Cameras and Photography
I've been a photographer ever since I was little, starting out with a brownie bullet. That was a long time ago, and since that time I've progressed through many different cameras and technologies. Some favorite film cameras include a 2 1/4" Rolliflex, a 35mm Voitlander and a 35mm Canon T-70 (best purchase deal I ever made, but that's a long story).
I started in digital photography with a Kodak D-10, which was almost a toy compared to the SLR's I usually used. My first "real" digital camera was a Nikon D-70, which was quite the camera in it's time. Quite the price as well. Since that time, digital cameras have gotten a whole lot better, and a whole lot cheaper.
My first underwater camera was a Sealife DC-100, the first digital camera offered by Sealife. I purchased the camera in September 2002, and immediatedly started using it on my dives. This has been my main underwater camera up until this fall, 2007. Underwater pictures from this camera can be seen on the pages linked to the Scuba Diving page.
The Sealife DC-100 is a 3 megapixel fix-focus camera with on-board flash, powered by 4 AA batteries. The camera came with 4 rechargable batteries and a charger, but the batteries were pretty much dead on arrival. Within 2 dives, I was forced to toss them out and switch to alkaline batteries. I bought a 256 megabyte CF card to use instead of the 8 megabyte internal memory. This allowed over 100 shots, though the CF card does draw extra power. Battery life on this camera is not great - I can get 2-3 dives out of fresh alkaline batteries. If I use Li-On rechargables, I can only get one dive before I must recharge them.
The camera has been wonderful, in that it allowed me to take underwater pictures. However, there are some major problems with the camera that make it extremely frustrating to use. Foremost among the shortcomings are the fixed focus lens. It simply isn't very good, and the LCD screen is adequate to compose a shot, but unable to assist in finding the right focus distance to close subjects. Many of my recent shots involve holding the camera at the entrance to a wolf eel or octopus den, and taking a shot of the critter inside the den. I usually get one in four shots that is in focus and usable. The other problem is the battery life. Far too often I've turned the camera on underwater to take a picture, and it simply won't 'fire up' because the batteries are now too cold and weak.
The Search Is On
In early fall 2007, I decided to start searching for a new camera. My requirements included low cost, good battery life and good auto-focus in low light. I was not really worried about the flash as even the DC-100's on-camera flash was pretty good for the close shots I was taking. The capability of adding a strobe or two in the future is nice, but almost every housing offers this. I also decided to forget SLR for the time being. SLR plus housing is a big investment, not only in purchase cost, but also in the learning curve. SLR housings are full of buttons to match the enormous number of camera features, and the housings are not small. Add the usual handles and strobes and you have quite a big piece of gear that you must now manage on land and under water. I'm simply not ready for that challenge at this time - being fairly new to another big piece of gear, my rebreather.
I decided that I wanted to purchase a decent 'land' camera, but one which had a good underwater housing available for reasonable cost. I had read reviews of the dedicated underwater camera/housing packages, and just wasn't very thrilled with the reviews. Many of my cameras have been Canon brand, so I decided to restrict my choices to the Canon line. Again, ruling out D-SLR for now, that left a considerable number of pocket-sized digital cameras. I spent considerable time reading camera reviews, especially the Digital Photography Review. I combined that with reading camera topics on the various scuba forums plus scouring the various websites of the underwater camera housing manufacturers.
Candidates and Decision
The final candidates for camera were the Canon A570, the Canon SD850, and the Canon G9. The G9 is the current 'top of the line' pocket camera at 12.1 megapixels for aroun $600. Next is the SD850 with 8.1 megapixels for about $350, and the A570 with 7.1 megapixels for about $240. I decided on the Ikelite housings as I was impressed with the quality and the various reviews I had read. The housing for the A570 and the SD850 were $300 (US, list) and $600 for the G9. With the total bill for the G9 topping $1200, I reluctantly crossed it off the list as just 'a bit too much'. In the end, it was the lack of optical zoom on the 850 that gave the nod to the A570. Being about $100 cheaper wasn't bad either. So the final choice was made - Canon A570IS plus Ikelite housing. Strobes could come later.
The Camera - Canon A570 IS
In early November, I purchased my Canon A570IS from London Drugs for $240. I also bought a 4 gigabyte SD card to hold images. The camera comes with a 16 megabyte card but I consider that totally inadequate. With the 4 gig card, I have room for either 2000+ shots or over 30 minutes of video. The camera requires 2 AA batteries, which is nice from a supply standpoint - they are easy to keep on hand. Trials with alkaline and rechargable Li-On batteries show that I can get around 200 shots with flash from a set.
The camera is 7.1 megapixels, and has 'face recognition' focus, 'image stabilization' and a host of other nice features.
In addition to a fully automatic mode, the camera offers many special-purpose 'image modes' such as portrait, children and pets, outdoor, night, fireworks and underwater, to name just a few. It also offers various semi-auto modes as P (program), Av (aperature priority), Tv (shutter priority) and M (manual).
Flash can be automatic or manual, allowing you to set the flash power level in some modes. Focus can be auto with face recognition, auto (zones) or manual. Manual focus provides an enlargment window to allow you to focus easily, and a set of controls that is extremely easy to use. Optical zoom runs from 35mm to 140mm (35mm equivalent) or 4x. Digital zoom can be combined with optical zoom, or used as a digital 'tele extender'.
All of the functions of the camera can be adjusted by the user with easy to use menus, including picture size and quality and video size and frames per second. Pictures can be transfered from the camera to a PC using the supplied USB cable or by reading the SD card in a PC card reader. The camera also comes with an analog cable to show pictures on a TV. The USB connection can also be used to send pictures directly to a printer.
I absolutely LOVE this camera! Right out of the box, I was able to use the camera to take great pictures, operate many of the controls, and just generally 'play around' - all without reading the manual (guy thing). After reading the manual, it seemed even better. The menus are easy to use and logically laid out. The various buttons are logical and also easy to use. Taking pictures in any mode, including full manual with manual focus is a delight. Not since some of my favorite film cameras (Voitlander, Canon T-70) has taking good pictures in any situation been this easy and this much fun.
Camera Update (several weeks later) - Canon A570 IS
After several weeks of fairly continuous use, I still love this camera. It is a joy to use, and small enough to fit in a pocket and take almost anywhere. I'm having quite a bit of fun playing with the macro setting and getting some nice shots. I'm also having fun with the movie setting - the movies are AVI files which import nicely into my existing video editor software (Arcsoft's Showbix 2).
Underwater Housing - Ikelite 6140.57
The housing I chose for this camera was the Ikelite 6140.57 housing. This housing is made of clear polycarbonate and is good to a depth of 200ft. It offers controls for every function of the camera. Currently, the housing is on order and I expect to receive it withing a week or two. More on the housing, initial set-up and pictures when it arrives.
The housing arrived last week, and my first impressions are as follows:
Overall, I am pleased with the housing and look forward to my first dives with it.