It's a (Sea)Life: Waterproof and Shockproof (by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton Walker)
This a review of the SeaLife ECOshot digital camera that you can use both under and above water. It's a true outdoors camera in every respect. You can take it anywhere and it can handle more abuse than you'd think any camera could, and especially one that doesn't cost a fortune. The ECOshot currently lists for US$279.95, barely more than you'd expect to pay for an underwater case alone.
Who is SeaLife?
Who is SeaLife? It's a name quite popular in the scuba diving community, but less so among regular photographers. So here's a bit of background. SeaLife is part of Pioneer Research, which is the North American headquarters of Steiner binoculars, and also the worldwide headquarters for Vero Vellini hunting slings and straps, and, of course, SeaLife cameras. So these guys are into optics and outdoors equipment, and thus wholly dedicated to the outdoor and sports experience. SeaLife cameras have been around since 1993, and the company introduced the first underwater digital camera in 2000. Today, they pride themselves in offering a whole array of underwater cameras and accessories, with all the strobes and lenses interchangeable with any SeaLife camera.
I must admit that before my diving days, I had never heard of SeaLife myself. That quickly changed last year when we tested some very competent underwater cameras from major manufacturers. We came up with decent underwater shots, but they were nowhere near as good as those that my dive buddy took with her SeaLife DC500 camera. I was intrigued and wondered how the fairly basic SeaLife hardware could do so well when we struggled with cameras that, at least based on their spec sheets, should have produced superior results. I initially wrote it off as being unfamiliar with our test cameras, and that certainly contributed as our results improved quite a bit once we got to know the cameras, but the SeaMaster DC500 still did better. This was reaffirmed when Carol shot some 600 underwater pictures on Little Cayman with her SeaMaster, with spectacular results.
SeaLife's secret sauce
Having founded Digital Camera Magazine in 1998 as the first print magazine dedicated entirely to digital cameras, I am quite familiar with the technology and what digital cameras could, and can, do. So I took a closer look at SeaLife's offerings and concluded that it simply could not be the camera hardware alone that made for such excellent image quality. That's because there is nothing special about the SeaLife hardware. It is, in fact, quite generic. SeaLife does, however, have a secret sauce and it lies in the company's understanding of underwater photography. As a result, they made some subtle software and settings changes, added some excellently designed and engineered peripherals, and, voila!, superior photography. Talent and experience still play a role, of course, and so it certainly didn't hurt that Carol is an exceptionally gifted photographer.
Every diver knows that things are different underwater. Sound travels much faster, objects seem closer than they actually are, there is almost always some debris floating around, and colors change and shift according to depth. Consumer cameras that offer optional underwater cases usually have at least one underwater shooting mode, and sometimes several. But they still don't seem truly optimized for the very different underwater environment. So colors seem off, and the built-in flash goes off when it shouldn't, resulting in "scatter," i.e. illumination of particulates that all but obliterate the picture. SeaLife cameras are smarter. By doing simple things like offering white balance modes that take the changing nature of light underwater into consideration, image quality can improve drastically and pictures jump to life. The proper external flash is also extremely important, and SeaLife is eminently aware of that.
So what is the ECOshot?
The ECOshot is what SeaLife calls a "Water Sports Camera." It's a very basic digital camera designed to take outdoors and underwater. This is not a sleek and slender digicam with a tough underwater case. The camera and the case are one. You can't take the camera out. The ECOshot has a polycarbonate housing with a tough rubber overmolding that seems as invulnerable as a tractor tire. The LCD, always a sensitive part of any camera, is deeply recessed and protected by a thick optical grade polycarbonate window. There is no optical zoom and thus no moving lens barrel. All functions of the camera are handled by a grand total of seven buttons -- the big shutter button on top and six small round buttons on the backside. That's it.
The overall design of the ECOshot is not unpleasant though i4u.com called it ugly and worse. I like it. It's all about function, and the fairly sizeable body of the camera fits nicely into one's hand. It measures about 4.5 x 2.8 inches and is an inch and a half thick. It is no lightweight either, tipping the scale at 10.5 ounces, but that doesn't matter much underwater. The ECOshot doesn't mean to be sleek and elegant like some of the latest consumer cameras. Instead, it fits right in with stuff people take along on outdoors trips, and it certainly looks perfectly at home with dive gear. If someone asked me to design a camera that goes with Scuba gear, it'd look just like the ECOshot.
