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Canon PowerShot G9/WP-DC21 underwater housing

Canon PowerShot G9 underwater photo Review by Arjen Costerus.

I have a diving addiction for over 4 years now, which started in Australia during my PADI Open Water course. Since then I have been fanatically diving in Holland, but also been active during holidays in Egypt, Croatia and Indonesia.

All that time I only came home with stories, as I did not have an underwater camera. But those days are past since I have obtained a Canon G9 with underwater housing. My experiences with this camera are detailed in this review.

The equipment

WP-DC21 underwater housing

The complete package I take with me under water consists of the Canon G9 and the Canon WP-DC21 underwater housing, a Sea&Sea YS-110 strobe with arm, tray and optical cable to synchronize it with the camera.

In the past I have done extensive photographing with an analogue SLR, so I did not have to learn to shoot on the surface. For underwater use I wanted a good quality digital camera with an abundance of features, which led me to the Canon G9.

Sea&Sea YS-110

From other photographers I learned that shooting nice photos in the Dutch waters really requires an external strobe.

After some research and asking around, I chose the Sea&Sea YS-110. The main advantage of this strobe is that is has a built-in focus and aiming light, and that it has a very wide angle of coverage as well as the ability for both TTL and slave.

The whole set totals to quite a significant investment, especially when just taking up underwater photography.

Technical specifications

A short summary of the product specs of the G9:

Canon PowerShot G9

  • 1/1,7-inch sensor with 12.1 megapixels
  • 6x optical zoom with optical image stabilization
  • Shortest focus distance: 1cm in macro mode
  • RAW image format
  • DIGIC III and iSAPS
  • Face detection AF/AE/FE
  • 9-point AiAF and FlexiZone AF/AE
  • 3,0-inch PureColor LCD-II display
  • ISO 1600 and Auto ISO Shift
  • 25 recording modes

More info and an extensive assortment of accessories can be found on the Canon G9 website.

So what does it all provide to us underwater photographers?

Main feature is its very good macro capability. You can come as close as 1 cm to your subject, so as long as it cooperates and stays put you can capture even the smallest creatures nice and large on a photo.

The shutter lag, the time it takes between pressing the release and really taking the shot, is very short. This increases the chance of getting the head of the fish as intended instead of only shooting its tail.

The very large display is also very useful. It is bright and well readable, and thus provides a good view on your subject and composition and allows for direct feedback on whether it is worthwhile to take a shot of.

What I find also a major benefit is the camera's RAW image capabilities as it allows me to get even better results without loss of quality when editing images on the computer.

The camera does have a few downsides but these are the same as many other compact cameras. The most striking is the limited aperture of F8, which does not deliver sufficient depth of view, especially when shooting macro. It also lacks a true wide angle, as it can not go beyond 35mm. There are underwater extension lenses available for both the Canon and Ikelite housing, but I do not yet have any experience with those.

Canon PowerShot G9 underwater photo The camera's internal flash is not that useful under water, unless you use it to trigger an external underwater strobe. This is due to the WP-DC21 housing blocking part of the internal flash's light and leaving a shadow cast on the shot. This is not resolved by using the diffuser cap, and is especially annoying when coming close to a subject. The flash is also positioned very close to the lens, thus producing a lot of backscatter. So if you do not have an external strobe, it is better to shoot without the flash and use a torch for more light.

Finally, the camera has a tendency to overexpose the images. You can however simply correct the exposure in steps of 1/3 stops with a maximum of +/- 2 stops and thus set it to underexpose a little. I usually set it to underexpose 2/3 stop in normal conditions on land, but you should check whether this matches your personal preference. The display also plays a part in this: when the shot looks ok on the display, it turns out to be actually slightly overexposed. The display also shows reality with a yellow overcast.

Experiences under water

The camera has an abundance of features, ranging from point-and-shoot to fully setting everything on the camera yourself, and everything in between. It therefore comes with an elaborate menu and a lot of controls that are positioned quite close to each other on the camera and housing. Despite diving with dry suit gloves I can still operate these quite well which came as sort of a surprise. Drawback of all those functions and elaborate menu is that it will take you quite a while to learn how to handle the camera well and use all the possibilities to the full extent. If you discover a setting that is useful to you than you can program it into the camera and recall it when required. You are not limited in any way as all functions and menus can be operated through the housing.

G9: setting metering mode Personally I shoot in full manual mode when under water. The only thing left to the camera is focusing; the rest is up to me to decide, including aperture, shutter speed and the strength of the external strobe. I admit this is not as easy as just point and click, but when a shot succeeds it really looks much better than when letting the camera take decisions, even when using the TTL flash synchronization.

In order to help the camera to focus and get a better exposure on the subject, two settings on the camera need to be changed from default.

First the metering mode should be switched from Evaluative to Spot. Secondly, the focus should be limited to the smallest area possible. This is done through the autofocus menu: select the "FlexiZone" setting and then select the smallest rectangle. With these settings the camera will focus the most accurate on the subject you want and prevent it from accidentally selecting something that does not need to be in focus.

G9: FlexiZone focus When setting the "FlexiZone", the focus area can be moved around in the display, which helps you get the composition you want. Although this may seem handy at first, it is not: it takes quite a lot of time to set it and by the time you are finished the fish is already gone. It is much easier to just focus on the subject by aiming for it and pressing the shutter release half. The camera will then keep the focus fixed so you can then move it around to get a good composition. Once satisfied, fully press the shutter release and take the shot. In addition you have 12.1 megapixel at your disposal so you can apply a fair amount of cropping and still have decent sized prints without loss of quality. Well, as long as you do not shoot with high ISO values.

Canon PowerShot G9 underwater photo Let me come back to the RAW feature I mentioned earlier.

If you want to process your images on your computer, RAW is really the image format to shoot with. It will deliver a much better quality and if you are experienced in working with PhotoShop or Lightroom than the camera's JPG result will not even come close to the RAW image.

The camera can be set to take both a RAW and JPG image at the same time, but you will soon start to use the JPGs only for quick check to determine which shots turned out ok and which RAWs need additional processing. Shooting RAW+JPG does require a large and fast memory card, a 4 GB card will last you around 200 shots. This should cover a regular diving day.

Conclusion

The question that remains is of course: is this the perfect digital camera for you?

That mainly depends of what type of photographer you are. If you are looking for a point-and-shoot camera, always shoot in automatic mode and do not have the intention to do extensive processing on your computer, than this is not the camera you are looking for. In that case there are many cheaper cameras that also take good shots without all the settings that make the Canon G9 such a good piece of work. Because the most worthwhile of this camera is all these features that put you in control of all decisions.

Canon PowerShot G9 underwater photo If you are however looking for an all-round compact camera that delivers very beautiful photos both on land as under water, are you prepared to invest time in becoming fully acquainted with your camera and editing images on your computer, than the Canon PowerShot G9 will be a powerful and versatile ally.

Review by Arjen Costerus, www.costerus.nl

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