to use your compact camera underwater, read about using compact cameras underwater

 

What to look for in a compact underwater digital camera:

  • Full manual mode available - I think this is very important

  • Good quality underwater housing available You underwater scuba camera should have a housing that works well.

  • Close macro mode, although this is less important if you are going to use wet lenses

  • Ability to take wet lenses, macro & wide angle

  • Ability to take a fisheye lens. This can be important for people who want to shoot wide angle, because really great WA photos means getting really close, and the best way to do that is with the UWL-04 fisheye lens. Not many cameras, however, support full manual mode and accept a fisheye wet lens. Scuba diving photography requires you to get close to the subject in order to get the best colors, which a fisheye lens makes easier.

  • Low shutter lag

  • Long battery life

  • Ability to view histogram

  • Ability to manual white balance

  • Raw mode. This is only important if you plan on shooting in RAW, it's nice to have this, but not everyone will shoot in raw. And if you don't have the right settings and the right lens, then having RAW won't matter anyways.

  • Ability to fire strobes via sync cord. This is helpful because some otherwise you must use the camera's pop-up flash, which can be slow to recycle and use up battery time. However, sync cords can be a pain, so if you can find a fiber-optic solution that has decent battery life, and a decent recycle time on the internal flash, this is the way to go .

  • Good auto focus capability. Some cameras are very slow to focus in less than ideal conditions, which is what we often experience underwater. All compacts come up short in this category usually.

  • It should be easy to adjust the aperture and shutter speed UW. Some housings make it very difficult to use the full manual controls        

 

Is full manual mode important in a compact camera?

Anyone considering purchasing an external strobe at some point, should get a camera with full manual controls, imho.

Most of the time, but especially when using an external strobe, it is very helpful to have complete control over how much ambient light comes into the camera. Although exposure compensation can be used to accomplish this to a limited degree, setting the shutter speed and aperture yourself is the best way to control the ambient light.

 

 

Compact Digital Underwater Camera Choices

 

What are the best point and shoot cameras for underwater photography?

 

A few of my top underwater camera recommendations are the Sony RX 100 VASony RX-100 II, Canon G7X II, and Olympus TG-5. Read our Sony RX100 II review, Sony RX100 V reviewOlympus TG-5 review, Canon G7X II review,  and the new Olympus TG- 6 underwater camera review.

 

For older models, the Canon G16, Olympus XZ-1, Canon S95 are also good choices. The Canon S100, Canon S110 or S120 are also excellent choices, similar to the S95 - although I like the Canon S95 because it doesn't vignette with a fisheye lens. FYI, the Canon G-series and Sony RX-100 series have both taken some of the best compact camera photos that I've ever seen. The Canon G16 performs great for macro, but the Sony RX-100 and new Sony RX-100 II set a new standard for compact cameras for wide-angle with their large sensors and amazing wet lens results. (Not so much for the Sony RX-100 IIII, IV, V or VI, find out why in our Sony RX-100 III review).

Our sister company Bluewater Photo lists the best compact underwater cameras for 2019.

If you need to look at older used setups, the Canon A570, Canon G9/G10/G11 and Olympus SP350 are all good choices - but recent models will perform much better.

If budget is a serious consideration, the Sealife DC1400 offers a good housing for the beginner underwater photographer, and to add a strobe is inexpensive.

All compacts involve tradeoffs. If you just want to take snapshots underwater, well then there are dozens of cameras that will all produce similar results. Most of the Fuji, Canon or Olympus cameras will be excellent choices. The cameras I list below are the best ones I feel for underwater photography, especially if you ever want to grow past taking a few snapshots.

Here is a look at some choices, and their limitations.
 
 

Compact Camera Details

Here's some quick notes on some camera models, listed in alphabetical order. If the camera you are looking at is not on this list or the chart below, it is probably because I think there is a better option listed. This is especially true of the dozen's of Canon models.

 

Canon A570 - Great choice overall, at a great price point. The strobe can't be fired by sync cable; raw allowed by software update only; decent battery life. Takes a fisheye lens, and macro lenses.

The Canon A570 will do raw, with a software download called the “raw hack”. This software update has been used my many people successfully, does not cause problems, and adds many other useful features. See this site for more details.

http://scratchpad.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK

Image quality is excellent. The camera will work well with INON fisheye and macro lenses. full manual model is available.

