The digital explosion revolutionized the imaging industry. Using sensors to capture photos delivers instant gratification that film cameras never could, with quality levels that match or exceed older technology. The scale of manufacturing brings component prices down. With plentiful sensors, specialty applications began to emerge.
Underwater photography was once a field practiced by only a few, who could afford the expensive and bulky sealed housings required to take professional cameras into the depths. When disposable cameras gained popularity, underwater versions emerged, though these were mechanical cameras with no adjustments, plastic lenses, and marginal image quality. Nonetheless, the allure of affordable photography beneath the waves assured hefty sales.
The availability of digital image sensors meant that it was only a matter of time before affordable digital cameras intended for use underwater came along. Here we look at the 10 best waterproof cameras in 2017. There are still camera housings to adapt conventional cameras and other devices with built-in imaging to underwater use, but we’re looking solely at cameras designed specifically to work underwater.
10 Best Waterproof Cameras 2017
|Camera||Resolution||Video?||Depth||GPS & Wi-Fi|
|Olympus TG-4||16MP||1080p||50 ft||Yes|
|Nikon CoolPix AW130||16MP||1080p||100 ft||Yes|
|Canon PowerShot D30||12.1MP||1080p||82 ft||GPS Only|
|Olympus Stylus TG-870||16MP||1080p||50 ft||Yes|
|Ricoh WG-4 GPS||16MP||1080p||45 ft||GPS Only|
|Nikon 1 AW1||14.2MP||1080p||49 ft||GPS Only|
|Fujifilm FinePix XP80||16.4MP||1080p||50 ft||Wi-FiOnly|
|Nikon Coolpix S33||13.2MP||1080p||33 ft||No|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30R||16.1MP||720p||26 ft||No|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30||18.2MP||1080p||32.8 ft||No|
1. Olympus TG-4 — Editor’s Pick
The top two cameras in our Buyer’s Guide come very close in performance (some argue that the Nikon AW130’s superior depth rating makes it the best waterproof camera in 2017).
The TG-4 is rated only up to 50 feet, but there is no standard protocol in place for rating underwater cameras, so it’s up to the manufacturer to declare this specification. Considering the customer base for underwater cameras, chiefly snorkelers and freedivers who rarely venture deeper than 15 feet, this rating is more than sufficient for the vast majority of users.
For this reason, the TG-4’s superior image performance underwater places it at number one. Cameras are, after all, all about the image. The TG-4 is optimized for exposures underwater, rendering water without the yellow cast often seen in similar devices. It produces the sharpest underwater images as well, a function of the autofocus system, also optimized for underwater shooting.
Dry land performance is unremarkable, so this is not the best waterproof camera for a consumer seeking an all-purpose camera with underwater capability.
2. Nikon CoolPix AW130
Nikon always brings great offerings to any product line, and the AW130 is no exception. At 100 ft, a depth which approaches the maximum safe diving level recommended for recreational diving by most dive certification organizations, the AW130 has the best waterproof camera depth rating, though its underwater image performance doesn’t match the TG-4. Its dry land performance, however, beats out all cameras on the list. Since we’re rating underwater cameras, though, the AW130 is the runner-up here.
The AW130 includes all the features that the top cameras in this roundup carry. Maximum ISO is 6400, like the TG-4, and this Nikon has both GPS and Wi-Fi features. Image stabilizers are features on the cameras in the AW130’s price range, including this CoolPix model. Nikon calls the feature VR, or vibration reduction, however it’s no different from any other stabilizer technology.
Optical zoom on the AW130 extends to 5x, outperforming the TG-4’s 4x specification. The Nikon’s build is also rugged, though lighter than the Olympus. The camera has negative buoyancy, so will sink without an accessory such as a float strap. The AW130 accepts SD cards for captured images, as well as offering 473MB of internal storage. This is a great feature, since underwater is no place to realize you’ve forgotten your memory card.
3. Canon PowerShot D30
The PowerShot D30 could have been the top spot, save for Canon’s choice to use a 12.1MP sensor, rather than the more standard 16MP. However, you can’t discount the fact that Canon’s imaging experience and underwater photos show great saturation. They don’t, however, show great edge-to-edge sharpness. There is some focal vignetting, possibly caused by extra optics used to seal the camera, or simply from an imprecise imaging system. Whatever the cause, the D30 isn’t the best waterproof camera in terms of image quality.
