Seated in my kayak, I peer into the shallows of a saltwater lagoon. The tide is out. Eelgrass drifts like smoke on the surface. On the bottom, a bulbous white moon snail plows through the sand. Digital camera in hand, I plunge my arm deep over the side until the snail looms large in the camera’s display screen. I push down the shutter button, and the camera focuses and records the image. The camera is enclosed in a compact waterproof case; external buttons allow full control. Salt water can’t spoil the party.
Point-and-shoot consumer digital cameras made a big splash a couple of years ago when inexpensive waterproof cases hit the market. Today, the newest crop of cameras have bright display screens, simple review, and easy image transfer to your computer. The worst traits of yesteryear-slow start-up, recording delays, and high cost-have largely disappeared. Five megapixels (MP), for quality prints up to 11 by 14 inches, are widely available, and 8-MP cameras have hit the market. The little cameras feature mode selections-like snow or landscape or portrait-that do an excellent job in the right context.
Waterproof cases are available on some models from Sony, Canon, and Olympus. They offer submersible operation through O-ring-sealed buttons to depths of 40 meters (130 feet). Even better for paddlers, a few good-quality weatherproof cameras are now available. They require no additional protection within the limits of their weatherproofing, and fit easily into a PFD pocket. If you haven’t done so yet, it’s a good time to take the plunge.
We evaluated a range of practical on-the-water offerings from Sony, Canon, Pentax, and Olympus. They’re all great choices, depending on what you need. All offer useful features like the aforementioned shooting modes, but also flash options, self-timers, movies, and more. All the test cameras store their images in the compressed JPEG format, with no option for TIFF or RAW. The “highest-quality” JPEG files produced excellent prints. All the cameras came with software on a CD, a memory card, and a USB cord and terminal. They all let you shoot and review images at will, a huge advantage over film. The only cost of a bad picture is the time it takes to hit the delete key. Above all, these cameras are fun.
We tested the software and USB connections using only Microsoft XP. XP recognized the USB connection and treated the camera like it was a folder on a drive. If you have a media card reader, the result from sticking in the memory card is pretty much the same. For old operating systems, whether Mac or PC, check the camera’s specification for compatibility.
As with any other purchase, choosing a digital camera involves a decision on how much you’re willing to spend and your intended use. Low-resolution models (2 MP) are best for e-mails and up to 5×7-inch prints. The current crop of 4- and 5-MP cameras are capable of delivering excellent-quality 8×10 and even larger prints. For convenience, we list all lenses in their 35mm-equivalent focal length. The test cameras are ranked in five areas relevant to the water-sport enthusiast: Ease of Use, Picture Quality, Stowage, Features, and Waterproofing.
Ease of Use: Can I take the camera out of the box, put in a battery and memory card, set a knob to an icon, and start shooting? How fast does it start up? Can the liquid crystal display screen be seen easily in sunlight? What is the lag between pressing the shutter and when the picture is recorded (important for action shots)? Are the setup screens intuitive? Can I quickly delete images I don’t want to keep?
Picture Quality: All of these cameras are more than you need for e-mail, and many offer a 640×480-pixel size that is perfect for that use. For prints, though, resolution (how many megapixels) is important, and in general you get what you pay for.
Stowage: How easy is the camera to stow on-board? Can you keep it in a PFD pocket? Around your neck? Or is it best stowed in a deck bag or day hatch?
Features: Consumer-level digital cameras offer features that film never could, like the LCD screen for image preview and review. Then there’s exciting stuff like movie mode, extreme close focusing, and variable ISO (sensitivity). Some let you take full control of white balance, exposure, and shutter speed. Look for a variety of shooting modes, ability to lock the keeper photos, a cable for TV viewing, and review aids like a histogram display or zooming in to check details. Most cameras sport zoom lenses, but keep in mind that “optical zooms” are the real deal; “digital zooming” is really pixel-reducing cropping. Most lenses are faster (lower f/number) than in older film point-and-shoots.
Waterproofing: All the cameras reviewed are either weatherproof or have a waterproof case available as an option. If the camera is weatherproof, what is the rating? If it requires a case, do the case buttons give you full control? Most cases are rated to 100 or 130 feet; some cases on the market are rated at 10 feet only.
We didn’t rate battery life because it depends so much on how you’ll use the camera. Some mid-range cameras take AA batteries rather than proprietary lithium-ion (Li-Ion). Four AAs are better than two, but they add bulk and weight. Rechargeable Li-Ion batteries pack the most stored energy for their size, but extra batteries are expensive and charging them in the field can be difficult. For extended trips, a camera that takes AAs might be a better choice because you can carry a bunch of low-cost nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries (or alkaline AAs in a pinch). You’ll have to decide which you prefer.