Al Campbell, Field Editor

November 17th, 2003

New Water-Resistant Digital Camera
By Al Campbell

A recent ad caught my attention. Since I spend a lot of time (not enough time though) in a watery environment, I read the ad with excitement. Olympus now has a weather resistant camera on the market called a Stylus 400 and another buddy called a Stylus 300. Is it possible that somebody finally created a good digital camera that can take quality pictures and a dunking at the same time? I had to find out.

First I went to the Olympus site and read all they offered on that pair of cameras. Not much in the way of weather resistance there. I did notice that both cameras are basically identical except for the size of the image (the 400 is 4MP while the 300 is 3MP). However, there wasn't anything in writing boasting about how waterproof or resistant they both are. I had to do some searching for the rest.

So, being the snoop that I am, I did a search for reviews and more on the Internet. Again, not a lot of information on how weatherproof those cameras are, but what I did read left me with the impression that both cameras can handle a light rain or mist, but won't take a good soaking like it would get if I slipped while wading. So much for a good, digital, fishing camera that can handle a dunking; this one won't.

Another thing I noticed while reading the reviews was that they weren't very positive. There were plenty of negative comments on the camera's design and even more on the quality of pictures it produces. The macro feature didn't look like it was useful for insect or fly-in-the-vise shots either. Lens distortion and fuzzy focus complaints were fairly common from the hard-core camera enthusiasts.

Maybe the age of waterproof or at least weatherproof digital cameras hasn't happened yet; but to be sure, I did a search. There were a ton of cameras that offer a waterproof housing. Heck, we have a sponsor that offers a great housing like that, but I was looking for a digital camera that can stand a dunking from an unlucky wader. Cameras that will handle anything from a light mist to light rain were there; but only one was mentioned that is able to handle a dunking without the addition of a waterproof case.

There aren't a lot of reviews on the new Pentax Optio 33WR digital camera out there based on actual use, but those that are available are very positive. Considering that the camera has been on the market for only a month, I suppose we can't expect a lot in the way of consumer reviews. However, the reviews by hard-core pros were very good. Most of them rated it a 4 or 4.5 out of 5 for performance.

First of all, the Pentax Optio 33WR can take a dunking (it carries a class 7 water resistance rating). It can handle (according to the reviews I read) up to a couple of minutes of shallow water submersion, but can't be used underwater. It can be washed off by dunking it in water, and it will handle a hard rain. I can embrace those features, but what about picture quality and other features?

The Optio 33WR produces 3.34 megapixel images, which means it can produce printed pictures up to about 8X10 without a noticeable loss of image quality. The pro reviews indicate that it produces good to excellent image quality without distortion, even under variable or low light conditions. They rated the camera's color rendition at very good to excellent, and it's focus sharp at all tested ranges. They said the controls are easy to use and simple enough for a beginner to learn after a quick review of the (supplied) manual. That's nice, but what about the rest of the features?

Here we go, the rest of the features I was interested in:

    Optical zoom - 2.8x
    Digital zoom - 4x
    Size - fits easily in a shirt pocket.
    Lens - the lens doesn't move. It uses an internal lens for focus; thus it is easier to waterproof the lens. On the flip side, there aren't filters or attachment lenses for the camera's lens either, yet.
    Macro zoom - 4x (a combination of optical and digital) Pentax claims super sharp images at even the closest focus and highest zoom, and that it will deliver excellent image quality on the smallest subjects.
    Regular focus - 7.9" to infinity.
    Macro close focus distance - 3.9" to 7.9"
    White balance - Select from a list or balance manually. The best results indoors or anywhere come from a manual balance.
    Scene modes - 9 scene modes to make setting the camera a snap for common tasks, including macro, night scene, night portrait, portrait, surf & snow (very useful when water glare is a problem), portrait, sunset, fireworks and snap (for panning on moving subjects). (For backlit subjects, it adds a fill flash to uncover a face under a cap and illuminate a backlit fisherman or fish.)
    Removable media - Secure Digital (SD) or Multi-media (MMC) card. It comes with a nearly useless 16MB card, but SD and MMC cards are common and available at all camera and computer stores in sizes up to 512MB. They don't cost any more than compact flash cards, but are the physical size.
    Included items - all the common stuff like wrist straps, computer connection cables, starter batteries and such, and imaging software called ACDSee software so you can manage your images as needed.
    Other features - The list is extensive, but a few really caught my eye. You can set it manually for better focus, color saturation and contrast. There are settings for multiple exposures with a single shutter release or even a movie mode. Sound capture. Either 5-point or spot auto-focus. Self-timer so you can be in the shot. It even has an alarm clock.
As far as drawbacks go, I see only one bothersome thing. This camera uses either a CR-V3 lithium battery or the supplied AA batteries, not the rechargeable lithium-ion type found in my Nikon cameras. You'll want to buy some AA sized NiMH or Lithium-ion batteries and a charger for the same if you want to keep battery costs reasonable. Fortunately, both types of batteries are commonly available at stores that sell digital cameras and their accessories.

If I manage to get my hands on one of these cameras, I'll fill you in on all the details from a fly-fisherman's perspective. Since I wasn't able to use the camera itself, I asked Michelle Martin at Pentax to take a couple of close shots and e-mail them to me. This photo of a dime under office lighting says all that needs to be said of its macro abilities. (I didn't crop the photo either, and neither did Michelle; it actually focuses that close.) When I did crop it, I was able to focus on the scratches of the dime in detail.

As most of you know, I'm a pretty dedicated Nikon user, but I don't mind telling you the shortfalls of Nikon stuff if I find them (for instance, the macro mode of the CoolPix 5400). However, I also know Pentax makes some very useful, quality cameras. Their water-resistant 35mm camera is possibly the best pocket-sized film camera on the market for fishermen who might take a dunking, and it delivers magazine quality photos. I'm guessing the Optio 33WR is of a similar quality. It might be the perfect digital for a fly-fisher who might get it wet. That thought has me excited enough to tell you about it, even if I haven't actually played with the camera.

Average price I found on the Internet for a USA warranted camera was $349.99 and the lowest was $286.00 at www.digitaletailer.com. That's all for now; but if I get a chance to play with one, I'll provide more details on how this camera works at the vise and on real fishing photos (including insect pictures). ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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