We've searched and tested dozens of compact cameras over the years to find the best match between portability, price, and the goals of aspiring and experienced underwater shooters. From our own waters of Monterey, to the Caribbean, and the Coral Triangle, we've spent hundreds of hours shooting compact cameras underwater. These top performers will enable you to capture stunning images underwater.
As the field of compact cameras is changing extremely rapidly, we will update this article on a continuous basis. Last updated July 2017.
Summary of the Best Underwater Cameras of 2017
How We Selected
Our 2017 Test Criteria
Target Users1) New underwater photographer wanting an easy point & shoot camera with growth potential.
2) Advanced underwater photographer wanting a compact camera solution.
Camera Feature Requirements1) Great to excellent image quality.
2) A camera must be compact and lightweight when used topside.
3) A camera must be point & shoot easy, but offer intermediate to advanced controls.
4) Underwater housing must offer wide-angle potential.
As in last year's 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 LensesMany cameras are incompatible with underwater wide-angle lenses. Most of these cameras feature 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 & shoot 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 have 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 only 75 degrees, and a 24mm is only 84 degrees, making it harder to photograph very large objects like large reef scenes and shipwrecks that really require a lens with a minimum of 100 degrees to be close enough to get proper contrast and color.
Mirrorless cameras offer interchangeable fisheye and wide lenses on the camera that 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. That being said, in the past couple of years, we have seen high optical quality wide-angle lenses that can be used in combination with a standard “kit” lens from a mirrorless camera that will sometimes exceed the optical quality of dedicated wide-angle optics.
Manual vs. Auto ExposureAll 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 or video light and selecting a camera with manual exposure options will provide more rich and saturated colors.
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 HistogramsIt'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. These tools are the primary method of determining whether you nailed the exposure or not. Most of the cameras in this review feature a 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. These tools are the primary method of determining whether you nailed the exposure or not.
Slave TTL StrobesIn 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.
Movie ModeOver the past few years, movie mode has evolved from a novelty feature to full blown primary video camera. 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. Some of these cameras can now be a preferred choice for a video shooter over a camcorder. With advanced video features like focus peaking and zebra stripping that are normally found in pro video rigs, a shooter can truly use one system without compromise to capture both video and photo. All but one of the cameras in this review shoot 4K video.
Custom White BalanceIn order to shoot good-looking video, getting an accurate white balance is crucial. A custom white balance is a 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 a Magic Filter, 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 or frame rate the camera is capable of. The best resolution doesn't matter if the colors look bad.
Our Breakdown of CategoriesWe divided our top picks into four categories:
- Best Entry Level Compact Camera
- Best All Around Compact Camera
- Best Advanced Compact Camera
- Best All Around Mirrorless Camera
There is no one camera that is the best at everything. One was the best for image quality, but couldn’t execute a custom white balance underwater. Another was the fastest shooting camera we’ve ever seen but was not great for wide angle movies. And another was great at movies, but would not be our top pick for someone only interested in stills.
Because of this we also included runners up in this review in addition to our top pick. Our top picks are our best all around choices taking into consideration serving the needs of the broadest segment of users for both photo and video. Depending on an individual’s shooting style, subject interest, and shooting goals, a runner up may be a better option than one of our top picks for that particular individual.
The staff at Backscatter have extensive experience with every camera in this article and can help guide your decision on which underwater photography camera is best for you.
Best Entry Level Compact Camera
The GoPro Hero5 Black Edition
Camera & Housing Starting at $449
Impressive Performance for under $500In the past few years, the availability of solid point and shoot systems available for less than $500 has diminished, which GoPro was ready to quickly fill and maintains this year as the top pick in this category. 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. GoPro was the first compact camera to shoot 4K video and remains a leader in the action camera category.
Ready for Wide Angle Out of the BoxGoPro cameras are designed for extreme wide angle and are equipped with fisheye lenses for this purpose. This makes it perfect for general underwater shooting for subjects like reefs, divers, shipwrecks, and pelagic animals. Since there is no zoom capability, you’ll need to "zoom with your fins" and get closer to things for a tighter shot. We prefer this method of shooting as being closer to the subject allows for more color and contrast by having less water between the lens and subject.
The ultra wide fixed focal length lens of the GoPro HERO5 Black is natively best for wide angle and not suited for macro. With a FLIP5 +15 MACROMATE MINI lens, the GoPro HERO5 Black becomes capable of shooting pretty impressive macro footage, especially considering this is primarily a wide angle camera.
Great Color With a FilterGoPro cameras, like most cameras, have a hard time dealing with the extreme cyan color from the loss of reds as the camera goes deeper. This is solved with an external color correction system like the Flip 5 system. The FLIP5 will bring back the natural red colors through a series of filters designed to bring back the lost reds. Since red diminishes more with depth, there are 3 red filters to compensate for different depths—a Shallow filter for 5-20 feet, a Dive filter for 20-50 feet, and Deep filter for 50 feet plus.
A GoPro Designed to Take on The ElementsWe're excited to see GoPro embrace a true waterproof design. The new battery and cable hatches are a bit tougher on the fingers to open, but they are now watertight. The entire camera is now more drop-proof and crash-proof than ever before. With a waterproof rating of 33 ft (10m) in the nude and a Super Suit rating of 196ft (60m) this the best GoPro ever made for underwater use.
