Choosing the Best Underwater Camera

Happy First Day of Summer!  In honor of the change of seasons (to the best time of year in my opinion!), I’m reviewing four underwater cameras to help you decide which is the best waterproof / underwater camera out there!
We leave for our honeymoon in just over a month, and I’ve been saying I want to get an underwater camera to bring with us! I’m debating leaving my SLR at home (yeah right, we know that isn’t happening….), but I still want something tough and waterproof to bring that I can throw in my bag as we’re lounging on the beach in St. Lucia. My fiancé left the camera buying to me, and I take my job seriously, so I decided on a full out comparison/review.

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Here’s the four cameras I reviewed*

Let me start by saying that I’ve owned many, many, many cameras in my 30 years of existence. I am largely a Nikon girl, with my primary camera being a Nikon D7000 . In the past, my point and shoots have been Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic, so while I am brand loyal to Nikon, I will branch out if it means getting the best photos possible.

For this review, I picked two Olympus brand cameras, one Nikon and one Pentax.  The Olympus and Nikon both received top ratings in the underwater category on Amazon, but I wasn’t sure if that was based on user reviews or sales, so I did what any nutty photographer would do.  I bought them all. (Allll the cameras….buy allllll the cameras!).  These field tests are not full of charts and graphs, but are basic comparisons to each other.  They’re waterproof cameras, so I headed out to the beach and put them through a variety of tests.  For each photo, I set all the cameras to the same (or comparable) settings and stood in the same spot and took one photo with each camera.  All the photos below are un-edited, as you would see them straight out of the camera.  I wanted to test the cameras abilities, not my photo editing abilities!

In each photo below, the top left hand corner is the Olympus Tough TG-320, the top right hand corner is the Olympus Tough TG-2, the bottom left hand corner is the Nikon and the bottom right hand corner is the Pentax.  I’ll write what settings I used above each photo/what the purpose of each photo was.

This was just taken on the auto setting.  In this case I was testing how wide angle each lens was.  (Each camera claims to have a wide angle lens).  As you can see, the Olympus TG-2 and Pentax are both the widest.  But- the Pentax takes wider than normal photos (at an HD aspect ratio).  If cropped to 4×6, it would be on par with the other two cameras.  Also, you can see that the Nikon (bottom left) seems to be washed out.

Pier

Next up is the macro capabilities.  All cameras have a macro and a super macro setting.  I set each on the super macro setting and got as close as I could to the caterpillar.  The Pentax out-performed all three other cameras in focusing distance- I was practically on top of the little guy!
caterpillar
Now, to the beach to check out the cameras’ rugged-ness.  This is the end of the beach looking out over a marsh area.  Again, I wanted to see how wide the wide angle was, in addition to how well the cameras rendered the green of the grass and the blue of the sky.  In my opinion, the Olympus TG-2 was far superior.

Grass-Sky

Next up was the zoom capabilities.  I stood in the same spot as the photo above, and zoomed in as far as I could to an Osprey sitting in the dunes.  They all appeared to be similar- but the Pentax has a larger digital zoom (which I’d rarely use because it decreases quality)
Osprey- Zoom

For this photo, I set the camera to auto and focused on the feather.  The Olympus TG-2 and Pentax both have an f/2 lens, and I wanted to test out the depth of field.  Nothing to write home about here- although the Pentax did have a bit of bokeh (blur) in the background.  (Also, note to self- the Pentax lens seems to be in the way of my finger- I am not new to photography by any stretch of the imagination, but I found my finger in 3 or 4 Pentax pictures!  In my defense, it was very bright outside and I wasn’t really looking at the screen too carefully).

