3 Best Waterproof Cameras | ExtensivelyReviewed

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You’ve already got some waterproof headphones and now you’re wondering if a waterproof camera is for you. This guide is suitable for the type of people who enjoy throwing themselves down things, under things, off of things and through things. People who love an adventure, know the staff at the local DICK’s by name and love to work outdoors. Sportswoman and men alike who want an alternative to a GoPro. The overall durability of a rugged camera makes it perfect for letting kids play with it too, which wouldn’t usually happen with cameras and water. We gave a group of kids aged 5 to 12 cameras at my youngest daughter’s birthday party, and they had a blast taking underwater pictures for the first time ever. Even better, I had a blast not worrying about the cameras, and the brilliant shots they took made it even better! These rugged cameras are fantastic for those outdoor vacations straying from the beaten path or encounters with water. With that said, they are an alternative, not necessarily a replacement for a GoPro which does have other benefits like being more compact, having better video capabilities and overall comfort to carry. These underwater cameras are also not a replacement for professional setups used by deep divers who take impressive shots using full underwater camera setups.

Waterproofing: How Does it Work?

A waterproof camera is perfect whether you go on adventures or simply want to be safe from accidents. It gets you those best shots without damaging an expensive piece of electronics. Despite waterproof cameras being on the market for a while, it is still a growing market, with previous models only available to those with big budgets. However, manufacturers are now starting to cater to those with smaller budgets and more casual photographers, meaning the cameras are accessible to the casual market, perfect for capturing those holiday shots. But the question remains, how do waterproof cameras work, as well as how do you keep it in the best condition possible?

Firstly, the difference between an underwater camera and a normal digital camera is the housing. If you have ever dropped a phone into water, you know water and electronics don’t mix. This means the housing is required to be airtight, to prevent water from penetrating the inside electronics. Waterproof housing is available for normal digital cameras, but buying a specialized product usually results in higher quality results, with better all-round protection. Furthermore, a waterproof camera will also have rubber seals surrounding all parts that open up, to prevent water from getting in. However, be careful to ensure the camera is clean, dry and salt free if you need to open any part. Another integral feature to the waterproof cameras is the thick lenses that come with them. As we know, the deeper you go into water, the higher the pressure is, which can result in glass breaking. This is why submarines have extremely thick windows. If you have purchased a waterproof camera, make sure you are aware of the recommended depth, because if you go deeper, the camera may break due to it not being engineered to withstand such pressures. Waterproof cameras have thicker lenses than a normal digital camera, but this doesn’t make them unbreakable. So for particular sports like scuba diving, make sure you know how deep your camera can go.

Camera manufacturers also install the devices with a wide range of settings and themes more suitable to certain photo taking scenarios. Waterproof cameras are no different, and will also come with pre-set settings, making it easier to get that amazing snap. Due to the way light travels through water, waterproof cameras need tailored settings to ensure you can take the best shot possible. While a waterproof camera might not be considered an essential piece of equipment, it still does add to the experience of your vacation, as well as the security against any accidents occurring. Fortunately, most consumer range waterproof cameras are adaptable to both on land and underwater pictures. Just ensure the model you buy is suitable for your needs.

A Guide to Underwater Photography

Owning a waterproof camera opens up a whole new world of photography. You can now take photos in lakes, oceans, swimming pools, and even the bathtub if that takes your fancy. However, due to the colors and lighting underneath the surface being affected differently, photography can be more difficult. Our guide will hopefully allow you to learn more about how to take those perfect shots underwater, and help you to become an advanced underwater photographer.

Keep Your Underwater Camera Safe

There are no 100% waterproof cameras. However, certain models are more water resistant than others. If the battery inside gets wet, the camera will still fail. This can be as little as one drop of water to penetrate the lens, to render the camera inoperable. By knowing this, you may consider different accessories for your camera. For example, an airtight underwater case for your digital camera. Even if your model is already waterproof, it doesn’t hurt to be extra safe when protecting an expensive investment. You could also purchase a float strap, which ensures your camera floats instead of sinking, if dropped into water.

