Underwater Camera Shootout

If you're heading to the beach this winter, you might want to pack the Pentax Optio W20 or the Olympus Stylus 720SW in your beach bag to capture your underwater adventures.

Underwater-Camera-Shootout
Underwater-Camera-Shootout

Underwater Camera Shootout27075121577PentaxOptio W20If your upcoming travel plans include a tropical escape aboard a cruise ship or whiling away an afternoon on an azure beach on some speck of land in the Caribbean, you're in luck. Not just because you're going to be working on your tan while everyone else is bundled up for winter, but because Pentax and Olympus have now put underwater digital photography within everyone's reach. With competing 7-megapixel 3x zoom compact digicams that can handle a snorkeling adventure right out of the box without any additional housings, you might want to consider packing either the Pentax Optio W20 or Olympus Stylus 720SW in your beach bag to capture your underwater adventures. There's nothing on either camera that jumps right out and says "we're waterproof" in a dramatic manner, but if you look close, certain design elements -- such as locking battery compartments and rubberized control buttons -- hint at the secret life of these cameras. The 7.1MP 3x zoom (38-114mm equivalent) Stylus 720SW ($300, street) is Olympus's first dive into the underwater realm. With a compact, shockproof build that's submersible up to 10 feet, the 720SW doubles the depth rating of Pentax's 4th generation aquacam, the 7.0MP 3x zoom (38-114mm equivalent) Pentax Optio W20 ($250, street), which upgrades circuitry, processing and megapixels of its predecessor, the 6MP W10. So does the deeper-diving Olympus upstart have what it takes to unseat the Pentax Optio W20 as the king of the seas?Underwater Camera Shootout225765OlympusStylus 720SWIf your upcoming travel plans include a tropical escape aboard a cruise ship or whiling away an afternoon on an azure beach on some speck of land in the Caribbean, you're in luck. Not just because you're going to be working on your tan while everyone else is bundled up for winter, but because Pentax and Olympus have now put underwater digital photography within everyone's reach. With competing 7-megapixel 3x zoom compact digicams that can handle a snorkeling adventure right out of the box without any additional housings, you might want to consider packing either the Pentax Optio W20 or Olympus Stylus 720SW in your beach bag to capture your underwater adventures. There's nothing on either camera that jumps right out and says "we're waterproof" in a dramatic manner, but if you look close, certain design elements -- such as locking battery compartments and rubberized control buttons -- hint at the secret life of these cameras. The 7.1MP 3x zoom (38-114mm equivalent) Stylus 720SW ($300, street) is Olympus's first dive into the underwater realm. With a compact, shockproof build that's submersible up to 10 feet, the 720SW doubles the depth rating of Pentax's 4th generation aquacam, the 7.0MP 3x zoom (38-114mm equivalent) Pentax Optio W20 ($250, street), which upgrades circuitry, processing and megapixels of its predecessor, the 6MP W10. So does the deeper-diving Olympus upstart have what it takes to unseat the Pentax Optio W20 as the king of the seas?

If your upcoming travel plans include a tropical escape aboard a cruise ship or whiling away an afternoon on an azure beach on some speck of land in the Caribbean, you're in luck. Not just because you're going to be working on your tan while everyone else is bundled up for winter, but because Pentax and Olympus have now put underwater digital photography within everyone's reach.

With competing 7-megapixel 3x zoom compact digicams that can handle a snorkeling adventure right out of the box without any additional housings, you might want to consider packing either the Pentax Optio W20 or Olympus Stylus 720SW in your beach bag to capture your underwater adventures.

There's nothing on either camera that jumps right out and says "we're waterproof" in a dramatic manner, but if you look close, certain design elements -- such as locking battery compartments and rubberized control buttons -- hint at the secret life of these cameras.

The 7.1MP 3x zoom (38-114mm equivalent) Stylus 720SW ($300, street) is Olympus's first dive into the underwater realm. With a compact, shockproof build that's submersible up to 10 feet, the 720SW doubles the depth rating of Pentax's 4th generation aquacam, the 7.0MP 3x zoom (38-114mm equivalent) Pentax Optio W20 ($250, street), which upgrades circuitry, processing and megapixels of its predecessor, the 6MP W10.

