These neat little waterproof digital snorkel cameras don't need a separate underwater housing. That makes them small, affordable and there is slightly less maintenance compared to cameras with separate housings. And they can take some very good pictures.
So what are the drawbacks of buying one of these waterproof digital snorkel cameras?
First, their little doors for accessing batteries and memory cards have small delicate seals compared to underwater housings. And unfortunately these seals do fail much more often than underwater housings do (see reviews). They are just not as robust as they need to be when getting knocked around when snorkeling. But they can hold up if you are very careful at cleaning your seals and don't hit the doors underwater.
Second, these cameras have smaller sensors than most compact cameras, which means lower quality pictures.
OK. Now to the cameras!
Olympus has been a leader in waterproof digital snorkel cameras for many years, and have had 15 or more models. Earlier models had poor image quality, but the current models are pretty darn good. These "tough" cameras are designed to be waterproof, dust proof, freeze proof and shock proof.
Stylus Tough TG-4 - Give this camera careful consideration. Several features make it the best of the waterproof digital snorkel cameras on this page. In fact the previous TG-3 was so popular it sold out of production. The TG-4 ads RAW picture saving format, new scene modes, faster GPS and underwater HDR.
Notice the lens is in the middle, not in the corner? It has a fast and sharp F2.0 lens paired with a slightly larger sensor than most of the cameras on this page. Basically that means this 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.
And this camera has fast focusing speeds compared to almost any other waterproof 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 on the TG-4 provides relatively good high ISO performance for a small sensor camera.
It is waterproof to 50 feet. Great if you free dive, and extra assurance otherwise, and the battery door has a double lock system to prevent accidental leaks.
The TG-4 takes pictures quicker than most on this page, and has a burst shooting mode up to 5 frames per second at full resolution, or 60 fps at 3mp.
The TG-4 also has dual image stabilization (sharper pictures), GPS, compass, manometer (water depth), a 3" LCD screen, four different underwater white balance modes, and an LED light for macro shots.
The TG-4 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.
This is our top pick of this type of camera. We have known many people who love it.
Olympus also has the Stylus Tough TG-870. The standout feature on this camera is its 21mm super wide lens and tilt screen. It's waterproof to 50 feet, has a 16mp sensor, HD video, Wifi & GPS. But it has a smaller sensor than the TG-4 and a slower lens at F3.5-5.7, which is not good.
Pentax was bought by Ricoh, and you will see that name on their compact cameras. Pentax has many years and models of waterproof cameras under their belt. The current cameras are very tough and shockproof and have a very solid feel to them.
The most current model is the Ricoh WG-5. This is the 17th generation of their waterproof digital snorkel cameras, and nearly identical to the WG-4, adding new underwater white balance options, a new underwater flash mode and GPS.
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 and the fast F2.0 lens, with a 25-100mm zoom range. It also has 1080p HD movie mode and a 3" screen with a dedicated video button.
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.
Nikon was late to the game, and only offered a competitive camera of this type in 2014 with the Coolpix AW120. Its replacement, the Coolpix AW130 has a fast F2.8 lens, high resolution screen, a wide angle lens at 24mm and decent battery life. It also offers a smart waterproof door design. It has only one door, that is secured with a very positive locking system and seals, and is notable for being waterproof down to 100 feet. An interesting option is that you can buy a $10 accessory that makes it easy to add filters.
It is a fast camera, with quick shot times and can provide 5 frames per second.
It has a ton of features, like a 16mp CMOS sensor, full 1080 HD video, GPS, Wi-Fi, NFC, electronic compass, image stabilization, 3" LED screen, a 24mm to 120mm zoom lens (35mm equivalent), and many other features.
Canon entered this field with a bang with its very popular Powershot D10. It was our most recommended of the waterproof digital snorkel cameras for a couple of years. In 2014 Canon brought out the D30. With this camera Canon has copied most the other brands, with a small lens in the corner.
And notably the lens in both cameras is much slower at F3.9 wide open, losing the F2.8 of the D10, and it is much slower than the current Pentax/Ricoh, Nikon and Olympus offerings.
It is a fairly sharp camera, and 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-4.
It is waterproof to 82 feet. And it is a tough camera, meaning it can handle low temperatures, and drops. The body is smaller than the D10. Its zoom range is 28-140mm (35mm equivalent). It has a 3" screen and a GPS.
Compared to the newer Olympus and Pentax/Ricoh options above that have fast lenses this camera is just not competitive for the price.
Panasonic has had six generations of the TS line of waterproof and tough cameras, but they are not staying competitive. Their last few models have not changed much and have not addressed seal problems, and they do not have the image quality, speed and features of other brands. In fact their top of the line DMC-TS5, is out of production (although still available).
The DMC-TS5 has 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 28-128mm 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.
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 its shooting speeds are slow compared to its competition.
Panasonic also has a simpler version, the DMC-TS30. 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 26 feet, and does not have many of the gizmos.
Fuji's has been making these little waterproof cameras since 2009. But most of the models are not very durable nor do they have great image quality or performance. They are just inexpensive, which is the primary attraction.
All their cameras have either a 14 or 16mp CMOS sensor, either Optical Image Stabilization or CMOS Shift Stabilization, 2.7 or 3" screen, a 28 to 140mm wide angle lens, and a fairly slow aperture starting at F3.9. They all have similar image quality.
Finepix XP70 - waterproof to 30', Wi-Fi
Finepix XP80 - waterproof to 50', Wi-Fi, 1080P movies
Finepix XP90 - 3" screen
Finepix XP200 - This is the top 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, and overall it gets better reviews than the others.
Sony has become the industry leader in digital cameras, but not in waterproof cameras. The only model they have is years old and it does not compete with the other options available today.
To the right is the Sony DSC-TX30. It has a 3.3" touch OLED screen display, removing a lot of buttons. It has a 26mm-130mm (35mm equiv.) wide angle Carl Zeiss lens, with a max aperture of F3.5 to 4.6. It also has a 18mp 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.
Unfortunately tests show it has pictures that are sharp in the center, but very soft in the corners. Not great. And it does not have great high ISO performance, blurring out details at around ISO 800 and up.
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.