You want to know what is the best diving camera out there right?
At first sight, looking at getting into underwater photography can make your head spin. It’s a gear intensive hobby and there are so many options. It doesn’t stop with cameras either, you have to choose a housing, lighting, ports, lens and other accessories. And, to top it off, you’re gonna have to drop some serious cash.
But choosing a camera for underwater photography doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. You just need to know what to look for and what’s on the market. That’s why we’ve put together this diving camera buyer’s guide to simplify the process and get you the best camera for your needs. You just focus on the fun of underwater photography and we take care of all the mind numbing research for you. You’re welcome 🙂
We’ll show you the top 10 cameras out there and give you some pointers on how to choose the right one. Then we’ll go into detail about those top 10 cameras, giving you the facts in plain English, not techie robot language that leaves you thinking WTF does that even mean?
We hope you get to the end of this post with a solid idea of what is the best underwater camera for scuba diving that fits your needs. Still have questions? Tell us in the comments at the end of this post and we’ll do our best to help you out.
For more of our top underwater photography gear recommendations, check out the Best Underwater Lenses.
QUICK ANSWER – THE BEST DIVING CAMERAS
1. SONY RX100 III
2. CANON S120
3. OLYMPUS MARK II
4. SONY A711
5. CANON G7X
6. NIKON D810
7. GOPRO HERO 6
8. SONY NEX A6000
9. PANASONIC LX100
10. CANON EOS MARK III 5D
COMPARISON TABLE – THE BEST DIVING CAMERAS
DIVING CAMERAS REVIEWS
SONY RX100 III
“HUGE SENSOR PACKED IN SMALL BODY”
The Sony RX 100 III is one of the most popular options for underwater photographers looking for the balance between image quality, price, size and ease of use. It’s a step up from the RX 100 II. This model has a better video bit-rate and adds an electric viewfinder. The RX 100 focuses faster that most other compact cameras. It’s a great option for pro photos without the weight and bulk of a dSLR camera.
“BEST QUALITY FOR THE PRICE”
The Canon S120 offers superb imaging and easy wireless sharing at a great price. It’s the only camera on this list for under $500. It has a 12.1 Megapixel High-Sensitivity CMOS Sensor and DIGIC 6 Image Processor that together gives rich natural color and beautiful clarity even in low light. Great choice for beginners on a budget.
OLYMPUS OM-D EM-5 MARK II
“AWARD WINNING MIRRORLESS”
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is a powerful 4/3 mirrorless camera. It has 16-megapixels but is also capable of shooting in a 40-megapixel (64 in RAW), high-resolution shooting mode. The E-M5 Mark II also has WiFi to make sharing photos with your dive buddies even easier. This camera is a great option for photographers who travel often and want a camera that won’t break the bank.
Find a housing for this model:
“FULL FRAME SENSOR IN COMPACT BODY”
The Sony a7II is the only full-frame mirrorless camera to offer in-body image stabilization systems and its performance is excellent. The body is comfortable to shoot with and offers a broad set of features that should appeal to both still and video shooters. The Sony a7 II has a 24.3MP resolution, great Full HD video capabilities and fast auto focus.
“PRO COMPACT SYSTEM”
The G7X is Canon’s answer to the Sony RXII. The biggest difference between these two models is the lenses. The G7x has a 24-100mm which offers great versatility for underwater photography and is especially good for macro. This camera has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 at 25mm and f/2.8 at 100mm which allows you to capture more light.
“FAST & POWERFUL FULL FRAME DSLR”
The Nikon D810 raises the bar for image quality and dynamic range. It performs with great speed and precision, making it great for shooting wildlife. With 36.3 megapixels and an all-new full-frame sensors paired with Nikon’s innovative EXPEED 4 image processing, this camera delivers flawless detail retention and noise-free images from ISO 64 to 12,800. For those seeking the best in DSLR image quality, the D810 is for you.
GO PRO HERO 6
“TINY PACKAGE. BIG TIME QUALITY”
The GoPro Hero 6 is the most advanced GoPro action cam on the market today. It’s a great option for shooting video. It features SuperView™, a exclusive video mode that captures the world’s most immersive wide-angle perspective. It allows you to capture more of your surroundings in the shot compared to the earlier Hero models. It’s not uncommon to see a pro $20,000 underwater rig with one of these tiny cameras mounted on it to record high quality video while the photographer shoots stills.
SONY NEX A6000
“BEST MIRRORLESS CAMERA FOR YOUR BUCK”
The Sony a6000 is super portable, has 24 megapixels and the “fastest autofocus in the world. Its APS-C size sensor offers 1.6 times the area of 4/3 sensors, and 13 times that of the 1/2.3 sensors of typical compact digital cameras. This translates to excellent image quality.
“AFFORDABLE ENTHUSIAST CAMERA”
The Panasonic LX100 combines a super fast lens with a micro four thirds sensor. It also has a TTL flash hot shoe, which means you don’t have to rely on the camera’s built-in flash for automatic strobe exposure. The LX100 has a built in 24-75mm Leica DC lens (F1.7-2.8). Its 4K recording capability delivers fantastic video quality.
CANON EOS MARK III 5D
“FOR THE PROS”
The new Canon EOS Mark III 5D is a top of the line camera that was designed for photographers who want the best. With at 22MP full frame CMOS sensor it delivers high quality video with decreased noise at high ISO settings (100-25600). The Mark III is a great option for professional underwater photographers and advanced enthusiasts who want the best.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST DIVING CAMERAS
The first thing you need to consider when it comes to choosing the best diving camera for you is if there is an underwater housing available for it. Housings aren’t made for every camera.
Generally, the top housing manufacturers make housings for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic and Olympus but not all models are supported.