So does the deeper-diving Olympus upstart have what it takes to unseat the Pentax Optio W20 as the king of the seas?

Read on to see how these cameras compare in Hands On Feel, Settings and Control, Video Performance, Playback Modes, Camera Navigation, Certified Test Results, or just jump to the end to see which camera is the true King of the Seas.

Pentax Optio W20

What's Hot:
Higher quality video mode of 30fps at 640x480
Waterproof to 5 feet for 30 minutes
In-water ergonomics

What's Not:
High ISO noise and resolution
"Underwater modes" simply add blue cast

Click here for a gallery of images of the Pentax Optio W20
Click here for a gallery of images taken by the Pentax Optio W20

Olympus Stylus 720SW

What's Hot:
Waterproof to 10 feet for 60 minutes
Shockproof enough to handle drops of up to 5 feet
Truly useful underwater shooting modes

What's Not:
High ISO noise and Resolution
Small, slow video mode of 15fps at 320x240
Confusing menu navigation

Click here for a gallery of images of the Olympus Stylus 720SW
Click here for a gallery of images taken by the Olympus Stylus 720SW

We've run the cameras through the Pop Photo lab, and pulled the hard data about their image quality performance, but that wasn't enough. These cameras demanded a field test to see how they handled in the real, wet, world. Somewhere warm, somewhere tropical, with palm trees and brightly colored fish, somewhere like the Bahamas.

For this head-to-head test, we're comparing both the lab performance and the shooting experience on-land and, most importantly, underwater.

In the lab, the cameras were class-competitive, without setting any performance records. The Olympus Stylus 720SW scores better in color accuracy, with an Excellent rating, while the Pentax Optio W20 comes in at Extremely High. At ISO 64 and 100, both cameras post similar Noise numbers in the Moderately Low range. At ISO 200, the Pentax stays Moderately Low, while the Olympus jumps up to Moderate, and both cameras get up into the High/Unacceptable range at ISO 400 and beyond. Analyzing the numbers, it is clear that the Olympus employs a blur filter to contain noise constantly at higher ISOs, while the Pentax has a user-selectable "Blur Reduction mode" which will reduce noise and blurred edges by cranking up the ISO, and ironically, employing a blur filter to minimize noise in this "Blur Reduction mode." (We were unable to get meaningful data about the Pentax's Blur Reduction mode within our testing methods.)

At ISO 64, both cameras score Extremely High in resolution, with the Olympus having a slight edge at 1640, compare with the Pentax's 1565. At ISO 400, both cameras score Very High, with Pentax holding a slight advantage at 1410, to the Olympus's 1340. At ISO 1600, both cameras lose a good deal of resolving power, with the Olympus staying just this side of Acceptable at 1130, while the Pentax scores 50 points lower, dipping into Unacceptable territory at 1070.

Due partly to the use of sealed, internal, non-protruding lens designs, both cameras exhibit visible wide-angle distortion at 1x, and both show slight pincushion at 2x and 3x. Underwater, in a world of organic shapes and forms, these lens imperfections are very minor; however, on dry land, both will show a little bit of smiling and frowning horizons, which get more pronounced the further away from center the straight lines are in the frame. It's not a fatal flaw with either camera, just something to be aware of when framing images with straight-line elements.

So no camera really blows the other out of the water in lab performance, but what about the real-world experience?

We're going to look at the camera's ergonomics, menu design, shooting modes, video, playback features, price, and underwater shooting experiences to pick a winner in PopPhoto.com's first underwater digicam shoot-out.

