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Underwater/Tough Cameras: Good photos or no photos?

The REAL value of underwater/rugged cameras.

By Dave Etchells
Date Posted: 07/16/09

Underwater/rugged digicams often compromise image quality somewhat, relative to what the best dry-land digicams can achieve. As a result, photo snobs sometimes turn up their noses at them, saying "it's all about the image quality."

That's a sadly uninformed view.

I heartily agree that excellent image quality is better than so-so image quality, but what if the choice is modest image quality versus no photos at all? My family and I took a trip to Costa Rica back in 2004, and brought along a pile of photo equipment, including an SLR with lenses, a couple of point & shoots, and one "water resistant" camera. (In those days, there weren't any truly waterproof models.) Given that we were in rain forest much of the time, and spent a total of a couple of days in kayaks, the water resistant point & shoot ended up taking a lot of the photos we brought back with us.

Were they great photos? Frankly, no. A lot of the photos I shot with it were in dim lighting, and its high-ISO image quality was frankly pretty wretched. But without that camera, we would have missed dozens of opportunities to preserve memories from the trip. Even in a dry bag, there was no way I was going to bring my SLR along on a kayak down a storm-swollen river, or out on the ocean. - And a good thing, too: A wave dumped Marti and I off our sea kayak at one point, and an SLR in a dry bag would likely have ended up on the sea floor, in 40 feet of water.

Today's waterproof/tough cameras have come a long ways from what I had to work with in 2004: There are significant image quality differences among some of the various waterproof/tough models, but all are head and shoulders better than that little camera I brought on our Costa Rica trip.

My (strong) advice to readers is to realize that image quality is only part of the story when you're out in the Great Beyond: It may pay to trade off some image quality for sheer toughness, if you're going to be in a really camera-hazardous environment. Or, it might be worth accepting the lower image quality of a less-expensive model, if that's all that will fit your budget: You'll at least bring back some photos from the beach, river, lake, or wherever, that you'd completely miss otherwise.

Don't be a photo snob - Bring back the pictures!

Read our "Fun in the Sun" roundup of all Waterproof/Tough Cameras on the market, as of July, 2009



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