Almost three-quarters of our world’s surface is covered by water, which means there is no shortage of amazing places one can go for swimming and underwater photography—year-round, in some cases. The Channel Islands in Southern California, Bonaire in the Caribbean, and Raja Ampat in Indonesia, are among the best places on earth to photograph coral reefs; the last of these is home to a spectacularly diverse population of sea life, including more than 537 corals, 700 types of mollusks, and 1,000 species of fish, as well as the pygmy seahorse and blue-ringed octopus. Kona, on the big island of Hawaii, offers opportunities for unforgettable shots of sharks, huge manta rays, and moray eels. The inimitable Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean, provide great views of whale sharks and the legendary Giant Tortoise, flightless cormorants, and marine iguanas. These are but a few of the many must-see locations around the globe for aquatic shooters.
Whether you are planning a vacation to a warm climate or you happen to live in one, you can dive into beneath-the-surface photography at any time—and you don’t even have to invest in an underwater housing and all the related gear. All you need is a waterproof digital camera and the ability to swim. Depending on how far down you’re going, you may need to grab an external flash or video light and some scuba gear, as well; however, you can capture many beautiful images without descending too deep, especially on bright, sunny days.
The SeaLife Micro 2.0 camera, available with 32GB or 64GB of internal memory, features an impressive depth rating of 200'—greater than some underwater housings. It is permanently sealed, having no watertight doors to fret over and no O-rings to maintain. The rubber-armored, shock-resistant body provides protection against impact, which can save your camera’s life if it slips out of your hand or gets swept away by a powerful wave and tossed against a rock. With the Micro 2.0, you can capture sharp, detailed, 16MP photos and Full HD videos at 30 or 60 fps. Moreover, the wide-angle fisheye lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length of 20mm offers an expansive 130-degree field of view, correcting for the minimized coverage effect that occurs underwater. This enables you to get close to your subject, thus cutting down on distortion for greater clarity, while still fitting a lot in your frame. For capturing shots of whales, sharks, and large schools of fish, or vast seascapes, coral reefs, and underwater caves, this is a huge benefit. The Micro 2.0 also features 3 underwater scene modes: Dive and Snorkel modes give you automatic exposure control and color correction in deep and shallow water, respectively, while Light mode calibrates white balance and exposure to suit the optional Sea Dragon LED Photo-Video light. Additionally, three integrated filters afford optimal color correction in blue/cyan and green water at different depths and temperatures.
Another camera that’s ready for a wet and wild, rough-and-tumble adventure is the Olympus Stylus TOUGH TG-4. It features a durable, fully dustproof body made to withstand 50' dives, 7' drops, 220 lbf of pressure, and cold temperatures as low as 14 degrees F. Like the SeaLife Micro 2.0, it captures 16MP photos and full HD 1080p movies, but it’s also capable of RAW capture that yields more image data for enhanced post-processing capabilities. The camera’s Live Composite mode automatically combines numerous shots of a single scene to make a properly exposed image, while retaining highlights and shadows. HDR mode takes this a step further by combining multiple exposures into a single one with a greater range of contrast, accentuating the brightly lit and dark areas with full detail. The result is a picture that contains the best traits of each shot, so you get both the bright, vivid colors of the sun-spangled reef and the dark nuances of the shadow-filled cave mouth. The Stylus TOUGH TG-4’s 25-100mm (35mm equivalent) lens gives you a nice range of perspectives, and its fast f/2.0 aperture assists in capturing clear low-light shots. When you want to get an extreme close-up of the coral in Raja Ampat, or the incredible assortment of small and unusual critters in the Caribbean’s St. Vincent Island, you’ll appreciate the Super-Macro 0.39" (1 cm) minimum focus distance in digital microscope mode. As an added bonus, enjoy built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, as well as an integrated GPS module with geo-tagging capability and an electronic compass that displays water depth and other information.
Similar in durability to the TG-4, the Fujifilm FinePix XP90 camera is dustproof, submersible to 50', shockproof against drops up to 5.8', and capable of withstanding temperatures as cold as 14 degrees F. Like both the preceding models above, it has a 16MP sensor and records Full HD video. With a 35mm equivalent focal-length range of 28-140mm, it gives you more reach at the telephoto end than the TG-4 but has a longer minimum focus distance of 3.54" (9 cm). Underwater and Underwater Macro modes help restore colors absorbed beneath the surface, while Motion Panorama 360 lets you record seamless, sweeping 360-degree shots—so you can get the coral in front of you, the parrotfish behind, and the great barracuda in between, all in the same picture. Advanced Filters like Pop Color, Dynamic Tone, and Fish-Eye let you creatively alter or enhance the look of images.
For the serious shooter who wants an amphibious machine, the Nikon 1 AW1 Mirrorless Digital Camera is a superb option. Comparable in durability to the XP90 and TG-4, it’s depth-rated to 49', shockproof against falls from 6.6', and freeze proof to 14 degrees F. This compact camera packs a CX-format, 14.2MP sensor and EXPEED 3A image processor for detailed stills and Full HD video at blistering speeds. Full-resolution continuous shooting with full-time AF is supported at up to 15 fps, and the advanced hybrid AF system acquires focus quickly and accurately, switching between contrast- and phase-detection methods as needed to ensure clear shots of fast-moving fish. The Nikon 1 AW1 also offers in-camera panorama and HDR, as well as a creative underwater mode for color correction when swimming in shallow or deep water, and when using the flash. The Action Control button lets you select and refine settings easily by pressing a button and tilting the camera, making your job much easier if the AW1 gets slippery or you’re wearing gloves. Additionally, benefit from a water-depth gauge, compass, and GPS/GLONASS support with geo-tagging. The supplied 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 lens provides a 35mm equivalent range of 30-74mm, and incorporates ED and aspherical elements that reduce chromatic and other aberrations for better image quality.
GoPro HERO action cameras let you keep your hands free for swimming, holding a dive light, or exploring a rock wall while you capture POV footage of your adventure at depths as great as 131'. The HERO4 Black records incredible 4K video at 30 fps for spectacular detail, and also shoots 2.7K at up to 60 fps, in addition to 12MP stills at a blazing 30 fps. With SuperView mode enabled, the camera maximizes its sensor area to give the lens an ultra-wide angle of view, so you can cover even more of those beautiful underwater scenes. Add the Lensbaby Circular 180+ Lens for GoPro to enable a 120-degree angle of view below the surface, and a remarkable 185-degree angle above it. This accessory fisheye lens also has a very close minimum focusing distance of 0.5" (1.3 cm). The HERO4 Black’s video time-lapse mode automatically makes a movie from 4K frames captured at set intervals, without requiring you to stitch photos together in post.
The world is full of magnificent and varied sea life and environments. Compact, lightweight waterproof cameras offer the durability, resolution, optical performance, and creative capabilities that make it possible to photograph many of these wonders—without shelling out thousands of dollars for an underwater housing and lighting system.
Do you spend a great deal of time taking pictures underwater? Do your fingers and toes get all pruney (this is nature's way of helping you get a better grip on things when you're wet)? Tell us what your favorite gear might be, in the Comments section, below.
I use Nikon's AW130. Can't be worrying about a 50' limit during recreational diving. The AW130 and Lume Cube are both waterproof to 100'.