A camera you can take anywhere
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton Walker)
This a review of the SeaLife DC600 digital camera that you can use both under and above water. It consists of a standard (but modified for underwater performance) digital camera and a very tough underwater housing. Underwater you can use it down to 200 feet. Out of its housing, it is very small and light and you can take it anywhere. The SeaLife DC600 with its underwater housing has a list price of US$549.95.
Who is SeaLife?
Who is SeaLife? It's a name quite popular in the scuba diving community, but less so among regular photographers. So here's a bit of background. SeaLife is part of Pioneer Research, which is the North American headquarters of Steiner binoculars, and also the worldwide headquarters for Vero Vellini hunting slings and straps, and, of course, SeaLife cameras. So these guys are into optics and outdoors equipment, and thus wholly dedicated to the outdoor and sports experience. SeaLife cameras have been around since 1993, and the company introduced the first underwater digital camera in 2000. Today, they pride themselves in offering a whole array of underwater cameras and accessories, with all the strobes and lenses interchangeable with any SeaLife camera.
I must admit that before my diving days, I had never heard of SeaLife myself. That quickly changed last year when we tested some very competent underwater cameras from major manufacturers. We came up with decent underwater shots, but they were nowhere near as good as those that my dive buddy took with her SeaLife DC500 camera. I was intrigued and wondered how the fairly basic SeaLife hardware could do so well when we struggled with cameras that, at least based on their spec sheets, should have produced superior results. I initially wrote it off as being unfamiliar with our test cameras, and that certainly contributed as our results improved quite a bit once we got to know the cameras, but the SeaLife DC500 still did better. This was reaffirmed when Carol shot several hundred underwater pictures on Little Cayman with her SeaLife, with spectacular results.
SeaLife's secret sauce
Having founded Digital Camera Magazine in 1998 as the first print magazine dedicated entirely to digital cameras, I am quite familiar with the technology and what digital cameras could, and can, do. So I took a closer look at SeaLife's offerings and concluded that it simply could not be the camera hardware alone that made for such excellent image quality. That's because there is nothing special about the SeaLife hardware. It is, in fact, quite generic. SeaLife does, however, have a secret sauce and it lies in the company's understanding of underwater photography. As a result, they made some subtle software and settings changes, added several underwater modes, and also some excellently designed and engineered peripherals, and, voila!, superior photography. Talent and experience still play a role, of course, and so it certainly didn't hurt that Carol is an award-winning photographer.
Every diver knows that things are different underwater. Sound travels much faster, objects seem closer than they actually are, there is almost always some debris floating around, and colors change and shift according to depth. Consumer cameras that offer optional underwater cases usually have at least one underwater shooting mode, and sometimes several. But they still don't seem truly optimized for the very different underwater environment. So colors seem off, and the built-in flash goes off when it shouldn't, resulting in "scatter," i.e. illumination of particulates that all but obliterate the picture. SeaLife cameras are smarter. By doing simple things like offering white balance modes that take the changing nature of light underwater into consideration, image quality can improve drastically and pictures jump to life. The proper external flash is also extremely important, and SeaLife is eminently aware of that.
So what is the DC600?
The DC600 is what SeaLife simply calls an "underwater digital camera." The approach here, however, is different than the one Sealife took with its ECOshot that we also tested extensively. While the ECOshot is a super-rugged camera that's essentially embedded in a very tough housing, the DC600 is a system that consists of a standard digital camera optimized for underwater use, and a dedicated underwater housing that can go deeper than the optional housings available for a number of consumer cameras from the likes of Olympus, Casio, Pentax and so on.
Take a look at the DC600, however, and it's instantly clear that this is an entirely more serious product. While most consumer camera underwater cases are clear acryllic accented by bright and friendly colors, the DC600 case is all business. It is a tough, industrial looking polycarbonate affair with extensive rubber overmolding. And the rubber molding is not just for decoration either. It looks as thick and tough as if it belonged on a Caterpillar's tires. There are some stainless steel elements in the front that brighten things up, but this is very clearly a tool for the job. Why does SeaLife go to such lenghts? Because underwater it's not just a matter of withstanding water pressure. Cameras also bump against rocks, get dragged along the bottom, and are just generally exposed to much more abuse than above water.
The SeaLife DC600 housing is individually depth tested to 200 feet, which means it can go a lot deeper than the recommended recreational diving depth limit of 133 feet. It's also been our experience that depth ratings are usually conservative, so tech divers can probably rely on this camera a good deal beyond 200 feet (which, of course, we don't officially recommend). In our tests we took the camera down to 110 feet in 48 degree Fahrenheit water--child's play for this camera.
