DIVER
EXTRA



THE DAYS WHEN PEOPLE TOOK PHOTOS that didn't come out are gone. Now we take instant pictures with our telephones, and never give the possibility of failure to record something a second thought.
Its the same under water. Only a few years ago, a correctly exposed in-focus picture was a triumph regarded as worthy to enter into a photo contest. Today, divers descend with tiny digital cameras in plastic underwater housings too small to hold a decent sandwich (yet rated to 40m), and take 100% success for granted.
You can now buy such a camera and be sure of capturing at least a record of your dive and, at best, images of surprising quality. But other than price, what factors should you take into account when deciding on the right model for you
The most important consideration is whether an underwater housing is available for the camera you want. Always buy the two in tandem, because delay in obtaining a housing can mean disappointment if that item should become obsolete.
We looked at budget underwater cameras last June, including conventional models alongside digital, but the market has moved on at alarming speed. All the models here differ from those in the last test, and new cameras are being developed so swiftly that even if you buy the latest and best today, it may well be replaced by a newer version from Japan tomorrow. We have selected what we think are the best camera and housing packages available for under 500 - at the time of writing!
Most digital cameras have the ability to shoot a few seconds of video at any one time. This brevity spares unsuspecting friends and relatives having to sit through hours of blue fish movies! That said, we include here a video camera that can also shoot reasonable-quality stills.

Wide-angle
Underwater photography depends on reducing the amount of water between you and your subject. That means getting up close and restoring the width of your picture by using the widest angle of view available on your zoom lens.
Powerful telephoto and electronic zooms that simply magnify an image are of no use in this context. We are interested in how wide the lens will see, and the cameras reviewed here all appeared to have a similar maximum angle-of-view to their zoom lenses.
Some housings allow the user to fit ancillary wide-angle attachments that allow the lens to see wider and you to approach your subject even more closely.

Memory and quality
People are obsessed with megapixels - the number of digital points a camera can record. This has a direct bearing on the size to which a picture can be enlarged without these points becoming obvious.
However, file-type and file-writing speeds are also important, if you dont want to miss the next shot while waiting for the first to be recorded.
Recording media or memory cards come in various sizes, types and speeds. The number of megabytes of information they can store denotes their sizes - a 500Mb card stores twice as much as a 250Mb card, half as much as a 1Gb card and so on.
You will inevitably want to buy a larger-memory media card in addition to the small one supplied with the camera, so budget for a suitably quick and high-capacity type.
Inexpensive digital cameras normally record in jpeg mode. This is a file type (your image will be recorded as fish1.jpg and so on).
Jpegs compress information. It takes up less room on the card and is quicker to write.
They can be recorded in different qualities - the higher the quality, the less compressed it is and the more space will be taken up in the recording medium. This also means that it can take longer to record an image, and fewer pictures can be stored.
Most people are happy with the results they achieve in this way, though there are disadvantages if you try to reproduce the images in a magazine such as this. There is a limit to the size at which they can be printed, and sometimes jpegs reveal themselves in big areas of flat colour.
Of course, you rarely run out of space for more pictures, because not only is the number stored vast in comparison to a conventional roll of film, but you can delete those that dont measure up while youre still under water.
So a full memory card should be full of good results.

Viewing and reviewing
How do you know if a picture is good enough View it straight after taking it on the cameras display or LCD viewing screen. Digital cameras have introduced a new hazard in diving - people in danger of running out of air while trying to get just one more picture!
Viewing a subject and lining up a shot has never been easier, because you can see what youre about to shoot on the LCD.
Unfortunately, when you press the shutter release there will be a time-delay while the camera shuts off this display and records the image.
Along with an auto-focus mechanism that might be slow, if you are photographing something in macro mode (extreme close-up) this time-lag can add up. So you need to be able to anticipate your subjects actions.
Users of digital cameras at the surface notice that their human subjects are often recorded with eyes closed, because the delay can be longer than a blink.
Under water, shutter-lag of around half a second, not allowing for additional focusing time, translates to pictures of spaces vacated by fast-moving fish. However, using these cameras in the sea and in the pool, my biggest problem was lack of sharpness in many pictures. I could see this only later, after they had been downloaded onto the computer.
The cause was either camera-shake or the shutter-delay causing focus shift, as both I and my subject moved during that crucial moment. Or I missed the subject entirely!
I could get successful pictures only of those animals that would stop and pose; moray eels, ambush predators such as scorpion and stonefish and, on one occasion, a co-operative little coral trout.
Whichever camera you choose, get the feel of its shutter release and learn how to manipulate it into a partially released position, to allow more instantaneous shots.
The ease with which you can manipulate the controls via the housing, with a gloved hand if in cold water is, in any case, always important.

