Olympus Stylus 720 SW with PT-033 Underwater Housing|
Waterproof camera in an even more waterproof case
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
Underwater photography is a very special experience. You're taking pictures of things that most people never get to see at all in person and certainly not through a camera lens unless you count watching underwater scenes in movies or documentaries. Taking a camera down under to shoot sea creatures, other divers, reefs, landscapes, wrecks, caverns -- it all ranks right up there among the very special things in life.
Problem is that electronic equipment and water generally don't mix. Which means that underwater cameras must be protected from the water at all cost, and that usually requires a bulky housing. A lot of older underwater cameras were quite unwieldy and also a handful to operate. And then there are the reports of leaking housings that instantly destroyed an expensive camera. No fun. Enter the Olympus Stylus 720 SW with its specially designed PT-033 Underwater Housing option.
A special combo for around and in water
What makes this combo special is that the 720 SW all by itself is waterproof down to ten feet (and can likely handle a bit more if you're willing to take the risk). Put it into the PT-033 underwater housing and you can take this Olympus down to 133 feet, which is the recommended depth limit for recreational scuba diving. Other waterproof cases can do that, of course. But they do not encase a camera that is already waterproof. Should the housing spring a small leak and water gets in, no problem. The 720 SW can handle it, even if it gets all wet. Catastrophic case failure at great depth will likely flood and perhaps destroy the camera, but the most often incurred problem is just a bit of leakage from a small scratch in a seal or when something gets caught in the O-ring seal. That is simply not a problem here. Further, when you get out of the water, you don't have to worry about getting the camera wet as you open the waterproof housing. The 720 SW doesn't care. As far as I am concerned, that makes this combo special and eminently desirable. And it also provides a good deal of peace of mind. One less thing to worry about.
A modern 7-megapixel camera
But the good news doesn't stop there. While many underwater cameras are either a bit on the underpowered side or they are big and bulky, or both, the US$399.99 Stylus 720 SW shines in all those areas. It's about as small and light as those Casio Exilim cameras we often rave about. Yes, this Olympus measures just 3.6 x 2.3 inches and is only 0.7 inches thick. It weighs 5.5 ounces or so, next to nothing. Yet, it is a powerful 7.1 megapixel camera with a large 2.5-inch LCD, a fully internal 3X optical zoom, and almost 20 MB of internal memory. Its optical zoom can be digitally multiplied to 15X magnification, the 38-114mm equivalent zoom lens has a super macro mode that lets you get as close as 2.8 inches, and the maximum sensitivity is ISO 1600.
But as stated above, there's more. While the Stylus 720 SW looks just like any other slender, elegant and handy modern digital camera, it is far, far better equipped to handle abuse than almost any other digicam out there. The 720 is not only waterproof to depths of ten feet for up to an hour, it is also shockproof to the extent that it can survive five foot drops. It may get a scratch or two, but it will not break. Which means this is a camera that you do not have to protect and baby when you're out and about. For those technically inclined or familiar with rugged computing equipment, the 720 SW carries an IPX8 rating in accordance with IEC standard 529, and survived the drop test mandated by Method 516.5, MIL-STD-810F.
Given its underwater prowess, not surprisingly, the camera has special underwater shooting modes. Underwater Wide-Angle 1 is for shooting scenes and reefs. This mode emphasizes the blues. Underwater Wide-Angle 2 is for shooting slow moving fish such as dolphins or mantas. This mode won't flash as that can frighten the animals and is actually not allowed in some diving areas. An underwater macro mode seeks to accurately recreate the colors underwater, and it can be used with flash. There is also an underwater snapshot mode that's recommended when you just fool with the camera in a pool or lake and do not use the deepwater housing.
As stated, you'd never know this was a camera you can take into the water by just looking at it. It looks just like a regular point & shooter, all sleek and using the currently fashionable mix of bright, brushed and powder-coated silver metal. The lens has a glass cover, and the connector and battery compartment//memory card covers have waterproof packings that must be kept meticulously clean and require periodic replacement. Nothing else gives away the 720 SW's special talents.
Controls and operation
Controls pretty much follow the current digital camera trends. There's the obligatory 4-way navigation ring where each direction also brings up major functions (flash, exposure, macro mode, timer). Four small buttons call up the onscreen menu, switch to playback or shooting mode, and access print functions. Zoom is handled by two small buttons. The shutter is on top, right next to the slightly recessed on/off button.
