Best Underwater Camera System of 2019
By Jean Rydberg
There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in underwater photography. Each shooter has his or her own specific needs and desires which ultimately dictate the best choice of camera for them.
From year to year there are systems that stand out from the others as better suited for underwater use. In 2019, the winner is clear.
Our choice of best underwater camera system of 2019 is the Canon EOS Rebel SL3 compact DSLR; also known as the EOS 250D in European markets, EOS 200D II in Australia and Asia, or Kiss X10 in Japan.
Here's why we think the SL3 is perfect for use in and underwater.
The SL3 is really comfortable to use whether you have small or large hands. A Quick Set menu function provides a large bright display of your settings using the camera's full 3" rear LCD screen.
Easy Manual Controls
Canon is known for great ergonomics and comfortable control sets. As cameras continue to get more complicated, their menus can turn into labyrinths that you get stuck navigating forever.
The Rebel SL3 on the other hand is straightforward to use and simple to set up. As you would expect from a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can change exposure settings like ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
Use the camera's Quick Set menu to adjust settings on the fly and view your settings in large print on the huge rear 3" LCD display. Compared to compact mirrorless systems, the exposure settings display via the Quick Set menu is significantly larger and easier to read underwater.
RAW image capture is supported which allows you to tweak exposure settings on your computer using Adobe® Lightroom or another photo editing program.
To this day, some of the most revered lenses for underwater digital photography are those with the standard Canon EF mount. A wide angle, mid-range zoom, and macro are the trinity of underwater shooting.
The Best Lenses
Any camera is only as good as the lens on the front of it. Mirrorless cameras have come a long way but are still held back by lackluster lens options. You're still frequently stuck adapting a lens that was designed for optimum performance with a DSLR system.
The Rebel SL3 accepts Canon EF lenses directly without an adapter. Canon glass currently represents the best of the best underwater. You only need a few affordable lenses in your arsenal to cover the gamut of underwater shooting: the 18-55mm kit for semi-wide rectilinear shooting, the Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye for close focus wide angle (CFWA), and the Canon 60mm Macro (or 100mm Macro) for close-up. The best part? You can pick up the 10-17mm and the 60mm for under $1000 US... for BOTH of them!
True TTL strobe exposure is the standard on land and it works just as well underwater- if you're using the right system. Don't let the "experts" fool you- TTL is effective in both wide angle and macro.
True TTL Flash Function
TTL basically means that the camera evaluates the scene and tells an external strobe which power setting to use. True TTL function requires a connection that lets the camera know that an external TTL compatible flash is being used. Strobe systems that simply watch the camera's flash through a fiber optic cord do not do this.
Circuitry built into the housing for the Rebel SL3 allows the camera to communicate directly with current model Ikelite DS strobes to adjust strobe power each time you pull the trigger. The communication is instantaneous and incredibly accurate.
Some people claim that TTL shouldn't be used underwater, or at least that it shouldn't be used for wide angle photography. Nothing could be further from the truth. TTL works for both macro and wide angle to improve the quality of lighting in your photos and increase your success rate.
When composing an image, an optical viewfinder gives you the most true to the eye view of your scene. Swap out the standard Supereye for a 45º Magnifying Viewfinder and you'll wonder how you ever shot photos underwater without one.
The rear LCD screen is great when you're standing in the camera store or sitting on your sofa reviewing photos. But in bright outdoor light they can be difficult or impossible to see, even when shaded by your housing. A viewfinder is the most effective way to compose an image underwater. The SL3 housing also accepts optional viewfinder accessories including the must-have 45º Magnifying Viewfinder.
Amazing Battery Life
When shooting underwater, battery life is a major advantage. The last thing you want is for your camera to die in the middle of a dive. And you definitely don't want to be opening your housing on deck to change batteries.
At over 1000 shots per charge, the SL3 battery life is 2-3 times that of other compact cameras and is on par with professional level DSLR cameras.
You almost have to see it to believe it. The size and weight of the SL3 is completely different than any other DSLR camera on the market.
Compact and Lightweight
When you read the word "DSLR" you're probably thinking of a big system. That's true with other DSLR cameras. But Canon designed the SL3 to compete with compact mirrorless camera systems. It's billed as the smallest and lightest DSLR camera in the world.
More importantly, the housing is half the size and weight of a traditional DSLR. That makes a big difference when packing and carrying your gear around the dive site. But we really care about underwater performance, right?
Underwater the compact system reduces drag and is less negatively buoyant than a traditional DSLR. This means less fatigue in both your arms and legs. It also means improved air consumption since you're not fighting such a heavy system. The compact proportions allow you to get closer to your subject than you can with a larger rig.
The Rebel SL3 may be Canon's smallest and least expensive DSLR, but it's no slouch with a 24 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, DIGIC 8 processor, and Dual Pixel autofocus system. The camera is fast and fun to shoot underwater, which means you'll want to get in the water more often and you'll get more shots when you do. The results really speak for themselves.
Aim right between the eyes and pull the trigger. Autofocus speed, proper strobe exposure, and the ability to maneuver in narrow spaces all come together to help you get the shot.
Canon's compact DSLR doesn't have a huge following among landlubbers, so it has likely been flying under your radar. Its unique combination of size and feature set happen to make it an amazing choice to put in an underwater housing. This is our top pick when we go out to shoot, and the Rebel SL series has the highest customer satisfaction rate of any system currently on the market.
We didn't even talk about price. At less than $2000US for a housing, dome port, camera, and lens, the Rebel SL3 represents the best performance to dollar ratio in the water right now.
The Canon Rebel SL3 is a great choice for anyone who's new to underwater photography, anyone who's looking to upgrade from a compact camera or GoPro, or anyone who's looking to downsize from a traditional DSLR.
Like almost every camera on the market, the Rebel SL3 provides fantastic image quality for photos worthy of framing. Plus the system is actually fun to shoot and easy to travel with- meaning you're less likely to miss that frame-worthy photo opportunity.
There are other great cameras out there on the market. Here's a run-down of the other top contenders.
Olympus Tough TG-6
If you absolutely have to have the smallest and lightest system available, then the Olympus Tough TG-6 system is for you. You'll be giving up speed and ability to manually set both shutter speed and aperture at the same time which is kind of a big deal underwater.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 VII
The RX100 VII camera is great for topside travel use but its zoom range ends up limiting the effectiveness of wide angle and macro lenses. This is a great choice if you're transitioning out of a GoPro and a compact 4K video system is your primary desire.
Nikon D850 and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
If low light performance and image resolution are your primary driving factors there's no question that these full frame DSLR cameras will give you the performance you're looking for. Be prepared for a significant dollar investment and a commitment to carrying around a beast of a system- the camera bodies start at 2.2 lb (1000 g) before you even add a lens or housing.
Nikon Z6 / Z7 and Sony Alpha A7R IV
These full frame mirrorless camera bodies look like babies next to the D850, but don't be fooled. These cameras pack some serious potential and are a pleasure to use underwater thanks to their bright electronic viewfinders (EVFs) which can be used for both composition and image review. A full frame mirrorless is a great choice if you're looking for top image quality and the latest technology, and are willing to sacrifice some on battery life.
Jean Rydberg is the President & CEO of Ikelite. She has lived her whole life in landlocked Indianapolis, Indiana, but is no stranger to the water as a daughter of Ikelite’s founder Ike Brigham. She has traveled around the world shooting and testing gear and enjoys new challenges in both photography and diving. Jean loves to learn about the creative ways photographers achieve their visions. More than anything she wants to show aspiring underwater photographers that excellence is attainable with any system. When she's not working she's spending time with her husband and two daughters.