Buying Guides

Choosing Your First Underwater Camera

Whether you have been diving for a while now, or just starting out fresh after finishing your open water course, you’re probably starting to think “I need a camera!! Otherwise nobody will believe me that I saw that 10ft shark right next to me!”. So we created this guide to help you make the decision on your very first Underwater Camera!

The first thing you need to ask yourself is:

How Good Are My Diving Skills?

In the beginning, diving is hard enough as it is. Keeping yourself in a fairly neutral horizontal position, keeping distance from corals and sea urchins, minding your air, noticing your dive buddy and more… That’s already plenty to handle. If you add a camera to that equation too early, something has to give and you might be risking yourself, others or the delicate marine life around you.

  • If you have just finished your Open Water, and only have 5-10 dives, practice a bit more before taking a camera with you. Trust me on that one…
  • If you already have 20-50 dives, you might consider a simple Action Cam which won’t require changing many settings underwater.
  • For those of you with 50+ dives, who are feeling fairly confident with your buoyancy skills, you can consider a Compact Camera, maybe one strobe or video light.
  • I wouldn’t consider a DSLR or Mirrorless before 80-100 dives and mastering your buoyancy skills.

That being said, these numbers are quite arbitrary and each has his own personal learning curve, but try not to over-estimate your diving skills. Even if you have no trouble in pool-like conditions and perfect visibility, you might find it harder when currents are involved, poor visibility, gear malfunctions and other unexpected things which may occur underwater.

So what are my options?

Action Cams

Action cams are small, simple cameras, designed to withstand various conditions including wet environments, capturing a wide angle of view with pretty decent quality. They usually have very few buttons and controls, for ease of use while performing an extreme or less than extreme (diving 🙂 ) activity.

These cameras are mostly recommended for videos since focus is infinite, resolution is great (Full 1080 HD to 4K) and you can turn them on and forget about them.

Shooting stills is possible, but with a few limitations:

1. You can’t zoom in. All of your shots are extra-wide fisheye shots and your subject might look a bit small in the frame.

2. You can’t connect an external flash unit, since you have no way of triggering it.

3. Low light will most likely cause a blurry photo.

4. You can’t control focus. It’s basically infinite.

Keeping these limitations in mind will help you avoid bad photos when using an action cam.

Action Cams are great for beginner divers since they are very simple to use, and can even be mounted on your mask / BCD / Tank for handsfree shooting. They are awesome for creating souvenirs, sharing with your friends and documenting cool marine life that you saw. However, keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to produce contest winning imagery with these…

Updated Recommended Cameras – September, 2020

Some examples for Action Cams:

Sealife Micro 3.0 | US$649

Read our review on the previous version – Sealife Micro HD

GoPro Hero8 with Light Kit | US$299.95

Compact Cameras

Compact cameras are currently the most widespread choice for underwater photography. The latest technological advancements for the past few years have shot the compact quality to the sky. Small cameras which can fit in your pocket such as the Canon G9X Mark II, G7X Mark III, Sony RX100 V / VI / VII and Panasonic LX100 can produce outstanding imagery while keeping the housings small and the complete package very travel friendly.

This is probably the best choice for most divers looking to enter the world of underwater photography, thanks to their versatility. You can use them on complete Auto Mode or even UW Mode if they support that, getting pretty decent shots without putting too much thought into it. With the same cameras, you can switch to Manual mode, shoot RAW, add strobes, video lights and wet lenses, producing contest quality shots and high quality videos.

Compact bundles, including camera and housing, start from about $700 and can reach up to $1800 with a high-end Nauticam or Sea & Sea housing. They are compatible with a huge array of add-ons and accessories, such as macro lenses, wide angle lenses, filters, video lights and strobes mounted on many types of arms and trays. Each add-on opening a whole new world of imagery and creative options. This is really a system you can grow with.

Once you have purchased your new underwater compact camera, use our Beginner’s Guide to UW Photography to shorten your learning curve and learn from our mistakes 🙂

Some examples for compact bundles:

FRX100 V Fantasea bundle | US$1,249.95

Fantasea FRX100 V

Read our review on the FRX100 V bundle

Canon G7X Mark III with Fantasea Housing | US$1099.95

Read our review on the FG7X II Bundle

Olympus Tough TG-6 Bundle | US$679

Nauticam LX100 Housing | US$1200

Check out this System Suggestion for the LX100

DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras

These are the big guns. The SERIOUS cameras for people who dare call themselves Underwater Photographers.

DSLR Cameras, also known as interchangeable lens cameras, which have lately been reduced in size to become Mirrorless Cameras, are capable of producing the best quality photos and videos in the industry. High quality optics, advanced settings and large sensors help the photographer achieve top quality both above and of course under the water.

Since these cameras are naturally bigger, the housings which accommodate them tend to be bulkier, pricey, and not suitable for everyone. When taking an interchangeable lens camera underwater, you will need to deal with interchangeable ports, extensions and gears, making the process more complicated and more prone to human error and leakage. The advanced settings allow more things to be changed underwater, which requires good diving skills to focus on camera operation without endangering yourself and others.

Oops, hope I didn’t scare you off there 😉

The great things about them of course, is that you will be able to produce amazing images and videos, tack sharp macro shots and colorful vivid wide angle shots, as well as production quality videos. As a bonus, you will also be the envy of all the divers around you, which is always great.

When choosing such a system, it’s usually best to choose the housing first, and only then the camera body and lenses, since the housing is usually the larger investment in such a purchase.

Mirrorless systems usually lower the cost a bit, since the housings are smaller and less expensive, but other than that it’s very similar to DSLR systems.

You can read more about getting your first UW DSLR here.

If you currently own a DSLR and just want to use it underwater, while still minding your budget, check out this post about Affordable DSLR Housing Options.

Examples for DSLR and Mirrorless systems:

Sony A6400 with Fantasea FA6400 Housing Bundle | US$1996

Read our review on the Sony A6500 Bundle

Nauticam D7500 Housing | US$3300

Nauticam D7500

Ikelite Mini-DSLR Bundle – Canon SL3 / 250D | US$2045

Dedicated Video Cameras

If you are oriented towards video, with the intention of concentrating only on that type of photography underwater, you may consider a dedicated camcorder or video camera with a video housing.

These housings are usually elongated to accommodate the shape of video cameras and they are divided into mechanical or electronic housings. Mechanical housings use the same principles as the above housings we mentioned, using levers and buttons to press on the camera’s controls. Electronic housings connect to the camera itself via hard wire, and transfer all controls to an external control panel on the housing, which is many times relocated to the tips of your fingers, so that everything is easily within reach.

Some of these housings feature interchangeable ports and some have fixed ports.

Many of the relevant camcorder models can be fitted with a Mangrove housing which is an excellent option for dedicated video shooting underwater.

* Note – this type of underwater housing is slowly fading away. Most brands have discontinued their housings and the only one still available is Mangrove. Not sure for how long. Camcorders underwater are almost obsolete and the majority of videographers these days would use a compact, mirrorless, DSLR or Cine camera.

Mangrove MVHC-XL Underwater Video Housing | US$2288

For more options, read our ultimate guide for the Best Underwater Cameras in 2020.

If you’re still having a hard time choosing which camera to buy, consult with the rest of our Buying Guides, or simply contact our agents via the online chat and we will help you out!

Ran Mor
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