Underwater Condition Tips

A good tip is to think what position in the water is the best to capture those shots. If you go too deep, then the photos might be darker than desired, or even too bright if you use a flash. However, if you are too close to the surface, the light from above may make the photos appear washed out. Generally, the best conditions are 6 feet below surface. When you are taking pictures below the surface, you could get backscattered if you have not taken the correct precautions. Backscatter refers to particles of dirt, algae and other materials floating in the water. This can be reduced by avoiding flutter kicking; the process of moving your legs up and down while swimming. Alternatively, frog kick instead, or an external strobe can reduce backscatter.

Getting the Right Color and White Balance

Models of underwater cameras will vary in terms of the white balance and color vibrancy, so be sure to experiment to discover what suits your needs the most. Once in the water, put your camera into manual mode and alter the ISO settings, shutter speeds and white balance. An underwater strobe would substantially increase the quality of color and lighting in underwater photos. This provides more options for different levels of lighting. If what you are shooting requires a flash, use the forced flash setting, as it will absorb the natural colors better than an automatic flash. Try and get close to the subject as well, because water absorbs a lot of orange and red colors, so if you are say a foot away, you can capture the colors better. You could use a flash diffuser as well, which will help your internal flash soften the light, and this comes with most camera housing units. Minimizing all these factors takes a lot of practice and requires skills, but with practice you can achieve high quality underwater photos.

Disadvantages to Waterproof Cameras

On the other side of the coin is that a rugged camera’s cost is related to durability and not necessarily image quality. These models can give better images than extremely cheap cameras, but won’t match up to the quality of cameras you can get if you invest a little bit more. This difference can be visualized by DPReview’s image quality widget. You will see the biggest difference after turning up the ISO for shooting in low light. Both tough cameras and point and clicks suffer due to small sensors, producing images that look mediocre and grainy. However, if you drop that point and click down a mountain, it won’t take that tumble well. Remember to keep in mind, if you’re in the market for an everyday use camera, our recommended pick in this guide won’t be suited to your needs, as all rugged cameras sacrifice image quality for toughness.

Caring for Your Rugged Camera

To keep your tough camera is a usable state, regularly check the seals prior to submerging it. Try to avoid it lying in the sun between shots, and don’t purposely put it through a stress test. Wash it in fresh water, if you use it in dirty environment or saltwater. Waterproof cameras usually have a negative buoyancy rating, if they aren’t in an external housing. This means they will sink. Floating camera straps provide a suitable insurance against your camera sinking to the bottom of the sea. However, the downside of it is that it can get in the way of shots. But for around $10, it provides plenty of peace of mind.

1. Nikon CoolPix AW130 Review

Drastic updates on waterproof cameras are basically non-existent. Manufacturers usually skip updating their waterproof models after some years. This is certainly true for Nikon, with very little changes occurring. At face value this seems to be the case this year, but Nikon’s CoolPix AW130 does add a new software update and includes the missing grip from its predecessor the AW120.

This might not sound like much, but the added grip makes the camera easier to hold and use. While it doesn’t increase the performance speed, the intention of these cameras is to allow you to take pictures on all your adventures, rain or sun. It might be tempting to draw comparisons between the AW130 and the Nikon AW120 and come in the conclusion that there are few differences, but that’s not quite true. Several important changes have been made, meaning this model is worthy of the new model number. Like with previous models, the AW130 comes with a slippery aluminum casing, with all essential parts like the battery, USB port, SD card slot and so on, hidden behind heavy waterproofing. Each menu set is very non-threatening, and you can tailor the settings to your preferences. If you prefer a more manual setup, you might feel slightly lost without more granular controls. However, all novices will be able to pick up and start snapping.

The strongest selling point is of course the model’s durability. It can go on in dives as far down as 100 feet below surface, and can withstand temperatures of 14 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as falls of up to 7 feet. Obviously, you shouldn’t test these yourself, but it is comforting knowing if an accident occurs or you fall into the pool, your camera will be protected.

Furthermore, where the predecessor AW120 had no front grip, the latest AW130 now has a durable rubber grip. Even better, with Nikon sticking with an NFC tag, the model is easily paired with a smartphone using the built in Wi-Fi. This upgrade has been overdue for quite some time, solving the issue of the camera slipping out of your fingers when wet, or when holding it at extreme angles. Be mindful, if the camera is dropped in water, it will sink rapidly, so ensure you make the most of the included strap. A floating wrist strap can be bought for an additional $10 or so.