Colour and lighting
Lens quality and the amount of light a lens can allow in (maximum lens aperture) is important for obtaining shots in low light conditions without increasing the electronic sensitivity of the cameras sensor (variable ISO setting). A higher ISO number brings with it the possibility of electronic noise.
One of the most important functions of the camera is the white-balance control. Because light is selectively absorbed by water, there is never a full spectrum of colour when submerged. Digital cameras can adjust to make the best of conditions, usually automatically, but software designers usually think in terms of likely subjects on land, which can lead to monochromatic results under water.
Canny digital photographers take down a neutral grey or white slate with them. They point their cameras at it to adjust the white-balance manually. Of course, many simple cameras dont provide this facility, only manual pre-sets for different types of surface lighting, in which case youre stuck with what it thinks you should have in the Auto-colour mode.
In-built lighting on these cameras proved sufficiently colourful only in brightly lit shallow water or for close-ups. The best way to obtain good-quality colour is to take some white light with you in the form of a separate external flash. At around 270 for a modest example, this can almost double your original outlay, but dont expect to take sharp macro pictures without one.
All the cameras we reviewed could focus exceptionally closely when set to macro. However, the LCD screen-writing time is important in this mode.
Slower ones make it virtually impossible to get a moving subject into focus. Remember, everything, including you, is moving under water!
Youll see what looks like a jerky video image on the screen, and inevitably press the button when the wrong part of your subject is sharp.
Some cameras allow different ways for their in-built exposure meters to assess the shot. Some merely average out the light from the scene, whereas others offer centre-weighted or spot- metering for more difficult subjects.
Exposure compensation is an important feature. Use the LCD to check whether you need to use this facility for a particular shot. Some cameras provide histograms - graphic representations of the colours and tones in a picture that help assess results.

Downloaded
Once you return from diving, you can download the pictures using the software provided by your computer manufacturer or that which came with the camera, or simply take them to a photo-shop. It will give you a set of prints and also burn the images onto a disc (CD or DVD).
Millions of digital pictures are taken every day, though some say that it will be a generation of lost pictures, because few people are bothering to store them properly!
All the cameras listed we found good for their type, and we dont think you will be disappointed in any of them as long as you accept their inherent limits, but, as usual, certain models seemed better than others.
The swimming pool test shots, taken to provide a fair means of comparison, were shot in a typically low-light situation, with automatic settings in place. Figures given for the number of images on a 512Mb card are at each cameras best quality setting.

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The cameras tested all gave very similar results when used in diving conditions. This is a respectable wide-angle shot in well-lit shallow water

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A typical wide-angle shot at depth, beyond the reach of the built-in flash

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Good macro images are possible with these cameras. This one, however, was obtained only after many dozens of attempts to keep the fish in frame

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Using only the built-in flash and a wide-angle setting, this is the sort of result you can expect. Its a squirrelfish all right, but what happened to its vivid orange colouring

 
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STATS
Images: 255
Megapixels: 4
Size of LCD
screen: 4.6cm
Optical Zoom: 3x
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: Yes
Manual white balance: No
Sensitivity range: n/a
Battery life: 300-400 shots approx.
Underwater casing rated to: 40m
NIKON COOLPIX 4600 with WP CP3 housing. 275
The cheapest of the cameras reviewed here, we found the Coolpix 4600 the hardest to use. It was difficult to focus in macro mode, because it is quite fiddly to use with a moving subject, and screen-writing is slow to refresh the LCD, which in turn had less good viewing screen resolution than more expensive cameras. You get what you pay for, and this is a very economically priced camera.
This model had a particularly attractive menu system and, at about 1m from a subject, it took good pictures. No thinking was needed. If you choose this camera, you will need to practise with it quite a lot before taking it under water.
An adaptor is needed for a wide-angle lens, which adds cost to that option.
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STATS
Images: 128
Megapixels: 5
Size of LCD screen: 6.4cm
Optical Zoom: 3x
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: Yes
Manual white balance: No
Sensitivity range: 64-400 ISO
Battery life: 120 shots approx.
Underwater casing rated to: 40m
OLYMPUS mju 500 with PT026 housing. 350
One of our two favourites, mainly because its designers have considered some of the problems of underwater photography. It has two underwater modes, for wide-angle and macro, and around 30 different picture-scene settings with sample pictures. This makes it really automatic under water, as revealed in better skin tones in our test picture. The problem was remembering to set it up for that each time it was switched on.
The mju 500 has probably the largest and best screen display of all the cameras here, though its slower lens (smaller maximum lens aperture) was less good in low light conditions. It was possible to use it in super-macro mode with its lens positioned at around only 1cm from the subject - but you would need to hold it perfectly still for this, and that is virtually impossible under water.
It has a good screen image and quick focusing, and an ancillary wide-angle lens can be screwed directly to its front. Another drawback was a tendency for the camera to tip when operating the high profile shutter-release on the housing, causing camera-shake in low light conditions.
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STATS
Images: 170
Megapixels: 6
Size of LCD screen: 6.4cm
Optical Zoom: 3x
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: No
Manual white balance: Yes
Sensitivity range: 80-1600 ISO
Battery life: 400-500 shots approx.
Underwater casing rated to: 40m
FUJI FINEPIX F10 with housing. 400
The Finepix F10 is a jewel of a camera, and definitely something that once seen you will want to own. It gave very sharp results in standard lens settings but slight chromatic aberration (colour-fringing) in macro mode. However, even in macro it was relatively easy to grab the moment.
It has a good-sized LCD, but its menu is less easy to use than some others. You need to spend time with it to get to know your way around the options using its few buttons. Familiarity comes with practice.
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STATS
Images: 188
Megapixels: 5
Size of LCD screen: 6.4cm
Optical Zoom: 3x
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: Yes
Manual white balance: No
Sensitivity range: 100-400 ISO
Battery life: 150-200 shots approx.
Underwater casing rated to: 40m
SONY CYBERSHOT DCS T33 with MPK THB housing. 400
This is a super-slim camera, yet with one of the best LCD screen displays. It is simply superb. However, the tiny lens and prism needed for this slim design is less good in low light . It provides the option of a permanent histogram-display for help in judging your results before you download them, and uses a proprietary Sony Memory-stick.
Choose this and, when not being used as an underwater camera, you will be inclined to slip it into your pocket and carry it with you. You never know when a camera will come in handy!
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STATS
Images: 137
Megapixels: 6.4
Size of LCD screen: 6.4cm
Optical Zoom: 3x
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: No
Manual white balance: No
Sensitivity range: 100-400 ISO
Battery life: 300-400 shots approx.
Underwater casing rated to: 40m