New for Hero 5—Image StabilizationNothing is worse than making your friends seasick with your wobbly video. The HERO5's new image stabilization feature will smooth out the up and down bumps producing a much more watchable video. In our tests, we found it does not correct the left and right twist motions common to pole users, but will have a huge impact on the amount of watchable footage. Image stabilization does not work in 4K but does work in 2.7K and lower resolutions. While it's not the preferred optical stabilization on higher end cameras, the HERO5's digital stabilization looks great in our tests.
Takes Photos Too—With LimitationsWhile GoPro cameras have a photo mode, it is primarily a video camera. There have been improvements to photo mode like the addition of RAW file capability for better image quality and dynamic range. However, there is no way to trigger an external strobe, making it a bit limited as a primary photo rig.
ConclusionThe GoPro HERO5 Black $399 price tag includes a built-in LCD which was a separate accessory for the HERO4 Black. With this new lower price point and a whole host of improvements, we feel this is the best action camera for diving on the market.
- Least expensive way to get into underwater imaging
- Awesome wide angle 4K video
- Image stabilization
- Waterproof to 33 feet WITHOUT a housing
- Built-in LCD
- New lower price
- Color filters and macro lenses can greatly expand its capabilities
- Limited exposure controls
- Fixed focus lens, no zoom
- Can’t trigger strobes for still photos
GoPro HERO5 Black Camera
For more information on the GoPro HERO5 and FLIP5 filter system, check out our GoPro HERO5 article and GoPro Solutions article.
Compact Camera Vital Statistics
|Olympus TG-5||Canon G7 X II||Sony RX100 V||Panasonic LX10|
|Resolution||12.0 MP||20.1 MP||20.1 MP||20.1 MP|
|Image Size||4000 x 3000||5472 x 3648||5472 x 3648||5472 x 3648|
|Sensor Size||1/2.3" (6.17x4.55mm)||1" (13.2x8.8mm)||1" (13.2x8.8mm)||1" (13.2x8.8mm)|
|Lens (35mm equiv.)||25-100mm|
|Frame Rate (Stills Burst)||20 fps||6.5 fps||16 fps||10 fps|
|Max Frame Rate|
|LCD Size||3" 460K px||3" 1.04M px||3" 1.23M px||3" 1.04M px|
|Closest Macro Focus||0.39" / 1 cm (telephoto)||2.0" / 5 cm (wide)||2.0" / 5 cm (wide)||1.2" / 3 cm (wide)|
|Waterproof Without Housing||YES||No||No||No|
|Camera + Housing Price||Starting at $750||Starting at $1,100||Starting at $1,450||Starting at $1,250|
Best All Around Compact Camera
The Olympus Tough TG-5 Camera
Camera & Housing starting at $750
The Olympus TG-5 is hands down the best camera we have seen for super macro shooting.
The Olympus TG-5 is the long awaited update to the every popular TG camera series and we think this update is the most significant Olympus has done yet for the TG camera line. The Olympus TG-5 won our hearts by being not only being able to execute our top requirements well but also with ease for the user.
All New Sensor With Impressive Image QualityWhile not the sexiest thing to talk about, the most significant upgrade is an all new imaging sensor and processor. This new sensor has much better low light performance and the images are much more detailed and noticeably sharper. We were stunned when we saw the macro images shot in microscope mode with the level of detail when zoomed in at 1:1 in Lightroom. Even wide angle images were noticeably sharper with great detail and the color right out of the box looked fantastic.
With a wide angle lens, the Olympus TG-5 can shoot impressive wide angle shots with great detail, color, and sharpness. Shot with the UWL-04 wide lens.
Best in Category AutofocusAutofocus speed and accuracy was the best across the board that we camera across in any compact camera. Even with super small macro subjects and limited depth of field the camera still snapped to focus super quick while others we tested hunted and frustrated us.
Added Advanced Features—Focus Peaking, Manual Focus, Manual FlashThere are some new features that certainly made it easier for more advanced shooters to excel with the Olympus TG-5. The addition of having a manual flash option is a godsend for being able to shoot rapid fire shots. Focus peaking is another advanced feature borrowed from pro-level cameras that have trickled down into the Olympus TG-5.
Even with high-resolution screens, critical focus is hard to see, especially when shooting in microscope mode with limited depth of field. Focus peaking will show areas of the image that are in focus by outlining the in focus edges in a color of your choice. This makes it easy to see that you got that super tight macro shot in focus without having to see the actual critical focus. This is great for subjects that are in constant motion where it’s hard to see focus because it never stops moving, or for shooters whose eyes might not be able to see perfect focus. Focus peaking is only active in manual focus mode. You can now use the same advanced focusing techniques as mirrorless or SLR cameras by moving the camera in and out from your subject to see the focus peak before snapping your next shot.
Still the King Of MacroThere’s no "donut hole" in the macro capability of the camera and a macro accessory macro lens is completely unnecessary. The "donut hole" is a gap that other compact cameras have between the relatively long minimum focus distance of the native lens and maximum focus distance of the lens with a macro accessory lens in front of it. This is why there are different power macro lenses on the market, for example a +5, +10, and +15. There may be critters that are too small for the native camera lens but also too big for the macro lens. The Olympus TG-5 has no such issues and easily snaps to focus at any zoom and distance.
A strobe snoot was used for this shot of a blenny. The sharp detail in macro impressed us and rivals the detail of some mirrorless cameras.