Specifications and features
In terms of specifications, things are basic. You get 6.1 megapixel -- 2816 x 2112 pixel -- which even in this day and age of 8-12 megapixel consumer cameras is still plenty enough for cropping, zooming in, and making enlargements. You can set the camera to various lower res modes and also vary image compression if storage space is an issue. The camera comes with 16MB onboard, and a SD Card slot. Focal length is fixed at the equivalent of 42mm in the old 35mm film camera parlance. Movies record at 320 x 240 pixel format. The camera records sound with movies, even underwater. Sensitivity is limited. It's automatic, or can be set to 50, 100 or 200 ISO. The normal focus range goes from three feet to infinity. A macro range let's you get as close as a foot and a half. There is a self-timer, exposure compensation, and a 4X digital zoom. The built-in flash has four modes: automatic, on, off, and red-eye reduction.
SeaLife calls the ECOshot's LCD display large and sharp. A 2.0-inch display would indeed have been phenomenal a few short years ago, but today it looks smallish and 75k pixel definitely does not qualify as hi-res. However, it really is all relative. Today's digital cameras, for the most part, no longer have optical viewfinders, so we depend on the LCD. But even the largest, brightest LCD can still wash out. I've used cameras with larger and sharper LCDs than this SeaLife has, and they became almost invisible underwater, so one has to rely on experience and proper handling one way or another.
The ECOshot is a point & shoot camera without any manual modes. There are, however, a total of nine scene modes. Six of them are garden variety above water modes (auto, sport, night, portrait, landscape and backlight), the other three are underwater modes. In Sea mode you can select special underwater white balance modes that make a huge difference. One is for shooting in depths of less than 25 feet, the other over 25 feet. Remember, red only penetrates about ten feet and orange is gone at 25 feet, so a white balance that takes that into consideration really matters. You can also set the white balance manually, and we've had very good results with that as well.
The ECOshot has a special SPY mode that makes the camera take pictures at set time intervals of 10 or 30 seconds, 1, 10, or 30 minutes, or an hour. This can come in handy for taking pictures of critters that don't like a lot of commotion closeby. And on land you can put the camera on a tripod and do some sequential shooting. There is no "SHARK" mode like the DC500 has; that's because the ECOshot doesn't need it. It has very little shutter lag.
The camera is powered by two standard AA batteries. Lithiums work best, but you can also use alkalines or rechargeable NiMHs. Battery life is only about 100 pictures, so four AAs would have been better in a camera this size.
One tough camera
I am very familiar with ruggedized equipment since I also review rugged notebooks and handheld terminals, and I've rarely seen a rugged device as intelligently designed and as well protected as this camera. You can drop it from six feet and it will survive. And unlike a lot of ruggedized equipment that has lots of scratch-prone metallic surfaces, the ECOshot's rubber body is invulnerable to scratching and denting. There is some exposed metal on the front of the camera and that may get scratched, but for the most part the ECOshot can take a beating and you could never tell.
The devil is usually in the details, and the ECOshot's designers certainly knew that. Take the shutter button, for example. Without special protection, if the camera fell on it, or if something ran over it, it'd be possible for the shutter to break and get squashed. So the designers placed the shutter button inside a strong polycarbonate base that easily let's you operate the shutter, but won't let it get crushed. Very clever.
Another smart detail is the design of the camera's waterproof door that keeps water out of the battery and memory card compartment and also away from the USB jack. In order to open that door you must move a recessed springloaded lock and then operate a lever. It is pretty much impossible to do that by mistake.
Another little detail that I cherish: The ECOshot has a thick metal tripod mount that looks like it belonged on a Jeep. In this era of flimsy plastic tripod mounts, I am glad that some people haven't forgotten that metal is much stronger and won't strip easily.
As far as waterproofing goes, the ECOshot is rated at 75 feet. That puts it smack in the middle between some waterproof consumer cameras that can handle ten feet, and cameras in underwater housings that usually can go to the recreational diving depth limit of 133 feet. Interestingly, SeaLife's own Reefmaster Mini, which looks identical to the ECOshot, is rated at 130 feet, whereas yet another variant, the Vivitar ViviCam 6200w, is rated at only 30 feet. That is a rather substantial pressure difference, and we're not sure how to explain the large difference between the Vivitar, the ReefMaster Mini, and the ECOshot in the middle.
Using the ECOshot
We took the ECOshot with us on a recent dive and camera review trip to Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe area is both very rich in natural beauty and a thrill for divers with its clear, clean water that can offer visibilities up to 100 feet and above. We took a bunch of pictures before we even got in the water, and it was clear that this camera is perfectly able to take good quality pictures on land. I am no fan of digital zoom as it really only enlarges a subarea of the image without actually zooming in and thus making it sharp. So digital zoom can result in graininess. I did miss an optical zoom, but that's not what this camera is about.
One we got in the water I immediately appreciated a couple of things. First, the ECOshot has a strong foot-long handstrap that you can tighten around your wrist. And the area of the strap that goes around the wrist is encased in rubber so it won't cut you. Second, there is also a clip to attach it to your BC. That can be a very good thing when you're diving places like Tahoe with walls going almost vertically down to over a thousand feet.
