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April 9, 2013

Sony DSC-RX100 goes Under The Sea!

Using your pro-zoom compact as an underwater camera!

Since I bought it late last year, the Sony DSC-RX100 has proven itself to be a worthy and hard-working member of my photographic arsenal. I’ve already completed a reasonably in-depth review of its abilities, finding a plethora of strengths and a few important weaknesses as I tried to assimilate it into my long-established shooting style and post-shoot workflow. Now, mostly due to the RX100’s excellent all-round appeal, I’ve been using it to step outside of my comfort zone of monochrome street and exotic abstracts to experience something I’ve never done before — I’ve begun using it to shoot underwater.

To embark upon exploration of this new frontier I’ve been using the OverBoard Waterproof Zoom Lens case [OB1103BLK]. While this essentially looks like a zip-lock bag with a lens port moulded to the front, don’t be fooled – it is a 100% waterproof camera case guaranteed by the manufacturer to remain watertight when submerged to depths greater than 6-metres (19-feet). It also provides a level of buoyancy dependent upon the weight of the camera you stick inside. I’ve done the float-test in my bathtub with the RX100 and I can promise you that, despite the chubby little zoomer’s 240-g (8.5-ounce) mass, it will definitely float high in the water while inside in this case.

This OverBoard Waterproof Zoom Lens case was kindly provided to me by for the purposes of this test. For a closer look at the case itself (and its numerous alternatives) feel free to swing by my personal blog.

As with embarking upon any new enterprise, one should always test the waters first to make sure you’re not about to do something foolhardy. This approach is even more prudent when you’re about to immerse a $600+ piece of finely-crafted Japanese electronics into an environment for which it was never designed. So to start I filled the bathtub with water, filled the underwater case with tissue paper then sealed it up and threw it in the tub. I had to physically hold it under the water obviously because of the buoyancy thing, so instead of sitting on the floor in the bathroom for a while I placed a large rock from the garden on the provided cord to hold it under the water. After a few hours I returned (I got distracted by something else and forgot it was there) and pulled all the tissues out to find they were as dry as an Englishman’s bathmat.

It was time for the real deal, time to dunk the RX100 into the drink. The first thing I noticed when I was about to dunk the RX100 in a tub of water was my inherent reluctance at actually dunking the RX100 in a tub of water. Despite the definitive tissue paper test, it was still a massive effort to overcome my reluctance to put it underwater. I messed about to start, just putting the tip of the lens port under the surface. Then the sealed lower side. Then the secured opening side. This was nothing against the case itself, please understand – this was more of a paid-for-the-camera-out-of-my-own-pocket kind of thing. But eventually I manned up and completely submerged the whole thing. Surprisingly, it was nowhere near as traumatic as I’d expected so I packed up the family and we headed off to SeaWorld on the Gold Coast.


Sea Star in the Rock Pools
Sony DSC-RX100
ISO400 | f/2.5 | 1/2000 | 10.4mm (28mm equivalent)

This image of the sea star is perfectly acceptable by all accounts despite a few issues of chromatic aberration and softness in the periphery, mostly due to light diffraction attendant to the angle I’m holding the camera relative to the bottom of the pool. It’s the same effect you notice when you look at fish in an aquarium at an exaggerated angle to the glass tank – here the glass tank is plane created by the clear lens port. For people who require the ultimate in underwater image perfection they’ll not only be making a greater effort in composition than I have here, but they will be using a more sophisticated case system as well.

