Summer is the perfect time to be by the water with friends and family. We know you want to capture your favorite summer memories, whether you’re splashing around in the pool or in the ocean. Unfortunately, electronic devices do not do well in water like we do. But waterproof cameras are a different breed. There are special models of waterproof cameras, but they tend not to be the best choice for most people.
Depending on your plans, something as simple as a waterproof case for your phone might work. But there are other situations. You might want a waterproof action camera like the GoPro Underwater Camera and similar alternatives to capture your adventures on the high seas (or your last kayaking trip).
If you’re into underwater photography, you’re probably looking for a digital camera that’s not only waterproof, but also takes amazing pictures. A more durable camera doesn’t necessarily include things like wide-angle shooting, the ability to shoot in low light, or optimal white balance. We don’t have any underwater DSLR cameras on this list, but some of the best waterproof cameras on this list can take incredible photos.
Are you ready to find the best waterproof camera for you? Below is a summary of the options, from simple and inexpensive underwater cameras to more expensive and sophisticated underwater photography equipment. You might not need the latter, but you’ll be able to record killer videos on every water slide and deep underwater reef. Check out my video below for a preview of what to expect.
We update this list of the best waterproof camera options regularly, most recently to reflect changes in the GoPro lineup, along with an updated rating of our budget pick, the Akaso Brave 7 LE.
If you’re on a budget, you can still get a waterproof action camera for all your underwater activities. The Akaso Brave 7 LE not only records 4K video, has image stabilization and a front-facing screen, but it comes with a lot of accessories for much less than a comparable GoPro without accessories.
Akaso claims the case that comes with the Brave 7 LE is good up to 40 meters, or about 131 feet. That’s enough for any kind of water adventure, including most commercial diving.
There doesn’t seem to be a red or magenta filter accessory option for deep dives like you might find on a GoPro. This is not a deal breaker, just something to keep in mind.
The camera’s 4K video recording comes with a bit of a caveat: it’s only 30 frames per second. It’s not a big deal, but it means there’s no chance of slow motion videos at this resolution. However, it exists in lower resolutions. Build quality and image quality are fine for the price, though not as good as cheaper GoPros.
Become a professional
The main reason to go with a GoPro over another brand is the extremely wide range of accessories available and the availability of those accessories. Almost every dive shop and beach hotel on Earth will sell a few GoPro items like batteries, cases and more.
If you don’t need maximum video quality, frame rates or stabilization, the Hero7 Black will do just fine. The compact camera fits almost anywhere thanks to its small size and is waterproof to 33 feet (10 meters) without a case. That’s enough for things like surfing, pools, probably snorkelling too if you don’t have fins or really can’t hold your breath. For deeper dives, there is a diving housing that is good up to 131 feet (40 meters).
Two other accessories I recommend for this waterproof underwater camera are the Handler and the Hand/Wrist Strap. Handler swims with the camera attached, making it much harder to lose the GoPro. The strap allows you to keep your hands free. It’s not ideal for continuous shooting, but for short clips and photos, just aim like Spidey. Okay, maybe not exactly like Spidey.
Read our handy guide for the GoPro Hero 7 Black.
Become a professional
For increased resolution, refresh rate and image stabilization, the Hero 9 Black is only a little more money than the Hero 7 Black. Like the 7, the Hero 9 is waterproof up to 33 feet on its own and has a protective underwater housing capable of going much deeper.
The accessories I like for the Hero 7 I also like for the Hero9, including the Handler grip and hand/wrist strap.
GoPro isn’t the only name in action or waterproof cameras, but it’s the biggest. The ability to get an extra battery, get a different mount or case, just about anywhere is the main selling point for this waterproof digital camera.
But for a wide variety of photos and videos, the 360° camera is an even better choice.
Read our handy guide for the GoPro Hero 9 Black.
Light and movement
Light behaves differently the deeper you go. You lose red, then orange, and finally green. So, depending on the depth and a number of other factors, your underwater photos can end up looking rather monochromatic. The live coral and fish photos you’ve probably seen on Instagram were probably taken with much more expensive cameras than we’ve covered, with sophisticated and powerful lighting equipment.
However, you can compensate a bit. This 600 lumen waterproof LED light from Light and Motion should work great for close-up photos and videos. It won’t light up a school of fish, but AND fish for sure, and sometimes that’s all you need. It is rated up to 60m/196ft.
