Action Cameras vs GoPros – Which are better for Underwater

If you are serious about your underwater photography there is a good chance that you have invested several thousand dollars into your underwater rig.  For the rest of us that only have a couple hundred dollars to spend, there are 2 main routes that we can pursue.

First is we can go with the ever popular GoPro with it’s strong underwater housing.  Secondly we can go with a camera line that has become known as the Action / Rugged camera line.  There are strong advantages and disadvantages to each of these that we will cover in this article.

GoPro Cameras

GoPro cameras have become very popular to use underwater.  In fact if you go out to popular snorkeling locations there is a good chance that 50% or more of the people in the water with a camera have a GoPro in their hands.


Advantages of a GoPro

Wide angle built in.  Good underwater shots get really close to their subjects and take advantage of wide angle lenses to fill the frame.  The GoPro is a wide angle camera by default which can be helpful – but it does require you to always be in really close to your subjects.

Strong Case.  The GoPro comes with a strong underwater case that allows for going as deep as any snorkeler (and most scuba divers) can go.  You will have no problem taking that camera in rough conditions.

Disadvantages of a GoPro

The biggest disadvantage is that there is no built in lighting.  Which means you either need to invest in a seperate lighting system or only take shots in very bright conditions.  Unfortunately this makes the majority of underwater photography tough.

In addition the GoPro does not have any underwater shooting modes that manipulate your color.  This means that you will want to buy some extra color filters to avoid the appearance of overly green colors in your photos.  There are two different filters you can buy depending on your depth.  For shots at 15 feet and shallower there is a light pinkish style filter that helps to bring out your colors.  For deep green water you will want a strong magenta filter and for tropical water you will want a red filter.

Lastly, we mentioned above how the GoPro has the advantage of being a Wide Angle lens – well this can also be a disadvantage.  This means that you are unable to take any shots other then wide angle shots.  You might find in time that this fixed lens length can limit your underwater photo opportunities.

Action / Rugged Cameras

The action / rugged camera phenomenon has come about as a result of individuals wanting to do more with their cameras.  Many of these camera systems have changed their housing to be stronger and put their zoom lenses behind a solid piece of glass instead of protruding from the camera body.  In this example we have the Nikon Coolpix AW line pictured below.


Advantages of Action / Rugged Cameras

The biggest advantage to the action / rugged line of cameras is their versatility.  They can be taken underwater, while at the same time provide excellent shots at zoom length.

Built in flash.  Most of these cameras have a built in flash system.  When you get in close to your subject you will most likely need to fill it with light and these cameras can do that for you.  They generally are very weak underwater (only a few feet at most) but that is better then nothing.  Be careful when using the flash however if the water has a lot of debris in it as you may create strong backscatter within your photo.

Shooting modes.  Many of the action / rugged cameras will have underwater shooting modes available to help correct the color.  For snorkeling, this might prove sufficient to correct the color, however in deeper situations it may not provide enough clarity.

Disadvantages of Action / Rugged Cameras

Most of the action / rugged line of cameras do not have strong wide angle capabilities.  Some may, but most will have a standard zoom length.  This may work to your advantage for more versatility, but just remember to get close to your subject and fill up your frame regardless of your focal length.

Depth rating.  Generally speaking these cameras do not have as strong of a depth rating when compared to dedicated housing.  For this reason many of them are not adequate for a lot of scuba diving purposes.

External filters.  For most of these cameras there is no good way to mount and external filter for better color correction.  For most snorkeling purposes this is not needed, but as soon as your water starts getting deep or a strong shade of green, this limitation may prove frustrating.


The real answer depends on your needs.

If you won’t be going scuba diving and need a rugged underwater camera for snorkeling as well as going on hikes and picnics, then the action / rugged line may be better for you.  If you plan on doing deeper dives or needing more color controls, you might find the GoPro and filter attachments easier to work with.

Either choice has poor lighting options and you may benefit from an external light source.  Both choices are reasonably priced at a couple hundred dollars and can get you taking photos underwater without breaking the bank.

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