Best Underwater Cameras

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With dozens of underwater cameras available, it’s tough to know which is the best option. With these underwater camera reviews, we examine options for a variety of budgets and needs, including point and shoots, DSLRs, and even iPhones. Whether you want to spend $15 on a case to make your current point and shoot suitable for underwater use, or if you want to spend $1,500 to take your DSLR diving, this guide will give you some suggestions and things to consider when looking at waterproof camera solutions.

Let’s get started with our thoughts on the top options for underwater point and shoot cameras. Sample photos in each section below are from the cameras discussed in the accompanying text.

Point and Shoot

Most people looking for an underwater camera are going to be interested in a point and shoot. This is where there are the most options, and finding something that works best can be overwhelming. Back in our last Underwater Camera Reviews, we ended up purchasing the Olympus Stylus 6020. A couple generations of underwater cameras have come and gone since then, so we figured it was time to upgrade. We made some new purchases, and set out to the Walt Disney World water parks with five cameras… 

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After reading far too many reviews and playing with a few models in stores, we ultimately opted for the Olympus Stylus TG-2. In comparisons I saw when doing my research, this was almost universally picked as the “best in class.” I have long liked Canon’s line of underwater cameras, so I almost bought the Canon D20 anyway, but every review I read placed the Olympus TG-2 in front of it, and the Olympus TG-2 was just a little more expensive. With underwater cameras, you get what you pay for.

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After using it in Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, I can see why the Olympus TG-2 is so highly recommended. Its feature-set, with GPS, burst shooting, and a variety of intelligent auto modes make it an easy to use camera with lots of bells and whistles. For an underwater camera, it has solid image quality, especially with that f/2.0 lens. Of course, image quality on this is not nearly as good as it is with a DSLR, so that took some getting used to, but compared to our previous underwater camera, this one is very high quality, both above water and in the water. It also did very well with white balance, which is always tricky in the water. My only complaints here are that the images were a little flat straight out of camera, but this can be adjusted in camera or via post-processing, and is a pretty common complaint I have with point and shoot cameras. As far as underwater point and shoot cameras go, quality is very good.

Build quality and interface are one regard in which this camera really shines. It’s designed really well, and is incredibly easy to use even in the water. The large and bright screen is crystal clear, and controls are easy to navigate. Not what I expected from an underwater camera. Because of this, even though image quality isn’t as good on the Olympus TG-2 as my DSLR solution or the Sony RX100, I found myself using this camera the most when we were at the water parks. Putting aside everything else, this is probably the best test of a camera: which do you reach for most? Of course, the other cameras were disadvantaged because their cases made them more difficult to use, but still.

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Price is going to be the obvious sticking point here, and at $380, the Olympus TG-2 is not cheap. If you’re not going to be using a camera around water a lot, it may not make sense to get this, but to instead go for a regular point and shoot camera and an underwater bag in a pinch. The Olympus TG-2 does have great quality, but it’s not as good for above-water use as the similarly-priced Canon S110, nor is it anywhere close to as good as the class-leading (and much more expensive) Sony RX100. That’s the trade-off in getting an underwater camera. However, if you will be using your camera around water a lot, getting this (either to supplement another camera or as your only point and shoot) is a good idea.

Quality drops dramatically on the mid and low-grade underwater point and shoot cameras, so I think buying one of those is essentially just throwing money away. The one exception to that rule might be the Kodak Easyshare Sport C123. It has been out since January 2011 and its image quality is nothing special, but it only costs $80, and it is better than a disposable underwater camera. Unlike a disposable camera, it can be used multiple times. It’s cheap enough that if something happens to it, it won’t be the end of the world. With that said, it’s not a camera that I would personally own, as I don’t think its quality is up to snuff.

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Our Sony RX100 with the DiCAPac WP-ONE underwater case was the other underwater point and shoot “solution” I tested. You can read my gushing over the Sony RX100 in our review of that camera, so I will spare you that here. The quality of the RX100’s photos with the cheap plastic case on is definitely diminished, but it’s image quality is normally so good that I think putting on the cheap plastic case only reduces this camera to the level of the Olympus TG-2. When you take the Sony RX100 out of its underwater bag, it has great image quality, whereas the image quality of the Olympus TG-2 stays at “good” level all the time.

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The downside to the Sony RX100 is its price. Even a year after its release, it still has no close competitors, so Sony has not felt the need to cut that $650 price tag (although you can get some nice “free” accessories in this bundle). The upcoming Sony RX100 II (an update adding GPS, a slight boost in dynamic range, and a few other features) is unlikely to change this, as that camera will be priced at $750, creating clear separation between the two models. The price is a downside not only in that you have to pay that much for the camera, but in that you have to trust a cheap camera bag to protect your camera underwater. This didn’t really bother me, but I know some people will be apprehensive about trusting this type of case with such an expensive camera.