When you look inside of the tough exterior, the specifications are quite strong. This includes a 16 megapixel, 1/2.3-inch sensor, combined with a 5x 4.3-21.5mm (24-120mm full-frame equivalent) f2.8-4.9 lens. The glass is below par, but does offer greater flexibility due to the optical zoom. While other waterproof cameras may have higher quality glass, this lens is suitable most of the time. Just understand that you won’t get too great of a shallow depth of field.

In terms of performance, the positive things are substantial. Sharpness is decent, and the color performance is good for a pocket camera. A smaller sensor does create higher noise when compared with interchangeable lens cameras, but that’s not a deal-breaker for the AW130. Unfortunately, smartphone cameras are starting to reduce the quality gap with point and shoots, and you might not think the increased performance is worth paying extra over your smartphone. However, you are buying this camera because it is more versatile. If you want better results, limit your auto-ISO setting to a ISO 800. Doing this ensures the camera selects the best suited sensitivity for your shots, without cluttering them with loads of garbage noise. Though you should be fine if you let the AW130 creep into a higher setting, some intricate details may be missing in the result. The camera’s noise reduction programming tends to confuse these things up in higher ISO settings.

However, what plays the biggest role in how these shots come out is the environment. Deep water restricts the level of light available, and would result in snaps having a motion blur. The same is true for any low light scenario, so be mindful of this with point and shoot cameras. Certainly with narrow apertures. In bright light areas, for example in the sandy beach, you will find the burst speed to be surprisingly fast. With shots being snapped at seven frames a second, you can capture all the vacation action with minimal trouble. So the question is to be asked, why buy the Nikon AW130 over other alternatives? Well the answer is in the features. Not only has the hardware seen improvements, but the software received attention as well. Nikon really stepped up their game, and now you can do special things using the AW130.

Although the waterproofing is similar to alternative cameras on the market, the AW130 is rated better (see in-depth reviews of the AW130 at Photography Blog or Camera Labs)  for the extremes that has in comparison to the other models. The defining feature for this model is that it can go where others can’t. The software as well, with the new scene modes is extensive and fun to use. These include new effects that you can add to your shots, including monochrome, shift, and selective color among others. With over 22 different settings, you can find one suited to almost any situation. Furthermore, if you have the time as well as a tripod, you can capture time-lapse videos.

Like other cameras in the AW line by Nikon, this camera includes on-board Wi-Fi which can be used to pair it with your smartphone. Just download the app, dig through your shots and you can share them directly to the web, or even use your phone to take shots remotely with the AW130. This feature isn’t as effective when the camera is underwater, but it still lets you get your best shots on show without waiting until you get home. The app used by the AW130 is used by Nikon’s DSLR range to pair it with the Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility. It’s not the prettiest or the easiest to use, but it does work. However, we did actually find less problems with this app than the wireless dongles recommended for the Nikon DSLR range.

With the Nikon AW130 also coming with on-board GPS and a points-of-interest feature, you can make good use out of it. You can look down from a bird’s eye view in certain areas before you go and explore. In addition to this, you can geotag photos, as well as mapping out your vacation to show people where each shot was taken using the ViewNX 2 software. Just remember to turn the GPS unit on, located on the left side of the device.

2. Olympus TG-4 Review

We have included the Olympus Tough TG-4 as one of our picks because out of all the cameras we tested, it really does take some of the best photos more often than not. If you frame a shot decently with the TG-4 and it reads the situation right, the shots come out looking brilliant, correctly bright, saturated and sharp. Almost as if it was touched up in Photoshop. Which can only be a good thing.

Straight from the camera the photos are ready to be uploaded to Facebook. The ease to produce fantastic looking photos is only the start. The TG-4 comes equipped with a 16-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor. While this is the standard for compact cameras and sensors, and the results shouldn’t blow your mind, they will certainly come out looking on par with other point and click cameras. With 16 megapixels, you have plenty of leeway to crop your photos down to the size you desire. The TG-4 also has an optically stabilized 4x-zoom, 4.5-to-18.0-mm lens (35mm equivalent: 25 to 100mm) which is something not all cameras come with. This means the camera has a large field of view than other tough compact models, so it’s perfect for capturing those broad sweeping horizons and ensuring there’s plenty of scenery in each image.

