What’s the Best Camera for Underwater Photography in 2023?
What is the best underwater camera? I’m often asked this question by budding underwater photographers.
Like many fields of photography, underwater photography has its challenges so it’s important we know what to look for when purchasing a new camera.
And yes, underwater photography is expensive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a great camera that is also affordable!
Underwater photography is a challenging field. Performance is key and you need a camera you can trust. Being able to handle fast-moving subjects, low light conditions, and having a great range of lenses available to you is paramount.
DSLRs have always been the most popular choice in the underwater photography community. But now mirrorless cameras are on the rise, with many of the industry’s biggest players focusing on their mirrorless camera lines.
Many professional photographers have been making the switch to mirrorless in recent years.
However, it isn’t all about DSLR or mirrorless; compacts and waterproof action cameras are also great choices, especially for those just getting started in this awesome industry, or for those on a tighter budget.
It isn’t just the cost of the camera body and lenses to consider, you also need to make sure you have an underwater housing to keep everything dry. There are many brands to consider; Nauticam, Isotta, Subal and Ikelite to name a few.
The price of underwater housings varies from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand pounds depending on the brand, material, and features.
Within this guide are some of the things that you need to consider when choosing the right camera for you, and I hope it helps you to navigate the world of underwater cameras!
Read more: Mirrorless vs DSLR Cameras for Nature Photography
Features of the best cameras for underwater photography
Here are some of the key features you should consider when deciding on a camera.
Full Frame, crop or Micro Four Thirds
Full frame cameras offer advantages such as higher image quality and ISO capabilities, full frame cameras are typically more expensive, and both DSLR and mirrorless cameras are available as full frame.
Traditionally a crop sensor camera is cheaper and slightly smaller. Due to the sensor, the lenses are slightly more zoomed in when compared to the full frame.
This can be helpful for close-up portraits of fish or macro photography, as you can keep a greater distance between you and the subject.
Micro Four Thirds (or M43) is cheaper again, and these cameras are far more lightweight and compact. They do however offer fewer megapixels, averaging around 20mp.
M43 is more zoomed in than a crop sensor, it would be 2x as magnified when compared to a full frame.
Read more: The Difference Between Full Frame & Crop Sensors
Many newer cameras offer autofocus and focus tracking, and systems such as AI autofocus are capable of learning from your shooting and movement, helping to keep those fast-moving subjects in focus.
Many systems perform well tracking animals and eyes on the surface, but haven’t been thoroughly tested on underwater subjects. Remember that a higher number of autofocus points will make it easier to track and maintain focus on your subject.
Read more: Back Button Focus – When and Why to Use It
Low light capabilities
The conditions underwater are typically darker than on land. We begin to lose light and colour as soon as we drop below the surface.
You don’t want to be limited by poor performance in low light conditions, and in darker environments, you will need to be prepared to raise your ISO.
Of course, with higher ISO comes digital noise in your images, and dramatic noise at high ISO will ruin images. So, full-frame cameras with larger sensors are traditionally the best in low light.
But look out for other features like stabilization at lower shutter speeds as this can help allow you to keep your ISO lower and avoid noise.
Shutter speed is less relevant in underwater photography than in wildlife photography when you are using strobes.
Most strobes can only sync to 1/250 of a second unless you plan to enter high-speed sync realms. Fast shutter speed is great but of little use if your strobes can’t sync with your shutter.
Read more: How to Choose a Strobe for Underwater Photography
The best cameras for underwater photography
We’ve looked at the things you need to be aware of when choosing a camera, so now here are some recommendations for the best cameras available at this moment for underwater photography.
The flagship full-frame mirrorless Nikon Z9 is a serious newcomer, capable of shooting 45.7MP images with continuous autofocus tracking. The Z9 also boasts Nikon’s most advanced AF system with over 400 detection points.
The system has AI-based subject recognition to detect and track moving subjects, capable of tracking animals, eyes, and faces, plus Autofocus capabilities down to -8.5EV.
Video specs on this system are also impressive: the Z9 can record 8K resolution at 30fps and 4K at 120fps.
