Why I would not recommend photographing with a GoPro
GoPro cameras are popular among adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts who want to capture their experiences in stunning quality. They are waterproof up to 10 meters (and with an according housing even up to 60 meters), durable, easy to mount and carry and have a wide field of view that can capture more of the scene. However, GoPros may not be the best choice for several reasons when it comes to underwater photography.
There is nothing wrong with getting started with a GoPro or a similar action camera when you are new to underwater photography. In fact, they have many advantages: they are small, lightweight, and easy to use.
However, as you grow as an underwater photographer and want to take your underwater photography further, you will quickly realize that you are hitting a limit with what your GoPro can achieve.
In this article, we are going to talk about some of the disadvantages of using GoPros for underwater photography and some alternatives.
Limited control over exposure settings
One of the main drawbacks of using a GoPro for underwater photography is the limited control over exposure settings. Unlike DSLR, mirrorless, or even compact cameras that allow you to adjust aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance manually, GoPros rely on automatic modes that may not produce optimal results in different lighting conditions.
For example, if you want to take a split shot (half above and half below water), you may find that the underwater part is underexposed or too blue, while the above-water part is overexposed or too bright. This can make it hard to balance the exposure and color of both elements in post-processing.
GoPros have small sensors
Another disadvantage of using a GoPro for underwater photography is the small sensor size and dynamic range. Sensor size affects how much light can be captured by the camera and how much detail can be resolved in low-light situations. Dynamic range refers to how well the camera can handle highlights and shadows without losing detail. GoPros have smaller sensors than DSLR or mirrorless cameras, which means they have less light sensitivity and less dynamic range. This can result in noisy images with poor contrast and color accuracy when shooting underwater.
You have less control
A third drawback of using a GoPro for underwater photography is the difficulty in seeing if the subject is in the frame. Since GoPros have fixed lenses with wide angles of view (up to 170 degrees), they can distort objects near the edges of the frame and make them appear farther away than they actually are. This can make it challenging to compose your shots and focus on your subject accurately.
The newer models have a small screen that lets you see what you are shooting, which already gives you a little more control as compared to older models where there was no screen.
However, given the small size of the camera, the screen is equally small, which makes it very hard to compose your images.
In many situations, you will thus be shooting blindly and instead of having control over your results, you will end up in a “spray and prey” shooting style more often than not.
Limited shooting options
The GoPro has a very wide angle of view to capture more of a scene. While this may be great for wide-angle shots, it is precisely that wide-angle view of the GoPro that also poses a limitation to your photos. For many situations the wide angle of view might be exactly what you want, e.g. when capturing coral scenes or encounters with large animals, such as manta rays, sharks, or, if you are lucky enough, even dolphins or whales.
If you want to capture smaller critters however such as a nudibranch or shrimps, the wide-angle view of the GoPro will get in your way, since it makes the subject appear tiny in your frame.
You can't use strobes with a GoPro
Another important drawback is that you cannot use a GoPro with a strobe. Underwater we need light to bring back the colors of our subjects and create sharp images. Ideally, we use strobes (powerful underwater flashes) to get that light, even in deeper water and darker shooting conditions.
While using dive torches or video lights are good options for shooting video underwater, strobes give us better results when it comes to photography.
However, GoPros do neither have an integrated flash nor can they be synchronized with strobes, limiting your shots even further.
That does not mean that you cannot create good underwater images without strobes, but you will be very limited. For tips on how to get the best out of your images when you’re not using strobes, check out this article.
That being said, I want to point out that a GoPro is not per se a bad camera to be used underwater. The question always is: is it the right choice for you?
Who is the GoPro for
The GoPro might be the right choice for you if you are just getting started with underwater photography and are not sure yet if this is a hobby you want to continue pursuing.
The small size and light weight make it ideal for travelers and backpackers who do not want to bother with carrying a bigger underwater photography set-up, only enjoy the occasional dive during their holiday, and are looking for a quick “click and record” camera option to capture special moments on their dives, without bothering about camera settings and more control over their images.
More than for photography, the GoPro is a great choice if you want to shoot videos primarily.
I would also recommend using a GoPro as an additional camera and mounting it on your camera housing for the option to quickly capture a video of special moments.
Who the GoPro is not for
The GoPro will probably not be enough for you, if you want to take more control over your underwater photos, focus on underwater photography on your dives (as opposed to focusing on your dive and just snapping the occasional picture or video for memories), and take your underwater photography to the next level. If this sounds like you, then you should consider getting a small compact camera or mirrorless camera to allow you to grow your underwater photo skills.
Alternatives to GoPros for underwater photography
There are many good alternatives to GoPro for underwater photography, depending on your budget, preferences, and needs. Some of the best underwater cameras in 2023 are:
- Olympus Tough TG-6: A rugged and versatile compact camera with a 12 MP sensor, 4K video, macro modes, and accessories
- Sony RX100 VII: A premium and advanced compact camera with a 20 MP sensor, 4K video, zoom lens, and fast autofocus
- Canon EOS R6: A 20.1 MP full-frame sensor, 12 fps burst shooting, 4K video at 60fps, and In-Body Image-Stabilization
In conclusion, while GoPros are great for capturing action-packed moments on land or in water on video, they are not ideal for underwater photography which requires more control over exposure settings, better image quality, and easier framing.
If you want to take your underwater photography to the next level, you may want to invest in a compact or mirrorless camera.