Updated September, 2018
The vast majority of snorkelers use one of these neat little waterproof snorkel cameras that don't need a separate underwater housing. They are small, affordable, and there is slightly less maintenance compared to cameras with separate housings. And better models can take some very good pictures and videos.
Just be aware these types of cameras have a higher flooding and failure rate than cameras in a waterproof housing do. Lots of people have no problem, but there are many reviews of people who do.
They have small delicate seals around the battery and memory card doors, compared to waterproof housings that have big o-rings. So it's easy to understand why the seals could fail.
If you are careful with your camera, clean the seals before each use, don't bang it around in the water, and soak it in fresh water after each snorkel, you may have good luck.
These cameras also have smaller sensors than most compact cameras, which means lower quality pictures.
There used to be many options available in these types of cameras, but over the last few years Olympus has destroyed the competition with their TG line. Now there are comparatively few competitive options.
OK. Now to the cameras!
Olympus has been a leader in waterproof snorkel cameras for many years, and have had 16 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-5 (directly from Olympus and sold on Amazon) - Give this camera careful consideration. Several features make it the best of the
waterproof snorkel cameras on this page. This replaces the TG-4, which was very popular, and improves it in a number of important ways. It has a new 12mp sensor, capable of ISO 12,800, powered by a new processor from their professional series of cameras. It adds 20 frames per second shooting, 4K video, dual pane glass lens cover to prevent fogging issues, a new control dial on top, a larger zoom lever, and many other improvements.
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 and shooting 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.
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. Olympus also makes an underwater housing for the camera, the PT-058 so it can go deeper or for extra reassurance. But it's pretty expensive compared to the camera.
The TG-5 retains the 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-5 has an optional fish-eye or tele-converter lens, and with an adapter can take 40.5mm filters.
This is our top pick of this type of camera. We know many people who love it for snorkeling.
Nikon was late to the game, and only offered a competitive camera of this type in 2014 with the Coolpix AW120, and then the AW130. The most current model, the Coolpix W300, is nearly identical to the AW130, but adds 4K video. It 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, GPS, Wi-Fi, NFC, electronic compass, image stabilization, 3" LED screen, a 24mm to 120mm zoom lens (35mm equivalent), and many other features.
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-50. This is the 18th generation of their waterproof snorkel cameras, and similar to the previous WG-5, but with a slower lens, which is too bad.
Unfortunately it lost the fast F2.0 lens of the previous model, and now has an F3.5-5.5 lens, with a longer zoom range of 28-140mm. 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 its lens for macro pictures. 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. This can be very useful underwater.
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.
Currently the inexpensive DMC-TS30 is available. 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. The reviews are not very positive on this camera, with poor image quality, and many reports of flooding.
The newest camera in this line is the Lumix TS7, and initial reviews are poor for how expensive it is. Its only stand out feature is that it has a tiny rear viewfinder, for taking pictures in bright conditions. But they have gone to a 20MP sensor, and the auto focus and shooting speeds are very slow and users report a high percentage of out-of-focus images.
Fuji 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 XP80 - waterproof to 50', Wi-Fi, 1080P movies
Finepix XP90 - 3" screen
Finepix XP120 - waterproof to 65'
Finepix XP130 - same as XP120 with Bluetooth
The XP120 and XP130 are the current top models. They each have a 16mp sensor, 28mm wide angle zoom lens, and a 3" LCD monitor. They offer optical image stabilization, and are waterproof down to 65'. They have 1080P video, and will shoot 10 frames per second. The XP130 adds Bluetooth for wireless image transfer. Despite all the features, the image quality and color underwater is rather poor.
The SeaLife Micro 2.0 is a dedicated diving/snorkeling camera that is fully waterproof. It has a fixed focal length lens that is essentially a fish eye. So the field of view is very wide, more like a POV action camera, which means you must get very close to your subject. It is a fast lens at F2.8. The camera has some interesting innovations to prevent flooding. The battery and memory is built into the camera and is not removable or replaceable. It has a "wet" charging connection. So there are no "doors" to open that can leak. You remove your pictures via a Wifi connection with your PC or phone. There are two versions available, one with 32gb of memory and one with 64gb. The downside of the camera being all sealed up is that the battery only lasts about 3 hours. So if you have a long snorkel day, and the battery dies, you can't throw another one in. And despite it being completely waterproof, we have still seen a review of one flooding. For the price ($500) we would much rather have an Olympus TG-5 for snorkeling.
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.