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THE CONSUMER SOCIETY WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE that our personal performance is all bundled up with the new products we purchase. Buy the right car and we can be Michael Schumacher. Buy the right kitchen and our meals will rival those of Anton Mossiman. Buy the right perfume and we will be as attractive as either Penelope Cruz or Tom Cruise.
Buy the right painting-by-numbers kit and we can be Michelangelo. Ah, yes, you spotted the problem with that last proposition. Michelangelo could paint! But then, the others also have talents that cannot be bought.
I once visited David Bailey's studio. He was using an old-fashioned plate camera. Why? Because he thought it was getting too easy with modern cameras! But then, David Bailey knows how to take good pictures. I'm sure he could get a good shot with the most basic of kit, and it's getting even easier as the digital age takes shape.
So is there any point in spending a fortune on expensive hardware for underwater photography, or can you get good shots on a budget? I habitually use a rig that costs around£4000, and that's quite modest by some standards, but for this Diver Test we set ourselves the task of seeing what was available for the underwater photographer at less than£500. Is a camera at this price a waste of money, or can it do the job?
Thanks to the revolution in microchip technology, amateur photography has changed forever. No longer do we need expensive, precision-built instruments in chrome-plated brass to get a good photograph. Flimsy little aluminium and plastic boxes can do the job instead and the market for the less expensive cameras that use conventional film has shrunk accordingly.
However, to take full advantage of a digital camera, you need a little knowledge about computers and a modern PC or Mac of your own. There are those who want to stay with simple film-and-processing, so we include two cameras that retail for less than£500 in our line-up.
A frame of 35mm film still has the ability to record a lot more information than any CCD chip. However, you need a lot more skill and knowledge of photography to get the best out of it.
Digital cameras also allow you to see immediately the results of your labours and give you a chance to improve on them, there and then. The material costs are less than those associated with film and, with a big enough memory card in the camera, you'll almost never run out of pictures to take.
We are indebted to Rob Hancock of Cameras Underwater for lending his vast expertise in advising us on this subject, and to Sea & Sea of Paignton for letting us use its cathedral-like indoor training pool as a test tank for the cameras.
We set up with a test-card together with the dolphin drawn in mosaic tiles on the Sea & Sea pool wall, lighting the scene evenly with newly launched GreenForce HID video lights. In this way, Rob and I were able to take the same photograph under the same conditions with each camera.
Of course, such a level playing field does not lend itself to revealing all the features and possibilities available with each and every different camera we tried.
We concentrated on what was needed for a camera to be a successful tool under water. For example, all the cameras here have built-in flash, but because flashes are positioned close to the optical axis of the lens, they tend to light up detritus in the water and cause backscatter, so in every case we turned the built-in flashes off.
However, most of these cameras will also be used for surface photography by their owners, which is where they become more distinctly differentiated by the features available.
Although most of these cameras had an optical zoom lens of some kind, the limitations imposed by being under water require the photographer to get as near to the subject as possible, so reducing the intervening body of water.
It's best to use a camera at its widest-angle lens setting and move closer, which means that a zoom facility is surplus to requirements under water. Similarly, using the additional digital zoom on some cameras simply reduces image quality.
The quality of digital images is usually linked to the number of pixels with which the electronic camera's sensor array is equipped. This is usually referred to in terms of millions of pixels available, or megapixels.
However, it's not quite as straightforward as that. A camera that has more pixels can sometimes produce a lower-quality image than one with fewer. A camera can also use software to interpolate more pixels. It does this by second-guessing those pixels that might otherwise be missing.
Image-quality is also connected with the amount of information recorded. Bigger files using all the resolution available means space for fewer pictures on the recording medium.
This might simply be an in-built memory, or memory cards varying in capacity. Where possible we used a 512Mb (megabyte) memory card but they range from 16Mb to 1 gigabyte. The more pictures you intend to record on a given slice of memory, the poorer their quality will have to be.
