2014 Compact Camera for Underwater Photo & Video Round Up

After the various Backscatter, Bluewater photo, and other shops compact cameras reviews I thought of putting my 10 pence in as well.

Most of those reviews you find are written by people who shoot DSLR and then occasionally go and take a compact in water to see how it goes. For what concerns underwater use I only shoot compact and I believe I know how to navigate into features and limitations of compact camera quite well so here is my view on the subject.

The first hint when you look at a high-end compact camera is to check if Nauticam makes a housing for it. If not maybe your camera is not as good after all. There are some exceptions of course.

Categories

I have ranked compacts according to the following shooting categories:

  1. Movie
  2. Ambient Light
  3. Macro
  4. Portraits
  5. Close Focus Wide Angle
  6. All purpose cameras

When possible there will be a top 3 in each category.

The Compacts

I have considered only the following cameras

  1. Canon G16
  2. Canon S120
  3. Olympus XZ-2
  4. Panasonic LX7
  5. Sony RX100II

The Fuji X20 is a potential addition but I have not found anyone that actually shoots it underwater so I abstain from judging here.

Best Cameras for Movie

In order to score in this category the cameras need to have full manual exposure control in movie mode and be able to shoot double frame rates for the system of choice PAL or NTSC.

This is my appraisal:

  1. Sony RX100II
  2. Panasonic LX7
  3. N/A

Canon cameras do not offer exposure control in movie mode, Olympus video is pathetic. Not possible to even consider a number 3 here.

Best Cameras for Ambient Light

1st Cave@Jackfish Alley

Here I consider shots without strobes with a view angle of 100ยบ diagonal you need a wet wide-angle lens to take those shots.

Here are the rankings:

  1. Sony RX100II
  2. Panasonic LX7
  3. Canon S120

Olympus lags behind in image quality and the Canon G16 does not have any wet lens that allows to take those shots without strobes.

Best Cameras for Macro

P1000463-.jpg

I am looking here at shots are real 1:1 reproduction ratio and how easy is to take those shots in terms of autofocus and depth of field. In order to achieve this level of magnification a close up wet lens is necessary for all cameras. No compact camera achieves real macro with the bare port underwater.

Here are the results:

  1. Canon G16
  2. Canon S120
  3. Panasonic LX7

The Canon G16 in virtue of a 140mm focal length at telephoto end gives the highest magnification ratio, the Canon S120 follows closely same image quality less magnification. The Panasonic LX7 has only a 90mm equivalent lens however the autofocus is incredible so you can use +10 diopters very easily and it is the only camera to really offer Bokeh.

The Olympus XZ-2 lags in terms of image quality, the RX100II has great image quality but little magnification, you need a +10 diopter to give a 1:1 reproduction ratio and focus is difficult because of shallow depth of field due to the large sensor.

Best Cameras for Portraits

Look Right in

Here we are considering shots with the bare port at 35mm focal length using strobes. Here is the ranking:

  1. Sony RX100II
  2. Panasonic LX7
  3. Canon S120 & Canon G16

Whilst the RX100II has the best image quality it comes a bit as a surprise why the LX7 gives better images than the Canon. The reason is that Canon tend to have a very unbalanced color range with over saturated red. This does not go away with RAW images as it affects the whole spectrum. It is possible to correct this using blue diffusers for strobe but this is just a patch, the LX7 tend to give much better balanced images.

Best Cameras for CFWA

Side Shot

Close focus wide-angle is shot with a fisheye like lens, using strobes typically at small apertures here are the rankings:

  1. Sony RX100II
  2. Canon G16
  3. Canon S120

It is quite clear that the RX100II with the widest choice of fisheye lens and the highest dynamic range is the best camera for the job, but the addition of the Inon Zoom lens helps getting the G16 in this category, the S120 follows with similar results. The LX7 does not offer a fisheye options sadly and the XZ-2 lags behind in image quality compared to the two canons.

Best Versatile Still Cameras

Here I look at cameras that can shoot all type of shots from macro to ambient light.

  1. Sony RX100II
  2. Canon S120
  3. Olympus XZ-2

The lack of fisheye options cuts out the LX7 and the poor performance of zoom wide-angle lens at wide end kicks the G16 out.

Best Overall Camera Still and Movie

Taking the previous list and eliminating the cameras that do not offer exposure control in movie mode this is the result

  1. Sony RX100II
  2. NA
  3. NA

So the Sony RX100II is the only real all round camera and this explains why it beats the other in terms of sales.