While more difficult to navigate, it is a very solid camera. There are over 20 shooting modes, from common scenes to effects such as toy camera, color manipulation, and fisheye. For photographers who like to play with photos as they’re shot, the D30 adds some fun that doesn’t require editing later.
Image stabilizing goes one step further in the D30. Called “Intelligent IS”, there are five modes to match IS to shooting situation. The video capabilities of the camera even include a slow-motion mode, where the camera shoots at a high frame rate but plays back normally. Panoramic photos are created by a special program mode that exposes several frames and stitches these together in software.
While the D30 includes GPS, it has no Wi-Fi capability, however, given the unreliability of camera Wi-Fi, it shouldn’t be a huge disadvantage.
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4. Olympus Stylus TG-870
Like the TG-4, the Stylus TG-870 does a great job with underwater images. Its work on land leaves something to be desired, however. Photos taken in conventional settings show levels of noise. Resembling the grain of higher speed color film, it’s not necessarily objectionable, and many photographers use grain and noise filters for effect when editing images. However, that should be an option, not a condition forced by an otherwise well-built 16MP camera.
The TG-870 has a flipping LCD that allows 180 degrees of rotation around a hinge along the top edge of the viewscreen. This is not a common feature of underwater cameras, and offers a nice range of versatility. Another useful feature is a programmable button on the front of the camera. Located along the bottom edge, it can be used as another shutter release or video record button, but it can also serve other functions – use it to boost LCD brightness, to activate flashlight mode, or to set macro mode for close shots.
The TG-870 is the best waterproof camera for transferring photos to mobile devices. While some of the user interfaces take getting used to, when you’re finally set up and ready to transfer photos, it goes without a hitch. Most cameras’ connectivity is still unimpressive, but the TG-870 does a remarkable job.
5. Ricoh WG-4 GPS
At first glance, you may wonder what sort of device the WG-4 actually is. Its shape breaks away from most point-and-shoot camera designs used in other cameras. From the back, the large LCD dominates, appearing larger than its 3-inch size. The right side is normal, with thumb-operated controls, but the left side of the camera is rounded, as though a small shark took a bite out of the top edge. Amongst diver’s gear, it appears to be just another tool, not a camera.
But a camera it is, and a competent one at that. Its features match the competition, including a 16MP CMOS sensor with a maximum ISO of 6400. The lens opens up to f2.0 for a widest aperture. The WG-4 GPS comes with GPS, obviously, though there is a WG-4 version without, for those looking for a more affordable option. Neither version sports Wi-Fi or other wireless image transfer capability.
The WG-4 is not the best waterproof camera in terms of image quality, dropping it to the middle of the Buyer’s Guide. While its specs are up there with the big boys, images tend to be noisy, and image processing is slower than average. One nice touch is a ring of LEDS around the lens to illuminate subjects in macro mode, a great idea for tropical fish photography.
All in all, the WG-4 GPS is a rugged camera with great visual appeal. The sharp look means some compromises in performance and image quality.
6. Nikon 1 AW1
The AW1 has a unique place not only on this list, but in the world of the best underwater cameras. It’s the first to use interchangeable lenses. Nikon is, of course, a world leader in camera manufacturing. Their top products have, for years, been the choice of photojournalists and serious hobbyists everywhere. The AW1 offers a unique underwater camera experience. It’s not without some hiccups, however.
Imaging both on dry land and in water is good, offering the best waterproof camera overall balance here. The interchangeable lens concept is limited in underwater use, however, since there are only two lenses with underwater capability. Under dry conditions, the AW1 can use all Nikon 1 lenses.
The control system for this camera is what keeps it out of the top five best waterproof cameras. Unlike many cameras, which use a dial to select modes, the AW1 requires digging into the menus or using an action button that requires camera movement to select modes. It’s not particularly intuitive. If you do master the system, underwater adjustments should be simple, but using the camera as a 3D joystick isn’t easy to get used to.
The AW1 is also the most expensive camera on the list. The extra cost is due to the lens interchange capability. There are no outstanding specs: the sensor is 14.2MP, a little lower than most; depth rating is 49 feet, about average; and while the AW1 includes GPS, the Wi-Fi option is pricy. Some users have also voiced concern about the camera’s durability, an ironic anomaly, given that the AW1 is meant to be durable.