SONY CYBERSHOT DSC W7 with MPK WA housing. 415
A much bigger camera but, like its sibling listed here, this Cybershot has probably the largest and best LCD screen display of any. It is simply superb. It has a fast (f2.8) lens that is good in low light conditions and turned out to provide among the sharpest results.
It allows for complete manual control if needed - but no manual white balance, only factory presets. Nevertheless, this model was one of our two favourites. It uses a proprietary Sony Memory-stick.
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STATS
Images: 150
Megapixels: 7
Size of LCD screen: 5.1cm
Optical Zoom: 3x
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: Yes
Manual white balance: Yes
Sensitivity range: 50-400 ISO
Battery life: 200 shots approx.
Underwater casing rated to: 40m
NIKON COOLPIX 7900 with wp cp4 HOusing. 440
The Coolpix 7900 is a camera for those who want to progress from simple point n shoot. It feels like a high-quality item, too. It was very quick to focus in macro mode, and that makes getting a sharp picture easy. Avoiding the sometimes toy-like feel ofinexpensive digital cameras, it feels like a real camera.
One of its exposure-metering options is linked to auto-focus for close-ups. It gives a histogram for technical exposure assessment and instant exposure-bracketing adjustment. It has three focus-mode settings: auto-focus, manual and infinity.
The menu provides image-sizing for recorded images in both megapixels and pixels. It will accept a Sea & Sea MMII wide-angle lens option via an adaptor, which (at extra cost) allows you to get closer for clearer pictures.

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STATS
Images: 144
Megapixels: 5.1
Size of LCD screen: 5.1cm
Optical Zoom: 3x
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: No
Manual white balance: Yes
Sensitivity range: 50-400 ISO
Battery life: 150-200 shots approx.
Underwater casing rated to: 40m
CANON IXUS 700. 450
The Ixus proved very straightforward to use. Its menu system makes perfect sense, with no frills and easy access to all the functions. There are both compression and resolution choices. Access to the major controls is quick, and the housing even has a visual reminder of what the buttons do, which is quite significant when you find yourself befuddled under water.
This model has a smaller LCD but proved very clear to view. It provides a choice of nine focus main areas and combinations that prove very useful when your main subject is not centre-frame. Its housing has a usefully large diffuser, which makes its in-built flash useful for underwater close-ups.
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STATS
Images: 191
Megapixels: 4 (interpolated to 8Mp)
Size of LCD screen: 4.5cm
Ancillary wide-angle lens potential: Yes
Manual white balance: No
Sensitivity range: 50-400 ISO
Battery life: n/a
Underwater casing rated to: 40m
SANYO XACTI C4 with Epoque EHS-400x housing. 550
This is an MP4 digital movie camera that shoots very acceptable stills. It was less sharp than some of the still cameras tried alongside it, and recorded a lesser depth of colour, but we put this down to it needing better light conditions. It proved very easy to use under water, and was supplied with a 1Gb memory card included.
Remember, this is a video camera, not a stills camera, and video is an entirely different game. There is more to making an interesting programme than pointing a camera at things.
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