 

Canon A620, Canon A710is, Canon A720 - All are great little compact cameras, a couple years old but they take great photos, have full manual controls and great macro modes. They are great when combined with a wet wide-angle lens. Try to get the used camera + used housing at a bargain price. Almost as good as the Canon A570, but these won't take the Inon Fisheye lens

 

Canon SD990 / IXUS 980 - I just found out about this camera in early 2009. It was released at the end of 2008. It's an ultra-compact, full manual controls,  14.7meg, and it takes an INON fisheye lens with the canon housing. Top-side reviews are great. There is no raw support or raw hack at this moment. Lens is 36-133mm. This camera might turn out to be a top underwater choice, but I have some more investigation to do. I've heard setting the aperture / shutter speed can be a little difficult. The image quality looks excellent based on the underwater images I've seen. My friend is producing some great wide-angle photos with the fisheye lens. $310 in the USA.

 

Canon S90 & S95 - Released in Aug 2009 & Sep 2010, these are great cameras for topside and underwater use. They are small, and have RAW, full manual controls, and a fast F2.0 lens. All housings will take add-on lenses. I tried this camera out topside recently, it was easy to use, photos looked great and I loved the large LCD. Has great potential. Housings are out from Canon, Ikelite, and Recsea. Read my writeup on the camera and the different Canon S90 underwater housings. The Canon S95 adds HD video to the Canon S90. The S95 is smaller than the Canon G12, has the same sensor, and has more wet lens options for wide-angle. But the G12 beats it in some areas.

 

Canon S100 - Very similar specs to the excellent Canon S95, has a slightly longer zoom range, which means you may have slightly better macro capability with a wet lens, and slightly more vignetting with wide-angle wet lenses. The Canon S110 is similar to the S100, but it adds wi-fi and takes away GPS.

 

Canon G9 - Excellent macro and supermacro shots have been produced from the G9. Read my Canon G9 underwater housing reviews.

 

Canon G10 – shoots at 28mm; Canon, Ikelite, Patima and Fisheye (FIX) all make housings for the G10, some of which may support a WA lens. The fisheye housing is $999, at the high-end for a compact camera. Same TTL limitations as the Canon G9. The G10 is generally considered the best topside compact camera out there, but it has limitations underwater, depending on the housing. Read my Canon G10 underwater housing reviews.

 

Canon G11 / G12 - released in Aug 2009 & Jan 2011, and similar to Canon G10. 10 megapixel sensor means larger pixel size than the G10, which is probably a good thing. Housings are out  from Canon, Ikelite, Fisheye, and Recsea. The Canon G12 is very similar, and adds HD video and a control dial. The macro on the Canon G11 & G12 is superb. The G12 is a top of the line compact camera, and does everything a little bit better than all the other compacts, including the S95.

 

Canon G1X - released in March 2012. You can read the Canon G1X review, which talks about the less than ideal macro capability of the lens on this camera.

 

Canon G15 or G16 - Slightly fast focusing than the Canon G12, read our Canon G15 mini-review. Excellent macro capability.

 

Canon SX1 IS - RAW, full manual, HD video but 28-560mm zoom range means wide-angle wet lenses won't work well.

 

Fuji E900 - good choice; cons - strobe can't be fired by sync cable; a little slow between shots in raw mode; can't take a sync cord

 

Fuji f30/f40, Fuji F50fd/f60 - good optics & video, great quality OEM housing from Fuji; downside - no raw or manual modes

 

Fuji F60 + ikelite housing - still waiting for more details on this setup. no raw mode

 

Fuji F200EXR - looks like a nice camera, no raw, but full manual controls (although only 2 aperture settings), and a good-quality fuji housing is available. A great point and shoot choice. Camera+ housing available for $440 (July 2009).

 

Nikon P6000 – shoots raw, manual controls, TTL with Ikelite housing.. not rated as good as a Canon or the LX3 though. The consensus is get a Canon g9 or g10 instead.

 

Nikon Coolpix L18 - poor choice, no close focusing, poor shutter lag, no manual controls or white balance

 

Nikon Coolpix L20 - similar to the L18 above, closer macro focusing but same cons, doesn't look like a good choice

 

Oly 8080 - good choice; raw, good battery life, TTL & sync cord connection avail with Ikelite housing. 3 seconds between shots. no fisheye capability, auto focus a little slow

 

Oly 5050/5060 - very old camera, but excellent optics and capabilities; some pros believe this was the best compact camera for UW photography ever made. I have to warn you though, it has a long focus/shutter delay compared to recent compacts; no fisheye capability, but takes a WA lens. The oly 5050 has a much better lens. The best photos I've ever seen from compacts are from an Oly 5050. The prints look spectacular.

