The digital explosion revolutionized the imaging industry. Using sensors to capture photos delivers an instant gratification that film cameras never could, with quality levels that match or exceed older technology. The scale of manufacture brings component prices down, particularly when every smartphone and tablet includes at least one camera of serious resolution. With plentiful sensors, specialty applications begin 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. During the period where 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 dedicated underwater cameras available today. Note that there are still camera housings to adapt conventional cameras and other devices with built-in imaging. While some of these products may work well and extend the function of existing equipment, we’re looking solely at cameras designed and built to work in the water.
|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|
Waterproof Camera Reviews
1. Olympus TG-4 — Editor’s Pick
The top two cameras in our Buyer’s Guide come very close in performance. In fact, some sources point out the Nikon AW130’s 100-foot depth rating make it the top performing camera. That depth approaches the maximum safe diving level recommended for recreational diving for most dive certification organizations, such as the World Recreational Scuba Training Council.
While the TG-4 is rated only to 50 feet, there is no standard test protocol in place for rating underwater cameras, so it’s up to the manufacturer to declare this specification. When considering too that the market for underwater cameras likely includes snorkelers and freedivers who rarely venture deeper than 15 feet. So while 100 feet is impressive, 50 feet is sufficient for the vast majority of casual recreational users.
For that reason, the TG-4’s image performance underwater places it in the number one position. Cameras are, after all, all about the image. The TG-4 seems optimized for exposures underwater, rendering water without a yellow cast seen with many others in this class. It produces the sharpest underwater images as well, a function of the autofocus system that’s also optimized for underwater shooting.
Dry land performance is unremarkable, so the consumer seeking an all-purpose camera with underwater capability may want to select a camera with more balanced performance.
2. Nikon CoolPix AW130
Nikon always seems to bring competent offerings to any product line. The AW130 is no exception. While it has the best depth rating for any camera on the list, its underwater image performance doesn’t match the TG-4. On the other hand, its dry land performance beats out all cameras on the list. Since we’re rating underwater cameras, though, the AW130 gets the #2 spot.
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 feature on the cameras in the AW130’s price range and so does this CoolPix model. Nikon calls the feature VR, for vibration reduction, however it’s no different in performance from 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 it’s lighter than the Olympus. The camera has negative buoyancy and will sink without an accessory such as a float strap. While the AW130 accepts SD cards for captured images, there is also 473MB of internal storage. This is a nice touch that the TG-4 also features, since underwater is no place to realize you’ve forgotten your memory card.
3. Canon PowerShot D30
The PowerShot D30 could have been a contender for the top spot save for Canon’s choice to use a 12.1 mexapixel sensor, rather than the more standard 16MP for the better cameras in this class. However, you can’t discount Canon’s imaging experience and underwater photos show great saturation. They don’t, however, show great edge-to-edge sharpness. There appears to be 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 doesn’t deliver the best images in the Guide.
It’s still a solid camera. While it is somewhat more difficult to navigate, there are over 20 shooting modes from the usual common scenes to effects such as toy camera, color manipulation and fisheye. For the photographer who likes to play with photos as they’re shot, the D30 adds some fun that doesn’t require an editing app.
Image stabilizing goes a step further in the D30. Called “Intelligent IS” by Canon, there are five modes to match IS to shooting situation. The video capabilities of the camera 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, there is no Wi-Fi capability on hand. Given the rather unreliable way most camera Wi-Fi works, it’s not as great a handicap as it may seem.
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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 does leave something to be desired, even compared to the TG-4. For some reason, 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 and strongly featured 16 megapixel 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 gives a nice range of versatility. Another unusual and 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 that’s just the start. Use it to boost LCD brightness, to activate a flashlight mode with the front LED or to set macro mode for close shots.
One of the things the TG-870 does very well is transfer photos to mobile devices. While some of the user menus take getting used to, when you’re set up and ready to transfer photos off the camera, the transfer goes without a hitch. When camera connectivity is still commonly unimpressive, the TG-870 does a great job.
5. Ricoh WG-4 GPS
At first glance, you may be excused for wondering what sort of device the WG-4 actually is. Its shape breaks away from the convention of the point-and-shoot camera design used by most of the cameras in the buyer’s guide. From the back, the large LCD dominates, looking larger than its conventional 3-inch size. The right side is normal, with thumb-operated controls, but the left side of the camera is rounded, and it’s as though a small shark took a bite out of the top edge. Hanging from a diver’s gear it has the look of some other piece of gear, not a camera.
