Dead Tools

Olympus Stylus 720 SW


Modest digital underwater camera

I’m delighted with this relatively inexpensive underwater digital camera. Good for submarining 10 feet deep, it’s perfect for snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, and water sports. If you are serious about underwater photography at scuba depths, this is not for you. This camera is more comparable to those one-time plastic-housed underwater film cameras we’ve used in the past. But being digital it has many advantages over those. First, you can see what you got (or missed) immediately. Second, you can fit several hundreds of shots in a session instead of film’s 27 frames. Thirdly, you can quickly upload, share, manipulate, or print what you capture.

It’s important to maintain low expectations when you photograph underwater. The light is dim, everything is in constant motion, including you, and it’s hard to see the camera with a mask on. All the more reason you need to take lots of shots. The teeny-tiny flash on this camera is not enough to overcome some of those limitations. But as you can see from these photos I took on a recent trip to the Mayan Coast in Mexico, this $300 camera does a serviceable job.

The camera is quiet small and slim; it fits into a shirt pocket. Its unobtrusive waterproof seals seemed to work fine, much to my amazement. One downside is the non-standard Olympus memory card it uses; I’d rather recycle the many standard SD cards I already have. Since it has a very impressive 7.1 megapixels and a 3x optical zoom (very nice) this camera could, in theory, be used as your all-around digital camera on dry land (and it is sold that way), but I found its very sluggish refresh rate (perhaps due to the large memory card I was using) and very tiny controls to be annoying. But deep in the wet realm these annoyances are tolerable in exchange for an easy and reliable way to take underwater pictures, and as a camera I don’t mind taking on a kayak or surfboard, or a dunk in the lake.

You can buy sophisticated and bulky underwater housing for some popular digital cameras like the Canon Powershots and Nikon Coolpix, but these cases — while allowing you to go deeper — can cost nearly as much as the Olympus 720. (Pentax makes the Optio W20, a similar camera, rated at only 5 feet deep, but using SD cards, which I have not tried, but others like.) For me this tiny clam is the cheapest way to digitally photograph underwater at shallow depths.

-- KK 01/11/07