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Videocentric: Top Cameras for Underwater Video in 2020
By DPG Editorial Staff, November 13, 2020 @ 06:00 AM (EST)


While almost any “stills camera” you buy these days is equipped to shoot video, and nearly always at the 4K resolution of your UHD TV, manufacturers have, in recent years, begun to produce specific models aimed squarely at the serious hybrid stills/video shooter, full-blown cinematography enthusiast, and/or bona fide filmmaker.

So what kinds of specs should underwater shooters be looking for in a videocentric camera? First and foremost, video quality: While a typical camera records video with 4:2:0 8-bit “chroma subsampling,” footage captured at 4:2:2 10-bit quality contains vastly more color information. When using a “color grading” tool in post-production, this will give you much more latitude to correct for the loss of color at depth without degrading the quality of your video.

For the absolute best quality video, you’ll need a camera that can output RAW video—uncompressed data that contain all the color information from the sensor. RAW video will give you maximum flexibility in post but is also much more demanding (and time-consuming) to work with. Unless you’re a pro, you’ll probably want to stick with 4:2:2 10-bit quality.

The second most important consideration is frame rate. Things happen fast in the underwater world, and the ability to slow down your footage will allow you to create an impressive “cinematic” look. For most video enthusiasts, the current “holy grail” is 4K at 60fps (also written 4K/60p or 4Kp60), which can be played back at half speed. The latest high-end video-focused cameras can shoot 4K/120p, allowing for truly epic slo-mo playback.

Underwater videographers, especially wide-angle shooters, need to consider one more very important detail, which is often hidden away in the fine print: cropping. For some cameras, certain video modes entail a crop of the sensor, rather than using information from the full sensor width. A small crop might be considered reasonable, since the field of view of your wide-angle lens will only be slightly narrowed, while significant cropping of the sensor could compromise your wide-angle lens to an unacceptable degree.

With all that in mind, here is a roundup of some of the best cameras for underwater video currently on the market.

 

GoPro HERO9 Black

Top ↑

BEST BEGINNER
CAMERA FOR VIDEO

Key Features (update)

Price $350
Sensor resolution (size) 5120 x 2880 pixels (1/2.3-inch)
Photo resolution 20 megapixels
ISO range 100–3200 (photo), 100–6400 (video)
Top video resolution/rate 5K/30p, UHD 4K/60p, 1080/240p
Bit depth/color 8-bit 4:2:0 in-camera
Max video bit rate 100Mbps
Video format MPEG-4, H.264, H.265
LCD  2.27-inch rear touchscreen, 1.4-inch front display
Recording media Micro SD UHS-I slot

 

The GoPro has taken a significant leap with the new HERO9 Black, which is both a little larger and a little heavier than its predecessor, sports a bigger rear touchscreen and a new front-facing display so you can frame yourself easily, and boasts a beefier battery. The new sensor packs more pixels, allowing you to capture 5K/30p footage for the first time in a GoPro as well as shoot higher-resolution 20MP images. www.gopro.com | www.backscatter.com
 

What We Like:   What We Don’t Like
  • 5K offers more detail and flexibility
  • Compatible with Backscatter FLIP8/9 filters
  • Much improved battery life
  • High-resolution photos
 
  • No 4K/120p
  • Still only 8-bit 4:2:0 quality
  • Touchscreen still under-responsive


Housing Option

GoPro
 

  • GoPro: Until the likes of Isotta and Hugyfot have come out with their higher-end housings, you’re limited to GoPro’s own housing, but like the waterproof cases and Super Suits of the past, it does the job admirably, protecting your HERO9 down to 200ft (60m). For underwater videographers, the biggest news is that Backscatter’s FLIP filter system designed for the HERO8 works perfectly on the HERO9, so you can start producing footage with accurate color with ease. $50 | www.gopro.com | www.backscatter.com

 

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K

Top ↑

BEST BUDGET
CAMERA FOR VIDEO

Key Features

Price $1,295
Sensor resolution (size) 4096 x 2160 pixels (Micro Four Thirds)
Photo resolution 8.8 megapixels
ISO range 400/3200–25,600
Top video resolution/rate DCI 4K/60p, UHD 4K/60p, 1080/120p
Bit depth/color 12-bit Blackmagic RAW, 10-bit 4:2:2 in-camera
Max video bit rate 544Mbps
Video format Blackmagic RAW, ProRes 422
LCD 5-inch touchscreen
Recording media CFast slot, SD UHS-II slot, USB‑C to external media

