Choosing an Underwater Digital Camera

I’m often asked what is the best digital camera for shooting underwater? The question comes from new underwater photographers who want to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars on a camera system. The camera and housing has to be compact, user friendly and achieve quality results.

While every person is different just as every camera has their differences, every photographer wants one thing–the best image quality for the price.

So when choosing a consumer camera in the sub-onethousand dollar range there are a couple things to keep in mind.  As with anything you buy, you pay for what you get. Cheaper often means better customer service. Since there are so many cameras returned because of malfunctions and poor craftsmanship, some companies will try to keep customer satisfaction by replacing the camera with an identical or rebuilt model. While this may satisfy some consumers, in the end you’re still stuck with a poor quality camera.

While sensor size and mega-pixel talk may sound impressive, it doesn’t necessarily translate to better image quality. Image quality is dependent on two things, the type of lens attached or built into the camera and sensor size in relation to megapixel count. You can take the highest quality DSLR and attach a poor quality lens to the front and get a poor image from it. You can have a camera loaded with megapixels with a small sensor.  The end result being poor quality images.

Canon found this out by taking customer complaints seriously several years ago after it released the ‘prosumer’ Canon Powershot G10. At a higher resolution of 14.7 megapixels over its predecessor the G9 which only had 12 megapixels, Canon thought they were giving consumers what they wanted—more megapixel’s for larger photo printing options.

Unfortunately, the small sensor could not handle the amount of megapixel’s stuffed into it and image quality suffered. Canon took a step back which was a step forward. They continued with the popular G series by reducing the magapixels in the G11’s and G12’s back to 10 megapixels along with other modifications to increase image quality in low light. For underwater photography, low light performance is critical. (B&H Photo $499.95)

While we found the Canon G11 and G12 to produce quality images underwater, the acrylic housing that Canon sells for it (B&H Photo $184.95),  is less than stellar. For the inexpensive price it’s an alternative, but if you’re an avid, frequent diver who wants to take underwater images, it is better to protect your investment and purchase a higher grade polycarbonate Ikelite housing or the more expensive aluminum Fisheye Fix G11 and G12 housing.

Another good choice is the DX-2G from Sea and Sea. They’ve been making underwater imaging camera systems since 1972. Their DX series is a good camera system to start with. The Sea and Sea DX-2G has a 12.1MP sensor and full manual controls underwater. It is a system any new underwater photographer can grow into. It doesn’t have electronic ports that could flood or corrode and instead uses molded fiber optics ports in the housing for external strobe synchronization. (B&H Photo $979.99)

While there are several waterproof cameras on the market, lately one stands out above the rest. It’s the Olympus Stylus 8010. It’s waterproof, shockproof, freeze-proof, crush-proof and shake-proof. While we may be looking at the future of all underwater camera systems I’m always skeptical when taking cameras underwater without a housing. For splashing around the pool you take your chances. While it’s designed for getting caught in the rain in your outdoor adventures, it also has a depth rating of 33 feet, 10 meters underwater. Combined with the Olympus PT-045 housing it has a depth rating of 130 feet, 40 meters. The housing is extra insurance against flooding at any depth. At 12 MP the picture quality is average. This camera and housing is more practical for sharing your vacation photos with friends on Facebook. (B&H Photo $329.99)

I’ve always believed that diving and underwater photography is a privilege, not a right. To take eye capturing images takes practice, proper buoyancy along with courtesy to fellow divers and to the subject you’re photographing. To cease in an effort to adhere to any one of these ultimately lessens the quality and credibility of your underwater images. Having a good underwater camera system is only a small part of the equation.

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