4K Video and High-Speed HDThe Olympus TG-5 gains 4K 30p and 120p HD in video mode with in-camera image stabilization. Hi-speed video shot at 120p can be slowed down 4x to 30p in post for really cool ultra slo-mo effects. Combining slow motion with in-camera image stabilization, any minor wobbles from your videos will virtually disappear. The downside to these two new video modes is that they are only available in movie mode, not in either microscope mode or aperture priority. While we were able to easily execute accurate custom white balances at depths up to 50 feet, a pet peeve is that a custom white balance cannot be executed in movie mode. It can be assigned, but not executed. It must be executed in one of the photo modes.
No Manual Exposure, But Easy Exposure Compensation Gets You ThereMore advanced shooters will lament the lack of full manual control. For an advanced shooter, it’s actually HARDER to not have manual control as now you have to outthink the camera to force it to bend to your will. It does make wide angle a bit more difficult, but with exposure compensation, it’s pretty easy to dial in ambient light exposures despite the lack of manual control. Don’t expect to pull off crazy creative lighting in wide, but for someone new to general wide angle photography will appreciate the point and shoot nature of shooting wide with the Olympus TG-5.
ConclusionFor the macro junkie, this camera will more than satisfy your fix. The ability to do both wide angle macro with ease, 4K video, the incredibly easy to use microscope mode makes for the most diversely capable compact camera we have seen. If you are primarily a wide shooter and don't care about macro that much you’re probably better off being served by the more advanced manual capabilities of the Panasonic LX10. But for a shooter who wants an easy to use, great all around camera with excellent image quality for macro and wide, photo and video, the Olympus TG-5 comes as our top pick.
- Undisputed king of macro
- All new sensor with massive improvements in image quality, with sharper images and improved low-light performance
- 4K 30p and 120p HD video
- Can’t execute a custom white balance in movie mode
- 4K and 120p HD are only available in movie mode, not in microscope mode or aperture priority
- We were hoping this new release would have full manual exposure control, but alas we have been let down again
Ikelite TG-5 Housing
Olympus PT-058 Housing
For more information on the Olympus Tough TG-5, check out our in-depth review article.
Best Advanced Compact Camera
The Panasonic Lumix LX10
Camera & Housing starting at $1,250
With the relatively long minimum focus distance of the Panasonic LX10, a macro diopter is necessary to get tight macro shots of critters like frogfish. Shot with the Nauticam SMC-1 Macro Lens.
When the Panasonic LX10 was released, all the specs pointed in the direction of a perfect compact camera—large sensor, 4K video, and a zoom lens that does not require any housing port changes for wide angle. The Panasonic LX10 is Panasonic’s answer to the 1-inch sensor sized Sony RX100 V and Canon G7 X II, our runners up in the Advanced Compact category. Image quality is excellent and is comparable to these other 1-inch sensor cameras. Where the Panasonic stands out is the control set, white balance, and 4K video.
Advanced SLR Like Control SetThe control set of the Panasonic LX10 stands out among its rivals as being more customizable and can be set up in such a manner as to be closer to the shooting style of a mirrorless or SLR camera. The biggest advantage is being able to set up autofocus on the back of the camera (function button 1 is our favorite for this) and separate autofocus from the shutter. This combined with focus peaking makes it very easy to achieve focus and then see that you’ve still got everything in-focus while firing away. No need to hold half press anymore while waiting for the action. Focus once and shoot. ISO changes are quick to make by assigning ISO to function button 2 on the back of the camera.
The stock lens of the Panasonic LX10 is perfect for fish portraits.
An area of minor disappointment is the lack of manual flash control. We prefer setting the flash output to manual at minimum power to get a faster recycle time between shots. That being said, the flash recycle in TTL mode is relatively fast compared to other similar cameras.
Easy to Add on Wide Angle and Macro LensesThe zoom range of the 24-72mm equivalent lens is in the perfect range for underwater use. Natively, it is great for fish portraits to semi wide angle, but like all other 1-inch sensor cameras we have seen, it lacks good macro capabilities without an accessory lens. There is no need to use a removable shorter port for wide angle like on the Canon G7 X II or Panasonic LX100. The use of a wide-angle lens will require the camera lens to be zoomed to about 32mm to avoid vignetting.
4K Video and Accurate Custom White BalanceWhat really makes this a great all around camera is the 4K video and ability to execute an accurate custom white balance at depth. Neither the Sony RX100 V or Canon G7 X II can do both of these tasks. Executing a manual white balance is a simple 3 button push task and can be assigned one of 4 custom white balance banks making it easy to save different settings for with video lights or for different depths. This makes the Panasonic LX10 the only real choice for serious compact camera video shooters.
The Panasonic LX10 fires relatively quickly allowing me to capture the fish in the shot as they swim by. Shot with the Nauticam WWL-1 wide lens.
The video image quality of the Panasonic LX10 is so good as to make it a great choice for someone who wants use it as a full-featured primary video camera. Features like focus peaking and zebra stripping are identical in execution to what is found in the pro-level Panasonic GH5 Camera. Full manual control is available along with displaying the exposure meter to keep a good tab on your exposure. From a menu layout, control, and usability standpoint, there is no practical noticeable difference between shooting the Panasonic LX10 and Panasonic GH5 for video.
ConclusionThe Panasonic LX10 excels in every area for a camera. Excellent image quality, 4K video, accurate white balance, and a control set that reminds us more of an SLR than a compact camera makes this the best advanced compact camera of the year. If you are a stills shooter, a video shooter, or do both, this is our top pick.
