These very neat little waterproof digital snorkel cameras are made to be waterproof without having to buy a separate underwater housing. This makes them more affordable, and pocket-able, compared to a compact camera in a separate housing. And they are a little less hassle, since it is all one unit.
And in the last few years the quality and quanity of these cameras has improved a bunch. You can get some very good pictures with one of these cameras for the price.
So what are the drawbacks of buying one of these waterproof digital snorkel cameras?
First, these cameras all have little compartment doors (for access to batteries and memory cards), often more than one. And the waterproof seals on these tiny doors are very small and delicate (compared to a regular underwater housing). If one fails, your camera is ruined. Based on the reviews I have seen of almost all of these cameras, you run a good risk of a failure if you snorkel a lot. They just are not as robust, and they need to be. We really bang our cameras around at times.
If you are very careful with the seals, keep them clean, and don't hit the doors underwater, they may work well for years.
The second important thing to note about most of these waterproof digital snorkel cameras is how small their lenses are compared to most compact cameras. A small lens means a small sensor. And the combination means lower image quality. Even an inexpensive compact camera with a separate underwater housing will likely give better image quality because of the lens/sensor size. There are a few exceptions though.
So if you plan on using it often I would steer you towards the next step up in a snorkeling camera.
OK. Now to the cameras!
Olympus has been making waterproof digital snorkel cameras for years. The current versions are "tough" cameras that are designed to be waterproof, dust proof, freeze proof and shock proof.
They started with the Olympus Stylus 770SW though the 1050SW with many between. Next came the TG Tough Series, with tons of models, including the Stylus Tough-3000, 6000, 6020, 8000, and 8010.
Most of the past versions of these cameras have poor image quality. But some of their newer versions, particularly the TG-2 iHS, are great. iHs stands for intelligent, high-sensitivity, and high-speed. This new line uses a back illuminated CMOS sensor and an updated processor. Focusing speeds are much faster.
Current Stylus Tough Series:
Stylus Tough TG-630 iHs - 12mp, wide angle zoom, waterproof to 16 feet, HD video and a 3" screen.
Stylus Tough TG-830 iHs - 16mp, wide angle zoom lens, waterproof to 33 feet, 3" screen, HD video, plus GPS & compass.
Stylus Tough TG-2 iHS - Give this camera careful consideration. It has several features that make it the best of the waterproof digital snorkel cameras on this page.
Notice the lens is in the middle, not in the corner? It is a fast and sharp F2.0 lens. Basically that means the camera gets more light and you will get sharper pictures, and be able to stop fish movement easier. It is a very good thing. Most of the cameras on this page are F3.5 or higher, which means they take in half as much light or worse.
Also with this new TG-2 the focusing speeds are super fast compared to almost any other compact camera. This is a very valuable feature for getting fish pictures.
The zoom lens starts at a wide angle of 25mm and goes out to 100mm (35mm equiv.), which is very desirable underwater. This lens provides nice sharp pictures. The sensor has good high ISO performance up to 1600 and can go to 6400.
It is waterproof to 50 feet. Great if you free dive, and extra assurance otherwise.
The battery door has a double lock system to prevent accidental leaks.
It has a 3" OLED screen, which is easier to see at angles and in bright light.
This camera takes pictures quicker than most on this page, and has a burst shooting mode up to 10 frames per second at full resolution, or 60 fps at 3mp.
It also has dual image stabilization (sharper pictures), GPS, compass, manometer (water depth), and four different underwater white balance modes.
It also has an optional fish-eye or tele-converter lens, and with an adapter can take 40.5mm filters. You can even get a separate underwater housing for going deeper.
There is an LED light for macro shots.
This is our top pick of this type of camera. It is very popular and currently out of stock most places. If you find one, snag it.
Nikon was late to the game, and did not come out with their first waterproof digital snorkel cameras until late 2011, with the Coolpix AW100, and it's current version is the Coolpix AW110, adding Wi-Fi image transfer. It was worth the wait because they hit a home run with this camera. It receives excellent reviews and it provides some of the sharpest pictures of any camera on this page. It also offers a smart waterproof door design. It has only one door, that is secured with a very positive locking system and seals. I also really like that you can buy a ten dollar accessory that makes it easy to add filters.
It is a fast camera, with quick shot times, and can provide 7.1 frames per second.
It has a ton of features, like a 16mp CMOS sensor, full 1080 HD video, GPS, electronic compass, image stabilization, 3" screen, a 28mm to 140mm zoom lens (35mm equivalent), and many other features. Plus it is waterproof down to 59 feet.
This camera is well worth careful consideration and is one of our top picks for this style of camera. The only reservations I have about it is that the lens is a slow F3.9 when wide open. That means that in low light the camera will boost the ISO up, reducing image quality. For this reason and the faster focusing speeds I prefer the Olympus TG-2.
For years Pentax has offered their Pentax Optio W line of cameras, starting with the Optio W10 though W90, the WG-1, WG-2 and most currently the OPTIO WG-3 and WG-10. In addition to being waterproof these neat little cameras are very tough and shockproof and have a very solid feel to them.
The most current model is the Pentax WG-3. This is the 15th generation of their waterproof digital snorkel cameras. It has a 16mp CMOS sensor camera that is shockproof, dustproof, coldproof, and waterproof down to 45 feet. It retains the LED lights that surround it's lens for macro pictures (from the WG-1). The big improvement over the WG-2 is a new faster F2.0 lens, with a 25-100mm zoom range. It also has 1080p HD movie mode and a 3" screen with a new dedicated video button.
