John Bantin has been a full-time professional diving writer and underwater photographer since 1990. He makes around 300 dives each year testing diving equipment.
CAMERA FUJI FINEPIX F50FD
I ALWAYS RECEIVE NEW DIGITAL CAMERAS with some trepidation. Their instruction manuals are inevitably an inch thick, and there's usually too much information to take on board quickly, which is what I have to do if I am to get a test published while the item is current. As you turn the main command mode dial of the latest Fuji FinePix, the F50fd, it displays a short description of what each setting does on its massive 2.7in LCD screen. This helps a lot. This tiny camera promises a 12 megapixel output up to the light-sensitivity equivalent of 1600 ISO (with fewer pixels as you go even faster to 6400 ISO), so it promises good performance in low light conditions. It also offers the possibility of setting the white-balance manually, and you can choose to select a couple of presets of your own to add to the manufacturer's selection. The new dual-image stabilisation is an electronic panacea for camera shake, too. It all augers well for use under water. One of the most important features of this camera for surface use is its face-detection technology. It can pick out a face at almost any angle and focus on it. This saves the embarrassment of photographing a couple of friends, only to find that you focused on the tree in the distance but positioned between them. This technology also removes red-eye at the time of shooting. It's all clever stuff. The camera can fire off pictures at five frames per second, and it has intelligent flash to retain background detail that otherwise might be too dark. Of course, none of this has much use under water, except when making portraits of your buddy! You can get a clear Perspex underwater housing for this camera, so I took one away with me to see how it performed under water. It's rated to 40m. The buttons on the back of the housing are engraved with their functions, which helps when you are submerged and a long way from the manual.
MOST COMPACTS come into their own in macro mode. This camera doesn't focus that close. Around 30cm was as near as I could get with the maximum telephoto setting, but at least the in-built flash has a diffuser, positioned so that the lens barrel doesn't cast a shadow in the foreground of the picture. I could get to around 7cm using the widest angle setting. There is an element of manual exposure control, by using the exposure compensation or image-brightness adjustment. The F50fd records pictures on either an xD or an SD (or SDHC) memory card. A 1Gb card will record more than 200 jpeg pictures at the highest quality setting. Internal memory is 25Mb. You can take short movie clips, too. If you are not using flash, it is essential to set the white balance manually for each shot. This can be a little tedious, but you have to do it if you don't want blue pictures under water. I found that this works well between, say, 15m deep and the surface, but only with bright sunshine coming over your shoulder. There is a special Fuji underwater photography setting you can pre-select from the various programmes, but a few metres of water above you can make a lot of difference. This means going back to the manual white-balance setting every time you change depth. Adjusting the exposure setting by using the exposure-value (EV) adjustment can also take time, and this takes a lot of the spontaneity out of what you photograph. Ironically, spontaneity is the one thing that is lost with modern digital point-and-shoot cameras. Even in Auto mode, there is a degree of point-and-wait. Under water, you really have to be thinking on your feet if you want to get good shots. Inevitably, you end up shooting the more static subjects. This said, the grab-time seemed very quick when photographing schooling fish. I would press the button and think I'd missed the shot, only to be pleasantly surprised by the image recorded on the huge LCD screen. Of course, with schooling fish, it's hard to know whether the one you photographed was the one at which you were aiming! I cheated. Instead of adjusting the white balance, I used the camera with a little ancillary Fuji flash that mounted on an arm and was triggered by means of a fibre-optic cable link from the camera's own little built-in flash. Strangely, this cable is not supplied, and I had to jury-rig one from another manufacturer. Fuji seems to think that the off-board flash will trigger simply by seeing the camera's own flash reflected in the water. I found this not to be the case. But off-board flash does give better colour, in that you are less dependent on ambient light, and it gives better modelling to your subject, because it is not directed flat onto it. I would recommend that anyone who buys this camera go the full distance and buy the ancillary flash too. The greatest disadvantage when using the FinePix F50fd under water is the absence of a set of manual controls. This would enable you to get perfectly exposed pictures by looking at the LCD and adjusting things accordingly. When we checked the pictures for quality later on the computer screen, we found that the best ones were taken within a range of a metre, and seemed to be very sharp. The trade-off for a large pixel count with a small sensor is that although you can enlarge the pictures greatly without the individual pixels showing, you get a certain amount of digital noise, seen as graininess, instead. So if you are looking for a simple-to-use compact camera that will give you large prints without pixelation, but that may be a little grainy, this could be the one for you.
OTHER HOUSED CAMERAS TO CONSIDER: Sea & Sea DX860G, £430 Nikon Coolpix P5100 with Fantasea Line FP5000, £460 Sony W-200 with MPK-WB, £388
Self-portrait taken with the Fuji F50FD
SPECS FUJI FINEPIX F50FD PRICE £199 (+ housing £129, flashgun £100, Sea & Sea fibre-optic connection £45) MEGAPIXELS 12 at ISO 1600 and less MANUAL WHITE BALANCE Yes (6 presets, Auto) MANUAL CONTROLS Exposure compensation ZOOM 3x (f/2.8 to f/5.1) MACRO 30cm at max telephoto 7cm at max wide-angle ISO RANGE 100 to 6400 MEMORY CARD SD (or SDHC) or xD LCD 9.6cm PHOTOMETRY TTL 256-zone/Spot/Average DEPTH RATING 40m CONTACT www.fujifilm.co.uk DIVER GUIDE