As we do every year, Backscatter exhaustively searched and tested dozens of compact cameras to find the best match between portability, price, and the goals of an aspiring underwater photographer. From our own waters of Monterey, to the Caribbean, to the Coral Triangle, and Micronesia, we've spent hundreds of hours shooting compact cameras underwater. Here are our picks for 2013.
As the field of compact cameras is changing extremely rapidly, we will update this article on a continuous basis. Last updated in March 2013.
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Table of Contents
Summary of Our Top Picks for 2013
How We Selected: Our 2013 Test Criteria
Entry Level Camera In Depth
Point and Shoot Cameras In Depth
Mirrorless Cameras In Depth
Today's compact cameras are now able to deliver high quality photos and video that come closer than ever to matching that of higher end SLR systems. All underwater imagery in this article was taken with compact cameras, including this image of a manta ray using a Canon S110 and the ultra-wide Fisheye UWL-28 lens.
In 2013, we've studied a landscape that has changed considerably from previous years. Point and shoot options are fewer and further between, but exciting new low-cost options such as the GoPro and interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras like the Olympus PEN now provide alternate options for the shooter who is not interested in traveling with a bulky SLR system. This year, rather than restricting our review to just the point and shoot class, we looked at a broader range of cameras that include everything from the GoPro, point & shoots, Micro 4/3 cameras, and the Sony NEX series. With this roundup, we've put together options for every budget and every shooter from novice to pro.
Summary of our top picks for 2013
Best Entry Level Camera
The GoPro Hero 3 with the Backscatter Flip3 Color Correction Filter
Camera & Housing starting at $199
In the past few years, the availability of solid point and shoot systems available for less than $500 has diminished, but fortunately GoPro was ready to fill the niche. You won't need to break the bank to get started with a GoPro system, and it will deliver high quality video unimaginable even just a few years ago, for the price. The Hero 3 is available in three unique versions: the White Edition is a low cost version with a more limited feature set, the Silver Edition offers a balance of price and performance, and the Black edition adds incredible new high speed frame rates and 4K recording. The Backscatter Flip3
Filter is essential for getting good results with each of these cameras, as it makes a dramatic difference in restoring color and contrast. Due to popular demand, we are also continuing support for the Hero 2 camera with our Backscatter Flip2 Filter for the GoPro Dive Housing.
GoPro Hero 3 White Edition
GoPro Hero 3 Silver Edition
GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition
Filter for the Hero 3 $69
Backscatter GoPro Hero 3 Starter System with Sola 500
Dive Housing for GoPro Hero 2
Backscatter Flip2 for GoPro Dive Housing
Best Waterproof Camera
The Olympus Tough TG-2
Camera & Housing starting at $690
The Olympus TG-2 is a fantastic splashproof pocket camera, one that you can take snorkeling on its own, or take it deeper while diving using the PT-053 Underwater Housing
. In addition, the TG-2 Tough lives up to its name, as it is shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof. and dustproof. With a fast f2.0 lens, and an impressive depth rating of 50 feet (without a housing), the Olympus TG-2 is a great camera to keep with you on the boat, and take with you while swimming, or in any damp environment without any concern for it getting wet.
Olympus Tough TG-2
Olympus PT-053 housing
Backscatter TG-2 Camera, Housing, and Sea & Sea Strobe Package
Best Point & Shoot Camera
The Sony DSC-RX100
Camera & Housing starting at $1050
Sony has created one of the most exciting compact cameras in years with the RX100. This diminutive camera is a remarkable piece of engineering that delivers outstanding stills and full 1080p video in a sleek, elegant package. Featuring a very large sensor size, the RX100 has the best of all worlds, with class leading performance and extremely high image quality. The RX100 sports a stunning resolution of 20 megapixels and still maintains great low-light performance. For the shooter that wants to go as streamlined as possible, with manual control, and the best quality available today, the RX100 is our top pick.
Recsea RX100 Housing
Backscatter Recsea RX100 Housing, Camera, and Strobe Package
Backscatter Nauticam RX100 Housing, Camera, and Strobe Package
Best Entry Level Mirrorless Camera
The Olympus PEN Series
Camera & Housing starting at $1447
Olympus changed the underwater compact camera landscape forever with their launch of the PEN series of cameras with underwater housings which we first reviewed in 2010
. Now in its fourth generation, the PEN is better than ever with a more advanced E-PL5
. This camera offers a step up in terms of flexibility, image quality, and growth potential, all at a point and shoot price point. After shooting the E-PL5
early in 2013, we think it's the best value in underwater photography today.
PEN Camera with 14-42 Lens $700
Housing for the E-PL5
Backscatter PEN and Sea & Sea Strobe Package
Best Advanced Mirrorless Camera
The Olympus E-M5
Camera, Housing & Port starting at $2505
In a class of its own, the Olympus OM-D E-M5
brings professional level quality in a tiny package. Don't want to lug around an SLR, but must have the best possible image quality and camera performance? Then this camera is for you. With outstanding ergonomics thanks to a full set of physical dials, friendly menus and automated shooting modes, and featuring deep customization for the most advanced user, this camera has something for everyone. The E-M5 has even made professionals sit up and take notice.
Olympus O-MD E-M5 with 14-42 Lens
Olympus O-MD E-M5 with 12-50 Power Zoom Lens
How We Selected:
Our 2013 Test Criteria
1) New underwater photographer wanting an easy point & shoot camera with growth potential.
2) Advanced underwater photographer wanting a compact camera solution.
Camera Feature Requirements
1) Great to excellent image quality.
2) Camera must be compact and lightweight when used topside.
3) Camera must be point & shoot easy, but offer intermediate to advanced controls.
