Understanding Desirable Snorkeling Camera Features

There are some snorkeling camera features that really make better pictures. Read below to understand what things to look for in a snorkel camera, and to understand a little bit more about how to use your camera. You will find in my camera recommendations that I mention a lot of these things.

Desirable snorkeling camera features allow you to get pictures like this anemone with resident anemonefish

What Is a Fast Lens and What Does It Have to Do With the Shutter?

Foxface Rabbitfish and hard corals

In my camera reviews you may see me get excited by a new camera with a “fast” lens. What does that mean and why is a fast lens one of the most important snorkeling camera features?

A lens has an aperture in it, like your eye. It opens and closes allowing more or less light to hit the sensor inside the camera. A fast lens, can allow in more light than a slow lens.

Stop Blurry Pictures of Fish

Why is letting in more light good? Letting more light into the camera allows the camera to have a faster shutter speed. And the shutter speed is what stops motion, either fish motion, or your hand motion, so you don’t get a blurry fish, or a blurry picture. And sometimes you need that, because the light can be low at times when snorkeling.

With Aperture, Higher Is Slower

Aperture settings are called f-stops. An F2.8 lens, is faster than a higher numbered F4 lens. For example my Canon G7X has an F1.8 lens. That is how much light it can let in, at least when it is at its wide angle zoom setting. Most zoom lenses will get slower as you zoom out. The G7X is F2.8 when the lens is zoomed fully out. That is why when you look at the front of a lens it will have two numbers, like F1.8-2.8. Since I shoot at wide angle for most shots the first number is the one I am most interested in.

Notice below, the Olympus TG-6, the most popular waterproof camera, has an F2.0 to F4.9 lens.

Lens of Olympus TG-6, showing its aperture range

Hey, we also share a lot of snorkeling camera and photography tips in our free monthly newsletter.

Shutter Speeds Are About Time

Coral polyps, illustrating depth of field

Just so you know, shutter speeds are a measurement of time. So a faster shutter speed lets in less light. A 1s (one second) shutter speed lets in way more light than 1/250s (two hundred fiftieths of a second). For snorkeling, faster shutter speeds are nearly always more useful (since you can’t use a tripod).

What About Depth of Field?

If you have enough light that you can reduce your aperture (say from F2.8 to F5.6), you may want to, so that you have more depth of field. Depth of field is how much is in focus from front to back within your picture. In the coral picture, the depth of field is narrow. Only the center of the picture is sharp, and things in the foreground and background are not in focus. Reducing your aperture increases depth of field.

If you are shooting with a wide angle lens, on a compact camera, you only need to stop it down a little bit for everything to be in focus from front to back. On some cameras stopping down your lens some may also give you sharper pictures, particularly in the corners.

Shutter for Controlling Motion – Aperture for Depth of Field

Just remember these important snorkeling camera features: the shutter controls stopping motion, and the aperture controls depth of field. When you increase one, you have to decrease the other, so that you maintain a correct exposure.

What Do I Mean, Great High ISO Performance?

ISO refers to how sensitive your sensor is to light. If you don’t have enough light, and you can’t open up your aperture anymore, or decrease your shutter speed, you can increase your ISO. Higher numbers are more sensitive. Increasing your ISO from 100 to 400, has a similar effect as opening your lens up a few f-stops. But just like in the days of film, higher ISO decreases the quality of the picture.

With film, when you went from ISO100 to ISO800, your picture got very grainy. With digital cameras it creates noise, which is similar. And the camera tries to compensate for this noise by using software to blur this noise together, decreasing details.

So it’s great if one of your snorkeling camera features is good high ISO capability. It is sort of like having a fast lens, in that it can help you increase your shutter speeds and stop motion.

Foggy Masks, Fin Blisters and Angry Snorkels!

Poorly fitting, cheap gear, can ruin your trip. See our snorkeling equipment reviews and fitting suggestions to make sure your next trip is great.

Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is one of the other snorkeling camera features that helps make sharper pictures. It is a mechanical process that adjusts for vibration in the camera. With a standard lens, you can handhold a camera at a shutter speed of about 1/60th of a second, and you will probably get a sharp image.

Image stabilization can allow you to take up to three or four stops slower of a shutter speed, depending on how good it is. So you may be able to handhold down to around 1/15th of a second.

