The Truth About 'Waterproof' Cameras

With Panasonic launching a new entry into the waterproof/tough camera market, the FT7, now is probably a good time to took about the pros and cons of this type of camera.

But before we go any further let me make it clear, this blog is not intended to denigrate waterproof cameras or their users. Instead this is aimed at giving owners and prospective owners some insight into what makes a camera 'waterproof' and why despite what some people may tell you on social media they aren't indestructible. 

 The new waterproof camera from Panasonic. The FT7 or TS7 in the US.

The new waterproof camera from Panasonic. The FT7 or TS7 in the US.

The group of cameras I am referring to are those that the manufacturers state can be used underwater. So not just splash-proof or weatherproof but actually submersible without an underwater housing. Examples include the Olympus TG's, Nikon W300 and the SeaLife Micro 2.0.

The common misconception with these cameras is that they can't flood. A land camera in a housing relies on the o-rings of that housing to protect it from water. That in turn relies on you the owner to maintain the housing and ensure that the o-rings are clean and undamaged each time you go in the water. This can appear to be somewhat time consuming especially when you are only a diving holiday where you want to relax and maximise your leisure time.

So with that backdrop the idea of camera you can just take in the water with no maintenance and no worry sounds good. But it isn't that simple.

Cameras aren't made magically from solid blocks of metal or plastic. They have multiple parts that have to be put together and that means there are joints and seams in their construction. All of these have to have some form of seal, as do all exterior moving parts such as buttons and levers. Any of these can still fail in much the same way as those seals on a conventional housing from use, age or manufacturing defect. The only risk factor that has been removed is the need for the owner to take any care when using the camera.

But that last statement isn't entirely true. You do still need to take care. Most of these cameras have removable batteries and memory cards. This means they need a battery compartment that can be accessed by the user and this throws in all the risks that a normal camera in a housing has.

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You can make an error and not close it properly. Hair or other debris can get caught across the seal and cause a leak. Or the seal can suffer damage and not function properly. Unfortunately, unlike a camera in a housing where a small leak from a trapped hair will not necessarily result in harm to the camera, a small leak of sea water into a battery compartment will almost always result in severe damage to the camera.

Now some cameras have got around this by not having removable batteries and memory, instead having connectors sealed into the outside of the camera body with just a simple cover. These remove that weak spot but instead introduce other issues. Being able to change batteries is a real advantage on a trip with a lot of time in the water when you won't necessarily be able to recharge between dives. Also memory and batteries do fail which isn't a nice thing to deal with in the middle of a dream trip. Also you need to take care to rinse these connections thoroughly after being in sea water as they can corrode if neglected.

My advice to someone with one of these cameras is to treat the camera body in the same way one would treat a housing. Whenever the battery compartment is open, visually inspect it for debris before closing it up. Make sure the seal and the compartment edges are clean. Always check that the compartment is secure and take pains to protect the locking mechanism from being caught or damaged. Rinse the camera carefully and dry it by hand with lint free towel taking particular care of the lens which can be damaged by water being allowed to dry in the sun on it. Don't leave it languishing unattended in a rinse tank. THE RINSE TANK IS THE GRAVEYARD OF CAMERAS!

You should also make yourself aware of any maintenance schedule in the cameras manual. For example the Olympus TG5 should be returned every year to a dealer for its seals to be changed. If you don't do this and you have a leak after a year any warranty you have won't cover it.

Ideally if you have one of these cameras or plan on getting one and there is an additional underwater housing to go with it, get one. This will give you more reassurance than that of having either a normal camera in a housing or your waterproof camera on its own. 

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A waterproof camera won't necessarily survive a catastrophic housing failure at depth below it is rated to but even a large housing leak shouldn't kill it, if you've looked after it properly.

Bear in mind that the reason why not everyone uses these cameras for underwater photography is that they have their own limitations when it comes to taking pictures. Most have limited modes with few having a full manual mode and very few having sensors as large as the high end compact cameras available with housings. This stems in many cases from the fact that they aren't really aimed at serious photographers. Instead they were conceived as a way of keeping some of the point and shoot camera market from slipping into the hands of the mobile phone manufacturers. The camera makers quite rightly realised that when you run your life through your phone there are some situations where you don't want to use it to take pictures. Whether that be canoeing, sailing, climbing, skiing or snorkelling. 

As phone cameras keep improving, this will hopefully drive the tough camera makers towards the high end compact market. Every year we berate the guys on the Olympus stand at the Photography Show that they need to make the next TG with a bigger sensor and a full manual mode. Then it would probably be our go to camera for customers looking for a compact camera for underwater photography. Until then they are great cameras but just not the top dogs amongst underwater compacts like the 1 inch sensor boys.

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