 

Olympus SP350 – good choice - shoots raw, but very slow. long lag between shots. Must go through menu to switch to macro mode. short battery life. Good photo quality. takes fisheye and macro lenses

 

Olympus 1030 SW, 1030SW - no manual controls, no manual white balance, no raw. Internal flash can't be used in super macro mode. good points are that it's waterproof to 33ft. Not a great choice. Could be good for snorkeling, kayaking, etc. without a housing.

 

Olympus FE-360 - no manual controls or white balance, poor topside reviews, skip it!

 

Olympus SP590 - no housing available, too long of a zoom lens

 

Olympus XZ-1 & XZ-2 - read our complete Olympux XZ-1 review. The camera is great, will RAW, full manual controls, HD video with auto-focus, and an excellent lens. The XZ-2 is similar to the XZ-1.

 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 & LX5 – shoots Raw; widest compact at 24mm, has full manual controls. Considered a top-quality compact. $399 new. The housings are by 10bar or UK-Germany. Strobes can fire via sync cord or fiber optics. I've seen great wide-angle photos with the INON UWL-100 wet lens and the INON dome port (giving you a 130 degree field of view), in the 10-bar housing. Also with the INON macro lenses. This camera has great potential, and Edvin Eng is producing some great photography with this setup. See my Panasonic Lumix LX3 10bar underwater housing review.

 

Sea &Sea DX-1G – I don't think the earlier or less expensive S&S compacts were very good, but many people now like the DX-1G. the DX-1G uses a Ricoh GX100 inside; low focus/shutter lag, raw mode, very close macro focus, full manual; wider than most compacts at 24mm; competitor to the Canon G9/G10; cons - fiber optic only, and it only takes S&S wet lenses. there is no fisheye option.

 

Sea &Sea DX-2G -  came out in April 2009. Similar to the DX-1G, uses a Ricoh GX200 inside. It is believed that the GX200 will not work inside the DX-1G housing. The time in between shots when shooting RAW has been improved great, and it has a larger LCD screen. Read our Sea & Sea DX-2G review

 

Sealife – often sold by dive shops, always sold as a camera/housing combination.

 

 

Here is a good review comparing the canon g10, Nikon p6000, and Panasonic lumix lx3. It’s a topside review, but still useful I believe.

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/cameras/pocket-battleships.shtml

http://www.bythom.com/compactchallenge.htm

 
 
Camera
Price
Manual mode?
Housing manufacturers
Min focus distance
Focal length
Takes WA lens? (2)
Battery life (1)
Histo gram?
Man. White bal.?
Raw mode
Raw recycle speed
Has hot shoe?
Mega pixels
Approx. Sensor size
Image quality (1)
Notes
Oly 8080
200 on ebay
Yes
Oly, Ikelite
2 inches
28-140mm
No
3 dives
yes
yes
Yes
3-5 sec
Yes
8meg
8.8mm
Good
 
Oly 5050
233 on ebay
Yes
Oly, ike
1 inch
35-105mm
Yes, 128
Very good
yes
yes
yes
4-5 sec
yes
5meg
7.2mm
Excellent
Faster lens than 5060.
Oly 5060
200 ebay
Yes
Oly,ike
1 inch
27-110mm
Yes, 150
Very good
yes
yes
Yes
4-5 sec
Yes
5meg
7.2mm
 
 
Oly sp350
205 on ebay
Yes
Oly, ike
1 inch
28-105mm
Fisheye, 165
Good, 2-3 dives
yes
yes
Yes
slow
yes
8meg
7.6mm
Good
Can’t use flash with oly housing
Oly xz-1
239 on ebay
Yes
Oly, ike
1 inch
28-112mm
Bluewater 100, UWL-04
Good, 2-3 dives
yes
yes
Yes
slow
yes
10meg
8mm
Good
Can’t use flash with oly housing
Oly xz-2
399 on ebay
Yes
Oly, ike
1 inch
28-112mm
Bluewater 100, UWL-04
Good, 2-3 dives
yes
yes
Yes
slow
yes
12meg
7.2mm
Good
Can’t use flash with oly housing
Canon S80
185 on ebay
Yes
Canon, ike
1.6 inches
28-105mm
Yes
Ok 1-2 dives
Yes
yes
No
 
no
8meg
7.2mm
 
Manual settings can be difficult to use, they are in the menu
Canon S95
330
Yes
Canon, ike, RecSea
2 inches
28-105mm
Yes
Ok 1-2 dives
Yes
yes
Yes
 
