I have been wanting to get my hands on the Sony RX100, a camera launched last year, that heralded a new direction for camera manufacturers. Jussi seen below with Sony inside a Nauticam housing, twin Inon strobes and a FIX UWL100 Fisheye lens
Just as we had gotten used to seeing the “new kids on the block” in the shape of Mirrorless cameras, large sensored but compact equipment that has shaken up the underwater world, we had a new sensor size to contend with, that promised a lot but did it deliver?
Ok, a little word about sensor size for the uninitiated. Most compact cameras of the last 10yrs or so that we’ve been shooting digital have an image sensor of around the size of your little finger nail.
DSLR’s have always much larger image sensors, in some cases the size of an old frame of 35mm film or a smidgen smaller.
This has been the main reason why there was a quality difference. The much larger sensors of the interchangeable lens camera’s had a larger surface area, which made for a greater dynamic range, a better ability to cope with lower light at higher ISO’s and off chip focussing systems which made things quicker too.
A few years back though the boffins managed to reduce the size of traditional DSLR cameras by getting rid of the thing that made them physically larger. That was the mirror, hence the term Mirrorless coming into vogue.
This meant you could have a much smaller camera with all the picture qualities of a traditional DSLR.
These cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and Sony, the big two have been very late coming to the game, have made big inroads into high quality underwater imaging systems that are smaller and thus easier to travel with.
Its for these reasons that I and many others have swapped more traditional DSLR systems for Mirrorless set ups.
Nikon had dipped their toes into the water of this technology, but as of yet their products have failed to stir much underwater interest. They used a new size of sensor which was around 13mm across while being half the size of the current Mirrorless cameras it was still four times the surface area of your average compact. This format has been given the confusing name of 1inch sensor presumably it’s surface area.
Sony adopted this sensor size in a truly compact camera, last year which brings us back around to the Sony RX100.
This camera is indistinguishable in size to the higher end compacts like the Canon S100 and is actually smaller than the Canon G series model, which is all the more remarkable in that it has a sensor four times larger!
It sports the usual wide to tele zoom, and sensibly hasn’t gone for the extreme range that marks out such a lot of less seriously inclined compact cameras.
They have instead gone for quality over quantity and the camera has the useful range of 28-100mm (35mm equivalent) with a whopping f1.8 maximum aperture at the wide end of the zoom.
I already own another Sony Mirrorless camera the Sony NEX5, and a criticism of that was it’s very exasperating menu system, the RX100 I am pleased to say is much more straightforward and intuitive, to anyone that has used a menu driven camera before.
I won’t do a full blown camera review and leave that instead to the on land testing sites like DPReview. Although I will say it has all the expected modes from full automatic to full manual and everything inbetween, and these can also be used when in the very well featured movie mode too.
I guess I also should mention the rather nice Nauticam housing without which I wouldn’t be able to take this underwater at all!
So lets start with that Nauticam housing.Like most of their products it has a slickness of operation and well thought out design. The controls that matter like the front and rear control dials fall easily to hand, and connect reassuringly with their corresponding camera controls. They have set the bar at what we should expect from equipment we use to take pictures underwater. So much so that on the trip I also came across another manufacturers housing which was made of transparent heavy duty acrylic with large industrial knobs and buttons,and I won’t say the name but a few years ago this was all we had, this housing was positively agricultural, and suffered enormously by comparison to the Nauticam, a bit like comparing a Soviet era tractor with a Porsche!
Things really have come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. I guess because much more of us are taking pictures underwater, and we have come to expect a certain level of quality.
The thing that makes this housing and camera combination useful, is the addition of a 67mm thread on the front of the port. This along with the fact that the lens itself doesn’t have an extreme zoom range means it’s possible to use wet lenses successfully on this housing and camera.
So pockets bulging with a couple of different suitable wide lenses and a macro lens, I entered the water for a test dive. I must also say that I was shooting with a pair of Sea and Sea YSD1 strobes, my current faves,and these were attached with a Nauticam tray and arms, and triggered by twin fibre optic cables.
I was diving at the varied and interesting dive site of Abu Galawa on our Southern Red Sea itinerary where the wreck of a pleasure cruiser lays in shallow water, and is an uncomplaining and fairly static test subject. There is also a beautiful channel that provides plenty of soft and hard coral reefscape subject matter too.
So my first test was to see what the real difference between the angles of view of first the camera without a lens and then with the various wide angles. I have tried to frame the subject from the same position where possible, although to get the wreck in shot from my three quarters on standpoint without a lens attached meant I had to move back aways quite a bit, which shows the main advantage of using a wide angle lens, in that by reducing the water column you increase the colour and clarity of your shots.
The shot at the top of the sequence is without any lens at all and is what you would get with just camera and housing, I have done an available light test, no strobes were used.The second picture in the middle is with the Inon UWL H100 wideangle lens which gives an angle of view of around 100 degrees, framing similarly meant that I was able to get much closer with this lens, so as expected the picture has more clarity and contrast.The final shot in the sequence at the bottom is with the even wider FIX UWL28M52 domed wideangle lens.The dome allows you an even wider angle of around 130 degrees, which means you can get closer still, gaining even more clarity.
Here is the last picture at a bigger size I have done a Lightroom edit that is bleach toned and the edges deliberately softened to make the wreck stand out more. This was with the less expensive FIX lens but I think it actually performs marginally better at the edges than the Inon however the Inon gives a more lifelike reproduction with less exaggerated perspective.
Another interesting point is that this camera unlike DSLR’s or the larger Mirrorless class, will synchronise with flash right across the shutter speed range, which will then give you ultimate exposure control over both foreground and background and I have given an example sequence showing this. So the first shot at the top was with the camera settings at f9 and 1/100 sec shutter speed and using twin Sea and Sea strobes.Next pic down was the same aperture and flash output but this time the shutter speed is at 1/320 of a second darkening the background. This is about the fastest synch speed normally possible with a conventional DSLR camera. Final pic is the same aperture and flash settings but now im able because of the type of sensor this camera has to shoot at a whopping 1/1600 second shutter speed, turning the background almost completely black as if on a night dive. This gives a lot of scope for advanced exposure control, with this camera.
I then had a bit of fun trying to shoot half-halfs at the back of the boat to see if it was possible with such a small dome, it has a bit of a random factor to it, but if you shoot half a dozen or so you should get some usable results that if shot RAW you can easily balance the top and bottom half exposures using your favourite RAW processor.
This is certainly a great little camera, no question. And probably ranks at the moment anyway as the premier super compact. That is as much because it is the only camera currently in this class. There really is no other camera as compact as this, with the functionality of this, and the flexibility of this. If you want the best performing small form factor camera out there, this is currently it.
It will always win against it’s closest peers because of its much larger sensor.
However nothing in life is perfect, and to make this camera sing, the best housing for it is undoubtedly the Nauticam one, I have handled the others and they don’t come close ergonomically. This means it will also be the most expensive compact set up out there, by the time you have bought all the necessary gubbins to make it work well.
ie Housing, wide angle and macro lenses, strobes and arms and trays. You may well have spent as much as it would cost almost, to go the whole hog and buy a micro four thirds or other mirrorless set up.