But that only helps with hand motion. If a fish is moving, it won’t stop that motion. So image stabilization is only so helpful with snorkeling photography. Still it is worth having.

Read more about the different types of image stabilization here.

What About a Flash?

School of Long-jawed Mackerel

I almost never use a flash with snorkeling photography. Yet most underwater photography guides you read will tell you have to have a big external flash. That advice is for divers, for whom a big external flash is a necessity, for two reasons. One, they are deeper underwater, and there is less light. Two, because of the depth they loose a great amount of color in their subjects.

The problem with a flash is that if it is close to your lens, the light from it will reflect off all the little particles in the water, creating spots all over your picture. This is called backscatter, and it is unattractive and distracting. And that pretty much rules out using a flash that is built into your camera body, like on most compacts.

That means you have to use a separate flash, and move it a good distance away from your lens, so the light comes in from an angle. This is done by attaching a long arm to your camera housing. Suddenly you are talking about a big contraption to be snorkeling with. I personally am unwilling to do it.

For a snorkeler it is best to have a camera with a fast lens, and good high ISO performance, and not use a flash at all. There is plenty of light in the top 20 feet of water. My recommendation is to turn off your flash.

The rare circumstances for when I will turn on a flash are when taking pictures under ledges where it is dark, or if I am close to my subject when night snorkeling, although flashlights provide most of the light at night.

Fast Shooting – Shutter Lag, FPS, and Focus Speed

Goldlined Spinefoot

Another thing to look for on a camera is how much shutter lag it has. How long once you push the button does it take to actually take the picture? Particularly on some older compact cameras shutter lag is a real problem. You hit the button, and the fish has moved before the camera actually takes the shot. Getting a fast shooting camera is important for good snorkeling pictures.

Also, being able to hold down the shutter button, and have the camera take a series of shots quickly can be helpful. For this you need a camera that can take a high number of pictures per second, to capture fast moving fish action. So look for how many frames per second (FPS) the camera is capable of.

Focus speed is also one of the important snorkeling camera features. If it takes forever to focus on a fish, it will be long gone.

What About Wide Angle and Zoom Lenses?

A wide angle lens is very desirable underwater. Getting close to your subject is the goal. The main reason for this is because you want to shoot through as little water as possible between you and your subject. Water acts like a thick dirty filter, reducing color, like in the example below.

Very blue picture of a group of snorkeler, showing why it is important to get close for good colors.

Wouldn’t a long zoom lens be good, so you don’t have to be as close to the fish, but still have it big in the picture? Sounds good, but unfortunately no. Normally when you try taking pictures when snorkeling with a zoomed out lens, say to 100mm or more, you will be shooting through too much water. The color and sharpness will be very poor.

Also, a zoomed out lens reduces light, because as mentioned above it will have a smaller aperture value when zoomed. That means slower shutter speeds, which means you are much more likely to get a blurry picture.

Another thing to know is that as your lens zooms out, you have to increase your shutter speed to stop hand motion from making blurry pictures. While you can easily handhold at 28mm with a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, at 120mm you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/125s to stop camera shake. This becomes a problem if there is not enough light.

There is one other problem with using a lens zoomed out. It is very hard to compose your picture on the screen, because your zoomed lens has a narrow field of view. It is like trying to find something in the distance with binoculars.

For this reason pay more attention to the wide end of the lens when buying a camera. Anywhere from 28mm and wider is useful. And avoid super zoom cameras; in addition to the problems above, they are rarely sharp or fast.

Lens Sharpness

The lens is probably the most important thing on the camera. A sharp lens makes pictures that are crisp, clear, colorful and focused. A cheap lens will give fuzzy, low contrast, pictures. Many waterproof cameras that have tiny little lenses, are not very sharp at all. Or they are sharp in the middle, but are very unsharp at the corners.

So, before buying a camera, make sure you read some reviews about how sharp the lens is, corner to corner. Don’t just trust that because it is a Nikon, Canon, or Carl Zeiss lens that it will be sharp. Each camera is different.

Manual Controls

As you desire to create better pictures, you will see the value of having more control over your camera. Better cameras allow you to control as much or as little as you want. Once you gain a basic understanding of how simple the settings on a camera really are, then you will find that a fully automatic camera gets in the way of what you want. It will actually start to drive you nuts, because you can’t get it to do what you want.