Underwater photography is not a cheap hobby. The camera body plus housing will set you back at least 1,000 bucks. And that’s not including strobes and accessories. That doesn’t mean you should cut corners when it comes to buying gear, it means you should buy smarter.
The most common budget mistake people make when it comes to buying underwater cameras is that they buy the most expensive camera out there then go to buy the housing and strobes with out realizing that those are often more expensive than the camera!
Set a spending limit and total all the equipment you’ll need to get started before you pay for anything.
SYSTEM TYPE: COMPACT, MIRRORLESS OR DSLR
There are three main camera formats to choose from: compact, mirrorless and DSLR.
There are some cameras that were made specifically for being used underwater for example the SeaLife DC1400. But, just from reading the mixed bag of customer reviews on Amazon, it’s clear that it’s not the best underwater camera for scuba diving. The buttons stick, the flash doesn’t work, the shutter delay is insanely slow… just a few of the problems you can run into.
Your best bet for quality images and easy of use is buying a traditional above land camera and getting a housing to fit it. Or house a camera you already own of course. This is the most expensive option but it is the best option scuba divers have.
Point and shoot cameras can be a good option for underwater photography. However, the auto function doesn’t work that well underwater. So the best option for a point and shoot is an advanced model with a manual mode.
+ Light & Compact- Great for travel
+ Cheapest Option
+ Can shoot macro and wide angle on the same dive with wet lenses
– Small sensor (with the exception of the RX100) which means average low light performance and sharpness
– Shorter battery life than DSLR
– Shutter lag: the time difference between when you take the picture and when the shutter opens is frustrating when shooting wildlife.
Mirrorless cameras are extremely popular amongst underwater photographers because they give you the versatility of interchangeable lenses without the weight, size and price tag of a DSLR. This type of cameras are perfect for advanced photographers who want high quality images in a small package.
+ Sensors 4-8x larger than compact cameras
+ Smaller & lighter than DSLRs
+ Great choice of lenses
– You have to commit to shooting either macro or wide angle because you can’t use wet lenses
– Requires multiple lens ports for using different lenses
– More expensive than compact cameras
While there are many mirrorless cameras that come close to delivering the quality of a DSLR, these are still the choice amongst many professional photographers. They have the widest range of lenses, incredible low light performance and offer maximum control over the photo.
+ Best low light performance and sharpness
+ Maximum control for advanced shooters
+ Widest choice of lenses
– Most Expensive
– Large and Heavy
– You have to commit to shooting either macro or wide angle because you can’t use wet lenses
WHAT ABOUT TOUGH CAMS?
You won’t find tough cams like the Olympus TG-4 or Nikon AW100 on this list. Why? Most are only rated to be taken to 20-30 ft, plus the quality isn’t great. Remember, this is about the best diving cameras out there not the just okay ones! Those types of cameras are great for snorkeling but aren’t the best options for scuba divers.
HOW TO CHOOSE A HOUSING FOR YOUR DIVE CAMERA
Like I mentioned, underwater housings can cost more than the camera itself so choosing the right one is an extremely important decision. They do more than just keeping your camera dry. They also protect it from pressure, allow you to use the camera controls, enable the use of different lens ports and hold accessories like lighting. Be sure to invest wisely on this one!
Housings are a topic that deserves a detailed post of their own and you’ll see one here on The Adventure Junkies in the future. But, until then let me briefly talk about choosing an underwater housing. Also, you can read Basics of Underwater Photography: Choosing Cameras & Housings which goes into more detail about housings as well as ports, lenses and accessories.
ALUMINUM VS PLASTIC
Camera housings are made from either polycarbonate (fancy word for high strength plastic) or aluminum, with a few exceptions that are made from both. So which one is right for you? Here’s the pros and cons of each to give you an idea.
+ More affordable (sometimes by thousands of dollars)
– Button layouts are often not very ergonomic
– Prone to fogging
– Many are not repairable, if something were to break you’ll need to replace the housing
+ Extremely rugged (built for deep diving and prolonged exposure to saltwater)
+ Great ergonomics and well-laid-out controls
+ Can last for years (a professional can replace the O-rings that sit beneath each button so if one stops working you don’t need to replace the housing).
– Expensive (some are 3x more than the plastic option)
The simple explanation is…
ALUMINUM HOUSINGS are best for professional photographers, tech divers and “serious” shooters.
PLASTIC HOUSINGS are the cheaper alternative made for vacationers and people who are only going to use it a few times a year.
Unfortunately, it’s not so black and white. For example, Ikelite has been working their butts off to design a plastic housing that even a pro could love. They use high quality materials and thoughtful ergonomics. They cost a bit more than the average plastic housing but are still a fraction of the price of an aluminum one.
With all these considerations in mind, this is my recommendation:
- IF YOU’RE JUST STARTING OUT, don’t have a huge budget but want a sturdy housing I’d go for an Ikelite.
- IF PRICE ISN’T AN ISSUE and you simply want the best, something that will last you for years, I’d go for a Nauticam aluminum housing.
EASE OF USE
How accessible are the controls? Are the controls dedicated to one function or are they shared? Are the buttons far enough making them easy to use even when wearing gloves? How is the layout…can you use the camera while keeping a sturdy grip on the housing?
SIZE & WEIGHT
Don’t get too caught up on this factor because most housings are close to neutral when in water. However, if you plan to travel with your camera gear, especially on a plane, it’s something to consider.
For more of our top underwater photography gear recommendations, check out these popular buyer's guides:
Lenses for Underwater Photography
Some very nice cameras! How did you determine the ratings for the cameras when you tested them? Tough to compare a Go Pro and a 5D Mark III.
Great display of what these cameras can do. Beautiful footage!