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2023 Best Cameras for Beginners Starting their Journey Into Underwater Photography

UPDATE JULY 26, 2023 – There are two new incredible cameras out, so I have updated the article to include them.

What is the best camera for someone just starting out with underwater photography? This is a question I have been asked more times than I could count. We see it on Facebook groups, message boards, and Instagram almost daily. Every time I do an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session, it’s almost guaranteed it will be asked multiple times. But I understand why. There are so many options and differing viewpoints online, making it quite difficult for new photographers to know what to spend their hard-earned money on. So to help make things easier, I’m going to outline my top picks for the best underwater camera for beginners, as well as the reasons why I recommend them. I’ll also link to where you can purchase them so you can make sure you are getting exactly what you need.

Before we get started, I want to mention that I am writing this article for people who are actually looking to learn photography and get awesome shots. Not for those who just want to put the camera in ‘auto’ mode and push buttons, hoping for the best. And – spoiler alert – the Olympus TG-6 is not on the list! But I will explain why at the end of this article too. This way you can decide what works best for you. Ready to rock? Let’s jump in!

Underwater halloween model photoshoot in Los Cabos by Jay Clue
Best Underwater cameras Review of Olympus OM-D E-M 10 IV with Backscatter Octo Housing and 14-42mm EZ Lens

My Top Pick For Beginners & Those Wanting a Small Rig: 
Olympus OM-D E-M10 IV with Octo Housing: $1498 USD

Finding a solid balance between price and quality is probably the hardest entry point for new underwater photographers. No one wants to throw down $10,000 on a massive full-frame rig to find out they don’t really enjoy underwater photography. The Olympus OM-D E-M10 IV strikes this balance almost perfectly, especially when paired with Backscatter’s Octo Housing – and does it for under $1500. That alone is an amazing feat in my opinion, but let’s look at why it’s a great starter camera that you can grow with.

Similar to the Olympus E-PL10 – my previous top pick for beginners, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 IV packs a ton of great features in a very small package. First off, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 IV has a 20.3 megapixel Micro 4/3 Live MOS sensor giving you an extra 4 megapixels over the E-PL10 as well as a better sensor. It boasts an interchangeable lens mirrorless camera body that is only slightly larger than most high-end compact cameras and a wealth of features that can adapt to you as you grow as a photographer. The OM-D E-M10 IV can shoot full manual mode, meaning you will have full control over your images & exposure — something its little brother, the TG-6 lacks. It shoots in RAW for photography which translates to meaning you can properly edit your photos in post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom. It also shoots 4k 30fps for those interested in video and has a solid custom white balance system. For those interested in macro, astro or nightscape photography, you will love its manual focus magnification and focus peaking to help you get those beautiful pin-sharp shots. Plus, the built-in interval timer means no need to buy and carry an external intervalometer for stacking night sky images.

The Olympus E-PL10 used to be my go-to recommendation for those just starting out until the Olympus OM-D E-M 10 IV with the Backscatter Octo Housing was released. For those looking for a small rig at a great price point, you really can’t beat it. I’ve had a lot of time to play with both cameras showing my photo workshop students how to use them for everything from underwater photography to landscape, astrophotography, underwater modeling and much more. The camera gives great image detail and sharp resolution without blowing out highlights or making the shadows noisy. It also produces nice vibrant colors. Plus, the lens and optics options are unreal for a camera in its class. You have lenses and ports for fisheye (including the Lumix 8mm that I won my first-ever photo award with!), wide-angle zoom, macro, telephoto zoom, and the list just goes on. The Micro 4/3 mount covers a ton of Olympus and Panasonic lenses, so there are a lot of great options. And all of this in a camera only slightly larger than a TG-6? Maybe now, you are starting to see why it’s my recommendation for the best beginner underwater camera.

