Appeared in DIVER December 2007

John John Bantin has been a full-time professional diving writer and underwater photographer since 1990. He makes around 300 dives each year testing diving equipment.


So why do I do it So that our Art Editor doesnt give me grief about the file sizes of my pictures being too small to make a double-page spread.
My first digital camera (a DSLR) was a 6.1 megapixel job that gave a 12.1Mb RAW file, which translated to around 17Mb once turned into a TIF file. This file format is uncompressed and allows work to be done on it without loss of quality.
Of course, big files take up a lot of space in any media, whether the card in the camera or the hard drive of your computer. A more commonly used format is the JPEG, which uses an algorithm to compress a file selectively. Most digital compact cameras today record their images directly as JPEGs.
If you want to work on this type of file on a computer later, its best to resave any further work as TIFs to avoid compressing a file that was already compressed in the camera.

Nikon Coolpix P5000
Its important to bear all this in mind when we consider the 10 megapixel Nikon Coolpix P5000, because although the marketing men have latched on to megapixels as the most important aspect of a qualitative judgment of a cameras performance, this camera produces a jpeg of around 3Mb.
Certain 6mp cameras (such as the DSLR I mentioned) can shoot better-quality pictures because of the size of the sensor and the file format used. But its still not even as simple as that. With selective JPEG compression, any perceived drop in quality depends very much on your subject matter.
This is a serious little camera with full manual controls including manual white balance, essential when shooting JPEGs in shallow water because you more or less have to get it right in the camera if you want to maintain that precious image quality.
It has a giant LCD screen just like Nikons semi-professional D200 DSLR (now superseded by the 12mp D300) to let you examine the pictures you have taken. It has both complete manual and automatic exposure control plus the facility to bracket exposures automatically, with 16 different scene-type selections to give it the best shot at getting things right.
The seven-element 7:2 optical zoom lens, best kept at the widest angle setting for underwater use, has a very useful macro setting that allows you to get within 4cm of your subject.
The camera also has an anti-shake mode, whereby it takes up to 10 shots in quick succession and picks the sharpest one.
This little camera by no means looks like a poor relation of the D200. It exudes the same quality of construction and has a magnesium alloy body.
It records its images in a variety of light level sensitivities, from ISO 64 to ISO 3200, on an SD memory card. It will record 50 pictures of the highest quality and size available with it on a 256 megabyte card.
If you are content to look at your pictures on your computer screen, you can lower the quality right down and get more than 1000 images on
a single card, although this does rather negate the point of having a high-quality piece of kit.

Fantasea Line FP-5000
Comparing the P5000 with the D2000 as a tool for divers naturally meant installing both the cameras in waterproof underwater housings.
While the D200 went into a box that cost more than 2000, I chose the Fantasea Line FP-5000 for the compact Coolpix.
Although made of Plexiglas, it seems a lot more robust, and made of a more heavyweight material, than a lot of the housings available for compact cameras.
The P5000 sits on a little mounting plate that slides in, and all the controls of the housing mesh nicely with the camera instantly. These are double-O-ring protected and appear to be of good-quality stainless steel.
The back closes on to the main part via a simple large O-ring that it holds in its own groove. It is held tightly shut by four stainless-steel-sprung cam buckles. As far as I could tell, all the functions of the camera are available when its in the housing.
In deference to the special problems encountered with photography under water, the housing has the facility to fit a red filter for better colour reproduction (in the shallows) and a wide-angle adaptor that will allow you to get closer to your subject.
You can use the little built-in flash of the P5000 for macro shots, and a removable diffuser is fitted at the front of the housing.
The camera lens is shrouded inside a soft black rubber tube, so that no extraneous light from the flash or any internal reflections from the camera get into shot. Most importantly, the FP-5000 keeps the camera dry.
Uniquely, Fantasea Line housings come with a one-year insurance against flooding.

I decided to take the Nikon Coolpix P5000 on some dives alongside my Nikon D200 DSLR. Both are rated to have 10 megapixel sensors, and I wanted to see if the compact was a viable alternative to the bigger kit.
Firstly, there are occasions when a big camera simply will not do. You know those moments when dolphins appear near the boat and everyone rushes for mask, fins and snorkel Well, I rarely take my big camera because I simply cant swim under water quickly enough with it.
While I had it, I was far more inclined to grab the little P5000.

THE FANTASEA LINE HOUSING may allow you full access to all controls via high-quality metal buttons, but unfortunately they are not marked and the refraction of light in the water doesnt allow you to see through the clear plastic.
That means you must be very familiar with the controls of the camera and, unlike me, not try to unravel its secrets while befuddled at depth. I got there in the end.
Of course, unlike a full-blown DSLR, a digital compact still has to switch from writing an image on the viewing screen to auto-focusing and then writing the image to the card.
This takes time. I experimented by photographing the seconds hand on my watch, and noted that in macro mode it took nearly two seconds to grab the shot. This means either concentrating on static subjects or anticipating the movement of quicker animals under water.
If you choose to shoot smaller files, the file-writing time, or delay between shooting one shot and the next, is reduced.
Quality is to do with more than megapixels. Whats the use of shooting a picture that you can enlarge without the pixels showing if it is unsharp or if you missed the moment
Whatever anyone tells you to the contrary, there is no substitute for taking some white light down with you in the form of an ancillary flashgun. Fantasea can also provide a supplementary wide-angle lens that will allow you to get much closer to your subject, thereby reducing the amount of water between it and the camera, yet still maintaining the full width of the view.
I used the P5000 setup limited by the fact that I had neither of these important accessories.
Using the little camera in macro mode, I was able to make use of the built-in flash behind the housings big slip-in diffuser. Alas, the diffuser really needs to be positioned further forward on the housing than it is, because the protrusion that accommodates the lens tends to cast a slight shadow in the foreground of the shots.
I took many of my pictures with this camera in the 20m depth range, using the manual white balance control and no flash, onboard or off.
At first I used a colour-correction filter (Wratten 85B), but that cut down the light so that I was forced to use higher ISO numbers, resulting in quite a lot of digital noise (grain), the bugbear of all cameras with small sensors and high pixel counts.
I fear my results tended to be rather monochromatic, as there was little full-
spectrum light down there. These filters work well only when you are very shallow and the sun is giving ample contrast to the lighting.

I GAVE THE CAMERA TO MARIA MUNN to try. A fellow passenger on Whirlwind, she runs courses on digital photography using compact cameras.
I really enjoyed using it, she told everyone later. I liked using it in macro mode with the built-in flash. I liked the clarity of the big picture display. The manual white-balance control is a marvel but I had the same problem as John in remembering what the buttons on the housing did, as the camera controls are not intuitive.
My own verdict Its a beautifully constructed compact that outshines a lot of other digitals, but it suffers from the same problem as all such cameras under water - the time delay between pressing the button and getting the picture.
Dont be misled by the pixel count. There is an optimum number of pixels for any given sensor, and if that number is exceeded the result will be excessive noise. I wont be trading in my digital SLR and flashguns for a compact camera yet, despite the huge price differential.

Even while we had the P5000 for testing, a successor, the 12.4 megapixel P5100, was announced. This model features in our compact camera buyers guide elsewhere in this issue.
Thats the story of digital compacts. Buy one today, and a new model replaces it tomorrow!
However, Im told that the P5100 fits the same Fantasea Line FP-5000 housing, and the P5000 should be available for some time yet .

Divernet Divernet
The camera was more successful with macro subjects...
...than with wide angle

PRICE £330
ISO RANGE 64-3200
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