- Excellent image quality, for both stills and video
- 4K video with stabilization
- Features like zebra stripping, focus peaking, and back button AF remind us more of features from SLR, not a compact
- Accurate custom white balance even at depth
- No manual flash control
- Macro shooting requires powerful external macro lenses to overcome the lackluster native macro performance.
For more information on the Panasonic LUMIX LX10, check out our in-depth review article.
Best Advanced Compact Camera Runner Up
The Sony DSC-RX100 V
Camera & Housing starting at $1,450
The Sony RX100 V has quick focus and a responsive shutter, allowing a quick shot to be pulled off while the mouth was open.
Don’t get us wrong here. The Sony RX100 V is a great compact camera. Image quality is excellent and it has the fastest still image frame rate among the Advanced Cameras in this review with a blazing 16 frames per second. This makes it a great choice for fast action with no strobes like in a bait ball, with white sharks, or a sardine run.
The main area where Sony falls short is on the video side. It does shoot 4K but has a 5-minute clip length limit. For underwater videography, this is most likely not a problem, but for heavy video shooters you may run up against an overheating problem if shooting video for a whole dive. The other area of video that is disappointing is the custom white balance capability. Sony has a limit of 9900K for the color temperature of a white balance. Due to the red loss at depth, even at a relatively shallow 30-40 feet, we know a white balance in the 30,000K range is necessary. This limit doesn’t allow for an accurate white balance at depth. The only way to get good color is with bright video lights.
Focus peaking feature of the Sony RX100 V was needed to make sure both the eye and lure were in-focus. Shot with the Nauticam SMC macro lens.
On the still shooting side, we are quite happy with the Sony RX100 V, with a few caveats. There is no manual flash capability, only TTL. We prefer setting the flash output to manual at minimum power to get a faster recycle time between shots. There is no macro mode in-camera. It works great for fish portrait type shots, but anything smaller than a baseball requires an accessory macro lens, with stacking of macro lenses required for smaller critters.
If one didn’t have an interest in video the Sony RX100 V is a great choice for a photo camera. However, with most underwater shooters pulling double duty with stills and video, it falls short of being able to accomplish the task of being a one camera solution for all shooting needs.
- Excellent image quality
- Fast 16 fps RAW shooting capability
- Can't white balance at depth
- No manual flash control
- 4K video time limit of 5 minutes
Sony RX100 V Camera
Sony RX100 Marine Pack Housing
Fantasea FRX100V Housing
Ikelite RX100 V Housing
Isotta RX100V Housing
Nauticam NA-RX100V Housing
Recsea WHS-RX100 IV Housing
Best Advanced Compact Camera Runner Up
The Canon Powershot G7 X II
Camera & Housing starting at $1,100
The Canon G7 X II is another great compact camera. We’ve always liked the color reproduction that Canon has, especially with underwater shots. Underwater custom white balance color has consistently been the best in the industry for years, with Panasonic only being able to catch up more recently. Another great feature of the Canon G7 X II that is missing from the other two cameras in the Advanced Compact category is a manual flash option. The camera's internal flash can be set manually to a low power allowing a quick recycle time. We prefer this shooting method to TTL as we can pull off a lot more shots in a shorter period of time to get that perfect shot.
But the Canon G7 X II barely missed the top pick in our Advanced Compact category for a few reasons.
First, it is the only camera in the category that does not shoot 4K video. We feel that in this day and age 4K is no longer a nice "to have" feature, but is now a requirement to be named a "Best Of" for the category.
Second, is how the camera executes a custom white balance. The previous model was our favorite camera to white balance underwater. A user could assign a custom function button to execute and assign a custom white balance with a true 1 button push and instantly have perfect color. That feature is now gone. With the new imaging processor, (which does give a bump in image quality) the process is now the same as the company’s SLR procedure. To execute a custom white balance one needs to take a properly exposed picture, go to the menu, assign it to the custom white balance menu option, then choose custom from the white balance menu. In all, it takes around 10 button pushes now to execute a custom white balance. It does become more of a muscle memory procedure once you get used to it, but it’s nowhere as easy as pushing 1 button.
Third, is for the extra gear required to use an accessory wide angle lens. The Canon G7 X II zoom lens has too much of a zoom range for it to be used with a standard housing port. The standard lens port necessary to accommodate the built-in zoom lens of the camera is too long for it to be effectively used with external wide angle lenses. The standard port needs to be removed and a shorter port installed to use external wide lenses. This in of itself is not enough to knock it out of top contender status, but it is a negative that we would rather not have to deal with.
With its relatively large 1-inch sensor, the Canon G7 X II can have a more out of focus background to make the foreground subject pop off the background.
If someone wasn’t interested in 4K video, we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this camera or use it ourselves. The Canon G7 X II does have great color, image quality, the best native macro capability of any of the cameras in this category. Unfortunately, the Panasonic excels a little bit more in each of the areas where the Canon G7 X II falls just short.