4) Underwater housing must offer wide angle potential.
As in our 2012 review, more cameras seemed to meet our minimum criteria, and the best cameras quickly bubbled to the top of the list. To help you understand our criteria, please review the following concepts.
Wide Angle Lenses:
We eliminated many cameras because they were incompatible with underwater wide angle lenses. Most of these cameras featured a 5X or greater zoom lens. While this might be attractive for topside photography, long zoom lenses require underwater housings designs with long lens ports. Accessory wide angle lenses must mount to the end of these ports and suffer from severe vignetting (dark corners) when the camera is zoomed wide. You can zoom in the camera lens to clip out the dark corners, but an extreme zoom will negate any benefit. Our point & shot camera finalists in this review offer great wide angle lens solutions by the original manufacturer or a high quality third party solution.
In recent years we have seen more cameras have a 28mm equivalent (to film) lens and some even having a 24mm equivalent lens. As the lenses on the cameras get wider, optically it becomes harder to design an underwater wide angle lens. While 24mm may sound wide to a land based shooter, we generally consider an angle of over 100 degrees to be the starting point for an underwater wide angle setup. This will allow the photographer to get very close to the foreground subject, but still maintain an expansive background. On most 24mm lens cameras, you may need to zoom to 28mm for use with a wide angle lens to avoid vignetting.
Some manufacturers have resorted to an air dome on these wider lens cameras to bring back the above water angle of coverage. If you remember from your basic scuba class, your mask reduces your field of view by about 25 percent. The same thing happens with your camera lens behind a flat lens port. The air dome will restore the angle of coverage to what it is above water. However, the angle for a 28mm is 75 degrees, and a 24mm is 84 degrees, making it harder to photograph very large objects like large reef scenes and shipwrecks.
Finally, the new class of mirrorless cameras offer a whole new dimension of wide-angle photography, similar to what's available in SLRs. These advanced compact cameras offer interchangeable fisheye and wide lenses on the camera which can be matched up to a dome port for some seriously wide coverage up to 180 degrees. While these lenses can't be changed underwater, they offer optically the best solution for wide angle photography.
To capture the big picture or a unique perspective, compact cameras require an accessory wide angle lens. The image above was taken with an Olympus PEN E-PL5 and a Panasonic 8mm fisheye lens, and a custom dome port from Zen Underwater.
Manual vs. Auto Exposure:
We remain surprised (and aggravated) with the lack of manual exposure control on the many low priced cameras. We applaud automation, but even a new user will benefit from the creative options of manual exposure controls.
Cameras with manual exposure allow the photographer to independently control shutter speed and aperture. This might sound complicated to a new photographer, but with a little guidance most new shooters quickly pick-up the rewarding technique of manual exposure. Cameras without manual controls can still produce good results with (+/-) exposure compensation adjustments. We recommend auto shooters try out (-1) or (-2) exposure compensation settings to get richer color on upward angle shots.
All cameras in this review are point & shoot easy, but a few offer more growth potential. Auto exposure cameras can take great snapshots, but adding a strobe and selecting a camera with manual exposure options will provide more rich and saturated colors.
Highlight Warning and Histograms:
It's disappointing to download photos from a great dive only to learn they are too dark or too bright. Better to be warned of errors while we're still in the water and able to correct our mistakes. Professional SLR cameras offer highlight warning and histogram feedback displays to help pro shooters dial in their exposure on the spot. A few of the point & shoot cameras in this review also feature a simplified version of these essential exposure guides. The Highlight Warning will blink a warning color in areas that are overexposed. The Histogram is simply a bar graph of the tones in the image and provides refined feedback to help you on the ultimate digital exposure goal--to make the exposure as bright as possible without losing too much detail in the highlights.
Highlight warnings alert the photographer of over exposure. Histograms are a bar graph of tones in the image and can guide the photographer to the ultimate goal of a proper exposure.
Slave TTL Strobes:
In recent years strobe manufacturers have developed what is called slave TTL.
When set to slave TTL mode, the underwater strobe simply mimics the camera's built-in strobe to produce an automatic strobe exposure. While no automatic system will yield perfect results 100% of the time, this system works reasonably well and can help someone who is just starting out to get some good shots in the can on their first trip. Understanding how TTL systems work, how to judge exposures, and working within a camera system's limitations will be a photographer's best tools for getting the picture you want.
HD Movie Mode
One of the most important trends in recent years is the advent of HD video in virtually all of the serious contenders. All of our favorite cameras saw their video clips receive a much needed bump up to 1080p HD resolution. While on some cameras the video quality is not that of a dedicated HD camcorder, on others the quality of the footage easily surpasses all but the highest end camcorders for professional use. Many of the cameras in our lineup produce video that is surprisingly good for the cost and what is a secondary feature of a camera. However, great video requires great white balance, something that is not easily achieved on all point and shoot cameras. Also, camera ergonomics and menus are designed for the still shooter, not the videographer, making an HD camcorder still a good choice for the dedicated video shooter. We hope that the addition of HD video to most cameras will inspire more shooters to take a try at video.
Custom White Balance
In order to shoot good looking video, getting an accurate white balance is crucial. A custom white balance is the user telling the camera what area of the picture is white and the camera building the rest of the colors off of that baseline recording. Correct white balance makes the video look more natural, and helps to bring back colors that are filtered out by water when shooting at depth. Even when using a color correction filter such as Magic Filters
, a custom white balance setting can yield superior results. Unfortunately, getting an accurate white balance is not a given on a point and shoot camera. On some cameras it is a convoluted process, on others an accurate reading is not even possible underwater. Choosing a camera that makes it easy to get an accurate reading is a must if you're planning to use it for shooting video. We gave additional points to cameras that have an easy to set and accurate white balance. White balance in video is so critical in natural light shooting that it is more important than what video resolution the camera is capable of. The best resolution doesn't matter if the colors look bad.