no
10meg
7.6mm
 Very good
Good UW choice. F2.0 lens is nice
Canon S100
330
Yes
Canon, ike, RecSea
2 inches
24-120mm
Yes
Ok 1-2 dives
Yes
yes
Yes
 
no
12meg
7.6mm
 Very good
Good UW choice. F2.0 lens is nice
Canon S110
349 on amazon
Yes
Canon, ike, RecSea
3 cm
24-120mm
Bluewater 100, UWL-04
Ok 1-2 dives
Yes
yes
Yes
 
no
12meg
7.4mm
 Very good
Good UW choice. F2.0 lens is nice
Canon S120
399 on amazon
Yes
Canon, ike, RecSea
3 cm
24-120mm
Bluewater 100, UWL-04
Ok 1-2 dives
Yes
yes
Yes
 
no
12meg
7.4mm
 Very good
Good UW choice. F1.8 lens is nice
Canon A570
100 on PG
Yes
Canon
2 inches
35-140mm
Fisheye
 2 dives
Yes
Yes
With hack
 
No
7meg
5.8mm
 
 
Canon G9
300 used
Yes
Canon, ike, patima
½ inch
35-210mm
yes
 
yes
Yes
Yes
 
Yes
12meg
7.6mm
Very Good
No add-on lenses with canon housing (4),(6)
Canon G10
300 used
Yes
Canon, ike, patima, fisheye
½ inch
28-140mm
Read notes (3)
 Good
Yes
yes
Yes
 
Yes
14.7 meg
7.6mm
Very Good
See notes (5)
Canon G11
350
Yes
Canon, ike, recsea, fisheye
1/3 inch
28-140mm
Read notes (3)
Good
Yes
yes
Yes
 
Yes
10 meg
7.6mm
Very Good
See notes (5)
Canon G12
380
Yes
Canon, ike, recsea, fisheye
1/3 inch
28-140mm
Read notes (3)
Good
Yes
yes
Yes
 
Yes
10 meg
7.6mm
Very Good
See notes (5)
Canon G15
389 on amazon
Yes
Canon, ike, recsea, fantasea
1 cm
28-140mm
Read notes (3)
Good
Yes
yes
Yes
 
Yes
12.1 meg
7.6mm
Very Good
See notes (5)
Canon G16
449 on amazon
Yes
Canon, ike, recsea, fantasea
1 cm
28-140mm
Read notes (3)
Good
Yes
yes
Yes
 
Yes
12.1 meg
7.6mm
Very Good
See notes (5)
Fuji E900
200 PG
Yes
Fuji, ike
3 inches
32-128mm
Fisheye
 1-2 dives (10)
yes
yes
Yes
Slow
No
9 meg
7.6mm
Good
 
Fuji f30
 
A/P
Fuji, ike
2 inches
35-105mm
Fisheye
Good
no
yes
No
 
No
6 meg
7.6mm
Good
Good high ISO, very small
Fuji f60
200 google
A/P
Fuji, ike
3 inches
35-105mm
Fisheye
Good
 
 
No
 
No
12 meg
7.6mm
good
Good high ISO, very small
S&S DX-1G (8)
800 with housing
Yes
S&S
½ inch
24-72mm
Yes (11)
 2 dives
Yes
Yes
Yes
Slow
Not used in housing
10 meg
7.6mm
 
Noisy over ISO 100
S&S DX-2G (9)
1000 with  housing
Yes
S&S
½ inch
24-72mm
 Yes (11)
 2 dives
Yes
Yes
Yes
Good
Not used in housing
12 meg
7.6mm
 
Noisy over ISO 100
Sony RX-100
548 on amazon Yes
Ike, Recsea, Nauticam, Acquapazza
5 cm
28-100mm
Bluewater 100, UWL-04
2 dives
Yes
Yes
Yes
Good
No
20.2 meg
13.2mm
Very Good
 
Sony RX-100 II
749 on amazon Yes
Ike, Recsea, Nauticam, Acquapazza
5 cm
28-100mm
Bluewater 100, UWL-04
2 dives
Yes
Yes
Yes
Good
No
20.2 meg
13.2mm
Very Good
 
Panasonic LX3
280
Yes
10bar, UK-germany
½ inch
24-60mm
Yes
 
yes
yes
Yes
 
yes
10 meg
8.8mm
 
 
Panasonic LX5
350
Yes
10bar, ikelite, nauticam
1/2 inch
24-90mm
Yes
 
Yes
yes
Yes
 
yes
10meg
8.8mm
 
 
Nikon P6000
600
Yes
Fantasea, ike, Fisheye (seatool)
1 inch
28-112mm
 
 
 
 
yes
 
yes
13 meg
7.4mm
 
 
 

Prices are approximate only looking on ebay, google stores, or pricegrabber. Prices are for a reference point only. Prices may be for a refurbished camera for an older model. Prices from “questionable” sellers were not included.