- Great custom white balance color
- Best macro capability in the Advanced Compact category
- Manual flash exposure option for rapid fire shooting
- 10+ button push custom white balance procedure
- Short port required for wide angle accessory lens
- No 4K video
Canon G7 X II Camera
Canon WP-DC55 Waterproof Case
Fantasea FG7X II Housing
Ikelite G7X II Housing
Isotta G7XII Housing
Nauticam NA-G7XII Housing
Recsea WHC-G7XMKII Housing
Mirrorless Cameras Vital Statistics
|Olympus OM-D E-M1 II||Panasonic GH5||Sony a6500||Sony a7R II|
|Resolution||20.4 MP||20.3 MP||24.2 MP||42.4 MP|
|Image Size||5184 x 3888||5184 x 3888||6000 x 4000||7952 x 5304|
|Sensor Size||4/3" (17.3x13mm)||4/3" (17.3x13mm)||APS-C Crop (23.5x15.6mm)||Full Frame (35.9x24mm)|
|60 fps||12 fps||11 fps||5 fps|
|Movie Resolution||4K 30p||4K 60p||4K 30p||4K 30p|
|Max Frame Rate|
|LCD Size||3" 1.04M px||3.2" 1.62M px||3" 0.92M px||3" 1.23M px|
|Camera + Housing|
(Port & Lens Extra)
|Starting at $3,299||Starting at $3,694||Starting at $2,375||Starting at $4,500|
Best All Around Mirrorless Camera
The Panasonic LUMIX GH5
Camera, Housing and Port starting at $4468
The color from the Panasonic GH5 looked fantastic straight out of the camera and needed little editing. Shot with the Olympus 8mm Fisheye Lens.
We’ve been excited to get our hands on the Panasonic GH5. Ever since it was announced with 4K 60p video, we’ve been chomping at the bit to get it wet. The specs for the Panasonic GH5 are super impressive:
- Durable Magnesium Alloy Body.
- 20.3MP sensor with no low pass filter.
- 4K video internal recording:
- 4K 60p 4:2:0 8 bit
- 4K 30p 4:2:2 10 bit
- 1080 with frame rates 60fps to 180fps.
- 4K 60p external recording at 4:2:2 10 bit
- 5-Axis Stabilization
- Continuous stills shooting at 12fps RAW with a 100 shot RAW buffer
The Holy Grail of 4K 60p4K video is captured from the full width of the sensor at over 5K resolution, then downsampled to 4K. It is currently the only mirrorless or SLR camera on the market to use the full width of the sensor for 4K. This results in a really sharp image with no pixel binning or artifacts. Also, it's the only other SLR/mirrorless camera besides the Canon 1DX II II with 4K 60p, for a fraction of the price. A frame rate of 60p for underwater work has serious advantages. A shooter can slow down the footage to half speed without sacrificing smooth video playback. Three major benefits come with this. First, if you have any slight wobbles or bobbles in your footage, those practically disappear at half speed. Second, the footage takes on a graceful and dramatic appearance when slowed down to half speed. And third, when played back at normal speed on a 4K TV that supports 60p, the viewing experience is surreal and the video becomes an incredibly immersive experience.
Accurate White Balance, Stabilization, Pro Level Exposure AidsWhile the 4K 60p is the headline, there are a whole host of other features that make this camera the best choice for underwater videography. First, we have seen a massive improvement over the Panasonic GH4 in terms of being able to execute a custom white balance. The Panasonic GH4 required a red filter to be able to capture an accurate white balance at depth, limiting you to shooting either with video lights and no filter, or ambient light with a filter - a choice that had to be made before getting in the water. Now with the Panasonic GH5's ability to execute a white balance at depth without the need of a red filter, you can make those decisions on the fly. This gives the shooter the freedom to light the scene they way they see fit, without having to compromise. This also gives the hybrid stills/video shooter the ability to shoot stills with strobes and ambient light video on the same dive.
Another huge spec for video is 5 axis image stabilization. The Panasonic GH5 is the only option for 4K 60p with stabilization. The effects of the stabilization can’t be overstated. When combined with good shooting technique and being able to slow 60p to 30p, any stabilization issues just disappear.
Focus peaking, zebra stripping, waveforms, and vector scopes round out a comprehensive set of video tools not available on many other cameras on the market. Custom tone curves and flat log color profiles are available for pro shooters who will hand off their footage to a professional colorist for color grading.
Fast shooting speed allowed me to capture multiple shots of the fish school as it formed and turned in a pleasing direction. Shot with the Olympus 8mm Fisheye Lens.
Takes Awesome Still Shots TooAll this talk about video takes away from the ability to take really great still images. With a new 20MP sensor with no anti-aliasing filter, the pictures look very sharp. It has the ability to shoot up to 12 FPS with an approximate 100 shot RAW buffer, which puts it into some serious top-tier SLR performance territory. The base ISO is 200, which is the same as other cameras in the Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3 lineup. The flash sync speed is 1/250. The color right out of the camera in Lightroom looks fantastic and the image quality is among the best for a Micro 4/3 sensor camera. With no anti-aliasing filter on the sensor, images are super sharp. Shooting performance with stills was great with the camera being very responsive and we were never waiting for shutter lag or running up against an image buffer.
Using an Olympus 60mm Lens with a macro diopter allows the Panasonic GH5 to capture tight macro shots.
Highly Customizable Control SetThe shooting features and control set of this camera are also what makes it stand out. The camera setup can be highly customizable. There are 6 physical custom function buttons (5 of which are accessible from most housings), plus other buttons can be assigned to other functions. Our favorite way to shoot this camera for AF is to remove focus from the shutter and move it to the AF/AE button on the back of the camera and set the AF mode MF with AF+MF active. This allows the shooter to press the AF-ON button to focus, but when released the camera is in MF mode. Focus peaking can only be active in MF mode, so this is a great way to have the best of both worlds. This is great for macro shooters who could, if the focus peaking becomes annoying for composition, assign the Fn1 button to focus peaking ON/OFF toggle.