 

“Hollywood quality” recording in the palm of your hand? Check! It may be more than two years since Blackmagic Design released its Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, but it remains a unique product that packs a lot of technology into a unit about the same size as a DSLR, and since it’s built around a Micro Four Thirds sensor, there’s a whole ecosystem of Panasonic and Olympus lenses to choose from. Above all, you get the ability to record DCI/UHD 4K/60p at 10-bit 4:2:2 in camera, with all the post-production latitude that brings. Blackmagic also makes a $1,995 6K version with Super 35 sensor and Canon EF lens mount. www.blackmagicdesign.com | www.backscatter.com
 

What We Like:   What We Don’t Like
  • 4K/60p and 1080/120p
  • High-quality 10-bit 4:2:2 and 12-bit RAW capture
  • Impressive dynamic range (13 stops)
  • Lots of media recording options
 
  • Steep learning curve, especially when dealing with RAW files
  • Relentlessly gobbles batteries and media!


Housing Options

Nauticam Seacam

 

  • Nauticam: Like the company’s housings for stills cameras, the Nauticam NA-BMPCCII is all about ergonomic design and dedicated features. Essential controls are within easy reach of the built-in handles, you get a large-bore HDMI 2.0-ready bulkhead for use with an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja V, and there’s space inside for both a custom battery cage and a Samsung T5 Portable SSD. $3,790 | www.nauticam.com | www.backscatter.com
  • Seacam: Compatible with both the 4K and 6K versions of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, Seacam’s housing accommodates a battery pack as well as an external SSD to extend recording times. In addition, an HDMI 2.0 bulkhead makes it possible to connect an external recorder for capturing higher frame rates. $4,700 | www.seacam.com | www.backscatter.com

 

Panasonic Lumix GH5

Top ↑

BEST MICRO FOUR-THIRDS
CAMERA FOR VIDEO

Key Features

Price $1,400
Sensor resolution (size) 5184 x 3888 pixels (Micro Four Thirds)
Photo resolution 20 megapixels
ISO range 200–25,600
Top video resolution/rate UHD 4K/60p, DCI 4K/24p, 1080/60p
Bit depth/color 10-bit 4:2:2 in-camera (DCI 4K/24p, UHD 4K/30p, 1080/60p)
10-bit 4:2:2 output (UHD 4K/60p)
8-bit 4:2:0 in-camera (UHD 4K/60p)
Max video bit rate 400Mbps
Video format MPEG-4, H.264
LCD 3.2-inch touchscreen
Recording media Dual SD UHS-II slots

 

Released in January 2017, the GH5 is arguably a little overdue for an update (Panasonic bigwigs have confirmed that the GH6 is indeed in development), but a quick survey of the table above will tell you that this flagship Micro Four Thirds camera is no slouch in the video specs department. Indeed, it’s still one of the few consumer cameras at any price point that can shoot 4K/60p video in 10-bit 4:2:2 quality with no crop (when output via HDMI to a suitable external recorder), as well as capturing footage at that same quality internally but at 30fps. The GH5 is also a true hybrid camera that’s equally capable in the stills department. DPG Review www.panasonic.com | www.backscatter.com
 

What We Like:   What We Don’t Like
  • High-quality 4K/30p and 4K/60p 10-bit 4:2:2 capture
  • Impressive pro-level video tools
  • Accurate white balance capture
  • Reduced price
 
  • An external recorder is needed for the best quality at high frame rates
  • Low-light performance and dynamic range are ultimately limited by the Micro Four Thirds sensor


Housing Options

Ikelite Aquatica

Isotta Nauticam

 

  • Ikelite: Depth-rated to 200ft (60m), Ikelite’s housing for the GH5 offers all the standard features of the company’s top housings for DLSRs and mirrorless systems, including lightweight ABS-PC construction and its Dry Lock (DL) port system, which accommodates large-diameter lenses. You can also have automatic TTL exposure with compatible Ikelite DS-model strobes when you install the optional TTL kit. $1,695 | www.ikelite.com | www.backscatter.com
  • Aquatica: Featuring sturdy integrated handles and a robust aluminum construction, Aquatica’s AGH5 housing puts the most important controls—for both stills and video—under your fingertips, including ISO, white balance, and Fn2 and Fn5 custom buttons. An M16 port allows you to attach an external recorder via HDMI 1.4 but not HDMI 2.0. $1,835 | www.aquatica.ca | www.backscatter.com
  • Isotta: Hewn from a solid block of aluminum and splashed with signature red paint, Isotta’s GH5 housing offers built-in adjustable handles, one-handed open/close, and integrated manual flash trigger for strobes connected via optical fiber. A monitor/recorder can be attached, but only via an HDMI 1.4 cable for external recording up to 4K/30p. $2,540 | www.isotecnic.it | www.backscatter.com
  • Nauticam: The Hong Kong headquartered company actually produces a couple of housings for the GH5, but you’ll want the pricier NA-GH5V if you want to capture that lovely 4K/60p 10-bit 4:2:2 output: The housing features an M28 bulkhead that supports the necessary higher-bandwidth HDMI 2.0 connection to the Atomos Ninja V external recorder (and Nauticam has a housing for that, too). $3,190 | www.nauticam.com | www.backscatter.com