We looked at five main categories, and picked one top option for each. We looked at these cameras in terms of their ability to deliver good results underwater. What kind of housings can we use? What kind of manual control will we get? Are the underwater ergonomics good? Do we have the right optics to shoot underwater? Are we getting the best bang for the buck considering our budget? These are the questions we asked ourselves as we conducted this review.
GoPro Hero 3 with Backscatter Flip3
Filter ($200 - $862)
Olympus Tough TG-2 and PT-053 Housing
($1050 - 1750)
Olympus O-MD E-M5
($2505 - 3450)
Entry Level Camera In Depth
GoPro Hero3 Vital Statistics
|Frame Rate (Stills Burst)
|Movie Resolutions/Frame Rates
||2" (requires purchase of LCD BacPac)
||2" (requires purchase of LCD BacPac)
|Camera + Housing Price
The GoPro Hero3 with Backscatter Flip3 Filter
Camera & Housing starting at $200
Now in its third generation, the GoPro Hero is one of the most exciting things to come along in underwater photography and videography. In a very exciting development for divers, GoPro now includes a flat port housing that is ready to shoot images underwater with every version of the Hero3. The camera is available in 3 editions, White, Silver, and Black. The White Edition is a low cost version with a more limited feature set, the Silver Edition offers a balance of price and performance, and the Black edition adds incredible new high speed frame rates and 4K recording. The Black edition's 4K is of limited utility, as it only records at 15 frames per second, but it's an interesting development nonetheless. However, being able to record at 60p in full 1080 resolution is a major step forward for recording underwater, as it will greatly smooth out camera and subject movements. For this reason, the Black edition is our favorite choice of the new Hero3 cameras.
Even as shallow as 10 feet, the effects of the Backscatter Flip3 filter dramatically improve the quality of the Hero3's footage, saturating blue water, making colors on the reef pop, and increasing overall contrast.
While the Hero3 is a fantastic little camera, it needs help rendering a decent image underwater. GoPro cameras have an issue with the monochromatic color that they deliver underwater, below depths of about five feet. Color and contrast are quickly lost, and the footage ends up looking quite dull. The GoPro does not allow setting exposure and has limited white balance settings, but we found that it responds quite well to color correction filters. For this reason, we developed the Backscatter Flip3
filter that works exclusively with the GoPro Hero3
cameras. This filter works wonders in helping to make GoPro footage usable.
This footage was shot with the GoPro Hero3 on location in Papua New Guinea, Grand Cayman, and Palau. The Backscatter Flip3 filter makes a dramatic difference in restoring color and contrast.
The GoPro is a great system for the novice shooter who wants to start taking video and pictures underwater, and doesn't want to fuss with settings or lugging a bulky system around. It's also an awesome option for the still shooter who wants to dabble in video, and can easily attach the GoPro to their housing using an Ultralight ball mount.
One of the great features of the GoPro is its wide angle lens. Designed for adventure sports, it's field of view is nearly equivalent to full-frame fisheye on SLR systems when used topside. Underwater, some of the angle of coverage is lost due to the housing's flat port, but it is still plenty wide - much wider than other typical underwater point & shoots. It's terrific to have these optics without the need to purchase an accessory lens. The Hero 3 camera also features the ability to shoot in ultra wide, medium, and narrow fields of view. While this can be useful for situations where the wide setting is a bit too wide, in our testing it appears that the Hero 3 camera is cropping out of the center of the frame to provide the narrower angles of coverage. In particular, the narrow setting looks especially noisy and should be used sparingly.
The quality of video that GoPro delivers in the right conditions is astonishingly good. However, manual control is nonexistent, and an LCD Monitor Back
must be purchased in order to see your framing of the footage. The Flip3 Filter
can help restore color to your footage at depths of 10-50 feet, but below that, a light is essential equipment. In fact, in our testing, we've found that leaving the light on all the time can really make colors pop, even when using a filter. Typically, it's been a rule never to use lights and a filter at the same time, but the GoPro has proven to be an exception.
Due to popular demand, we are also continuing support for the Hero 2 cameras with our Backscatter Flip2 Filter
for the GoPro Dive Housing
. We've found that the Hero 2 still delivers great results underwater, and unless you need the higher frame rates of the Hero 3 Black Edition, your Hero 2 should continue to serve you well, and we can help you get the most out of it.
While the GoPro can shoot decent stills, if photography is your main goal, we suggest looking at options in the next category as the GoPro has limited capability for stills, especially since there is no way to make manual adjustments. There is also no way to attach a strobe, which is important for taking high quality photographs underwater. So if your primary goal is underwater photography, then it is probably worth stepping up to a more sophisticated point & shoot camera that offers manual control. But for just grabbing some great footage of your dive adventures at an entry-level price, the GoPro can't be beat.