But camera it is and a competent one at that. 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, and there is a WG-4 version without, for those looking for a more affordable option without the added ability to geotag. Neither version sports Wi-Fi or other wireless image transfer capability.
Image quality drops the WG-4 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 noticeably 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.
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 underwater cameras. It’s the first to use interchangeable lenses. Nikon is, of course, one of the world leaders in camera manufacture. Their top products have for years been the choice of photojournalists and serious hobbyists around the world. While the AW1 does offer a unique underwater camera experience, it’s not without some hiccups.
Imaging both on dry land and in water is good, perhaps the best balance overall in the Guide. The interchangeable lens concept is limited in underwater use, however, since there are only two Nikon 1 system lenses available with underwater capability. Under dry conditions the AW1 can use all Nikon 1 lenses. It’s the control system for this camera that keeps it out of the top five in the Buying Guide.
Unlike many cameras using a dial to select shooting 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, it’s easy to see that underwater adjustments should be simple. However, using the camera as a 3D joystick isn’t simple to master.
The AW1 is also the most expensive camera on the list. The extra cost comes down to the lens interchange capability, since there are no outstanding specs. The sensor is 14.2MP, a little lower than most. Depth rating is 49 feet, about the middle of the pack, and while the AW1 includes GPS, Wi-Fi is an option. There is some concern about the camera’s durability when searching user reviews, an anomaly that’s ironic, given that the AW1’s design is meant to be durable.
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7. Fujifilm FinePix XP80
If you’re looking for metal in your underwater camera search, seek it elsewhere. The FinePix XP80 is all plastic, though still rated to survive a drop from about six feet. Rated to 50 feet of water depth, it’s also in the middle of the pack for divers. Since a camera is only as good as its images, the FinePix XP80 is, at best, average among the cameras in our Buying Guide. Colors are somewhat dull and unsaturated compared with other cameras on the list. Dry land and underwater images were consist, 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 easily, without nested menus within menus. With a 2.7-inch LCD monitor, this is a good thing, as the screen is somewhat smaller than the best performers in the category. There are a number of creative modes built into the camera, making it fun to use, combined with the simple operation. More advanced control isn’t possible, limiting this camera’s appeal to the more serious photographer.
Though rated for ISO 6400, the XP80 doesn’t perform particularly well in low light, with coarse and noisy images. This is a camera that definitely fares better with brightly lit scenes, which limits the advantages offered by the camera’s depth rating.
The FinePix XP80’s modest performance matches its price point. While this is an excellent take-along beach camera that’s not afraid to get wet, it’s not a high-performance underwater imaging device.
8. Nikon Coolpix S33
The third Nikon camera to make our list is at the opposite end of the price spectrum from the Nikon 1 AW1. The most affordable camera in the Buyer’s Guide, The Coolpix S33 gives the Fujifilm FinePix XP80 a run for the money, but sits at the bottom of the pack, compared with the other selections in the Guide.
On the plus side, the S33 has easy to use controls and can take a fair bit of 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 just can’t do. There is very little control. The camera has essentially one mode, and that’s full auto. Though there are a couple of other shooting modes, there is nothing resembling full control. That’s the point of the design for this camera. Pick it up and shoot. If you can turn it on, you can take a photo.
On the down side, images are not spectacular when compared with the top cameras featured here. Quality is adequate for snapshots, but users looking for bright color and saturation right out of the camera will prefer other cameras.
The simplicity of the S33 extends to one shooting mode that not only detects faces while adjusting focus and calculating exposure, it also takes the photo for you, without the need for pressing the shutter button. If you’re new to snorkelling, for example, you can still take photos of anything the S33 recognizes as a face, without breaking concentration on your diving skills. This takes easy to use one step beyond.
9. Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30R
Yet another of the basic cameras in the Buyer’s Guide with an affordable price point, the Lumix DMC-TS30R comes up short even compared with the other low-cost devices. The chief concern is the LCD screen. At 2.3 inches, it’s one of the smallest in the category, and it’s not the highest quality screen either. This makes working even the simple controls of the DMC-TS30R tricky in underwater or bright light situations. This perhaps isn’t a drawback when relying on automatic modes, a common way to use simple cameras in this genre. Concentrate on having fun, not taking photos, is the design philosophy.