Like many other digicams, the 720 SW uses a variety of different color text, icons and embossings to label all functions. Far from an ideal solution. The onscreen menus are improved and clearer than what was found on Olympus cameras in the past. However, I will forever wonder why the camera industry has not adopted the common ESC and Enter keys computers have. Those are abundantly clear, and camera makers wouldn't have to forever explain that "menu" means "exit" and "ok" means "set." Oh well.
Likewise, it is not immediately clear why the "record" button is also used to toggle into "image stabilization" mode and then into scene selection. I'd much rather have one button that toggles between record and playback, and another that brings up the various modes.
The Stylus 720 SW is a point & shooter and does not have manual control other than certain settings (white balance, ISO, drive, autofocus, etc.). Instead, it lets you select from 25 modes that cover just about any imaginable shooting situation. Macro mode lets you get as close as eight inches and zoom is available. In super macro mode you get as close as 2.8 inches, but the zoom is fixed.
The movie mode allows for 640 x 480 recording with zoom and sound, but only at 15 frames per second, and there aren't any cool special modes. When you play back movies you have your choice of normal speed, 2X or 20X. You can also pause and then step through the movie frame by frame. That is a nice feature that in part makes up for the lack of some of the fancy movie tricks.
As is often the case these days, the 720 SW comes with a printed basic 26-page manual and a much more detailed 80-page on on a CD in PDF format. Unfortunately, the PDF manual is also only black and white; in this day and age I'd expect color. A camera company should know how much color can add to illustrations.
Olympus cameras often concentrate on basics or are designed for a specific purpose, like an extra long zoom or, in this case, the ability to take the camera underwater or subject it to a beating. As a result, those who seek tons of features may feel a bit left out. However, the 720 SW does have some neat features. Among them is a Panorama shooting mode that shows you on the LCD how to align up to ten pictures horizontally and vertically. The supplied Olympus Master software then stitches it all together into a panorama. There is a limitation here, and depending on your point of view, it is a rather severe one. See, the SW720, like many Olympus cameras, uses the xD-Picture Card format as opposed to the much more popular and much more readily available SD Cards. And in order to be able to use the panorama feature, you need to get not just any xD-Picture Card, but an Olympus xD-Picture Car. So be prepared to get some of those.
In playback mode, you can zoom in in ten steps, and pan around in 20 step increments both horizontally and vertically. There are also limited on-board editing functions such as redeye fix, changing to sepia or black & white, changing brightness and saturation, adding a frame, adding text in different orientations, and even creating a calendar with a picture on it. You can also downsample the picture to VGA (640 x 480) or QVGA (320 x 240), do a slideshow, or tag images for printing. You can also allocate pictures to albums. Personally, I'll always do all of that sort of stuff on the computer, in my favorite imaging software application, but I suppose it serves its purpose.
Audio fans will not have much to smile about. There is a basic audio function that lets you add a mere four seconds of sound to a picture. You can't do longer annotations, and there is no separate audio recording feature.
The PT-033 Underwater Case
But let's move on to the PT-033 underwater case, for this is what makes the Stylus 720 SW special. If you want minimal bulk, you can actually go diving with just the camera as long as you stay shallow. Many rivers, lakes and reefs are perfectly within the range of a camera that can stay down at ten feet for an hour or so, and likely a bit more. However, for real scuba diving you'll want the case, and it is a beauty.
Essentially, what you're getting is a strong acrylic housing adorned with red plastic trimmings, a red lens cap, red O-ring and red wristband. Each and every button on the Stylus can be operated with a separately sealed pushbutton. That's because this case is not a one-size-fits-all; it was specially designed for the 720 SW and only the 720 SW. It is a clamshell design that is held together tightly via two springloaded metal clasps. The lens opening features a beautifully finished red anodized metal lens ring suitable for accessories filters and such. The case also has a metal tripod mount as well as a metal accessory mount. A black rubber LCD hood helps viewing the display. It can easily be removed and snapped back on, and it is secured to the case with a string. The flash has a diffuser plate and diffuser plate cover. Shooting with the case cuts down the flash range, our course.
The manual that comes with the case looks very thick, but that is because it contains instructions in seven languages. Still, the English part is 40 pages and quite comprehensive, offering a lot of information on how to shoot, and how to make sure the case stays in good operating condition. When you shoot underwater, all sorts of things can happen and you need to remember to do things that are not normally part of the camera maintenance and preparation routine. This includes placing a little bag of silica gel to prevent fogging inside the case. The bad needs to be replaced, though I am not sure if that means every time you use the camera underwater. You also have to make extra-sure there is no sand on the sealing O-rings, and that nothing gets caught between the halves of the clamshell when you close the housing.