At 2.1 x 4.2 x 0.9 inches, the Pentax Optio W20 is slightly longer, not quite as tall, and a bit more thick than the 2.3 x 3.6 x .08 inch Olympus 720SW. Both cameras have 2.5-inch LCDs for both framing and playback, with no optical viewfinder option. The Pentax's internal focusing lens is centered in the middle of the front of the camera, while Olympus goes with the upper right corner design for its non-protruding lens (upper right when facing the front of the camera, that is). In the water, and even on dry land, Pentax's centered lens placement works better, because it is easy to get finger intrusion into the frame with the Olympus when holding the 720SW with both hands for stability. Additionally, the flash on the Olympus is located just to the left underneath the shutter button, and it is easy (especially for a person with big hands) to accidentally cover part of the strobe while shooting.

On closer inspection, the Olympus looks rugged after all. It's not only waterproof up to 10 feet; it's also shockproof and can handle a drop or two with no damage. Three small hex bolts on the front of the unit hint at the camera's toughness. This is one rugged and solidly built camera. All the buttons are water-sealed and have a satisfying amount of resistance without feeling sticky or overly damped. But until you get a proper feel for the camera it can be difficult to determine whether the slim shutter button is engaged at half-press for focusing without pressing all the way for capture. To the right of the LCD are the control buttons. Two small buttons behind the shutter that act like a toggle switch for wide and telephoto focusing select focal distance. Beneath the zoom toggles are two tiny buttons. The top controls the camera's shooting mode program, digital anti-shake, or scene modes. The lower switches the camera into playback mode. To the right of these is the speaker grill.

Below these buttons is the smaller-than-a-dime multi-controller array, which controls many different functions depending on shooting or playback mode. The silver-on-silver etched function symbols can be difficult to see, particularly underwater. Below the multi-controller are two more tiny buttons which call up the menu or for direct-from-camera printing. Changing settings on this camera underwater can be a challenge due to the small buttons and multi-controller.

The Pentax, on the other hand, has a wider shutter button that has a better finger-feel at half-focus. Opposite the Olympus, the Pentax has a true toggler for zooming, but splits its multi-button array into five distinct, and slightly more spread out, clear rubberized buttons with black icons beneath the rubber seal. Above the array to the left is the Green Mode (all-auto shooting) and playback button, and below to the left is the menu button. Due to the larger rubbery buttons on the multi-controller, it is easier to switch camera settings and modes while swimming with the Pentax, which is a good thing because Pentax has buried some useful image quality settings such as exposure compensation and ISO speed deep in the menus.

Both cameras are compact enough to not impede swimming when held in the hand, and care should always be taken when handling the cameras in the water; neither floats, so be sure to use the supplied wrist straps.

Neither camera has an optical viewfinder, so the similarly sized 2.5-inch LCDs are the only framing option. While both have brightness controls to gain up the screen, it can be a challenge to see the LCD in the best snorkeling conditions -- when the sun is high and shining down on the water. With both cameras, there are times when the best thing to do is to eyeball your subject with the camera held at arm's length and try to take as many shots as possible, hoping that at least one turns out OK.

As for dedicated underwater modes, Olympus bests Pentax. On the still side, Pentax has a single "Underwater" mode, which simply adds a bluish cast to images without optimizing shooting performance for aquatic conditions. While the Underwater mode might make a shot in a swimming pool more oceanic, we recommend against using the Underwater mode of the Pentax Optio W20 while in the real seas. If the water is exceptionally clear the colors of the sea life will appear much more vivid in Auto White Balance settings. And even if the water is exceptionally clear, as distance from the camera increases, the light refracting properties of the water will naturally add a blue-green tint to your images. We strongly suggest using either Sports mode or Program with Pan Focusing for underwater shooting with the Pentax Optio W20, set to Auto White Balance. If you can get really close to still subjects, consider macro focusing, again on Program, with Auto White Balance.

