New Underwater Camera

Over the years, we have tried several digital cameras for our underwater photography, some good some bad, some just passable.

As ironic as it is that the cheapest, oldest, least capable camera has turned out some of our best pictures over time [albeit with the very low resolution of 2 megapixels], I still must strive to have the best equipment that I can reasonably afford to do the job.

The first camera I have used was the Canon PowerShot A20 – a 2mpx camera with almost no manual settings and a hideously long shutter lag. Knowing when to shoot the picture meant pushing the button about 2-3 seconds before I expected my subject to be in the frame. That’s much easier when standing [floating] still. Even so, some of my best pictures underwater came from this camera. Either because of it’s limitations which I subconsciously took into account, or because of the environments in which I dove – which is more likely. The places we went with that camera were deeper and darker, which lent more to flash-based lighting and that just makes things look better underwater.

Ever wanting to be on the technological cusp when it comes to gadgets, I “upgraded” next to the Canon PowerShot S80. For a camera that was technically superior [it was 8mpx and allowed us to shoot in RAW format], it performed in a most substandard way. We had thought it would make better strides in shutter lag, but while a bit faster, it still had serious delay problems. Of course, when we took it diving, we didn’t go very deep or do night dives with it, so I couldn’t get the lighting to do what I wanted and it really didn’t perform any better than the old A20 did. It didn’t last long.

Next up is our current camera, the Canon G9. Now, with this one, I was determined to do better on properly planning the equipment. I at one point wanted to go with a low-end SLR, but the cost of the case alone (over $10,000) fast decided me against that. At the time, the G9 was the top of the line small form factor camera. I picked it up and the Ikelite case with strobe to go with. This is the first time that I had that setup, previously relying only on the built-in flash. Having the strobe off camera makes for better, more clear pictures free from underwater particulates. This camera did much better.

However, there are still some shortcomings, the focusing speed, the still present shutter lag, and most importantly, the sensor limitations of noise, ISO, and dynamic range. I was still getting blown out sections of my pictures in the highlight areas – the kinds of problems that don’t normally present themselves topside. All told though, it’s still a decent solution and even does some low-res underwater video.

Then, Canon went and released the EOS M – a new “mirror-less” SLR camera. That just means that it has the guts of a large body camera, with focusing and viewing through the lens, but without the heavy mirror/prism mechanism present in most SLR cameras today. Not that I mind using the optical mirror viewfinder on my big camera, but for underwater, it becomes cumbersome and cost prohibitive.

With the EOS M, though, you have a “full” [APS-C sized – not full 35mm frame, but the more consumer friendly size] sized sensor in a tiny camera body with 18mpx and high ISO range. This means that we should be able to get better shots in the deep with a lower-noise, higher dynamic range, and crisper detail – and use it underwater WITHOUT a $10,000 case premium. Looking at the options out there shows at present one case for $1,500, but there should be an Ikelite one out in the near future. [That’s my opinion not based on any information from them.]

So, we found a used one at B&H for $200 or so off the $799 retail price including the more flexible lens we wanted. This camera also does an amazing high-def video capture and we’ll be using it on not only our future dive trips, but our upcoming north Atlantic cruise. Plus, it’s lightweight and easier to pack.

I’ll let you know how will it performs.