 

Fujifilm X-T4

Top ↑

BEST APS-C
CAMERA FOR VIDEO

Key Features

Price $1,700
Sensor resolution (size) 6240 x 4160 pixels (APS-C)
Photo resolution 26 megapixels
ISO range 160–12,800
Top video resolution/rate UHD 4K/60p, DCI 4K/60p (1.18x crop)
UHD 4K/30p, DCI 4K/30p, 1080/60p (no crop)
 1080/240p, 1080/120p (1.29x crop)
Bit depth/color 10-bit 4:2:0 in-camera
10-bit 4:2:2 output
Max video bit rate 400Mbps
Video format MPEG-4, H.264, H.265
LCD 3-inch touchscreen
Recording media Dual SD UHS-II slots

 

The most serious challenger to the Panasonic GH5’s dominance among non-full-frame hybrid stills/video cameras comes from a surprising quarter: Fujifilm. That is, of course, unless you’ve been following the steady rise of that company’s X-T series, which immediately caught the attention of underwater housing manufacturers. Released in early 2020, the X-T4 shares many of the GH5’s best features—including the ability to shoot UHD/DCI 4K/60p (albeit with a slight crop), in-body image stabilization, and various dedicated tools for the serious videographer. But it’s the larger, high-resolution APS-C sensor and its crisp, vibrant video output that manages to knock the GH5 from its pedestal. www.fujifilm-x.com
 

What We Like:   What We Don’t Like
  • 4K/60p 10-bit 4:2:2 external output
  • 1080/240p capture for super-slo-mo playback
  • Excellent quality stills
  • “Old school” manual controls well suited to underwater shooting
 
  • Slight cropping of 4K/60p video means curtailed wide angle
  • No internal 10-bit 4:2:2 capture
  • Fujifilm’s X-T control philosophy takes some getting used to


Housing Options

Subal Ikelite

 

  • Subal: The Austrian housing maker has been supporting Fujifilm’s flagship APS-C series since the X-T2, and their newest housing is a refined, high-end piece of kit chiseled out of an aluminum block, which is then hard-coated and powder-coated in characteristic Subal fashion. It’s depth-rated to 80 meters (260 feet), but there’s also an upgraded version that allows you to dive to 120 meters (almost 400 feet). €3,950 | www.subal.com
  • Ikelite: If you don’t fancy a massive dent in your wallet, but still don’t want to compromise on robustness and reliability, Ikelite’s X-T4 housing is the way to go. The company’s X-T3 and X-T4 housings were their first for a Fujifilm camera, but all the usual Ikelite trimmings are included: ABS-PC blend body, Dry Lock (DL) port system, and large and optionally extendable control levers for the shutter release and AF-L button. Add the optional DL4 DS Link TTL Converter, and you’ve got automatic TTL exposure with the company’s DS-series strobes. $1,695 | www.ikelite.com | www.backscatter.com

 

Sony a7S Mark III

Top ↑

BEST FULL-FRAME
CAMERA FOR VIDEO

Key Features

Price $3,500
Sensor resolution (size) 4240 x 2832 pixels (Full Frame)
Photo resolution 12 megapixels
ISO range 80–102,400
Top video resolution/rate UHD 4K/120p, 1080/120p
Bit depth/color 10-bit 4:2:2 in-camera (UHD 4K/120p)
16-bit RAW output (UHD 4K/60p)
Max video bit rate 280Mbps
Video format MPEG-4, XAVC S, XAVC HS, XAVC S-1, H.264, H.265
LCD 3-inch touchscreen
Recording media Dual SD UHS-II/CFexpress Type A slots

 