And as long as I’m skirting around the mechanics of underwater photography, this will probably be a good time to bring up blue-green shift. As sunlight travels through water, the longer wavelengths (red & orange) are absorbed by the surrounding water so that everything appears blue-green in colour, even to the naked eye. This colour shift not only increases vertically the deeper you go, but horizontally as your subject gets beyond about 1-metre (3-feet). To counteract this, advanced underwater shooters combine a couple of techniques:

  1. get as close to the subject as possible with a wide-angle lens
  2. use a flash or strobe to restore the lost colour

Unfortunately, the Sony DSC-RX100 only scores 50% in that list. While the RX100 has a magnificent wide-angle end to its excellent fast zoom lens, you can not screw a filter on to the lens for passive colour adjustment or use the flash underwater in anything but a dedicated underwater hard-housing. An example of such is the purpose-built and expensive Ikelite 6116.10 Housing, which will allow the on-board pop-up flash to deploy to remotely trigger an off-camera optical-slave strobe to use as fill-flash to provide full-spectrum visible light to the exposure. This is the only way you’re going to get clear shots of your subject at any depth or distance with the RX100. Otherwise, it is for close-quarters in good light and shallow waters only.


Trickle & Flow
Sony DSC-RX100, HDR
ISO80 | f/1.8 | 1/250-sec | 10.4mm (28mm equivalent)

Another limitation is the RX100’s slight reliance upon menus, be they the deep kind under the ‘Menu’ button or the quick-access type under the ‘Fn’ button. You can access them easily enough, but once you’re there making a change with the rear scroll wheel or larger front control ring is next to impossible. You can try to turn them through the thick plastic with a pointy fingernail, but that’s a great way to pierce the protective film leading to ultimate destruction of your beloved camera. The controls that are easy to manipulate are controlled by buttons and, surprisingly, the zoom toggle around the shutter button. Again, a housing such as the aforementioned Ikelite is the way to go if you’re a menu-fiddler while under the water.

But all is not lost! If you’re a weekend-wet-warrior wanting to take a few pics in your local creek (see image above), need a decent water-resistant camera option to take out fishing with you, or just want to capture your kids swimming lessons like me, then the RX100 will do anything you want in the wet-stuff without going to the added expense of a dedicated waterproof camera with lesser photographic ability or suiting-up your DSLR/SLT camera in watertight Batman-like armour. You can even make excellent videos with an up-beat soundtrack taken ‘under the sea’ in the sting-ray tank at SeaWorld.

Cue the film, Sebastian!

Sony DSC-RX100 goes ‘Under The Sea’


Bottom line: The Sony DSC-RX100 takes great photographs and will continue to take great photos around, on and under the water in an appropriate housing or waterproof vessel. It’s limitations are colour control at depth or distance due to its inability to counter the blue-green shift effect; and, manipulation of controls in anything but the most expensive hard-body housing. With affordable watertight camera cases such as the one I’ve used here, it presents you with yet another way of being the most handy and versatile photo-taker in your kit bag. As an alternative you could buy one of the plentiful water- and shockproof cameras no on the market (from manufacturers such as Fujifilm, Pentax, Nikon, etc) but these true point & shoots with miniscule sensors offer substantially less IQ per pound than the excellent RX100.


About the Author

I am a visual artist and photographer living and working in South East Queensland. I've been using a Sony DSLR/SLT camera since I made the big jump from 25-years of devoted film use in 2006. I like to create expressive and unique images using HDR, lightpainting, strobes and long exposure. I'm also knee-deep in a commercial photography start-up where I'm learning respect for the more traditional ways of making pictures. Website | Google+ | Blog


  1. Thank you for the informative article as someone who has been on the fence about putting my nex camera in a housing (an affordable one) the article shines light on another alternative.

    One of this draw backs to my old Nikonos was the absolute religious service one had to perform both before and after use. Cleaning the gaskets, oiling them and then making sure nothing fell on them prior to closing up the unit. Sure an underwater housing is water tight on day one. How do you feel your unit’s openings will hold up over time? I remember reading horror stories of people’s Nikonos flooding because a hair had gotten on the gasket while closing it up. And what type of maintenance is required by your unit, are their gaskets that need oiled?

    Thanks for any insights, Jeff

    • Hi Jeff 🙂 that’s a really good question I wish I was able to answer definitively. Unfortunately there’s a few too many variables to be able to predict longevity – for instance, how often you simply open and close the case – but the case has one major thing going for it. Simplicity.

      There’s no zip-lock type enclosure, just soft plastic clamped between a male and female chamfer. Its simple and effective to the specified depth but susceptible to foreign-object intrusion. Take care and it may last you forever. I’m of the opinion the sealing-collar will outlast the body welds, and they are pretty secure, too.

