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Compact Camera Buyer’s Guide
June 1, 2011

Every day we are asked for recommendations on the best camera for underwater photography. While there isn't one best for every customer, no time in recent memory has offered as many good choices.
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We sell underwater imaging gear. We are not a dive shop. We are not a camera shop like any you have ever seen before (no UV “protective” filters in sight). We specialize, and it makes us good at what we do, but it will skew how we value some features that have importance in other areas of the photographic world. The recommendations made here are primarily focused on a camera’s capability in an underwater system.

Camera manufactures make a lot of noise about scene modes and automatic features that we don’t even know how to turn on. With a small bit of practice and experimentation in manual exposure mode a total newby can outshoot a fully auto camera in most underwater situations.

We have distilled the available pool down to just a few options that feature everything we need in a fully functioning underwater camera. We don’t recommend entry level auto only point & shoot systems. The cameras here have those modes, but they also have manual settings that allow you to take total control of the underwater photographic process. Our customers won’t show up to their first one on one session with a photo pro on the other side of the globe only to find out they bought a camera they’ll outgrow in a dive or two.

Features that matter:
Manual Exposure Control – The ability to manually set f-stop and shutter speed is critical if someone ever expects to grow out of snapshot mode. Many photographers won’t take that leap of faith to “M” on the mode dial for a trip or two, but we feel it is important that the functionality is there when you need it. The metering systems and exposure programs built into these high end compact cameras are incredibly sophisticated and can produce great exposures in even challenging conditions topside, but underwater photography presents a whole new set of challenges that require manual override.

Raw Capture – Like the exposure programs mentioned above, a camera’s white balance brain can handle the ugliest lighting conditions available topside, but is lost when you take it below 15 feet. When shooting in Raw, white balance adjustment is available in post processing, allowing you to calibrate an image’s color at your monitor. Many people have a stigma about the time consuming nature of developing raw files after the dive, but the truth of the matter is that it just isn’t that big of a deal. Once you learn to use tools like the white balance dropper, correct color is only a click or two away. Copying & Pasting develop settings across a series of photographs eliminates the need to make tedious adjustments over and over again, and both Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture have the ability to upload directly to popular photo sharing services from within the software.

Good Autofocus and Low Shutter Lag – People will hold still, but fish don’t. Poor autofocus speed and long shutter lag has always been the major disadvantage of a compact camera system. This is difficult to measure objectively, but we’ve done lots of head to head af races in scenes that mimic those found on a typical dive to reach the conclusions we have.

Wet Mate Lens Compatibility – The built in lenses of current compact cameras handle the mid-range and close up focal lengths well, but they don’t have real wide angle or macro capability built in. Compelling underwater photographs are made at the extremes, so add on lenses that allow better wide angle or macro photography are important, even if planned purchases down the road. There are dozens of potential lens candidates for a given camera system, and we sift through the available options in a pool with a grid chart to determine a best fit solution for the cameras we recommend.

Manual White Balance – If available light photography with filters or video clips lit by ambient light are important to you, then manual white balance is another crucial tool. Sometimes called preset white balance, or one touch white balance, this tool lets you lock down accurate color in the water.

magic filter sample
Image Courtesy of Magic-Filters.com

What you’ve all been waiting for…
There are a lot of good cameras that are not mentioned here. It does not mean they can’t take decent pictures, it just means we don’t feel that they are one of the three best.

After surveying the baffling array of options available, we ended up focusing on Panasonic DMC-LX5, Olympus XZ-1, and Canon Powershot S95. All three of these options are outstanding tools for underwater photography, and indeed each has unique strengths.

All of these cameras have bright f1.8 or f2.0 lenses. When shot wide open, this large aperture yields artistic shallow depth of field shots. Open apertures, combined with image stabilization (available in all three), allow all kinds of creative possibilities underwater in challenging ambient and and mixed lighting situations. This means you can push your magic filter later into the day for a moody feel, throw an emerald background behind a metridium anemone in the Pacific Northwest, or get nice blue backgrounds deep on Caribbean walls on a cloudy day.

All three have high resolution lcd screens a that allow easy confirmation of fine focus, too. If your arms aren’t long enough to read the newspaper then it is time to invest in some gauge reader lenses for your mask. Even the best camera won’t do you much good if you can’t see what you are doing to it.

Coincidentally, these are all 10 megapixel cameras. This might seem strange in the days of 8 megapixel camera phones and 16 megapixel competing compacts. After using these cameras extensively above and below water, there are clear advantages for the larger individual photosites that having less resolution allows. Put fewer pixels on a chip and you’ll see better low light performance, more color saturation, and smoother gradation in highlight tones (think sunballs!).