Sony has been leading the full-frame mirrorless race since the beginning with its trio of Alpha 7 series cameras: the all-rounder a7, the high-resolution a7R, and the videocentric a7S. While the first two have seen multiple updates—the a7 III and a7R IV being the latest iterations—the a7S III has been a very long time coming. Arguably, this isn’t a hybrid camera—nobody’s buying it for the 12MP photos—but it is definitely a powerhouse when it comes to video, shooting 4K/120p 10-bit 4:2:2 internally for smooth, cinematic slow-motion playback. www.sony.com | www.backscatter.com
 

What We Like:   What We Don’t Like
  • 4K/120p 10-bit 4:2:2 internal recording
  • 4K/60p ProRes RAW over HDMI to the Atomos Ninja V
  • No overheating during high frame rate recording
  • Redesigned interface and menus
 
  • Low stills resolution (but who really cares?)
  • The five-year wait!


Housing Options

Ikelite Nauticam

 

  • Ikelite: While the US company’s housings are understandably focused on taking awesome stills with Ikelite’s TTL-capable DS-series strobes, videographers still have all the important controls at their fingertips here. The Dry Lock (DL) port system can accommodate a wide variety of lenses, and there’s a large soft-touch knob for smooth zooming. $1,695 | www.ikelite.com | www.backscatter.com
  • Nauticam: As it has with a number of video-focused cameras over the last few years, Nauticam has concentrated on producing housings that have a large-bore bulkhead supporting HDMI 2.0, which in the case of the a7S III allows an Atomos Ninja V external recorder to capture that awesome 16-bit RAW video signal. Of course, you’ll also be able to make use of Nauticam’s impressive Wide Angle Conversion Port (WACP) and Super Macro Converter (SMC) wet optics. $3,190 | www.nauticam.com | www.backscatter.com

 

Canon EOS R5

Top ↑

BEST HIGH-RESOLUTION
CAMERA FOR VIDEO

Key Features

Price $3,900
Sensor resolution (size) 8192 x 5464 pixels (Full Frame)
Photo resolution 45 megapixels
ISO range 100–51,200
Top video resolution/rate DCI 8K/30p, UHD 4K/120p, DCI 4K/120p
Bit depth/color 12-bit RAW in-camera (DCI 8K/30p, no crop)
10-bit 4:2:2 in-camera (DCI 4K/120p, UHD 4K/120p, no crop)
Max video bit rate 2,600Mbps (12-bit RAW), 1,300Mbps (10-bit 4:2:2)
Video format MPEG-4, H.264, H.265
LCD 3.2-inch touchscreen
Recording media CFexpress and SD UHS-II slots

 

For a company that announced its first full-frame mirrorless camera (the EOS R) just two years ago, Canon is taking the hybrid stills/video concept pretty seriously: 8K/30p and 4K/120p in 4:2:2 10-bit quality—recorded internally and without cropping—puts the new EOS R5 in a class of its own. Add to that 45MP photos and 12fps continuous shooting, and you’ve got a camera with a very impressive spec sheet. While you’ll have no doubt heard that all that number-crunching results in some serious heat buildup and minutes of record time in the low double figures and even single figures, that’s very likely not a deal-breaker for underwater videographers, who typically capture clips measured in seconds. www.canon.com | www.backscatter.com
 

What We Like:   What We Don’t Like
  • 8K/30p and 4K/120p captured in 4:2:2 10-bit quality
  • 8K/30p 12-bit RAW in-camera recording
  • No cropping
  • Extensive video features
 
  • Potential overheating during intensive use
  • Limited selection of native RF lenses


Housing Options

Nauticam Aquatica

 

  • Nauticam: Built around the N120 port system, Nauticam’s NA-R5 housing supports both RF-mount lenses and adapted EF-mount lenses, and features an M24 bulkhead that supports HDMI 2.0 for recording 4K/60p 10-bit 4:2:2 to the Atomos Ninja V. The twin fiber-optic bulkheads can be used in conjunction with either a manual or TTL flash trigger. $3,965 | www.nauticam.com | www.backscatter.com
  • Aquatica: The Canadian company’s AR5 housing is so new that just about the only thing we know about it is its MSRP (US$3,200), but we can take an educated guess that your well-earned cash will get you a high-quality aluminum build, full support for RF and EF lenses, and an ergonomic control layout. Bonus: Aquatica’s current extended sale means you can get a 15% discount until the end of 2020. $2,720 | www.aquatica.ca | www.backscatter.com
     


When purchasing underwater photography equipment like the products mentioned in this article, please support DPG by supporting our retail partner—Backscatter.com.

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