09 November 2009

Compact waterproof cameras: long term testing

A few years back when I started kayaking I wanted to transfer my passion for photography on the water.
It was not long since I had embraced digital imaging and finally said goodbye to the film cameras.
While I noticed some drop in sharpness with my first 4.0 Megapixel digital camera compared to the Nikon FM (with quality lenses) digital images were obviously the future for me.
If nothing else the extended dynamic range alone was worth the initial drop in sharpness.
When shooting professionally (architecture) one very important aspect of my work was that the final photograph had to be very sharp.
Hasselblad gave me those desired results.
However the bulky camera was not suited for action photography or remote locations.
Schlepping a heavy and very expensive tool that I had to be very careful with ,when confronted by the elements, was fast becoming a chore that was taking a lot of enjoyment from my trips.
It was bad enough to shelter the “blad” from rain when bushwalking but I could not see myself toting around that thing on the sea, in a kayak.
The Nikon would have needed a bulky and expensive water housing to be able to use it on-water.
I was very excited when finally Olympus brought out the first waterproof camera.

MEI's current set of cameras, left to right: newest to oldest

My early attempts of housing a compact digital camera in a soft waterproof pouch proved useless; the results were worse then ghetto.
Water droplets and out of focus images were the norm, no the exception.
Olympus was offering a real waterproof camera that was compact and robust.
Finally I had the tool with me that would allow my style of images to be transferred on the water.
I don’t often photograph “sitting around the camp” or serene landscapes in dry conditions.
My preferred images are taken in rough conditions where a conventional camera does not stand a chance.

The little Olympus proved to be a winner (collection of images here)
Compact enough to be sitting in my PFD pocket I could reach for it at any time and getting it wet was not a problem.
Olympus even took care of water droplets on the lens problem.
They have a special coating that repels most water droplets. A quick dunking of the camera in the sea would clear the most stubborn ones.

The camera served me well for about 3 years when eventually some minimal water intrusion killed one memory card.
While not dead, the camera could not trusted on water anymore.

signs of light corrosion on the 720SW
In 3 years I did not bother to service the seals (recommended). At $150 a pop I figured I was ahead of the game.
I would have spent as much as a new camera. By then Olympus finally brought out a waterproof camera with wide angle lens that I purchased as replacement to the 720SW.
With improved features (better movies, better menu) the wide angle lens (comparable to 28mm) was getting close to my style of wide angle photography.

Unfortunately the quality of the 1030SW was appalling.
So far every user of the same model camera (specifically the 1030SW) that I know, that shoots in salt water, has had trouble with the camera.
Salt water corrosion being the common problem.
After only a few months the camera showed signs of corrosion (not just surface like on the 720SW) and compartment doors to battery and ports became hard to operate.

The black paint on the front panel flaked off and the lens frame with it.
Olympus "repaired" one 1030SW of mine under warranty that flooded the first time I used it in water. Eventually they replaced it with a new Though8000.
A second 1030SW had the same problems and that one got serviced under warranty too.
Without expressly saying it, Olympus admits that that particular model was a dud.

signs of heavy corrosion on the 1030SW (and that's after servicing)
However some waterproof cameras "die" way before they reach "maturity"
How often do I see kayakers using waterproof cameras while paddling without any security for accidentally dropping them.
Water makes things slippery and often tired hands become “fumbly”.
Some at least use a tether but even then a few accidents have occurred while passing the camera to an other paddler.
All of my cameras, while on water, are tethered and have a floating device to prevent them to be donated to Neptune.
A piece of minicell (closed cell foam) large enough to float the camera is essential.

fishing clip used for attaching floatie detail of reinforcement on minicell

Recently I have added a budget waterproof camera to my set: a camera from Aldi!
Yes, that’s right: a camera from the discount chain store.
Manufactured by Olympus it offers enough features to satisfy most amateur photographers.

single door on Traveler camera: battery, card and port all in one location
The quality of the images is slightly inferior to my other Olympus cameras but at 1/3 of the price of the others is not a bad one as spare for “high risk” shots (read surf photography).
Sure there are many self professed expert photographers that will laugh at the Aldi "toy".
To them I reply: it ain't what you have, it's how you use it :-)
Thousaunds of dollars worth of high end equipment and very little results to show for it... that's what I am laughing at.
What really sold me is the 3 year warranty. I strongly doubt it will last 3 years in salt water but I will make sure I keep that purchase receipt handy :-)


  1. Thanks for this post, I just started using the Olympus Tough 6000, the only issue I find is when taking stills (especially in low light) it take a long time to focus. What type of SD do you use for video work with your Olympus and how long can you capture per GB in the high quality (VGA) mode.

  2. Chris, the Though8000 uses xD cards :-(
    I don't find the Though8000 to take long to focus in low light but the Traveler (a relabelled Olympus) is very slow to focus and wrting files in low light. Possibly the Though6000 and 8000 have different processors.
    I can't tell off hand what length movies I can shoot per GB in VGA. I am sure it's all written in the user manual...

  3. Next, someone needs to come up with a camera that has buttons that can be activated while wearing neoprene gloves. Silbs


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