Diving Cameras – Compact vs. DSLR vs. Mirrorless

So, you’ve gotten good at SCUBA, and now you want to take a camera on your next dive so you can capture a few of those impressive underwater moments. A regular point-and-shoot or DSLR isn’t going to cut in this regard, as the conditions beneath the water’s surface would be detrimental, to say the least.

You’re going to need a high-quality model paired with a rugged, waterproof housing that will go as deep beneath the waves as possible. When looking for the best diving camera to take on your excursions, you’ll have to keep several details in mind to make sure you get a camera that can pull its own weight.

Compact VS DSLR VS Mirrorless

The biggest decision you’ll be making about your diving camera is whether you’ll want to get a compact model, a DSLR, or a mirrorless camera. The main difference is that the compact camera has one attached lens, while DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can be fitted with different lenses for increased shooting flexibility. There are other variances as well.

Compact

The main advantages of the compact camera are that they are small, easy to operate, and cheaper than other options. You won’t have to fool around with too many settings or worry about swapping out lenses. With the right wet lenses, you’re able to go macro, wide-angle, and do video all on one dive.

Unfortunately, the compact camera isn’t the best choice if you want photos of superlative quality. Skill will play a factor, of course, but compact diving cameras have smaller sensors, increased shutter delays, poor optics, and a lot of image noise at high ISOs.

This confluence of factors leads to images that, on average, or of a diminished quality when compared to photos taken with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. In addition, you’ll have less control over your depth of field, and reduced battery life (limiting the length of your dive).

DSLR

This is the choice if you want the highest image quality. DSLRs will give you plenty of lenses to choose from, plenty of options and features to play around with, great performance in low light conditions, and are the professional/semi-professional’s choice for capturing great images.

Unfortunately, that also means you’ll need to skills to operate one to its full potential. Furthermore, DSLRs are more expensive, bulkier and heavier, and you don’t have the ability to use wet lenses while shooting. This means you must select what you’re going to use for your dive, then stick with it.

Mirrorless

For those that like the concept of the DSLR but not necessarily the price, the mirrorless camera might be the way to go. These cameras aren’t as heavy, aren’t as big, and aren’t as pricey as DSLRs, but at the same time allow you to swap out lenses and get better images than you would with a compact camera.

Like a DSLR, though, you must commit to your lens choice before shooting, and you’ll be paying more than you would for a compact camera.

Additional Diving Camera Considerations

In addition to your camera style, there are few other considerations you’ll need to give to other elements that will affect the underwater shooting experience. Chief among these is your camera housing, but there are a few others that will play a significant role as well. Let’s explore.

Camera Housing

Consider this the armor that protects your camera from the scourge of the sea. Water, particularly salt water, can wreak havoc on the sensitive electronics within any camera. It’s very corrosive, so making sure you have a high-quality housing that doesn’t let any water in is imperative. These come in one of two general flavors—plastic and aluminum.

As you might have guessed, plastic is the cheaper option, while aluminum is the more durable and professional choice. Unfortunately, plastic housings are often a chore to work with, are more likely to fog, and can’t be repaired if a piece breaks, so take all that into consideration when thinking about housings.

What Else to Look For

You should also consider a camera’s individual specs when making your selection:

  • Camera Size. This will influence how maneuverable the camera is beneath the water and how easy it is to lug around.
  • Some cameras can shoot more than just stills; others are limited in their uses.
  • Shutter Lag. There’s a delay between the moment you hit the shutter button and when the image is captured. The smaller the delay, the more accurate you can be at shooting moving targets.
  • Battery Life. The longer, the better.
  • Autofocus Abilities. Cameras that autofocus quicker are better for shooting targets on the move.
  • Megapixels? Not quite as important as you might think. Having lots of megapixels is good, but a more accurate measure of image quality would be the sensor size.

Top Diving Camera Picks

Here are a few options that represent a sampling of what you’ll find on the market.

Canon G7X Mark II

This is a high-performance compact camera with a 20.10-Megapixel CMOS sensor and large aperture range designed to squeeze out the best images possible from a PowerShot-style model.

It’s lightweight, at 1.4 pounds, making it easy to handle. It has ample autofocus tracking, high ISO ranges, and a large rear touchscreen you can use to adjust various settings. This model also shoots full-HD video and includes a zoom feature.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

AT 1.1 pounds, this model is nearly 40% lighter than a normal DSLR. It’s a mirrorless option that includes a 16-Megapixel CMOS sensor and large LCD. This model also has a large ISO range, large focal range, and ample battery life.

It’s capable of HD-video capture, and still images, while not at the pinnacle that DSLR quality might reach, are quite formidable considering the size and price.

Sony Alpha a7II

This is another mirrorless camera, an advanced version of Sony’s original a7 iteration. The a7II has an impressive 24.30-Megapixel sensor, along with several ease-of-use features that make taking clear images much more straightforward for both beginner and pro shooters.

This includes both image stabilization and a faster autofocus detection rate. This model is compatible with all Sony E-mount style lenses.

Panasonic Lumix LX100

This is a compact camera with enough manual features to allow skilled shooters to catch the best images possible. It includes a large aperture range that can shift quickly, along with a Leica zoom lens capable of producing multiple depth-of-field effects that other compact cameras lack. This model supports burst shooting at a rate of 11FPS (frames per second) along with the ability to take 4K Ultra HD video as well.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

For those that prefer the DSLR approach, a model like the Canon EOS 5D fits the bill. It has a much larger ISO range and sensor size than the other models covered, accepts a wide range of Canon lenses, and, overall, is a great camera for shooting in all kinds of conditions. Just be prepared to pay the high-end camera price and carry around the weighty high-end camera gear.

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