Want to take your DSLR into the briny deep? Get out your wallet and prepare to die, because a reliable waterproof housing is going to set you back at least as much as the camera itself. The good news is, there’s a thriving market in compact cameras designed specifically for underwater photography. Advanced shooting modes make for better shots than any smartphone, while bigger, better lenses mean you can make the most of the limited light that’s available below the surface.
And it’s not just about waterproofing. Manufacturers realise that their users are likely to be adventurous, wandering souls, and pack in all sorts of outdoor-friendly feature such as GPS tagging, sports modes and rugged casings that can withstand drops from surprisingly tall heights.
Pack your trunks and read on: whether you’re snorkelling, diving, or simply looking for a camera guaranteed of surviving a family trip the beach, we’ve got you covered.
How to buy the best waterproof camera for you
How rugged does my camera need to be?
Most cameras are sturdy enough to survive everyday accidents. Over the years, the ham-fisted team at Expert Reviews has dropped, crushed or splashed cameras from virtually every manufacturer with few ill effects.
For underwater photography, though, the problem is seawater. It’s extremely corrosive, and generally fatal to anything with an electronic pulse. Whether you’re going snorkelling off the Isle of Wight or diving in a Bornean coral reef paradise, you need a camera that’s specifically designed to withstand the deep. Sailors should take note as well – even if you’re planning to remain on deck, oversized waves can catch you off guard, so a camera that can take a briny beating is a must-have.
How much should I spend?
At the “fun” end of the scale you can spend under £150 for a reputable brand like Nikon. Go bigger and you’ll be spending the thick end of £400 for something a bit tougher, and with more features and modes to suit advanced photographers.
Tell me more about these features, then…
At lower prices, you can expect very little in the way of advanced controls such as shutter or aperture priority, manual ISO and so on. A higher-end camera will do much more: in addition to extra shooting modes, you may be able to transfer pictures wirelessly, and use GPS-based geo-tagging to track where each shot was taken.
The minor matter of image quality arises too: expect higher-resolution sensors and better performance in low light (crucial underwater), as well as brighter lenses. If you want to shoot 4K video underwater, you may have to pay more for that capability too.
READ NEXT: Here are the best DSLRs from £350 to £3,500
The best waterproof cameras to buy
1. Nikon COOLPIX W300: The best waterproof camera for the ambitious
Price when reviewed: £400 – Buy now from Jessops
Nikon’s W300 is an affordable little snapper, but one that offers just about everything you could ask from an underwater compact. It’s waterproof to 30 metres, so it’ll suit all but deep-sea divers and its 1/2.3in CMOS sensor produces 16-megapixel stills as well as shooting 4K footage at 25fps, with a front-facing LED light to help illuminate the scene.
The stabilised zoom lens offers a focal range of 4.3-21.5mm – equivalent to 24-120mm in 35mm terms – which is well suited to underwater photography. And with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS you get the full complement of wireless connectivity.
Impressively, the optional SR-CP10A adapter allows the W300 to remotely fire Nikon’s underwater SB-N10 Speedlight, making this a camera that can grow with your underwater photography ambitions.
Key specs – Waterproofing: 30 metres (100ft) for 60 minutes; Stills resolution: 16 megapixel; Video modes: 4K at 25p, 1080 at 50p, 720 at 25p; Lens (35mm conversion): 4.3-21.5mm (24-120mm); ISO range: 125-6400; Display: 3in, 921k pixel LCD; Memory card format: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Connectivity: micro USB; Bluetooth 4.1, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, GPS; Claimed battery life: 280 shots, approx 1hr 1080 25p movie recording; Size: 112 x 29 x 66mm (WDH); Weight: 231g
2. Ricoh WG-50: Best for close up photography
Price when reviewed: £250
If you’re a Ricoh aficionado, you may notice a striking similarity between the new WG-50 and the three-year-old WG-30. Indeed, it’s not just the exterior that’s largely unchanged from that older model: you still get a rear-illuminated CMOS sensor with 16 megapixels to shoot with, with ISO settings up to 6400. It also still has a 2.7in screen on the back and a 5-25mm 5x zoom lens. And it still sports a design more at home in the Bat Cave than in the average camera bag.
Still, even though not much has changed, there’s loads to like. Take the front-mounted LED ringflash, for example, useful for lighting underwater scenes, and also handy for the WG-50’s 1cm macro mode. And the WG-50 is a touch more waterproof than the outgoing model: it’s able to withstand depths of 14 metres (45 feet), which is two metres more than the WG-30.
That’s still a relatively – relatively – shallow depth restriction, and it means the WG-50 doesn’t necessarily offer the last word in underwater stills abilities. But if you can live with that it’s a great little camera at a reasonable price.