But let’s look at the housing now. Backscatter pulled out all the stops when creating the Octo Housing for the OM-D E-M10 IV. If you’re not familiar with them, Backscatter is hands down the best underwater camera shop on our planet. Their team tailored the Octo Housing features to get you the best bang for your hard-earned cash. The housing comes stock with a vacuum lock system as well as a strobe trigger for those looking to add lights. To put that into perspective, normally, strobe triggers can run about $300 USD, and vacuum systems can set you back another $300 on top of that.  Plus, it comes with everything you need, as well as a bunch of extra accessories, so you are ready to rock! Check out the photo – that’s everything that comes just with the stock housing. You definitely aren’t going to get that from another housing brand. Lastly, it just looks awesome with the black tentacles and white base.

Backscatter Octo Housing included accessories for the Olympus OM-D EM10 IV

Who’s this Camera For?

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 IV and Backscatter Octo housing is perfect for those just starting out that want a camera they can grow with and get great shots out of. Its size also makes it a perfect camera rig for travel or for those photographers looking for a small, lightweight system. And at less than $1,500 USD it also leaves you a bit of budget to purchase a strobe or video lights to take your shots to the next level.

Key Features At A Glance

  • Compact Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera body
  • 3-inch touchscreen with 180-degree flip-down design
  • 20.3 megapixel Live MOS Four Thirds sensor
  • TruePic VIII Image Processor
  • 5-axis Sensor shift image stabilization (rated up to 4.5 stops)
  • 121-area FAST autofocus system (contrast-detect AF)
  • 4K UHD video at up to 30p
  • 8.7fps fast continuous shooting rate
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

My top recommendation for those with a little more budget:
Sony a6700 Camera with 16-50 PZ Lens: $1498 + housing  

The new Sony a6700 is an incredible crop sensor mirrorless camera with a wealth of features –including all of the similar features found on the Olympus OMD EM10 IV — but with even better specs! It utilizes a 26-megapixel APS-C Exmor R CMOS sensor, and shoots RAW, as well as 4k 120fps video. The a6700 uses Sony’s E mount, which means you have a jaw-dropping array of available lenses to choose from. Additionally, it boasts a 759-point autofocus system that features Sony’s latest artificial intelligence (AI) system, which can recognize and focus an expanded array of subjects from trains, insects, cars, and airplanes. The E-M10 IV utilizes only contrast detection with 121 focus points for comparison.  But all of this comes at a higher price tag, with the camera and 16-50mm PZ kit lens retailing for $1498 USD. From there, you will need to add on your lens and an underwater housing which can easily bring your budget upwards of $3000 or more, depending on which housing you choose. But if you have the budget for it, the Sony a6700 is a great camera all around and is considered one of the best crop sensor cameras on the market.

Sony a6700 Mirrorless Camera
Sony a6700 Mirrorless Camera
School of jacks while diving in Cabo Pulmo, Baja, Mexico

The a6700 was just released in late July 2023, so it’s going to be a few weeks before underwater housings and port charts become available. We can pretty much expect that Nauticam will be announcing a housing for it in the near future as well as other brands.  Backscatter has already begun taking preorders for the Sony a6700 Nauticam housing, which you can grab here. Just let them know Jay Clue sent you. Once everything is released, I’ll be posting a dedicated article just for the a6700 with lens options, ports, and everything else you might want to know! In the meantime, if you’re interested in setting up a rig for it, give me a shout and I can tell you which lenses and ports I’d recommend!

  • Sony’s new flagship APS-C E-mount mirrorless camera
  • 26-megapixel Exmor R CMOS image sensor
  • Weather-resistant body
  • Tilting 3″ touchscreen
  • XGA OLED electronic viewfinder
  • Shoots at up to 11 frames per second
  • AI autofocus system with 759 autofocus points
  • Real-time eye-AF and real-time AF tracking
  • 5-axis in-body image stabilization
  • 4K/120p video recording
  • Built-in microphone and headphone jacks

Why Choose These Over the TG-6?

While the Olympus TG-6 is a decent point-and-shoot compact camera with a low price tag, it lacks a lot of the features you’re going to want for photography and videography. But as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Now this section isn’t meant to beat on the TG-6 at all. I’d more like to show you where it lacks in comparison to the Olympus OM-D EM10 IV or Sony a6700 so you can make an informed decision on what you are buying.