Most inexpensive underwater HD camera system on the market today
Wide angle lens a standard feature
Backscatter Flip3 Filter restores color and contrast in the right conditions
No manual controls
No ability to connect a strobe
Video quality not as good compared to higher end cameras, especially in low light
Point & Shoot Cameras In Depth
Point and Shoot Vital Statistics
| ||Olympus TG-2
|Resolution || || |
|Sensor Size || |
|Lens (35mm equiv.) || || |
|ISO Range || |
|Frame Rate (Stills Burst)
|Movie Resolution || |
|Movie Frame Rate in full HD ||30p ||60p
|LCD Size || |
|RAW Format || |
|Closest Macro Focus || |
.39" / 1 cm (telephoto)
1.97" / 5 cm (wide)
1.2" / 3 cm (wide)
|Camera + Housing Price || |
Best Waterproof Camera:
The Olympus Tough TG-2 Camera
Camera & Housing starting at $690
The Olympus TG-2 is an update to the previous Olympus Tough series line flagship, the TG-1. The Olympus TG-2 is a splashproof pocket camera, one that you can take snorkeling on its own, or take it deeper while diving using the same PT-053 Underwater Housing
as the TG-1. In addition, the TG-2 Tough lives up to its name, as it is shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof. and dustproof. With a fast f2.0 lens, and an impressive depth rating of 50 feet, the Olympus TG-2 is a great camera to keep with you on the boat, and take with you while swimming, or in any damp environment without any concern for it getting wet. The image quality looks quite good, though we are disappointed that Olympus did not include a raw file format. Snorkelers should be intrigued by the relatively inexpensive FCON-T01 Fisheye Converter Lens that will mount directly onto the camera for use underwater. But for most diving, you will be better off using the PT-053 housing; in addition to increasing the depth rating to 130 feet, it also allows the easy attachment of strobes, making this a fully-featured rig.
The fast frame rate makes taking low percentage shots a lot easier. This shot was taken by placing the camera with a fisheye lens inches beneath the jellyfish, and doing a high frame rate burst while blindly changing the camera position in the hopes that one of the shots will make the cut. Olympus TG-2. Shot with the Fisheye FIX UWL-28 wide angle lens. ISO 800, 1/2000, F10
The focus and shutter are incredibly fast, making this one of the quickest firing cameras in our roundup. Even macro shooting, where most compact cameras have an issue with fast focus, was quite fast. The PT-053 underwater housing has 52mm aluminum threads on the front for attaching accessory macro and wide angle lenses. The camera's native macro capability is very good, which just about eliminates the need for a macro lens. The TG-2 has 2 custom white balance presets, allowing you to get accurate colors in wide angle video with no artificial lighting. The 1080/30p video looks good in shallower conditions, but a color filter will be essential for use at deeper depths.
This Japanese seaplane was shot with only natural light, a wide angle fisheye lens, and a custom white balance. This technique works great when shooting large objects in low vis when strobes would light up a lot of scatter in the water and wouldn't be able to cover such a large subject anyway. The fisheye lens lets you get extremely close to the subject, minimizing the effects of low vis. Olympus TG-2. Shot with the Fisheye FIX UWL-28 wide angle lens. ISO 400, 1/160, F9
The video from the Olympus Tough TG-2
has great looking color due to a custom white balance feature being added to the Tough series. It works best in the shallows. Any deeper than about 40 feet will benefit from a color correction filter. Unlike most other compact cameras, the TG-2 has live focus like a camcorder, and it's super fast. This occasionally led to a small amount of focus hunt from time to time like a camcorder, but was not enough to outweigh the benefits of live focus.
The TG-2, with its live focus, is a great camera for shooting video.
The largest improvement for the photographer has been the addition aperture priority. Getting consistent results was much easier with shooting strobes on manual exposure. This also allows for controlling depth of field and makes it easier to get darker backgrounds in macro. Another benefit to stoping the lens down is sharper corners when using wide angle accessory lenses.
A downside we discovered is that Sea & Sea and Inon strobes will not slave TTL properly with this camera--both need to be shot in manual mode. The Olympus UFL-2 strobe will TTL in the camera's RC mode. On the plus side for topside adventures, the addition of GPS is great for showing your photos on a map. For the price, the TG-2 performs great, and we love having a camera that we can bring anywhere without fear. This camera is going to survive your adventures.
Aperture priority is a major upgrade
Even better built in shockproofing and waterproofing than the previous camera make this the ultimate "take anywhere" camera.
Very fast focus and shutter for a camera in this class
Aperture priority is a welcome change, but full manual exposure would be better
No Raw format
Sea & Sea and Inon strobes will not slave TTL properly
When the camera's aperture changes, you need to adjust your strobe output accordingly. Having aperture priority and setting a constant aperture made working with strobes in manual exposure a lot easier by not having to readjust the strobe after it's dialed in. After it's dialed in you can concentrate on the composition. Olympus TG-2. Shot with the Fisheye FIX UWL-28 wide angle lens. ISO 400, 1/80, F9
Best Point & Shoot Camera:
The Sony DSC-RX100
Camera & Housing starting at $1050
Sony has created one of the most exciting compact cameras in years with the RX100. This diminutive camera is a remarkable piece of engineering that delivers outstanding stills and full 1080p video in a sleek, elegant package. Featuring a very large sensor size, the Sony RX100
has the best of all worlds, with class leading performance and extremely high image quality. Thanks to that large sensor size, the RX100 sports a stunning resolution of 20 megapixels and still maintains great low-light performance. Ergonomically, the Sony RX100
resembles the tried and true designs from the Canon S series, featuring a ring around the lens that can be programmed to control aperture, zoom, focus, and more. Similar to the S110 (our alternate pick described below), the camera also has a rear dial that can control other functions, so the shooter can independently control shutter speed and aperture in manual mode. Unlike the S110, TTL flash exposure is available while shooting the camera in manual exposure mode. The lens is 28mm equivalent at the wide end making it a great match for accessory lenses such as the outstanding FIX UWL-28
Compact Wide Lens. This lens allows an extremely wide angle 165 degrees of coverage, and is quite sharp across the frame. Three housing options are available for the RX100, from Ikelite
, and Nauticam
. The Ikelite housing represents an affordable option for housing this camera, and the Nauticam is our favorite for its balance of price and outstanding ergonomics.
