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scubanut75

Electronic vs. Mechanical Controls

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I've been posting comments regarding whether or not I should purchase a new camera. After much advice, I've decided to purchase a new mini-digital camera. Now, I need to choose a housing.

 

I've been looking at different housings available and I would like feedback on whether to purchase a mechanical or electronic housing. I know someone who uses an Ikelite housing and they like their housing (plus the mechanical housings are less expensive); however, I've spoken with people who like the electronic controls. Any thoughts on the matter would be greatly appreciated.

 

Thanks again for your help!

 

Ryan

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Electronic vs. mechanical controls is very much a religious debate. It's good to see you are thinking of your housing choice before committing to a specific camera. That's the right way to do it.

 

I think for you it's important to decide whether you want a housing optimized for a specific camera or one that can be reused. Electronic controls (within reason) support reuse of a housing as you upgrade cameras.

 

Mechanical controls have a following among pros who use their equipment often and depend on it for their livelihood. They can be fixed in the field where electronics usually cannot. That issue is not important to a vacation shooter IMO.

 

High end housings sometimes have a combination of electronic and mechanical controls since there are limits to what you can do with LANC and infrared.

 

I personally think you should look for housing that best suits you without being too concerned with the type of controls. I use Amphibico housings and like them, never having an electronic control failure. I have had mechanical and electronic control failures in other housings and the Amphibico mechanical controls are hit and miss. I wouldn't hesitate to use an all-mechanical housing if it suited me otherwise. As Ike said in his URL, the quality of you video is basically not effected by where the controls are. Bad ergonomics might lessen your enjoyment of the camera, though.

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That's a pretty partisan view.

 

Here's a non-partisan one from someone who isn't in the business:

 

1. Video cameras are not "worked" like a still camera. Specifically, some controls - most particularly zoom - are often required to be used while the shot is being taken. Yes, its not good to zoom around willy-nilly in video, but at times its important to be able to use it during a shot. A still camera has exactly one button to press at the moment of truth - the shutter. This is not true for video.

 

2. Viewfinder access is a BIG DEAL. Dive with a visible screen and you will understand. This is easy with a still camera or even a still camera in "movie mode", as the screen is on the back. This is NOT simple with a video camera. A housing that is big enough to have the screen open facing backward has two problems - volume (meaning positive buoyancy), and the screen is way forward in the housing. A mirror arrangement can partially solve the problem but not completely do so - especially since Sony started turning off the "reverse" when you turn around and then close the screen! An inverted image is a PAIN IN THE BUTT to use on the viewfinder. "Big eye" viewfinders are a possible solution, but require you to keep the camera up high to be able to line up the viewfinder with your eye, as does, to a large degree, mirror arrangements. I like to swim with it BELOW my body so that I am safely away from the reef/wreck/whatever - this means I need a MONITOR so I can see what I'm shooting.

 

3. I want my "shooting controls" where I can get them without having to take my hand off the grip. These are (1) REC/STBY and (2) Zoom. Ideally I also want manual focus on the grip. The rest can be somewhere else, but those three reallly need to be where I can get to them without having to fiddle-fart around. Mechanical housings have problems with this since the buttons end up wherever they end up - the housing maker has little control over it due to the nature of the beast. It becomes a REAL problem for a video camera as the "shoot" button is USUALLY on the back, and the grip is near the front! How do you put that where I can get it without taking my hand off the grip? Its easy with a still camera, since the shutter is on the front right, where your hand is with a housing anyway - so the lever arrangement works really well. It doesn't nearly as well with a videocam.

 

How many digital camera shooters underwater use the monitor as their primary (or even only!) viewfinder? MOST IF NOT ALL! Yet this is IGNORED for most mechanical housing folks when it comes to video. Why? Cost. The monitor back is expensive and mirrors don't work well since the monitor isn't up against the back of the camera. Ok, so do you want a working solution or half a solution?

 

Both mechanical and digital controls can fail. Designs vary. If mechanical controls fail, your housing floods and your camera is destroyed. If electronic controls fail, provided that the grip part fails you still have a working system - turn it on, put it in record mode, and go dive. The better electronic housings isolate the electronics from the grip with a wetplug or use magnetic switches where there is no penetration in the housing at all - there is no way for a grip failure to screw the housing as there is no path for water to get inside the housing through the wiring.

 

Now you can solve most of the mechanical "issues" with a monitor back. But now you're up near or even past the cost of an electronic housing.

 

Finally, however, you have one serious problem that no mechanical housing can solve - interchangeability. With still cameras we are stuck with this because there is no common command protocol for electronic controls. This is NOT true for video cameras - at least not for Sony cameras.