To start off, the TG-6 does not offer a manual mode, so you do not have full control over all of your exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO). Instead, you are limited to the camera deciding what the aperture or shutter should be using – depending on which shooting mode you are in. This is never really a good thing, and even more so underwater. The more control you have over your camera, the better your shots are going to be. From a sensor perspective, the EM10 IV’s Micro 4/3 sensor is roughly 6x larger than the TG-6’s sensor. The a6600’s sensor is over 11x larger. That’s significantly larger, resulting in cleaner, sharper images with more dynamic range. 

The TG-6 is also a fixed-lens compact camera. In other words, you have a 1 size fits most lens and can not change the lens.  This is ok for working with macro subjects using the TG’s great in-camera macro mode, but the camera really struggles with wide-angle and large animals. But what about the wet wide-angle lens for the TG, Jay? It’s sadly not going to compare to using a proper lens and port with better optics like you will find on the OM-D EM10 IV or a6700. Plus, once you add on that wet wide-angle lens, you are already getting really close to the price of the OM-D EM10 IV. You’ll also get better battery life with the EM10 IV or a6700 mirrorless systems, meaning you don’t have to stress about missing shots on a dive.  

School of jacks while diving in Cabo Pulmo, Baja, Mexico

Who Should Get a TG-6?

In my opinion, the Olympus TG-6 is for divers that just want a small, easy-to-use camera that they can just throw in Auto mode and click the shutter button and hope for the best. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Many aren’t really looking to learn photography, and that’s totally fine! The problem I find is that many divers are pushed to the TG-6 from Facebook groups or ‘armchair experts’. Then a few months later, they realize the limitations of the camera and have to go out to buy something new. I hate seeing divers waste money they could have spent on diving if they just had good info upfront. One of the benefits of the TG-6 is that it’s small and easily clipped off to your BCD. So you don’t need to carry it around like a bigger rig. It’s also pretty cheap at around $900 for the camera and housing. But for me, I would just save up a little and grab the OM-D EM10 for $500 more. At least then, I wouldn’t worry about outgrowing the TG-6 in a few months and wanting to buy a new camera. But in the end, it all comes down to which underwater camera system better fits your needs.

Wrap Up

When buying an underwater camera there are always 3 things you need to consider. What do you aim to accomplish with it? Do you want to learn to create beautiful photos or cinematic video? Or maybe you just want something to take quick snaps on a dive for memories? Next, you need to decide what type of budget you want to spend on the system. A compact ‘point & shoot’ style system can run you from $700-$1500, whereas a crop sensor mirrorless could run anywhere from $1200 upwards of $6000+. A full-frame mirrorless or DSLR system could run from $5000 to well over $10,000. Once you know your budget & goals, you want to consider next how big of a rig you want to carry and travel with. When you start getting into the larger cameras, the rigs get exponentially larger, which means diving is no longer just diving – it’s shooting photos & video. This is because you now need to carry the rig the entire dive and are have to be focused on the camera instead of just being in the moment. That’s not a bad thing per se, for me, I love photography as much as if not more than, I love diving. But it’s always nice to go for a dive without the camera sometimes to remember why you fell in love with diving in the first place.

So, what should you get? If you want a solid camera and have a budget of $1500, grab the Olympus OM-D EM10 IV with Octo Housing. You won’t regret it. If you have a little more budget, you can add on a strobe or video light or just put that extra cash towards doing a workshop to learn how to use it, or going on a trip to play with your new toy! If you can afford a bigger budget, then I’d hands down go for the Sony a6700. If you don’t really care to learn how to get good shots and prefer to run it in “auto mode” or just want something you can stuff in your pocket or clip to a BCD, then go for the Olympus TG-6 for photo or a Go Pro for video. Want to go all in and learn to shoot professionally? Give me a shout, and I’ll help you build a full frame rig that matches your shooting style.

photographing hammerhead sharks at Cocos Island Costa Rica