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MacTech 2005 High-Tech Gift Guide

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Reviews

MacTech 2005 High-Tech Gift Guide

Waterproof Camera Housings

by Michael R. Harvey and Lesa Snider

Protect Your Digital Camera From Crashes, Splashes, or 150 Feet of Depth

Yeah, yeah, this is the journal of Macintosh technology. We know. We also know that a large number of our readers are avid camera enthusiasts. Over the years, we have brought you reviews of some of the best digital cameras we have found. To start off this year's gift guide, we thought we would share with you what we've learned about some cameras we have tested, but more importantly, ways to protect them from the elements. The ones you might find at the beach, on the slopes, or even at the bottom of the sea.

Now, Michael is an avid SCUBA diver. He's been flirting with nitrogen narcosis since he was sixteen. Lesa is a super genius when it comes to making your shots look their absolute best. Between the two of them, you will have a very good idea of what cameras and cases you can get, and what you can do with the digital images you capture with them.

Testing Conditions

We figured the best way to stress test the cases we had would be to pick the most extreme conditions we could manage, and that meant diving. We made both warm and cold water dives, and did some shallow water snorkeling, to test the light weight cases. Following are the rigs we used, under what conditions, and what our impressions were.


The Equipment

Nikon

First we tested the sturdy Nikon WP-CP3 (pictured above, back row, right). It is designed for the Nikon Coolpix 4600 and 5600 cameras, both of which are very capable units. You will find, as we go along, that most of these cases have similar features. Clear plastics made of polycarbonate, spring-loaded buttons, slides, and wheels of differing strength (depending on the case's depth rating) to allow you to access the control functions on the camera, and securing latches of varying design.

The Nikon case had a wheel to allow you to change the mode of the camera, and that worried me a bit. I thought it was a weak point which could allow water into the case easier than a button would. It was fine, though. I turned it quite a bit at depth, and not even a drop slipped through. The buttons on the case were, by necessity, clustered tightly together. They were also labeled with small pictograms on the case. Clear icons on a clear case made it hard to figure out which button did what, until you got used to it. Also, because the buttons are so close together, pushing the right one can take a bit of finesse. Don't worry, , I'm not picking on Nikon; almost all the other cases suffer the same problem. It's a result of the compact design of the cameras themselves, and is unavoidable. It's also something you overcome fairly quickly, as you get used to the layout.

The standout feature on this case was the latch. It requires two hands to operate, making it the most difficult to open. That's a good feature. The last thing you want to do is accidentally open the case and allow the elements in. www.nikonusa.com

Sealife

Oh, my. The first unit we tested from Sealife was the Reef Master DC310 (back row, center), and it was a disappointment, to say the least. Only 3.1 megpixel, a minuscule viewfinder, no optical zoom, and a massively overbuilt case. It just wasn't elegant, took only "okay" pictures, and went through batteries at warp speed. Its one redeeming feature was the case latch. It held very well, though it wasn't enough to prevent it from owning the bottom of my list. In researching the history of digital cameras produced specifically for diving, we found that all manufacturers in this market tended to lag behind the mainstream by one or two generations, easily.

Then in September, Sealife released the DC500. It couldn't have been more of a 180-degree turn around from the DC310. The camera itself is a very good device. It has a five megapixel optical zoom, a large viewfinder, a rechargeable battery (with better life), and uses secure digital memory cards. The case design was head and shoulders above the previous version, with a far more compact design, a latch as good as the 310, and access to all the functions on the camera. Overall, both camera and case have good quality materials and build, particularly the case (the camera plastics feel a little flimsy), and features that almost match any of the big vendors. Sealife is still a little behind the curve, but not by much.. For some features, the Reef Master case beats out the big guys. All the buttons on the case are marked with good sized, color icons, and spaced out a bit more than other cases making it far easier to hit the right button (compared to some really dense button clusters on other cases). It's much easier to hit the right button, even with thick gloves on, and that makes a big difference. www.sealife-cameras.com

Sony

We tried out two different Sony housings, both of which held a DSC-W5 camera. This camera was a 5 megapixel unit, had a huge LCD view screen on the back (the largest of any camera we tested), used Sony's Memory Stick, was practically instant-on, and really took care of batteries. There is also a W7 7.2 megapixel version, too. On the camera side, this is a really great model to have.