The Olympus has four still Underwater Modes: Underwater Wide 1, Underwater Wide 2, Underwater Macro, and Underwater Snapshot. Strangely, all but the last mode are described as requiring an underwater housing, although this camera is depth-rated to three meters (10 feet), as is described in the Underwater Snapshot mode. The descriptions of these modes, which appear onscreen after a few seconds of scrolling to one or the next, are a bit strange. Underwater Wide 1 is ideal for "underwater landscapes" (seascapes?), Underwater Wide 2 locks focus ∞ for shutter priority shooting, Underwater Macro is obviously for macro modes, and Underwater Snapshot is for taking photos "at the beach or in the pool." There's no tint, hue or casting applied to the image in any of these modes, and white balancing can be selected manually or automatically in any of these shooting modes. We strongly suggest Auto White Balancing, based on this camera's excellent performance at Auto White Balancing.

With both cameras set to Auto White Balancing, we suggest using the "Auto" button in Adobe Photoshop CS2 and Photoshop Elements Levels or Curves commands to quickly remove the natural blue casting and to replicate the underwater world and it appears to the human eye.

On the video side, Pentax has a dedicated Underwater Movie mode, which again simply adds a blue cast. This may be fun for the pool, but skip it elsewhere. You're more likely to get good results with the basic movie mode instead. The Olympus only has one movie mode, but as the sample videos show, there was no shortage of blues in the water for either camera to pick up, and when the water is exceptionally clear, you will want this clarity reflected in your movies, as well.

Yes, PopPhoto.com is primarily interested in still photography performance, but we are weighing video performance much more heavily than usual in this head-to-head. Why?

Video provides a much more (bad pun alert) immersive experience of the underwater realm, and allows for capturing the movement and motion of shoals of small fish much better than single still images do, which are most often blurred because of the difficulty of achieving focus on small, speedy subjects that are very close to the camera (any camera, that is). Still underwater images offer a glimpse into another world, but video transports you there, providing motion, sounds, and a sense of being among the schools of fish, hovering over rocks and coral, and seeing a clown fish dart across the frame.

The Pentax Optio W20 outperforms the Olympus Stylus 720SW in video capture by a wide margin. The maximum video capture rate of the Olympus is slow and small by current standards: 320x240 pixels at 15 frames per second, with monaural sound. There is no zoom while recording, but you can record at any pre-selected focal length. The one advantage to the small and slow video mode is that it takes up significantly less memory to capture the scene to the xD memory card; but honestly, we'd rather pack a bigger memory card (or more small ones) and capture higher pixel-count video at a higher frame rate, because even at full image quality with no compression applied to the Olympus's video, fast motion can appear jagged and choppy.

The Pentax Optio W20 captures video at 640x480 pixels at 30 frames per second, producing bigger, smoother video capture. Like the Olympus, there is no zoom while recording, and audio is monaural via the built-in microphone. Video capture on the Pentax gobbles up free card space quickly, so if you plan to shoot tons of video on location, bring extra SD cards!

It should be mentioned that neither camera has great audio quality. You'll get a feel for the underwater world with the sound, but the calypso band at the resort won't sound all that great with either of these cameras.

Neither camera lights the world on fire in burst mode. The Olympus will fire off four shots in rapid succession (just over 1.5 seconds) without flash, before stalling. Even with the shutter button still depressed, that's it; it will not resume capture after buffering. It will also burst four shots with strobe, which slows it down considerably, to eight seconds total, focusing on a subject about three feet from the camera. There's also a High Speed Burst mode, which will fire off shots without strobe at a dizzying three frames per second for quite a long while; not as impressive a feat when you realize it is only capturing three megapixels!

Pentax also employs this resolution-dropping high-speed burst mode to capture six frames in just over two seconds before stalling out. Considering that both cameras are only utilizing about 40% of their available pixels, neither statistic is very impressive. Resolution-drop to increase burst rate falls into the same category as Digital Zoom -- a neat programming trick to boost performance on white paper spec sheets, but which lead to disappointing image quality results on photo paper.

At full 7-megapixel quality, the W20 will fire off shots continuously without strobe, at a rate of just about one image every two seconds until the card is filled. There is no burst mode with flash to speak of.

Are a handful of shots in rapid succession better than a ton of shots at a slower rate? We're on the fence as to which is better, as both can be useful depending on the situation.

