SeaLife ReefMaster DC100 Review
Digicams go diving. Actually they have been doing that since the first digicams only in separately purchased housings that are quite expensive. The SeaLife ReefMaster DC100 Digital Camera is the first dedicated underwater digital camera. The heart of this sub-sea digicam is an entry level 1.3 megapixel focus-free camera that has been designed with two specific modes for capturing Under/Water(U/W) images built into the camera called "Sea" and "Sea/External flash". Of course, it has an above water mode accurately named "Land." The street price of $399.95 (August, 2002) is the attraction. Some housings cost up to 3 times that. The appeal can reach to a lot more than SCUBA divers, this can be a must have accessory for the boat and kayak enthusiast or avid snorkeler and beach goer.
The DC100 actually consists of the SL10101 camera inside the SL111 U/W housing that is depth-rated to 100 ft. The camera itself is very basic, intended to be operated with two buttons while in the housing. The shutter release which doubles as an instant delete button and the On/Off button. This is not a bad idea as most occasional divers don't need any extra distraction from the necessities of diving like depth and air supply. The DC100 has a slight positive buoyancy so if the included lanyard slips off your wrist or the attached clip disconnects from your BCD, it will slowly ascend, not drop to the abyss below.
The 'times' of this camera can be a little frustrating when you are trying to capture a couple of images in a row of something before it swims away. The shot- to- shot time is just under 6 seconds, which is below average. As the camera is focus free and there is no auto focus delay, the shutter lag is almost non- existent, well under a second which is excellent. Just make sure to tap the shutter release to wake up the camera if it has been more than more than two and a quarter minutes since the last picture. These times are based on the DC100 being set-up as I would be using it underwater with the flash and preview enabled in 1280 x 960 SuperFine mode.
There is no shutter priority, aperture priority or manual modes but you can use exposure compensation to correct bad exposures in the next shot if it is not in the U/W housing. No compensation is possible while U/W as there is no access to the menu, scroll or OK buttons. The DC100 requires the color LCD to see what you are shooting while U/W and as such, it can be a challenge if you're in the bright sunlight of a very shallow dive, the pool or on a boat. I have yet to see a color LCD that is 100% useable in the sunlight and the DC100's is no exception. The brightness control is accessed in the record or play menu where you can brighten the LCD for sun viewing though I found this just over drove the brightness on the LCD and washed it out more than it already was. Downloaded images looked very well exposed yet the LCD made them appear over-exposed (too light.) With other digicams I have had success shooting in bright sun by cupping the left hand around the LCD and use the right hand to shoot the exposure. It didn't work on this camera, it was still too dark. In all other lighting conditions the LCD is adequate but in subsequent models I trust an LCD upgrade would be in the plans.
The DC100's image size options include either 640 x 480 for use on a web page or e-mail attachment or 1280 x 960 size for up to 5 x 7 inch prints. There are three quality levels of SuperFine, Fine or Normal. The Auto White Balance did a very good job and the exposure control system was everything it should be at this level of camera. You can also select a flash mode; Auto that fires whenever more light is needed, Red-eye reduction is ideal for "people" pictures, the Always-on flash mode is useful for eliminating harsh shadow in bright outdoor or back lit situations and flash Canceled for those tripod low light level opportunities.
The 3x Close-Up Lens is a good idea as it improves your picture quality dramatically when U/W as your best results are close-ups. It changes the focus to a range of 2 to 4 ft. and is a tremendous help in having less water between you and your subject. The water filters out the red and yellow light very quickly. The camera needs to be close to the subject to illuminate without the flash traveling through so much of the color-filtering water. The wide angle lens is also a good idea when you are wanting to shoot larger things like your dive buddy or that five foot shark. Your 5ft tall dive buddy or shark can fill the frame at five feet! Well within flash range and not too much of the light filtering water between you.
Another frequent source of frustration is "back scatter," which is best explained as the particles in the water BETWEEN the lens and subject that are excessively illuminated by the flash. With the built-in flash, the path that light travels to your subject is a straight line, so when the light reflects off anything it travels back to the lens in almost the identical path. The closer anything is to the flash the brighter it is. So, if particles in the water are closer to the flash than your subject, they are lit and reflected back much brighter than your subject. If we use an external flash then we are 'playing billiards' with the light. The higher and more side angled the light the less particles between lens and subject get any light on them (at the viewing angle of the lens) and this helps eliminate the back scatter. So you can see that the combination of a macro or wide angle lens and an external flash are quite the trick to get the best underwater pictures.
SeaLife has a winner in the DC100 as en entry level point and shoot dive camera. Nothing is close to it's $399.95 price. So if you are a scuba diver looking to catch some snaps to share and not wanting to port all the U/W photo gear this is your camera. If you are a kyaker, boater, or beach bum with a desire for simple some memory capturing this may be just the product. I am sure you won't be the only diver with one this summer.
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