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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.

best underwater camera

 

best underwater camera

 

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Action cameras are like cell phones, every time you turn around there’s a new one launched and yours is out of date.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considered before attempting this test and I almost didn’t hit the publish button because I knew it would be instantly out of date.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

 
***Update: 01/2017***
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

Buy It here: http://bit.ly/yi-sport or…
I’d say skip the regular and buy the 4k: http://bit.ly/yi-4k

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.

 

Sony A7rii

Buy It here: http://bit.ly/a7rii-sony
Buy its more affordable sibling (that’s what we’ve done): http://bit.ly/a7ii-sony

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

Buy It here: http://bit.ly/ikelight-a7rii
You need a lens port too, this one works for the wide-angle Sony 10-18mm f4 lens: http://bit.ly/5503dome

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.

Famous for my "how-not-to" videos, and typically the man behind the camera, sometimes I’m forced to be here in the “spotlight”. When you see my face you’re probably reading something more technical than adventurous, but either way I do my best to tell it like it is and infuse my opinions into the commentary…after all this is a blog and not MSN.

Comments (49)

  • Maria

    I’m so happy I came across this video!! My husband and I just bought a fifth wheel are are in the beginning stages of our journey to full time RVing and I really wanted a GoPro, but they’re a bit out of our price range, especially now with the renovations we’ve got coming up. I loved seeing the comparisons and I really liked the performance of the SJcam. I just purchased the SJ6 Legend with your discount code. I’m excited to be able capture our upcoming adventures with this cam! Thanks so much, guys! Your videos and blog have been invaluable to us newbies! Happy travels and hope to meet on the road or sea one day!

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    • Maria

      I’m disappointed to have not received any of the extras by using your code as stated above. I have written the company and hope they can fulfill this if not I will be returning.

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      • Curious Minion

        Hmm, there were some issues with that earlier that I thought had been resolved. We’ll check into it.

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  • Kim

    Hi i just ordered the SJ4000 cam with your discount code but at checkout the cart didn’t show the discounted price. Just wanted to let you know for you to get credit. We went to Chub cay hope your enjoying the perfect anchorage that we had. We did our first mooring at Spanish Wells..love it

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  • Rodney Winkler

    Hey Jason, I have been following your shares a few years now. I have a few gadget questions as I prep for my RV adventure. I plan to document my run as well though I am not sure that I can re buy all my electronics on every cycle! At present I, about 8 months ago purchased a Sony A6000 with four lenses to cover the gamut of wide, portrait, prime and tele. With that I also ordered the blue tooth mic. I purchased the Macbook Pro, FinalCut Pro, Adobe Lightroom and am looking at getting an action cam. I am solo so I did not see the need for a boom mic or even a shot gun and I am considering the drone but as you can see the tab is getting up there with little happening yet. Recently I noted that you got rid of your A6000. I was a bit stumped but nonetheless I know you are quite the camera guy. What might you recommend in the way of equipment that I have missed for more RV adventure recording? Unlike yourself, I will most likely be living with this equipment for a while so I need to get it right the first time if possible and also be able to make quality archives. Please feel free to email in lieu of post your request if need be. Thank you so much for your evaluation of the cameras. I thought about buying a different Sony camera A body after you did but felt too guilty not using the A6000 that much yet.

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  • Deborah Kerr

    Great info as always, very thorough! Thanks 🙂 With winter slowly coming to Ohio, your tropical pictures and videos will be even more important to me keeping sanity until next Spring!! lol

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  • Cameron

    Nice article! I went ahead and ordered a SJCAM on the 6Mega website with the above link and code WYNNS. Box came today and looks like a nice unit.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear they include the premium accessories with the camera, so I didn’t get any of this:

    Use the discount code WYNNS and get all this:

    10% Off Entire Order
    SJ4000 Action Camera
    MicroSD Card
    Adventure Monopod Selfie Stick
    4-Axis Suction Mount
    Torque Tool

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  • Ken H Hollis

    I just love your videos, I have been following you guys for a few years now, we were looking for rv stuff and the right rv. So we bought our first Rv couple days ago. Picked it up, but before we could drive it,the rv was brought back to Mercedes to change the glassmat battery. (Arizona heat kills them) any way we get it on the road, YAY! We get way out in boonies after one night of hookups and THEN the generator ( diesel. ) would not start,I figured I was doing something wrong as usual. Next morning we luckily got to cell coverage ,after hagaling a bit. I said we are driving the 100 miles back for you to show us again all the things you say we are doing wrong. They tried everything and were great to us . Unfortunately the diesel generator was bad . So we made the long drive back to Lake Havasu AZ. Now we wait. So upsetting to save your money. For years and buy a rv that is broken. BUT we love it and are planning our Alaskan trip! Thanks for all the tips over last. Couple years. I always look fwd to your videos. BTW, the sony was the best in my humble opinion , I hope I did not miss something ,like sailing to bohamas. Your buddy in the desert ken

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  • David Hercher

    Thanks to you both for going the extra mile in comparing these. I am looking for a dash cam and was thinking the SJ may be a good one to start. I would not be so worried about it being ripped off if i left it on the windshield. Guess i could take it down and get the Hero 5. How many hours does one get on record with a 32 gig SD Card? My guess if it was not on 1080 it would be a bit longer? Thanks for the Help. David.