Panasonic LX5 Olympus XZ-1 Canon S95
Resolution 10 MP 10 MP 10 MP
35mm Eq. Focal Length Range 24-91mm 28-112mm 28-105mm
Max Aperture f/2 f/1.8 f/2.0
Sensor Size 1/1.63" 1/1.6" 1/1.7"
LCD Monitor 3.0" 460K Dot TFT 3.0" 610K Pixel OLED 3.0" 461K Dot TFT
Movie Format 720/30P AVCHD Lite 720/30P Motion JPEG 720/24P H.264 .MOV
Exposure in Movie Mode Auto & Manual, Manual ISO Possible Exposure Compensation Only Exposure Compensation Only
Zoom in Movie Mode Yes Yes No
Optical TTL in Manual Exposure Yes Yes No

Panasonic DMC-LX5 (or Leica D-Lux 5 if you want to pay an extra $300 for a cool red Leica sticker).

Too many compact cameras feel like toys. This one feels like a camera. Out of the housing it has one of the best rubberized grips of any compact available. A switch on the side of the lens barrel allows quick changes between macro and normal focusing modes, which is more convenient than a push – push – push or push button and scroll method used in other models. This camera does not use a lens ring or rotary dial like some of our other favorites, it uses an SLR style command dial that is less prone to accidental actuation, and can be clicked to toggle between f-stop, shutter speed, and exposure compensation depending upon the shooting mode selected.
side by side photo of lx5 and housing
We fell hard for this camera when we squeezed the trigger for the first time… The af system grabs focus quickly, and is very accurate. We usually recommend single area af to pinpoint the plane of focus, which is especially useful for macro photography, but even the 23 area automatic mode works pretty well for fish portrait and wide angle photography.

The underwater image quality out of the camera sets the bar. Auto white balance when used with strobes is accurate, and requires little correction. The blues are nice and smooth, and the colors are rich, but not crayola rich.

LX5 also has the most sophisticated movie mode of any compact camera we’ve ever tested. While most provide all the control needed for still photos, they fall back to fully auto ugliness when you press the movie button. LX5 allows some of the good habits learned taking still photos to be applied to movie shooting as well. F-Stop, Shutter Speed, ISO, zoom, and full time autofocus are all available while recording movie clips.

LX5 Underwater Housing
The best housing available for LX5 is Nauticam’s NA-LX5. This housing is machined from solid aluminum, allowing a form fitting small design, the lightest weight possible, and specialized control placement to enhance ergonomics. The housing shutter release is extremely sensitive, allowing precise feel of half and full press shutter release positions. Nauticam has also split the “click” and “turn” functions of the command dial into two separate functions on the housing, making these controls easy to operate in water, even with cold water gloves. A 67mm threaded lens ring is standard for attaching wet mate wide angle and close up lenses. An optional hand strap helps support the weight of the system while operating controls on the housing, and is a must have accessory.

LX5 Strobes
Inon and Sea & Sea strobes both work very well in optical TTL in P, A, S, and M modes. The optical connection is trouble free and provides accurate, consistent firing. In keeping with the small size theme, a Sea & Sea YS-01 and ball arm set is a good fit, providing plenty of power and coverage, and simple to operate control interface.

LX5 Macro Accessory Lenses
Any 67mm threaded wet mate macro lens would be compatible with the Nauticam LX5 housing. The strongest is ReefNet’s SubSee +10. The SubSee is an achromat lens, meaning that purple fringing is kept to an absolute minimum. Inon’s UCL-165 M67 is another good choice. It is a weaker lens (+6), but the means it is easier to use, smaller, and lighter weight.

LX5 Wide Angle Accessory Lenses
Possibly the only thing keeping this from being the perfect underwater system is the lack of a fisheye lens option. The 24mm native wide angle lens is great for topside photography, but precludes many wet mount wide angle lenses that are currently on the market. Nauticam’s 67mm Wet Mate Dome Port restores the camera’s in air field of view (84 deg diagonal), and is tack sharp in the corners. This lens is relatively inexpensive, small, and light. The new Inon UWL-H100 28M67 Type II did yield very nice results and over 100° field of view!

LX5 with No Attachment Lens LX5 with Nauticam Wet Mate Dome Port LX5 with Inon UWL-H100 28M67 Type II
no attachment lens nauticam wet mate dome port Inon UWL-H100 28M67

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Best in Class Autofocus
  • Excellent Image Quality
  • Optical TTL with Inon and Sea & Sea Strobes
  • Best in Class Video Functionality
  • Aspect Ratio Switch Easily Changed by Accident
    (Sorry, we couldn't find anything else not to like.)

