Choosing an Underwater Camera

It is often a very daunting and intimidating prospect going out to buy a new camera or deciding to update to a newer better camera. There are so many different digital camera makes and models to choose from, Choosing an Underwater Camera - D7100 set upsometimes you don’t know where to start. The underwater camera you are likely to choose will be designed for above water work. However, there are a number of models that are particular popular with underwater photographers for specific reasons. The range of cameras is astonishing and can often be confusing.  Cameras now fit every need, price range, level of experience, size / weight and picture quality.

Hopefully I can guide you to some sort of decision in choosing which camera is best for you after reading this.  Firstly lets look at the types of cameras on the market.

Cameras have basically divided into 3 categories –

    1. DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) Camera – Basically the type of camera you see professional photographers use above water. Benefits include bigger sensors and therefore better at shooting in low light, better lenses, high quality, higher frame rates and generally faster autofocus.
    2. Mirrorless Cameras – Fairly new (4 years now) on the camera scene they combine compact cameras with DSLR technology. Benefits – combining the qualities of the DSLR in the compatibility of a small housing, basically the best of both worlds.
    3. Compact Cameras –  Small lightweight cameras available in most high street stores. Benefits – cheap, light & easy to use.

Deciding on which one to go for is down to you and based on a number of factors. Your budget, level of experience, image quality requirement (based on camera sensor size), how often you use the camera and what you use the camera for ie macro or wide angle or both.

Generally on price and quality compacts are the cheapest, easier to use but have lower image quality than DSLRs and mirrorless. Mirrorless and DSLRs are the most expensive, higher image quality but will require additional lenses. I would say DSLs are just about beating the mirrorless on underwater wide-angle shots at the moment. Size wise then mirrorless and compacts in hands down.

This is just through what I have seen so far and I believe mirrorless cameras will overtake DSLRs in underwater photography in the next few years. Eventually they will match the DSLRs quality with the added benefit of a much reduced size and weight (important when travelling) and ease of handling.

Also you must remember that just because you have a state of the art camera you still need to know how to take a good photograph. You still need to use the general rules of photography! Always consider these rules when taking photos whilst remembering rules are made to be broken!

I have used compact cameras in the past like Canon IXUS 90, Canon G12 and Canon G15. I loved the extra increased macro function on the IXUS, which sadly was lacking on the G12 and 15. The G ranges enabled me to take full control of the camera for the first time in UW photography. I used a variety of wet lenses for my G15 (wide-angle and macro) which is great on a dive where you have big and small stuff on the same site.

I like to use natural light as much as possible but strobes do help in illuminating subjects. Try starting with compacts as they are a fantastic, inexpensive and easy to handle start to UW photography. They are a great way to learn the basics. Also bear in mind that probably at one point you will flood your camera so the cost of replacing it is an important factor!

In 2013, I wanted to upgrade from the G12 and I deliberated between purchasing an SLR or carry on with compact cameras. I ended up buying the G15 with Al Patima Housing, Sea & Sea YD -D1 strobe and a few wet lenses. Here are a few decisions that led me to this point –

    1. Cost – A big factor when choosing what to get – SLR cameras themselves are expensive – £400 – £1000, and then there is the housing to go with them £1000+ plus and the strobes if you haven’t already got them.
    2. Weight – with all that equipment comes weight. Not only the camera gear and housings and strobes, but also the add ons – electrical back ups (chargers, spare batteries, additional lenses etc)
    3. Bulk & Handling – the bigger the camera the bigger the bulk. At a time when I was traveling a lot I was looking to reduce space rather than increase it.
    4. Lens Changing – with an SLR you have to decide before the dive whether you want to shoot wide-angle or macro with no chance to change underwater. However, with G15 you can take down as many wet lenses as you want – Fisheye, Wide Angle, Macro and diopters. Therefore for me this was one of the main deciding factors.

Choosing an Underwater Camera - MacroFor me in 2013 the G15 was one of the best compact cameras to use underwater. The easy of handling is great. With the addition changeable lenses I can within the space of minutes be shooting great reef scenes and then onto macro subjects.

After using this set up for a year I was offered a job to be a full-time underwater portrait photographer. I was using my G15 for the first season with great results but I wanted higher quality images. At the end of my first season as a UW photographer I decided to reinvest and go big! I moved from Canon to Nikon and went down the DSLR route. This of course meant higher costs, more weight, bigger bulk and I lost the ability to change lenses underwater.

The set up I chose in the end was – Nikon D7100, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens, Sea & Sea Housing, large dome and 2 YS-D1 strobes. I am very, very happy with the camera, though not the strobes. Although bulky and heavy the quality of the images are greater than the G15. Now I can print bigger and the wide-angle shots are far better than that of the G15. The DSLR allows for a shallower depth of field with the DSLR and I also have a diopter for super macro shots. I still use my G15 from time to time for macro shots due the ease of use and its ability to get into small spaces. Mostly I use the Tokina Lens, but I also use a Nikon 12 -24mm Lens and also a 60mm for macro.

There is also the debate / choice around DX vs FX (cropped sensor vs full frame) within DSLRs. The choice was easy for me, DX all the way mainly due to cost. A DX camera is around £400 whereas an FX camera £800+.

If you are considering UW photography then have a look at these cameras –

Compact Cameras – Canon G7x (latest Canon Compact camera) Canon G16 (older model and able to pick up cheaper), Olympus TG5 (can be used in or out of a housing, waterproof to 10m).

Mirrorless – Sony a7 or a9 (one of the best in the market with 4k video but expensive!), Olympus OM-D E-M1 (cheaper, 4k, 20mp), Panasonic GH5 (more expensive, but with 4k & 20.4 mp)

DSLR – Nikon D500 (quality DX format), Canon 5D MIV (one of the class leaders in FX format excellent on low light levels and high dynamic range), Nikon D810 (if you don’t like the canon brand then this is the equivalent of the Canon 5D, slightly higher MP 36 than the 5D)

If you are interested in doing an underwater photography course with me in Thailand please see Underwater Photography Courses in Thailand.


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