The Only Digital Camera Swim Mask: Field Test

Hammacher Schlemmer's safety yellow snorkel mask has a built-in camera for 5 megapixel stills and 20 frames per second VGA video.

The-Only-Digital-Camera-Swim-Mask-Field-Test
The-Only-Digital-Camera-Swim-Mask-Field-Test

We've all done it -- flipped through SkyMall to distract our minds during a ground delay -- and imagined just how much better our lives would be with the Pop-up hot dog toaster, how our aging pooches would love us more if we only got them the deluxe doggy stairs to fur up the bed without stressing their aging hips, and wished there was a way to overnight the The Only Digital Camera Swim Mask (Street: $99) by Liquid Image from Hammacher Schlemmer to our tropical resort to document our epic snorkel adventures -- if we'd only had the foresight to pack along this safety yellow dive mask that looks like something a fashionable Borg drone would pack for a beach holiday. (Of course, being on a flight destined for the tropics and not a regional sales meeting on the high plains in February also helps.) Lucky for me, a review sample arrived just days ahead of a well-deserved escape to the warm turquoise waters of Bermuda. Is the Only Digital Camera Swim Mask all that and a bag of chips -- or is it a red herring? That all depends on what you're looking for . . .

Other ways to get your feet wet with underwater imaging without breaking the bank.Pentax Optio W60: The newest pocket aquacam from Pentax packs 10 megapixels and captures 720p HD video. That's the camera in my hands in the dive mask video sample. Check out our field test video! Street Price $299Olympus Stylus SW line: Olympus also makes a line of super-tough watertight compact cameras. These cameras will laugh off a five foot drop with no worries. Is that tough enough for you?For Experts Only!Free diving with sharks.Tips for professional underwater images from a seasoned pro.

In the hands (Or on the face, as it were . . .)

The mask packs a fixed-focus 5.0 megapixel still camera that will also shoot 640 x 480 video at 20 frames per second, without sound. It is powered by 2 AAA batteries that sit in a compartment on the left side of the mask (there is also a right side compartment, for symmetry, which can be used for storage for any items smaller than 2 AAA batteries - spare microSD card, for example) , and has built-in memory to capture about 30 stills or up to 52 seconds of video. Fortunately, there is a microSD slot for expanding the memory to capture more data. A mini-USB port allows for direct-from-snorkel-mask downloads from either the microSD or internal memory. Images can also be deleted via USB tethering.

It is important to note that this is a snorkel-only mask. The depth rating is only fifteen feet. Because of the integrated camera, it is slightly bulkier than a regular dive mask -- but once it is on and you're in the water, it is barely different from a plain two-panel mask. The biggest difference from a regular mask are the crosshairs painted onto the glass for targeting your shots. Yes, it's a digital camera, but no, there's no LCD screen for framing or review. Just line up the crosshairs and press the shutter button by your right temple. A tiny beep indicates still image capture. That same button will also begin video capture, if you've toggled into video mode. You swap between video and still capture mode by tapping the on/off button. An LED shines into the top of the right eye window -- red is still, blue is video. The red light re-lights in still image capture to indicate the buffer is clear, while the blue light blinks to indicate video recording. In very bright sunlight conditions in clear water, it can be challenging to "read" the colored lights at the edge of your vision to confirm mode and status.

Inside the brow of the mask is a small monochrome LCD indicating the number of images captured, battery life, and video or still mode. That's it. There's no playback preview, no settings to be adjusted, or anything else. The LCD is only visible when you're not wearing the mask -- when the mask is on the face, it is pressed up against your forehead. It truly is a point-and-shoot-and-snorkel mask!

In the field (Or in the water, as it was . . .)

We were lucky enough to be able to give this snorkelcam a wet test in the crystal-clear waters of Bermuda - much nicer than an indoor pool at the local Y, if you ask me. The shallow waters of the sandbars off Pompano Bay Beach Club were filled with friendly and photogenic tropical fish ready to ham it up for the camera. You couldn't ask for better conditions for shallow water underwater photography. The gasket-sealed shutter button has a satisfying amount of resistance and springback to it. Really, it's just a matter of lining up the crosshairs and firing away. The first couple of times pushing the shutter button on the mask feels a little funny, since there's no obvious camera, but it sinks in after a few shots. Close focus is half a meter, so sometime fish can actually be too close to capture sharply (see slide #6, for example).