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  • Ken Francis

    Thanks for a thoughtful, thorough test and explanation. I have been an avid amateur photographer for over 50 years now, so when I saw the title of your latest production I dropped everything to watch.
    When we drove our class A motorhome from British Columbia to Puerto Vallarta two winters ago, I wanted a camera to take in our kayak. I picked up a Panasonic Lumix DMC TS5. It is waterproof to 13 m (43 ft) with no case required, shockproof (6.5 ft) and has become my go-to camera. Quick to power up, amazing photo quality for a lens inside the body, shoots AVC-HD video in stereo, has a built in GPS so you can pinpoint the location of your photos precisely, and has proven to be very durable. From snorkeling with sea lions off the Baja coast to the hands of my grand-daughters in the pool, and at high altitudes with below freezing temperatures it performs flawlessly. It also has lots of built in software to deal with a multitude of lighting situations. I would be curious to see how it compares in some of the testing scenarios you set up.
    Keep on playing!!!
    Ken.

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  • Zoltan

    If you’re looking for underwater “drones” or ROV’s, I would recommend this guy: http://www.aquabotix.com/sport-rovs.html, the Aquabotics HydroView Sport ROV.
    I have been looking for underwater cameras fore a while as well, and I thing this is the best one. It’s expensive, but worth it!

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  • John Schretlen

    Great video and comments/follow-ups.
    It really IS amazing how much quality those small cameras deliver these days and I appreciate Jason’s opinions.
    So, when are you going to go diving in that clear blue water and can get hours of hi-def fishtails? (A little joke as I’m sure you already know how hard it is to get fishies to pose for your shot.)

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  • Dave

    I’d recommend the SJ700. I have 3 of them at $80 with all the attachments and underwater case…plus they do timelapse.
    A Youtuber has a video where he compares it with a $300+ Go Pro and it handily beats the Go Pros

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  • The SJ camera doesn’t seem to come with the accessories you mentioned in your post.
    The discount code works but I really wanted the accessories you said it came with so I backed out until I hear back from you guys.
    Keep up the great work!

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    • We misunderstood as well, while it does come with a variety of mounts, the selfie stick and such are extra. However, 6mega has given us a discount code that does include the extras and 10%off. I updated the post with the correct information.

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  • Great video and analysis on this techy topic. Love your unbiased comments and opinions and links. This is why I keep watching your videos. I bought two Yi cameras last year. I take them everywhere and shoot everything. You are bound to get some good video doing that. If one gets beat up or lost its no big deal. Buy what you will carry and use. I learned that lesson with telescopes.

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    • You nailed it Boyd! We have learned the same thing. If it is small, light and inexpensive we don’t hesitate to grab it and go. The more complicated we make it, the less likely we are to use it.

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  • Frans

    Thank Jason and Nikki! Very helpful and informative!

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  • Roger Bull

    I did , and I some research myself last year, and I ended up with the Sony FDR-X1000VR, and love using it. The high bit rate does add more depth to the video. We used ours for white water rafting, and for a 1.2 km zip wire while on holiday, and from our RIB when we are chasing around in the Solent. I didn’t know at first that I needed a different case with a flat lense for correct focus under water, rather than the one supplied. The water proof wrist mounted controller is awsome, you can see what it is recording, and change settings while it is strapped to you helmet!

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  • Marivic Burger

    Thanks for the video and doing the legwork for us! I just ordered the SJ CAM to try it out. Never had one before so I can’t wait to try it out. Perhaps I’ll put it on my over-active 7 year old nephew and see what it’s like being him for a day. Thanks again!

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    • Ha ha, I think that is a brilliant idea! Send us the link to that one.

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  • Stan

    Great video. What model laptop do you edit your videos on and software used?

    Just about to start this adventure so learning from the Pro’s. plus you both are very informative in your videos.

    Much appreciated!!

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  • Russell Homan

    Love the test, quick question. The GoPro footage did seam more washed out than the Sony and the SJ, but was wondering if there is more data in their raw data? In post processing could you extract more to get what you want? Color balance etc? Looking at the pictures and video I was able to see more clouds even though it seemed kinda flat. I figured you don’t want to spend hours editing your footage and color correcting, but would you recommend it for someone who doesn’t mind doing that, to get the fine details? Thanks again for doing the leg work on this.

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  • Confused

    I misunderstood something you said in the video. I thought you were suggesting that 6mega was offering the camera WITH all of the accessories for $120 which sounded like a good deal considering B & H wanted $69 just for the camera. When I went to the 6mega website, it was 120 CAD for the camera and all of the accessories were extra.

