If you're spending a day lounging on the beach or snorkeling at an exotic locale, you may choose to leave your camera at home for fear of getting it wet or otherwise damaged. If those are the only things holding you back from snapping photos during your outdoor adventures, consider picking up a model that can withstand some abuse and even shoot underwater and keep on ticking.
We've reviewed specialized cameras like the SeaLife Micro 2.0, which is rated to work at depths of 200 feet, where only the most highly-trained scuba divers dare venture. If your needs aren't that specific, you can also shop for a better all-around compact, like our Editors' Choice, the Olympus TG-5. It has a wide-aperture lens, can survive drops and extreme cold, and is rated for 50-foot dives.
You'll notice that most underwater compacts have short zooms or fixed focal length lenses. There's a good reason for this—all of the zooming mechanism has to be sealed in the body. Pocket models with long zooming lenses achieve that by significantly extending the lens past the body when the camera is powered on.
Larger Sensors, Better Images
Nikon has a unique offering in the form of the 1 AW1. It's the only interchangeable lens model on the market that can go underwater without a housing. It uses a 1-inch image sensor, much larger than those in a typical compact, and you can take it as deep as 49 feet. There are currently two lenses available for the camera that can go underwater with it, but if you're on dry land it can accept any 1 Nikkor lens. If you want to enjoy the benefits of a 1-inch sensor in a compact form factor, take a look at the aforementioned SeaLife DC2000.
If a 1-inch sensor isn't big enough, and you've got deep pockets, the Leica X-U is a solid option. It's rated for use 49 feet below the surface and has an image sensor that's the same size found in consumer SLRs. Its lens is also a gem, with a bright f/1.7 aperture and a fixed 35mm field of view.
If none of these models tickle your fancy, consider choosing a camera that's not natively rated for underwater use and pair it with an external housing from Ikelite, Sea and Sea, or another well-regarded manufacturer. You can get housings for popular SLRs and compact cameras as well, giving you a bit more versatility. But it's typically a more complicated proposition than simply buying a waterproof model. You'll need to worry about getting the right ports for your lens and checking seals between dives. A housing is a choice for a serious underwater enthusiast, not a casual snorkeler.
An Action Cam Instead?
What about a GoPro? Most action cameras are waterproof, either on their own or by using an external case, which is typically included. But they're more specialized tools, better for videos than stills, with near fish-eye lenses that are designed to capture a wide swath of the world. Couple that with a form factor that doesn't lend itself well to handheld use—action cams are designed to be mounted on your surfboard or helmet—and you have a specialized tool that doesn't replace a more traditional point-and-shoot camera. If that's what you want, check out our picks for The Best Action Cameras.
For a look at every camera we've reviewed, not just those that can go underwater, check out our Digital Cameras Product Guide.
Bottom Line: The Olympus Tough TG-5 is a go-anywhere camera with a fast lens, speedy response, and 4K video, but it's more expensive than previous iterations.
Bottom Line: The Canon PowerShot D30 can go deep underwater, but feels pretty dated in terms of image quality and performance.
Bottom Line: The Leica X-U (Typ 113) is a ruggedized, waterproof compact camera with an SLR-sized image sensor that takes great photos, but it's very expensive.
Bottom Line: The Nikon 1 AW1 is the first interchangeable lens camera that you can take deep underwater, but it's best left in automatic mode.
Bottom Line: The Nikon Coolpix W100 is a tough, inexpensive camera at a reasonable price, but image quality isn't any better than a good smartphone.
Bottom Line: The SeaLife DC2000 is a capable point-and-shoot camera on land and under the sea, thanks to a crisp, bright lens and 1-inch image sensor.
Bottom Line: The SeaLife Micro 2.0 WiFi can dive deeper than most waterproof point-and-shoot cameras, but it's a slow performer.