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The 5 Best Underwater Cameras for 2021 - Our Choices

The 5 Best Underwater Cameras for 2021 - Our Choices

You have taken the leap into a new adventure in life and become a certified diver. After buying the gear that fits your style and with a few trips to a resort or on a liveaboard, you notice many of your fellow divers are packing a camera of some sort. Some carry a small sports camera like the GoPro HERO, some carry a small compact and fully waterproof camera that requires no housing like the Olympus TG-6, and others carry a camera that looks like it was assembled by NASA. Now you have decided to become part of the photography crowd, but the question is which camera will best suit your wants and needs. The decision can be complex with so many options for the buyer. Once you start looking at cameras and housing and strobes, you may find your budget could be the driving factor. A full top end camera setup can cost a few thousand dollars.

 

We have selected what we believe are the best cameras in their category along with a couple of options on housings. This article doesn’t delve into the world of underwater strobes and lighting which deserves an article of its own. We hope this article helps you decide which camera might be your first purchase or if you already have an underwater camera and are ready to upgrade, what will be your next step.

 

Our categories are entry level compact, high-end compact, mirrorless, full frame mirrorless, and DSLR (digital single-lens reflex). Each type of camera has its own pros and cons.

 

Compact cameras offer an attached lens while both mirrorless and DSLRs offer interchangeable lenses. After shooting with a compact camera, many people eventually upgrade to a mirrorless or a DSLR. The advantage with a DSLR is the choice of interchangeable lenses. This difference limits the flexibility of a compact camera, although wet lenses that can be added while diving can help bridge this gap. You also have more flexibility with different focal lengths and better image quality from superior optics and a larger sensor. Interchangeable lens cameras also have reduced shutter lag and better focusing capability. These are huge advantages. 


Entry Level Compact Camera - Olympus TG-6

Key Features:

12MP Hi-Speed image sensor for low light performance and noise reduction

Dual Quad Core TruePic™ VIII Image Processor

F2.0 high speed Lens

4K and high speed video

Field Sensor System w/ GPS, Manometer, Compass & Temperature Sensor

Waterproof 


                               

                                               
The Olympus TG-6 is the same size as the TG-5 and has very minor improvements. The TG-6 will work in TG-5 housings. So, if you're really on a budget, take a look at the TG-5. Either the TG-5 or the TG-6 can be considered the best waterproof camera, outside of a housing. 

 

Although we are calling this an entry level camera, this is a very good underwater camera. It's also a good option for snorkeling because it's waterproof without a housing down to 50 feet (15 meters). 

 

The TG-6 has a high speed 12 MP sensor designed for excellent low light performance and noise reduction. It shoots 4k video, RAW photos, and includes built in WIFI, making transferring photos on the go easy. It's important to note that there is no full manual control on this camera. For the casual photographer who doesn't want to have to think about their camera settings this is probably not an issue. But if you want more control, you may want to consider a different camera. you'll be happier with an of the other cameras we mentioned above. For the housing, we recommend either the Olympus housing or the premium Isotta housing.

 

Pros

  • Smaller size for travel
  • Ability to change wet lenses underwater 
  • Much less cost 

 

Cons

  • Smaller sensor means less detail and more noise at high ISO
  • Shutter delay and focus delay is slow 
  • Less control over depth of field. 


High-End Level Compact Camera – Sony RX100 VII

Key Features:

1-inch 20.1 MP stacked CMOS sensor

BIONZ X processor

Built-in 24-200mm (equivalent) f/2.8-4.5 zoom lens

Electronic shutter up to 1/32000s

4K video with full pixel readout

S-LOG2, S-Log3, and HLG picture profiles

Pop-up EVF (2.36 million dots)


                                      

                                          

The Sony RX100 VII is packed with great features and improvements from its predecessor. New technologies have been integrated into the camera, which is similar to its cousins, the A9 and A6400. The improved autofocus tracking system, including animal eye autofocus makes the Sony RX100 VII a top choice for underwater photographers. You won’t find more useful technology for photographing underwater creatures on any other compact camera. Other upgrades include burst shooting without blackout and improved low light capability with a lower native ISO. 

 

There are three things that make the RX100 series one of the best underwater compact camera series. First, the 1-inch sensor size is larger than most other compact cameras. The larger sensor produces better image quality and better low-light performance due to a larger pixel size. Second, the auto-focus speed is faster than traditional compact cameras. Thirdly, the advanced 4K video features available in the RX100 series are the top-of-the-line when it comes to compact camera video systems.

 

The highlight of this camera is its unprecedented macro capability. The zoom on the 24-200 mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom lens cannot be beaten by other compact underwater setups. Details captured with this lens are remarkable. When combined with a wet macro lens, the realm of super macro photography is attainable. The tiniest details of the smallest subjects can be captured with this set up. For the housing, we recommend either the Nauticam housing or the premium Isotta housing.

