It is no secret that the market for new cameras is in free fall. The advent of smartphones with credible cameras built in has completely destroyed the market for compact cameras, which were the life blood that all the manufacturers relied on. SLR and mirrorless camera sales are stagnant, and this has seriously damaged the commercial viability of many big names.
One of the results of this is that manufacturers have started to target committed photographers with very high performance compact cameras. Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Olympus and Fuji have all introduced cameras that have relatively large sensors and features that are often associated with SLRs. The sensors allow for both a higher image quality (IQ) and improved low-light performance over what has been previously been possible with a compact camera.
For underwater image makers, these cameras provide many potential benefits.
Canon PowerShot G7X
Canon introduced the PowerShot G7 X in late 2014, and in many ways the camera offered the first credible alternative to the Sony RX100 series. It features a 1”-type, 20MP BSI sensor (probably from Sony) mated to an F1.8-2.8 zoom starting at 24mm and zooming out to 100mm (equivalent). The combination of large sensor and bright lens offers potentially significant IQ advantages. DPReview notes that Canon has managed to produce one of the brightest lenses available on a compact.
For underwater use, control layout is important. The G7 X has a lens ring, mode/exposure compensation dial, main rear command dial and less usefully in a housing, a touchscreen. In addition, there are push buttons for on/off, shutter release, ring function, video record, playback, function (within the command dial) and menu. The four axes of the command dial also offer shortcuts to drive mode, macro, flash and display. The camera offers some customization of these controls. Perhaps most crucially, the front lens dial (which has “click” adjustment) can be set to control either aperture or shutter speed in manual mode, with the main rear dial controlling the other. Significantly, this means that in order to expose images manually, your housing must have access to both.
ISO range is from 125-12800, as you would expect with a larger sensor. Practically, anything above 3200 produces some pretty nasty false color noise. The camera is equipped with a built-in pop-up flash. Recycle times vary from 1.7s at low power to over 5s for full power.
It can shoot video with a top resolution of 1080/60p using the MP4 format, with a bit rate of 34Mbps. Lower resolutions include 1080/30p, 720/30, and VGA and there is no 24p option.
Autofocus (AF) is via a contrast based system only. This method limits both AF speed and accuracy. Manual focus is possible.
Canon do not list a drive speed for continuous shooting in RAW, but give a speed of 6.3 fps for JPEG. In use, I found that in continuous AF mode, the camera managed less than 1 fps. The good news was that the buffer did not fill at this speed!
Canon lists a battery life of just 210 images.
Fantasea FG7X housing
Fantasea has been offering injection moulded polycarbonate housings for popular compact cameras for some time. Many of the manufacturer supplied housings (in this case the Canon WP-DC54) are limited in terms of control access and hence may not allow users to use some crucial modes or functions. Fantasea’s housings provide full access to all camera controls and each button is clearly labelled.
Other features include a depth rating of 60m (100ft), with a dual O ring seal. It is supplied with a removable fiber optic port plate compatible with L type cables and a flash diffuser for use if the camera’s internal flash is being used to light subjects. Other included accessories include an LCD hood, an audible and visual moisture detector, a lens port cover and a hand strap. The housing is integrated into Fantasea’s range of wide-angle and macro conversion lenses, as well as their lighting products.
The housing features a reinforced cold shoe for the attachment of ancillary items onto the housing, as well as three tripod mounting threaded holes on its base, allowing the use of trays for mounting lighting.
Quoted size and weight specifications are:
- Weight (with camera on land): 1.025 kg / 2.26 lb
- Weight (without camera on land): 0.725 kg / 1.6 lb
- Dimensions (without accessories): 16 x 11 x 12.5 cm \ 6.3 x 4.33 x 4.92 inches (W x D x H)
Fantasea kindly supplied their FG7X housing, a PowerShot G7 X camera and their BigEye wide angle conversion lens. I took these with me for the Wetpixel Whale Shark expedition to the aggregation at Isla Mujeres, and was able to use them extensively over the three weeks that I was there.
The housing is supplied with a large number of accessories as standard, including a hand strap, neoprene port cover and an LCD shade.
