CAMERA Sea & Sea MX-5IIYou have to start somewhere
No experience necessary, it said on the box. The Sea & Sea MX-5II underwater camera came to the right place, then. My experience of underwater cameras extends about as far as Roy Keanes patience, writes Steve Weinman. Normally we get someone who knows what hes doing to test equipment, but as this is a starter package it made sense for a starter to try it out.
     The point-and-shoot MX-5II, an extension of the MX-5, seemed ruggedly built but toy-like in its yellow case, looking a bit feeble on the dive-boat alongside the big boys toys.
     Rated for 40m, it has a wide 28mm f/9 fixed (or focus-free, as the marketing folk prefer) lens. It proved idiot-proof to load and unload, with its auto-advance/rewind mechanism and confirmation of loading, and batteries were easy to install too.
     The dedicated YS-20A flash is equally quick to mount. It synchronises automatically with the camera, using an infra-red optical triggering system. All you need to remember when using it is to cover the inbuilt flash with the hinged flap.
     The sportsfinder, which allows you to line up on a subject without your mask getting in the way, is also hinged.
     When closed it protects the lens; unlatching it automatically switches the camera on. It swings up and locks in place, though I did find that the lock, along with the inbuilt flash cover and film-speed settings switch, all proved a little too easy to dislodge or move inadvertently under water.
     With the flash, and a bayonet-mounted close-up lens that fits over the lens under water when required, this package weighs in at under £400. Its for people like me who are unwilling to spend thousands on a pro machine which costs a bomb at airline check-ins, traps us into spending hours scanning O-rings for grit, and spells calamity the day the water seeps in.
     The trouble is, thats what you have to go through to get good underwater photos, at least on the evidence of the MX-5II.
     Using 400ASA print film (only 400 and 200 is sold at Heathrow, and the camera settings are for 400 or 100ASA), I knocked out 100 or so shots on Cayman reefs.
     I enjoyed snapping away at anything that moved (very often, as we beginners find, fishes backsides) and looked forward to seeing the results.
     Then I got the prints back. The last time I had encountered that much blueness was on John Lee Hookers Greatest Hits.
     The barracuda that had seemed to loom so large in the sportsfinder now looked like minnows in the middle distance. The two large grouper playing nose to nose resembled a car crash on a CCTV recording and the noble tarpon had vanished altogether. The nudibranch I had pinpointed from inches away using the close-up lens had obviously been moving faster than I thought. Yet I could swear I had been right on top of them all!
     Only the outer extremities of a couple of lobsters under a brain coral, and various yellow tube sponges, confirmed that there had been colour and detail on the reef, and that the flash had indeed been working.
     The shots were taken in very clear water at depths between 10 and 30m but, as John Bantin explained, in such conditions flash fights a losing battle with natural light. Naively, I had thought that between the two I would get a result.
     He added that mine were the sort of pictures that amateur photographers often showed him with pride. Like him, I have often had to explain to the takers of such pictures why they are not publishable. They might be an accurate record of an unlit underwater scene, but why inflict them on others
     Still, the focus was reasonably sharp, particularly on some medium-range wreck shots, and in less bright natural conditions the flash might well succeed in digging out the warmer colours of the spectrum. The Sea & Sea MX-5II does allow underwater photography without the hassles, even if it might also be without the colour or exciting close-ups.
No experience necessary is fair enough, and at £399 you could do worse than use an MX-5II to hone your fish-framing skills.
  • Sea & Sea 01893 663012, www.sea-sea.com

  • Divernet
    + Portable
    + Easy to use
    + Low-maintenance
    + Cheap

    - You probably wont win any prizes