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 and quality of pictures. Most importantly though, these types of waterproof housings are very durable and are far less likely to leak and fail than small waterproof cameras. 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, and much better high ISO performance. Most companies now use a bigger 1" sensor, which has driven the prices up a bit, but they take amazing pictures compared to older generation cameras.
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 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 G9X below. The big difference is that it has a faster lens and more physical controls, although it is physically larger.
We love this camera because of it's big 1" sensor that allows us to crop pictures heavily and retain detail. The sensor has amazing high ISO performance (low noise). It also has a very 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 also has great image stabilization and very fast focusing, which all add up to sharp pictures of fish.
It is fairly expensive though. You can read our complete review of the G7X here.
There is a newer G7X II out. It is also a great camera. But it has lost the ability to program the button on the back for a one touch white balance adjustment which is a bummer. You can still do this in menus with a couple of button pushes, but it is not as convenient.
Canon G9X - with Fantasea FG9X Housing
The Canon G9X has the same 1" sensor as our loved G7X cameras above, but in a smaller body size that is similar to our most recommended camera for years, the discontinued smaller sensor Canon S120.
It has a fast lens at the wide end at F2.0 but at full zoom it is fairly slow at F4.9. It has fewer physical buttons than the larger G7X, and instead relies on a 3" touch screen for many control changes. Fortunately the new Fantasea housing allows you to access many of the touch screen settings. Because there are fewer buttons, the button you can program to one-touch custom white balance is the movie button. This makes it so you have to rotate the mode dial and press the shutter to start a video.
Because of its larger sensor and small body the zoom range is fairly limited at 28–84mm (35mm equivalent). It does have optical image stabilization, and 1080p HD video at 60 frames per second. The camera focuses quickly and can shoot 6 pictures per second in burst mode. Battery life is not great, at about 220 pictures, so buy an extra.
The Fantasea FG9X housing not only has buttons that allow you to control the touch screen, it also has a built in moisture sensor that alerts you if there is a leak in the housing.
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 its 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. Note below that later versions of the RX100 have a different lens that is faster.
It provides RAW, and full manual controls, with a front and rear control ring like the Canon G9X 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 G7X it is one button push.
Currently there many companies that make housings for the Sony RX100 line of cameras. Sony has its own
housing that fits all cameras in the line, the MPK-URX100A. The inexpensive option shown above is from China and is available re-branded
as many different names, like Meikon. It is very reasonable in cost and
gets very good reviews. It is what we would get. The Ikelite is a reasonable choice, and a well known name, but still expensive.
Sony RX100 II, III, IV & V
There are now five versions of this camera available, each more expensive. The RX100 II adds a tilted LCD screen, WiFi, hot shoe and a higher ISO range. The RX100 III adds a pop-up electronic viewfinder and the lens zoom range changes to 24-70mm and is faster at F1.8-2.8. The RX100 IV changes to a stacked CMOS sensor that allows for very high speed shooting at 16 frames per second, but keeps the same lens. The RX100 V adds phase detection auto focus and even faster continuous shooting speeds at 24 fps. Battery life is best with first three versions, but declines heavily with the last two.
Which version should you choose? Really it will depend on your budget, as they get progressively more expensive. The original RX100 is very good, but the faster and wider zoom lens on the next models would be useful underwater.
With the switch that most companies are making to larger 1" sensors on their better compact cameras the prices have definitely gone up on this type of setup. The image quality is better, but for many people the price is too much unless you are pretty serious about your snorkeling camera.
One option is to pick up a used Canon S120 and a Canon WP-DC51 Housing for it. They are commonly available on eBay. This was our most recommended snorkeling camera for a long time. It does have a smaller sensor, but it still provides great pictures, with a fast lens at the wide end.
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 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.