 

Obsolescence protection is a BIG DEAL, and its one that VERY FEW housing manufacturers pay ANY attention to. You SHOULD, because with the pace of electronics today, the camera I buy tomorrow won't be available - at any price - in a couple of years! Not only could I damage the camera on land (or simply wear it out or have it break out of warranty, and have it be uneconomic to repair) but I could flood underwater, and even with insurance the camera may not be available - but since the housing was not destroyed I will be stuck with a check for the camera and an unusable housing!

 

Ike, this is where you lost when I bought my video camera housing. You didn't lose on the mechanical argument - you lost on the upgrade/replacement path.

 

In short, investment protection.

 

USVH will swap the physical plastic (the actual "housing" portion) for a VERY reasonable cost if I upgrade cameras in the future and the new one doesn't fit. SOME of the cameras I might upgrade to WILL fit though, so I might not even need to spend ANYTHING with them. But even if I do, its reasonable - I was told $300 or so, plus perhaps (depending on the particulars) another $100 worth of labor.

 

With the mechanical housings I throw away the entire investment, and I still need to buy the monitor back - at least I do, for the way I like to shoot.

 

I was FORCED into this paradigm with my still camera, but I'm NOT forced into it with a video camera, and this is one game I won't play unless I have to. I don't have to with the video camera housing options out there today!

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Since I know absolutely zero about video, I may as well throw my two cents in!

 

My wife/dive buddy has a Sony Mini-DV camera, which she shoots underwater in an Ikelite housing. The housing controls are all mechanical and they're very simple to use. The mirror viewfinder works well. Nothing about the housing is complicated, and the housing appears to be very solid and well made. My wife/dive buddy loves the camera and the housing, and she has a ball with it underwater.

 

Jim

:rolleyes:

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It's ultimately true for video as well as still that you need to consider the housing as much as camera itself. The housing is the thing you operate underwater and if you're unhappy with it, you will be unhappy overall regardless of the camera inside.

 

How well a camera and housing work for you is more determined by how well designed the product is than it is mechanical or electronic. For example, I'm quite happy with my Amphibico hybrid controls but my Amphibico Navigator controls were marginal. My Nexus all mechanical housing is a dream but my Light & Motion electronic controls were unreliable and failure-prone. Pros like mechanical controls for reasons that shouldn't impact vacation shooters. The type of controls should be one of several things to consider but not the overriding one.

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That's true Craig, but the investment protection, given what housings cost, is not trivial.

 

Unfortunately the camera manufacturers force us into this, as they change models as fast as Imelda Marcos changed shoes, and the new model(s) NEVER line up exactly as the old one did in terms of where the controls are.

 

This is my one unsolveable gripe with mechanical housings - and no amount of good engineering will ultimately fix it.

 

If you don't mind the concept of throwing away your housing when your camera craps out or you wish to upgrade, then that doesn't matter for you. I find that requirement outrageous and so, for me at least, it IS a big deal.

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I agree that investment protection may be of value to some people. I value housings optimized for cameras, so investment protection isn't my primary concern. I have stayed with Amphibico for 3 generations due to my investment in a wide angle lens, though. That's much like sticking with Aquatica (say) because of the ports.

 

In the end, you decide what is important and make your choice. That won't be the same for everyone. It isn't like you're going to house a VX-2000 or XL-1 with a generic housing, for instance. There will be those that insist on that class of camera. No generic housing will support my JVC HD camera with its lack of electronic controls. Mechanical will be my only option.

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Well, that's true for the JVC, but not for the VX-2000. :D

 

The question often becomes one of where you want to put the dollars and how much you care about part (or all!) of them being "disposable".

 

I can upgrade my existing housing to one that will house a PDX-10 for example, at a reasonable cost. If I had gone mechanical I would have lost the monitor screen (in all probability) and any hope of interchangability. While the former can be fixed with a large application of money, the latter can't.

 

I just don't believe in locking myself into something unless I have to.

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OFF TOPIC FROM ISSUE AT HAND

 

That's a pretty partisan view.

 

Here's a non-partisan one from someone who isn't in the business:

 

nonpartisan

 

adj 1: not affiliated with any one party 2: free from party affiliation or bias

 

Given #2, I'm not sure I'd call that a non-partisan response. It's pretty clear you're biased towards electronic controls. :D

 

Sorry, couldn't resist, just kidding....

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LOL!

 

No, I'm actually not. I own an Ike housing for my Oly5050 and like it.

 

As soon as Ike and the other mechanical housing folks provide me with the balance of protections that I get from the electronic video housings, they'll get more serious consideration from my (in the future, the next time I want or need one, of course.)

 

Unfortunately I suspect that goal is impossible, unless Ike was to simply provide an upgrade path for a nominal cost as a "good will" thing. I have no idea what kind of margin they have in their housings - I suspect they have the "room" to do this, but whether they want to is another matter.

 

My guess is that only market forces would push them in this direction.... after all, why give up the money if you don't have to?

