Computerworld

Dive deep with 3 underwater cameras

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

While your current digital camera may be OK for ordinary photos and videos, do you have an underwater camcorder to capture your kids swimming with dolphins or to take snapshots of those beautiful coral reefs that you're snorkeling through?

Unlike normal camcorders that may offer higher-quality video or a top-of-the-line lens, underwater devices are specifically designed to give you a good picture (usually without all the extras) in an underwater environment. In fact, many of the devices are capable of plunging up to 200 feet into a pool, lake or ocean.

To keep all of the precious components inside the device safe, an underwater camcorder features a rugged outer shell and is sealed tightly with a host of doors that cover the battery, memory card and transfer ports. To ensure everything is ready for submersion, some cameras, such as the Panasonic SDR-SW20, have switches on each door that will show red when open and black when closed.

I tested three devices -- the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW, the Panasonic SDR-SW20 and the SeaLife DC800 -- to see how each handled still photos and videos while being immersed. Although the Panasonic is the only device that's specifically a video camera, the other two products are capable of capturing video as well, even though their main function is to take stills.

How we tested

To compare the three devices, each was submerged in about 3 feet of water in a private pool while I recorded multicolored falling rings as they sank to the bottom.

To test how rugged each product was, the cameras were kept underwater for 30 minutes, and then taken out and placed back in the water for 15 minutes. After that, I left them in the pool at a depth of about 9 feet for another 30 minutes (except for the Panasonic, which is only rated for 5 feet) and then yanked them out to see how well they reacted to the pressure change.

Also, since accidents are a lot more likely with cameras held by wet, slippery hands, I "accidentally" dropped the cameras from about 5 feet.

Finally, to measure how well each took still photographs, a submerged shark was placed at the bottom of the pool along with the aforementioned rings.

Olympus Stylus 1030 SW

Thin yet solid, attractive yet rugged, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is truly a design marvel. The beauty of the 1030 SW put the other two devices I tested to shame. Its chrome finish made it easy on the eyes and its beautiful 2.7-in. LCD display made viewing targets underwater both simple and convenient.

Unlike the other cameras, which are specifically designed for underwater use, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW (according to the literature) can be submerged in 33 feet of water, dropped from 6 feet in the air onto a concrete surface, survive in 14-degree weather and withstand 220 pounds of pressure. In fact, while I was getting ready to submerge the Olympus, I accidentally dropped it on a concrete walkway from eye-level -- about 6 feet high -- and was surprised to see not one scratch or ding on the surface.

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Underwater, things also went well. Unlike the other devices, which feature buttons in awkward spots, the Olympus Stylus 1030 SW puts all the main buttons -- power, zoom, capture -- in convenient locations on the top and back where they're easily accessible.

Snapping stills is where the 1030 SW shines. After comparing shots, I was gratified by how much detail the 10.1-megapixel camera was able to capture. When I took pictures of the rings, the camera was able to show the grooves along the side and even captured the screw holes toward the bottom. And with its ability to accurately capture light and shadows without a hitch, I was quite happy with its performance in well-lit areas.

That said, I wasn't too happy with how well it was able to recreate the detail of the shark lying at the bottom of the pool. Unlike the rings, which were submerged in a well-lit area, the shark was at the bottom of the deep end and not as much light was getting through. Without the help of the light, the camera started to lose its ability to capture a high-quality image and some of the detail was lost.

Video capture on the shallow end of the pool was adequate, but not nearly as appealing as that produced by the Panasonic SDR-SW20. That said, as a device that's specifically designed with stills in mind, I didn't expect too much from the Olympus' video capabilities.

I took two videos -- one from a longer range and one from a closer range. The camera was able to capture the sunlight breaking through the water relatively well.

After dropping the rings into the pool, I recorded their descent. The 1030 SW responded well and was capable of reproducing the action without a hitch. But in terms of detail, the camera was woefully behind its competitors. Not only did it fail to capture some of the finer areas of the pool, but also the image looked slightly off-color and noticeably rough.

The Olympus Stylus 1030 SW is a fine underwater camera that can do more than any other device in this review. If you're looking for something with superior video capture though, this probably isn't for you. But if you don't mind subpar video and would like to hand this to the kids without worry of damaging it, the US$400 price is well worth it.

Panasonic SDR-SW20

The Panasonic SDR-SW20 may be one of the ugliest camcorders you'll ever see, but what it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in great video quality and the kind of ease that you typically won't find in other devices. With a red outer shell and black accents, the camcorder is much too big and bulky to be to be carried around in a pocket with any ease.

Like the Olympus, the Panasonic is rugged and designed to withstand some punishment, although it can't hold out in all the environments the Olympus can.

According to Panasonic, the SDR-SW20 can survive in 5 feet of water and withstand a drop of 4 feet. Its plastic outer shell doesn't seem rugged enough to withstand any major shock and the hearty CRACK! I heard after dropping it made me think twice about doing it again. However, after the drop, there were only a few scratches on the side and it worked fine.

As far as the user interface is concerned, though, the Panasonic stands out. It can sometimes be difficult to get to all the buttons you're looking for and capture the right angle for the perfect shot while underwater. But with the help of a flip screen and just a few simple buttons underneath the flip screen, the SDR-SW20 makes it easier than any other device.

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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.