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 was impressed with the way the battery/SD slots and AV-out ports keep the water out. Both areas are sealed by beefy latches with a relatively stout rubber gasket that forms a tight seal around each compartment. I also liked the fact that they're double-locking latches. They not only "click" tight; they also have a secondary lock that shows an area of red when it's not completely sealed. Since it obviously only takes a drop of salt water inside either of those compartments to likely fry the camera, it was reassuring to know when the latches were locked and the seals were tight.
Panasonic (800) 405-0652, www.panasonic.com/lumix
SeaLife DC 1200
While all of the other cameras in this test were fairly well grouped together according to size, price, maximum depth, and overall functionality, they're all pretty much regular point-and-shoot cameras that have been made waterproof. The SeaLife DC 1200 from SeaLife Cameras, on the other hand, was made specifically to be used underwater and to be watertight way deeper than the snorkel-friendly and relatively low-pressure depth of 20 feet specified by me for this test.
The DC 1200 is actually a camera and a housing, and though I'd previously been averse to using a housing, I shouldn't have worried.
Compared with the other cameras, the SeaLife's housing is necessarily bigger and beefier to withstand pressure at depths of up to 200 feet, but it was super-easy to deal with and wasn't so big as to be a hindrance. The housing was a snap to open and lock shut, and the camera (similar in size to the others but not waterproof outside the housing) was made specifically to fit, and be fully operational, inside the housing. Since all of the function and menu buttons on the back of the camera are large and in line with large, well-marked, waterproof buttons on the back of the housing, it's possible to switch from still to video mode or adjust any other setting without having to take it out of the case. Very cool.
The DC 1200 has the biggest LCD screen of all the cameras that I tested, and overall, it worked beautifully. If you're only looking for a camera to take occasional photos while snorkeling and appreciate the compact size of some of the other cameras, then the SeaLife could be more than you need. But if you're looking for a camera that'll give you lots of flexibility and take fantastic deepwater diving pictures, the SeaLife may just be what you're looking for.
SeaLife Cameras (856) 866-9191, www.sealife-cameras.com
Olympus Stylus Tough-8010
The Tough-8010 from Olympus is the camera I worried about the least before sliding it into my bathing-suit pocket and swimming ashore from the boat. Like most of the other cameras, it's about the size of a pack of cigarettes and has a shockproof rating. But unlike all of the others, it also has a metal cover that protects the lens when the power is turned off and snaps open automatically when you turn the camera on, and there's no lens cap to lose.
The Tough-8010 functioned like all the other cameras. The LCD screen was bright, the auto-focus worked well, and I always had a good idea of the photo I was taking. But as I tried one camera after another, it became apparent that size does matter when it comes to the control buttons, and on the Tough-8010, I found them to be on the small side. This isn't a huge deal, but the smaller buttons required a bit more concentration and dexterity to make sure that the camera was set up properly. When it came time for me to capture the money shot, I occasionally had to make sure I was pushing the shutter button and not turning the camera off. Same for the zoom buttons on the back of the camera. They worked great, but I just had to look down to make sure my thumb was on the right button.
One thing I never wondered about on the Tough-8010 was its waterproofness. All vital components are housed beneath a single door-it's beefier than just a latch-on the side of the camera. The gasket forms a tight seal, and the door has both a clasp that closes with a click and a completely separate knob that locks the door shut with a second click.
Olympus (888) 553-4448, www.olympusamerica.com
So What's My Take?
After testing these cameras for a week in the tropics, I can honestly say that while they all exceeded my expectations, one didn't stand head and shoulders above the rest. They were all easy to use, had similar functions, capabilities, and prices, and took sharp, high-resolution photos both underwater and on land. And the photos were easy to upload and organize on my laptop computer. When all the cameras were laid out on the table, I found that I grabbed the Optio, but that was due more to its size than anything more substantive.
The fact that all these cameras are relatively compact and shoot photos and videos just as well as my non-waterproof camera, while also being both waterproof and even shockproof in most cases, got me thinking: If you're a cruiser, the right waterproof camera may be the only camera you'll need.
Bill Springer is CW's senior editor and will never buy another disposable underwater camera again.