There are few things more relaxing on a hot day than a dip. Regardless of whether you’re swimming in the ocean, a river, a lake or just taking a ride down a Slip ‘N Slide in the backyard, making a splash is what summer’s all about. Even better, it can also make for some epic photos and videos. However, water and electronics don’t particularly go well together.
Luckily, there are dedicated waterproof cameras, but these aren’t necessarily the best option for most people. Depending on your plans, something as simple as a waterproof case for your phone might work just fine. But, there are other situations. You may want a waterproof action camera to capture adventures on the high seas (or your latest kayaking trip). Or, if you’re into underwater photography, you’re probably looking for a digital camera that not only is waterproof, but also takes amazing pics. After all, a more rugged camera may not necessarily come with things like wide angle shooting, the ability to take pictures in low light or optimal white balance. We don’t have any underwater DSLR cameras on this list, but some of the options can take pretty incredible photos.
So, are you ready to find the best waterproof camera for you? Below is a list of options, ranging from a simple and cheap underwater camera to something more expensive and elaborate for underwater shooting. You might not need the latter, but you’ll still be able to record killer videos on every waterslide and deep underwater reef. See my video below for a sample of what you can expect.
We update this periodically, most recently to reflect changes in the GoPro line, along with an updated evaluation of our budget pick, the Akaso Brave 7 LE.
If you’re on a budget, you can still get a waterproof action cam for all your underwater activities. The Akaso Brave 7 LE not only records 4K video, has image stabilization, and a front-facing screen, but comes with a plethora of accessories all for way less than a comparable GoPro sans accessories.
Akaso claims the case that comes with the Brave 7 LE is good down to 40 meters, or about 131 feet. This is plenty for any kind of water adventure, including most commercial scuba dives.
For deep dives there doesn’t seem to be an option for a red or magenta filter accessory, like you can find with GoPros. Not a deal-breaker, just something to keep in mind.
The 4K video comes with a bit of a caveat: it’s only 30 frames per second. Not a huge deal, but that means there’s no chance for slo-mo videos at that resolution. There is at lower resolutions, however. The build quality and image quality are both fine for the price, though not as good as even the cheaper GoPros.
The main reason to go with GoPro over another brand is the extremely wide range of accessories available, and the availability of those accessories. Pretty much every dive shop and beach-side hotel on Earth is going to sell a handful of GoPro items like batteries, cases and more.
If you don’t need the ultimate in video quality, frame-rates or stabilization, the Hero7 Black will work just fine. Its small size can fit just about anywhere, and it’s waterproof without a case to 33 feet (10 meters). This is plenty for things like surfing, pools, probably snorkeling too unless you’ve got fins or can really hold your breath. For deeper dives, there’s a dive case available that’s good down to 131 feet (40 meters).
Two other accessories I recommend are the Handler and the Hand/Wrist Strap. The Handler floats with the camera attached, making it much harder to lose your GoPro. The Strap lets you have your hands free. Not ideal for continuous shooting, but for short clips and photos, just aim like Spidey. OK, maybe not exactly like Spidey.
For a step up in resolution, frame rate and image stabilization, the Hero 9 Black is only a bit more money than the Hero 7 Black. Like the 7, the Hero 9 is waterproof down to 33 feet on its own and has a Protective Housing capable of going much deeper.
GoPro isn’t the only name in action or waterproof cameras by any stretch, but it is the biggest. The ability to get an extra battery, get a different mount or case, just about anywhere, is a major selling point.
But for the sheer variety of photos and videos possible, a 360 camera is an even better option.
Personally, this is my pick. A 360 camera lets you record everything all at once, then edit together the best parts when you get back to shore. It used to be that 360 cameras, with their two or more lenses and sensors, were just a weird niche to create spherical videos. They’re rarely used for that anymore. Now they’re just extremely versatile action cameras. Insta360 and GoPro, the two biggest names in the space, expect you to create traditional 1080p videos using the 360 footage you captured. Having used the One R’s predecessor, the One X, on several dives, it’s an easy way to make compelling, professional-looking videos. Easily too, since you don’t need to aim the camera. You’re capturing everything around you all the time. Later, you edit-in smooth pans like from a turtle to your face’s reaction to the turtle. Or you can keep a fish centered in the shot while you swim around it, having never moved the camera.