Installing the camera in the housing is very easy, with it sitting very firmly and precisely on rubber bumpers. The only minor complication is that the mode dial control need raising in order to slip the camera’s dial in. The housing has a double O ring, a static face type compression seal on the housing body, and a wiper seal on the door itself. Neither seal is visible once the housing is closed, so it is important to check the door seal’s alignment as it slides home.
The BigEye wide angle converter snaps on to the front of the housing securely although it does have a lanyard attachment and a lanyard supplied in case it is inadvertently knocked off. In order to use the lens, the camera must be set to macro mode, to enable its close focusing ability. Of course, it is important to remember this when the lens is removed! The BigEye is supplied with a neoprene protective cover and a dome shade to reduce flare.
As with all conversion lenses, the user must be very aware of any bubbles that may be lodged between the housing and the lens. It is crucial to remove the lens after entering the water and after any time that the housing and lens are removed from the water.
All the camera controls are easy to access and the labelling makes it easy to figure out which control to use. The twist control to allow the use of the rear main dial is very intuitive, and the control for the front lens dial falls easily to hand. My only small concern about the controls is that the shutter release is a little small and not always obvious. Although not used for this review, the housing also provides access to the “flash up” switch. It cannot be retracted but flash output can be switched off via the flash button.
Once installed, I found the hand strap to be a great accessory, and found that it was not necessary to grip the housing as tightly when it was attached. The only down side to this is that the strap attaches over the housing latch and it is necessary to remove it prior to opening it. As the strap is fabric, it tends to retain some moisture, which needs careful management to avoid it entering the housing once it is open. The best solution is to remove it entirely when opening and closing the housing, but this is a little tedious.
The housing is slightly negative (in sea water) but only very slightly. With the BigEye wide angle conversion lens, it is slightly positive. In-water handling is good and I found it responsive and
Returning to the housing I have pretty average sized hands, and had no issue with holding or accessing the housing. I did lend the housing to Charisa Gowan, who has smaller hands and she noted that it was not as easy for her to hold it. As is often the case, it is worth trying out housings for feel and size in a retailer before purchasing.
This becomes fairly significant as the camera’s battery life was very limited. It frequently did not last a full snorkelling session. Although it is rated to produce 2010 images, the reality is that this is probably between 100 and 150 in the field. When the action was fast, this meant that it frequently ran out of power.
Whilst on the subject of action, the continuous shooting rate in RAW is a major issue. At less than 1 fps, the camera is too slow to capture any fast moving creatures reliably.
Image quality is acceptable, but not as exciting as you might believe given some of the reviews that it has received. I also found the AF accuracy was disappointing.
Video performance was acceptable. Subjectively, I did not miss the 24p option. Unfortunately, HD is now starting to seem a bit dated with the number of 4K capable options becoming available.
Coming from an SLR background, I have become accustomed to having a vacuum leak detection system to provide confirmation that my O ring checks and procedures have been as thorough as they should have been. Whilst the FG7X does not have a vacuum (and fitting one would be complicated), it is significant that it is supplied with a visual and audible leak detector as standard. This provides some peace of mind that if a leak is to occur, it will be quickly noticed.
The Fantasea FG7X perfectly bridges the gap between the Canon housing and more expensive aluminum models. It has good ergonomics and is feature rich, particularly as it is supplied with a wide range of accessories. It is also compatible with a wide range of optical conversion and lighting products. The housing feels nimble and responsive, whilst still having access to all camera functions. I enjoyed using it. It is priced competitively, and offers great value for those that want a significantly better housing than the Canon version.
It seems robust, solid and well-made and should last for many seasons.
I was disappointed by the G7X’s performance. I felt that as a “high-performance” compact, it lagged behind similar cameras from Sony and Panasonic.
I am excited at the announcement of a Fantasea housing for the Sony RX100 IV.
The Fantasea FG7X is available from dealers worldwide or from Fantasea direct. It is priced at around $500.
Fantasea loaned the reviewer the camera, housing and accessories for this review. Many thanks to Howard Rosenstein for arranging this.