 

Still camera folks are used to the idea that the housing is "locked" the camera. So are SOME video folks. Unfortunately for those who believe in that model (and to whom it is a benefit economically) its being challenged by some of the other players in the marketplace.

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This is not a knock on USVH. I happen to like Warren at USVH.

 

It's typical for generic housings to provide flat ports and recommend internal wide angle adapters. USVH does this. While this works, it's not as good as a true wide angle wet lens. Perhaps generic housing manufacturers (even USVH) can offer this, but the manufacturers that do tend to make housings for specific cameras.

 

Light & Motion makes a semi-generic that uses true wetlenses, but it is not convertable between cameras. Amphibico does not make generics with wetlens and neither does Gates. If there is such a product, I'd be interested in knowing.

 

I bring this up as one example of how a person may choose a dedicated housing over a generic one. It's basically a truism that the highest performance housing/camera combinations will be dedicated designs. Whether a given users values a specific capability over housing reuse is a matter of personal choice. I happen to value the ability to use my 100 degree lens with future housings far more than the housings themselves. I paid twice as much for that lens as for any housing I've owned so it makes sense.

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Well I do understand the point vis-a-vis wet lenses, and that you can get a "better" wide-angle conversion thsi way (and more field of view.)

 

That is one solid - and real - argument - but are you SURE your lenses will work on the next housing? What if the external diameter changes on you? :D

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No. In fact I expect it won't since I want to house the JVC and Amphibico won't be doing it. I got three generations with the lens and now I will have to start over.

 

In fact, the VX-2000 was very difficult to make work with the lens and led to some unacceptable compromises for some customers. Preserving a lens investment is not certain over time.

 

At this point it's likely I'll switch to Gates since they have the JVC housing. Gates offers a similar lens at a considerable price. Hopefully that lens will be carried through their line for a while, too.

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do you have pictures showing the difference between the wide angle lens and the flat port? After listening to this discussion this seems like something worthwhile...even Genesis had to agree... Any help would be appreciated.

 

Thanks!

 

Ryan

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Here is a link to a discussion of underwater optics by Pawel Achtel:

 

http://www.aliensofthesea.com/HDTV/optics.htm

 

Pawel shoots HD video underwater and makes his own housings and lighting systems for his work. Half way down his article you'll see a discussion of pincushion distortion that occurs when a wide angle lens is used behind a flat port.

 

Pawel concludes that a dome is necessary but he is not considering a true wet lens as an option. It isn't an option for him, of course.

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Pincushion distortion depends largely on HOW wide of an angle lens you're using.

 

I can't detect it in my video, and I shoot enough stuff that fills the frame and has straight lines that if it was happening I'd notice it. Its VERY noticable if you know what you're looking for - and I do :lol:

 

I suspect that for most of the flat-port systems its not an issue. If you want to run extreme wide-angle, then it certainly is an issue.

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Pawel says flat ports should not be used on lenses with FOV over 60 degrees. That's a 35mm equivalent focal length of 37.5mm roughly. Most consumer video cameras have about a 60 degree FOV at their widest end so a flat port is barely suitable. Using a .5x wide adapter introduces significant distortion yet that's just what some manufacturers do.

 

Additionally, flat ports narrow the field of view underwater making wide angle adapters necessary in the first place. The amount of narrowing increases at wide angles. A 180 degree FOV lens would be limited to about 100 degrees through a flat port (if such a system were possible). In reality, the best you can get is much less than 100 degrees.

 

Finally, there is optical distortion. In addition to pincushion that Pawel discussed, flat ports introduce chromatic aberrations (CA) due to the unbalanced diffraction at the air and water interfaces. For low resolution formats like video this CA may not be a problem but it is there and I sometimes correct it in my still macro shots.

 

The standard alternative is a dome port. Domes introduce no optical distortions, CA or pincushion, and provide no apparent magnification. The downside of domes is that they can be hard to set up, require supplementary diopters, and don't allow much zoom-though.

 

Wetlenses provide the best of both worlds. They can be optically perfect, can offer various wide angle conversion ratios, allow close focus and full zoom through. They are more expensive, though. Mine offers a 100 degree field of view. Others offer as much as 110-115 degrees.

 

It may be true that pincushion distortion depends on how wide the view is, but 60 degrees before the port is not wide by anyone's definition. Accepting the 35mm defintion of > 65 degrees, no flat port delivers wide angle without distortion.

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The question becomes one of when the distortion become noticable in a video.

 

Certainly, the standard for still photography is higher, if only because there's no motion :lol:

 

Wet lenses are an option, but they're god-awful expensive. Certainly an option, but then you really are "married" to the entire package (camera/housing/lenses) most of the time - more so than you would be otherwise.

 

Its all a trade-off thing... :D

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That is true. You have to consider how wide you want to go as well.

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