If you’re heading to a beach vacation this summer, here are some of my ideas for the best waterproof cameras under $200. Because as good as the cameras in smartphones are these days, you don’t really want to destroy your phone with water and sand. Whether it’s a family vacation or a grown-up one, there’s a good chance that many of your best memories from the beach will be from being in and around the water. These cameras can help you capture and share those moments.
After trying out several of the most popular options, here are my recommendations for the best waterproof beach cameras that aren’t going to break the bank.
On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable that there are now several good-quality waterproof cameras to choose from under $200 (I’m referring to the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices here). On the other hand, all of these cameras involve compromises. They don’t have the same features and image quality as the next step up, such as the Olympus TG-5, or the DSLR or mirrorless options that might be your main camera rig. But when it comes to taking these to the beach, all of these have some distinct advantages over a $3000 camera. For one, they’re all waterproof and sand proof. For another, they’re small and quick to use for family snapshots. And if you happen to misplace it, have it stolen from the beach, or drop it on the rocks, you’re out less than $200.
So after testing out several cameras in this category in real-world shooting during a family vacation at the beech and other times in the pool, here’s what I’ve found along with some recommendations. All of the cameras here are ones I’ve personally purchased and used in and around the water. I’ll do my best to keep it updated as new models come out.
My Current Favorite: FujiFilm Finepix XP130
My current favorite is the FujiFilm Finepix XP130. As it happens, my wife came independently to the same conclusion. We also used the previous model, the XP120, and liked that too. They’re mostly the same camera, with just a few additional features added to the XP130.
It has a 16MP sensor. It’s waterproof to 65 feet (20 meters), which is well below regular swimming or snorkeling depth. It has a 5x optical zoom (28-140mm equivalent). And it has wifi and Bluetooth, so you can transfer the photos from the camera to your smartphone wirelessly.
One of the things you notice right away when you start shooting is that it has a big, sharp, and bright screen with natural color balance. It’s easy to see what you’re shooting (so long as you’re not wearing polarizing sunglasses), and the results look good when you’re playing them back.
The image quality is quite good, although the auto exposure is a bit hit and miss and there’s an overall tendency to underexpose. One area that it stands out is that it has the most effective and natural-looking fill flash of the cameras here. You also have some control over the shooting, with exposure compensation and being able to manually set the ISO all the way up to ISO 6400. There are also several shooting modes. The burst mode is particularly useful for capturing fast-moving action at the beach. There are also time-lapse, panorama, and macro modes, as well as a Cinemagraph mode that creates hybrid photos and video clips (it’s a bit of a gimmick, but it’s a fun one).
The video quality is good, and it shoots up to 1080p at 60 frames per second, as well as a few low-resolution, high-framerate modes that can be used to create slow-motion footage. There’s a separate shutter button for photos and video, so there’s no need to turn a dial to switch between photo and video modes.
I particularly like this camera’s controls. It strikes me as the right balance of enough buttons and dials to get things done but not enough to be clutter. Of all the cameras here, I like the controls and button layout on this one best.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement in some areas–there is. The auto exposure is frustratingly inconsistent. Too many photos come out too dark, which seems like something that they should be able to fix pretty easily with some software tweaks to the exposure algorithm. The Scene Recognition mode, which is the default automatic shooting mode, doesn’t always choose the appropriate option. For example, you might be trying to shoot a flower a few inches away, and it will switch to landscape mode. And I did run into an issue where some grains of sand jammed the shutter. It resolved itself fairly quickly, but in the meantime the camera was unusable, and it shouldn’t be happening on a camera built for this type of use.
Despite these shortcomings, I’ve found the XP130 to be my favorite sub-$200 adventure camera so far. If you don’t need the electronic level, the Bluetooth connectivity, or the eye recognition (for people photos), the previous model, the XP120, is otherwise the same camera and you can find some good deals on it at the time of writing.
- 16.4 MP BSI CMOS Sensor
- Waterproof to 65ft/20M, freeze proof to 14 Degree/-10 Degree, Shockproof to 5.8ft/1.75M, and dustproof
A Close Second: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30
Running a close second is the Lumix TS30 from Panasonic. In broad strokes, it shares many similar features. It also has a 16MP sensor and a zoom (25 to 100mm equivalent).