      The only maintenance I can recommend is a good wipe down after use, rinsing in fresh water if used in salt and store with silica packets inside. There is one included. I still use the tissue test before I put the camera in. Its all commonsense stuff and an ounce of prevention is worth a gallon of cure, etcetera 🙂

      If you’re familiar with the Nikonos I suspect you’ll get more from the purpose-built Ikelite hard body. The seals in that are replaceable for just a little more than the case reviewed above, but its in a different class of accessory and price.

      Cheers! 🙂

  2. Robert

    Thanks for a great article.
    I’m considering purchasing one of these cases but wonder if the flash on the RX100 can be flipped up at all. I have an underwater strobe that activates when it senses the flash fire, so the flash doesn’t need to be that functional, just out enough to flash and activate the strobe.
    Thanks again for a very useful article.

    • Hi Robert, thanks for the props 🙂 Unfortunately the flash won’t pop-up inside this case. It really is a tight fit for the RX100 and it does have the potential to break the mechanism due to the non-rigid nature of the plastic.

      Curiously, cheaper hard-body waterproof housings for the RX100 have begun to pop up since I published this article. Cases like this one here, for instance. While they aren’t as cheap as the plastic bag type I’ve reviewed above, they are a lot cheaper than the Ikelite version AND they do have a coldshoe strobe mount, room for the RX100 flash to fully extend and a little light reflector/diffuser on the front to activate an optical slave strobe. They’re not just at Amazon, they’re on eBay and other online sources all over at the moment – definitely worth a look 🙂

  3. Hi Robert,
    I just got my overboard waterproof case for the RX100. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get the RX100 to fit in it in a way that the lens can extend. The case seems waterproof. I did the tissue test. The RX100 fits inside the overboard case. The lens even looks like it might fit inside the lens tube of the case. Unfortunately, no matter how much I adjust the camera inside, the lens can’t open into the tube. I even unscrewed the end of the lens tube on the case so I could line it up perfectly (obviously, that wouldn’t be an option underwater). Still, the lens doesn’t fit inside the tube.

    This is exactly the same make and model (OB1103BLK) that you review here. Any tips on how to get the camera/lens to fit?

    • Hi Al 🙂 I’m not sure how Robert got on, but after a short period of adjustment and experimentation I have had no problems loading/unloading the RX100 from the case I reviewed above.

      Here’s a link to a short video clip I just made to demonstrate the procedure as I do it:

      As you’ll see from the video, I pull the lens port out when I turn the camera on. That affords enough room to get the lens to extend and stay locked for use while in the case. I can do this whether its in the dry or underwater.

      Hope this helps, Al! Good luck 🙂

      • mathieu

        Experiencing the same issue as Al Pierce, your video does confirm it works but it appears over board sells a different model in the states compared to UK, this is where i got my case

        The tube is 1mm too narrow for the lens to extend in it, frustrating !!! i have contacted Overboard support to have an explanation

      • mathieu

        They replied:

        “We updated the size and position of the zoom lens housing around 12 months ago. The new design now supports much wider zoom lenses for the post popular compact digital cameras. The new position of the housing allows easier access to the buttons on your camera as the clip used to get in the way a little bit.

        The old zoom lens camera had a product code of OB1052BLK and the new updated zoom lens camera case is OB1103BLK.”

        I will return the old version i got and order the new one

      • Hi Mathieu 🙂 I’m glad you got it sorted. I must admit, after reading your first post above I felt your pain. I was going to contact the manufacturer myself but you’ve got the answer you needed, thankfully.

        Since I wrote this piece, there have been a few interesting alternatives come on the market. Most notably these currently selling on Amazon for about $200 – sure, they’re not the $30 wonders the OverBoard (or diCaPac et al) are, but the ability to use and adjust your camera’s functions (incl. flash) underwater and fit an optical slave strobe may make the wallet a little more giving.

        Good luck to you! 🙂

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