They also offer the WG-3 in a GPS model that has a display on the front that shows time, altitude and other items. It also can be charged by the Qi wireless charging system.
A cool feature on this camera is that you can set the green button on the back to bring you quickly to the white balance settings. We do a white balance setting for just about every picture, so this is great.
Besides the normal wrist strap it also comes with a neat carabiner strap.
Pentax also has a simplified version called the Pentax WG-10 that costs much less. It has a 14mp sensor, a smaller 2.7" screen, and a slower F3.5 lens that zooms from 28-140mm.
Canon entered this field with a bang with it's very popular Powershot D10. It was our most recommended of the waterproof digital snorkel cameras for a couple of years. In 2012 Canon brought out the D20. With this camera Canon has copied most the other brands, with a small lens in the corner.
And notably the lens is much slower at F3.9 wide open, losing the F2.8 of the D10, but it gains a CMOS sensor. It is a better looking camera, but how is the image quality?
Well, the lens is slower, but it is very sharp, but not as sharp as the Nikon AW110. And it has good high ISO performance to 800, not bad at 1600 and 3200 even, which helps with the slow F3.9 speed of the lens. It also is not as fast at taking shots as the Olympus TG-2.
It is waterproof to 33 feet and is a tough camera, meaning it can handle low temperatures, and drops. The body is smaller than the D10. It's zoom range is 28-140mm (35mm equivalent). It has a 3" screen and a GPS.
Compared to the newer Olympus and Pentax options above that have fast lenses this camera is just not competitive for the price.
Panasonic has now had six generations of the TS line of waterpoof and tough cameras.
Currently available is the DMC-TS5, their most full featured camera yet adding Wi-Fi control features. It is waterproof down to 43 feet, 16mp, is shock, dust, and freeze proof, has a zoom lens that offers a wide 28mm - 128mm zoom lens (35mm equivalent), with a max aperture of F3.3 to 5.9. It also has full HD video, at 1080P. It offers image stabilization.
It also has an altimeter, depth indicator, compass, barometer, and a GPS. Besides adding Wi-Fi, this camera has not changed much for a couple of generations and other cameras now offer more in terms of image quality and speed and features. And the last model has seal problems, that don't seem to have been addressed in this new model.
The high ISO performance is not great, the pictures are not very sharp, nor are the videos, it has a low resolution LCD screen, and it's shooting speeds are slow compared to it's competition.
Panasonic also has a simpler version, the DMC-TS25. This is smaller and much less expensive than the TS5 (about half the price). It is 16mp, and has a 25mm to 100mm (35mm equiv.) zoom lens. It has 720P video, no GPS, is only waterproof to 23 feet, and does not have many of the gizmos.
Fuji's first waterproof camera in 2009, the Finepix Z33WP, kind of sucked. Although it felt nice in the hand, the image quality was terrible.
In 2010 they improved things a bit with a new "tough" line, the XP10, 20 and 30. The image quality got better, but not great. The XP30 was ok though. It is waterproof to 16 feet, added image stabilization and had a wide angle lens (about 28mm equivalent). They also bumped it to 14MP and added a GPS. I would definitely consider this one over the older XP10. It is discontinued but still available.
Now in 2013 they have five more cameras in the line, the FinePix XP50, 100, 150, 170 & 200.
The first four all have a 14mp CMOS sensor, a 28mm wide angle 5x zoom lens, a 2.7 inch screen and sensor shift image stabilization, and are very similar in image quality.
Finepix XP50 - waterproof to 16 feet.
Finepix XP100 - waterproof to 33 feet.
Finepix XP150 - waterproof to 33 feet and adds a GPS.
Finepix XP170 - waterproof to 33 feet, with wireless image transfer.
Finepix XP200 - This is a new model with a 16mp sensor, higher ISO to 6400 and a 3" screen. It has full HD movies, and faster shooting with bursts up to 10 to 60 frames per second. The waterproof door seal has a more secure dial-locking system.
Keep in mind that these are very inexpensive cameras that don't have great image quality, are slow, and have a high failure rate when snorkeling. Hopefully the XP200 will be an improvement.
To the right is the Sony DSC-TX20. This the third generation of Sony's very well received TX5 "tough" waterproof snorkel digital cameras and it has some very interesting features.
It has a 3" touch screen display, removing a lot of buttons. It has a 25mm-100mm (35mm equiv.) wide angle Carl Zeiss lens, with a max aperture of F3.5 to 4.6. It also has a 16mp CMOS sensor with a 1080p HD video mode. It's waterproof to 16 feet.
It is the smallest tough waterproof camera. But maybe too small. Some people complained it is hard to hold and slippery in the water.
It has the unique Sony sweep mode, where you just push a button, sweep your camera across, and it stitches the image into a panoramic picture for you.
Unfortunately tests show it has pictures that are sharp in the center, but very soft in the corners. Not great. Both the Canon D20 and Nikon AW110 are sharper across the image. And it does not have great high ISO performance, blurring out details at around ISO 800 and up.
Neat camera, but there are now better waterproof digital snorkel cameras choices on this page for the price.
There is a new version coming out, the TX30, that has an 18mp sensor, but it does not look like much of an improvement.
They also have a cheaper version called the Cyber-Shot TF1. It is 16mp, but only has 720p video.
Note that most of the cameras above are waterproof, but they don't float. Lots of folks have watched them sink to the depths.
So one of the most popular accessories to buy with one of these is a float strap like the one at right.