The focus peaking feature of the Panasonic GH5 allowed me to make sure the eyes were in focus before snapping the shot. Shot with the Olympus 60mm Lens.
ConclusionWith so many pro-level video and photo features the Panasonic GH5 easily takes the cake as the most versatile hybrid stills/video camera (not just mirrorless) we have seen yet, and gets our top recommendation for either a videographer or for someone who wants a top-notch stills and video rig.
- Will now execute an ambient light custom white balance at depth without a filter
- 4 white balance banks
- 4K 60p video
- 10bit 4:2:2 in 30p
- Great slow mo options in 1080 up to 180p
- 4K is downsampled from about 5K+ resolution for ultra-sharp video
- New imaging sensor with better sharpness and low light performance
- Focus peaking and its useful implementation
- Oh yeah it does top-notch stills too, shooting at 12fps RAW with a 100 shot RAW buffer
- Not as good at high ISO as other 4K full frame cameras
- Focus not as snappy and can hunt a bit in super macro compared to an SLR
Panasonic GH5 Camera
Aquatica AGH5 Housing
Ikelite GH5 Housing
Nauticam NA-GH5 Housing
Subal GH5 Housing
For more information on the Panasonic GH5, check out our in-depth review article.
Mirrorless Camera Runner Up
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II
Camera, Housing and Port starting at $4,044
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 II easily impressed us when it came out. We were blown away by the mind-boggling continuous shooting at 60 fps for stills (yes, we said stills, not movie!) in single AF, and 18 fps in continuous AF. The camera’s buffer is only limited when it can't write to the card anymore because the card is full. We’ve never seen specs like this in any camera before let alone a mirrorless.
Autofocus is the best we’ve seen in a mirrorless camera so far. The in-body image stabilization is good for a whopping 5.5 stops of stabilization, again, the best of any camera. Image quality is on par with the Panasonic GH5, the other Micro 4/3 camera in this review. And the camera still has our favorite control layout and extreme control customization capability of any camera out there.
The grouper swam into position on a moments notice, and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II was up to the task of firing off a quick succession of shots to get the shot. Shot with the Panasonic 8mm Fisheye Lens.
Another very exciting feature is the Pro Capture Mode. This feature is basically a pre-roll, allowing you to capture images BEFORE you take a picture. When activated, Pro Capture Mode will start buffering images upon a half-press of the shutter button. These images are not writing to the card, but are being buffered through the camera’s internal memory. When you then press the shutter button, whatever images you had buffered will also be written to the card. The idea behind this is to help capture that crucial action moment, so if you are just a split second late when some interesting subject behavior is on display you have an opportunity to still capture the shot. The major drawback to this feature is the inability to synchronize with strobes but could be used with video lights instead.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 II has great color right out of the camera and holds foreground and background surface detail really well. Shot with the Panasonic 8mm Fisheye Lens.
Olympus has previously held the top position in our mirrorless category a few times in past but comes up a little short this year. So where did the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II fall short? Basically in the video department. While the camera does have 4K video now, is it 30p compared to the Panasonic GH5’s 60p. The Panasonic can white balance at depth while the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II struggles for an accurate white balance at depth. This can be overcome easily by adding a color correction filter, but this limits the ability to do stills and video on the same dive or to use video lights or only ambient light on the same dive. It also requires an ISO bump that will increase image noise.
Using an Olympus 60mm Lens with a macro diopter allows the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II to capture tight macro shots.
While the color issues can be solved with a color filter and look great, executing a white balance is a bit difficult since you must be in a photo mode to execute a white balance. This really slows down the whole process. It can be done, but it makes it a major chore to do so.
We still think the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II is a great stills camera and will edge out the Panasonic GH5 in that respect. If video is not a primary concern, the Olympus camera makes a great choice. It’s just that the Panasonic absolutely killed it in the video department and is the main reason for Olympus’s fall from the top spot.
- New 20MP sensor image quality looks great compared to the previous model
- Fast autofocus
- Fastest continuous stills of any camera at 60 fps
- in-body image stabilization of 5.5 stops
- Pro Capture mode lets you take pictures from the past
- Great control layout and customization capability
- Cannot execute a white balance in movie mode, only photo mode
- Many of the fast shooting features have little practical use underwater because of incompatibility with strobes
Olympus OM-D E-M1 II Camera
Aquatica AE-M1 Mk II Housing
Ikelite E-M1 II Housing
Olympus PT-EP14 Housing
Nauticam NA-EM1II Housing
Subal EM1MK2 Housing
For more information on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, check out our in-depth review article.
Mirrorless Camera Runner Up
The Sony a6500
Camera, Housing and Port starting at $3,100
This shot of a turtle highlights the extremely sharp detail from the sensor of the Sony a6500. Shot with the Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye Lens.
The Sony a6500 is the smallest and lightest mirrorless camera in our review, but it has a 24MP APS-C sized sensor which is both higher in resolution and larger in size compared to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II and Panasonic GH5.
Image quality is the best out of any camera in this review save for the Sony a7R II. The amount of detail is super impressive and will even exceed most APS-C sized sensor SLRs. The Sony a6500 is the only other camera in the APS-C range, mirrorless or SLR to give the Nikon D500, our top pick for crop sensor SLR, a run for its money. It has great low light performance, dynamic range, and smooth transitions in the blue water gradients. Looking at images zoomed in at 1:1 in Lightroom show extremely sharp detail.
