A Guide to Deciding What Underwater Camera System is Right for You

The number of new camera releases over the last 12 months has truly been amazing. One of the most important responsibilities we have at Reef Photo and Video is helping customers figure what kind of Underwater Camera system is right for them – it isn’t always as obvious as it might seem at first!

We are currently breaking digital camera categories into three major groups with important sub groups in some of these categories.  The first group is the traditional Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras or DSLR that continues to evolve and refine.  The next category would be Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras with numerous options available at this time and more coming regularly.  The last category is Compact Cameras with a handful of cameras that are most suitable for the underwater enthusiast to use.  There are clearly pros and cons to each category and understanding them will help hone in the decision making process.  So let’s take a look.

Underwater Camera Systems Ready to Dive
Left-to-right: Compact Camera, Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens, Digital Single Lens Reflex

Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras

SLRs have been going underwater for decades and all things considered, a DSLR in a housing with good quality lenses is still the easiest, most consistently successful underwater imaging system a photographer can own.  That doesn’t mean it is the answer for everyone as there are always caveats, but it will do everything you ask of it very, very well and these cameras continue to improve.

DSLR Pros and Cons

Lens Choice: SLRs have been around a long time and are very popular.  This means access to an extensive lens selection and many excellent choices for underwater use with more options for Nikon and Canon DSLRs than any other type of system.

Viewfinder: At this time there is still no equal to an optical viewfinder for exacting focus - “what you see is what you get.”  Viewfinders employ “distance focus” which is easier than an LCD for most people.

Focus: Auto focus is improving in every camera format, but DSLRs generally have the most focus points and greatest accuracy.  Manual Focus is an option on some lenses.

Reliability: Build quality is not an absolute, but usually DSLRs are a bit more robust.

Image Quality: Sensors used in DSLRs are at least APS-C size or larger.  A larger sensor (all things being equal) will generally provide better high ISO / low light performance in stills and video.

Ease of Use: DSLRs have more dedicated controls than other types of cameras and are therefore quicker and easier to operate – topside and underwater.

Performance: DSLR’s usually have higher top shutter speeds for stopping action in natural light and higher synch speeds which can be helpful to control ambient exposure and motion. Shutter lag is virtually zero.

Size: DSLR housings are larger, but if balanced properly they are actually quite easy to handle underwater.  Topside, they are definitely heavier and require more luggage space to travel with.

Price: DSLR systems will generally be more expensive than alternatives - though many parts of the system (lenses, ports, lighting) may well outlive the original camera.  Full frame systems will be more expensive than an equivalent crop sensor system.

One Lens per Dive: Some will see going diving with a prime lens or short range zoom as a sacrifice over a compact’s ability to do “everything” with the help of wet-lenses.  In practice, many find this “focused” approach ultimately yields more quality shots per dive, more often.

Diver With Complete DSLR Camera System

APS-C (Crop Sensor) vs Full Frame Sensors for DSLR Shooters

There is no clear winner on sensor size, each category has benefits and liabilities for underwater use.  There are good lenses available for use with either sensor size, but arguably there are some better lens options for the underwater crop sensor shooter – and often at a lower price.

Many photographers may find shooting cropped sensor cameras more “forgiving.”  This is primarily because at any given field of view and aperture setting the cropped sensor camera will exhibit greater depth of field - more “in-focus” area - than on a full frame camera.  Many macro shooters enjoy this quality and the way it is easier to fill the frame because of the crop sensor’s inherently narrower FOV at a given focal length.  Crop sensor cameras (and lenses) are generally a little smaller than full frame cameras, but this is changing somewhat with smaller full frame camera bodies.

Full frame cameras offer up superior low light / high ISO performance and hence are a favorite for ambient light shooting and videography.  Full frame cameras also have a distinct advantage for shallow depth of field specific shooting.  Lastly, if the same size pixels and density are used on a cropped sensor and full frame sensor; the full frame will be significantly higher resolution.

Relative Reproduction of a Bumble Bee Shrimp With FX sensor (whole image) and DX Sensor (inset)

Current Popular Crop Sensor DSLRs with Housing Support

  • Canon T4i / 650D
  • Canon 60D
  • Canon 7D
  • Nikon D7000
  • Nikon D7100

Current Popular Full Frame DSLRs with Housing Support

  • Canon 6D
  • Canon 5D Mk III
  • Canon 1DX / 1DC
  • Nikon D600
  • Nikon D800
  • Nikon D4

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras

The category seeing the most explosive development in recent years is clearly the mirrorless group.  Their popularity has really taken off as the supporting equipment for these little powerhouses has improved greatly. The pleasure of a compact size camera with high quality interchangeable lenses and DSLR level image quality (in some cases) has clearly struck a chord with photographers everywhere.  Fortunately many of these exciting camera systems have excellent underwater housing support.  For someone looking to travel light, but shoot like a heavyweight, these could be just the solution.