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    • Dear Confused,

      I had this same question, so I emailed them for clarity, since some accessories appeared to be an additional cost. They responded with the following answer:

      “These are the items included in the $119 price:
      “A: 1 x Original SJ4000 DV; 1 x Waterproof Housing; 1 x Quick Release Buckle 1 x Housing Backdoor with Holes; 1 x Handlebar Seatpost Pole Mount 1 x Curved Adhesive Mount; 1 x Flat Adhesive Mount; 1 x 3-Way Pivot Arm Mount 2 x 3M Adhesive Tape; 1 x Frame Mount; 1 x Quick Release Clip for The Frame 1 x Vertical Quick Release J-Hook Buckle; 1 x Universal 1/4″ Camera Tripod Mount 1 x Tripod Mount Adapter; 1 x Bandage Set; 1 x Stainless Steel Safety Iron Tether 4 x Nylon Cable Ties; 1 x Cleaning Cloth; 1 x USB Cable 1 x 900mAh Li-ion Battery; 1 x Multi-language Manual 2 x Stickers”

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    • All the accessories are included when you use our discount code WYNNS. So you get 10% off and a whole bunch of goodies!

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    • We misunderstood as well, while it does come with a variety of mounts, the selfie stick and such are extra. However, 6mega has given us a discount code that does include the extras and 10%off. I updated the post with the correct information.

      reply
  • This was such a great post, and very timely, as I have been considering such a purchase. I don’t shoot much video, but I want a compact, water proof camera that shoots good stills in places where I’m not comfortable taking my Canon G7X, like kayaking, waterfalls, etc. I am thinking this little SJ Cam is just what I need.

    In a previous post, you mentioned the “fog factor,” but it didn’t seem to be a problem in this video. Did you use an anti-fog product?

    Thanks again for such a great assessment! Will be sure to use your affiliate link.

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    • Curious Minion

      +Suzanne A mask only fogs over because you’re exhaling warm moist air into it, so no problem with the camera. At least not in warm air & warm water where we are.

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      • Okay, thanks. I returned a Canon Powershot Waterproof D10 to B&H a couple of years ago because the lens fogged so badly it was unusable. Glad to hear this has not been your experience.

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      • Lucy

        I had my sony action cam fog when I was whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. Warm air, cool water. It fogs because of the difference in temp between the item and the water. You rarely get water temp to be the same as air temp. Even in Florida where the water is warm, the days are usually warmer. But Spring and Fall is when the water is close to air temp. I usually will leave the camera in the water for a while to cool it off.

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    • We’ve only had fog in our cameras a few times but there are little anti fog strips made for action cameras that do seem to work.

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      • Thanks, Nikki. I wasn’t aware they made them for cameras. Good to know! (P.S. I understand the concept of “mask fogging.” We had the same instructors.) 😉

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  • I’m glad you mentioned your B&H disclaimer because I was wondering why you would have purchased a $3200 dollar Sony camera and not test it 🙂 I too am a fan of Sony cameras, but for shooting real estate. I’m pretty sure I first learned of them when you did a video about your Sony A6000. Just wish they had more lenses to choose from and weren’t so spendy.

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  • Jeff

    Great job Jason & Nikki! I would be interested to know what software you use and how you do the video editing. Basic PC requirements. Your videos are great but I’m sure it has to do with the editing you do. No one else I follow provides the video quality of you two. Thanks!

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  • I upgraded to the Hero 5 and really like it. Nice that it’s waterproof without case. Touch screen and interface is great. Shoot RAW is a plus.

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    • Yes, the 5 is hands down the best Go Pro has ever done and the most competitive. We will most likely get a 5 and the newest Sony to test side by side eventually. We were pretty bummed we couldn’t get them before we took off.

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  • Terri E.

    Wow! Thanks for the camera reviews. Not ready to purchase this year but will definitely keep this info in mind when we do. Sorry about the stickers Jason, flip flops are a beach visitor’s best friend. 🙂

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  • Great video! Thanks for doing all the leg work for us once again! On a side note, Jason have you looked into any of the new laptops on the market? Im going to buying one soon, strictly for video editing. I’ve watched your video on your equipment that you use but I was wonder if you had an updated info on the laptops. I have a Mac pro retina right now but I wanted to get something will better capability for editing.

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    • We have not upgraded our laptops yet either but most likely will in another 6mos to a year. We will get another MSI because they have such great performance and are heavily customizable for video editing.

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  • Roger Fell

    I’ve had excellent results with my old Hero 1 by adding an underwater filter by Snake River prototyping.
    http://www.snakeriverprototyping.com/Products/urpro-swcy-filter.aspx
    The one test you didn’t do was color correction in the 6-20′ depth range where most snorkellers operate and the red end of the spectrum fades away quickly. The other test would be underwater audio, I find the Hero excellent at picking up whale song, dolphin and porpoise clicking, parrot fish crunching coral that I can’t hear very well.
    I built a small stabilizing “sled” so that I can send the camera down to places I don’t want to put my hands near, ie moray eels!
    I have a sample video at
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piyN7rW5rDM

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