 

Pros

  • Sharp 8x zoom lens
  • Electronic viewfinder
  • 1-inch sensor design
  • Eye detection

 

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Can't start video while images are writing to card
  • Limited touch functions


Mirrorless Camera – Panasonic GH5

Key features:

20MP Four Thirds sensor

5-axis in-body image stabilization system

4K footage taken using full width of sensor

Internal 4K/30p 10-bit 4:2:2 video capture

1080 video at up to 180p, enabling 7.5x slow-motion

4K and 6K Photo

9 fps shooting with continuous autofocus

Dual UHS II card slots

5GHz Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth

                      


The Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 is the fifth in the company's industry-changing video and stills 'hybrid' lineup. With its 20MP Four Thirds sensor and deep video-centric feature set, it looks likely to pick up where the GH4 left off as a favorite of indie filmmakers and photographers whose interests venture into the realm of motion picture work.

 

The camera offers carefully thought-out features designed to let videographers of all levels record what they need with the new system. The body is larger and the price tag increased as a result, but the video produced speaks for itself. And the GH5's still photo capability holds its own against the best from Olympus and Sony.

 

The benefit of mirrorless cameras is that they offer the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, with a higher quality and better focusing than compacts in a smaller, lighter package than their DSLR counterparts. As the mirrorless cameras are becoming more robust, we’ve seen the sizes of these cameras begin to increase, getting close in size as DSLR cameras. We’re not quite there yet, and the Panasonic GH5, which the largest of the mirrorless options so far, is still smaller than a DSLR.

 

GH5 underwater housings are smaller than DSLR housings, and support both the GH5 and GH5s cameras, in addition to a variety of micro-four thirds lenses. The Panasonic 12-35mm lens is a popular choice for underwater video. For the housing, we recommend the Nauticam housing as it supports the largest number of lenses.

 

Pros

  • 20MP sensor gives increase in resolution without increase in noise
  • Highly impressive video specifications (4:2:2 10-bit color, 4K/60p)
  • Auto ISO added for manual movie shooting
  • JPEG color improved
  • Dual UHS-II card slots, support for faster V60 cards in the future
  • Settings can be saved to card
  • Good battery life

 

Cons

  • On the larger end of the Micro Four Thirds cameras
  • JPEG sharpening improved 
  • Viewfinder resolution drops noticeably during high-speed bursts
  • Autofocus in video can exhibit focus hunting
  • Slight decrease in video quality when shooting high frame rates (180fps)


Full Frame Mirrorless Camera – Nikon Z6 / Z7

Z6 Key features:

24.5MP sensor

5-axis image stabilization system

1080 video at up to 120 fps

4K video at up to 24 fps

12 fps burst shooting

ISO 100-51200

273-point hybrid phase-detection autofocus

 

Z7 Key features:

45.7MP sensor

5-axis image stabilization system

1080 video at up to 120 fps

4K video at up to 24 fps

9 fps burst shooting

ISO 64-25600

493-point hybrid phase-detection autofocus


                                    

                                               

The most important distinctions between the Z6 and Z7 are the sensor resolution and autofocus - both are markedly better on the Z7. Additionally, the Z7 has a native ISO of 64, expandable down to 32, which is better than the Z6's native ISO of 100 (expandable down to 50). This means the Z7 will pull out more details from the shadows and highlights than the Z6. Other than that, the cameras are almost the same, including the same physical dimensions and weights. And of course, the cost, with the Z7 about $1200 higher in price.

 

The most enticing thing about the Z6 and Z7 is the excellent construction. The weather sealing is tough in variable weather conditions. The Z7 is much smaller and lighter than the D850 (675g vs 1005g). For the travelling diver, the Z6 or Z7 wins every time. 

 

The image quality on the Z7 is amazing. At first you might think that 45.7 MP is more than enough pixels in one camera. However, every bit of that information is useful. When you have so many megapixels on a full-frame sensor, you’re left with an ability to crop photos and produce a large, beautiful images with very minute details. Details like this will open new worlds for macro photographers.

 

The video on the Z6 / Z7 can be considered on par with the D850. This puts it at the top of the line for most underwater video systems. The color rendering is as good as in the Nikon D850 - which was revolutionary for Nikon at the time of its release. But the best feature on the Z7’s video is the autofocus full-time function. It outperforms the D850 and most other competing cameras. I did, however, have a little bit of trouble with this function in very low light. The most exciting thing for videographers using the Nikon Z7 is that it’s a full-frame camera with 4k video, capable of outputting video at 10 bits. Many cameras with this capability are over 10 times the price. An N-Log color profile is also available for the Nikon Z7, which will bring out more details after post-processing. 