It’s easier to show you what I mean. Here’s the raw spherical 360 video I took last year on a dive in Barbados. Using their app, I made this video, which shows only the interesting bits which could be integrated into a more traditional video/vlog, on Instagram, etc. All the camera pans are done in the app after the fact.
The GoPro Max, its 360 action cam, is good, and can create some 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-rate 4K module, or even a high-quality 1-inch-sensor module for better low-light performance.
The One R is waterproof to 16 ft./5m as long as you have it secured inside its included mounting bracket. To go deeper, there are three options available. For the 360 mod, there’s a vertical case (shown above), though you’ll need the vertical battery to go with it. It’s good down to 98 ft./30m. There are cases good to 197 ft./60m for both the wide-angle 4K and 1-inch sensor modules.
Light and Motion
Light behaves differently the deeper you go. You lose reds, then oranges, eventually even greens. So depending on depth and a number of other factors, your pictures might end up rather monochromatic. The vibrant coral and fish photos you’ve probably seen on Instagram were likely taken with far more expensive cameras than we’ve covered, with elaborate and powerful lighting rigs.
However, you can offset that a bit. This 600 lumen waterproof LED light from Light and Motion should work great for close up photos and videos. It’s not going to light up a school of fish, but a fish for sure, and sometimes that’s all you need. It’s rated down to 60m/196ft.
There are a lot of options available under $100, but they’re either dimmer, have extensive bad reviews, or both. Before you buy this, or any underwater camera light, check out the user photos so you know its capabilities. Then double check you’re able to attach the light to your camera mount. If you want more brightness, there’s likely a waterproof light for however high your budget can go.
Why not just a waterproof phone case?
Many new phones are waterproof… sort of. Models like the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro are rated, which means you can get them wet, and they can be submerged in a few feet of fresh water, but this is more in case of accidental droppage, not for extended use underwater. Also, there’s really no reason to rely on that. If you’re planning on spending a day in or around the water, a cheap waterproof case is an easy way to insure your multi-hundred-dollar smartphone doesn’t become a multi-hundred-dollar punchline to a sad story.
We don’t have a specific recommendation for this one, since it’s going to depend on your phone. A few things to keep in mind. Even the best cases are really only intended for light water use. Water pressure is one of the most powerful things in nature, and even a few feet below the surface could be enough to pop the seals on an inexpensive case. Some claim to be able to survive several dozen feet below the surface, but how much are you willing to trust a $10 plastic bag from a company with a name like TotallySafeCazesExtreme?
It’s best to think of these as insurance more than an underwater tool. If your goal is to get some great photos of your friends and pets underwater, it’s probably worth investing in something made for the task — like anything listed above.
What about actual cameras?
One thing you might notice missing from the above list is a traditional “camera.” There are rugged underwater cameras made by several big-name manufacturers. Some are pretty good, and I don’t have anything strongly against them. The ones with a flash can be useful to fill in some white light if you’re down deep (and if you’re close to your subject). Some have an optical zoom, which could have its uses.
However, they’re much bigger than an action cam, and don’t have nearly as many accessories available, especially when it comes to mounts. Being able to mount your camera on your arm, mask, BCD and so on lets you keep your hands free for safety, or for carrying other gear. It also makes getting in and especially out of the water easier.
Read more: Best backup cameras in 2020
Important maintenance tip
One last piece of advice. No matter where you take your waterproof camera, make sure at the end of the day you rinse it, or its case if it has one, thoroughly with fresh water. Then let it dry completely before you put it away.
This is good practice regardless, but salt water especially is incredibly corrosive and will ruin all the little metal parts in any dive case rapidly and efficiently and you’ll only notice it’s destroyed the next time you go to use it.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.