Underwater shooting is different
Using the 720 SW in its case requires a bit of practice. While you have access to all the functions, the buttons are pretty stiff to operate, and you don't have the tactile feedback that tells you when you've actually pushed the button. This can be especially critical with the shutter where you need to press halfway down to focus. The buttons on the back of the case are green, red and purple so that you have a visual cue when underwater. The buttons have their function embossed on them, but you better memorize it all before you go down. Be prepared for some practice time until you get it all right.
There are additional issues. Despite the gel packages, the housing can fog up. It's simply a matter of physics. During shooting at the Manatee Springs National Park in Florida, the gel package was overwhelmed by the huge difference between the very high humidity on an 85 degree day and the cool water of the "Catfish Hotel" dive site. And since the package just sits there, it easily falls out if you open the housing to wipe off the condensation. Ideally, it would have its own compartment, but finding the right spot/retainer while preserving the full de-moisturizing effect of the pack presents a logistical problem. Another minor gripe is the red rubber lens cover. On dry land, tethered lens caps are just fine because gravity keeps them out of the way. Underwater the cap all too easily floats in front of the lens while taking a shot. I'd take it off for underwater shooting, but make sure it doesn't get lost.
Leaking was not an issue during any of our dives (down to about 70 feet). Other reviewers have complained about the two clamps that hold the housing together being difficult to open. We never found that to be a problem.
The biggest issue we ran into was getting some of the underwater modes to work for us. Yes, you can get some good shots as evidenced by the ones shown on this page. However, after quite a bit of practice these were the cream of the crop. While the underwater macro mode worked very well, we struggled with the two underwater wide-angle modes. The camera seemed unable to focus and the built-in flash, despite the diffuser plate on the underwater case, made for excessive scatter in many pictures. Under marginal lighting conditions, exposure time apparently got so long that we'd have needed a tripod to get sharp pictures. A dedicated Sealife Reefmaster underwater camera we'd brought along for comparison performed far better, though it was based on a digital camera platform that seemed nowhere near as advanced and powerful as the Olympus. What went wrong?
I later discussed this issue with Olympus representatives who were divers and intimately familiar with the underwater products. The conclusions I came to were that we likely did not spend enough time with the camera to make those modes work for us. For example, it is possible to manually adjust ISO in the underwater wide-angle modes. We did not do that, and thus often ran into excessive shutter time issues in limited light conditions. We also did not realize that the camera had an autofocus lock mode in the macro and one of the wide angle modes. By activating the AF lock, you can keep shooting in focus without the camera hunting for focus, which can happen all too easily in the ever-changing conditions underwater.
I also learned that making a consumer camera work well underwater is a bit of a balancing act. Price is a consideration, as well as optimal performance on dry land where most pictures will be taken. This is the difference between a dedicated underwater camera like the comparison Sealife Reefmaster and a general purpose camera such as the Stylus 720 SW; a dedicated underwater camera is optimized for underwater conditions, usually at the expense of any other kind of shooting, whereas a general purpose camera must be able to do it all. Makes sense.
I also asked about the flash. Any built-in flash, diffuser plate or not, will be prone to scatter. A good external flash can fix that, but the PT-033 does not have a hotshoe. It does, however, have a "coldshoe" to accommodate a fiberoptic-activated slave flash.
The PT-033 Underwater Housing itself has a list price of US$299.99. The O-Ring that creates the watertight seal costs $12.99, the special silicone grease $9.99, and the gel packages that prevent fogging are $6.99 for five of them. Better order some of each when you get the underwater case. Easier than finding them later.
Olympus gets major kudos for offering this awesome combo of a camera that is waterproof enough so you never have to worry about taking it swimming or even snorkeling AND an intelligently case designed for it that extends operation down to a depth of 133 feet, the recommended limit for recreational diving. The camera is so small and light that it easily doubles as a daily shooter even if it is primarily purchased for swimming or diving. Scuba divers will appreciate the extra peace of mind that comes from knowing that the camera will not be destroyed should the case ever leak. The underwater macro mode is excellent, but the two underwater wide-angle modes require a bit of practice for best results.
Anyone who wants a small, light, elegant point & shooter that's sturdy enough to be dropped, waterproof enough to go on dives, and has an optional deepwater case needs to consider the Olympus Stylus 720 SW. It's the best of two worlds.
Not so much:
- Use it up to an hour in 10 feet of water
- Inherent waterproofing provides peace of mind when handling in/around water
- Can survive 5-foot drops
- Optional PT-033 underwater case good for 133 feet diving
- Sleek and elegant just like a regular digital camera
- Strictly point & shoot
- Use of underwater wide-angle modes requires practice
- Not many special features
- Uses often hard-to-find xD-Picture Card