Video is easier -- but be sure to add extra memory to the miniSD slot beforehand to increase capture time. The best way to confirm that video capture has begun is to start above water with the mask in your hands. Then it's just a matter of swimming and snorkeling normally without having to handle the mask in the water. Then crop some of the beginning of the video out in any video editing program. Keep in mind that when you're looking upwards or even straight ahead in the water it is possible that the camera will be above the waterline, even if your eyes aren't, as the video shows a couple of times.

Let's put it like this: you won't be seeing shots from the snorkelcam in National Geographic or on Animal Planet HD any time soon. That's not to say the images and video weren't OK for 4x6 snapshots and online sharing. But don't expect imagery worthy of a David Attenborough voiceover. Typical of underwater shots, stills usually benefited from white balance adjustments and contrast enhancements, as the before/after image here shows. A couple of times, when trying to shoot a lot of stills in rapid succession, we got pure black frames.

We liked video capture better. Just turn on the mask and go have fun! Whatever you are looking at fills the frame. It really gives a great first-person perspective of the aquatic adventure. Overall video quality is quite good, if lacking a little contrast snap. Shadow areas under rocks showed good noise control. Occasionally, video appeared choppy because of the 20 fps rate.

Windows users can install ArcSoft's bundled Photo Impression and Video Impression software for editing. There's no Mac-specific software shipped with the dive mask, but Mac's built-in iPhoto and iMovie have no problem with the JPG stills and AVI video.

The bottom line

There's no doubt about it, this mask is fun, unique and original. Many of the still images will look OK online as 4x6 prints. Video looks really good online. It's probably smart to think of the Only Digital Camera Swim Mask as a video camera that can also take 5 megapixel stills, as video is its stronger suit. Audio recording during video capture would be nice, too -- but music or beach ambient can always be overdubbed in any basic video program if you really want to add sound.

If you are serious about underwater photography, this probably isn't the route to go. The Pentax Optio W60 will cost you a few hundred more, shoots 10 megapixels and 720p HD video with sound (this is the camera visible in some frames of the field test video). Olympus also offers a handful of housing-free or housed underwater options for compacts and EVFs ranging from around $300 to $1000. And there are a number of OEM and third-party housings for many other advanced compacts, EVFs and SLRs.

But the Only Digital Camera Swim Mask does have its charms. It's a novelty, a collectible, a great gift for the active dad who has nearly everything. It's a perfect groomsman gift for a destination wedding to the islands or a honeymoon gift for the happy couple heading to paradise for a few days. Kids will love to use this in the pool or at the beach. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with not taking it all too seriously all the time, and the Only Digital Camera Swim Mask helps out with that a whole lot!

1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100-As-with-many-of-the-shots
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100-As-with-many-of-the-shots
1/2000 @ f/3.0 ISO 100: As with many of the shots for the waters off Bermuda, we had to add some contrast snap and tighten the histogram to make this image pop.
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100.-We-were-right-on-top-of-th
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100.-We-were-right-on-top-of-th
1/2000 @ f/3.0 ISO 100. We were right on top of this mixed school of fish, and after a little contrast snap and saturation boost, the shot looks ready for 4x6 printing.
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100.-Just-press-the-shutter-but
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100.-Just-press-the-shutter-but
1/2000 @ f/3.0 ISO 100. Just press the shutter button at whatever you're looking at and voila -- underwater documentation!
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100.-Again-this-will-look-OK-a
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100.-Again-this-will-look-OK-a
1/2000 @ f/3.0 ISO 100. Again, this will look OK as a 4x6 print after some quick adjustments to boost snap and saturation.
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100-The-waters-were-crystal-cl
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100-The-waters-were-crystal-cl
1/2000 @ f/3.0 ISO 100: The waters were crystal-clear, and this shot was very over-exposed. Normalizing exposure and boosting saturation makes is a look a little noisy.
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100-The-waters-off-Bermuda-are
1-2000-f-3.0-ISO-100-The-waters-off-Bermuda-are
1/2000 @ f/3.0 ISO 100: The waters off Bermuda are filled with these little striped Nemo-like fish. The minimum focus distance for the mask is half a meter, so this lone fish is a touch soft as it ventures closer than the camera can capture sharply.
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