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7. Fujifilm FinePix XP80
If you’re looking for metal in your underwater camera search, search elsewhere. The FinePix XP80 is all plastic, though it’s rated to survive a tumble from about six feet. It has a depth rating of 50 ft, an average rating for divers. Since a camera is only as good as its images, the FinePix XP80 is merely acceptable. Colors are somewhat dull and unsaturated compared to the best waterproof cameras on this list. Dry land and underwater images are consistent, but consistently average. Like the Nikon 1 AW1, the XP80 doesn’t favor one environment over the other.
Unlike the Nikon, however, the camera’s controls navigate quite easily. With a 2.7-inch LCD monitor, somewhat smaller than its competitors, this is a good thing. There are a number of creative modes built into the camera, making it fun to use. More advanced control isn’t possible, however, so it is not the best underwater camera for more serious photographers.
Though rated for ISO 6400, the XP80 doesn’t perform particularly well in low light, resulting in coarse and noisy images. This camera definitely fares better with brightly lit scenes, which limits the advantages offered by the depth rating.
The FinePix XP80’s modest performance matches its price. While this is an excellent take-along beach camera that’s not afraid to get wet, it’s not the best waterproof camera in 2017 if you’re after a high-performance underwater imaging device.
8. Nikon Coolpix S33
The third Nikon camera on our list is at the opposite end of the price spectrum from the Nikon 1 AW1. The best waterproof camera for budget-conscientious buyers, the Coolpix S33 gives the Fujifilm FinePix XP80 a run for its money, yet sits at the bottom of the pack in terms of stats.
The S33 has easy-to-use controls and can take some abuse. Like the XP80, the S33 is perfect for a day at the beach that includes some time underwater, something most point-and-shoot camera models at this price aren’t suited for. There is very little control, however. The camera has essentially only one mode – full auto. Though there are a few other modes, nothing resembles full control. The point of this camera is to just pick it up and shoot.
On the down side, images are not spectacular when compared to the best waterproof cameras in 2017. Quality is adequate for snapshots, but users looking for bright color and saturation from their camera should look elsewhere.
The simplicity of the S33 is showcased with a shooting mode that can not only detects faces while adjusting focus and calculating exposure, it also takes the photos for you, so if you’re new to snorkelling, you can easily take photos while focusing on your diving skills. This takes ease of use to the next level.
9. Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30R
Another basic camera at an affordable price, the Lumix DMC-TS30R is lacking even compared to other low-cost devices, chiefly due to the low-quality LCD screen. At 2.3 inches, it’s also one of the smallest. The poor screen makes working the otherwise simple controls somewhat tricky in underwater or bright light situations. This, however, isn’t necessarily a drawback in automatic modes, a common way to use simple cameras like this. Concentrating on just having fun is the key.
The design lacks a bit of common sense. Most cameras have the imaging lens in the center of the body (a throwback to the days of film, when strips of light-sensitive material required placement behind the lens with the ability to advance to a fresh piece of film). Digital sensors remove this need, and in the DMC-TS30R, the lens is in the upper right corner of the camera (from the front), meaning the lens is under the fingers of your left hand as you take a photo. This makes it easy to capture finger selfies in your photos. This problem is worsened by the poor quality of the LCD, since that’s the only viewfinder on the camera.
Not only does the lens placement risk ruining your photos, inadvertent touching of the lens can smudge the outer element, leading to degraded photo quality. Even without smudging, images are snapshot quality at best, despite the 16.1MP sensor. One thing the DMC-TS30R does have going for it is the long exposure times it’s capable of, though this isn’t a huge priority. Overall, unless your sole priority is affordability, this is not the best waterproof camera in 2017.
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10. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30 puts touchscreen technology to use in a logical way for an underwater camera. A large number of physical controls on a camera makes waterproofing more difficult due to more camera body pass-throughs. Each adds to the risk of eventual failure. With most of the DSC-TX30’s controls being touchscreen icons, those pass-throughs are significantly reduced. This results in a lower likelihood of a water-related camera failure. However, this risk reduction is negated by the single lock on the battery door. Other underwater cameras feature a double lock to prevent accidental opening. Also, the sliding front cover can trap water in the camera. While not in a critical location, it seems an illogical design point for a camera intended for water immersion.
