If you have a few aquatic adventures on the horizon this summer, it’s time to consider the proper camera gear to capture whatever lurks beneath the surface. If you’re simply looking to splash around a bit, you would be fine wrapping your smartphone in a case or grabbing a GoPro, but if you plan to put together a nice montage of your diving session off the coast of Bonaire — you’ll want a more capable rig. We’ve compiled a list of today’s best underwater cameras, and for those who already own a DSLR or high-end point-and-shoot, cases to keep those bodies nice and dry.
The Aquatic World in Full Color
Olympus Stylus TG-3
Best Overall: Launched last year, the TG-3 quickly became one of the top performers in the waterproof class. Put simply, it operates more like a high-end compact than a traditional rugged camera, which is to say that it doesn’t include many of the compromises that its contemporaries do. The lens focuses quickly, even underwater, which is vital for snagging snaps of turtles, rays and whatever else you fancy. Impressively, Olympus includes the same imaging processor here as on its heralded OM-D E-M1 mirror-less camera, and the ability to stop down to f/2 at 25mm enables it to let a whole lot of light in environments where that’s sometimes tough to find.
Ricoh WG-5 GPS
Best Geotagger: Ricoh probably isn’t the first name you think of when you think cameras, but its line of rugged shooters has been yielding impressive results for years on end. Its latest, the WG-5 GPS, is slated to hit shelves any day now, and for those who place a high value on location data, it’s worth holding out for. The bantam shooter includes a 16 megapixel BSI sensor and a chassis that resists water as well as extreme temperatures. The real magic, however, is its embedded GPS module, which vitally pinpoints exactly where an image was taken. For underwater shooters, this offers a nerd-tastic way of recalling exactly how far off of the coast you were when you got “the shot.” Additionally, a new “Mermaid” mode captures two images in succession — one using the flash, and one without — allowing editors to either blend ‘em together or pick the one that turned out the best.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS6D
Best Video: For those who plan to spend more time capturing video than stills, the newly released DMC-TS6D is a winner. The inbuilt Leica zoom lens, coupled with a 16.1 megapixel High Sensitivity MOS sensor, delivers best-in-class 1080p footage. An Advanced Underwater Mode is useful for creating more natural shots when you’re beneath the surface, and the torch light can be activated even when you aren’t capturing footage — so it can help out as a secondary flashlight around the campsite. In addition to GPS, there’s a compass, altimeter and even a barometer to show and record altitude, barometric pressure and orientation data. If you dig metadata, you’ll find plenty to adore here.
Do as Cousteau Did — Shoot Film
As a restless and curious kid growing up in Midwestern suburbia, National Geographic was a monthly escape into far-flung adventures, a subscription I blame in part for a life spent tramping about the globe looking for ways of getting into trouble. Along with the foldout maps, polar expedition tales and photos of topless tribeswomen, what mostly drew my fascination were the articles about underwater exploration. I pored over the tales of shipwrecks and sharks, accompanied by photos of divers in bright 1980s neoprene, their eyes wide behind the oval masks of the day. Those were the days of film photography and odds are, those photos were shot with one camera: the Nikonos. – Jason Heaton
Nikon Coolpix S33
Best Value: At just $150, the Coolpix S33 is the easy choice for those who aren’t looking to seriously commit to an underwater camera. The chassis is a bit bulkier than our other recommendations, and there’s no GPS module to speak of, but it handles well-lit underwater shots with poise. The 13.2 megapixel sensor and 3.2x optical zoom are robust inclusions given the low barrier to entry, and it’ll even record 1080p video for those upcoming aquatic jaunts.
Don’t Let the Lens Get Left Out
Shape Full Frame Underwater Case
Best Versatility: At the (relatively) low price of $315, Shape’s case is a solid bet for a number of reasons. First off, it’s lightweight and compact, so it’s easy to travel with. Secondly, it supports a multitude of high-end DSLRs, including the latest and greatest from Sony, Sigma, Pentax, Olympus, Canon and Nikon. Its versatility is great for folks who tend to swing various ways when it comes to brand, or for those who may rent different bodies for different occasions.
Ewa-Marine Underwater Camera Housings
Best Value: Given that an underwater case is only as good as the camera it fits, it’s worth poking around in Ewa-Marine’s catalog. The company knows underwater camera casings inside and out, and it produces hundreds upon hundreds of options for just about every DSLR and point-and-shoot on the market. Its claim to fame is its flexible materials and famed reliability. Most of its cases are sophisticated bags, which crumple up into almost nothing when not wrapped around a camera. This makes ‘em easy to pack into a carry-on or backpack, which is great for those looking to keep their accessory load to a minimum when hiking down to the water’s edge.
Ikelite Professional Housings
Best Overall: Only professionals (or aspiring professionals) need apply. Ikelite’s underwater enclosures are neither tiny nor cheap, but they’re as good as it gets for those looking to produce underwater films. Most Ikelite cases fit only one or two models, making them highly inflexible. But, what they offer is rigidity and at least one handle — ideal for divers looking to maintain a steady shot as action unfolds in front of them.
Sea & Sea Video Housings
Best Pro Pick: If you’re angling for a case that could very well set you back more than the camera inside, have a gander at Sea & Sea’s portfolio. Designed primarily for those looking to produce underwater documentaries (or start a really, really amazing YouTube channel of backyard pool parties), Sea & Sea’s calling card is its ability to support accessories. These high-end frames can handle multiple flashes, LED blocks or strobes, making them ideal for shooting at depths where natural light will be impossible to come by.