In program mode, normal focus range, the Pentax Optio W20 is faster at achieving focus, and the Olympus feels sluggish even under ideal conditions. This is even more noticeable in lower light and in scenes lacking extremely dramatic contrast.

The Pentax also includes an interval shot mode, which can be set to record images at a set interval, from 10 seconds to 99 minutes, up to hundreds and hundreds of images, with an offset timer for when to begin shooting. For time-lapse imaging and videos, this is an excellent built-in feature. For compositing the shots into video, the capture resolution can be set to smaller pixel sizes, both to conserve memory card space, and because video does not require massive megapixels for screen display.

On the Playback side, both cameras have some cool extras. The Olympus has slideshow mode, with canned music, redeye fix, resizing, black and white conversion, along with sepiatoning, some silly frames that can be added to images, postcard-like font effects which can be superimposed on the images, brightness and saturation adjustments, and the very interesting Calendar feature, which takes selected images and adds a calendar template around them. You choose the image and the month and you've got a personalized calendar.

There is also Calendar display, which isn't the same thing as calendar creation. This playback mode groups photos by date of capture on a monthly display, which is handy for remembering which day you shot which images.

The Pentax also has a slideshow with transition and sound effects. There's a resize and crop option, photo filter effects for warming up, cooling down, sepiatoning and grayscale conversion, along with a "fisheye" filter, which is funny, considering the lens has a good bit of barrel distortion at wide angle anyways. Movie edit can pull a frame and convert it to a still image, split videos, and combine videos. Pentax also has its share of silly picture frames, redeye fix, and voice annotation.

Two built-in functions of playback mode are great extras that more cameras should incorporate: Image/Sound Copy, which allows the user to swap data between the internal memory and the removable SD card without having to hook and dump and reimport tethered to a computer, and Image Recovery, for rescuing images which were accidentally deleted.

In playback mode, the Olympus is noticeably slow when scrolling between shots -- longer than a second between each shot. The Pentax, while not instantaneous, throws a low-resolution image up first, which is quickly overwritten with the full-quality preview, and does both of these operations faster than the Olympus can scroll from one image to the next.

Both cameras, due to their superslim designs, use proprietary Li-Ion rechargeable batteries, which charge independently of the camera via supplied battery chargers. Also, because of the weatherproofing, there is no docking station with either camera, since this would necessitate more locking compartments to ensure seaworthiness.

On the subject of locking doors for waterproofing, the Olympus employs a smarter, one-touch system which seals the camera shut. To open the xD/battery compartment, just unclip the lock and the door swings open. The Pentax, on the other hand, has a two-step process for weathersealing. On land, it's not necessary to activate the lock mechanism, but the two-step design makes it much easier to accidentally forget to fully seal the camera prior to a swim, since there's little more than a tiny orange flash of color inside the lock switch to indicate if it is fully or only partially sealed.

Neither camera's menu system logic and layout is perfect, but the Olympus 720SW deserves a special award for obfuscation with its extremely confusing configuration. Tapping the Menu Button, which brings you to a screen with Camera Menu as the default-highlighted item, can change image settings. Tap Set/Func in the middle of the multi-button array to arrive at a screen to adjust ISO, White Balance, and so on, and a submenu screen pops up to make image setting adjustments. Then you can click through and make changes to these settings, but Set/Func doesn't bring you back to shooting mode after making an image setting adjustment from the Camera Menu, Instead, it toggles back and forth between the main menu and the specific adjustment menu screen. Menu brings you back to shooting, though, and menu must be tapped once for each level of submenu you are in to get back to shooting, which is just plain odd.

To add to the weirdness, pressing the Set/OK button first while in shooting mode brings up a similar command set for adjusting white balance, ISO, Drive Mode, etc., which is overlaid on the live preview. You must make your selection, then click Set/OK to return to shooting. Menu does nothing here.