The lens is definitely the star on the show here. On top of being a sharp lens, the maximum aperture is f/2.0, meaning the lens iris opens further than other rugged cameras. This allows in more light, and results in faster shutter speeds and also lower ISO. The end result? Reduction in motion blur (if you have a shaky hand or moving subject) and annoying digital noise is unlikely to ruin your images. Furthermore, you get better results when shooting in dimmer lit areas when compared to other tough cameras. On top of this, you can make your subject stand out more by using the technique of keeping the subject in focus with the background being slightly blurry. This produces a great look, and while it can only go so far for being a small sensor camera, it is still a nice touch.

These factors combined mean the produced images are certainly going to be better than from the other rugged cameras straight from the start. This is even more true for indoor shots, where light may be more limited. In contrast, the Panasonic instead ramps up the ISO and creates a lot of noisy images. For outdoor shots, the TG-4 makes the colors stand out like mad, skewing towards a higher contrast, making the vividness of the picture pop out. When we tested the camera, the results were noticed in the strangeness of the natural landscape. With rocks being extremely red, and the sky looking like a Crayola Crayon blue color. The trees and cacti had a nice deep green look. This effect may be off-putting to some photo experts or purists, but for the more casual photographer, they will appreciate the WOW factor.

Now, we will look at the differences between the previous TG-3 and the latest TG-4 models. Olympus has now added the capability that allows you to shoot raw photos, which is just brilliant and highly acclaimed by experts (see the TG-4’s positive reviews at Imaging Resource or Reviewed.com). Our team can’t think of any other rugged camera with this feature. This raw format allows greater flexibility when you edit the photos and is hugely improved over using JPEGs. If you use a rugged camera, you know the difficult environments you encounter, and the confusion the automatic sensor in the camera has. This flexibility provided by being able to edit the photos in post-production, really does add something extra to the camera.

In terms of toughness, the TG-4 is about as tough as they come, but not wildly different from the competition. The waterproofness is rated up to 50 feet, and can withstand being crushed from up to 220 pounds. In terms of freeze-proof, it is 14 degrees, and the model can withstand drops of 7 feet. One of the greater features for this model is the autofocus, locking on to targets as fast as the speed of light and immediately ready to fire off a shot. For cameras like this, the speed is crucial, as you typically are trying to capture a lot of action. More often than not, the autofocus can pick the right subject, and has been noticeably improved over previous generations. Definitely faster than the DMC-TS5. However, the burst mode has drawbacks, only firing off five shorts per second. While that isn’t too bad, it does lag behind other models like the DMC-TS5, which can snap 10 shots per second at full resolution.

We might not be the biggest fans in terms of quality, which we will discuss in a minute. It does have the capabilities to record videos at 1080p and 30 frames a second. If you desire too, you can capture 120 frames a second, if you are willing to take the resolution hit at 640×840, and an even larger hit for 240fps at 432×324. Do note, a video shown full screen on a TV or computer would look bad at 640×840 and terrible at 432×324.

In terms of battery life, there has been improvements, especially compared to the TG-2 which simply was one of the worst cameras on the market. However, the TG-3 and TG-4 can now last 380 shots before needing to charge, beating out all other models with the Panasonic capable of 370. Of course, using other features like the Wi-Fi and GPS, will reduce this number further, and our testing showed the DMC-TS5 did outlast the TG-3 slightly. It is hard to determine for all the variables that need to be taken into account responsible for a change either way. While on the topic of Wi-Fi, the TG-4 boasted the best app we have encountered. Allowing for setting altercations, remote shooting and the expected photo transfers. It’s straight forward to pair with your smartphone, just by using a QR code, avoiding the trouble of network passwords. The app worked great on both Android and Apple’s iOS.

Despite the tough exterior of the TG-4, it is still pretty user-friendly. Allowing you to easily flip between shooting modes with the mode wheel, despite the occasional miss-selection. The menu system itself is clean and laid out in an easy to understand manner, better than other alternative cameras out there. With tons of different modes covering every imaginable situation, you are covered no matter where you go.