The Sony RX-100 performs very well when using the FIX UWL-28 wide lens, allowing very close focus, thus eliminating water between you and your subject. This image was shot with Keldan Luna 8 video lights, requiring a higher ISO which the RX100 handled nicely. ISO 400, 1/160, f6.3
The Sony RX100
does not have a dedicated Macro mode, and must be zoomed all the way wide in order to achieve close focus. This provides a reasonable option for shooting small criters, but most users will find themselves hitting up against the limits of the camera's internal magnification. Fortunately, accessory lenses such as the Subsee +5
and Subsee +10
can be added to the front of the housing in order to achieve closer focus. One downside of the RX100's large sensor is that focus must be much more precise. But the RX100 makes it a simple matter to switch between auto and manual focus, so it's possible to lock focus and then move the camera in order to achieve maximum sharpness. Fortunately, the high resolution screen makes it easy to see critical focus. The camera's front ring can also be configured to drive "fly by wire" manual focus adjustments, but this requires long turns in order to cover the camera's full focal range. Like Sony mirrorless cameras such as the NEX-5N
(discussed later in this article), The RX100 features focus peaking which can be a useful aid when dialing in manual focus. In general, sharpness in the corners when shooting macro is a bit disappointing. But given the RX100's incredible 20 megapixels, there is plenty room to crop.
The built in macro capabilities are somewhat limited on the RX-100, but using a SubSee +10 diopter, you can get quite close to your subject. The ability to add or remove lenses underwater gives the RX100 fantastic versatility. ISO 100, 1/125, f11
On the video side, the Sony RX100
is an extremely interesting camera. With a class-leading 60p frame rate at the full 1080p resolution, the camera's specs make even an SLR shooter jealous. The footage can be slowed down to half speed at 30p, and with in-camera optical stabilization, the RX100 can deliver some extremely smooth looking footage. Video capture can be initiated when shooting in any still camera mode, but the RX100 reverts to Program mode and picks the best settings for the current situation. A dedicated movie mode allows complete manual control of shutter speed and aperture, though this must first be configured in the menu. Unfortunately, not only is one-touch white balance missing, custom white balance must be executed while the camera is in a still mode, and then can be assigned once back in movie mode, which is a bit cumbersome. One of our favorite ways to set white balance is to dial in the Kelvin temperature to the maximum of 9900, and then customize the tint based on the depth we are shooting. This worked pretty well, and delivered good colors, especially with lights. The Sony RX100
's video performance is so exciting, that Nauticam developed a special version of their housing, the NA-RX100
V, to allow the attachment of an external monitor
to allow a larger and more detailed feed from the camera.
The Sony RX-100 delivers impressive results when shooting video, especially when used with a powerful light source like the Keldan Luna 8 Video Lights. Built in optical image stabilization paired with a 60p frame rate makes for a powerful combination.
All in all, the Sony RX100
is one of the most interesting cameras of the year, its main downside being its relatively high price. Considering the performance it offers though, we think it's the breakthrough the compact camera market has been waiting for. For the shooter that wants to go as streamlined as possible, with manual control, and the best quality available today, the Sony RX100
is our top pick.
Large 1" sensor for superb image quality and low-light performance
Stunning 20 Megapixel Resolution
Class-leading 1080/60p video with optical image stabilization
In camera-macro is limited; doesn't focus as close as other cameras in its class
Large sensor leads to shallower and less forgiving depth of field
No way to execute custom white balance in movie mode, must jump to photo modes
The large sensor, super fast flash sync speed, and excellent image quality
makes it possible for the Sony RX-100 to capture SLR-like sun ball shots.
Shot with the Fisheye Fisheye FIX UWL-28 wide angle lens. Sony RX-100, ISO
400, 1/2000, F9
The Canon Powershot S110
Camera & Housing starting at $775
With its fantastic image quality, solid video functionality, and great housing options, it's no wonder this little powerhouse came very close to capturing our top pick.
The S110 is a modest update from last year's S100, which was one of our favorite cameras in 2012. The S110 uses a similar lens, sensor, and image processor as the S100, which itself was a significant improvement from both the S95 and G12. A notable change over last year's specs is the increased ISO range, now topping out at 12,800. The camera feels quite responsive for a point & shoot, and its tiny form factor belies the powerful features that lie below the surface. The TTL flash exposure calculation is incredibly accurate, and is available in Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Speed Priority. However, TTL sadly is still not an option in manual. We really wish Canon would offer this functionality, and are disappointed that it didn't make it into the S110 yet again. That said, Aperture Priority mode works very well, as it offers exposure compensation which is a good workaround for the lack of TTL in manual. The S110 captures raw files, and the detail that is available through processing software such as Adobe Lightroom is impressive.
With some careful timing, it's possible to get quality photos of even moving subjects using the Canon S110. The wide perspective of the
Fisheye FIX UWL-28 wide angle lens made it possible to get close enough this Napoleon Wrasse to capture it with rich color and clarity. ISO 80, 1/60, f8
The S110 is a fantastic stills camera, and its video features are also quite good. The camera offers the ability to fine tune exposure in video mode, something lacking in a lot of point & shoot systems we looked at. Most importantly, the S110 has class leading custom white balance accuracy underwater. We've looked at tons of cameras, and none can match the ability of Canon to take a good white balance at depth, a crucial factor in delivering good quality footage. The S110 makes it very easy to reassign its ring function button to one touch white balance. In fact, it's the only camera in this review that allows one touch custom white balance execution in both photo and video modes. Unfortunately, the 1080p video is only available at a 24p frame rate, which makes the video a little less smooth than other cameras. And while exposure compensation is available, there is no way to take complete manual control of the camera in video mode as you can on the RX100.