 

For the underwater housing, we recommend the Nauticam or the premium Isotta housing.

 

Pros

  • Amazing image quality 
  • Very high resolution
  • High functioning electronic viewfinder
  • Smaller than competing DSLRs

 

Cons

  • Banding in low light
  • Noise at low ISO 
  • AF slightly lower performing than the D850
  • Battery life
  • Single XQD slot

Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) – Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Key features:

30.4MP CMOS full-frame sensor

DCI 4K 30/24p video using Motion JPEG + 4K Frame Grab

61-point AF system 

Dual Pixel AF

ISO 100-32000

7 fps continuous shooting

Wi-Fi w/ NFC + GPS

       


The Canon EOS 5D series is one of the most recognized camera lines of the digital age and the Mark IV is designed to appeal to a wide range of professionals. Nearly identical in appearance to its predecessor, it features considerable upgrades, including: a higher-resolution sensor with Dual Pixel auto-focus, 4K video capture, an upgraded AF system, improved weather-sealing, built-in Wi-Fi/NFC, an interval timer and GPS. All this adds up to an amazing camera that fits into Canon's product line.

 

The 5D Mark IV is Canon's first full frame camera that can continuously focus in Live View during stills capture, and because of the way Dual Pixel AF works, focus is generally very accurate. It's good at sticking to the original subject on which you initiated the focus, and it's easy to specify the subject by tapping on it on the touchscreen in 'Face Detect+Tracking' mode.

 

Underwater and even in poor visibility, the camera will easily snap autofocus. And, if the camera is tilted from a near subject to a far subject, the focus triggers quickly and smoothly. The new autofocus features in this camera could be a milestone in video autofocus for underwater photographers.

 

No other DSLR camera on the market can master natural light white balances underwater without a color correction filter like this camera. This allows the shooter to take lights in the water and have the option to do natural or artificial light shooting on the same dive. The white balance procedure is a little bit different compared to previous models. This camera does not allow photos in video mode. This requires an additional step to switch to photo mode, take a shot, then go back to video mode. This is not big deal, but if you were used to the procedure on a previous Canon, it’s an additional step.

 

Canon has made some vast image quality improvements over the previous EOS 5D. Still images are superb and as far as video quality, Canon is the king. For the underwater housing, we recommend the Aquatica or the premium Isotta housing.

 

Pros

  • Improved dynamic range
  • True live autofocus in video mode
  • Now shooting 4K 30p
  • High 500mbps data rate
  • 4:2:2 color space
  • 1.64 crop in 4K movie mode

 

Cons

  • No zebra or focus peaking in-camera, but available on external monitors
  • Large file sizes for 4K video
  • Fastest CF card on the market required to ensure uninterrupted video








Photographing Giant Mantas - Socorro Islands, Mexico

Photographing the World’s Friendliest Mantas


Article by Brandi Mueller ( www.brandiunderwater.com )

 

As far as amazing underwater encounters go, diving with manta rays is one of the best. These spaceship-looking animals can look almost scary at first glance with their wingspans averaging eight to twelve feet (some documented to be over thirty feet), but as they glide smoothly over the top of a diver exhaling bubbles, it’s easy to see they are really beautiful, gentle creatures. 


                                 

In spite of their massive size, mantas eat plankton, the itty bitty animals we hardly even notice in the water. They use cephalic fins, paddle-like appendages on both sides of their mouth, to funnel in water (and food). Often when they do this they swim in giant loops through the water column, like beautiful acrobatic dancers dressed in black and white. 

 

With mostly black back, the undersides of mantas are a pattern of black and white unique and individual to each animal like a fingerprint. There are two types of mantas, black mantas which are mostly black with only a little white on their bellies and chevron mantas which have two white marks on their top side and much more white on their bellies. Images of the manta’s ventral sides have been used to identify and track mantas.

 

While mantas live in many of our favorite diving locations, including tropical to subtropical waters, we usually only see them if we get really lucky. But around the Revillagigedo Archipelago (known as the Socorro Islands) offshore of Baja, Mexico, divers are almost guaranteed manta sightings, and not just fleeting fly-bys. Known as the world’s friendliest mantas, those residing around Socorro seem to willingly interact with divers, spending entire dives just swimming from diver to diver, making eye contact, and checking the humans out.

 

The area also has cleaning stations where the mantas get a bit of a spa treatment. Clarion angelfish, cleaner wrasse, and other fish come in to clean the parasites and dead skin off the mantas. This symbiotic relationship helps both parties: the manta gets a good bath and the fish get dinner. For some reason these mantas also seem to enjoy the bubbles divers give off, perhaps it feels like a massage or tickles a bit? The mantas seem to swim right into the bubbles overtop a diver.


