Amongst the many models of camera out there in the technological jungle, choosing a camera for use underwater is relatively easy, right?

Number one on the list of essential criteria is a pretty obvious one. You need to be able to put the camera in an underwater housing to protect it so we will assume you have realised that.

However when wearing my previous camera selling hat, I often got asked “are there any cameras out there that you don’t need a housing for?” This can be a trickier question than it first appears, as technically the answer to that is yes, because most of the major manufacturers now make so called “sports” cameras which are designed for use down at the beach or besides the pool, or even if its your particular bent, whizzing around on the slopes or the water on planks of wood.

These cameras normally have a depth rating too of between 3 and 10m or so, and this is where the problems often occur. Most of us being divers or snorkelers, will regularly test the manufacturers claims as to the depth rating, and then complain loudly when they fog up with condensation or water ingress.

With most manufacturers this seems to be taken on the chin with these cameras, and they will usually, but don’t take it for granted, replace a camera if the innards are soaked with water.

It is often actually written now in the instruction books that you shouldn’t really use them for extended periods of snorkelling or regular dunks underwater, and the depth rating is just a guide line not to be taken literally. They rely on there not being huge numbers being used for snorkelling and take the relatively minuscule losses accordingly.

All cameras being used for underwater use rely on an “o” ring or silicone gasket of sorts to keep the wet stuff out, and those of us with underwater housings generally realise that you have to look after these, and keep them clean and lubricated.

These “sports” cameras are no different and its usually the battery and memory card covers that are to blame if any water gets in them, so I urge you to look after them and keep them clean if you have one.

What these types of cameras really offer to us within the sub aqua community is a second barrier of defense when placed within a normal underwater housing, and as such, some models will offer an underwater housing as an additional accessory.

They make great dive centre hire cameras as they are genuinely tougher and more robust than most electronic cameras. On the whole though until these two models I am going to take a closer look at, they have been woefully under equipped and whilst tough they weren’t able to do a lot of the things we have come to take for granted within the underwater photography world.

If you were going to define two very useful, and some would say vital abilities of a modern underwater digi-compact, they would be the custom or manual white balance facility and the ability to attach a wide-angle lens.

So the two current models I am reviewing both have these options.

There are many many reviews out there that look at these cameras from an above water standpoint, so I am not going to go into the finer points of each model, suffice to say that they are both very capable of producing high quality pictures capable of blowing up to A3, and shooting HD video, and have all sorts of weird and wonderful functions that most manufacturers feel the need to include regardless of whether or not we ever use them.

So I am only going to look at them as genuine underwater image making tools.

And so without further ado let us look at the Canon D20.

 Canon D20

Canon D20 & Housing

Canon don’t bring out that many “sports” cameras, in fact the previous model to the D20 was around for nearly three years, and in technological terms that is an age.

So we had high hopes for the D20 when it first appeared nearly a year ago as we were fairly certain, that it would end up filling a gap that had been vacated by the basic Canon Ixus models, and they had flown off the shelves, being great performers delivering colourful pictures and video, and very expandable with the oh so useful wide angle lenses provided by Inon.

The higher end was amply catered for with the Canon S95/S100, but the baseline models were wanting.

It appeared to have all that was needed, full HD video 1080p, and with the ability to quickly and easily white balance for both stills and video. There was one glaring omission though.

When a new camera that is attractive to underwater photographers comes out, we are used to Inon the small Japanese manufacturer of additional lenses taking a month or two before they come up with a lens adapter to affix their wide angle and macro lenses too.

We waited, and waited, surely they could see that this was a great, tough entry level point and shoot camera and there didn’t seem to be any physical or engineering reason why additional lenses couldn’t be made?

To be honest we pretty much gave up, until last month they finally announced that a lens adapter for their LD bayonet range of lenses was now in production, at last.

So I can now wholeheartedly recommend this great little camera, as an efficient and tough little beast, capable of punching way above it’s weight.

Like most cameras of its ilk it only has a variety of Program modes, and lacks any form of manual or even aperture priority modes. This doesn’t mean it’s useless, as so often folk can hastily say about this type of camera. You just have to change your expectations, and play to it’s strengths. On a lot of my workshops I encounter owners of cameras like this and rather than suggest they get something different, I show them how with a little ingenuity, you can bend them to your will and control exposure and lighting, really easily.

If you are going to use them for macro use though and attach an Inon macro lens, then its best that you are aware that cameras like this don’t usually sit well with strobes or flashguns. Their own built in one works quite well, with the cameras own macro mode, but if you try and use them with most modern strobes, because you are not able to fix the aperture consistently then you may experience variable and unreliable results.

They are best used with one of the continuous lighting systems available, from Light and Motion or Fisheye, and with them they work just fine in macro.

So suitably kitted out with an Inon wide angle lens, and a L&M continuous light, you would have a pretty capable tool for shooting most things without too much fuss, and to a reasonably good quality.

 

Olympus TG1

Olympus TG1 & Housing

Olympus have been making “sports” or “tough” cameras for longer than most, so when they announced the TG1 those of us that look out for such things, didn’t even bat an eyelid.

Previous models had been very underwhelming, they never had custom white

balance, were very slow in operation, and were generally fairly poor optically in comparison to their competitors. So when my former colleague Mario was invited to a test event hosted by Olympus to put a variety of new models through their paces. One of which was the TG1, we were quite surprised when he came back singing its praises. It was lightning fast, had custom white balance, and you could attach additional lenses to its underwater housing, it also seemed to put in a pretty good optical performance too. I can also vouch for these claims too, with some provisos.

It does indeed have custom white balance, but like most other manufacturers other than Canon, it will tend to argue with you, whilst taking a custom white balance reading in anything other than really good light. This means that unless you are in tropical waters, no deeper than 12m, then it will struggle, and you will have to resort to post production to restore any of the colour within your ambient light scenes.

 

However all is not lost, for the very first time with one of these cameras, we have a viable alternative. For awhile lots of cameras have had an underwater mode, this has usually been pretty useless, which is why we teach people to custom white balance.

I have recently used a couple of different Olympus models, and I had noticed that the underwater WB mode on these higher end models actually worked quite well, so I thought there would be no harm done giving it a try with the TG1 and see if the technology from the higher end range had filtered down to this model.

Lo and behold it had, and for the first time I had a camera that I could genuinely recommend to those folk that found custom white balance a hassle, and lot’s do.

Another plus point and a bit of a fluke is that you can attach directly to the housing, the rather excellent, FIX UWL28M52 Fisheye or super wide lens. This transforms this camera into the perfect shallow reefscape, large marine life or wreck specialist, and at a price less than most conventional lesser wide angle lenses.

 

Conclusion

 

With either of these cameras being able to deliver fuss free reasonably high quality results, in an easy to use mid price format. Its hard not to recommend either.

Canon have dominated this end of the market place for quite some time, and they probably do have the edge when it comes to a sensible menu layout and a custom white balance that always works ( but not always well)

The Olympus on the other hand seems reassuringly solid, and you can even attach basic lenses to just the camera, without needing a housing. Which would suggest that Olympus even take its use as a snorkelling camera seriously.

So as always you pays your money and takes your choice.

At Scuba Travel we have adopted the Olympus TG1 as our hire camera stock, but this was before Inon announced the ability to attach wide angle lenses to the Canon, so now it would be a much closer race.

With either camera giving you an extra level of reassuring protection, that if you flood the main housing, then all is probably not lost, then I can wholeheartedly recommend either as a great camera for those that don’t take their underwater photography uber seriously, but still want to get the basics right and produce good quality still or moving images.