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Head-2-Head Review: Underwater cameras

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  August 6, 2009 05:20 PM

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This is the first of regular reviews of cameras, lenses, and accessories by Head-2-Head Reviews that will be featured on RAW in the coming months. Find out more here.

H2H Underwater Cameras

By Emily Raymond

Introduction: The Matchup
The Olympus Stylus 1050 SW and Pentax Optio W60 are among a handful of waterproof and freezeproof digital cameras on the market. An ideal accessory for vacationers and outdoor adventurists, these amphibious cameras offer typical imaging specifications for a point-and-shoot model, including 10 megapixels and ISO sensitivity up to 1600, and convenient automated modes such as Face & Smile Detection, Panoramic stitch, and Underwater capture. Both cameras, priced at about $300, are relatively affordable.

The Main Event: Waterproof Performance
Designed for underwater use, these two cameras can go below the surface without applying an additional housing, though their range is limited: the Pentax Optio W60 is rated to dip to 13 feet below water for up to two hours, while the Olympus Stylus 1050 SW can go 10 feet down for up to two hours.

The Optio W60 and Stylus 1050 SW include dedicated automatic scene modes that optimize settings for underwater conditions and allow the user to more easily focus on their photographic subjects.

Both cameras are outfitted with rubber seals at vulnerable points such as the microphone and speaker; if a current pushes hard enough, it can break that seal. In fact, Olympus recommends that its sliding cover not be closed underwater so as not to disrupt that seal.

In terms of underwater usability, the Olympus 1050 SW is more practically designed than the Pentax W60. The Stylus 1050SW prevails in this regard. It has a larger/brighter LCD screen (2.7-inches versus the W60’s 2.5-inches), external mode dial that is quick to access by feel, and a tap control interface that is easier to use than buttons. The tap interface is incredibly intuitive and logical and a clear advantage of the camera.

The underwater picture quality isn’t stellar from either model straight out of the camera. However, after a few minor adjustments (mostly to contrast and saturation) in a photo editing program, we were able to produce nice 8x10-inch prints of an underwater scene from both cameras.

H2H Underwater Pentax
Pentax Optio W60
H2H Underwater Olympus
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

Our head-to-head testing shows that the main performance differentiator between the two cameras is focus. Though both cameras struggle to achieve focus underwater, it is a bigger problem for the Olympus. Unfortunately a lot of underwater images shot with the Stylus were not printable because of the errant focus.

Value Assessment
Both cameras sell for about $300. The Olympus 1050 SW is priced at $299 while Pentax originally tagged its W60 for $329, but has since marked it down to $299 as well.

Are they worth it?

• …if you want to take pictures in extreme weather conditions like rain or snow
• …if you’ve lost a camera to water damage and don’t want it to happen again
• …if your kids are prone to destruction

• …if you want the highest quality images at the price point
• …if you are serious about great underwater shots and are willing to spend significantly more money for superior image quality

If optimal image quality is your top priority, you should opt for another camera that provides more accurate colors, less noise, and better exposure. There are superior models on the market with a retail price less than $300.

If high quality underwater photography tops your priority list, purchasing a separate underwater housing for a camera that produces superior images might be a better investment. Most manufacturers sell underwater housing for their cameras. The housings can go as deep as 130 feet, more suitable for diving than the Olympus 1050 SW and Pentax W60's 10-13-feet-ratings. The underwater housings are on the expensive side; they are often close to the price of the camera itself. A custom housing also adds bulk and isn’t feasible in some situations, such as skiing the Alps or taking snapshots at your neighbor’s pool party. In these cases, the W60 and 1050 SW will offer the ultimate combination of durability and portability, and is likely to validate the near $300 price tag.

The Olympus Stylus 1050 SW and the Pentax Optio W60 are among a limited number of waterproof models in the digital camera marketplace. Their 10-megapixel sensors, large LCD screens, and scores of easy-to-use preset modes add additional appeal.

The compact cameras are marketed with a “tough” approach: they can be submerged and frozen, and the Stylus 1050 SW can even be stepped on and dropped. However, behind the tough façade of these cameras are a few unfortunate weaknesses:

• Both cameras are sluggish to start up.

• Both offer ISO settings up to 1600, but high sensitivity images are fraught with noise and lack saturation.

• The macro focusing modes are unreliable.

If you’re considering either of these cameras for a once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling trip and have extra money to spend, you may want to consider getting a waterproof housing for a better-performing digital camera. If underwater photography becomes a hobby, a steeper investment now could save you money in the long run.

However, if you’re in the market for an ultra-rugged pocket-sized camera that you can take out in the rain, drop in the mud, and take for a swim for under $300, these are the cameras to choose from.

In the end, the robust Olympus Stylus 1050 SW offers a more decorated, well-considered feature set that’s better suited for extreme conditions than the Pentax W60. The Pentax’s superior focusing ability and more versatile (wider, longer) zoom lens, however, trump the Stylus where it matters most: underwater.

The 1050SW and W60 both deliver extremely durable, weatherproof cameras that will survive a snorkeling vacation or rainstorm. They both offer advantages that could validate a recommendation; however, to us, the superior focusing of the Pentax edges out the Olympus. If future Stylus generations improve on focus, this line will be impressive. As is, both of these cameras are good values if you need the extra durability or weatherproofing. If not, the $300 will be better spent on a more impressive performer.

For a side-by-side comparison of key advantages of both cameras, as well as detailed test results and a head-to-head scorecard, read the full report on the Head-2-Head Reviews website.


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Head-2-Head Reviews evaluates DSLRs, compact digital cameras, lenses, and accessories from all major manufacturers, and provides the latest product news.

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