 

(1)     Very subjective answers based on speaking with people. Make sure you use highly rated 2700mAH rechargable double-A batteries like MAHA.

(2)     YES means it takes just a regular WA lens; Fisheye means it will also take a fisheye lens; maximum field of view is shown if known. You may need a wide-angle lens and a dome port to get maximum angle of coverage.

(3)     Adding a WA lens to the canon G12/G15/G16 can be a little difficult, because of the way the camera and housings are made. Check with your housing manufacturer to see what is supported at this time. For $275, you can get an Ikelite or Fantasea dome port that gives you only 28mm of WA coverage. Recsea  also offers a seperate WA port and fisheye lens with port for a 130 degree view for more money.

(4)     Read this post for a possible add-on lens solution for the canon g9 housing. http://kona-scuba-diving.blogspot.com/2008/06/product-review-canon-g9-with-canon-wp.html

(5)     Ikelite and canon housings don’t allow WA lenses at this time other than the dome mentioned in (3), check with your housing manufacturer to see if this changes. A dyron 67mm adapter can be added to add macro lenses

(6)     TTL with an ike housing doesn’t work in manual mode

(7)     Most compacts have problems focusing in low light

(8)     Ricoh GX100 inside

(9)     Ricoh GX200 inside

 (10)    Battery life is extended when using strobes like Inon that "quench" the internal flash of the E900 by emitiing a pre-flash

 (11)  The S&S wide angle lens increased field of view to 85 degrees underwater

 
 

Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Cameras

 

Choosing a mirrorless camera can be tough - there are many excellent models out there, with only small differences between them. Our top choices for mirrorless cameras with a micro-four thirds lens mount are the Olympus E-M1 Mark II and the Panasonic GH5, with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II being a very close second choice.

The Olympus  OM-D EM-1 Mark II, OM-D E-M10 III, and Panasonic GX9 are good choices for underwater photography.  They are a great choice in-between a compact and a dSLR. You can read more in our micro-four thirds and mirrorless camera guide.

The Olympus E-PL5, E-PL7 and E-PM1 are fairly recent models, and have improved auto-focus speed over the E-PL1 and E-PL2. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and E-M5 Mark II both came out not too long ago, and are considered two of the best micro-four thirds camera on the market. The Olympus OM-D E-M10 III has the same sensor and image processor as the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, and is an excellent value.

The new Olympus OM-D E-M1 II is a little bigger than the E-M5 II, and a little more expensive. Image quality is similar to the E-M5 II, but build quality is better and auto-focus is a little faster.

 

Sony mirrorless cameras

Sony mirrorless cameras do not have a micro-four thirds lens mount, they accept Sony e-mount lenses.

The Sony A6500, A6400, A6300, A5100 are excellent cropped-sensor mirrorless cameras, with great image quality, and unsurpassed video capability. The sensor size is the same as a Nikon D500 or Nikon D7500.

Image quality, dynamic range and focus speed is excellent. The only downside is a less limited lens selection than micro-four thirds cameras, and slightly slower focusing speed than a dSLR. But the cameras and housings are much smaller than a dSLR. The fisheye and macro lens options are good quality and very inexpensive, although a longer macro lens choice is lacking.

Read our Sony a6300 Mirrorless Camera Review.

Click here for a Complete Overview of Mirrorless cameras for Underwater Photography.

 
 

Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras

 

The Sony A7 III and A7r III are small, full-frame mirrorless camera that can take exceptional images. Although lens selection used to be limited, you can read about new Sony A7 full-frame lenses that are came out in 2015, that have definitely changed the landscape for this option. The A7 II series improved on the less than stellar auto-focus of the A7 cameras, making the A7 II and A7r II two of the top choices for underwater photographers. Battery life was much improved with the A7 III series.

A full-frame sensor, plenty of megapixels, a full range of lens choices, a small size and professional video capability make the A7 II & A7 III cameras an increasingly popular choice - but don't expect the battery life or responsiveness to be at the level of a high-end dSLR.