The touchscreen does make the camera easy to use, particularly with the well-thought-out menu system. The screen is large, 3.3 inches, and the shutter release is very easy to operate in all conditions.
Underwater image quality is above average for this class of camera. Slight inaccuracies in color reproduction occur with dry land photography, but overall performance is reasonable. Low-light performance above ISO 3200 does tend to be noisy. The DSC-TX30 uses a microSD card, the only device in our list that does so.
Where the Cyber-shot DSC-TX30 fails is in the same place as the Panasonic DMC-TS30R. Sony uses the same upper corner lens placement, causing the same problems. While the screen permits easier detection of errant fingers prior to exposure, the lens is still susceptible to smudges.
With a depth rating of only 33 feet, the DSC-TX30 isn’t the best waterproof camera for serious underwater usage. While still a solid overall performer and a unique and stylish design, the delicacy moves the DSC-TX30 to the bottom of our list.
Underwater Photography Challenges
Taking photos underwater adds unique conditions for both the photographer and the camera. Since moving away from film, the biggest challenge is operating in a digital environment, which means operating in an environment that could cause short circuits. Salt water is also corrosive, so preventing rust and other wear on the camera’s body is a priority. Manufacturing is only one curveball that subaquatic photography throws. The environment itself changes the image formation when compared to dry land photography.
Density of Water vs. Air
The density of water causes light to behave much differently than in air. Indirect light doesn’t penetrate water very far. If the angle at which a beam of light hits the water’s surface exceeds 45 degrees, it reflects off the surface. As the source moves closer to perpendicular to the surface, more light penetrates.
The relatively dense water absorbs shorter wavelengths fairly quickly. This absorption causes the dominance of blue, a longer wavelength. This problem is twofold. First, with only blue light penetrating the water, anything photographed is lit with blue light. Camera flashes have the same issue, the blue light carries farther.
Second, with short wavelengths of light filtered out, the amount of light energy for exposure lowers. In other words, it’s just not as bright. Both issues increase with depth.
Water also suspends dirt and debris. These particles scatter light, diffusing sharpness and further reducing the efficiency of any light source to make an exposure. This aggravates an already low-contrast environment.
Water also refracts and magnifies. This causes distortion of the subject. For example, a perfect square photographed underwater would appear to bulge along all sides. It will also seem about 33% larger.
How Underwater Cameras Answer the Call
Digital photography has advantages over film for underwater use. Whereas film required corrective lenses, filtration, and powerful supplementary lighting, programming can adapt a CMOS sensor to underwater conditions. Color and sensitivity, altered through algorithms, adapt to conditions below the surface, often through use of an underwater mode on the camera. Switching back to normal operation permits the same sensor to perform normally, using a different set of algorithms.
Many of the “drawbacks” of underwater photography are, in fact, part of its appeal. The point is not to make shots under the surface look like those above. Operating underwater is, perhaps, the bigger challenge.
Each manufacturer approaches waterproofing their own way, but most reliable cameras share similar traits. Any body openings should have protection against accidental operation. Many cameras achieve this with a two-point lock, so that a pair of distinct actions must occur for battery or memory card removal, for example. Always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for safely using and cleaning the o-ring seals around openings.
Water pressure presents a challenge. Every 33 feet of depth doubles the pressure exerted on a submerged object. A camera has 14.5 psi exerted on it on dry land, matching the air pressure outside. At 33 feet deep, water pressure outside the camera is now 29 psi. Since watertight means airtight, pressure inside the camera remains at 14.5 psi as long as the seals’ integrity doesn’t fail. The deeper it is and longer a camera remains submerged, the more likely a seal failure is. Never exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations for depth or duration to protect your investment.
CMOS Image Sensors
All underwater cameras in our Buyer’s Guide use CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) digital imaging sensors. One of several common image sensors, the chief advantages of CMOS technology are their low cost and low power demands, which greatly extends battery life. While CCD (charge-coupled device) technology provides superior imaging quality, it means higher manufacturing costs and increased power consumption. Improvements in CMOS technology have also minimized the quality gap.
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