Fortunately compact cameras with manual controls are becoming more common. At the very least, get a camera that gives you either aperture or shutter priority controls.

What Type of Screen?

Having a nice big screen that is very bright is one of the more helpful snorkeling camera features. Higher resolution also can be nice, for seeing your pictures with more detail. There are a variety of new screens coming out like OLED, that are faster, have more colors, and use less power.

HD Video

Taking videos can be great fun. I would probably not buy a camera that does not offer full 1080P HD video. Some cameras advertise HD, but it is only 720P. Many of the higher end snorkeling cameras now offer 4K video. But I find that unnecessary.

Here is a quick tip on snorkeling videos; move very slowly when taking a video. Pan your camera much slower than you want. Don’t jerk it around looking at this fish and then that one. It will make for a terrible video to watch.

White Balance Mode Access Ease

Part of getting good color in your snorkeling pictures is understanding and using your camera’s white balance settings. One of the most important snorkeling camera features is that it has at a minimum an underwater white balance setting. And better yet is the ability to set a custom white balance.

Before you buy a camera figure out how much button pushing and looking around in menus it takes to adjust your white balance. It is such a commonly used function that it should be easy to access. Read my tips on using white balance here.

Sensor Size, Megapixel Quantity, and Type

Sensor Size

Your sensor is like the film in your camera. It senses the light coming through the lens.

The size of your sensor is its physical dimension. This number is rarely advertised and is different than the megapixels.

A bigger sensor is normally better because it will provide better high ISO performance. The downside to a bigger sensor is that it requires that the lens be bigger also. A compact camera has a small lens, because of a small sensor. A DSLR has a much bigger sensor, and huge lenses comparatively.

Most higher end compact cameras now have large 1″ sensors in fairly small cameras, like our Canon G7X. This large sensor allows you to crop into a picture and retain detail for great fish pictures.

See a comparison of sensor sizes here.


What are megapixels then? The pixels in your sensor record detail. The more pixels, the more detail. A compact camera can have a 1/2.3″ sized sensor, containing 20 megapixels, and a DSLR with a huge sensor can also have 20MP. It sounds great to have lots of megapixels, right? The problem is that the more megapixels you stuff into a sensor, the poorer the high ISO performance. This is particularly true of small sensors. So, don’t be focused on buying a camera with a lot of megapixels.

Also, file sizes go up astronomically as the megapixels climb just a little bit. Unless you really want to print a huge picture for your wall, 20MP is plenty for nearly every need.

CMOS Vs. CCD Sensors

What about the different types of sensors? Lots of cameras now have CMOS sensors. They use less power and they are faster in their operation. They also offer some advantages for video, namely autofocus during HD video. They are not necessarily sharper though.

Memory Cards – Buy the Right Type and Speed

SD memory cards are the standard for most cameras. But did you know there are different types and speeds of SD cards?

Storage Capacity Types

  • SDHC cards are bigger than 2GB, up to 32GB
  • SDXC you guessed it, anything above 32GB to 2TB.

Before buying a card for your camera read its manual and see how big of a card and what speed it will take. You may also want to check what your card reader in your computer will read, if you access your pictures that way (instead of through a cable to your camera).

Write Speeds

The speed of the card is how fast you can write data to it. The number is the minimum speed it will write at, in megabytes per second. The minimum speed of SDHC cards is C10 (Class 10). Above that are the ultra-high speeds, U1 (UHS Speed Class 1) and U3 (UHS Speed Class 3). Then you get in the video speed class cards, V6 (Video Speed Class 6), V10 (Video Speed Class 10), V30 (Video Speed Class 30), V60 (Video Speed Class 60), and V90 (Video Speed Class 90).

For pictures, a Class 10 is going to work just fine. But for HD video in a compact camera you generally need Class 10 or above, faster if you are shooting 4K video (but check your manual).

Counterfeit Cards

One other note about SD card speeds. There are a lot of counterfeit SD cards being sold, that advertise they are a brand that they are not, and a speed that they are not, even on Amazon. So read reviews, buy brand names, and you can also download free software that will check the minimum write speed of the card you buy. If it does not meet the standard, return it.

That is most of the stuff that I consider important in snorkeling camera features. It seems like a lot to consider if you are buying a camera. Fortunately when you look through my camera suggestions at the link below you will find that I suggest cameras based on these features, which will make your life easier.

More Snorkeling Camera Tips