The Canon S110 has housings available from Canon, Ikelite, Recsea, and Nauticam.
The Canon S110
also benefits from having multiple housings available at a variety of price points, from the inexpensive Canon WP-DC47 polycarbonite housing, a larger version from Ikelite
, and custom aluminum options from Recsea
. The aluminum housings in particular offer the shooter maximum flexibility with outstanding wide angle and macro wet lenses available.
As with its predecessors, great image quality, raw format, and four excellent housing to choose from
Class-leading white balance performance, with one touch implementation in both still and video modes
Excellent macro capabilities, even without the use of wet lenses
Still no TTL strobe sync in manual mode
No complete manual control in video, only exposure compensation
Highest frame rate in full 1080p resolution is only 24p
We love the Canon S110 for its fantastic macro capabilities. This leaf fish was captured using the camera's macro mode without any additional lenses. With wet accessory lenses, you can get even closer. ISO 80, 1/60, f8.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7
Camera & Housing starting at $1000
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is an enthusiast camera, with features like a dedicated aperture ring, a throwback to older film cameras. It has a larger form factor than either the RX100 or S110 which makes it more difficult to pocket, but easier to hand hold topside. It also has specialty features such as a dedicated dial to change the aspect ratio of the images it captures, including rectangular formats of 3:2, 4:3, widescreen 16:9, as well as a 1:1 square format. The LX7 sports a fast f1.4 lens designed by Leica, popular with street photographers who like to shoot wide apertures in dimmer environments. The fast maximum aperture also assists the autofocus lock on quickly, even in darker conditions. Like the RX100, the LX7 shoots an impressive 1080p/60p and sports image stabilization. The camera is supported by housings from Nauticam
While on paper the Panasonic LX7 specs sound fantastic, many of these features are of limited use to the underwater shooter, and the lens in particular is problematic. The wide 24mm focal length, and the long lens barrel make working with wide angle wet lenses difficult, as the lens must be zoomed significantly in order to avoid vignetting, thus reducing the effective angle of coverage. Of the best point and shoot cameras we tested, the LX7 was definitely the least wide with top notch underwater optics like the FIX UWL-28
. The ergonomics of the Nauticam NA-LX7
housing were also not quite as nice due to knob based controls for shutter speed and aperture, instead of dials as found on both the NA-RX100
and NA-S110 housings which allow easier one-handed operation. It's also disappointing that the camera's front dial can only change aperture, it can't be reprogrammed to perform other camera functions such as manual focus as both the RX100 and S110 can.
This image was taken with the wider 16:9 aspect ratio thanks to the LX7's dedicated dial. Taken with the FIX UWL-28 wide lens in the Nauticam NA-LX7 housing. ISO 100, 1/80, f5.6
Perhaps even more problematic was the LX7's performance with video. While the LX7 improved both the resolution and frame rate over its predecessor, the LX5, the custom white balance looks simply awful underwater, as it did with the LX5. Auto white balance at depth also performed poorly. For shooters wanting to use the LX7 for underwater video, we strongly recommend the use of dedicated lights, as they offer the only reliable way of getting good color with this camera.
One of the brighter spots for the LX7 is its macro performance, as the lens focuses all the way down to 0.39 inches, while the autofocus, shot to shot lag, and internal flash recycle time, and overall image quality are all excellent. The 1080/60p video with lights also performs well in macro, as the higher frame rate and built-in image stabilization helps to smooth out camera wobble. If you're primarily focused on shooting macro, the LX7 is certainly worth considering.
Nice enthusiast camera with fast f1.4 lens and dedicated aperture ring
Solid overall performance with fast shot to shot time, very good image quality
Excellent macro performance
Wide angle performance is compromised with vingetting on most wide lenses
Front aperture ring only controls aperture and cannot be customized
Custom white balance in video looks terrible
The Panasonic LX7 is a very capable camera for shooting macro. Its close focusing abilities combined with excellent shot to shot speed, and quick flash recycle time make capturing subjects like this anemonefish a breeze. ISO 80, 1/160, f8
Mirrorless Cameras In Depth
Mirrorless Camera Vital Statistics
| ||Olympus E-PL5
||Olympus OM-D E-M5
|Resolution || || |
|Sensor Size || |
|ISO Range || |
|Frame Rate (Stills Burst)
|Movie Resolution || |
|Movie Frame Rate in full HD ||30p ||30p
|LCD Size || |
|RAW Format || |
|Camera + Housing Price || |
$2505 - $3450
$3620 - $4010
Best Entry-level Mirrorless:
The Olympus PEN Series
Camera & Housing starting at $1447
Olympus changed the underwater compact camera world forever with their launch of the PEN series of cameras with underwater housings which we first reviewed in 2010
. Now in its fourth generation, the PEN is better than ever with the new E-PL5
. The 16MP sensor of the E-PL5
comes from the Olympus OM-D E-M5
, which performs excellent in low light and higher ISO's. We love the PEN cameras for their quick autofocus, snappy performance, and great image quality. Continuous shooting speed has been improved to an amazing 8 frames per second. Raw files delivered by both the E-PL5
are rich and detailed. Startup time is quick, and shutter lag is non-existent. Shooting with a PEN feels like using an advanced camera. With the Olympus housing at $749, this is the most affordable interchangeable lens underwater camera system in our lineup.
