A Quest For The Best Underwater Action Camera
Tiny action cameras are a dime a dozen these days. Some cost as little as 50 bucks and others are approaching $500. All these options lead to a lot of questions. Are the cheap one’s total crap? Which one looks best underwater? Which one captures the best overall image and sound? Which one should I spend my cold hard cash on?
These are all questions I had as we prepared our sailboat and ourselves for the Bahamas. It didn’t seem right to hit the crystal-clear waters with our 2-year-old action cameras. As modern-day documentarians, we feel it’s our duty to capture the best video we can afford to capture…and its way past time for us to upgrade!
Last month we joined the B&H affiliate program and convinced them to send us my top choice contenders for underwater cameras. From the super cheap to the professional. I wanted to put a $50 underwater camera against a $5,000 professional rig. Sadly, I felt the pro setup was a little too risky for me to put underwater and completely unrealistic for our shooting style, but the other cameras made for a perfect underwater action camera test.
What did you think of the results? I find it fascinating how very different these cameras perform. I must have watched the footage 20 times trying to figure out the nuances of each one of these action cameras, both underwater and out of water. I couldn’t believe that not one of them produces quality audio with the case on. Really? We’ve got drones that fit in our pocket but a waterproof camera with decent sound isn’t possible?
If you didn’t get a good idea of the quality difference between the 4 action cameras here are a couple of photographs we captured. The photos are completely untouched and the results are much like what we saw in the video. The Sony and SJ cameras have the truest colors with nice contrast. The Go Pro and YI are flat with too much warmth.
To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade?
Action cameras are like cell phones, every time you turn around there’s a new one launched and yours is out of date. By the time you finish reading this article there will likely be a new version out. It’s something I considered before attempting this test and I almost didn’t hit the publish button because I knew it would be instantly out of date. But, then I realized whichever brand preforms the best now is the brand I’ll go with. I can assume if the Sony I tested is the best of the bunch, then the newest version of that camera will be even better.
I felt especially confident in this because that is how we ended up with our last Sony action cam. We compared it to the Go Pro and liked the overall performance and image better. So, it wasn’t a big surprise when we found the same with our testing this round.
If you do a lot of underwater and action filming, I’d say upgrade with each major redesign. If you’re just a casual user like I was before we moved on a boat then you’ll be fine skipping a model or two.
What do I Look for in an Action Camera?
I want something easy to use that I can throw in a bag and beat the heck out of. It’s gotta be affordable because one day I’ll drop it off a cliff, leave it on a trail or forget to bring it in during a rainstorm (yes I’ve done all the above over the years).
I need a camera to be decent quality in all aspects. Canon has been great for me over the years but I’ve recently sold it all and moved to Sony because it’s more compact and lightweight. As a full-time traveler and gorilla style photographer, compact size, lightweight and sharp lenses with stabilizers are what’s most important to me.
Action Camera Breakdown
Because of the quality and affordability of the SJCam, we recently added the SJ6 Legend to our action camera kit…and it is awesome. It has a built-in gyro stabilizer like the Sony, it shoots in 4k, can use an external mic, and it has a 2″ touch screen on the back! Over the past month I’ve found myself reaching for this camera above all my other action cams for both underwater and above water. I’ll film an update soon. If you order from 6Mega use the discount code WYNNS at checkout you’ll get the 10% off plus all the goodies noted below with the SJ4000. Here’s the link to buy: http://bit.ly/sj6-legend
Sony Action Cam – The (original) Winner & Best All Around
Buy it here: http://bit.ly/sony-as300 (I bought the newest version which was released just before we departed for the Bahamas. It’s a nice step up with some essential upgrades to the one I tested.)
It’s the king of action cameras, or at least we think so. We’ve been wow’d over and over by this little camera with its Zeiss optics and built in stabilizer. In a rush, I can grab this camera, push the red button and in an instant, the camera turns on and begins recording automatically. Because of the stabilizer the footage is 10x more smooth than my other action cameras. The body is splash proof so I don’t need to put the underwater housing on unless I’m planning to submerge it.
I made an unfair mistake during the test with the Action Cam: I used a 32gb micro SD card so the footage was not filmed in the highest resolution XVAC-S format. The standard AVC-HD is fine but the higher resolution footage only works on the Sony products with a high speed 64gb+ SD card. That is why the blacks are a little crushed and the whites are a little blown on the fins in the video.
I ended up buying the camera only, but I wish I would have purchased the kit with the screen (it wasn’t in stock at the time I had to order and shipping to the Bahamas wasn’t an affordable option). If you need 4k then make sure you buy the FDR-X3000, it’s basically the same camera but with 4k: http://bit.ly/sony-x3000
SJ Cam – The Runner Up, It’s A Lot of Bang For the Buck
Want the camera only, buy it from B&H: http://bit.ly/sjcam-4000
Want the camera and a bundle of goodies, use our discount code and buy it from 6Mega.com: http://bit.ly/sj-6mega-deal
Use the discount code WYNNS and get all this:
- 10% Off Entire Order
- MicroSD Card
- Adventure Monopod Selfie Stick
- 4-Axis Suction Mount
- Torque Tool
At first glance this camera is unbeatable! Bright screen, pleasing color (although a little on the cool side) with lots of built in features and adjustments.