On top of this, the camera comes with a whole host of different Art filters, which adds some nice effects to your snaps. While these settings are a bit gimmicky, they are still fun, and the extra options are nice to have. Why have an f/2.0 lens if you don’t have an aperture priority mode to make full use of it, right? While the TG-4 might not have a full manual mode, it does have an alternative Program Automatic mode, which is just as close as you should need when it comes to compact cameras. The mode wheel also allows for a Custom mode, so you can set one up using your customized settings fairly quickly.

One of the few features that separate the TG-4 apart from previous models is the ability to shoot raw. That means uncompressed data coming directly from the sensor. Professionals prefer this as it gives more freedom when it comes to editing than a standard JPEG file, but that does consequently mean large file sizes and special software to make those edits. In the tests we performed, the raw files didn’t prove to be great for edits, but manually setting the noise reduction to your desired level is a convenient feature to have.

3. Nikon 1 AW1 Review

Introducing the first interchangeable lens digital camera which will survive when plunged below water; the Nikon 1 AW1. Able to go as far down as 49 feet, survive 6.6 feet drops, and shoot in freezing temperatures, 14 degrees Fahrenheit above ground, and 32 degrees Fahrenheit below water. Like other cameras, the Nikon 1 boasts about its speedy performance, due to it being a mirrorless system. However, the manual controls can be difficult to get to grips with, and that may frustrate those photographers who prefer this mode. Its 1-inch and 14 megapixel image sensor is more than capable of good looking shots, and the price is less than most waterproof housing for similar cameras. If you want to shoot underwater, but feel limited in terms of image quality by compact cameras, and don’t want to invest in a waterproof housing for a DSLR then the AW1 has a lot of appeal.

The design is similar to that of other cameras in the Nikon 1 series, while its rugged exterior has made it bulkier as a result. In terms of size, it measures in at 2.9 by 4.5 by 1.5 inches and weighs only 11.1 ounces without a lens. The AW1 model is compatible with all lenses in the Nikon 1 series, but only 2 of those lenses can go underwater, owing this to a special design that completely covers the mount, protected by rubber rings. If you remove the lens, you can see that the image sensor is then protected by a sealed cover only a few millimeters above. The battery and data connection ports are further protected behind double-locking doors, sealed away from any water surrounding it.

When we reviewed this camera, we used the 1 Nikon AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6. However, the AW1 is sold as part of a two lens kit, which includes the 1 Nikon AW 10mm f/2.8. This does not result in a cost saving, as the 10mm sells individually at for an additional price. You can get the AW1 in a variety of colors, including white, silver and black. If these colors don’t take your fancy, there are silicone jackets available to purchase for the zoom lens and camera, coming in colors of orange, black or khaki and selling separately for additional fees.

While the 11m might seem it offers a wide angle in the context of a full frame camera, the field of view is comparable to a 30mm lens owing to the 2.7x crop factor and 1-inch CX sensor. While 30mm is enough view above the ground, an underwater photographer may feel limited with the field of view and an 11.8-inch minimum focus distance. This is because underwater, you want to get as close as possible to your subject to produce the clearest images. The 10mm f/2.8 lens is worthwhile to purchase as an add-on, which focuses at 7.9 inches, but neither of them will get you as close as the Olympus TG-2, which has a 25mm wide-angle lens allowing you to focus as close as 3.9 inches in the standard macro mode. If you use the Microscopic Macro mode, you can get as close as 1cm. However, the TG-2 has a comparatively microscopic1/2.3-inch image sensor, bringing its own set of limitations. If you are considering the AW1, you will be attracted by the ability to swap lenses and by the sensor size itself.

The AW1’s control scheme is not the most innovative. It doesn’t feature a mode dial, and you have to navigate the menu to change it, or alternatively hold down the action button sitting next to the back thumb rest. This will bring up the menu requiring you to tilt the camera to select each mode, represented by a wedge. Now, you can choose which mode to shoot in, offering a Motion Snapshot, Best Moment Capture, Creative, Advanced Movie and an Automatic mode. This way of doing things is great if you only have one hand free, but if you are not a fan of this, it can be changed via the standard menu system.

