News and Views from Dave Wilson

Archive for June 12th, 2011

I dropped my camera in the sea!

by on Jun.12, 2011, under Photography

Before you get all worried on my behalf, I should point out that the camera in question (my Canon Powershot G9) was protected by a new toy I picked up on eBay recently – a Canon WP-DC21 underwater housing. Nikki and I got scuba certified back around the time we were married and I had one attempt at underwater photography during an amazing trip to Grand Cayman when I rented a less-than-amazing Sea And Sea MX-10 camera. The results were somewhat iffy and, since then, I’ve been rather keen on owning a housing that would allow me to take a “real” camera into the water. We’ve done next to no diving since having the kids, though, so there hasn’t been much excuse to spend the money it takes for a professional housing but when I realised that I could pick up a second hand housing for the G9 for about 1/20th the price of a new DSLR housing for one of the Nikons, it struck me as a pretty good deal. With our summer plans including boating, a kayak trip and at least one visit to the beach, I could justify that kind of purchase fairly easily.

The WP-DC21 is a rather amazing product for the $150 I paid. Unlike most (or all?) of the cheap waterproof cases you can get hold of, the manufacturer’s own housing allows full control of absolutely every control on the camera. Given the number of dials and buttons on the G9, this is rather remarkable – I had expected to have to shoot in one of the automatic modes and preset a bunch of features before putting the camera in the housing but that wasn’t necessary at all. The only control that is not accessible is the rotary thumbwheel on the back of the camera but, thankfully, it turns out that one of the other buttons can act as a control modifier which allows the right and left buttons to act as clockwise and counter-clockwise input for any control that would normally use the thumbwheel. After figuring this out, all was well and I could shoot in any mode I wanted, changing aperture and/or shutter speed quickly using the housing’s buttons.

One thing I had heard about the WP-DC21 was that the case made the camera’s built-in flash effectively useless since the nose blocked the light from reaching the important areas of the image. For this trial trip, where I wouldn’t be going underwater by more than a couple of feet and wouldn’t be doing any close-up shots, this wasn’t a worry but I can see that external strobes would undoubtedly be a good idea if you were using the rig for underwater macro work. For beach photography, however, I was surprised at how well the flash worked inside the case. In bright sun, I was using it at full power which gave me just the right amount of fill when I was within about 3 or 4 feet of the subject.

I learned a few things in my two days of playing with the housing. First, the optical viewfinder is essentially useless in the case so make sure that you turn the LCD brightness up to its maximum value. I had mine turned down to preserve battery power (I use the optical viewfinder 90% of the time) and this just didn’t work at all. At maximum brightness, however, the screen was usable for framing and composition. Secondly, even for near-surface photography, make sure you add a couple of weights to the case to make it less buoyant. Without the weights, getting any shot below the surface is tricky since you are constantly fighting to keep the camera under the water. I had assumed that weights would not be required since I wanted the camera to float if I accidentally let go but with a couple of weights it becomes easier to handle while still being just buoyant enough to float if released. Another problem is that the shutter release button the case has a rather spongy feel and tends to result in some really horrid shutter lag. You have to press it rather harder and for rather longer than I would like to take a shot. No doubt this would have been better had I bought a $2000 DSLR housing and used the D90 instead but I’ll live with this for $150. The final problem I had when shooting in the water but not underwater was water spots on the front element of the housing. Even shooting with as wide an aperture as possible, these were easily visible so I had to be careful to blow them off before taking any shot. Underwater this won’t be a problem, of course, but I’ll have to do some research and see if there are any cleaners I can use that help water sheet off the glass a bit better.

The biggest problem with underwater housings is, of course, if they leak. Thankfully, this one is 100% dry but it is critical to ensure that you follow the maintenance instructions to the letter to ensure that the seal remains complete. Flush the closed housing with fresh water to remove all salt and sand every time it is used. Whenever you want to use the housing, remove the seal O-ring, run it through your fingers to check for any stray sand, hair or anything else that could have stuck to it, then apply a drop of silicone grease to help it seal before putting it back into its groove (which you have also inspected and cleaned) and closing the case. This process takes about 5 minutes so it’s not a particularly onerous task.

Overall, I’m very happy with the performance of the housing and am looking forward to using it while snorkeling later this summer. The snaps below were shot using it during our visit to South Padre Island last weekend.



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