Updated February, 2019
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. 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. Snorkeling is hard on cameras. Many people have no problem, but a number of people also have failures which are often not covered by warranty.
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.
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Olympus has been a leader in waterproof snorkel cameras for many years, and have had 16 or more models. These "tough" cameras are designed to be waterproof, dust proof, freeze proof and shock proof.
Stylus Tough TG-5, available on Backscatter here and Amazon here. - Give this camera careful consideration. Several features make it the best of the waterproof snorkel cameras on this page. It is the leader in macro shots, needing no auxiliary lens to achieve near microscope close pictures.
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. It 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.
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.
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
We think getting the Olympus PT-058 waterproof housing, available on Backscatter here and Amazon here, is a good idea if your budget can swing it. Yes, the camera is rated to be waterproof to 50 feet. But people still experience flooding failures (as do all the cameras on this page), which can be a trip ruining bummer and an expensive loss. But the housing makes it bombproof, and adds many useful features, like easier handling, big buttons, a lens cap and sun shade.
If it irks you to buy a housing for a camera that is supposed to be waterproof, consider spending up slightly and getting a Canon G9X & Housing, giving you a 1" sensor and more image detail.
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 available on Amazon here, and B&H here, 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 available here on Amazon and here at B&H. This is the 18th generation of their waterproof snorkel cameras, and similar to the previous WG-5. Reviews are very mixed on the image quality and durability.
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 here on Amazon and here at B&H. 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 on Amazon here, and B&H here. 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. They have had many generations now in the same small, tough, waterproof body. They are very inexpensive, and there have been issues with durability and image quality. But they seem to be getting better, and we know of a number of snorkelers who are happy with them.
The XP120 and XP130 are the current models. The XP120 is available on Amazon here, and B&H here. The XP130 is on Amazon here, and B&H here. They each have a 16mp sensor, 28mm to 140mm zoom lens (35mm equivalent), and a 3" LCD monitor. They have optical image stabilization, and are waterproof down to 65'. They have 1080P video, and will shoot 10 frames per second. People we know really like the video quality. The XP130 adds Bluetooth for remote control of the camera with your phone, which is of no value for snorkeling.
If you are considering one of these just keep in mind they are very small, and image quality will not be as good as some of the better options on this page.
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.