IT DOESN'T TAKE MUCH COURAGE TO JUMP off a boat in mid-ocean with an unfamiliar set of diving kit. This is because, with the exception of a couple of complicated computers from manufacturers that pander to techno-bores, diving equipment is basically very lo-tech. It doesn't take much understanding for an experienced diver to use it.
On the other hand, though I have spent my life as a photographer, I get terrified when Im sent a modern compact digital camera to test.
Why Because these modern marvels are menu-driven. Just as it took me a year of driving before I penetrated the electronic wizardry of my car and discovered how to fold the door-mirrors away safely when parked, I fret that I might criticise the product for not having some feature that is, in fact, hidden beneath layers of sub-menus.
Not only this, but the manufacturers now tend to include the instructions on a CD - not much use when you're bobbing in an inflatable, trying to make the camera do what you want.
The rules of underwater photography remain the same, whether using an expensive DSLR in Luddite manual mode or any other camera.
I recently tried out a compact while on a liveaboard, and offered it to an expert who was running courses on using such cameras, to find out what she could do with it.
Alas, few of her pictures were usable - simply because we didnt have all the kit that I believe is needed to get good pictures under water. Unless, that is, youre satisfied by endless shots of your buddy and blue fish.
So when Sea & Sea suggested that I test its latest offering, the DX-1200HD with 3x optical zoom lens, I insisted that it include a wide-angle lens.
I also needed an ancillary flashgun and the whole nine yards required to fit it all together and make it work.
You may see this camera and housing selling at around £365, but the whole shebang as used by me will probably set you back a little more than £900.

Output
This camera is so tiny that most of its rear is taken up by the 3in LCD monitor. Its small enough to be used in its 45m depth-rated compact housing not only for diving but for topside marine and winter sports, and in other hazardous conditions.
Its a 12-megapixel unit but records pictures only as jpegs, even at the highest-quality setting. The megapixel rating indicates ability to enlarge pictures considerably without them becoming blocky - at the risk of them being grainier than with a lower-rated camera if using a setting more light-sensitive than, say, ISO 200.
Most people simply cannot be asked to convert and adjust RAW files on their computers, and are content to shoot jpegs, so thats OK for the market for which this camera
is intended. This can allow more than 1000 shots on a 4Mb SDHC card, or 679 at the highest-quality setting.
The DX-1200HD will also shoot 42 minutes of movie sequences in the best quality high-definition, or more than two hours if you want only sufficient quality to irritate your friends on the Internet. The software included even has an easy link with YouTube.
Settings
I sat for an hour or so and managed to find all but one of the settings I needed. Manual-exposure adjustment was there, but not the custom white-balance setting that can be so important when taking wider shots under water. The manual made no mention of it.
An emergency phone-call revealed that the custom white-balance setting was lurking beneath the same delete button as the manual-exposure control, only the button had to be held in for several seconds to access it.
You then aimed it at a suitably neutral-colour surface and pressed the shutter button, confirming with the OK button once the LCD had shown an adjustment.
The manual ISO setting is achieved in the same sub-menu, when in the right program mode. Of course, there are also a lot of built-in presets for different lighting situations, or you can opt for the special Sea & Sea underwater photography mode, and just shoot away.

Housing
Sea & Sea realises that divers are not necessarily intrinsically clever or particularly dextrous, and may be befuddled by breathing gases under pressure, so the buttons on the housing are clearly marked.
There was no need to memorise what the buttons did, unless it was for the white balance or manual-exposure adjustment.
Once the little camera has been dropped into the housing, and the sealing O-ring confirmed free of foreign bodies, the back is securely closed with a double release cam-lock. In cold water its best to include the little sachet of silica gel supplied to soak up any condensation.
A shallow hood keeps ambient light off the huge LCD, but this wasnt always effective enough in bright sunshine.
There was no mistaking the on/off button, and the shutter release has a long-enough throw to avoid the camera shake caused if you jab the button instead of squeezing it.

Flash
The housing has a switchable connection for the fibre-optic synch cable to the ancillary flash. Activating this also partially blanks out the onboard flash used as a trigger.
The little YS27 DX flashgun was a dream to use, and it was easy to turn down the power
a little if it was too bright. It recycled very swiftly with four rechargeable AA batteries installed, and always seemed ready for the next shot.
I mounted the camera securely on the tray of the Sea Arm Light Set, which enabled me to adjust the angle and position of the light.

Wide-angle
The wide-angle conversion lens fits directly to the front of the housing once a bit of plastic trim has been removed from the front.
I found this wet-fit lens easy to dismount under water if I wanted to shoot an extreme close-up in macro mode, and a lanyard linked to the housing meant I wouldnt lose it.
The purpose of a wide-angle lens is not to get more in, but to allow you to get closer to your subject, reducing the amount of water between camera and subject, and getting clearer images.

Conclusion
As with all compacts, there is a delay between pushing the shutter release and getting
a picture, despite half-pressing the release
to affect the auto-focus. This means anticipating the action if you can.
At one point, the camera mysteriously went into movie mode, and I ended up having to reset everything while I was under water. It wasnt too much of an imposition.
The camera battery recharged very quickly during a surface interval, and I didnt need to download the card all week. I would have given the DX-1200HD full marks if I could have recorded a RAW file for high-quality adjustment with my laptop computer later.
Apart from this, I got some very reasonable shots under water with it, some of which are reproduced above. Its certainly compact in its housing, and its likely to sell like hot cakes.

COMPARABLE CAMERAS TO CONSIDER:
Fuji Fine Pix F200 EXR camera housing + 2Gb SD Card, £430

SPECS
PRICE Camera & housing, £365; YS27 DX Flashgun, £245; Sea Arm Light Set, £117; Fibre-optic Connection, £53; Wide-Angle Conversion Lens 860G, £148
MEGAPIXELS 12.19
MONITOR 3in LCD
MANUAL WHITE BALANCE Yes
MAX. SENSITIVITY 3200 ISO
MOVIE FUNCTION HD video
LENS Wide-angle zoom 3:1
HOUSING DEPTH-RATING 45m
MEMORY CARD SD/SDHC
PICTURES AT BEST QUALITY 1132
CONTACT www.sea-sea.com
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