Again, look at the color differences between the four photos!
Feather

While not a true macro, I did put all the cameras on the macro setting to try to focus on the sea glass I collected.  All cameras performed similarly.  (And yes, I can take a photo with a straight horizon….)
Macro-Shells

This photo was to test contrast.  I put each on the “landscape” setting (if anything- just to check for color renditions). I knew I was essentially shooting in the sun, and under the boardwalk area would be dark and potentially underexposed.  The Olympus TG-2 and Pentax performed best in my opinion (are you sensing a trend here?).  You can actually see detail under the boardwalk area, and yet my legs aren’t overexposed.  I also tried out the self timer setting on all four- the two Olympus had 2 second and 12 second options and Nikon and Pentax had 2 second and 10 second options.  Pentax also has the option to buy a remote, which is a nice feature.
Sittin By The Dock of the Bay
Last, I put all four onto their underwater mode and got down on the level of the waves (which oddly were not big at all!)  For the first time in all my tests, I think the Nikon performed the best- the water seemed the most “crisp”, followed closely by the Pentax.  Both Olympus cameras produced images that were too soft for my liking.

Water

So at this point, I was down to liking two cameras.  The Pentax and the Olympus TG-2.  The Olympus has a nice option of buying two different lenses to screw onto the front (A 1.7x teleconverter and a fisheye).  Both lenses are waterproof, but for a point and shoot camera, seem expensive to me (both run around $100)  The Olympus also had great color renditions, as opposed to the cheaper Olympus and the Nikon.  And last, the Olympus has aperture priorty and some fun features called magic art filters (fisheye, tilt shift, dramatic, etc) which can be fun to play with, but aren’t anything I can’t do in Photoshop.  Even with all of that going for it, I went with the Pentax.  Why?  For one reason- the Pentax does one thing that not one other waterproof camera (not just the ones I reviewed, but out of every waterproof point and shoot out there) does- it has bracketing, meaning I can take a series of 3 photographs, one overexposed, one properly exposed and one underexposed and merge them later into a properly exposed photograph (called HDR for those who care to know).

Now, both Olympus cameras have an HDR setting where they manually merge pictures in camera, but I found them to look dull and flat.  Here is a picture taken with the HDR feature turned on:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And turned off:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But- with my Pentax, I was able to take 3 photos and merge them when I got home in my Photomatix program to get this:
Pentax (32)_3)_4)_tonemapped

Last- both Olympus cameras have something called “drama” which creates a fake HDR, but it seemed to be very jarring:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Final verdict?  The Olympus TG-2 and Pentax were both awesome cameras.  If the Olympus had a bracketing option, that camera would have won by a landslide, but, the bracketing is very important to me, as I tend to shoot 75% or more of my pictures with bracketing turned on, and when I’m not carrying my SLR, I like still being able to have that option. Also, I take a lot of macro shots, and the Pentax’s macro outperformed the others. Plus, the Pentax has a ring of LED lights around the lens that can be illuminated to evenly light a macro object. I tried it out and it worked surprisingly well. It also comes with a macro ring to help balance the camera when using the “digital microscope” effect. I haven’t tried it out yet, but it looks like it’s going to be great.

If you want to keep reading, here’s some pro’s/cons for each camera:

Olympus TG-320:
Pros: lightweight, quick to start up, fun filters, cheapest out of the bunch, macro worked surprisingly well, the toggle switch on the back (sort of like a joystick) was very easy to use, especially when the camera was wet.
Cons: the color renditions were horrible compared to the other three cameras, and that is a major turn off. The camera does not come with a dedicated charger (the camera itself must be plugged in to charge- a pain if you have more than one battery!)

Nikon:
Pros: Very quick to start up, comes with a dedicated battery charger
Cons: the dials are very stiff and tough to operate, zoom is very slow, shutter button is difficult to press, macro worked the worst out of all four cameras.

Olympus TG-2:
Pros: color rendition is excellent!, it’s nice to have a dial on the back to easily access different settings (all three other cameras have you going into a menu), fun filters, adaptable to 2 different lenses, aperture priority mode (with f/2 lens).
Cons: while it is nice to have that dial, it is very difficult to turn when the camera or your hands are wet, 3rd most expensive camera (compared to the other three), no dedicated charger, macro was hit or miss.

