Underwater Photography Buyers Guide 2021
Everything you need to know for your first step into underwater photography or when you want to upgrade to the next level of equipment. The choices can be daunting, but don't be put off by the below image - you will definitely not need as much.
This blog post aims to help divers looking to build their own underwater camera kit for photography. The information is intended to help those who are looking to get their first kit as well as photographers wanting to upgrade. The recommendations here are focused on photography rather than video. Please be advised that these are my personal recommendations, other professionals might suggest something else.
If you prefer a more visual approach, please watch this video.
Sections covered below
Cameras & lenses
First decision is the camera. Big decisions to make between compact, mirrorless and DSLR, as well as full frame. A typical question I might get “I have this 5 year old Korean DSLR that my grandfather gave me, can I take this underwater?” the answer is rather not.
Lets start with a couple of must-read recommendations
If you are new to photography, start with a compact
Stick with cameras that have track record underwater (read reviews)
Don’t buy a new (and expensive) housing for an old camera (not older than 2-3 years)
Look what your friends use – always great to learn and support each other
Do not buy second-hand compact or mirrorless cameras, DSLR is OK.
For new photographers and for those who want to keep things simple as well as divers who want to be able to do macro and wide-angle in the same dive – I strongly recommend to get an upscale compact camera. Even for above-water pro photographers I generally recommend to start with a compact, as managing a system camera rig underwater is quite challenging. Modern compacts are powerful cameras in terms of video, photo, RAWs and even dynamic range (ability to correct in post).
The cameras that I recommend are Sony RX100 (currently mark 7) or Canon G7x (currently mark III) as these are powerful cameras above and below that have great photo and video capabilities and have stood the test of many underwater dives. If it is hard to decide you can either decide by price or by intended use – the Sony RX is a bit stronger when it comes to video, while Canon is a bit ahead in terms of macro.
Note: If video is not too important you can save yourself quite some hassle by getting Sony RX100 mkV as this one does not require a short port (see more below)
There are plenty of other compact cameras out there, but remember to only buy a camera that has already been widely used underwater. In the past several highly anticipated cameras surprisingly didn't deliver underwater eg. Canon G1x or Nikon J series.
What about Olympus Tough TG-6?
This is probably the most common camera underwater and it is of course very appealing – it is cheap, waterproof (and in a housing double safe) and impresses with its macro capabilities. The latest model even has 4k video that is really striking. If your budget is constrained or you rarely ever shoot wide-angle it is a good set up. My beef with TG is that the wide-angle is poor and manual mode very limited. Also, the dynamic range – the range of options in post-processing – is narrow. In my opinion the camera is limiting your ability to learn more and develop your abilities in manual mode, but for macro only it’s a great starter kit.
Hey, I have a GoPro!!
That is great but that is not a photo camera. It is a very reasonable video camera but the photos are basically still frames of a video camera. There is no RAW photo to edit and you cannot link it to strobes. While I have several GoPros and they come on every trip I will only take them to cover the situation in video and never as a still camera.
The big revolution in the underwater space has been the emergence of so-called micro-four-thirds cameras. Lenses can be exchanged like on the larger DSLRs, but they are lighter, smaller and mostly cheaper than their larger predecessors and have therefore taken the underwater market in a storm. A huge advantage is the image review in the viewfinder, allowing you to keep shooting without moving the camera - very useful in macro.
The most popular brand here is Olympus with OM-D EM-1 and EM-5 (lower cost) cameras, which both deliver amazing results. For stills and especially macro these cameras are the bomb. A little limitation versus bigger cameras is the focus speeds – for shooting larger and faster animals these cameras often lag a bit. If you have a squeeze on the budget I would say EM-5 is the best value for money out there.
Mirrorless Full Frame
The focus speed limitations have all but been eradicated by the entrance of mirrorless full frame cameras – namely Sony Alpha A7 series which comes in various different iterations like the Sony A7 III as the base model, the Sony A7R IV for super high-resolution and Sony A7S III for video (R for resolution, S for Video). Since the mark III level these cameras now have focus speeds and dynamic range to rival full frame DSLRs, but also in price point .
When trying to decide between Micro 4/3 and FF the main argument will be the price. If you are considering shooting professional photography, wide-angle photography or something like sharks and manta rays – I would go FF. Also, for videography the full frame mirrorless cameras are unbeatable.
So why are some people, including yours truthfully, still shooting with bulky DSLRs? Mostly because the FF mirrorless cameras only recently have become comparable in focus speed. As a wide-angle photographer focus speed is super important for me – and my Nikon D850 is still the fastest camera out there. For sharks and mantas I think I still have the best camera on hand. But Sony A7 and A9 as well as Canon R6 and others are very close now.
Another reason is price – any DSLR lenses are widely available second-hand and these babies last forever. So you can save a lot of money on those compared to the rather punchy cost of new FF mirrorless lenses. Finally, there are much more lenses available for DSLR – for example there is not native fish-eye lens for Sony A7 or Canon R6.
Cropped vs Full Frame DSLR
There is again the same choice to make – FF or cropped. Generally, cropped sensors are lower in price and have less dynamic range. They are often better for macro because the crop sensor functions like a magnifier, so a 60mm macro lens is like a 90mm lens on a full frame. Also I find that contrasts are better and depth of field more forgiving on a crop sensor camera. Personally I would chose a mirrorless camera over a DSLR crop for macro - the viewfinder showing the image is unbeatable and generally they produce crisper macro shots as well as being smaller and therefore easier to handle when trying to get close to small things.
For wide-angle photography I would always opt full frame if you can. If you are interested in video better chose mirrorless, DSLRs are not great in terms of focus, stability and features.
Nikon vs Canon
I get this asked a lot and its difficult. Currently the best and fastest DSLR is Nikon D850 but Canon is due to announce a new 5D. Also I would consider what your friends are using, so you can borrow lenses of each other.
If you want to keep it simple, or if you are new to photography for for compact. If you are ready to enter system cameras but are not a professional, go for mirrorless. Also when macro is your main interest opt for Olympus. For professional photos you can chose mirrorless FF or DSLR, but for fast moving subjects I would lean slightly towards DSLR FF.
Now that you have a system camera you will want to have a choice of lenses. Underwater you want to have either a wide or a macro lens but then there are nuances and variations. Generally there are four categories to have - each one with their own advantages and usages.
Here are my suggestions depending on how far you are willing to go.
Two lens approach - ok for beginners