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Choosing a Compact Camera or DSLR for Underwater Photography

If you’re an underwater photographer who’s ready to make the leap from a compact camera to a DSLR, here’s what you need to know.

Most underwater photographers begin with a compact camera, often moving on to a DSLR. Changing your rig will require a significant investment of time and money, so if you’re just starting out or ready to make the leap, here’s what you need to know about shooting with either a compact camera or a DSLR.

Shooting with a compact camera

A compact camera is the best way to get started in underwater photography. Well-known brands such as Canon, Sony, SeaLife and Nikon have introduced fantastic compact options for both beginners and professionals. Compact cameras offer many advantages. They’re small, which means traveling with them will be effortless. Their size also creates less drag in the water, which is a huge advantage when trying to film fast marine creatures such as whales, marlin and other species. In addition, many compact cameras include a housing, which means you won’t have to search for an appropriate unit or spend more money.

Although some underwater shooters happily use compact cameras for their entire dive careers, others will seek more after having mastered techniques. Either way, becoming competent with multiple manual controls on a compact camera, such as white balance, shutter speed and aperture priorities, allows you to move to a more advanced and multi-control DSLR camera.

Prices for a good compact camera vary between $300 for a basic model and $1000 for the top of the line. 

When to move to a DSLR 

You’ll know it’s time to transition from a compact to a DSLR when you begin to ask yourself questions about the performance of your old camera. Many photographers want to take better pictures at low light, which requires a camera with better aperture range. Others want a more dynamic range of image, such as the ability to shoot macro, wide angle and zoom, all with one device. Perhaps the biggest reason to upgrade, however, is image quality. The ability to shoot in RAW files gives the DSLR user the chance to create huge canvases or smaller files with fantastic detail. Good first choices to make the transition are the Canon EOS 550D or the Nikon D5100. While older models, they are more affordable than newer units, yet allow you to figure out the settings and feel of a DSLR.

Mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras have become popular since 2011. Much smaller than DSLRs, these cameras do not use a mechanical mirror to switch the scene between the optical viewfinder and the optical sensor. Apart from being cheaper than most DSLRs — look to spend from $400 to $2,000 — mirrorless cameras are much smaller, giving users the same easy feel as compact cameras.

When it comes to features, many mirrorless cameras are also giving DSLRs a run for their money. Not only do some of the mirrorless models shoot up to 40-megapixel images, they also film in 4K resolution. Mirrorless cameras also have a fantastic auto-focus system and, with the DSLR adaptor, you can use them with a myriad of lenses. A cheaper mirrorless camera also means a cheaper underwater housing. While a top-of-the-line DSLR housing could cost up to $4,000, mirrorless housings cost around $2,000 or less.

While there are many benefits to a mirrorless camera, battery life is poor when compared to most DSLR models.

Buying a housing and accessories

When purchasing an underwater housing, you’ll consider many factors, including how much to spend and which model. While each camera requires a specific housing, meaning there is no universal housing for all cameras, they are a worthy investment. Nauticam, Ikelite, Sea & Sea and Aquatica are just a few brands that offering durable and safe housings for your camera. You can dive up to (and sometimes beyond) 160 feet (50 m) with most housings.

Before you purchase a housing, however, make sure you know exactly what you want. Dome ports vary for each lens and strobes vary in price, depending on lumen strength and the number of strobes. Other accessories, such as handles and leak-detection technology, can quickly ramp up the price as well. Some of the best DSLR housings will soar to over $5,000. 

Shooting with a DSLR

Most photographers will tell you that the high price of a DSLR is worth it, as the cameras offer many advantages. Not only do most models perform well under many conditions, they also offer an unmatched range of abilities. Compared to compact cameras, DSLRs have fantastic image quality, sometimes exceeding 50 megapixels. They also have better sensitivity to light and an ability to use different lenses and flexible controls. To sum it up, here’s a short list of pros and cons for both DSLRs and compact cameras. Depending on your photographic aspirations, either — or a mid-range mirrorless camera — could be the right choice for you.



  • Image quality
  • Light sensitivity
  • Shutter and aperture ability
  • Use of different lenses
  • Durability


  • Costly
  • Heavy
  • Complex controls
  • Maintenance

Compact Cameras          


  • Size
  • Price
  • Weight
  • Ability to have one lens for both macro and zoom


  • Image Quality
  • Lack of low-light ability
  • Lack of wide-angle (cannot obtain that split-shot image)