Dynamic range and image quality are the strong points of the Sony a6500. Shot with the Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye Lens.
The AF system has 425 focus points with super quick AF performance. Just like its big brother Sony a7R II, the Sony a6500 can also use Canon lenses with pass thru AF by using either a Metabones or FotodioX adapter. Rounding out the impressive spec list, it can shoot 11fps in RAW, with a 100 shot buffer.
With the advent of a Metabones or FotodioX adapter, the Sony a6500 isn’t just limited to shooting Sony lenses. The Sony a6500 can shoot Canon mount lenses with pass thru autofocus, metering, and aperture control. This is a good thing as there isn’t a whole lot of Sony APS-C optimized lenses that are great for underwater work, especially on the wide angle fisheye side.
Knowing you’ll be able to boost shadows in post allows for a proper exposure of a sunball without sacrificing other areas of the frame. Shot with the Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye Lens.
For wide angle, the Tokina 10-17mm has been the favorite APS-C wide angle lens since it came out. We’ve used it for years on both Nikon and Canon mounts. It is a fisheye zoom lens with an angle of coverage that ranges from 100-180 degrees, making it the ideal lens for underwater wide angle photography. The Sony a6500 can use the Canon mount Tokina 10-17mm with either the Metabones or FotodioX adapter. Autofocus works quickly and accurately. While not as snappy as a native lens, it is perfectly usable for normal wide angle work.
For macro, the favorite choice is the Sony 90mm macro. This lens will do a 1:1 reproduction ratio with a respectable working distance of 11 inches, making it easier to get that shot of a critter who is a little more skittish than others. This focal length is more akin to what you would find on an SLR as opposed to a Micro 4/3 lens system. It has a longer working distance making it a better macro choice over a Micro 4/3 camera system, like the Panasonic GH5 or Olympus OM-D E-M1 II. External macro lenses can be added to the lens port to be able to do greater than 2:1 macro photography. We don’t recommend using a Canon 100mm lens with a lens adapter as we have found the autofocus performance to be sluggish.
The Sony a6500 records 4K 30p video at a 100mbps data rate. This is the same pro level video codec that is also found in the Sony a7R II and Sony a7S II. The Sony a6500 captures 4K 30p video in 6K resolution from a smaller section of the imaging sensor and then downsamples it to 4K resolution with no pixel binning. This results in a very sharp image that has reduced moire and really great detail. The camera can be shot at 4K 24p from the full sensor width, but we suspect most users will want to shoot the 30p option which has smoother motion.
TheSony a6500 combined with a macro diopter will yield the most reproduction ratio of any mirrorless camera in this review. Shot with the Sony 90mm macro lens.
Using a smaller area of the sensor results in a tighter crop of the image compared to a still image from the sensor. It is about a 20% tighter crop on the sensor. This gives an advantage to macro shooting. You get more reproduction ratio from the smaller crop but are still shooting in 4K. The Sony a6500 will be able to shoot tighter macro shots than even the Sony a7R II, even in Super 35 mode. To compare apples to apples, the crop factor in shooting 4K 30p video is a 1.8 crop compared to full frame. In shooting the Sony 90mm macro lens at 1:1 reproduction ratio with the Nauticam SMC-1, the Sony a6500 yields an equivalent reproduction ratio of approximately 4:1, all the while having a more workable equivalent depth of field if you were shooting at about 2:1. All of this makes the Sony a6500 the camera of choice for macro video shooters.
This is where the video feature of the Sony a6500 hits a wall. Up to this point, Sony has not been able to execute a custom underwater white balance with ambient light shooting. Unfortunately, the Sony a6500 is no different. The white balance tops out at 9900K, which is nowhere near where us underwater shooters need to be. we used a Magic Filter in the back of the lens to execute a custom white balance underwater. The red color of the magic filter knocks down the color temperature of the scene and gets it into a range that the camera can white balance in. We found that in the range of 30-50 feet the camera always pegged out at the color temperature and tint limits in this depth range. The camera can be set to the max 9900K and the tint at M7 and the colors look pretty good but will need some correcting in post. Above about 25-30 feet a custom white balance with a filter will result in a Kelvin temperature under 9900K, so executing multiple white balances at different depths will be necessary above 30 feet. Unfortunately, after about 50 feet, the blue background starts to lean more to purple. The tint can be dialed back a little but it doesn’t look as good as it does at shallower depths with ambient light.
Quick shooting performance was critical to catch the action of the grouper. Shot with the Sony 16-50mm lens and the AOI UWL-09 PRO wide lens.
With the best image quality of nearly any APS-C sized sensor camera, we’re blown away by what this tiny camera can do. Only the Nikon D500 can compare to the image quality of the Sony a6500. While it might take better still images than our top pick, the Panasonic GH5, it can’t even come close to matching its performance on the video side. It’s really hard to make the Sony work in wide angle video with such a low color temperature limit. For a stills shooter looking for a mirrorless camera under $2000 and doesn’t need wide angle video capability, the Sony a6500 is the best option. But with no 4K 60p video and horrible ambient light white balance, we can’t recommend it for serious video shooters.
- Excellent low noise performance and image quality to rival or exceed that of leading APS-C mirrorless and SLR cameras.
