In this digital age, we have the ability to shoot hundreds of photos underwater for less than a few cents a picture when costs are spaced out over the lifespan of modern-day cameras. Before the digital revolution, film was a constant cost to consumers and made underwater photography nearly out of reach for an amateur underwater enthusiast. Today, memory cards and other digital storage solutions have significantly dropped in price, and the availably of cost-effective underwater cameras have been made readily available.
I like to think that the underwater camera market can be simplified into 3 basic tiers for new underwater photographers when deciding which camera to choose:
1) Fully sealed point-and-shoot cameras such as the Olympus Tough series or GoPro. These are typically an all-in-one setup which come permanently sealed or with a basic underwater casing.
2) Compact/mirrorless point-and-shoot cameras paired with prosumer underwater housings (which expands user ability to use add strobes/wet lenses/lights/arms) such as the Sony RX series.
3) DSLR's- This is going to be the most professional option for those who want complete control over each shot. Typically the huge advantages here are full manual controls, bigger sensor sizes, and full customization. This of course comes with some serious downsides such as huge price tags and significant weight increases.
Here are a few questions to begin asking yourself when selecting your underwater camera.
1) What price point are you looking for?
2) Are you mostly using the camera for snorkeling or diving?
3) Are you going to add a full strobe package, arms/ball joints, or just some basic lighting?
4) Do you need a point and shoot or a DSLR? Will you be taking advantage of the full manual controls?
A great, cost-effective solution that has recently bridged the gap recently between the 3 different markets recently that is worth highlight is the new SeaLife camera series.
The company has done a fantastic job of making decisions easier for those new to the underwater world. They now offer direct competition for each tier in the market. They have a basic point and shoot series known as the Micro 2.0- each with their own selections of storage capacity. Very recently they went all-in and developed a larger sensor camera which is a direct competition to the Sony RX series (which had recently cornered the market for those who wanted added control). SeaLife has also fully sealed all their cameras and offer a full warranty against any/all camera floods which surpasses the warranty offered famed GoPro series.
To address a few of the questions above:
1) The difference in camera costs can be a huge limiting factor right out of the gate for most users. A DSLR with an underwater housing and strobe package usually starts around $5000 and can run well over $10,000...
Snorkeling or Diving
2) If you are looking to do more snorkeling than diving- a simple, entry-level compact camera should do the trick. You typically won't need additional lighting at the surface so the basic housing and on camera flash will work perfectly fine.
3) You have plenty of choices when it comes to lighting. Some users will just want to use natural lighting- this cuts down on costs and additional weight when traveling. If you would like to add an additional basic lighting kit- this is available for almost any camera and there are plenty of options on the market to supplement your stills or video. If you are in the market to fully brighten up your underwater world- there are numerous options for arms/ball joints/strobes/constant video lights.
Full manual controls
4) If you are familiar with shooting in full manual mode above water, then chances are, you will quickly become bored if you strip yourself of that added creativity underwater. If you are picking up a camera for the first time... a basic setup should do it.
With new technology moving into the market... its easy to get lost with manufacturers advertisements and shout outs. The best thing that you can do is decide for yourself what needs you're looking to fulfill. Ask yourself how deep into it you are looking to dive and then start your research.