While shooting splits with a small dome is challenging, having 8 frames per second made getting the shot a lot easier. We were also impressed with the high ISO performance. Olympus PEN E-PL5. Taken with the 8mm Panasonic Fisheye. ISO 1600, 1/160, f18
In addition to wet lenses, a wide variety of lenses for the Micro 4/3 system make the PEN series a platform that you can build on for the future. This is one of the major advantages of choosing an interchangeable lens camera over other compacts. The PEN cameras support a large selection of lenses from both Olympus and Panasonic, covering a variety of focal lengths. Custom ports for micro 4/3 lenses are available from Zen Underwater that work with the Olympus branded housings, including versions for the Olympus 9-18
, Panasonic 7-14
, Panasonic 8mm
, and Panasonic 45mm Macro
. These are our four favorite lenses to shoot underwater, so it's great to have them all covered.
The Olympus 9-18 lens wide angle zoom lens is a great lens for shooting pelagics by allowing you to shoot a tighter shot when you can't get super close. Olympus PEN E-PL5, Olympus 9-18mm lens, ISO 200, 1/125, f8
One of our favorite features of the Olympus PEN cameras is the ability to customize them. On all of our cameras, from compact to SLR, we like to separate the shutter function from focus. This way, we can acquire focus, recompose the image, and the camera is not going to "hunt" to re-acquire focus at the moment we choose to trip the shutter. Fortunately, the PEN cameras are equipped with customizable function buttons which can be programmed to be the equivalent of an "AF-On" button found on many SLRs.
Two custom white balance settings are available. Unfortunately it can only be captured in photo mode, but can be set in both video and photo modes. We preferred to change the record button function to Custom WB. While pressing and holding the record button, and the pressing the shutter, we were able to quickly capture custom white balance and then have the option of assigning it to one of the two presets. After capturing in manual photo mode it is easy to bump the mode dial over 1 notch to the video mode setting, and is an easier process than setting white balance in some of the larger SLRs.
is definitely capable of shooting some great video, and supports full 1080p HD resolution. Full manual exposure is available and is our preferred way to shoot video. While we've found natural light video works best in the shallows (about 30 feet), the E-PL5
was able to white balance significantly deeper. At about 50 feet it would still consistently take a manual white balance, although the colors looked a little unsaturated and flat. With a little saturation in post, the color perked right up and looked great. Many cameras have problems executing a proper white balance below 30-40 feet without a color correction filter, so being able to do one with no filter at 50 feet, is a big bonus. If you know in advance you'll be dedicated to shooting natural light video for your dive, we recommend using a color correction filter with a manual white balance which will allow for more color saturation at deeper depths.
The Olympus PEN E-PL5 is great for shooting video, and delivers accurate white balance even at 50 feet.
The PEN is lightweight and easy to travel with, so much so that we often see customers "crossgrade" into a mirrorless system just to avoid traveling with the weight of heavier SLR housings. And the price is difficult to beat - for any class of camera. With such great low light performance, 8 frames per second, super fast focus, and no shutter lag, we feel this camera and housing combination is the best "bang for your buck" in underwater photography.
New sensor with extremely good low light and high ISO performance
8 frames per second continuous shooting mode
Extremely snappy autofocus performance compared to any camera, compact or SLR
Ports on Olympus polycarbonite housings require some elbow grease to remove initially
Custom white balance deeper than about 40 feet should be done with a color filter
Slightly more expensive than the previous generation model, but still a smashing deal
Quick focus and no shutter lag allow capturing the moment easier to do. Without any shutter lag, I was able to time the shot just as the turtle took a bite. Olympus PEN E-PL5, Olympus 9-18mm lens, ISO 200, 1/250, f9
Best Advanced Mirrorless Camera:
The Olympus E-M5
Camera & Housing starting at $2505
In a class of its own, the Olympus OM-D E-M5
brings professional level quality in a tiny package. Don't want to lug around an SLR, but must have the best possible image quality and camera performance? Then the OM-D E-M5
is for you. This camera has even made the professionals sit up and take notice. With its diminutive housing size and great low light capability, the OM-D E-M5
is the ultimate travel rig, a great system for chasing after pelagics. The E-M5 features all of the advantages of the PEN series, and much more. When shooting with the kit including the 12-50mm lens
, it is completely weatherproofed - perfect for shooting on the decks of boats and other wet situations. The camera's dual dials offer ergonomics and usability rarely seen in a compact system. Unlike the PEN series, you can directly access both shutter speed and aperture at the same time with dedicated controls. ISO can also be assigned to a function button. When you are changing ISO, the meter stays active so you can see your shutter speed, aperture, and EV value as the ISO is changed. This is huge for advanced shooters who tend to live in manual mode and need to make quick ISO changes in the middle of fast action situations.
The OMD-EM5 allows for excellent image quality with smooth transitions in
blue water backgrounds and plenty of surface detail. Taken with the 8mm
Panasonic Fisheye. ISO 200, 1/200, f8
The E-M5's 16 Megapixel sensor is truly impressive, delivering gorgeous files even at higher ISOs. It's a great match for the excellent lineup of Micro 4/3 lenses available from Olympus and Panasonic. This camera can also deliver some great looking video, but will generally require the use of a color correction filter below about 30 feet. If you can dedicate a whole dive to ambient light wide angle video, you can get some very impressive results with great color. The video files hold up well in color correction in Final Cut X, so you can push it a little bit before introducing too much noise in post.
The E-M5's breakthrough five axis image stabilization makes a gigantic impact on delivering steady footage - definitely a feature that will make SLR shooters jealous. Stable video is a hard thing to do underwater and we'll take all the help we can get. This same stabilization also makes it possible to shoot stills at unheard of slow shutter speeds if you have a static subject. The stabilization is in the body, making the stabilization completely independent from the lens. Right now this is the best stabilization we have seen yet in a camera we have taken underwater.
