We both use compact snorkeling cameras with separate underwater housings. These cameras are the sweet spot for a snorkeler, providing an ideal blend of size, cost, quality of pictures and durability. We share our most recommended cameras of this type on this page.
In recent years compact point and shoot cameras have gotten much better, adding professional features like fast, wide angle zoom lenses, much better high ISO performance, and even bigger sensors. They do an incredible job underwater.
The other great benefit of these compact snorkeling cameras is how handy and useful they are out of the water, as a travel camera.
Canon S120 - with Canon WP-DC51 Housing
We used an older version of these compact snorkeling cameras for years, the S90. We did not recommend the S100 and S110 because of battery and image quality issues. But the Canon S120 has so many great features for a snorkeler that it is once again our top pick.
What makes it great? It is very compact and has a fast F1.8 lens at it's wide angle of 24mm. (Zoomed out at 120mm the lens is F5.7.) It has a 3" touch screen. It's 12 megapixel sensor provides very good high ISO performance (usable results up to 1600 ISO) and is slightly larger physically than most compact cameras. It has image stabilization, full manual controls with front and rear control rings and is able to shoot RAW. It has 1080p HD video, now on a dedicated button. It offers Wi-Fi for image transfer.
One really nice feature about this camera is it's ability to adjust the white balance with one button push, by programming one of the rear buttons.
It now has much faster focusing speeds than earlier versions, which is great for capturing moving fish. And it also has a continuous shooting rate of 12 shots per second, another nice feature for grabbing action.
Battery life is better than previous models, but is still not great. So buy an extra.
The Canon housing is very durable and reasonable in cost. There are other housings available since this camera is very popular with divers as well. Most are very expensive, but the Ikelite housing is a good option and not too much more than the Canon. You can even spend less on a Meikon.
Canon G7X - with Canon WP-DC54 Housing
The Canon G7X is what we use for our compact snorkeling cameras. We use the Canon housings too. It is like the big brother to the S120 above. The big difference is that it has a larger 1" sensor at 20mp, which gives us the ability to crop into pictures while still retaining nice sharp details of fish. The sensor also gives amazing high ISO performance.
In addition to it's bigger sensor it also has a sharp 24 to 100mm lens that is very fast at F1.8 to only F2.8 when fully zoomed out. That makes it a much more usable zoom lens that can capture moving fish without blurring as much.
It is fairly expensive though, and larger, so for many people the S120 above is likely a better choice. You can read our complete review of the G7X here.
Sony RX100 & Meikon Housing
The Sony RX100 is an amazing snorkel camera, and with a lower cost housing available, it is more affordable than the G7X. It has the same 1" sensor as the G7X. But it's 28 to 100mm zoom lens is not as fast on the long end at F1.8 to F4.9, nor does it have as wide a zoom range. It does have much better battery performance than the Canon cameras.
It provides RAW, and full manual controls, with a front and rear control ring like the Canon S120 and G7X.
Another drawback of the Sony is that there is no easy way to do manual white balance. It requires a number of button pushes through menus. With the Canon it is one button push.
Currently there many companies that make housings for it. Some cost $800 and up. The Ikelite is a more reasonable choice, and a well known name, but still expensive. The other option shown is from China and is available rebranded as many different names, like Meikon. It is very reasonable in cost and gets very good reviews. It is what we would get.
Sony RX100 II & III
There are two new more expensive versions of the RX100, the II & III. But we would still get the first version for snorkeling. The II has a folding screen and flash hot shoe, both useless for snorkeling, and the III has a view finder, also not useful for snorkeling. And they cost more.
You don't need to spend as much as the above compact snorkeling cameras. There are many options for good compact cameras and very reasonably priced housings that will give you great results, often for less cost and more durability than waterproof cameras.
3" screen, 1080p HD video, 12mp CMOS sensor, 28-112mm (35mm equiv.) F2.8 - F5.9 lens.
Canon Elph 140 IS - This camera is a another decent option. It does not have a particularly fast lens, but it does offer image stabilization and good image quality. The housing is top quality Ikelite and can go down to 200 feet underwater.
2.7" TFT screen, 780p HD video, 16mp sensor, 28-224mm (35mm equiv.) F3.2 - F6.9 lens.
GoPro - Camera & Housing For $399
If you want the smallest camera to carry the GoPro may be for you. The underwater picture quality of these little cameras has greatly increased with the new Hero4 Silver edition, and the video is incredible. It does have a few limitations as described in our full review here.
There are many more compact snorkeling cameras and housings available than the options above. This may be the biggest problem with this type of camera. There are a lot of them, by different companies. How do you choose?
Housings Limit Your Choices
While there are tons of compact cameras, not all of them have an underwater housing made for them, and only a handful of companies make housings that are reasonably priced. Although many third party companies offer very high end housings costing two to three times the cost of the camera, which I tend to cringe at. The advantage of the more expensive housings is the ability to easily add extra lenses, filters and flashes. But as a snorkeler I have not found much need for any of these.
Companies that make their own reasonably priced housings are:
Fujifilm, Canon, Olympus, Casio, Sony
Fantasea makes reasonably priced housings for some Nikon and Canon compact cameras.
Ikelite also makes housings for a variety of cameras that while costing a bit more, are still reasonable.
Digifish is a useful website for finding what housings are available for specific cameras.