As for image quality, I’ve found the TS30 to have more consistent auto exposure than the FujiFilm XP130. Overall, I’m quite happy with the image quality. It has lower video capabilities–maxing out at 720p30.
I like its tracking autofocus. It comes in very handy for shots of the kids playing on the beach.
But a key feature of this camera is its size. It’s significantly smaller than the FujiFilm or the Nikon. It’s the perfect size to just throw in your pocket and is an easy one to take with you just for fun.
On the negative side, the controls are quite tightly packed (pretty much inevitable on such a small camera) and not as clearly marked as they could be. I’ve often found myself accidentally pressing the zoom buttons with my thumb while I’m trying to shoot. The screen is okay but not particularly crisp or detailed and has a washed-out blue tint to it. And a recurring issue I came across was water droplets on the lens ruining the shot. The lens portal is tiny and recessed, so any water drops can’t smoothly run off, and they have an exaggerated impact on the image. And I really don’t like that you can’t charge the battery in the camera–you have to use the separate (and supplied) AC battery charger.
But overall, I enjoy shooting with this camera, and I’d be quite happy taking it over the FujiFilm Finepix XP130.
And if you’re going diving, Ikelite makes a dive housing for it that’s rated down to 200 feet.
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What I Was Looking For (i.e. The Criteria)
Which camera makes the best camera for the beach is obviously a subjective call, because there are pros and cons to every camera. So here’s an explanation of what I’m looking for and what criteria I’m using to judge them.
Waterproof. I want something I can take swimming or snorkeling, because many of the most fun photos at the beach involve the water. But it’s important to make a distinction here between the kind of waterproof I expect from these cameras and the kind of waterproof you want for Scuba diving. The problem comes down to the combination of how water pressure increases as you go deeper along with the duration of submersion. The cameras I’m focusing on here are waterproof near the surface of the water. They’re fine for swimming or snorkeling or surfing or boating. They’re not designed for taking deeper for Scuba diving; for that, you’ll want something with a more robust waterproof rating.
There are also some happy side effects to being waterproof: sealing them against water makes it pretty easy also to have them sealed against sand (or dust). Manufacturers also make them resistant to freezing temperatures (which, granted, isn’t usually much of an issue on a beach vacation), and able to withstand dropping them on hard surfaces from at least a few feet.
Under $200. Some of these are right around the $200 mark, while others are significantly lower.
Good Photo Image Quality. While I’m not expecting the kind of quality you can get from a good DSLR or mirrorless camera, I do want something that’s going to be good enough to create images I (and others) want to look at.
With bright outdoor conditions, taking photos at the beach should be easy. But there are some complications, especially when it comes to the contrasty conditions. Having a correctly exposed background of sea and sand isn’t much good if the person in the foreground is in dark shadow, and it’s not much good to have the person’s face correctly exposed if the background is completely washed out. So dynamic range is a practical issue. As is white balance–the auto white balance in many less-expensive cameras tends to lean to the blue side, which can look great in the right conditions but muddy in others.
While most of us share photos digitally now, it is nice to have the option to be able to print that special memory and hang it on the wall. So I’d like a camera that has enough resolution to be able to print a sharp 8×10 print. In practice, that’s not an issue–all of the cameras here can produce photos large enough for that. So this particular criterium doesn’t help narrow down the field, but it is nevertheless one of the things I’m looking for.
Acceptable Video Quality. For something like this, video quality is a lower priority than photo quality. That said, it’s not too much to ask that it takes decent video as well. I’m not expecting broadcast quality, but I would like something that’s at least good enough for sharing clips with family and friends on Youtube or a photostream.
Easy to Use. I’m looking for a camera that I can use to shoot some photos without interrupting the having fun part. A lot of beach fun is spontaneous, and I don’t want to be messing with controls and settings while the moment passes.
Fits in a Pocket. I don’t want something bulky that’s going to get in the way of having fun. I don’t want something that won’t let me have both hands free when I’m not using it.
Ready for Adventure. Adventure camera is a category I’ve made up to refer to small cameras that are the type of thing you might want to take traveling or on vacation. Some manufacturers market them as “lifestyle cameras”–the idea is much the same, but I’m coming at it with the perspective of a travel photographer who tends to be on the road somewhere. They’re waterproof and rugged, highly portable, and versatile. And that last element is crucial and what makes them different to the action cam category pioneered by GoPro. I consider adventure cameras to be amphibious in that they should be as useful out of the water as in it. I want something that I can use to get great shots of fish and coral while snorkeling but also be able to use when visiting the sites around town. There are excellent cameras you might take Scuba diving that simply don’t work well for photos of the Eiffel Tower (and vice versa). But with improvements in technology, these adventure cameras are getting much better at this kind of multi-use versatility.