Generally these less expensive digital cameras record in the 'jpeg' format. This system allows degrees of compression of the information but is very popular for use with home PCs, because file sizes are small.
A format that has no compression built in is the 'tiff' file. It's a digital file for the highest-quality images but takes up a lot more space in the memory of the recording medium, so you get fewer pictures per memory card.
'RAW' files are for direct use with a computer picture-retouching application such as Photoshop.
Most of these digital cameras also have a movie setting. This allows you to shoot a short video clip instead of a still. They all let you see what you're getting via an LCD monitor screen, up to the moment you take the shot.
Digital cameras are not instantaneous. They take a moment to grab the picture, and we call this 'shutter-lag'. That's because it takes a moment for the camera to switch from producing a picture on the LCD monitor screen to recording it in the memory of the camera.
Most of the latest wave of digital cameras have reduced this grab-time or shutter-lag to a minimum but it is still not as instant as clicking the shutter of a conventional camera or an expensive digital SLR. That's something to consider if you want to photograph fast-moving subjects such as fish!
Bright conditions allow the auto-focus mechanism of these cameras to work quickly, but take a digital camera into dark and murky conditions and you may have to wait while it hunts for best sharpness.
Without an auxiliary flashgun (something that will probably more than double the cost of getting photographs under water, and put the whole outfit beyond the price parameters of this review), most success is achieved in the first 15m of depth of clear sea water. Many modern digital cameras can, however, focus extremely closely without the need for ancillary lenses.
Whether you record your images electronically or chemically, light is still light. The rules of underwater photography apply equally to both. Once you are away from the surface, the natural daylight is filtered blue as it passes through the water, so you need a local light-source in the form of an auxiliary flashgun.
For cameras under£500 this is a big complication, so, as stated above, we suggest that you use these cameras in shallower water, where the daylight still has some colour in it.
Cheaper digital cameras allow access to functions via a system of buttons and a menu. You need to learn your way around these buttons and a few evenings at home with the instruction manual won't be wasted, especially as, once the camera is encased in its watertight housing, explanatory labels will normally be obscured.
More expensive digital cameras have dials that may be more readily understood, especially by people under water and breathing high levels of nitrogen. Digital cameras also have a battery-save mode and go to sleep after a period of inactivity. Some wake up quickly; others are slower. This can be important when trying to grab a passing shot under water.
The cameras reviewed here were all available at the time of our test in late April. However, the digital camera market is mercurial. The latest model can become obsolete in the blink of an eye.
If you decide to buy a camera, we recommend that you buy an underwater housing for it at the same time, as the combination may not be available at a later date. If you flood a camera, it is unlikely that a replacement will be available later for the same housing.
The prices we show are guide prices for camera and housing together (where applicable). These prices change rapidly, too.
Some people prefer to dip a cautious toe into the world of underwater photography, and the least expensive cameras are still those that use conventional film. We consider two inexpensive film cameras in our review but have not included models at the least serious end of the price spectrum, such as disposables.
Exposed film is usually processed and printed by a third party with scant knowledge of what it is like under water, so print-film users are often disappointed with the results. For this test we scanned the negatives directly into a computer file, thus missing out the middleman. The sharpness of the results from film surpassed that of the digital cameras.
All these cameras had quite simple lenses, even if some were zoom. They revealed a fair degree of 'pin-cushion' distortion, apart from the MX10 conventional film camera. Such distortion is not normally noticeable, unless photographing tiles on a swimming-pool wall.
Most of these cameras, film or digital, amphibious or in housings, floated when used under water. This was a bit of a nuisance, and you need to tether such a camera by its lanyard to avoid losing it. Those that were negatively buoyant proved easier to handle as a rule because one could put them down and still find them easily rather than groping above for them.
A camera that has floated away and is on the surface is usually gone for good. The ocean is a very big place. We wonder how many of these cameras will end up as flotsam and jetsam along with all those flip-flops and discarded plastic bottles.