Updated - January 2020
So, you want a budget snorkeling camera to grab some memories? You are not looking for a complex photographic tool, and likely won't use the camera that much, so spending a bunch does not make sense.
That all makes sense to me. While I normally recommend higher end cameras with better features, the options on this page certainly fit the needs of a lot of people. So long as you are aware of the trade offs in durability and the quality of pictures and videos they produce, then have at it. Honestly it will cost $700 to get a significantly more durable camera. So we know a few people who buy two of these types of cameras, and keep one as a backup on a trip in case of failure; a good idea. Also, it can be a fun challenge to coax the best pictures you can out of a budget snorkeling camera, by learning what it can and cannot do. Then when you are ready to upgrade you will know better what you want. That is what we did.
Action Camera vs. Waterproof Camera - What's the Best Option?
We think at this price point, for someone inexperienced in photography, the best choice for a budget snorkeling camera is going to be the action cams. They have fast non-zooming lenses, which gives you a better chance of getting fish pictures and videos that are not blurry. And if you choose one that has a separate waterproof housing, it will also be very durable.
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Action cams have very wide angle fisheye lenses that do not have a mechanical zoom. They are more optimized for video, but can take still pictures. You need to be close to your subject with these wide angle lenses for your subject to be big in the picture. But as mentioned above, they generally have fast lenses, which is good for not having blurry fish pictures.
I have spent more time than I care to
say researching a good GoPro alternative that is both affordable, but
will also give good results while snorkeling. There are a ton of budget snorkeling camera options
by different companies, and each company has many models. I narrowed things down to companies that have been around awhile and are generally respected, like AKASO, YI, SJCAM and the outright cheapest snorkeling camera, the popular Campark. Next I looked for features that are important underwater, namely a diving/underwater mode for better colors, image stabilization, and an included waterproof housing.
AKASO V50 Pro - $120 - We recently tested this camera in St. Lucia, because of the features, reviews, and example videos we found before our trip. We were able to test it right next to a GoPro Hero 7 Black.
We are still working on our full review of this camera, so stay tuned for that in our newsletter. But our initial impressions are really pretty good, given that it is almost a quarter the price of the GoPro. For sure the colors underwater did not match the GoPro, and it does not seem to gather as much detail. But with a little post processing the images were pretty comparable, like the picture below.
all of these action cameras with fish-eye lenses, pictures have soft
edges (not sharp). So we think this camera is better for video.
It does have a diving mode, that adjusts for the blue color underwater. That works OK in shallow bright conditions. But if you dive down the camera does not compensate very well, and pictures end up very blue looking. We will be testing it with a shallow water red filter soon.
It does have digital image stabilization, that worked OK on videos. But it will not really improve rapid jerky movements.
It comes with a pile of accessories. The underwater housing being one. The housing was very well made, and we had no problems with it. Some of the stainless parts are not as high quality as GoPro's, and rust became apparent. Not a big deal if you clean and oil them.
For the price you get the camera, a waterproof housing, two batteries
and charger, a remote control for when you are out of the water, and a
pile of other accessories for different mounting options. Also, if you
want to vlog with this camera it has an external microphone plug, which
video below to get a good sense for the capability of this affordable
snorkeling camera. Near the end there are shallower conditions to show
you what to expect in those depths.
Olympus TG Tracker - $199 - Normally priced at $350, this budget snorkeling camera has recently been heavily
discounted. This is a pretty amazing little action camera, that is part
of the Tough series from Olympus. This is a really small camera at only
1.37" x 2.22" x 3.67", with a tiny 1.5" view screen that folds out 90
What makes it different than the AKASO above, is that it has an even wider lens with a 204 degree field of view that is a very fast F2.0. It is also waterproof without needing a housing, although I think the AKASO housing is going to be more durable long term.
It takes excellent 4K video at 30 frames per second, and 8MP still pictures. It also offers good colors underwater without a filter thanks to either a manual underwater mode, or the camera will automatically change to underwater mode once it detects that it is 1.5 feet underwater.
Here is the other major difference between this camera and almost anything
else on the market. It's called the Tracker because it has GPS, compass, altimeter, barometer, accelerometer, thermometer, and water sensor. And it logs all of the data from those tools while taking
pictures or videos. It also has wifi for connecting with your phone. Do
you need any of that to take good snorkeling pictures? Nope. But it's a
pretty cool toy. Although amazingly complex in its features.
It also has a video light built in, which can be handy for macro work, but is not very bright overall.
This budget snorkeling camera has a standard tripod mount, and it comes with an adapter plate for attaching a GoPro type floating handle, which you will probably want.
Watch this video of a snorkeler using the TG Tracker. Notice when they dive down at 1:14 in the video that the TG Tracker automatically detects the depth and changes its color settings.
GoPro Hero 7 White - $199 - GoPro is the leader in small action cameras. The Hero 7 White is the
only current model by GoPro in the sub $200 budget snorkeling camera price range. I don't yet
know if this takes better pictures and videos than the AKASO above. But
it does have some things I don't like as much about it. Namely, the
battery is built in, meaning you can't swap out a freshly charged one
during a day out snorkeling. That is not so great. It is waterproof,
without a housing, but I still think the housing on the AKASO will make
it more durable. And the White it is not compatible with the GoPro Super Suit housing.
As a type, these waterproof cameras are better at still pictures than the action cameras above, and they can also take very good videos. They have mechanical zoom lenses, and at their widest angle settings they are not nearly as wide as the action cameras. The pictures are also less distorted on the edges, compared to the fisheye-like appearance of the action cameras. Overall this type of camera is not nearly as durable as a camera with a waterproof housing. Flooding and failure is not that unusual.
But, while we are not fond of earlier versions, this camera surprised us when we tested it in St. Lucia and Indonesia recently. It has a much better sensor than the earlier models, leading to pictures with more detail, better color, and tonal range. They have also made three buttons customizable on the back, and completely updated the menu system.
Read our complete Fujifilm XP140 review page, and see more picture examples.
We tested at the same time as an earlier model, the XP120, which is nearly identical to the XP130. The image quality is not nearly as good on the XP130/XP120 cameras. We would definitely spend up for the XP140.
The XP140 is really the only budget snorkeling camera under $200 that we feel at all comfortable recommending. One strong advantage this camera has to the action cameras above is that it has a bigger 3" high resolution screen.
camera is very small, but feels solid in your hands, and it has a
solidly locking door for the battery and memory card access. And the
camera gives a warning if it is not sealed correctly. Flooding does
still happen on these budget snorkel cameras.