Despite it's tough look and feel, the case itself is very user friendly. Unlike some 2-piece underwater cases that are quite difficult to open and close, the DC600's is a hinged clamshell with a simple snap. Make sure the thick rubber o-ring is not damaged and that there's no sand, hairs or fibers sticking to it, and then just close it. The case is easy to hold and has excellent grip. The controls are easy to use as well. There are 12 push buttons, all with white on black markings except for Set (green) and Flash (red). There is also a standard steel 1/4-20 tripod thread, and a snap-on ring allows mounting of accessory lenses.
We do, however, have a couple of criticisms. First, the camera has a slider mode switch that lets you select still image, video, and replay. That switch cannot be operated while the camera is in the underwater case, meaning that you can neither review pictures while underwater nor switch from still to movie mode. I routinely do both, and not having that capability would be an issue for me. The other criticism is about the location of the safety that locks the snap. It is right where your thumb is, and I found myself worrying that I'd accidentally undo it, especially with my gloves on. I'd like to see that safety out of the way and in a more secure place.
Specifications and features
In terms of specifications, the camera part of the DC600 if fairly basic. You get 6.1 megapixel -- 2848 x 2136 pixel -- which is still plenty enough for cropping, zooming in, and making enlargements. However, consumer cameras are now in the 8-12 megapixel range and SeaLife will have to follow suit for models that can be used both above and under water. You can set the camera to various lower res modes and also vary image compression if storage space is an issue. The camera comes with 10MB onboard, and a SD Card slot. Focal length is 5.5 to 16.5 millimeters, or 32 to 96mm in the old 35mm film camera parlance. Movies record at full 30 frame per second speed at 640 x 480 pixel format and the camera records sound with movies, even underwater. Sensitivity is limited. It's automatic, or can be set to 64, 100 or 200 ISO. The normal focus range goes from a foot to infinity. A macro range let's you get as close as a couple of inches. There is a self-timer, exposure compensation, and a 4X digital zoom on top of the 3X optical zoom. The built-in flash has four modes: automatic, on, off, and red-eye reduction.
The 2.5-inch display is bright, sharp and large enough. Today's digital cameras, for the most part, no longer have optical viewfinders, and the DC600 doesn't have one either. Today we depend on the LCD which can be difficult in bright sunlight and at times underwater.
The DC600 is a point & shoot camera without any manual modes. There are, however, a total of 15 scene modes. 13 of them are standard above water modes (program AE, panorama, portrait, landscape, sport, night, candlelight, text, sunset, sunrise, spash water, firework and spy), the other two are underwater modes.
In "Sea" mode, for use without external flash, you can select special underwater white balance modes that make a huge difference. One is for shooting in depths of less than 25 feet, the other over 25 feet. Remember, red only penetrates about ten feet and orange is gone at 25 feet, so a white balance that takes that into consideration really matters. You can also set the white balance manually, and we've had very good results with that as well.
The other underwater mode, "External Flash," is used with one of SeaLife's impressive external flash accessories, and those are a must-have for serious underwater photographers. In fact, the company sells the DC600 in packages that include an external flash and extra accessories. There are the DC600 Pro Set (single SL962 flash), the DC600 Elite Set (single flash, wide angle lens, travel case), and the DC600 Digital MAXX (dual flash, wide angle, travel case, chargers).
The DC600 also has a special "Spy" mode that makes the camera take pictures at set time intervals of 3, 10, 30 seconds, 1, or 5 minutes. This can come in handy for taking pictures of critters that don't like a lot of commotion closeby. And on land you can put the camera on a tripod and do some sequential shooting. There is no "SHARK" mode like the DC500 had for rapid-fire operation; that's because the DC600 doesn't need it. It has very little shutter lag.
All in all, the DC600 is another example of SeaLife's expertise in optimizing a consumer digital camera for use underwater. Specifically, the two special underwater white balance modes make all the difference. This way you get a camera that works just like a standard digicam on land, and takes pictures like a dedicated underwater camera while diving. The case is superb as well. It can easily handle all recreational diving and a good deal beyond.
Not so much:
- 200 feet depth limit
- So tough you never have to worry about hurting it
- Takes good pictures above and under water
- Very simple operation
- Heavy rubber protection means no scratches or dents
- Underwater white balance modes make for great pictures
- SeaLife's optional strobes and lenses
- Mode switch cannot be operated underwater
- Safety latch in prone location
- Only 6.1 megapixel