Pentax:
Pros: the macro worked amazingly well for a point and shoot. I’d say almost as good as my Nikon and my Tamron AF 60mm macro. This camera has bracketing, as described above, and also I liked the feature of having a ‘fn’ button to which I could assign 4 more options from the menu. Makes changing settings easy. Last, it’s very rugged- the camera is surrounded a heavy rubber that looks like it can take a beating- not to mention it comes with a carabineer clip which will make it handy to attach to my bathing suit in the pool or ocean.
Further research also uncovered that there is a lens you can buy to screw on to the front of the camera. It is a Rioch fisheye and it costs about $125. I can’t really see myself spending that much on a screw on lens for a point and shoot, but its nice to know the option is out there!
Cons: out of the four, this one is the heaviest (which could be a pro if that’s what you’re looking for), it is also the most expensive. It doesn’t come with a dedicated charger like the two Olympus’ cameras. Last, because of the heavy rubber coating, the shutter button seems to be difficult to press, which, could cause camera shake in low light situations.

I think that about covers it! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment and ask.
I cannot wait to go on our honeymoon and test this bad boy out! For now I’ll have to settle on testing it out at the beautiful Jersey shore when I head to the beach one day next week. Stay tuned for more pictures taken with it!

After deciding on the Pentax and playing with it for a few more days, I’ve decided that I am going to back to Amazon and buy the 2 battery pack and charger and a floating wrist strap.

One additional note:
Some of the cameras came with optional GPS- it is not something that is important to me, so I did not review that, but if it is something that is important to you, you should take that into consideration.

*This post is in no way sponsored by the individual camera brands, but the links placed within this post are affiliate links. By clicking through my links and purchasing from Amazon you help support my small blog. Any monies made go toward web hosting. All opinions, words and photographs are my own and may not be copied/reproduced in any way without prior consent.

Update:
Here are a few pictures I took with the Pentax, both on our Honeymoon to St. Lucia and just in general since then.

Scuba diving:
1094739_590519897039_658908365_o

1094692_590519857119_1114193442_o

 

Power tubing (we went close to 40 mph on these things!)

1116276_590519283269_226488172_o

 

And in our pool:1115945_590980898189_603437288_o

 

The pentax also takes awesome panoramas 1149598_590520076679_1202657217_o

 

One more pool shot1263748_595573329919_1698799662_o

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18 thoughts on “Choosing the Best Underwater Camera

  1. Tom Bricker

    Thanks for sharing this thorough review! It’s really tough to find a good underwater camera that also performs well above-water. The Pentax seems to be the best overall choice. I might have to check it out!

    Reply
    1. SewIn2Disney Post author

      Thank you! I look forward to reading your review if you go for it as well. I did hours of research, contacting numerous camera brands, and the Pentax was the only waterproof one with a bracketing feature- I know you take a lot of HDR shots as well so that might be something to keep in mind!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
    2. Matt H

      I recently bought and quickly tested out the pentax wg3 and found out that my camera had a very loud grinding sound when I zoomed in and out and it was even so loud that I could hear it in the video. Does yours have that problem. Also, how is the battery life on your WG3. I think the one I tested had a problem because just after about an hour of testing the camera taking short video clips (macro and normal) and also pictures the battery was almost drained. I would buy the camera again because it has amazing detail in regular video and in macro video, and in pictures and its one of the widest rugged point and shoots I have seen but how is the battery life? After using it for a while do you still like the camera.

      Reply
      1. SewIn2Disney Post author

        I don’t think I noticed the zooming sound, but I don’t tend to use it much for video. My battery life is pretty good too– I did end up buying the extra batteries from Amazon, but it was really just as a back up- I used this camera almost exclusively on our honeymoon to St. Lucia and the battery lasted all day– I did charge it nightly, but I also took close to 500 pictures a day on that one charge. I’d contact the company for a replacement- between your two issues, sounds like you might have gotten a lemon of a camera!

