Field Report: Underwater Cameras
Five relatively affordable models are put to the underwater test on a coral reef in the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean.
I've always tried to shoot photos, both on the boat and while snorkeling, during the various charters and offshore passages I've been on. But the reality is, the non-waterproof cameras that I've carried have invariably succumbed to my abuse and the perils of salt and moisture-without even being submerged. I've never wanted to mess with fickle and expensive camera housings, and the various drugstore disposable waterproof cameras I've used have rarely yielded a decent photo.
But after researching waterproof cameras to test on a recent charter in Antigua and Barbuda (see "Sail, Swim, Submerge, Smile, Celebrate," page 36), it appears that my onboard, underway, and underwater photo dilemma has been solved. The reality is that there's a bunch of digital cameras that have all the features, functionality, and dimensions of a pocket-size point-and-shoot-auto focus, easy-to-see LCD screen, adjustable zoom-that are also waterproof to snorkel- and, in some cases, dive-friendly depths.
The stated criteria for this test were that each camera would be digital and capable of shooting both still photos and video, waterproof to at least 20 feet, have at least 10 megapixels of effective resolution, and retail for less than $500. Each camera I tested met and often exceeded these parameters. Most are also rated "shockproof" (able to withstand being dropped on a hard surface from a height of 4 to 6 feet), and one camera is designed to take pictures down to a depth of 200 feet.
My test procedure was as scientific as it could be, given that I'm a sailor and not a scientist or pro photographer. I used each camera, both underwater and above, and recorded my impressions, rating each for overall functionality and ease of use, the visibility of the screen underwater, and how truly waterproof the cameras appeared to be. I took pictures in similar conditions while snorkeling in about 7 feet of water.
I tested the Canon PowerShot D10, the Olympus Stylus Tough-8010, the Panasonic Lumix TS2, the Pentax Optio W90, and the SeaLife DC 1200. Just don't ask me how I got them through airport security in my carry-on.
Canon PowerShot D10
The things I really liked about using the D10 from Canon were its buttons. The shutter button is big enough so that I didn't need to feel around for it underwater, and it's right where it should be, on the top right-hand side of the camera. I also liked the large, individual buttons on the back of the camera. Zooming in and out was easy; each function has its own large button that can be intuitively adjusted with your thumb. Other functions, such as switching from still to video mode, the flash settings, playback, and menu also have underwater-user-friendly buttons.
The shape of the D10 also stands out. Some of the other cameras are quite compact and square. The D10 has similar dimensions, but the lens protrudes a bit. It's a subtle thing, and it may be necessary since the camera is equipped with an image stabilizer, which comes in handy when you're bobbing around underwater. Its flash is also larger than those on some of the other cameras. The result is that it felt bulkier in my pocket than some of the others. The LCD screen is slightly smaller than the screens on some of the other cameras, but I had no trouble seeing it underwater, and I always had a good idea of the picture I was trying to take. The auto-focus also worked well.