The "r" in A7r III stands for resolution - the A7r III has 42 megapixels, while "s" stands for sensitivity. The A7 II has less megapixels but the pixel size is larger, making it ideal for underwater video.

 
 
 

dSLR Underwater Camera Choices

 

There are a large number of dSLR camera bodies out there. The main 2 brands used in UW photography are Nikon & Canon. Whichever brand you choose, make sure you are happy with the lens selection that brand supports. Sony and Fuji also make great dSLRs, but those are not yet covered here.

A good lens, proper composition, and proper lighting are important for making great photos. The camera body is less important, and excellent shots can be made with Canon or Nikon bodies. Your photography is unlikely to improve dramatically just by switching camera bodies.

If you choose Canon or Nikon, you will also have to choose between cropped sensor or full frame sensor cameras.  If size and cost are less of an issue, a full-frame DSLR may be the best underwater camera for you due to exceptional image quality and the fastest focusing speed and response time - but mirrorless beasts like the Nikon Z7 and Canon EOS R are not far behind in those areas.

 

Cropped-sensor vs Full-frame

Cropped sensor dSLR's are the most popular dSLR's underwater. So who shoots full frame? Generally people who already own a full-frame camera (for indoor sports, weddings, and landscape photography), and want to house it, or pros that have specific shots in mind with a wide-angle lens, often of sharks, dolphins or other pelagics. Professionals who have a requirement to print larger than 20x30 at 300DPI also must sometimes shoot full frame to get the required resolution.

Why did I get a Nikon D500? I shoot a lot of telephoto and wildlife photos topside, so the low-noise and fast frame rate of the D300 was perfect for my topside use. The increased dynamic range will help my WA shots “pop” like those Canon full-frame shots, and the Nikon 60mm and 105mm VR lens are excellent macro lens. But I must say, after shooting with a Nikon D810 on several trips, having 36 megapixels is truly amazing - and you should definitely consider that camera if you can afford it. Read out full Nikon D810 review here. The D850 gives improved low-light auto-focus performance over the D810.

 

Crop-sensors advantages

  • - Generally considered better for macro, especially for super-macro

  • - Approximately 60% more depth of field than a full-frame sensor, given an equivalent field of view

  • - Able to use the flexible Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens to its full benefit

  • - For most people, cropped sensors are "good enough"

 

Full-frame advantages

  • -less noise in high ISO (limited use underwater, except in dark conditions shooting ambient light)

  • - some cameras have more megapixels for larger prints

  • - slightly better IQ and dynamic range for more "pop" in WA and pelagic photos

  • - the women go crazy over full-frame cameras

  • - better viewfinders

  • - potential for higher resolution if you really need it, especially with the Nikon D850 or Nikon D810

 

Full-frame cons

  • Housings are generally a little more expensive

  • less depth of field at the same aperture and field of view. You need 1.5 stops smaller aperture for equivalent depth of field in a full-frame camera

  • Technique, lenses and dome optics all must be top-notch to take advantage of any increase in resolution

  • More difficult to get good corner sharpeness with rectilinear wide-angle lenses

 

New or used camera?

Used cameras are fine; just make sure you check the shutter count. Mechanical shutters will eventually fail. The shutter count is also referred to as the number of actuations.

 
 

Checking actuations

If you're buying used, and your camera uses a mechanical shutter (e.g. - D90,D7200) - check the number of actuations (shutter clicks) by getting a jpeg file from the camera and using an exif viewer. You can't check on the camera, so you'll need to bring your laptop and a card reader if you're meeting someone to buy a used camera. Look for "shutter count" or " camera actuations"

  • You can get one for the Macintosh here: http://homepage.mac.com/aozer/EV/index.html

  • And for the PC here: http://www.opanda.com/en/iexif/index.html

 

Camera bodies can be further researched here. I personally wouldn't get too hung up about small differences in sensor quality reviews.

 

Sensor quality reviews:

Dxo Mark has a great system to rank the sensor quality of cameras: https://www.dxomark.com/Cameras/

 

General reviews on cameras can be found here - they are usually more independent than reviews on other sites.

http://www.dpreview.com/reviews

 

Here’s some information on various bodies:

 

Cropped sensor dLSR cameras:

Nikon D5000 - 12megapixel, hi-def video, same sensor as the D90. It lacks an auto-focus motor. Too bad is doesn't autofocus with 3 of my 4 favorite lenses, just like the D60 and D40. Retail is $730.  I'd pass on it, and get a D80/D90 unless you are ok not using a fisheye lens underwater. The nikon 10.5mm and tokina 10-17mm fisheyes won't auto-focus with this camera. I tried out a Nikon d60 once and did not like it at all. If price is an issue go with a used D80/D200 instead.