The first case we put this camera in was the SPK-WA Sport Pack. This is a light-weight housing, good for shallow depths. Sony rates it to 10 feet, but we were able to use it at 35 fee, and it never leaked, even at depths greater than that. Not too shabby. Everything about this case is the same as the next Sony case, except the thickness of plastics. As it is not designed for serious depth, its case is thinner than some of the others. This makes for a lighter, and slightly smaller case than the others (in fact, all of the cases for shallow depth are similar in this respect).


Shot taken using the Sony Sport Pack.

That other Sony case we tested with the DSC-W5 was the MPK-WA Marine Pack (front row, right). It has thicker polycarbonate plastics than the SPK-WA in order to support its 40 meter depth rating. It shares many of the features of the Sport Pack, as well as most other cases, such as the button cluster on the back, the shutter and power buttons on top, as well as a wheel to control the camera mode change. The control wheel, like the one on the Nikon, works just fine. No leaks. One nice feature of the camera which makes changing modes super easy while in the Marine Pack is that it shows a circle of the mode icons on the LCD display spins them, and highlights the active one as you turn the wheel on the case. It's dead simple to change the mode on the Sony camera with that feature.

The only thing I am not fond of on these Sony cases is the latching mechanism. Though it never failed on me, I always had the concern in the back of my mind that it was going to pop open, or I was going to accidentally unlatch it while operating the camera. The mechanism latches securely, but opening and closing it is very easy to do with only two fingers, hence my concern. I don't consider it a deal breaker, because on the whole, this combination is excellent. www.sonystyle.com

Olympus

Like Sony, we had two Olympus cases to try out. The first was the PT-027 case, designed to enclose the C-7070 camera. This combination was huge. The C-7070 is an SLR sized unit, with 7.1 effective megapixels, and 4x optical zoom. It's big. Putting it in the PT-027 case made it even bigger and very unwieldy. This rig was difficult to use, especially underwater. Operation was a two-handed proposition, without exception. If you are looking to get serious about your underwater photography, you can do better than this. Look into film and the Nikonos V camera rig. It's the gold standard for pro-level photography of this type, and has been for many, many years.

The other Olympus case and camera combo we tested was the PT-026 case (front, center), which can house the Stylus 500 camera. This case is pretty decent and shares features with every other Olympus case for their other digital camera offerings. Rated to 130 ft., it was made of clear plastics, had the usual button cluster, and a decent latch mechanism. The one standout feature on the Olympus cases is the shutter button. It is a big, lever-operated contraption that is very easy to operate under any conditions. www.olympusamerica.com

Camera Shield

Here's an interesting product. We spent some time surfing the Internet to see if we could come up with anything not widely known, or with a lot of presence, and found the Camera Shield by Fuerte Cases (front row, left in the collage above). It's essentially a box. Sporting a single opening, one side comes completely off, through which you can place almost any camera you want. It also has one control: an adjustable lever to activate the camera shutter. The side of the box is held on with two latches, which are secured with an o-ring stretched between them. This case is utterly simple and totally brilliant.

There are two versions: one with an orange removable side for deep water, and a yellow side for a depth of 10 feet. I'm not really sure what the difference is besides color, because all the parts look the same. The yellow sided box worked just fine at depth, too (I used it on deep dives twice before I realized I had the wrong box). There is one thing to keep in mind when deciding on a Fuerte case: If you are putting your own camera in it, make sure its thickness won't be a problem. This case compresses the deeper it goes, so you need some wiggle room inside.

Don't worry if you lack a camera of your own to put in the box because the Camera Shield comes with its own. It's a basic 3.8 megapixel, camera. no optical zoom, with decent use of battery power, it accepts SD memory cards, and takes surprisingly good pictures. It's a nice addition to this very reasonable case. www.fuertecases.com


A surface picture taken with camera that comes with the Camera Shield.

