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Good but All Underwater Compacts Have a Long Way to Go
on March 31, 2014
I'm a prosumer photographer that owns 6 cameras, as of today 7 including this one. This is my third underwater (others are Canon D10 and GoPro Hero 3+ Black edition).
I bought this as a replacement for my bulbous and dated Canon D10. I hate using water housings and would never risk one of my DSLRs in one or shell out for one anyway. I simply like the fact that I can take a waterproof camera in my swimsuit pocket around all day on the beach or on dive boats and never worry about it.
After doing more hours of research online than I care to admit, it came down to the Panasonic Lumix TS-5 and the Nikon AW120. I still had to try out each in a store before choosing, and even then wasn't sure. All of which underlines not that there's a great field of worthy choices to choose from, but each UW camera out there as of this writing has so many weaknesses it's difficult to choose the least bad one.
Here are the differences I found by briefly trying the Lumix and AW120 in-store:
- the AW120 has slightly slimmer dimensions, but noticeably less heavy, which appealed to me
- the Lumix has a far stronger, more evenly-lighting flash (or maybe it was automatically choosing slow-sync, but it doesn't matter, it looked great); I don't plan to take too many land night shots, but I've seen that underwater flash does come out better on Lumix
- the Lumix appears to have more "features", but they're basically useless: e.g. timelapse (but the shortest interval is a pointless 10 seconds, should be a half-second), "manual mode" (can only change either aperture from wide open to fully stopped down, or shutter speed from fast to 4 seconds)
- the Lumix has a terrible live view when you pan (even slowly), the display stutters to catch up; I only ever see this on the cheapest of compacts; very visually annoying as you can't see what you're about to shoot and a dealkiller for me
- the ergonomics of the Nikon are better to me; it feels more natural in my hand and the buttons feel better also
- AW120 lacks the common "Display" button though; that's annoying
- video record is on the back on the AW120, but on the top on the Lumix; my preference is on the back, where I'll never ever confuse it for the shutter release button
- reviews say the Lumix user interface is better but I found the Nikon to be more intuitive
Other reasons I bought the Nikon, even though the Lumix has definitely better dynamic range (from the pics I've seen online):
- the Nikon has f/2.8 max aperture while the Lumix has a slower f/3.3, and good light is hard to come by underwater
- the Nikon is also wider at the wide end, and I've never seen water damage complaints for the Nikons vs lots of complaints for the Lumix (and terrible customer support from Panasonic).
- the Lumix has better video quality, but it can only do 1080p in AVCHD format! Lame, since it's not Mac-friendly; I could deal with the more-painful-than-usual transcoding process of AVCHD but why do I want to transcode (and degrade) in the first place just to view on my computer? Super lame.
- the Lumix has proprietary connectors, not micro-USB like everyone else. So if I lose it among my 30-something connectors, I'm in trouble. Yes, this is what Panasonic thinks is a good idea in 2014.
Yet, you always learn more when you actually take a camera home. Here are my first impressions:
- First thing I notice is the strap. There's no true water strap. The manual describes the strap that comes with it as being for land use only, but it's really ridiculous, the kind that's so big you're probably supposed to wear it around your neck - who wears a compact around their neck?? The Lumix strap is more normal, but it still doesn't have a way to cinch around your wrist. It seems like all the manufacturers want you to buy a separate floaty strap, although I could care less if the camera floats just as long as it's cinched around my wrist. I'll just have to borrow the strap off my D10. For the record, camera manufacturers, here is a REAL water strap (notice the cinch), and they should always be included: [...]
- Second, the battery cannot be charged by removing it, putting in a simple charger, and plugging into the wall. It has to stay in the camera, with the battery door OPEN so the micro-USB can connect to the inside of the camera. This sounds good on an engineer's paper, but in the real world it's a flaw. Why? Because as the battery door lays open over an hour or so to charge, it gathers lint, dust, whatever from the surfaces it touches and the air. Anyone who understands water sealing knows it takes only a tiny hair to break the seal underwater - and sure enough, upon inspection after charging, I had two small fibers right on the rubber seal gasket. Sure I could brush them off with the included tiny brush (which I'm sure I'll lose), but why should I have to? The only upside is that the micro-USB can be used to charge directly from a computer or other device, which I can see being useful in some circumstances. The Lumix can't do that at all, you need a wall outlet.
- Also, I don't like the shutter release on the AW120. It's flush with the camera body, so you can't really squeeze it like you should, you have to press it. That doesn't help sharpness in low-light.
These are smaller items of course; the pictures count most. Will update in a month or so when I've taken lots of underwater pictures.
Side note to manufacturers and everyone - why do all these UW compacts have a ridiculous 16 MP? Please stop this terrible arms race! 16 MP is HURTING image quality by increasing noise, accompanied by detail-destroying noise reduction. Start educating consumers that what's needed now are bigger apertures, bigger sensors and better processors.
OK after using this camera on a 2 week trip to Thailand, here are my additional thoughts:
- underwater photos came out quite nice, about as I expected
- land photos are so-so, but as I expected for a camera like this
- the photo review time (display time on the LCD after you shoot) is insanely short (about 0.5 seconds); there is no way I can find to extend it, which is annoying
- the photo review "info display" unfortunately is nearly useless; if you care about reviewing the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, flash mode, shot mode, and maybe depth you're out of luck
- underwater videos came out very nice, way better than my old Canon D10 (although I expect that most cameras in this class have about as good video)
- battery life was great; I used it all day without a worry; blows the GoPro away in this regard
- the on-screen barometer/depth meter is nothing short of awesome; when I was scuba diving, I never needed to look at my depth gauge because the camera told me everything; I only wish it would record the depth in the metadata but you can't have it all
- no problems whatsoever with waterproofing or condensation; in fact I definitely took it below the 18m rating on my dives; at about 22m I was freaking out because I could see the LCD slightly bending inward under the pressure, but the camera held up like a champ
- underwater auto white balance was not as accurate as the Lumix (from reviews I've seen); I later realized that the camera does have a custom white balance setting, which I should've set by shooting the palm of my hand underwater
- the Easy Auto mode very intelligently switches to Macro when you're close to a subject above water, but not at all when underwater; had some frustration in constantly forcing the camera into macro mode underwater (but I know of no camera that does it any better)
- the slow-sync flash mode, which usually produces a look I love in night land shots, is not nearly as good as Canons; shame but of course I wouldn't usually use this camera at night on land anyway