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera Pros and Cons

Size: The greatest appeal of these systems is clearly their DSLR-like features in a compact size, where a complete UW system might pack in a half of the space of a full DSLR system.

Lens Selection: Mirroless systems that have been out for a few years have a good selection of lenses for use underwater.  Micro 4/3 (Panasonic & Olympus) has by far the most lenses with the Sony NEX E series growing closely behind.

Auto Focus: The AF on the mirrorless systems is advancing rapidly and can be quite fast and accurate – definitely better than most compacts.

Relative Sizes of Popular Digital Camera Sensors. 
The blue outside line represents the size of a full frame sensor (identical in size to 35mm film format.)

Large Sensors: Sensor size matters (to a degree) and most mirrorless formats are fairly large. Micro 4/3 is larger than all compacts and the Canon and Sony offerings are APS-C size – just like a crop sensor DSLR.

Video Quality: It is quite common for these cameras to be able to shoot 1080 30P or 60P video with excellent results.

View Finders: Electronic View Finders (EVF) have become more common on some mirrorless systems.  While still not as effective as an optical VF, they can be a real boon for UW photographers.  They have much higher resolution than the rear LCD display and allow for the use of distance vision rather than close up vision – a definite plus for many of us!

Frames Per Second: High frame rates are rarely critical for the underwater photographer, but without a mirror to deal with, some of these cameras can pump out 10 frames a second or more when not firing a flash. Think swimming with dolphins perhaps?

Price: The cost for a mirrorless system will slot firmly in-between a high end compact set up and a DSLR rig with comparable lenses.  This is a clear case of you get what you pay for and if items are chosen carefully, you can get DSLR-like results at a good price point.

Functionality: Smaller cameras mean fewer controls.  All things being similar, a mirrorless system in a housing is not going to be quite as easy or direct to operate as a DSLR in a housing. It doesn’t mean it is difficult, just more menu driven.

A Complete Mirrorless Underwater Camera System

A Complete Mirrorless Camera System With Macro and Fisheye Leneses and Ports Packed for Travel

Popular Interchangeable Lens Mirrorless Cameras Supported with Housings

Without EVF
  • Canon EOS M
  • Sony NEX-5r
  • Olympus E-PL5
With EVF
  • Panasonic GH4
  • Sony NEX-6
  • Sony NEX-7
  • Nikon V2
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5, E-M10, E-M1

Compact Cameras – Is smaller better?

The original compact cameras were truly “point and shoot” in nature and not the image producers that we covet.  Now there are compacts that many DSLR enthusiasts are happy to carry for that “special moment” and allow full manual control when desired. Image quality has improved immensely in the last few years.  These new cameras have broad appeal, but aren’t the perfect underwater imaging solution for everyone.The most important qualities to look for in this huge market segment of cameras for underwater photography is a reasonably big sensor (compared to other compacts), good resolution, the ability to shoot RAW files and the option of full manual control.  Lastly there should be high quality housing options with the ability to fire a flash and some compatibility with good underwater “wet lenses”.

Compact Pros and Cons

Versatility: Compacts generally have a big zoom range with their built-in lens.  This can be enhanced with add on “wet lenses”, both close up and wide angle – all on one dive.Size: The smallest, lightest way to travel with underwater photo gear.Price: The most economical option for underwater photography.  The system can be expanded with accessories over time.Video: Quality and specifications of HD video have improved significantly.Ease of use: Compacts have the fewest controls and are not always the easiest cameras to use.  The small size means the menu is used more often for critical functions. Some controls can be smaller and closely spaced making use with cold water gloves difficult.Shutter Lag: While improving in recent years, compacts still have more shutter lag than mirror-less or DSLR cameras.Functionality: Features like auto-focus and white balance are generally less sophisticated than the other camera categories.

Popular Compact Cameras for Underwater Use

  • Canon S110 / S120
  • Canon G15 / G16 / G7X
  • Sony RX100
  • Panasonic LX5 / LX7
  • Olympus XZ1 / XZ2