The same reasons that made the Olympus OMD EM-5 our top pick in the mirrorless category are why it had the some of the best footage in our review. Great lens selection and the high sensitivity, low noise sensor provide excellent image quality. Custom white balance works best in shallow water, and the addition of a Magic Color Correction Filter works great for deeper shots.
Two options are available for diving with the E-M5; the PT-EP08
housing from Olympus, and the NA-EM5
housing from Nauticam. Both housings offer an interchangable port system, giving you several options for lenses. The Nauticam housing is crafted from aluminum, quite small, and is aggressively priced compared to the company's other mirrorless housings. The NA-EM5
housing allows the use of an electronic strobe connection, which is great for shooting rapid sequences of images as you are not relying on the camera's flash to recycle.
Most people who have picked up an E-M5 agree on one thing - this is a fun camera to shoot. Backscatter CEO Jim Decker had a chance to take the Olympus OM-D E-M5
for a spin at the Digital Shootout last year, and he liked what he saw. Be sure to check out his impressions over on the The Digital Shootout website
Performance and image quality on par with SLRs
Dual dials make it easier to adjust shutter speed and aperture independently
Great wide angle options
External flash requires housings to be larger than they could potentially be due to necessity of fiber optic connection
Electronic viewfinder still not as usable as a dedicated SLR prism-based viewfinder
Macro lens options do not offer long working distances
The 45mm Panasonic Macro lens is sharp and versatile optic that allows shooting slightly wider macro scenes all the way down to tiny subjects. Olympus OM-D E-M5, ISO 200, 1/160, f11
The Sony NEX Series
Camera & Housing starting at $2770
Sony has developed a really compelling alternative to the Micro 4/3 system, based on an APS-C sized sensor found in many SLRs. This large sensor delivers outstanding image quality, resolution, and low light capabilities, while the cameras themselves maintain a very small footprint. The NEX-5R
and the NEX-6
are the latest iterations of Sony's camera bodies for this series, and though we haven't had a chance to test them yet underwater, we have tested their predecessors extensively. The NEX-5N
, like the NEX-5R after it, is an inexpensive entry into the system with housings available from Nauticam
. The NEX-7
is a powerhouse of a camera featuring a 24 Megapixel sensor and Sony's "Tri-Navi" system that allows independent adjustment of Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO when using manual mode. The Nauticam NA-NEX7
housing gives complete access to all of these controls in a very ergonomic layout. Both cameras shoot an impressive 1080p/60p video, but unfortunately the white balance suffers at depth. We have every reason to believe that the NEX-5R and NEX-6 will perform similarly in terms of white balance.
The NEX series is the ultimate rig to swim with when chasing pelagic animals. Its tiny size makes it incredibly streamlined in the water, and its large sensor size delivers great performance at higher ISOs. Sony NEX-5N, 16mm lens with wide adapter, ISO 800, 1/400, f6.3
The NEX series offers some great lens choices, though not as diverse as Micro 4/3. The 18-55 kit lens offers a great range to shoot everything from semi-wide scenics, fish portraits, and macro with the use of an adapter that allows the use of close-up lenses such as the Inon 330. The 16mm pancake lens
is unique in that you can essentially get three options from one, all of which can be shot through the same dome port. The 16mm
can be shot on its own, for an equivalent of a 24mm mm lens on a full frame camera, or if you need to go wider, there is a wide attachment and a fisheye attachment
. Both of these screw onto the lens. We were at first skeptical about this design, but after testing in a variety of settings, we found that the fisheye option delivers edge to edge sharpness that is just as crisp as options available for SLRs.
This sailfish video was shot using the NEX-5N and NEX-7 cameras and the 16mm pancake lens with the wide converter. The NEX-5N was used primarily for its superior video performance at higher ISOs. 60p video has more frames to work with, and is better suited to applying time remapping effects.
On the macro end of things, in addition to using a wet diopter with the 18-55 lens, there is also a 30mm macro lens
available from Sony that allows focusing down to 1:1. But lens selection remains the achilles heel of the NEX series, especially in macro. While the 30mm E-Mount lens
delivers excellent results for subjects such as fish portraits, its working distance is far too short to work well with skittish subjects, and doesn't lend itself to use with external diopters. We'd love to see Sony introduce a 100mm macro lens, but thus far there is no such optic on their roadmap. Sony has opened up the NEX E-Mount to third party lens manufacturers such as Sigma and Zeiss, so we remain hopeful that better macro options will become available in future.
The Sony 30mm Macro lens is a great choice for fish portraits, but for smaller subjects, its working distance is extremely short. Sony NEX-7, ISO 100, 1/160, f7.1
A note about macro shooting with compact and mirrorless cameras
For now, if you're a serious macro shooter who prefers photographing the tiniest of creatures, or likes using our MacroMate
, then an SLR is probably going to be your best option. The longer working distance of SLR macro lenses allows you to be further away from skittish creatures, allowing you to get shots that unfortunately can't be made with compacts. The mirrorless cameras offer more hope and we know that Olympus has some longer macro lenses in the works. Currently, there really is no better route than to go with an SLR if you're really serious about macro. There are reasons why the compact class hasn't taken over the entire underwater photography industry, after all. But the strides that have been made in recent years are very impressive indeed, and the gap is now the closest it has ever been.
We hope you have enjoyed this in-depth survey of the underwater compact camera market. At Backscatter, our team is staffed with active divers who get out and shoot with all of the equipment that we sell. Our sales staff have direct experience with the gear you purchase with us, and are just a phone call away if you ever need help. It's that level of expertise that we put into this annual roundup of compact cameras so that we can share with you what we've learned, and why we recommend certain cameras over others. Please support the development of more content like this by purchasing your gear from us.