When we say "waterproof camera" we can mean a number of things, so it's important to define our terms. There are two main popular types of waterproof camera: waterproof compacts and action cameras. Waterproof compacts tend to resemble an ordinary compact camera, with the main difference being that they're, well, waterproof. They tend to be marked out by distinctive bright colouring (useful if you drop them underwater), and the main edge they have over action cameras is the option of an optical zoom lens, allowing you to get closer to your subjects without suffering loss of picture quality.
Before you start digging into the reviews, a few notes on choosing a cam that's right for you. You'll definitely want to consider frame rate, expressed as frames per second (fps). Some action cameras offer up to 240fps recording, while others only go to 30fps. For standard playback, 30fps is perfectly fine. It's when you want to slow footage down in editing to create dramatic scenes that frame rate matters. Footage captured at 240fps can be slowed down and played back smoothly at one-quarter speed. You may also want to go for a cinematic look, in which case you'll want one that has a 24fps capture option, the same speed used by most Hollywood productions.
Most models have a single lens, with an ultra-wide angle of view, so you can experiment with mounting and get a big view of the world in frame. Some dual-lens cameras, like the recently announced GoPro Max, capture a 360-degree view of the world. VR playback isn't as popular as it was at the peak of the fad, but editing tools make it possible to convert 360-degree footage into a 16:9 playback format in creative ways.
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Another highly sought-after, and relatively exclusive, feature within the video camera realm is the ability to record in RAW or ProRes. These are uncompressed formats that maximize the information gathered by the sensor and provide you with extended flexibility when it comes to color grading and post-processing. As mentioned, this feature is quite an exclusive one and only available in a select few cameras on the market with good processors (again, excluding high-end cinema systems). Some select cameras can record in ProRes Raw with an Atomos Ninja V external recorder. Nauticam offers a housing for the Ninja V for use with your underwater system.
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The A7 III, with its compact and ergonomic design, has been a very popular camera for video recording. The battery life is drastically improved compared to the previous A7 Series cameras, which was a primary complaint of Sony Alpha users and is particularly beneficial for underwater video, as it allows you to shoot for much longer without the need to open the housing. The A7 III also has dual SD card slots, which play an additional role in the maximum allotted time you can record underwater without having to open the housing. The auto-focus during video works very well.
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If you’re a deep-water explorer, this is your pick of the best waterproof digital cameras. The Nikon W300 is rated to depths of 30m, outstripping most waterproof cameras, and it comes with a barometer that provides useful underwater data like altitude and depth, as well as an electronic compass. Bluetooth functionality is also on board, and this pairs well with Nikon’s SnapBridge technology for fast image transfer. Video shooters will also welcome the addition of 4K video to the W300’s toolkit, and the generous shockproof rating of 2.4m means it’s extra protected against bumps and knocks. While the lack of Raw support is a pity, if you're happy to stick with JPEGs you'll find it to be a superb all-rounder for fearless underwater adventures.
The Panasonic Lumix GH5s has been the go-to mirrorless camera for video use over the last two years and even with the advent of newer full frame mirrorless cameras (as listed above) the GH5s still holds its own as a professional video system. There are various underwater housings available for the GH5s and with Nauticam’s newest version of the NA-GH5 you have the option of including an M28 bulkhead for use with HDMI 2.0 and the Atomos Ninja V recorder.
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The rest of the camera's highlights include Wi-Fi for smartphone connectivity (via an app), GPS, a built-in eCompass, and a temperature sensor. You can embed data from the sensors in your images when you edit them, thanks to a dedicated app by Olympus. And the 3-inch LCD display means navigating through all the camera's features is easy. The screen is considerably sharper than one found in the device's predecessor.
Housings are a topic that deserves a detailed post of their own and you’ll see one here on The Adventure Junkies in the future. But, until then let me briefly talk about choosing an underwater housing. Also, you can read Basics of Underwater Photography: Choosing Cameras & Housings which goes into more detail about housings as well as ports, lenses and accessories.
Action cameras have replaced traditional point-and-shoots and camcorders for many types of underwater and outdoor work. Their small, go-anywhere designs and ultra-wide lenses make them ideal for mounting—whether it be to a surfboard or dive helmet—and they are built tough. While many of these cameras still require an external case to be waterproof, the GoPro Hero8 Black can go down to 33 feet without one, and offers class-leading video stabilization, making it our top pick.