Updated September, 2018
For many years we have both used compact snorkeling cameras with separate underwater housings. And in the last few years this type of camera has gotten much much better, adding professional features like fast, wide angle zoom lenses, fast shutter and focusing speeds, better high ISO performance, and big 1" sensors for highly detailed images. But compact snorkeling cameras have become much more expensive. If you can afford it, and want a real photographic tool, we still think this is the best system to get, for its compact size, great image quality and controls.
Most importantly, these types of waterproof housings are very durable and are far less likely to leak and fail than small waterproof 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.
We share our most recommended cameras of this type on this
Canon G7X II - with Canon WP-DC55 Housing
The Canon G7X II is the newer, updated version of what we use for our compact snorkeling cameras. We use the Canon housings, which we like. 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 its 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. Note that the G7X II no longer has the one button touch manual white balance option.
It is fairly expensive though. You can read our complete review of the G7X here.
Canon G9X II - with Fantasea FG9X Housing
The Canon G9X II has the same 1" sensor as our loved G7X II camera 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. That is probably the biggest downside to the G9XII compare to the G7X II. When zoomed out, you are more likely to get blurry fish pictures because of the slower lens. It also has fewer physical controls than the larger G7X II, and instead relies on a 3" touch screen for many control changes. Fortunately the Fantasea housing allows you to access many of the touch screen settings.
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 slightly improved in this second version, but is still not great, so get a second battery. The updated version has a new sensor that offers lower noise, and much faster shooting in RAW.
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.
Because of its smaller size, and better price point compared to other options on this page, this is one of the better compact snorkeling cameras.
Sony RX100 & Sony Housing
The Sony RX100 has been out for awhile, and is still an amazing snorkel camera at a bargain price when paired with the MPK-URX100A Sony housing. 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 II and G7X II.
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.
Currently there many companies that make housings for the Sony RX100 line of cameras, although third party brands can be very expensive. The Sony MPK-URX100A housing works with all models of the RX100, except the RX100 VI. Also, some buttons and dials do not work with different models.
Sony RX100 II, III, IV, V, VI
There are now six versions of this camera available, each more expensive. It's dang confusing. 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. The RX100 VI has a new longer zoom lens from 24 to 200mm, at F2.8 to 4.5. It also has a touch screen that tilts. The longer zoom lens on the RX100VI may prove an issue with underwater housings.
Battery life is best with the first three versions, but declines heavily with the last three.
Which version should you choose? If you want to spend less than the excellent Canon G7X II above, then the earlier models are the choice. But if you are willing to spend a lot on the newer models we would instead get the Panasonic below with the Nauticam housing.
The Panasonic LX10 is yet another incredibly good option, that also uses a 1" sensor, and a very sharp Leica lens with a 24-72mm zoom, and super fast F1.4-2.8 f-stop range. It has almost DSLR like professional controls.
It has a few standout features that make it better in some ways than either the Sony RX100 and the Canon G7X II. It has a separate focus lock button, so you are not required to push the shutter button down half way to establish focus. It also has incredibly good white balance features. You can actually store four different manual white balance settings. It also offers 4k video.
The only reason why this camera is not our top compact snorkeling cameras pick is because of the waterproof housings.
The Ikelite LX10, is clunky and huge, and not inexpensive at over $500. And
the other option is smaller and better, but twice the price; the
Nauticam NA-LX10. If money is no obstacle, and maxim photographic
control is important to you, then the LX10 and the Nauticam housing are
the way to go.
SeaLife DC2000 HD
The SeaLife DC2000 HD is made specifically for diving. It has an inner camera you can remove and use outside the housing. It is actually waterproof to 60' itself. And its waterproof housing has big buttons for easy underwater use. It also uses a 1" sensor, so image quality should be good. But unlike all the other cameras on this page it uses a fixed focal length lens, with no physical zoom option. But it is a very fast lens, at F1.8.
We talked with SeaLife about testing this camera at a trade show. But they did not follow through. So based on the few reviews we have seen of it, it is hard to recommend, compared to the other compact snorkeling cameras on this page. Focusing and shooting speeds may not be great, and image quality and colors do not seem to be as good as they should be for the sensor size.
Cell phones with cameras have wiped out the market for affordable compact cameras. So camera manufacturers have all shifted to more expensive, higher end cameras with 1" sensors.
If you want to spend less than the cameras above, really your only option now is to get a "tough" camera that is waterproof without a housing. Read our review of those here.