Dive deep with 3 underwater cameras

These digital cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and SeaLife don't mind a dunking.

In fact, when I was capturing video underwater, I only needed to slide the mode wheel to video, press the Underwater button and press Record on the back to start rolling. And with just the zoom buttons on top, it made for an easy experience that left me more time to watch the action and less time fiddling with buttons.

Video quality was well above average. I was impressed with how well the SDR-SW20 was able to reproduce what was happening in front of the lens. The multicolored rings were shown accurately and the sides of the pool were displayed in detail.

I was also pleased with the camcorder's ability to capture minute details of the submerged shark toy and even show the eyes and smallest scales, which the Olympus was incapable of displaying. And with the help of stereo sound, any major noise underwater was captured in surprisingly high fidelity.

The Panasonic SDR-SW20 is also capable of taking still shots, but doesn't do it nearly as well as it captures video. In fact, I was displeased by how grainy the pictures looked and how little detail they featured. Keep in mind, however, that the SDR-SW20 is a camcorder first and foremost.

Although it may be the ugliest device in the group and it doesn't offer the kind of ruggedness I liked from the Olympus 1030 SW, the Panasonic SDR-SW20 is a fine camcorder that does a great job of capturing video underwater. And with an ease of use that easily eclipses the others, it's certainly the kind of device your kids would understand when they're underwater.

SeaLife DC800

The SeaLife DC800 is different -- to say the least. When you first unpack the camera from its box, you'll find two products: a big, bulky shell and the 8-megapixel DC800 itself, complete with a 2.7-in. LCD display. To get it ready for underwater use, the DC800 needs to be placed inside the shell and tightly secured to ensure no water seeps in. It's an awkward setup, but once ready, it works extremely well.

This camera is not going to win any beauty contests, but its flexibility easily makes up for its somewhat boring looks. If you plan on capturing images outside the water, you can leave the shell at home or in the camera bag and pop the DC800 into your pocket. If you want to head down to the water, the shell won't add too much more bulk to your towel bag.

Unlike the Olympus and Panasonic cameras, which are designed for consumers, the DC800 is designed for the sea diver who wants to capture the beauty of the ocean at depths that can reach 200 feet. In other words, if you want to take the kids on a scuba diving adventure, you can bring this camera six times deeper than the Olympus and a whopping 33 times deeper than the Panasonic without worrying about damaging the camera.

The SeaLife DC800 is a camera first, camcorder second. Because of that, I wasn't expecting too much out of the camcorder capabilities -- and unfortunately, I was right. When I videoed the rings, the camera was unable to capture the accurate color of the toys, and it didn't do that well with the movement either. In fact, as I moved the camera around to show the falling rings, the video showed signs of lag and looked grainy.

The DC800 performed much better with still photos. It recreated the colors and detail underwater very nicely. Not only did it capture minute details on the pool floor, but it also captured details on the shark and did a fine job of recreating the look of the environment. It wasn't perfect. Pictures did look a bit washed out in high-intensity lighting, and I noticed that some of the finer details were lost in those shots. But in more moderate lighting or even dark environments, the DC800 did very well.

All in all, the SeaLife DC800 is a fine camera that doesn't quite match up to the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW in terms of still image quality, nor the Panasonic SDR-SW20 in terms of video quality. But for those who are looking to dive deep and snap pictures dozens (or even hundreds) of feet below the water, nothing can beat the DC800. Just don't expect to be happy with its price tag: it's currently going for a whopping US$549 direct.

Conclusion

There are a slew of great devices that will certainly offer the best in image quality if you want to capture the world above water. But if you're looking to photograph a different environment, underwater devices are an ideal solution. Although each of the three devices reviewed offers something unique, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is the very best in overall quality and affordability and should sit atop your list when you head down to the store.

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