ITS FUNNY HOW LIFE SO OFTEN FAILS TO LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS. People buy four-wheel-drive cars that will go anywhere apart from through the traffic chaos caused by an inch of snow. They buy electronic washing machines but still find that one rogue red handkerchief can ruin all the white washing.
     People still try to take photographs of firework displays using cameras with a built-in flash. And that brings us to the marvels of digital photography.
     No skill needed - just point-and-press for perfect results. Its a seductive sales pitch. Its true that modern digital cameras grab pictures that never got to see the light of day when taken with simple, old-fashioned film cameras. Stick one in a waterproof case and its David Doubilet, eat your heart out.
     But in fact its often another Range Rover unable to get up Barnet Hill for the sheer weight of stopped traffic, and not at all what the salesman cracked it up to be. First off, these inexpensive little digital cameras are not as good as those that cost five big ones. How could they be There are always snags.
     That said, if all you want are personal pictures with which to impress your friends, compact digital is the way to go.
     However, even those new digital divers who take a more thoughtful approach to capturing images of their subjects may be disappointed. They might as well be armed with an endoscope, because so often all they get is the rear end of an animal as it beats a hasty retreat. The world must now be awash with pictures of fishes bottoms.
     Shutter-lag is the reason. Most of these little cameras need time to readjust from making an image on the LCD screen to recording an image on the media card. The delay can be long enough to make all the difference.
     Sea and Sea claims a shutter-lag of only 0.12 second for its 5.1 megapixel 5000G camera, which comes as the DX5000G when supplied with a 55m-depth-rated underwater housing. Thats the sort of reaction time only a mantis shrimp could beat.
     When all around it are really only cottage industries, the Japanese manufacturer Sea & Sea is a giant in the underwater photographic equipment world, and it should know a bit about it by now. Hence the shutter-lag problem has been solved, or so it claims.
     It also addresses a couple of other problems that cannot be solved any other way, whatever other manufacturers may say.
     Firstly, the worst way to get clear pictures is to have a lot of water between you and your subject, then zoom in to get a good-size image. You should be getting as close as you can and using your camera at its widest-angle setting to compensate.
     Sea & Sea allows the use of a wide-angle conversion lens that fits directly to the front of its housing. Digital zooms are a waste of space. They simply enlarge part of the image with increased pixilation and reduced clarity.
     Secondly, the light you get from the surface once its been filtered through a few metres of water is quite monochromatic. You can increase the ratio of red to blue light by changing the white-setting on some digital cameras, but not enough to get results rich in colour. The quality of light can really be enhanced only by taking some full-spectrum light with you under water.
     Unfortunately, the on-board flash of these cameras is without exception positioned too close to the optical axis of the lens, resulting in all the detritus in the water being lit up, to the disadvantage of everything else. The only useful function of that inboard flash is as a trigger for a proper external flashgun.

Water and electricity
Sea & Sea supplies a range of external flashguns that can be mounted singly or in pairs on a variety of brackets, for full colour photography at depth. Not only that, but they are linked to the camera by flexible fibre-optic cables, avoiding any problems of mixing water with electricity.
     The camera has two connection points so that two flashguns can be used simultaneously. I teamed up a DX5000G with a neat little YS-15 Auto.
     The other problem encountered by users of simple digital cameras is that, without the proper viewfinder system of a digital SLR, you need to rely on the LCD image for lining up your shots. This normally works fine in air, but under water often the LCD is hard to see because it gets as much ambient light falling on it as on the subject, and often more. Sea & Sea provides a deep hood for the LCD display. Another possible problem solved.
     What these little digital cameras are naturally good at is close-focusing, because the zoom lens provided can be turned inside-out to focus really close. The DX5000G will focus on something as close to the lens as 10mm. Thats close. Its zoom is only 3:1 but, believe me, you dont need a zoom under water.