                                   

Tips for Photographing Mantas

·       Just Breath – The mantas seem to like the massage-like feeling of diver’s exhaled bubbles and they will come around and swim right over top of divers. I almost felt like some manta even seem to take turns with us, visiting each of us, so we all got to see them (maybe they were seeing whose bubbles were best.) So just by exhaling, you can get up-close and personal to take images of these beautiful animals.

·       Don’t Chase – Like any animals, if something seems to be chasing them, they run (or swim) away. Just stay in one spot and wait for the mantas to come to you. Sometimes strong swimming divers can even chase a manta off and it won’t come back for the rest of the dive.

·       Go Fisheye – The mantas are big and they get close. Use your widest, wide-angle lens. Nothing is worse than cutting off a wingtip in an image because the manta was too big and too close to you! For compact camera users, invest in a wet-mount wide-angle lens.

·       Get Settings Ready – The mantas will usually make a similar pattern over divers again and again. Do a few test shots if you can and have your settings and strobes ready to catch the moment you want. And if you missed it, set it up again and usually you just have to wait a little bit before the manta comes back and swims over again.

·       Shoot in Different Directions – I like to stay at the edge of the dive group so that I can shoot into the crowd and get images with divers and then also turn a bit and get shots with the mantas but without divers in the shot. It’s nice to have a variety.

·       Look behind you – Often the mantas are coming into the cleaning station area from the blue and you won’t see them until they’ve passed over you. Always keep an eye out all around.

·       Get Creative – Diving with the Socorro mantas is a rare opportunity where you can expect to have a lot of time and chances to take photos of your subject. Once you have a ton of shots making images in the style you usually do, try something different. Play with your camera settings, adjust your strobe positioning (even turn them off and take some ambient light photos) and strength, take some video. You may not like all the images that come out, but you may get some amazing shots!

 

Diving Socorro is not just about mantas either! Divers are likely to see sharks of many species including piles of white tips, hammerheads, silvertips, Galapagos, and while it’s not actually a shark, some lucky visitors may see a whale shark or two. Almost as friendly as the mantas are the dolphins and the islands themselves make for great images too! Socorro should be on every manta-lover and diver’s bucket list. It will not disappoint!


                                 

These photos are from a trip Brandi took on the Nautilus Belle Amie to the Socorro Islands December 5-12, 2020. You can book thrips with Liquid Diving Adventures to the Socorro Islands as well as many other amazing destinations worldwide.


Quick Underwater Photo Tips by Brandi Mueller

Quick Underwater Photo Tips
by
Professional Photographer Brandi Mueller




Underwater photographers not only get to visit the underwater world, but bring back beautiful images!

Most of us don’t get to dive every day (especially since the Covid-19 pandemic). Like athletes, the best way to get better at something is to do it consistently, but in reality, most underwater photographers find themselves dusting off that camera gear only once or twice a year. So what’s the best way to get back into top underwater photographer shape before and during your dive trip? Here are some tips:

 

1.     Have an Underwater Photography Gear List 

It is hard to remember everything and I find on most dive trips I remember some adapter or spare part (or sometimes a big thing like a lens or a cord) that I wish I would had brought. To help prevent this, I have a packing list that I add to whenever I’m diving. That way, if it’s been a while since I’ve been underwater with my camera I can go through the list and make sure I packed all the little bits (and big bits) that might have been easily forgotten. Do this several weeks before your trip, take everything out and make sure you have everything. Check it over to make sure nothing needs to be serviced and it’s a good idea to do a dip test in a bathtub or sink. (You don’t want to find out your O-rings dried up the night before your flight to Indonesia departs.) Usually, everything is just fine, but sometimes this can help catch your problem while there’s still time to fix it.




Having a gear list will help prevent you from forgetting important things!


2.     Be Respectful and a Good Diver

Don’t be “that guy.” Even though you are taking photos, diving still comes first. Make sure you are practicing good buoyancy and that you are not sitting on the bottom or injuring coral or marine life. Damaging the reef is never worth getting a good image. Don’t move or harass the animals, and honestly, don’t chase them. You will never catch the turtle and you will only make it swim away faster and no one will get a shot. Also, be respectful to the other divers around you, they also paid a lot of money and traveled a long way to be there, give them a chance to photograph the mimic octopus too. If everyone wants to shoot the same thing, take a few shots and then let someone else have a turn; at the end of the dive, if you want more shots, go back when everyone else has had a turn.


3.     Get Close

Get close, get closer, and then even closer. I know you've heard that before, but that’s because it’s true. The closer you get the less water is between your camera and the subject which will allow for your lights to hit the subject stronger, reduce backscatter from particles that get lit up, and the subject becomes larger in the image compared to the background. Bonus points – shoot upwards. Often subjects get lost in the sand or reef background if you shoot down. Getting blue water in the image can help a viewer know where they are too.