Key specs – Waterproofing: 14 metres (45ft) for 120 minutes; Stills resolution: 16 megapixel; Video modes: 1080 at 30p, 720 at 60/30p; Lens (35mm conversion): 5-25mm (28-140mm); ISO range: 125-6400; Display: 2.8in, 230k pixel LCD; Memory card format: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Connectivity: micro USB; Claimed battery life: 300 shots, approx 90mins movie recording; Size: 123 x 30 x 62mm (WDH); Weight: 193g
3. Olympus TOUGH TG-5: Best for high-end Cousteau-wannabes
Price when reviewed: £399
Olympus’ brand new TOUGH TG-5 is the only camera here that offers aperture and shutter-priority, and there’s even a full manual exposure mode. That may be Double Dutch to many, but for more experienced photographers it’s a real boon. It’s also the only camera here besides the GoPro to offer a RAW mode for stills, and although its 12-megapixel sensor isn’t the last word in resolution, it can shoot at up to ISO 12,800, and features a continuous LED light to help with lighting. Movies are handled with aplomb, with 30p and 25p offered for 4K recording, and slow-motion offered at 120fps in 1080p or 240fps in 720p.
What really marks this out as a serious camera is the range of add-ons available. Olympus’ optional Light Guide (£30) adding a continuous LED ring flash, while the PT-058 dive housing (around £280) increases the TG-5’s maximum depth from 15 metres to 45 metres, and is compatible with the Olympus UFL-3 underwater strobe (another £280). A screw-on fisheye converter lens (around £110) widens the 25-100mm lens to just 19mm – ideal for underwater photography. You should also note that with a claimed 340 stills per battery charge the TG-5 has the best battery life here.
The TG-5 is one of the most expensive cameras here, and if you add the dive housing and strobe it’s a serious investment. But if you can stand the price it just might be the ultimate non-DSLR for divers.
Key specs – Waterproofing: 15 metres (49ft); Stills resolution: 12 megapixel; Video modes: 4K at 25p, 1080 at 25p, 120p, 720 at 25p, 120p, 240p; Lens (35mm conversion): 4.5-18mm (25-100mm); ISO range: 100-12800; Display: 3in, 460k pixel LCD; Memory card format: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Connectivity: micro USB, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, GPS; Claimed battery life: 340 shots, approx 110mins movie recording; Size: 113 x 32 x 66mm (WDH); Weight: 250g
4. Nikon COOLPIX W100: Best for beginners
Price when reviewed: £119 – Buy now from Jessops
At under £120, the W100 is stonkingly affordable. Nikon describes it as a “family-friendly” camera, and that means just what you’d expect: there’s little in the way of advanced controls (although you do get exposure compensation), but it’s easy to use, and it’s almost indestructible.
Specifically the Nikon W100 can survive drops from up to 1.8 metres (5.9ft) and is waterproof to a respectable 10 metres. And while it doesn’t exactly bristle with controls, it’s not entirely short on features: you get both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as 1080p Full HD video recording at 30fps.
With a maximum ISO of 1600, and no continuous LED, low-light performance isn’t great. There’s no option to add an external underwater strobe either, so if you’re hoping to capture dazzling underwater scenes you might find it limiting. But as rugged alternative to sticking your smartphone in an underwater housing it’s great value.
Key specs – Waterproofing: 10 metres (33ft) for 60 minutes: Stills resolution: 13 megapixel; Video modes: 1080 at 30p; ISO range: 125-1600; Display: 2.7in, 230k pixel LCD; Memory card format: SD, SDHC, SDXC; Connectivity: micro USB, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth; Claimed battery life: 340 shots, approx 110mins movie recording; Size: 113 x 32 x 66mm (WDH); Weight: 250g
5. GoPro Hero5 Black: Best for filmmakers
Price when reviewed: £329
The Hero5 is not a camera for artistically-minded stills photographers. Yes, there’s a 2in preview screen so you can frame up accurately, but with no manual exposure mode and limited touch-based exposure locking, it’s a poor alternative to the likes of the Olympus TG-5 or Nikon W300.
For video, though, it’s brilliant. With just a single “record” button, it’s outstandingly easy to use, yet spec-wise it outperforms nearly everything else here. It shoots 30fps 4K footage like the Nikon W300, but also provides slow-motion capture up to 240fps in 720p or 120fps in 1080p. It’s tiny too, measuring 62mm wide by 45mm tall, and extremely light at just 87 grams. And since it’s a GoPro, you can partner it with a huge range of grips, mounts, and accessories, including GoPro’s own on-brand drone.
If video’s your thing then there aren’t many reasons to look elsewhere – but there are a few. It’s only waterproof to 10 metres, unless you invest in GoPro’s £50 dive case, and the tiny 2in screen isn’t great for framing and playing with settings: it’s designed to be body or helmet mounted, turned on and forgotten.
For keen stills photographers the Olympus TG-5 is a better bet: those manual modes, big screen and stills-specific accessories are too tempting. For video, this should be at the top of your list.
Read our full review of the GoPro Hero5 Black
Key specs – Waterproofing: 10 metres (33ft): Stills resolution: 12 megapixel; Video modes: 4K at 25p, 24p, 2.7k at 50p, 48p, 25p, 1440 at 80p, 50p, 48p, 25p, 24p; 1080 at 120p, 90p, 80p, 50p, 48p, 25p, 24p, 960 at 120p, 50p, 720 at 240p, 120p, 50p, 100p, 24p; ISO range: 400-6400; Display: 2in touchscreen LCD; Memory card format: microSD, microSDHC, microSDXC; Connectivity: USB-C, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, GPS; claimed battery life: still shooting not stated, approx 90mins movie recording at 4K, 120mins at 1080/60p, 150 mins at 1080/25p; Size: 62 x 33 x 45mm (WDH); Weight: 87g
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