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Tuition Day with Martin Edge

During the London Dive Show I attended a talk from Martin where he covered a number of shooting situations and how to deal with them in terms of composition and settings.

There was a promotion for a two for one tuition day with him that my buddy was keen to take so few months later we made our way to Dorset for a day of underwater photography with Martin.

This will be my first day of shooting with the RX100 Mark II albeit in a pool with my new arms and lenses so I was looking forward to it.

We arrived in Poole the night before and got ready for an 8.30 start with Martin.

We started off with a review of some basic exposure concepts and then looked at competition winning pictures and trying to identify what makes a wow picture. It was extremely useful!

Afterwards we went through our trips pictures so he could see what needed improving. Then look at what was needed for the next trip.

With that in mind we set up to jump in the pool to take some pictures the objective was to improve my buddy close ups and portraits as apparently her wide angle is as good as it gets with the Canon S95 used see featured image on this post.

Pool conditions were low visibility and plenty of suspended particles as the pool is used for kids swimming lessons let me give you an idea!

Pool Conditions
Pool Conditions

The first task was to shoot a frog with a view of eliminating shadows in its mouth. Start with one strobe and finish off with two.

Frog at 28mm
Frog at 28mm

The frog with the bare port gives you an idea of the size and the complexity of the task with one strobe. There are shadows in his mouth.

Frog at 50mm
Frog at 50mm

I then shot a portrait at 50mm, the reason why you see shadows more on the left is because I set the strobe at different powers.

Frog single diopter
Frog single diopter

The magnification of the RX100 is little so I went on with a first Inon UCL-165 and full zoom at 100mm equivalent. Note that everything is pretty much sharp at f/11.

Frog Double Diopter
Frog Double Diopter

With two Inon UCL-165 focusing on the mouth will result in this and the eyes being in focus and the rest blurred because of lack of depth of field.

Octopus fisheye
Octopus fisheye

I then moved to an Octopus rich of textures. I took the first shot with my Inon UWL-100 28AD with dome.

Octopus at 28mm
Octopus at 28mm

The same octo at 28mm fills the frame much more of course.

Octopus at 50mm
Octopus at 50mm

The Octopus at 50mm looks even better. I have topped up the lighting on this one.

Octopus single diopter
Octopus single diopter

I then took this guy with a single UCL-165 note the depth of field insufficient to keep the back of the head in focus, results though are exceptional.

Octopus double diopter
Octopus double diopter

With two close up lenses we go back to the depth of field problem even at f/11.

I thought I had at that point nailed all focus and strobe issues, especially considering I shot with single auto focus, I did not bother using manual focus at all with exception of some double diopter shots.

I then tried a few surface reflections with the fisheye this being the best.

Falcon Fisheye
Falcon Fisheye

You can see the outside of the pool and the windows on the top.

Family Fisheye
Family Fisheye

Afterwards made my own composition of statues for a fisheye shot that I think came out very well. The Z240 performed extremely well in both TTL and external auto as well as manual.

Child with dog
Child with dog

Martin asked me to have a go at the child with the dog as it is extremely difficult to lit up properly.

I went for an alternative strobe placement with light from the bottom as if it was in a gallery. He was impressed with the results.

Lion Mouth Single Diopter
Lion Mouth Single Diopter

To finish off my last task was the tongue and eyes of a lion that I shot with a single UCL-165.

Overall a great day and I definitely recommend you the tuition day with Martin. He is a great person and extremely good at teaching I can see the benefits my buddy had right away.

Lessons learned on the RX100

There were a few things that I learned about my RX100 still rig mode that I want to share with you.

  • The autofocus is incredible. I even used this for macro. If the camera does not focus is because you don’t have enough depth of field and that is it.
  • Best macro performance is with a single diopter and also had a benefit of an increased working distance, this means the shots will need cropping for extremely small critters
  • Two diopters resulted in near bokeh with less than 1mm in focus and difficult to autofocus (though the LCD is great and I could see if things were in focus or not I think this is personal and I would recommend DMF to others)
  • Performance at wide angle with the UWL-100 28AD with dome is stellar
  • Inon float arms (I used two 6″ segments) were perfect with lens holders on it.
  • Inon Z240 twin set with one in TTL and the second in external auto delivered creative lighting without headaches, remember to buy the AUTO diffuser that does not come with the strobe
  • Strobes in manual allowed for even more creativity and the level of precision compared to sea and sea was staggering
  • Despite pool conditions the RX100 focused well in low light and much better than the Canon S95 that was returning focus error on the same exposures. I will not bother having a focus light with this camera and only have a single sola on night dives

That’s all for now any question just drop a comment