Friday, July 1, 2005

Sea&Sea DX8000G underwater camera

Though branded as a Sea&Sea underwater camera, it's actually an eight megapixels Ricoh Caplio GX8 digital compact camera in a polycarbonate Sea&Sea underwater housing.

At time of purchase, this camera was the best solution considering my requirements: a very compact underwater set-up both with wide angle and macro capability, at least 5MP, no shutter-lag to worry about, a maximum depth rating greater than 40m and an affordable price tag.

Sea&Sea's housing perfectly envelops Ricoh's GX8 compact camera, and allows easy access to all its functions.

Very compact package. I want to be able to take the camera into caves & inside wrecks, so the smaller it is, the better. Besides, with my dive gear already taking up most of my travel weight allowance, I just can't afford an extra case with bulky camera equipment. Another advantage is that the DX8000G's small size allows for some great shot angles from 'dirt'-level.

The 0.6x wide angle conversion lens, which can be put on or taken off underwater, turns the already wide 28mm* into a very wide 17mm* lens (* focal lengths are 35mm film camera equivalents). Perfect for pictures of large subjects - when they dare come close, underwater sceneries or wrecks.

Zoom range. With a 3x optical zoom lens going from 28mm* wide angle to 85mm* portrait, I can take both diver pictures (without having to back off too far) and super-macro shots of pretty tiny subjects (as close as 1cm with wide angle or 10cm with tele lens).

Zooming badly affects image quality, making it quasi useless.

Maximum depth rating of -55m.

Auto-focus. What a great feature after the manual guessing with Sea&Sea's analogue Motor Marine II EX.

The camera does have some trouble auto-focussing in low light low contrast situations. There is however also a manual-focus option, but I haven't bothered yet to try it out.

Lacking optical image stabilization, a.k.a. anti-shake, it's hard, though not impossible, to get sharp pictures in super-macro mode due to hand shake, body movement or restless subjects. You really need to be able to stabilize yourself (e.g. with a stick). Plenty of light of course helps too.

Instant feedback! Allowing for corrective measures on the spot when necessary.

Rather small 1.8" LCD.

MMC or SD memory cards up to 1GB. I kind of like the fact that I can use these multi-purpose memory card formats, in stead of the more brand specific ones like xD, compact flash, memory stick, etc. I use Sandisk SD Ultra II (512MB) & Extreme III (1GB) cards, good for about 150 & 300 photos respectively, in JPEG format at maximum resolution (3264x2448 pixels).

Internal memory of only 26MB. A joke really. But as far as I know, this is the case with most digital cameras, e.g. none really have any useful internal memory.

Almost unlimited number of exposures, with adequate memory-card & fully loaded batteries. No longer limited to 36 film exposures, this gives me the freedom to try again and again with various settings & angles, allowing me to experiment & try things out (without it costing anything).

Image quality is arguably not quite the same as with film cameras. The original JPEGs often have a certain flatness, missing the vibrant quality & depth of celluloid. However, with adequate editing software a lot can be done :o)

→ underwater snapshots taken while shark diving in the Bahamas

Rather poor low-light performance. Due to the small 1/1.8" CCD sensor, using ISO values above 100 immediately results in very grainy images.

While it's really great to be able to take AVI video-clips at 30fps, the maximum resolution of only 320x240 pixels is sub-standard.

Lighting issue: I did not buy an external strobe for this camera, because I don't like the fiber-optic cable slave-mode solution. In my opinion, it drains camera batteries for nothing besides slowing down the camera too much - as it takes several seconds to reload the built-in flash, during which the camera is out-of-action. In stead I've tried to use my dive torches:

Green Force's TriStar Diamond (less than 30W halogen equivalent), with its three little LEDs, doesn't quite come close to providing the necessary light for macro shots, but using it may help afterwards during post-processing to restore some of the reds.

TillyTec's HID 35 (125W halogen equivalent) with flood reflector, in conjunction with TillyTec's LED 1000 (100W halogen equivalent) with diffuser, provided just enough light for an underwater video project in Mexico's cenotes. In the total darkness of the fresh water caves, photography however still wasn't practically feasible with this camera.

Battery type: Two universally available AA cells (alkaline or rechargeable), custom-made high capacity rechargeable battery or AC adapter. So far I've used:

Rechargeable AA NiMH cells from Sanyo (1.2 V, 2300 & 2500 mAh). While kind of satisfied with their performance (good for about 100 shots w/o flash), they completely self-discharge within a week and totally give up after about a year's moderate usage.

+ Rechargeable AA NiMH cells from Ansmann (1.2 V, max-e 2100 mAh). These provide enough power for my camera to be almost always on, even on 2h long dives! Remarkably better than my supposedly more powerful, but unreliable, self-draining Sanyo cells.

Battery indicator: Consisting of only 3 rather imprecise levels (3/3, 2/3 & 1/3), the battery indicator isn't of much use, except as a very rough & unreliable estimate.

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