Canon

We had the opportunity to try out one case from Canon, the AW-DC30 (back row, left side). It is a case designed for protecting the camera from splashes and shallow depths. It is rated to only 9.8 feet. Unfortunately the case didn't even hold up that much. A slider seal on the back of the case, through which you change the mode of the camera, failed, flooding the case in less than 5 feet of water. I was literally floating on the surface, holding the camera underneath me, when water started to leak in. Setting that aside for the moment, however, the features were fine for this type of protective case. We're just not at all sure about that seal over a sliding switch thing. It seemed an easy failure point. Your mileage may vary. www.canonusa.com


Image of a spotted eel, taken off Maui (unretouched).

In the Computer

Underwater images are notorious for their blue/green color casts, so color correction is a must (notice the green cast on the above image of an eel). No matter which image editing software you use, crop the photos to their subject matter first. I started out in iPhoto 5, where the Edit > Enhance tool produced surprisingly decent results. I clicked the Adjust button and, from their starting points, boosted the Saturation, lowered the Tint, and increased the Sharpen slider a bit, just for kicks. This gave me very reasonable results.

For serious photo editing fun, you'll need to cozy up to Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. In either program, use a Threshold adjustment layer to sniff out which bits of the photo are supposed to black and white. Drag the Threshold slider to the left to find the blackest blacks, and right to find the whitest whites. Remember those spots and use them to set black and white points in a Curves adjustment layer. I also raised the center of the curve


A Pacific Nettle jelly, taken off Santa Cruz Island, CA: before and after (done in Photoshop).

ever so slightly in order to brighten the overall image. Last but not least, apply an Unsharp Mask. I went one step further on some of the surface images and boosted the saturation of the blue channel by adding a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. This is a great way to bring out the brilliant blues of an ocean.

Decompress

There you have it. Our overall favorite, by far, was the Sony DSC-W5 5MP (and -W7 7.2MP) camera, and MPK-WA Marine Pack housing. This combination provided the best overall combination of features, usability, and quality of all the rigs we tested. If you are in the market for a complete set, either for yourself or as a really cool gift, Sony is the way to go.

That's not all there is to it, though. A couple of honorable mentions are needed here. The Sealife Reef Master DC 500 is a very good option if you have a SCUBA diver on your Christmas list. As an all in one solution at a reasonable price point, you really can't go wrong. Alternately, if you have someone who needs something to start with, or already has a camera and only needs something simple, the Fuerte Camera Shield is a very good option. Simple and easy to use, it's also a good gift for the occasional diver, boater, or beach goer who wants something quick and easy.

Keep in mind two things: One, except for generic cases like the Camera Shield, you need to be sure to get a case specifically designed for your camera. The tolerances inside, and the control placements really don't let you stick one camera in another case. Two, remember that just about every mainstream camera manufacturer has a line of water proof cases for almost all the cameras they sell, with varying degrees of strength.. Few companies seem to market them very well, if at all, and you'll have to dig through their web sites to find them. One other thing to note is that manufacturers only seem to keep cases for the very latest models on hand, even if they still have older cameras available. They don't seem to keep


A favorite shot from all the work done on this review (retouched in iPhoto).

them in the main inventory for very long. Don't worry, though as you can find cases for most any camera out there on various sales sites, or eBay. We found many cases doing a search on shopzilla.com. No matter where you get the case from, it will be a very welcome gift this holiday season.

Very special thanks to Pete Sebastian and Seth, Benja Iglesis and Makena Coast Dive Charters, the Vics and Extended Horizons (all on Maui), Peace Dive Boat (in Ventura, CA), and last but not least, Blessy and the folks at B&B Scuba (also on Maui). We couldn't have abused these cases properly, nor found the shots without your expert guidance. Also, my undying appreciation to Kellee and Larry. Thanks for everything.


Michael R. Harvey is the reviews editor here at MacTech. He's only almost died twice while diving, and while he is bent, that's more a mental health issue than poor dive planning. Questions, comments, and directions to good Southern California dive sites can be sent to him at reviews@mactech.com.

Lesa Snider writes weekly tutorials for the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, PlanetPhotoshop.com, and Layers Magazine. She is also New York Times Technology columnist David Pogue's personal assistant, and screen shot goddess/technical editor of several Missing Manual books. Lesa's web site, www.graphicreporter.com, provides tips, tutorials, and reviews for all levels of creative enthusiasts.

 

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