Upon further inspection of the photos at full zoom we found the resolution falls apart. Not sure what causes this but I wouldn’t use this camera for capturing important photographs but the video quality seems good. I still think it’s a perfect backup cam and we’ve been using it underwater in the Bahamas and it’s extremely nice to see what we’re capturing because of the screen.
Also, it seems the audio only records in mono 1 channel. This is odd to me. Normally with Adobe Premiere I can add a channel to make it stereo, but I couldn’t with these clips for some reason. Of course, underwater audio doesn’t matter because it all sounds weird, but we do plan on using it above water too.
I didn’t realize the time stamp feature was factory set to “on”. In case you were wondering, yes, you can turn it off.
I’m sure they’ll fix a lot of these issues with their newest version that’s bound to come out anytime now.
GoPro Hero – Recommended With Reservations
Buy It here: http://bit.ly/gp-hero5
It’s the industry standard because they have killer marketing and it is a solid camera, but it’s also the most expensive of the bunch.
I’ve never been a fan of the raw footage from the GoPro cameras, they seem flat with a warm wash over the image. I’m sure it can be adjusted using the Protune app and the plethora of other settings. One small nuisance is the GoPro uses a different connector than all my other devices, I wish they would use the standard USB Micro-B that most every other USB charging device uses.
I have not played with the session yet, but I’ve seen it in action. Footage looks about the same as the Hero but the tests I’ve seen the stabilizer doesn’t seem to be as nice as the Sony.
Yi Sport – Recommended With Reservations
The biggest downfall with the standard YI, in my opinion, is there are no color settings or adjustments to be made on this camera. It’s a basic little guy with only 2 buttons. It does have WiFi and can be controlled with a cell phone. Footage looks fine and the color can be adjusted a little bit in post. Generally speaking, the footage is better quality than our old GoPro 3.
I’ve been dreaming of this camera since I got my a6000 for Alaska. Finally, I had the opportunity to play with it for a month and I fell 100% head over heels…but I couldn’t justify a $4,000 camera when we’ve blown the budget on the sailboat. So, I did the logical thing and ordered it’s more affordable sibling the a7ii.
There are lots of features that make it a better camera than my a6000 but the biggest two are the full frame sensor and the 5 axis Gimbal for that giant sensor. That’s right, now I have stabilization in the lens AND the sensor for super smooth video (of course it helps for handheld photographs too). It all goes back to that keep it simple motto I look for in a camera. Now I will rarely have to use my giant dSLR gimbal to capture smooth video, it’s all built in!
Ikelight Underwater Housing
There is no doubt in my mind the quality of the underwater footage with this rig would blow the others out of the water completely, but I just can’t do it. We aren’t shooting epic full feature films and I don’t have the mobile computer processing power (or bandwidth to upload) to film in 4k and I often don’t have the time to wait around for that “perfect” shot. We capture life as it happens, quick and in the moment.
A setup like this Ikelight with a professional camera body is more for a pro (or a hardcore hobbyist) that will take the time to setup, lube and connect everything meticulously…and I hate to say it but that’s just not me at this stage of my life. (I could completely change my tune after a year or two of boat life)
Drones and Submarines Next?
I’m hoping we can convince B&H to send us a few new drones (http://bit.ly/bh-drones) to test and I think there’s a new underwater submarine video camera (called ROV’s http://bit.ly/bh-rovs) that could be cool for boaters! Those all qualify as action cameras too…right?
What is an Affiliate Program?
Many items you see linked on our site are affiliate links. Nobody paid us to put the links there, no company paid us to talk about their products, we chose to add links because others wanted to know what we’re using and what works for us. If you click the link on our website it will take you to the product. You pay the same price but we get a small commission if you purchase within 24hrs. Every penny helps to keep this website running and us creating new content. We are incredibly grateful to those of you who choose to use our links and shop through our gear store.
Amazon Affiliate was the first program we joined and it works great for almost everything. I prefer to purchase my cameras from B&H because they have quality customer service and people on staff know their cameras. But more importantly there’s no sales tax if you live outside the state of New York. When you’re buying a few grand worth of cameras, saving that 6-8% adds up quick. We’re super stoked to be a part of the B&H affiliate program and even more excited they offer a loaner program to their affiliates. It’ll open new opportunities to test out gear that works for our crazy traveling life on the water.
What did you think about this underwater action camera test? Is there an action cam we missed that you want to like? Want to see more videos like this? Let us know in the comments what you’d like to see in action! Thanks for joining us and I hope we see you somewhere around the globe.