Nikon D3000 - no auto-focus motor, I'd pass

Nikon D40 or Nikon D60 - No autofocus motor - please see comments on the Nikon D5000 above. very good image quality though. btw, The nikon d40, d40x and d60 can all work in the same housing.

Nikon D300 – Excellent camera and photos. But it’s hard to tell the difference between D80/D200 photos and D300 photos taken underwater. I upgrades to this from the D80 so my wildlife photography could benefit from 1 stop higher ISO.

Nikon D300s - same as D300 + video. Great housing from Sea & Sea.

Nikon D7000 - great choice, brand new with HD video that can auto-focus. Hybrid body between a D90 and D300s. Our top choice for a dSLR camera for underwater use.

Nikon D7100 - the new Nikon D7100 is quite amazing - read our Nikon D7100 review. Housings came out in Spring / Summer of 2013.

Nikon D7200 - very similar to the Nikon D7100, with improved dynamic range

Nikon D90 – excellent choice. Sensor rating is even better than the D300. And it does video! Many people are able to use their D90 in a D80 housing, with some slight housing modifications. Nexus and Aquatica housings are popular, and here's a Nauticam D90 underwater housing review.

Nikon D80 – Great camera, great photos. Practically the same sensor as the D200, so you’ll get the same image quality. Get a used housing at a discount.

Nikon D200 – Great camera, great photos. Get a used housing at a discount.

Canon 40d/50d/60d – the Canon 50d fits into the canon 40d housings. A nice surprise for canon 40d owners! Both are excellent choices, especially the Canon 50D. Instead of the Canon 60D, I'd go with a Canon 7d.

Canon 7d - Very good camera,  housing are out from Aquatica, Ikelite, Nauticam, Sea & Sea

Canon 7d Mark II - Improved sensor and auto-focus over the Canon 7d, good auto-focus during video+

--------

Canon T2i, T3i, T4i, T5i - excellent entry-level dSLRs. Some of the aluminum housings are great values for these cameras. The T3i is very similar to the T2i, see the T3i release coverage for differences. The T4i and T5i both made improvements in the video capability, and the T4i and T5i both fit into the same housings.

Olympus E520 – great value; good lens choices at a decent price; housing is a good value too.

Olympus E330 – It might be the only dSLR with useable Live view underwater; some users say the auto-focus is a little slow and has some low light issues

 

 

Full frame dSLR cameras:

The Nikon D850 is my top choice for the ultimate pro underwater photographer camera. The NIkon D4 is also great, but a little overkill for underwater photography.

Nikon D3, Nikon D4, D5 – Excellent cameras, but Keep in mind people have been having problems getting the 14-24mm lens sharp behind a dome port. And there is no full-frame equivalent of the Tokina 10-17mm lens.

Canon 5d – wide-angle photos really pop on this camera. Great for topside landscape photos also.

Canon 5d Mark II – the specs on this camera look great, and the photos look excellent. I'd pair this camera with the excellent Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens.

Canon 5d Mark III - a new standard for Canon full frame cameras, with much improved auto-focus over the 5D Mark II.

Canon 5D Mark IV - The latest camera in this long line, and one of the best choices for underwater video. Read our 5D Mark IV review.

 

 

Some personal suggestions (mirrorless / dSLR cameras):

All 3 manufacturers make excellent products; I'll hesitatingly make a few suggestions:

 

On a budget? Go for a Mirrorless camera like the E-M1 II, E-M5 II, Sony A6400 / A6500 series or OM-D E-M10 III

Into macro? Get a Nikon D500 or NIkon D850 (although great macro shots can be taken with Canon or Olympus cameras)

My top choice for a dSLR? Get a NIkon D500, Canon 5D Mark IV or Nikon D850

Looking for an entry-level dSLR? Try a Canon 80D, Canon SL3 or a Nikon D7500

Into wide-angle? Canon 5d Mark IV & Canon 5Ds R take some excellent wide-angle shots (but so do the rest).

Really interested in live view underwater, or great image quality in a smaller package? Look into the Sony A7 IIIr, Sony A6400 or A6500, or the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II or E-M5 II. The Panasonic GH5s / GX9 and Sony A7 III cameras take the best video.

Looking for the most compact setup with a larger sensor? Look at a mirrorless camera setup.