The price of over £5,000 will take this above the budget of many underwater photographers, but it does have some serious quality to be considered.
Guide price: £5,299
This is the highest-resolution full-frame mirrorless camera on the market, with a whopping 61MP. The A7RV also boasts an all-new AI autofocus processor for enhanced subject detection, so this system is also capable of learning from your movements as you shoot.
Another new feature for this Sony is in-body stabilization with 8 stops of image correction. This camera is more suited to photographers than videographers.
Despite being able to capture 8K video at 24fps and 4K at 60fps, the high resolution may lead to noise at higher ISO.
Guide price: £3,599
This is one of the most popular choices amongst underwater photographers and one of the best all-rounders, with a high resolution at 45.7MP and an ability to capture a high dynamic range without sacrificing image quality.
Autofocus has always been a strong point for Nikon, and the D850 has 153 AF points plus 3D focus tracking, helping to keep even the smallest of subjects in focus.
The D850 is capable of shooting full-frame 4K video at 30fps. This system is also capable of switching between video and photo whilst maintaining separate settings in both modes.
Guide price: £2,799
This is Canon’s newest and highest-performing APS-C mirrorless camera, and a serious contender for those with a lower budget. Producing 32.5MP images, the R7 is also equipped with a dual-pixel autofocus system capable of tracking animals and eyes.
With a smaller body size, weighing just 590g this is an extremely travel-friendly option.
In-built 5-axis stabilization with seven stops of correction allows for shooting at low shutter speeds such as 1/10th of a second without motion blur, which is a great feature when shooting in low light conditions.
Guide price: £1,799
The D500 is a favourite of many macro photographers, but it isn’t just limited to underwater macro. On the video side, this camera can capture 4K video at 30fps.
This system has 153 autofocus points for greater accuracy and speed, along with 3D subject tracking that can perform well even in low-light conditions.
A 20.9MP sensor at the upper end of the APS-C camera market, along with lightning-fast continuous shooting at 10fps.
Guide price: £1,599
OM EM1 Mark III
The OM System EM1 Mark III is one of the top-performing micro four-thirds cameras on the market and comes at a very reasonable price. This camera boasts a 20.4MP live MOS sensor with 121 autofocus points.
This camera performs well in low light, but it’s important to remember that on an M43 system staying below ISO 400 should avoid noise.
The OM system shows off the wonderful colours we’ve come to know – well-saturated and punchy colours make those underwater images pop.
Some unique features of this camera also include the high-res shot mode, capable of 80MP on a tripod or 50MP for handheld images, along with 4K video at 30fps, making this a budget-friendly system with a lot of key features.
Guide price: £1,199
Sony RX100 VII
The Sony RX100 VII is amazingly compact at just 302g, with a built-in 24-200mm equivalent lens that makes this system extremely travel-friendly. Along with 4K video at 30fps that makes this compact is a great mid-market option.
Sony has taken their accurate autofocus tracking from their top-of-the-line cameras and added it to the RX100. The autofocus speed and continuous mode tracking rivals top-end cameras.
This system is capable of 20.1MP with an ISO range of 100-12800, allowing for a better dynamic range underwater.
Guide price: £1,050
The TG-6 is waterproof to 15m/50ft without a housing, making this a great option for beginners and those on a tight budget. Featuring a 12MP sensor which performs better in low light than its predecessors.
The compact features a 25-100mm equivalent lens and offers both a microscope mode and underwater shooting mode.
With a 100-12,800 ISO range this camera can deliver good images in low light, but noise may be a factor with a sensor this small. In addition, this system can shoot 4K video at 30fps and 1080p up to 120fps.
Guide price: £399
Focus tracking has traditionally been hit-and-miss with underwater subjects, but many of the newer AF systems can handle underwater subjects well. Video capabilities are often an important factor of an underwater camera, even if it will primarily be used for photography.
I would also advise buying the best sensor your budget will allow, being able to get great quality images in low light conditions is a huge advantage.
It is very frustrating when your camera lacks quality in dark underwater environments. There certainly is a lot to think about when purchasing an underwater camera, but there are many options for a variety of budgets, so do your research before buying.