Besides the power button, shutter release and video record button, all located on the top plate, the AW1’s shooting controls are all found on the rear. Above the top thumb rest, two buttons are situated marked as zoom in and playback zoom, but can also control the shutter speed or aperture if you are shooting in full manual mode or priority. In program mode, the controls adjust aperture, but occasionally they can be unresponsive, and require pressing a few times before the settings are adjusted. The lack of a traditional mode and control dials, along with the lagged response, may frustrate you if you don’t have experience with interchangeable lens systems.

At the back, the four-way controller, controls the drive mode (left), exposure compensation (right) and flash output (down). The top direction is marked with the letter F, standing for Feature. You can use this to change the sub-mode of the current mode. For example, say you are shooting in Creative. You can use this to switch from shutter priority to aperture priority. Alternatively, if you’re shooting in Best Moment Capture, you can switch from Smart Photo Selector functions to Slow View.

If you have no previous experience with the Nikon 1 camera, the Best Moment Capture modes won’t be familiar. The Slow View mode is ideal for capturing action, as holding the shutter button only halfway will slow down the Live View feed, allowing you to close the shutter at the perfect moment. The Smart Photo Selector will capture bursts of images, and automatically selects the best 5. Motion Snapshot is a bit of an oddball mode, it captures together a short slow-motion video clip and a still image, and edits them together into a short video clip, adding in one of four different musical tracks. This can be a bit of a neat effect, but it takes 13 seconds, which seems like eternity when you are waiting for the camera to process and save the movie, before viewing it on the AW1. If you want to transfer the clip to your computer, you must use the Nikon software which is included, and the video won’t work if you import the memory card into any other program.

Nikon has broken the menu up into six panes in a tile based menu system. They consist of Playback, Shooting, Image Processing, Movies and Setup. There’s a few issues here. The options displayed in the Shooting pane change depending on which mode the camera is currently in, but will still translate from one mode to the next. If you set image quality to Raw while in the Creative shooting mode, it will still be set to Raw if you change to Auto. However, that option isn’t shown if you are in Motion Snapshot, as it isn’t supported in this mode. Strangely, Nikon decided the best place for ISO and white balance setting is the image process pane, which probably isn’t the first place you would think, but it is where you will find it.

The rear display acts as your viewfinder, since there’s no EVF built-in and the sealed design restricts an add-on EVF. Fortunately, this is a decent size, at 3 inches, and shows images sharply at 920k dots. Contrasting to the display, the flash pop-up is hinged, which is rare for a rugged camera. The AW1 does also support bounce flash. You can achieve this by pulling the flash back with your finger just before you take a photo, which results in the light shooting upwards, hitting the ceiling if you’re indoors, and producing a softer illumination of your subject. While not appropriate for all contexts, it is nice to have that option available.

With an inbuilt GPS coming with the AW1 that will automatically add geographic tags to your photos, you are presented with a handy feature if you spend time traveling. With the right software, such as Picasa (now Google Photos) or Flickr, you can view the photos on a world map, which is nice. While no Wi-Fi is built-in, the AW1 does support WU-1b, a separate add-on, but itself is not waterproof. There won’t be any rat-a-tat noises either from the shutter, as there is no traditional shutter. The electronic shutter included provides a silent operation, and captures exposure as low as 1/6000 of a second, but it’s limited in the flash sync speed, which is 1/60-second.

You can also record videos up to 1080i60 quality in QuickTime formats with the AW1. With the option of shooting at 1080p30, 720p60 or 720p30 depending on what you desire. Similar to other cameras in the 1 series, you can catch low resolution footage at 1200 fps (120p) and 400fps (240p), which will create extremely slow motion captures. When the camera captures footage, it catches crispness and colorfulness, without compromising audio, despite the waterproof microphone. It is fast on focusing the result, but doesn’t produce any evidence for a rolling shutter effect when capturing in 60i. You will find a mini HDMI port under the double locked doors, allowing you to connect the camera to your TV, along with a mini USB port for your PC. A different double locking door prevents damage to the battery, which comes with an included charger, and the SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slots.

If you want to make underwater photography a serious hobby, but lack the budget to purchase dedicated housing and underwater strobes you need if you are an SLR scuba diver, the AW1 should definitely come up on your radar. While it is limited by not having an ultra-wide zoom lens or by being able to focus close, with the interchangeable lens design, there might be changes in the future.

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