Updated - June 2022
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 17 or more models. These "tough" cameras are designed to be waterproof, dust proof, freeze proof, and shock proof.
Olympus TG-6 (also available from Olympus.com here) - Give this camera careful consideration, because it is a crazy good little camera. We have owned one, and also tested the previous version. The TG-6 is by far and away the most popular snorkeling and diving camera. Everyone who uses it says that it makes them a good photographer, without being one.
It easily takes colorful sharp pictures, and really excels at macro closeups. And its compact size is a real joy if you choose not to buy a housing. Below is a picture we took with it in St. Lucia.
The TG-6 has a new higher resolution
LCD screen, which is a welcome improvement. It also has a new anti-reflective coating around the sensor that helps a light flair problem that the TG-5 had. The only other new things
are all software and settings improvements. There is a new underwater white
balance quick setting for different depths. If you shoot macro, and you
are in Aperture Mode you can now use the quick menu to set to macro
focus modes, without turning the dial to microscope mode. These cameras
are better at macro pictures than anything else out there. And there is a
way to control aperture that allows for more depth of field in macro
mode. Also you can set the camera to 4K and 1080P with the quick menu,
without needing to go to movie mode, even in macro mode. There is a new
minimum shutter speed option.
It still has the 12MP sensor, capable of ISO 12,800. It shoots 20 frames per second 4K video. It retains the dual image stabilization (sharper pictures), GPS, compass, manometer (water depth), a 3" LCD screen and LED lights 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.
The zoom lens starts at a wide angle of 25mm and goes out to 100mm (35mm equivalent), which is very desirable underwater. This lens provides nice sharp pictures.
We think getting the Olympus PT-059 (on Olympus.com here) waterproof housing 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. On the other hand, we know tons of snorkelers who use these cameras without housings, without failures. We have even thought that for not much more than the price of the housing you could instead buy a second TG-6 as a backup on a trip.
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-80. This is the 21st generation of their waterproof snorkel cameras, and nearly identical to the last model, the WG-70.The only update, other than a slightly different looking body, is that the macro LED lights around the lens are twice as bright, and adjustable in five steps.
Shared with the WG-70, the WG-80 has a digital microscope mode for close-ups and extreme cropping, and an advanced underwater shooting mode that has automatic underwater white balance adjustment.
It has a slow F3.5-5.5 lens, with a 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.
Unfortunately, the image quality out of the last four versions of these cameras have been rather poor, and it suffers from low light problems because of the slow lens. For the price, we would skip it.
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.
One model currently available is the inexpensive DMC-TS30. It
is 16MP, and has a 25-100mm (35mm equivalent) 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, so we have chosen not to test this camera.
They also came out with a much more expensive Lumix DC-TS7, but initial reviews would make us stay away from it for the price. 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.
Note that 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 float straps. We prefer a non-floating adjustable lanyard on our cameras that we can cinch tight, because a float strap is not tight around your wrist. If you let go of it, it can float away from you.