- Better macro capability than Micro 4/3 cameras with the Sony 90mm macro lens
- Can use the super popular Tokina 10-17mm with a Metabones or FotodioX adapter
- Excellent video image quality in 4K
- Super tight macro in 4K video
- Razor sharp images
- Slow 1/160 flash sync speed according to spec, but we were able to shoot 1/250 with a manual electrical strobe connection
- Needs a color filter for underwater manual white balance
- Built-in flash can only be shot in TTL, leading to slow internal flash recycle times when using optical cables
- Need to change battery each dive if shooting a lot of 4K video
Sony a6500 Camera
Aquatica A6500 Housing
Fantasea FA6500 Housing
Ikelite a6500 Housing
Nauticam NA-A6500 Housing
For more information on the Sony a6500, check out our in-depth review article.
A Class of Its Own
The Sony a7R II
Camera, Housing and Port starting at $6473
The Sony a7R II is like bringing a gun to a knife fight in this review. It’s not really fair to have it in this comparison due to its intended audience and price point, but it is a mirrorless camera so here we go.
Hi Res Photos, Low Light PerformanceThe Sony a7R II is a full frame mirrorless camera (the only full frame in this review) that shoots 42 MP stills, 4K video, and has low light capability that is second only to the best low light SLR/mirrorless camera ever. The Sony a7R II is the first full frame sensor camera to feature a back-illuminated sensor. By moving electronics off the sensor, the sensor can gather more light, leading to better low light and high ISO performance. A full discussion of this technology is beyond the scope of this article, but in viewing images shot from 100-1600 ISO, we can’t tell any difference in noise. So we would say, yes they did accomplish low noise, high ISO, and hi-res in the same camera. The seemingly impossible has become possible! The result is the best image quality you can get from a camera sensor on the market, period. Even better than the top flagship cameras from Nikon and Canon.
This motodi octopus was shot at ISO 1600 and shows no signs of noise.
Great Control Set for Underwater ShootersThe control set of the camera is very well laid out and ergonomic, making quick changes on the fly super easy. There are dedicated dials for shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation. There’s a number of custom function buttons and most other buttons can have their functions reassigned. There’s the ability to reassign focus to the AF-ON button on the back of the camera which can be accessed by your right thumb, just like an SLR.
While you can use Canon lenses with a Metabones adapter, focus is a bit slower than with a native lens. We’ve also noticed with native lenses, autofocus performance is still behind SLRs in terms of accuracy and speed on the macro side.
The Sony 90mm lens has a greater working distance than other shorter focal length macro lenses. This allows more working distance when dealing with skittish subjects that might otherwise take off if you got too close.
Focus Peaking—See Super Macro Critical Focus Even If Your Vision Isn’t PerfectWhen in MF mode you can also have focus peaking active. This will show you areas in focus highlighted in your choice of color. The color isn’t too overbearing and is a massive help in determining critical focus. For those who can see critical focus on a screen or optical viewfinder very well, this is a must for macro shooting. Just look for when the critical area you want in focus is highlighted in the color of your choice, and fire.
Focus peaking also works with depth of field (DOF) preview. The gain on the screen compensates for any loss of light from stopping the lens down, but it is still important to use a focus light to help see subjects clear and help with AF performance in low light. This is an advantage over SLRs as most cameras either don’t have access to the DOF preview button, and when you do, the viewfinder is too overly dark to actually see anything when the lens is stopped down, plus there is no peaking in the viewfinder.
For something like this that is smaller than a grain of rice and moving really fast, we couldn’t tell if it was in focus just by looking at the screen. It would have been impossible to see critical focus without focus peaking. Shot with Sony 90mm lens and Nauticam SMC-1, so the reproduction ratio is a little bit greater than 2:1.
Underwater White Balance PerformanceAs with all Sony cameras, the Sony a7R II cannot execute a custom white without the help of a red color correction filter much deeper than 15 feet. The color temperature maxes out at 9900 Kelvin, and for underwater white balance, we need a limit somewhere in the upper reaches of 50,000 Kelvin plus. Canon has been the sole reigning king of underwater white balance at all depths without a filter for years now, but recently Panasonic joined the club a couple of years ago with the new image processor in the 4K compact camera, the Panasonic LX100. Being able to white balance without a color correction filter is a huge advantage allowing one to do photo and video on the same dive, or do video lights and ambient light on the same dive. You’ll get great color with the Sony a7R II, but you’ll need to go in the water dedicated with either a color filter or lights, not both on the same dive.
ConclusionIf you are considering a camera in the range of a Sony a7R II, you may also want to look at SLRs such as the Nikon D500, Nikon D810, or Canon 5D IV. Although the camera body is a bit smaller than its SLR brethren, by the time you add on a housing, and ports for full frame optics, it’s not really that much smaller, either in size or price. The image quality looks amazing for sure, but there are trade-offs in speed of shooting, speed of autofocus, and lack of an optical viewfinder.
Give us a call at Backscatter and we can help you decide which camera will best suit your shooting style and needs.
- 42MP AND low noise performance
- Full frame 4K 30p video
- 5-axis stabilization
- Cheaper than any mid-level SLR with more features and performance
- Needs a color filter for custom white balance help
- Need to change the camera battery every dive if shooting a lot of 4K footage on dives
- Although the camera is smaller, full frame lenses are still the same size as full frame lenses from SLRs
Sony a7R II Camera Body
Sea and Sea MDX-a7II Housing
Subal Alpha 7 II Housing