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2023 Best Cameras for Beginners Starting their Journey Into Underwater Photography

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 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 links 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 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
Olympus E-PL10 with Backscatter Octo Housing

My Top Pick For Beginners & Those Wanting a Small Rig: 
Olympus E-PL 10 with Octo Housing : $1250 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 E-PL10 strikes this balance almost perfectly, especially when paired with Backscatter’s Octo Housing – and does it for under $1300. 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.

First off, the Olympus E-PL10 has a 16.1 megapixel Micro 4/3 CMOS sensor in an interchangeable lens mirrorless camera body that is only slightly larger than most high end compact cameras. It has a wealth of features that can adapt to you as you grow as a photographer. The E-PL10 can shoot full manual mode, meaning you will have full control over your images & exposure — something it’s 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 focus shots. Plus the built-in interval timer means no need to buy and carry an external intervalometer for stacking night images.

The Olympus E-PL10 has been my go to recommendation for those just starting out as well as for those looking for a small rig at a great price point. Because of this, I’ve had a lot of time to play with the camera showing my photo workshop students how to use it 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 it’s 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 cameras 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 go to beginner underwater camera recommendation.

But let’s look at the housing now. Backscatter pulled out all the stops when creating the Octo Housing for the E-PL10. 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 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 Olympus E-PL10 camera

Who’s this Camera For?

The Olympus E-PL10 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 those photographers looking for small, light weight system. And at less than $1,300 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
  • 16-megapixel Live MOS Four Thirds sensor
  • TruePic VIII Image Processor
  • 3-axis in-body image stabilization (rated up to 3.5 stops)
  • 121-area FAST autofocus system (contrast-detect AF)
  • 4K UHD video at up to 30p
  • 8.6fps burst with S-AF; 4.8fps with C-AF
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

My recommendation for those with a little more budget:
Sony a6600 Camera Body : $1398 + lens & housing  

The Sony a6600 camera body is an awesome crop sensor mirrorless with a wealth of features –including all of the similar features found on the Olympus E-PL10 but with better specs. It utilizes a 25 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, shoots RAW, as well as 4k 30fps video. The a6600 uses Sony’s E mount which means you have an incredible array of available lenses to choose from. Additionally it has 425 Phase & contrast detection focus points giving it snappy auto focus. The E-PL10 utilizes only contrast detection with 121 focus points for comparison.  But all of this comes at a much higher price tag with the camera body alone retailing for $1398 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 lens and housing you choose. But if you have the budget for it, the Sony a6600 is a great camera all around and considered one of the best crop sensor travel photography cameras on the market.

  • Sony’s flagship APS-C E-mount mirrorless camera
  • 24.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS image sensor
  • Weather-resistant body
  • Tilting 3″ touchscreen
  • XGA OLED electronic viewfinder
  • Shoots at up to 11 frames per second
  • Hybrid autofocus system with 425 phase-detect autofocus points
  • Real-time eye-AF and real-time AF tracking
  • 5-axis in-body image stabilization
  • 4K/30p video recording
  • Built-in microphone and headphone jacks
School of jacks while diving in Cabo Pulmo, Baja, Mexico

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 is lacking a lot of the features you’re going to want for photography. 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 E-PL10 or Sony a6600 so you can make an informed decision on what you are buying.

To start off, the TG-6 does not have 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 underwater. The more control you have over your camera the better your shots are going to be. From a sensor perspective the E-PL10’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 E-PL10 or a6600. Plus once you add-on that wet wide angle lens you are already getting really close to the price of the E-PL10. You’ll also get better battery life with the E-PL10 or a6600 mirrorless systems, meaning you don’t have to stress missing shots on a dive.  

Who Should Get a TG-6?

In my opinion, the Olympus TG-6 is more 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 $800 for the camera and housing. But for me, I would just save up a little and grab the E-PL10 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.

photographing hammerhead sharks at Cocos Island Costa Rica

Wrap Up

When buying an underwater camera there are always 3 things you need to consider. What do you aim to accomplish with it? As in, I want to learn to create beautiful photos or cinematic video. Or maybe I 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, where as 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 next consider how big of a rig do 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 know need to carry the rig the entire dive and are more focused on the camera than just enjoying a dive. That’s not a bad thing per say, 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 $1300, grab the Olympus E-PL10 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 or going on a trip to play with your new toy! If you have a bigger budget, then go for the Sony a6600. If you don’t really care to learn how to get good shots and prefer to run 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.