Action Cam or Underwater Camera Rig?


Dive into some underwater cinematography as we compare a $500 action cam up against a $5,000 underwater camera rig.

In today’s video, we’re putting two camera rigs head-to-head. We’ll be looking at how your $200-$500 underwater action cameras—like the Osmo Action or GoPro MAX—stack up against your favorite mirrorless or SLR cameras, lenses, and underwater rig. Dive in!

As you can see, there are certainly pros and cons to each option, and not just from a price point perspective. Let’s break down some of the nuances of choosing between these two options to see which might be the best for you and your underwater film and video production needs.


Action Cam vs. Camera Rig

Underwater Cameras

For today’s experiment, we’re basically comparing how your rough-and-tumble action cams can live up to their names and supply comparable, but not quite as sophisticated, footage for your underwater shoots. Make no mistake, action cams like the Osmo Action and GoPro MAX can provide a bunch of features your $5,000 SLR rig can’t. For example, its in-camera audio capabilities are way better than what you might find from your SLR rig.

However, while the audio might not be ideal, the footage you’ll get from taking a mirrorless or DSLR camera—like a Sony a7R or a7S—and combining it with an underwater camera rig like these Sea Frogs underwater housing units, is simply going to be breathtaking.


Camera Size

Compact Cameras
The action cam’s compact size is perfect for taking it to the water.

Another factor to consider is camera size. With the action cam’s compact and portable size, you should have no problem wading out into the water and getting any variety of shots from whatever spots you might choose. Also, your action cams will have great internal stabilization to help out as you can attach or mount it to your wrist, surfboard, or even on a carrier pigeon, if you so desire.

The SLR underwater rig is obviously going to be more cumbersome, require a bigger rig, and more energy to move around. Yet, once you start to look at the video quality, the lens options, and the footage overall, you’ll probably want to go with the SLR underwater rig.


Lens Options

Action Cameras
You don’t have the option for interchangeable lenses with action cams.

Action cams aren’t really known for being able to change lenses. While you can find some creative ways to crop your footage without shooting with a real mirrorless or DSLR, you won’t have the option of interchangeable lenses, which is truly a game changer for underwater photography and videography alike.

With the underwater camera housing unit, you also get plenty of diversity in terms of frame rates, resolution, and other variables to tinker with for still photography and your underwater videos. With the lenses, though, be aware that when shooting underwater, you’ll need to make a few more adjustments, as well.


Focal Lengths

Submerged Cameras
Keep in mind, once the camera is submerged, images are distorted.

A quick pro tip about underwater cinematography is that the visuals will be distorted. The water acts as a sort of magnification that changes your focal lengths. In my experience, I’ve found that the water punches in your shots by around 20%, so adjust accordingly! A 16mm lens will be magnified to around a 20mm to 35mm. If I’m shooting with a 35mm, it’ll be closer to a 30mm or 50mm, and so forth.

Keep this in mind for working with the wide-angle action cams, as well as with your longer lenses with the underwater camera cage. I’m also a huge fan of shooting on something like a 50mm prime, which underwater just looks different. You’re able to punch in and see a lot more details you wouldn’t typically see on a wider lens.


Verdict

Surfboarder
In the end, the underwater camera rig captures more cinematic-style footage.

Overall, action cams are going to be perfect for beginner filmmakers and those just dipping their toes into the underwater shooting scene for the first time. The cameras are cheap, reliable, and versatile, both underwater and on land. I shoot a lot of underwater content and these action cams have been a worthwhile investment.

However, if you’re looking for more cinematic-style footage for higher-end content, short films, or professional photo shoots, working with a mirrorless or DSLR camera with an underwater camera rig will be your best bet. You’ll have the best quality footage, the biggest array of recording options, plus all your favorite lenses to experiment with as you dive underwater.


For more filmmaking tips, tricks, and advice, check out these articles:





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