When normal people hear that they’re going to the Bahamas, they think: “Bathing suit!” “Sunscreen!” “Flip-flops!”
When a tech columnist hears that he’s going to the Bahamas, he thinks: “Underwater camera!”
Let’s face it: Most people with cameras, even parents who overrecord every instant of their children’s lives, wind up with a huge hole in the photographic record: all the wet times. Nothing at water parks, in the waves, in the pool, in the rain, on sailboats or surfboards. And no wonder — you’d ruin your camera or camcorder.
There are waterproof digital cameras, of course. But until recently, they were blatantly inferior to regular cameras; to keep the price down, the camera companies used cheap components that produced bleary, washed-out photos.
Today, though, you can get a digital camera that looks, works and feels exactly like a regular water-vulnerable camera — no larger, harder to use or less capable of recording video. And because most camcorders now record onto tiny memory cards instead of tape, you can now buy compact, no-moving-parts underwater camcorders, too.
Of course, you can buy a clear plastic underwater housing for your existing camera. That’s great if you’re a descendant of Jacques Cousteau or you’re on assignment for National Geographic. But these things are enormous, they’re fussy to keep clean and lubricated, and they often cost more than the camera. For normal people, a regular, everyday camera or camcorder that just happens to be fine underwater makes a lot more sense.
When I learned that I would be swimming with the sharks in the Bahamas for a Nova TV mini-series I’m hosting, I jumped at the chance to try out the latest in consumer waterproof gadgets. I carried two cameras (Sony’s Cyber-shot TX5 and Panasonic’s Lumix TS2) and two undersea camcorders (Panasonic’s SDR-SW21 and Sanyo’s Xacti VPC-WH1. The guy at the airport X-ray machine thought I was some kind of capture-the-moment lunatic.
Here’s what I discovered.
SONY CYBER-SHOT TX5 ($350, 10 megapixels, 4X zoom). This gorgeous camera is so tiny and thin, your brain tells you it couldn’t possibly be waterproof. At first, you’ll hunt for a model number to make sure you got the right thing.
Two features contribute to the minimalist design. First, it has a nicely responsive three-inch touch screen, so there are few physical buttons. Second, you turn it on by sliding down a full-width lens cover on the front. It powers up extremely fast; you’ll virtually never miss a water-park moment waiting for the camera to fire up.
The TX5 also does fairly well in low light, thanks to Sony’s special sensor. It also inherits Sony’s much-adored Sweep Panorama mode. You whip the camera in an arc around your body, and it quietly snaps several consecutive photos, figures out how to connect them, and spits out a finished 270-degree panorama automatically. It’s fantastic.
Alas, there are disappointments. In some shots, the TX5 produces the same soft, washed-out look that was common to previous generations of waterproof cameras. You can see this problem in the sample gallery that accompanies this article on the Web.
More alarming, the camera exhibits some severe edge distortion. People on the edges of the photos almost look as if they’re printed on stretched Silly Putty, their heads puffing out bizarrely. It’s kind of a shame, since the camera otherwise offers so many truly amazing features.
PANASONIC LUMIX TS2 ($341, 14 megapixels, 4.6X zoom). This brushed-metal, squared-off camera isn’t the wisp of a thing that the Sony represents; instead, it’s quite substantial in its brushed-metal glory. That blocky design offers a payoff, though; the Panasonic is waterproof down to 33 feet, versus 10 for the Sony.
Both the Sony and the Panasonic are also supposed to be shockproof, dustproof and freezeproof, too, thanks to reinforced glass and rubber gaskets. They take a licking and keep on clicking.
Here again, the Panasonic shines; I brutally tossed it, kicked it and flipped it 25 times onto concrete; it still looked new. The Sony’s sliding lens cover, however, took some damage when I subjected it to the same admittedly over-the-top treatment.
The photos look great — maybe not Canon S90 great, especially in low light. But they’re above average for pocket cameras, and because this camera is so rugged, it may well last you a lot longer.
But the videos are what you’ll really write home about.
Panasonic treats video as a first-class citizen on this camera; there’s a dedicated Record button right on the back. So to shoot video, you don’t have to switch modes or burrow into a menu (as you do on the Sony). It shoots 720p hi-def video that, especially in good light (like the sunshine that will probably accompany your waterlogged outings), looks fantastic. You can even use the zoom while you’re filming, which is a rarity in cameras.
SANYO XACTI VPC-WH1 ($310, 30X zoom, 3 pounds). Be warned: there’s only one thing that alarms onlookers more than immersing a digital camera in water — and that’s immersing a camcorder.
But this one is designed for exactly that purpose. It’s bright yellow (or bright blue), so it’s easy to spot in water. The controls are big and easily operated with one thumb underwater (or on land).
A 16-gig SD card holds about four hours of best-quality video, and the battery shoots nearly that long on a single charge.
Unfortunately, there are some serious drawbacks: the video is a little soft, the stabilizer could be better and the camera’s widest angle is extremely “zoomed in.”
PANASONIC SDR-SW21 ($224, 10X zoom, 0.5 pound). This bright orange, yellow, or silver camcorder is far sleeker, smaller and lighter than the Sanyo; it’s not much more than a palmful. It’s rugged, too, built for four-foot drops to concrete. It comes with a foam handgrip floater so the thing won’t sink.
In fact, the design is so great, it’s almost not fair that it’s such a loser of a camcorder. It doesn’t even capture hi-def footage: it films at 640 by 480 pixels, max, with the quality you’d expect from a cellphone in 2007. And the battery conks out after less than an hour. Best to forget this one.
So how did my undersea gadgets fare on the shark dive? They were a bust. The sharks hang out 45 feet down, on the sea floor. The companies aren’t kidding around with their depth ratings: at precisely 10 feet down, the Sony’s buttons stopped responding, and at exactly 33 feet, the Panasonic similarly clammed up. (The camcorders’ depth ratings are similar: 10 feet for the Sanyo, 6 for the Panasonic.)
The undersea Nova cameraman later explained that the water pressure down there winds up pushing all of the buttons simultaneously, which is why they stopped working.
In the end, then, I didn’t get any shark shots at all with these gadgets — but that was expecting too much, anyway. Using them for snorkeling, in pools and on water slides was a joy. I wound up with photographic memories that most people assume are unattainable on waterlogged outings.
Don’t even bother with the camcorders. The video from the Panasonic TS2, a still camera, easily trounces them — and generally takes better photos than the slimmer Sony.
In fact, you could even be happy with the Panasonic TS2 as your everyday pocket cam. The wide-angle lens lets you grab vistas in a single shot, the low-light shots are decent and the video quality is just awesome.
Above all, the waterproof/shockproof aspects don’t cost you anything in size, weight or features — only a few extra dollars upfront. And the next time someone mentions a trip to the Bahamas, you can safely think: “Photos! Videos! Drops to concrete!”
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.