There are plenty of options under $100, but they are either weaker, have extensive bad reviews, or both. Before you buy this or any underwater camera light, check out the user photos to know what it’s capable of. Then double check that you are able to attach the light to the camera mount. If you want more brightness, there’s probably a waterproof light, no matter how high your budget.
Personally, it’s my choice. The 360° camera lets you record everything at once, then edit the best parts together when you get back to shore. It used to be that 360° cameras, with their two or more lenses and sensors, were just a niche for making spherical videos. They are rarely used for this anymore. Now they are just extremely versatile action cameras. Insta360 and GoPro, two of the biggest names in the space, expect you to create traditional 1080p videos using the 360 footage you’ve captured. Using the One R’s predecessor, the One X, on multiple dives, it’s an easy way to create impressive, professional-looking videos. This is also easy because you don’t have to aim the camera. You are constantly capturing everything around you. Later, you can edit the smooth panorama like from the turtle to the reaction of your face to the turtle. Or you can leave the fish in the middle of the frame while you swim around it without ever moving the camera.
It’s easier to show you what I mean. Here is a raw spherical 360 video I took while diving in Barbados last year. I made this video using their app, showing only the interesting bits that could be integrated into a more traditional video/vlog, Instagram, etc. All camera shots are done in the app after the fact.
The GoPro Max, its 360° action camera, is good and can produce great videos right out of the box. However, the One R is far more adaptable to different situations. It’s modular, so you can swap out the dual-lens 360 module for a single-lens high-frame 4K module, or even a high-quality 1-inch sensor module for better low-light performance.
The One R is waterproof to 16 feet/5 meters when secured inside the included mounting bracket. If you want to go deeper, there are three options. A vertical case (shown above) is available for the 360 mod, though you’ll need a vertical battery for it. This is good up to 98 feet (30 meters). There are housings from 197 feet (60 meters) for both wide-angle 4K and 1-inch sensor modules.
There is now a more modern version of this camera, the One RS, so some of these accessories for the R may need to be bought used.
Why not just a waterproof phone case?
Many new phones are waterproof… sort of. Models like Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro arerated, which means you can get them wet and they can be submerged in several feet of fresh water, but that’s more for accidental drops and not extended underwater use. Plus, there’s really no reason to rely on it. If you plan on spending the day in or near the water, an inexpensive waterproof case is an easy way to ensure that your multi-hundred dollar smartphone doesn’t become a multi-hundred dollar pointer of a sad story.
We don’t have a specific recommendation for this as it will depend on your phone. There are a few things to keep in mind. Even the best cases are really only meant for light water. Water pressure is one of the most powerful things in nature, and even a few feet below the surface could be enough to strip the seal on a cheap case. Some claim they can survive several tens of feet below the surface, but how much are you willing to believe a $10 plastic bag from a company with a name like TotallySafeCazesExtreme?
It is best to think of them as insurance rather than a fraud tool. If your goal is to get great photos of your friends and pets underwater, it’s probably worth investing in something built for the task—like anything above.
What about actual cameras?
One thing you might notice missing from the above list is the traditional “camera”. There are rugged underwater cameras from several major manufacturers. Some are quite good and I have absolutely nothing against them. The ones with flash can be useful to fill in the white light if you are deep (and if you are close to your subject). Some have optical zoom, which could have its uses.
However, they are much larger than an action camera and don’t come with nearly as many accessories, especially when it comes to mounts. The ability to attach a camera to your arm, mask, BCD and so on will keep your hands free for safety or to carry other gear. It also makes getting in and especially getting out of the water easier.
Important maintenance tip
Last advice. No matter where you take your waterproof camera, be sure to rinse it or its case, if it has one, thoroughly with fresh water at the end of the day. Then let it dry completely before putting it away.
Regardless, it’s good practice, but salt water in particular is incredibly corrosive and will quickly and effectively destroy all the small metal parts in any dive case and you won’t notice it until the next time you use it.
In addition to covering television and other imaging technologies, Geoff does photographic tours of great museums and sites around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, aviation graveyards and more.
You can follow his activities on Instagram and YouTube. He also wrote a best-selling science fiction novel about submarines the size of a city, along with a sequel.