"It's a great camera, but......"

 

These are words I find myself using a lot in conversation with potential customers, fellow photography geeks and on a variety of Facebook groups.

It’s all because the photographic industry often doesn’t really ‘get’ underwater photography.
That's not the fault of the industry at large, underwater shooters represent a narrow slice of the photo market, and economic forces whether we like it or not tend to shape the direction technology heads.

I came across this phenomenon many years ago working at a specialist underwater photographic retailer in central London.

Even in a large metropolis there was only sufficient footfall for two such establishments. So in our quieter moments, geeks that we were, we would be found poring over photographic websites, eagerly awaiting the next model of camera that manufacturers would announce.Apart from just general interest in digital photography, we were particularly concerned with the suitability of the latest offerings for use as underwater cameras.

At the time, (about ten years ago) there was a glut of new compact cameras that appeared on a six monthly cycle. Nowadays the cheaper digital compacts have largely been replaced by mobile phones. But for a variety of reasons that we aren’t going to explore now, mobiles haven’t really replaced those compacts as worthy choices for underwater photography, in the main.

Back then you had choice, and a lot more of it, too. So when people decided to dip their toes into the water and start picturing their underwater adventures, they could purchase a suitable camera and housing for as little as £400. Because of this smaller initial cost they often had budget left for  accessories like wide angle lenses and strobes.

 This shot was taken over 12 yrs ago on an early Canon digital compact. It was only possible to produce the clarity and colour contrast in this image with the use of an INON external wide angle lens attached to the housing.

This shot was taken over 12 yrs ago on an early Canon digital compact. It was only possible to produce the clarity and colour contrast in this image with the use of an INON external wide angle lens attached to the housing.


My colleague Phil has written a series of blogs that go into greater detail than I am now about what makes a good camera for use underwater. They are all on the blog page.

In short though the Latin phrase Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware) is worth bearing in mind before pressing the buy button in your browser.

What makes a great camera for underwater use isn’t always what the camera manufacturer's marketing campaign gurus would have us buy, and unless you’re a hard bitten cynical underwater photo geek like me, you wouldn’t necessarily see through their spin.

The main reason i’m writing this, is i’m expecting myself to utter the words from the title  often in the coming months, as a new camera has just been announced that will most definitely illicit this response.

The Sony RX100 mk VI

Is the camera that has just been released. 

It will, like its predecessors before it, garner plaudits and praise amongst the cognoscenti of the digital photography firmament.
It has already created a buzz, and the main reason I’m writing this is to urge caution amongst those thinking that it will perform just as capably underwater as it may do topside.

 This will undoubtedly be a technological marvel and much more sophisticated and capable than the camera I used for the dolphin shot above. However physics is physics and the previous shot just wouldn’t have been possible with this camera.

This will undoubtedly be a technological marvel and much more sophisticated and capable than the camera I used for the dolphin shot above. However physics is physics and the previous shot just wouldn’t have been possible with this camera.

No camera is created perfect, there are always inevitable flaws. Camera makers tread a fine line between producing something that will appeal to newbies and also those savvy in these things.
This is not a review, i’m basing everything i’m going to say next upon 15yrs of experience in the narrow world of underwater photography retail and what makes a good camera for our purposes All learnt actually shooting and using this equipment.

“It’s a great camera”

This camera is already getting sparkly reviews far and wide and don’t get me wrong it will surely be an awesome piece of kit. Sony have a fine track record of producing great cameras for above and below the waves.


Fabulous focusing speed and tracking, incredible frame rate, and impressive 4K video capabilities are all things I can hear fans and prospective customers telling me.

I would love this camera, and if I could afford one it would defo be on my short list as a do all, carry around camera capable of high quality results that I could slip into a pocket, for use on LAND.


There’s been a few niggles, like the inability to disable the pre-flash or the less than ideal custom white balance by comparison to their peers, but in the main the Sony RX100 range have been fine cameras for us underwater shooters.


This is not me bashing the brand or even the range at all. It’s simply to make people fully aware of all the implications with this latest offering if they want to use it for underwater photography even half way seriously. I'm anticipating the trouble from within our very  own world of underwater photography manufacturing that i’m trying to warn against.

 

“but”

With the MkVI, the lens is the main problem for us and for exactly the reason that the marketing people from Sony and the various review sites so far have applauded it. More precisely the physical length of it.

In Sony’s sister range of models, the Sony RX10 series, their main marketing push has been the combination of a large 1” sensor, the same one as in the physically much smaller RX100’s, and the huge zoom range they offered.

 The long telescoping zoom lens is the thing that causes the Sony RX100 mk VI problems for practical use inside an underwater housing

The long telescoping zoom lens is the thing that causes the Sony RX100 mk VI problems for practical use inside an underwater housing

Now Sony have managed to cram in a long range lens into a much smaller body size. In many eyes a winning combination.

The canny marketing people in cahoots with the designers know full well that Joe and Jane Public love a long range telephoto zoom lens, as it puts within reach apparently, the ability to shoot wildlife and sports with ease. The marketers will display amazing shots taken on these outfits to show that you or I can achieve these things if only we were to buy the latest camera with it's zoom lens.


And to be fair when used within their limitations these cameras are capable of great things.
Unfortunately this is exactly what makes them a poor fit for underwater photography.