Furthermore, while in Scene shooting mode, tapping the Menu button will bring up that Menu screen and pushing the down/timer button on the multi-controller will allow you to change scene modes, but only if you are already shooting in Scene Mode. After scrolling through and selecting a Scene Mode, tapping Set/Func sets the mode and returns the camera to live preview mode. Menu brings you back to the screen where you can choose Scene, Camera Menu, Image Quality and Setup. Tapping Menu again will return you to shooting without having changed your Scene mode.

On the other hand, if you are in Program or Anti-shake shooting mode, the Scene Mode command is grayed back via the Menu button command path. Meanwhile, if you are in Scene mode and in shooting preview, tapping the P/anti-shake/SCN button will toggle you through the other two modes before getting you back to the SCENE setting, to change from one Scene mode to another.

Confusing, isn't it? Try figuring this out a couple of hundred yards offshore!

Straight out of the box, the biggest flaw with the Pentax menu layout is that White Balance, ISO, and Exposure Compensation are not top-level commands. You've got to change these via the Menu button, which brings up the Image Quality screen. ISO and Exposure Compensation, two very frequent adjustments, are deep on this list. However, under the Set-up menu Green Button options, these three controls, along with others including image size, focusing area, and metering can be made into quick commands accessible while shooting via the Green button. Up to four of these image quality adjustments can be assigned to the Green button, which will then toggle through your assigned functions.

While shooting, Down/Mode on the multi-button array is a one-touch operation to get to the Scene modes screen, and you can navigate the display on two axes, either vertically or horizontally to more speedily jump from one scene setting to another. It's a long, single axis scroll on the Olympus to get through the list of modes.

Pentax Optio W20:

Noise: Low at ISO 64 (1.9) and ISO 100 (1.9), Moderately Low at ISO 200 (2.2), High/Unacceptable at ISO 400 (3.1), ISO 800 (4.4) and ISO 1600 (7.1)

Color: Extremely High. Average Delta E: 9.19, ISO 64 Auto White Balanced

Resolution: Extremely High at ISO 64 (1565) Very High at ISO 400 (1410), Unacceptable at ISO 1600 (1070).

Lens Distortion: Visible Barrel distortion at 1x (.52%), Slight Pincushion at 2x (.17%), Slight Pincushion at 3x (.30%)

Dimensions: 2.1 x 4.2x 0.9 inches

Weight: approx 5.3 oz with battery and SD card.

Street: $250

Website: www.h20camera.com

Olympus 720SW

Noise: Moderately Low at ISO 64 (1.9) and 100 (2.1) Moderate at ISO 200 (2.6), High/Unacceptable at ISO 400 (3.4), ISO 800 (3.3) and ISO 1600 (4.3)

Color: Excellent. Average Delta E: 7.76 ISO 64 Auto White Balance

Resolution: Extremely High at ISO 64 (1640) Very High at ISO 400 (1340), Acceptable at ISO 1600 (1130)

Distortion: Visible Barrel Distortion at 1x (.52%), Slight Pincushion at 2x (.24%) and Slight Pincushion at 3x (.16%)

Dimensions: 2.3 x 3.6 x .08 inches

Weight: Approx 5.8 oz with battery and xD card

Street: $300

Website: www.olympusamerica.com

And the Winner of the Underwater Shootout Is...

The Pentax Optio W20, hands-down. The combination of lower street price, larger video capture, low ISO image quality, and most importantly, ease of use in the water make the Pentax Optio W20 the winner of PopPhoto.com's first underwater digicam shootout.

The Olympus 720SW has its charms, and brings some very interesting features to the table, such as truly useful underwater shooting modes, along with a greater depth rating and shock-proofing. But the shortcomings of this camera, particularly the small and slow video, slow processing and focusing speeds, combined with an extremely confusing menu and navigation scheme, all at a higher street price than the Pentax Optio W20, means that the upstart Olympus just doesn't bring enough to unseat Pentax as the King of the Seas.

Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax Optio W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax Optio W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax Optio W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax Optio W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax-Optio-W20
Pentax Optio W20
ADVERTISEMENT