3 Compact Generations
35, 28, 24 mm

Underwater Video Tips: Using 24mm Compact Cameras

Some people will recognize the Canon PowerShot A570IS, the Canon S95  and the Panasonic LX7. The first shot VGA video, the second 720p HD and the last AVCHD 50/60p. If you look carefully you can also see how the front aperture of the lens gets progressively bigger and bigger.

Year after year compact cameras are becoming more powerful having electronics that allow higher resolution and image quality, I think the GoPro is a demonstration of what you can do pushing the limits of simple optics using ultra integrated electronics.

Compact cameras like the A570IS used to have lenses that would be equivalent to a full film camera with a 35mm lens, this has been a popular choice for long time. Some years go Olympus and afterwards Canon, Sony and others started offering plastic housing for those cameras to take them underwater this was the start of consumer underwater photography.

There are however a number of challenges using a 35mm camera for underwater photos and the most obvious is the field of view, because of the magnifying effect of water those compact had really narrow coverage that limit them to close up of macro shots. However a little time after wet wide angle lenses come into the market and offered range of coverage up to 100º some manufacturers also produced seme-fisheye lenses with coverage of 165º the most well known being the Inon UFL165AD.

All went well and compact camera photographer could take wet lenses with them and in one dive take pictures of a nudibranch as well as of a wreck thanks to removable lens in water.

Then the consumer market pushed manufacturers to increase field of view so it was the start of 28mm equivalent cameras like the Canon S90, this format is still very popular with the Canon G series and the new Sony RX100, in addition to that there was more and more demand for extended zoom so that the camera could be useful in all situations, today is not uncommon to have compact cameras with 20x zoom.

The introduction of 28mm equivalent cameras meant that the cameras would vignette with a lens designed for 35mm so wet lenses had to be readjusted and re-designed. The extensive zoom by this you mean over 4x meant that the wet lens would be so far from the camera lens that effectively no wet lens would be useful, this has been the curse of the Canon G series a great camera that never had any good wet wide angle solution until very recently with introduction of zoom wide lenses from Inon.

The other bad news is that at 28mm the flat port of the housing introduces already pincushion distortion and fringing as we can see from this photo

Bare Port RX100 wide end

We can see the effect of pincushion distortion in the deformation of the shape of the slate, it is quite apparent when you look at the lines and how skewed they are you can also see a purple tinge to it.

A wet wide angle lens not only expands field of view but also corrects pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, this is the key reason why some form of wide angle is always required.

In the last two years manufacturers have come up with 24mm equivalent cameras, such as the Canon S100, Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic LX5, unfortunately those camera have even more pincushion distortion, and for this reason should never be used in water at wide end  to take pictures without post correction that can be quite hard to achieve so as a matter of fact many people live with ugly deformed pictures.

Those cameras make it even more difficult for wet lenses to work and to date there are very few lenses that work without vignetting, those lenses require a wide aperture on the side of the camera also to allow larger and larger image sensors that camera makers use like the LX7 in the feature image.

LX7 Flat port Widend
LX7 Flat port Wide end

To give a demonstration of why is a bad idea to take your 24mm camera in water without any wide angle lens we just have to look at the picture above. Shocking!

So with 24mm cameras we are stuck, the wet lenses with dome that work well with the 28mm cameras end up vignetting so badly that all the advantage is lost when you zoom in. In effect with a 24mm camera all we can aim is 100-110° field of view that for stills is not really that much, there are exceptions like the Canon S100 but in general terms options are limited.

Camcorders on the other hand always had a range between 30mm and 150mm if not more with extensive zoom, you would have needed a dome port atteched to the housing that would allow zoom to give the same functionality in water or diopters to zoom at close range.

A user of a Sony camcorder in a gates housing would be looking at 30mm like a very wide lens!!! Typically you need fathom lenses to reach 90° and lenses with 110° coverage cost $4,000+ so definitely not affordable to the average shooter.

Where does this leave us? Well surprise good news for all 24mm compact users that want to shoot high quality video there are plenty of options that don’t break the bank!!!

When zoom cameras like the Canon G7 come into the market some manufacturers like Fantasea, H2O tools, Ikelite started producing wet domes.

Those domes are made of two lenses with an air space and if set really close to the housing port have the effect of restoring the original field of view of the camera. Now for a 28mm equivalent like the Canon G series this is not that exciting as we are talking about 75º diagonal but for the 24mm camera users we are talking of 84° diagonal coverage, a value that a professional camcorder user would be very happy with. In addition you can also use the zoom which means that if the camera has really close focusing distance a wet dome is all you may need for 85% of shooting circumstances.

So when I got the Panasonic LX7 this is what I was planning and I got a Nauticam Wet-Mate this is the slate from before at the same distance

LX7 with Nauticam Wet-Mate
LX7 with Nauticam Wet-Mate

As you can see the image is not only wider but also rectilinear no barrel distortion as if we were shooting on land.

Personally I do not like barrel distortion for video, and this is the reason I don’t like videos shot with fisheye lenses so this suits me fine. Of course 84° are not really wide for large wrecks, whale sharks or similar for those situations you still need a wet-wide angle lens but the Nauticam Wet-Mate costs $250 plus taxes so you really can’t complain.

At telephoto the flat port does not have pincushion distortion but it could be painful to remove the wet mate in the water the good news is that with the wet-mate you can still make use of the full zoom so if your camera has a really short focusing distance this may be good enough for most situations.

To finish off this is the Nauticam Wet-Mate, there are as I said similar products made by other brands. It is build of Aluminum with two lenses with a sealed airspace, construction seems very similar to some fix products.

Nauticam Wet Mate
Nauticam Wet Mate

So if you have a 24mm compact camera that takes HD video and you are frustrated with still there is a whole world in front of you with those dome adapters you could be well set for underwater video at very little investment.

Those are just some cameras that have high quality HD video the list is of course longer:

  • Canon S100/S110
  • Panasonic LX5/LX7
  • Olympus XZ-1/2

And the good news is that you do not need an aluminum housing just something that takes a wet dome, Ikelite for example has 67MM thread on most housings for those cameras.

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