        Reply
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  3. Debra Johnson

    Thanks for sharing this great post!
    I was looking at the Go Pro Hero 3 white, but I saw people’s pictures and the quality looked really bad based on what I saw. I have a budget of about $200. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    1. SewIn2Disney Post author

      I’d definitely go with the Pentax WG-2, it’s basically the same camera that I went with, just one level down. I played around with it in store and it worked just as well as my Pentax (it’s actually the reason I decided to order a Pentax on Amazon!). It’s originally $349, but Amazon has it on sale right now for $209!
      http://www.amazon.com/Pentax-Optio-WG-2-Digital-Camera/dp/B0078KP0SM/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1372766610&sr=8-3&keywords=pentax+waterproof+camera

      Let me know if you have any questions!

      Reply
  4. Nason

    Great, hands-on, real-world review Dana. Thanks.
    Two questions:
    1) Even before finding your review, through other research and in-store hands-on of my own, I had narrowed the field for my rugged point-and-shoot purchase down to your two finalists. I was actually leaning toward the Olympus until tonight, when I read several Amazon user reviews saying the noise of the lens zooming is audible (and horribly so) when zooming while shooting video. Do you have any comment or opinion on this, or how the Pentax performs in this respect?
    2) I get that you’re a Nikon SLR / DSLR loyalist. Is that a Nikon FE in your Lensbaby post? Left over from a past life, I have a gear bag full of an FE, FE2, motordrive and numerous lenses, including a really nice wide, 24mm Nikkor. It’s been gathering dust in the closet for years. Ping if you could give it a good home.
    Keep up the great work.
    — Jason

    Reply
    1. SewIn2Disney Post author

      I can’t help you out with the noise the zoom makes on the Olympus because I already returned mine, but I don’t hear anything on the Pentax when I zoom- I think it is because the zoom mechanism is inside the camera (the lens does not physically move outside of the camera- my guess is so that it can remain watertight!)
      That is an Nikon FE in my other post- I bought it at a garage sale for $5 last summer, and I mainly bought it because it came with three lenses, one being a 50mm f/1.4, and I knew I could use it on my DSLR. I did throw a roll of film into the FE, just to play around with it, but it doesn’t get too much use- like I said, I mainly bought it so I could have a 50mm. Thanks for the offer for the 24 mm, but I actually am a wide angle nut and have both a 10-17mm fisheye and a 11-16mm wide angle!

      Reply
  5. Lena

    First thanks for sharing this informative and long article!
    I have been using Nikon D-10 over half a year and so far so good(maybe it is just because i am a newbie).But recently my dad suggested me get a new one since he figure Nikon’s quality is sucks..After viewing your site i decide to give Pentax a try and hope it will work well!
    Thanks again.

    Reply
  6. Mike Mango

    Great review here, Dana! I too, am from the Jersey shore, and shoot with a Nikon D7000, and had limited my choices down to your top 2 picks before reading your blog. Looks like I may go with the Olympus now, however, since the bracketing option isn’t important to me. Thanks so much for the real world testing!

    Reply
  7. Kristen

    I hope you had a great honeymoon! I found your blog in my search to decide between an Olympus and Pentax. Was just wondering if you took the Pentax into the water and if so how did it fair for you?

    Reply
    1. SewIn2Disney Post author

      Our honeymoon was wonderful! The Pentax performed like a champ! I threw it in my beach bag every day, it went snorkeling, on a kayak and catamaran, and even water tubing!
      Here’s some pictures I took with it when we went snorkeling: http://danaelysephotography.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/honeymoon-trip-report-day-3/
      And since I’ve returned home I’ve taken a bunch of pictures with it in the pool– here’s one of my favorites: http://danaelysephotography.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/fish-out-of-water/
      Let me know which one you go with!

      Reply
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  9. Kenneth Gladman

    Our family is going to Hawaii this summer and we plan on snorkeling. We are really excited and want to capture as much of the trip as possible. An underwater camera would be awesome. Thanks for the advice.

    Reply

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