The design philosophy stopped somewhere short 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, when viewed from the front. Describing it another way, the lens is under the fingers of your left hand as you take a photo. That’s right, it’s simple to capture finger selfies in almost any photo you take. It compounds the poor quality of the LCD, since that’s the only viewfinder on the camera.
Not only does the lens placement risk blocking by fingers, inadvertent touching of the lens can smudge the outer element, leading to degraded photo quality that’s only apparent when pictures are off-loaded. Even without smudging, images are snapshot quality at best, despite the 16.1MP sensor. One feature the DMC-TS30R has going for it is the long exposure times it’s capable of, though this is rarely a priority in a handheld point-and-shoot design.
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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 design. The number of physical controls on a camera likely increases the need to think about waterproofing the various camera body pass-throughs. Each adds to the risk of eventual waterproofing failure. With much of the DSC-TX30’s features converted to touchscreen icons, those pass-throughs are significantly reduced. This should result in less likelihood of a water-related camera failure. However, this advantage gets negated by the single lock on the battery and memory card door. Most underwater camera models feature a double lock to prevent accidental opening. Also, the sliding front cover can trap some water in the camera. While not in a critical location, it seems an illogical design point for a camera otherwise intended for water immersion.
The touchscreen does make the camera easy to use, particularly when combined with a well-thought out menu system. The screen is large at 3.3 inches and the shutter release has a very positive feel, easy to operate in all conditions.
Underwater images are above average for this Buyer’s Guide class. Some inaccuracy in color reproduction occurs in dry land photography, but overall performance is reasonable. Low-light performance above ISO 3200 tended to be noisy. The DSC-TX30 uses a microSD card, the only one in our list that does.
Where the Cyber-shot DSC-TX30 fails is the same place as the Panasonic DMC-TS30R. The Sony’s lens has the same upper corner placement, subject to the same upper corner problems. While its screen permits easier detection of errant fingers prior to exposure, the lens is still susceptible to smudges.
Rated to almost 33 feet underwater, the DSC-TX30’s design doesn’t inspire confidence for use as a serious underwater camera. While still a solid overall performer in a unique and stylish design, it’s this perceived delicacy that moves the DSC-TX30 to the bottom of our top ten.
Underwater Photography Challenges
Taking photos underwater adds some unique conditions for both photographer and camera. Since moving away from film, the biggest challenge is operating in a digital environment — which means using electricity in an environment that can easily cause short circuits. Salt water, too, is corrosive, so preventing rust and other wear of the camera body is a priority. Camera manufacture is only one curveball that subaquatic photography throws. The environment itself changes the image formation game when compared with 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, these reflect off the surface. As the source moves closer to perpendicular to the surface, increasingly more light penetrates.
Even then, density absorbs the shorter wavelengths of light fairly quickly. At the red/orange level of the spectrum, this absorption causes the dominance of blue, a long wavelength. This is a twofold problem. First, with only blue light penetrating the water, anything photographed is lit with blue light. Even an on-camera flash has the same issue, with blue light carrying farther.
Second, with short wavelengths of light effectively filtered, the amount of light energy for exposure reduces. 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 larger by about ⅓.
How Underwater Cameras Answer the Call
Digital photography has advantages over film for underwater use. Where 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 using a special underwater mode on the camera. Switching back to normal operation permits the same sensor to perform normally in air as well, using a different set of algorithms.
Of course, 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 its own way, but the most reliable cameras share similar traits. Any body openings should have protection against accidental opening. Many cameras achieve this with a two-point lock, so that a pair of distinct actions must be taken for battery or memory card removal, for example. 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 water depth doubles the pressure exerted on anything submerged. Since watertight means airtight, a camera has 14.5 lbs. per square inch inside its body on dry land, matching the air pressure outside. At 33 feet, water pressure outside the camera is now 29 lbs. per square inch. At 66 feet, that becomes 43.5 lbs. psi. Pressure inside the camera remains at 14.5 psi unless a seal fails. The deeper and longer a camera remains underwater, the more likely this is to occur. Never exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations for depth or duration, to protect the investment in your camera.
CMOS Image Sensors
All the 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 is their low cost and low power demands, greatly extending battery life. While CCD (charge-coupled device) technology provides superior imaging quality, it comes at a cost of both manufacture and power consumption. Improvements in CMOS technology have also closed the quality gap.