What's the hottest bodies out there right now for underwater use? Look at the Nikon D500 or a Canon 5D Mark IV, or a Nikon D850, Sony A7r III, Sony A6500 or the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II.

 

Sync Speed and underwater photography

  • The faster the sync speed, the easier it will be to light up subjects with your strobe with the sun in the background. With a slower sync speed, you need a small aperture to properly expose the sun, and therefore even stronger strobes.

 

 

Some of the dSLR Camera Choices:

 
 
Crop factor
Megapixels
Year released
Sync speed
 Video?
 
 
Canon 20d
1.6
8
2004
1/250th
 
 
 
Canon 40d
1.6
10
2007
1/250th
 
 
 
Canon 50d
1.6
15
2008
1/250th
 
 
 
Canon 70d
1.6
20
2013
1/250th
Yes
 
 
Canon 7d
1.6
18
2009
1/250th
 Yes
 
 
Canon 5d
1.0
13
2005
1/200th
 
 
 
Canon 5D Mark II
1.0
21
2009
1/200th
 Yes
 
 
Canon 5D Mark III
1.0
22
2012
1/200th
Yes
 
 
Canon EOS 1D mark II
1.3
8
2004
1/250th
 
 
 
Canon EOS 1D mark III
1.3
10
2007
1/250th
 
 
 
Canon EOS 1Ds mark III
1.0
21
2007
1/250th
 
 
 
Canon rebel XTI (400D)
1.6
10
2006
1/200th
 
 
 
Canon rebel T1I (500D)
1.6
15
2009
1/200th
 Yes
 
 
Canon rebel T2I (550D)
1.6
18
2010
1/200th
 Yes
 
 
Canon rebel T3I (600D)
1.6
18
2011
1/200th
 Yes
 
 
Canon rebel T4I (650D)
1.6
18
2012
1/200th
Yes
 
 
Canon rebel T5I (700D)
1.6
18
2013
1/200th
Yes
 
 
Nikon d100
1.5
6
2002
1/180th
 
 
 
Nikon d200
1.5
10
2005
1/250th
 
 
 
Nikon d3
1
12
2007
1/250th
 
 
 
Nikon d300
1.5
12
2007
1/320th
 
 
 
Nikon D7000
1.5
16
2010
1/320th
Yes
 
 
Nikon D7100
1.5
24
2013
1/320th
Yes
 
 
Nikon d40
1.5
6
2006
1/500th
 
 
 
Nikon d60
1.5
10
2008
1/200th
 
 
 
Nikon d70S
1.5
6
2005
1/500th
 
 
 
Nikon d700
1.0
12
2008
1/250th
 
 
 
Nikon D800
1.0
35
2012
1/250th
Yes
 
 
Nikon D80
1.5
10
2006
1/200th
 
 
 
Nikon D90
1.5
12
2008
1/200th
 Yes
 
 
Oly 330
2.0
8
2006
1/180th
 
 
 
Oly 410
2.0
10
2007
1/180th
 
 
 
Oly 520
2.0
10
2008
1/180th
 
 
 
Oly 620
2.0
12
2009
1/180th
 
 
 
Oly E3
2.0
10
2007
1/250th
 
 
 
 
 
 

Taking underwater video with a dSLR

The Nikon D90, D5000, D7000, D7100, D7200, D800, D810, D4, Canon 7D, 70D, 7D Mark II, Canon T2i, Canon T3i, T4i, T5i, and the Canon 5dII & 5dIII can shoot hi-def video, although auto-focus can be slow, and there are other limitations. Although this feature is not ready to replace dedicated video cameras, this is great for capturing behavior and marine life videos that you couldn’t normally have taken, and works very well when shooting ultra-wide angle. However, the auto-focus on the Canon 70D & 7D Mark II during video is quite good.

The Nikon D7100 & D7200 can take HD video, and also auto-focus while taking video - but the autofocus does not work that well. For the best video underwater you may want to look at a mirrorless camera like the Panasonic GH5, GX9 or the Sony A6500 or A7 III.

The Sony A6000 series cameras can autofocus during video much better than dSLRs can, and the video quality is excellent. Same with the Panasonic GH5 & GH5s. Most people who want to do serious underwater video will get a Panasonic GH5s, Sony A6500, or a Canon 5D Mark IV / Canon 1DX Mark II.

Visit our Underwater Video Section for detailed info, tips and tricks.

 

 


Further Reading:

We hope this guide helped you find the best underwater camera for you. Please enjoy this further reading.

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