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As I said before in my Sony RX100 review, I think that point and shoot is well worth the money. After using it for a year, I feel the same way. It performs well in low light (just check out the photos of Disneyland Paris we shot with it), has excellent image quality, and is well-built. It won’t replace a DSLR, but for someone who wants great quality but doesn’t want to carry a DSLR, this is the perfect camera. It’s very rare for a camera to remain “best in class” for a full year, but one year later, that’s the RX100’s current status. The only competitor on the horizon is the RX100 II. Since this camera “won out” for us, we are considering selling the Olympus TG-2 and buying the dedicated Sony RX100 underwater housing for $200 (I’ll update this post if we do) as its quality is better and controls are easier than using a simple underwater bag. However, even a case like that can leak. Part of the appeal of the Olympus TG-2 is that it’s always waterproof and is worry-free when we take it in the water, so I’m not sure that we want to give it up. Plus, we plan on doing the Disney Cruise Line soon, and I suspect the Olympus TG-2 would be the perfect camera for that trip.

DSLR

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This is by no means a comprehensive test of underwater DSLR options. Basically, I wanted to try out using my DSLR underwater, but didn’t want to purchase an expensive dedicated housing and was apprehensive about putting my Nikon D600 in an underwater bag (even I have a tipping point with those bags and expensive gear!). The perfect solution came along when I saw a sale on the Nikon D3200 with a kit lens, as that was cheap enough that I was okay risking it in an underwater bag, and it would give me a hot new camera to test (look for our review of that camera soon). Having had good results with DiCAPac in the past, I decided to opt for their Underwater DSLR Case.

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The upside to this solution was that quality from it and the Nikon D3200 was far and away the best of anything I tested. At roughly $625 for the camera, lens, and underwater case, it’s also a cheaper option than the Sony RX100 plus its case. The case costs about $75, but it is much higher quality than the point and shoot cases, and there’s very little image degradation.

The downsides are that this thing was seriously dorky looking (Sarah laughed at me as I wore it around my neck–it’s a huge bag) and it’s cumbersome and difficult to change settings (you’ll likely end up on auto mode). Looking dorky is not such a big deal to me since I normally look like a dork, but the cumbersome size was annoying, especially compared to the size and lightweight portability of the point and shoot options. Not having full control over settings was also annoying. This is certainly a great solution if you already have a DSLR and don’t want to add a new camera to your collection, or if your utmost concern is image quality, but I found it to be a real pain.

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Most of the time, instead of the DSLR, I reached for the Sony RX100 or the Olympus TG-2 while we were in the water parks just because they were much more convenient. This is something that I think is worth giving serious thought; carrying a large camera and multiple lenses doesn’t bother me at all during normal travel, but having a bulky camera when I’m only in my swimsuit and am engaging in underwater activity was less than ideal.

Quality is great, but know what you’re getting into before buying this (for this reason, I’m glad I tried out this bag before dropping serious money on an expensive, dedicated underwater case–I now know that I wouldn’t want to carry around one of those cases).

iPhone

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There is actually a surprising number of underwater iPhone cases. I guess people need to text and check Facebook even when they’re at the beach! 😉

Being a prolific iPhoneographer (check out her iPhoneography Tips), Sarah wanted to use her iPhone to take photos even when we were at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. She previously bought the DiCAPac WP-i10 underwater case for her iPhone 4 for this purpose, and that case worked perfectly for her iPhone 5, as well. I mention this because there are a lot of iPhone 5 cases, but they are all by no-name brands. Having used a number of DiCAPac cases over the years, I was much more comfortable using their case, even for the “wrong” model, than one of the other brands.

I don’t know why DiCAPac advertises this case as being for the iPhone 3Gs/4, with no mention of the iPhone 5, as it works just as well with the newer phone. Perhaps they haven’t gotten around to updating the Amazon description yet?

Regardless, Sarah found this case to be easy to use with minimal image degradation.

If I could only use one of the cameras that I took with us to the water parks, my ultimate pick (for me, personally) would be the Sony RX100 with an underwater case. Even though I used the Olympus the most, I also had the luxury of using the nicer cameras when shots really “mattered.” The Sony RX100 provides a nice compromise between portability and quality–with roughly equivalent underwater quality to the Olympus and even better above-water quality when taken out of the bag. Making it a good all-around option for someone like me who does much more above-water photography than underwater photography. It’s more expensive than the Olympus TG-2, but I feel like it’s money well spent.

In the end, what you should purchase will depend largely upon your specific needs. If high quality is of the utmost importance, you should get a DSLR case. If quality is important but you really won’t be using the camera underwater much and want something pocket-sized, you should get the Sony RX100 and add an underwater camera bag to go along with it. If you’ll be using the camera underwater a lot, and want a dedicated solution, the Olympus TG-2 is definitely the way to go. iPhoneographers should get the DiCAPac underwater bag. Other cheaper options exist, but we feel these are the three best solutions in their respective categories.

If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:

Photography Buying Guide: Way More Than You Ever Needed to Know…
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Neutral Density Filter Buying Guide
Travel Tripod Buying Guide

Your Thoughts…

If you have an underwater camera, which one is it? Do you have any recommendations? Share your thoughts in the comments!


22 Responses to “Best Underwater Cameras”
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