Add media card
With the ability to record on a 5.1 megapixel chip, the DX5000G can produce as good a result as its nine-element optics will allow. However, if you use only the internal 16Mb memory, thats one picture at this quality. You need to add a media card (not included) and it takes SD Memory cards or MultiMedia cards.
     To take full advantage of the recording quality, you will need to shoot in the TIF uncompressed file format, but that means only around 53 shots on a 512Mb card.
     If its never mind the quality, feel the width, you can shoot normal quality jpegs and get more than 1000 shots on an optional maximum-size 512Mb SD Memory card. Either way, if you can download the shots you have taken between dives, it should mean never running out of shots under water.
     Im not going to bore you with much else thats technical. Thats what instruction manuals are for. As for the manual - I read it! I found it was easy to understand, and setting up the camera to my own configuration was straightforward.
     What I will tell you is how I got on with it during a weeks trip on mv Tiger Lily in the Red Sea.
     What I immediately liked about the DX5000G was the fact that the buttons on the back of the housing are understandable even when youre befuddled by breathing air at 50m. I also liked the fact that the LCD monitor hood was made of thick rubber compound that was robust enough not to fall off during a dive.
     The manufacturer makes no pretence of expecting divers to look through the little optical viewfinder, and this is blocked off.
     Under water, you can still easily access the control which allows you to switch from camera-shooting to play-back or even to main set-up mode. Many housings for cheaper digital cameras dont allow that.
     I put a bit of black tape over the window of the built-in flash to prevent backscatter, but the remotely controlled diffuser was still able to trigger the external flash.
     Pressing the close-up button brings super-macro shots easily into focus, even though the lens is so close to the subject that it sometimes proves difficult to get the light from the flash in the gap between lens and subject.

Hoorays and boos
So much for the promises. What about the disappointments
     First, to record a high-quality uncompressed TIF file after youve shot it takes a minute or more. That means the camera is out of action while you wait for it to do it - very frustrating. I quickly abandoned any ideas about shooting further TIFs, and changed to the highest quality JPEG format instead.
     I managed to stalk a massive ribbontail ray and get off one shot as it passed me. Hooray for the quick grab-time. Boo to the fact that the ray had long gone before the camera was ready to take a second shot. So, quick grab-time but slow file-writing.
     Smaller files take less time to record but mean reduced quality. What the DX5000G proved very good at was taking posed pictures of a co-operative buddy, and thats probably what most of these cameras will be used for.
     What about macro mode I went to St Vincent, the macro capital of the Caribbean, and tried to photograph sedentary but rather small animals. This generally proved easy because they kept still, but in macro mode the grab-time seems very extended. It could take around two seconds before the main flash went off, indicating when the picture was actually taken.
     I had some fun with a seahorse that was clinging to a stalk of coral that wavered in the swell. I had about 20 attempts at recording it because I could never tell when the camera was actually going to take the picture. The seahorse wavered in and out of the shot and often I merely recorded the space it had previously occupied.
     I had about a four-to-one success rate as my anticipation got better. Using the hit-and-miss method, I still managed to get a lovely close-up of a spiny pufferfish.
     So whats the verdict This combination digital camera, housing and flash will allow you to take pictures that will look as good as those taken by the professionals. They will have a full spectrum of colour rather than that slightly monochromatic digital look obtained by cheaper alternatives. It is exceptionally effective for close-ups.
     There is still the grab-time to consider. It may not be shutter-lag but there is a delay between pressing the button and getting the picture. You need to get accustomed to it before success is assured.
     Sea & Sea provides downloading software for PCs and a USB connection lead. In my case, I simply stuffed the SD Memory card into my card-reader and the magic of Mac OSX took care of the rest. Job done! The pictures are not big. Digital quality depends on the size to which you blow them up.
     Underwater photography is never going to be cheap. The all-up price might seem quite a lot but its around a quarter of the price of a proper pro/am camera, housing and flash set-up.
The Sea & Sea DX5000G complete with YS-25 Auto Flash including mounting stay, bracket and fibre-optic connection costs £1249.
  • Sea & Sea 01803663012,

  • Divernet
    The 5000G camera
    ...becomes the DX5000G when teamed with this 55m-depth-rated housing
    Sea & Sea supplies a range of external flashguns that are connected to the camera using flexible fibre-optic cables. This is the YS-15 Auto
    Examples of the quality of picture obtainable using the Sea & Sea DX5000G
    + Properly lit digital underwater photographs
    + Exceptionally easy-to-use

    - Delays, delays!