Why?

To take a camera underwater you need to put it in a waterproof box, very simple.
And if it has a more modest zoom range that doesn’t protrude the lens too far from the front of the camera when in use, then this is relatively easy.

With cameras of a similar ilk to the Sony RX100 mk VI, and there are quite a lot from other manufacturers such as the Panasonic ZS200/TZ200, the lens protrudes quite far so any housing to keep it dry needs to accommodate this lens at it’s greatest physical length, which is usually at it’s longest reach.

 A schematic showing the lens extended. This means that any housing port designed for it will need to be at least deep enough to not obstruct the end of the lens, but also wide enough to not cause any vignetting when the camera is used at the more useful (to underwater photographers) wider end.

A schematic showing the lens extended. This means that any housing port designed for it will need to be at least deep enough to not obstruct the end of the lens, but also wide enough to not cause any vignetting when the camera is used at the more useful (to underwater photographers) wider end.

This means that any housing port designed for it will need to be at least deep enough to not obstruct the end of the lens, but also wide enough to not cause any vignetting when the camera is used at the more useful (to underwater photographers) wider end.This in turn makes it very difficult to attach external lenses that will work efficiently at the wide angle end.
You may not value or realise this right now if you are just starting out in underwater photography, but you will discover that using very wide angle lenses is a big deal, and the reason why

 It’s an absolute must to be able to guarantee the clarity by shooting through less water with a superwide lens and I couldn’t do the majority of my job without one

It’s an absolute must to be able to guarantee the clarity by shooting through less water with a superwide lens and I couldn’t do the majority of my job without one

most of us shooting underwater find a super wide or even fisheye lenses a must for most of our  needs when not doing macro photography.

I personally shoot most of my work for magazines, brochures and advertising with a fisheye lens, and for the rest (about 10%) I use a dedicated macro lens.

I’ve mentioned the particular issue which effects underwater practicality. 

 But another downside that the camera manufacturers, will never say is that to pack a long zoom lens into such a small space will result in the camera having a very modest maximum aperture (the bit that dictates how much light the camera can gather) , especially when zoomed in to the most powerful end.


This is quite a big deal for all shooters as ironically when you are zoomed in, say shooting wildlife or sports, the one thing you’ll most likely require is a fast shutter speed, to hold steady and to freeze any action.


And as the cameras poor relative aperture means it is letting in a lot less light than a less powerful zoom equipped model, then you’ll either have to be shooting in blazing sunlight in the tropics or, as in most cases raise the ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor)  to very high levels, giving you that necessary faster shutter speed, but increasing the noise and reducing the quality markedly, as a penalty.

So there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch.

Over the last 15yrs I have had this discussion a lot, and the ideal scenario is that I can speak to a customer before they have made an expensive purchase. As specialists in this field we really don’t want you to make an expensive mistake, and in this case the Sony RX100 mk VI is currently being pitched at over a £1000 on it’s own.
For that price you could buy a much more capable underwater shooting tool including a housing!
Which would also have a 1” sensor, the really important bit of the whole equation, and the bottom line dictating the potential quality of its output.

 

Final Thoughts

Some may not like what I have just said particularly if they have just bought a camera we don’t recommend for underwater use, but I can only speak what I have learnt to be true over time and with a lot of experience.
Please let me re-iterate this doesn’t mean you have a bad camera, the review sites will reassure you of this, as will I.
However if you have bought a camera that we know wont be ideal for underwater photography by comparison to often cheaper less well specced offerings, then I have to tell you why. It’s also worth bearing in mind that a very small camera with a long zoom lens, offering so much can’t defy the laws of physics, and usually something else has to give.

 This shot wouldn’t be possible without a very wide-angle lens, and why we deem them to be so important in our world.

This shot wouldn’t be possible without a very wide-angle lens, and why we deem them to be so important in our world.

At Blue Duck we sell equipment based upon our mantra of 'Best Advice'.

Which means that we are duty bound to warn you of the pluses and minuses of any intended purchase.

We aren’t distributors or manufacturers, and we aren’t pile it high, website retailers.
We need to survive in this market place by having proper conversations with customers and really let people be fully aware of the implications of their intended purchases.

We have access to a range of high quality brands, but even within those we don’t recommend everything they sell.

Cherry picking kit we either use ourselves or know to work well and have future flexibility, is the main reason we set up business in the first place.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because there is an underwater housing available for your camera that ergo it must be fit for purpose. Well I guess it will keep the water out.

In my old job working for one of the biggest names in underwater photographic retail, I would despair on that some housing manufacturers would just churn out waterproof boxes for just about any camera. You cant blame them, they were being reactive to the market rather than pro-active I think.

It did make for some awkward conversations though, as I felt duty bound to explain to customers that it may be better for them to wait until they had acquired a more suitable camera, it would have been easier to just take their money, but my conscience wouldn’t let me.

Luckily in some cases a more suitable camera and housing could often be bought for the same price as the huge waterproof box they thought they needed in the first place, and we sold lot’s of kit like this and built strong long term relationships with our customers.

This is the philosophy that Blue Duck Photography Ltd works by. If you are interested in buying equipment or would like more information about our training events then get in touch. Details on our Contact Page 

If you would like advice or want to discuss underwater photography, you can also join our Facebook Group