Olympus XZ-1

Olympus used to be the only game in town for high end compact cameras. An Olympus C- series was the first digital camera owned by many top photographers, and it is nice to see Olympus commit resources to this segment after taking a few years off. There is a lot to like about this camera as well. XZ-1 has the sharpest and brightest screen available in and advanced compact. The camera is comfortable to hold, and feels solidly built. Autofocus is quick, but hunts a little more than LX5. Independent control wheels (one around the lens, one on the camera back) provide easy access to shutter speed and aperture. XZ-1 features the best lens ever put in a compact camera, and beautiful image quality.

xz-1 and housing side by side

Nauticam NA-XZ1 Housing
Nauticam has taken the ergonomic housing design and robust construction methods applied to LX5 and incorporated them in this XZ-1 housing as well. The same tactile shutter release is found here, and both command wheels are placed within a fingertips reach. Camera installation is drop in simple, and no housing controls need to be preset when installing the camera.

There is also an inexpensive housing for XZ-1 available from Olympus.

XZ-1 Strobes
Inon strobes have been tested to provide very accurate optical ttl performance with the XZ-1 camera. For the smallest system possible S-2000 is a good match, and someone seeking a bit more power could pair the camera with Inon’s flagship Z-240.

We were not able to get any Sea & Sea strobe to function properly in DS-TTL mode with XZ-1. The only operating mode that offered in sync flash was a manual output from the camera (single flash), and the strobe in its single flash manual mode, which requires manually setting the flash output on the strobe head.

XZ-1 Macro Lenses
The same macro lens recommendations made above for LX5 would apply here.

XZ-1 Wide Angle Lenses
We had the opportunity to test prototypes of the Inon UWL-H100 28M67 Type 2 lens, providing 100 degree coverage, extremely close focus, and excellent corner sharpness. This is easily the best lens available for XZ-1 in the Nauticam housing. The UWL-H100 28M67 Type 1 is exactly the same lens, but has as different threaded mount optimized for the Olympus PT-050 housing.

100 degrees isn’t enough? Bolt on an optional Inon Dome Unit, increasing the lens’ field of view to 145 degrees! The optics of this system are superb, but plan to pay approximately twice the cost of a UWL-04 lens providing the same field of view with S95.

No Conversion Lens Inon UWL-H100 28M67 Type 2
Inon UWL-H100 28M67 (Prototype)
with Inon Dome Port Installed
XZ-1 with no conversion lens XZ-1 with Inon UWL-H100 28M67 Type 2 Inon UWL-H100 & Dome
Please excuse the air bubbles on the lens! They are not caused by the lens, our tester was just in a hurry.

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Excellent Image Quality
  • Best in Class LCD Monitor
  • Optical TTL with Inon Strobes, even in Manual Exposure Mode
  • Outstanding Wide Angle Lens Options (but pricey)
  • Good AF with Accurate Subject Tracking
  • Fully Automatic Movie Mode
  • No TTL with Sea & Sea Strobes

Canon Powershot S95

The S95’s predecessor S90 really resonated with underwater photographers. It had manual exposure control, a good interface for a tiny camera, and you could drop it in a shirt pocket for a night on the town. S95 didn’t make too many changes to a good model, adding high definition video and some in camera software processing tweaks.
s95 and housing side by side
The form factor of S95 will make it just right for someone who seeks pocketability and extreme small size first. The focus system in S95 feels a bit slow when compared to the newer technology in LX5 and XZ-1, but it is effective.

Fix S95 Housing
Also machined from solid aluminum, and also featuring outstanding ergonomics, this is one of the smallest underwater housings for a fully featured camera available. The housing will fit in the hands of someone with tiny fingers better than the XZ-1 or LX5 options will, but the housing can be a bit awkward to hold with larger hands.

Less expensive housings are available from Ikelite and Canon, but neither access the camera’s rear command dial. The Fix housing accesses both front and rear dials, which offers independent access to f-stop and shutter speed in manual exposure mode for quick exposure changes.

S95 Strobes
The S95, and all Powershot cameras before it, does not meter flash exposure in Manual Exposure mode. This means that automatic flash is not possible with the camera in M, but it does well in Program Mode, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority Modes. Inon S-2000 is small enough to integrate well into an S95 rig, and provides extremely accurate optical TTL performance. Cold water divers should consider a Sea & Sea YS-01, which has a more glove friendly interface.

S95 Macro Lenses
The Fix S95 comes with a 52mm threaded port, so an inexpensive 52mm – 67mm step up ring allows attachment of the 67mm lenses listed above.

S95 Wide Angle Lenses
The best wide angle lens to pair with Fix S95 is a Fix UWL-04 Fisheye Lens. This combination offers a 150 degree diagonal field of view, and is extremely cost effective for this level of performance.
Strengths Weaknesses
  • Extreme Small Size
  • Excellent Image Quality
  • Affordable, Sharp Super Wide Lens
  • AF Slower than XZ-1 or LX5
  • Can Be Too Small with Big Hands or Gloves
  • No Optical TTL in Manual Exposure Mode
  • Basic Video Mode

Even More Demystification...
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