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.
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.
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:
- get as close to the subject as possible with a wide-angle lens
- 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.
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!
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.