The Other Cameras I’ve Tried
These are some of the other cameras in this category that I’ve used that haven’t made the cut for one reason or another.
Nikon Coolpix W100
I’ve been shooting with Nikon cameras for about 30 years. So I like the Nikon brand a lot. But I’m disappointed with the Coolpix W100. It didn’t help that the power button got jammed within a couple of hours of light use on the beach. I had a similar issue with the FujiFilm, but in that case, it resolved itself quickly and the grit was flushed out easily with water. On the W100 it was a showstopper, and it wasn’t until I got home, and after some effort, that I was able to release the button using a knife and involving new scratches on the camera body. But while that admittedly soured my view of it even further, I was already disinclined to recommend it because it doesn’t strike me as being up to par with its competitors.
The image quality isn’t as good as the other cameras here. While the photos are reasonably sharp, the auto-exposure consistently underexposes by quite a lot. An exception is when using the fill-flash, and even then you have to be very close because the flash is so weak.
The overall construction feels cheap and plasticky. Sand gets caught in the buttons and the back dial. And I found it quite sluggish to respond.
So there’s really nothing about this camera that tempts me to recommend it over any of the others here. Basically, it’s okay, but there are better alternatives.
- Nikon COOLPIX W100 (Blue)
- Beautiful pictures are easy to take on land or in the sea. Waterproof down to a depth of 33 feet,...
GoPro HERO (2018)
In case you haven’t already noticed elsewhere on my site, I like GoPros a lot. I think they open up fantastic opportunities not just for action video that they’re best known for, but for still photos as well. And some of my favorite beach photos were ones I’ve taken with a GoPro (a couple of examples here).
They have the rugged aspect down. They’re cameras that exist to take in places cameras have no business going. They take water and sand from the beach in their stride. And they’re tiny and eminently portable.
But they’re also somewhat quirky to use as an everyday camera. Enough so that I wouldn’t recommend them for everyone. If you’re used to a more traditional compact camera, GoPros can be a little frustrating to use. They’re sluggish in turning on and pressing the shutter. If you’re not using one of the burst modes, they’re slow between shots. There’s no optical zoom–it’s a super wide-angle perspective that works marvelously for an immersive look if you’re really in close but doesn’t work well from any distance or if you want a flattering look for photos of people. And their battery life is, frankly, poor.
If you can work with or around those shortcomings, they can be an exciting camera to shoot with. And truth be told, I love shooting with them. But if you just want an intuitive, no-fuss camera that you can pick up and go, one of the more traditional cameras here is probably a safer bet.
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If you’re looking for something a bit better, my current favorite adventure camera is the Olympus Tough TG-5. It’s a step up in features and quality, as well as price. You can find my detailed hands-on review of it here.
Recommended Accessoriesthis one will work just fine. If you want something even more buoyant and a small step up (but also more bulky), this is the one I trusted to use on a $3000 Leica while kayaking in the Arctic.
Memory Card (or two). In general, cameras don’t come with a memory card by default. Some retailers put together bundles that include them, but if you don’t get one of those bundles, you’ll need to pick one up separately. The good news is that none of these cameras need an especially fancy or expensive memory card. For most of the ones listed here, you can go with the recommendations for the SD cards for the FujiFilm Finepix XP130. The GoPro HERO (2018) takes a different size–a microSD card–and I’ve separately posted some recommendations on cards for the HERO (2018) here.
And while SD cards are pretty resilient, but it doesn’t hurt to have a spare on hand.
Case. A case for these cameras isn’t essential and is a lower priority, but it can still be useful to have. I tend to throw these cameras in my beach bag, and they can get knocked around and ground against sand. A small case adds some protection, particularly against scratching the lens.
By default, these cameras don’t come with cases, but again you can sometimes find bundles where they’re included. If you decide to get a case, there are quite a few different styles. You don’t need anything fancy. I’ve found these ones from Ruggard to work well with various small cameras.
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