Above I mentioned the ECOshot's small number of controls. That is mostly a good thing when you shoot underwater, but since the water gets cold in Lake Tahoe when you get to 50 or 60 feet, we wore hoods and gloves, and I quickly found that it wasn't easy to operate the control buttons because they are so close together. They are also not very clearly marked, and whereas green is almost universally used to indicate playback, on the ECOshot green means "ok." Somehow, the buttons also rotate and the icons can point in any direction, so it's a good idea to practice some before a dive. Finally, there is one additional control to the left of the LCD. It switches back and forth between normal and macro mode. It is a recessed lever and goes so hard that I could not operate it with gloves on. Since the ECOshot can go no closer than two feet in normal mode, it is necessary to toggle back and forth between the focus modes. It's possible that something may have been wrong with the switch on ours as is sometimes the case with press loaners that may have seen a good deal of use (and abuse).
Once underwater, the ECOshot proved a handy companion. Without zoom or many other settings to worry about, I could just concentrate on taking pictures. I never had to hunt for the shutter as the one on the ECOshot is large and handy and hard to miss. Operating the controls was no big deal either, once I got used to handling the camera with my thick neoprene gloves. Between wearing a mask, being awed by the grandeur of the huge boulders in the Rubicon Wall dive site, and the smallish LCD, I often just pointed the camera in the general direction of what I wanted a picture of. It did well enough. While Tahoe is very clear, there is none of the color explosion you find on reefs, and so we couldn't really give the specialized underwater white balance modes much of a workout.
The ECOshot did get a workout of another kind, though. This was our first time at the Rubicon divesite. You get there via the Callawee Cove beach of D. L. Bliss state park. A 150 yard swim then gets you to a breathtaking wall dive, with a almost sheer rock cliff going from about 60 feet all the way down to about 1,400 feet. Once we'd located the wall, peered over it, and began descending into the abyss, adrenaline took over (at least for me), we watched our depth and felt the rapidly dropping water temperature, and the ECOshot's own 75-foot depth limit was forgotten. We took a picture at 100 feet, then went down to 110 (and a 48 degree water temperature). The ECOshot was unfazed and, we found later, none the worse for wear. All controls continued to operate normally even at that depth. We don't recommend taking a camera deeper than it's rated, but if push comes to shove, the ECOshot can go beyond its stated limits.
These days, most digital cameras can shoot 640 x 480 video at 30 frames per second. The ECOshot is limited to 320 x 240 pixel video at 24 seconds. We did a sample video at a depth of maybe 40 feet and it came out better than expected. So for YouTube or web use, the video produced by the ECOshot is perfectly adequate. I also liked that the simple push of a button toggles between video and whatever still image mode you select.
The SeaLife ECOShot is a perfect example of a product that exceeds the sum of its parts. Based on a generic 6.1 megapixel camera without a lot of features, the rubber-clad and nearly indestructible ECOshot is the perfect companion for heavy duty outdoor activity. You never have to worry about harming this camera - it will survive even very rough treatment or accidents without a dent or scratch. Anything that can survive a six-foot drop and take pictures and video under 75 feet of water will add to your enjoyment of sports and adventure instead of giving you something to worry about.
There are compromises, of course. The ECOshot is a basic camera, so there are no manual modes, no optical zoom, no elaborate controls, the LCD is small, battery life from its two AAs isn't great, and video is limited to the QVGA format. If you can live with those limitations, the ECOshot rewards you with reliable performance both above and under water. It takes amazingly good pictures and video. Its special underwater white balance settings make for superior underwater color. And SeaLife's optional lights and lenses make it all even better.
So tough you never have to worry about hurting it
Takes good pictures above and under water
Very simple operation
Uses AA batteries that can be found anywhere
Can easily handle its 75 feet depth limit
Heavy rubber protection means no scratches or dents
Underwater white balance modes make for great pictures
SeaLife's optional lifes and lenses
Not so much:
We do miss an optical zoom
The macro toggle hard to use, and the macro mode not close enough
SeaLife ECOshot pictures -- Images were taken during a dive trip to Lake Tahoe. Above water pictures of D. L. Bliss state park. Underwater pictures of Rubicon wall dive, down to 110 feet. Pictures by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton-Walker.
Specifications SeaLife ECOshot
Waterproof and shockproof sports camera (75 feet)
Tested to 20 G's (Equivalent to 6' (2m) drop)
ECOshot depth rated 75' (23 m)
4.5 x 2.8 x 1.5
10.5 with batteries
Max pixel size
2816 x 2272
JPEG, AVI motion JPEG
Fine, Standard, Economy
Movie recording (best)
til full with sound @ 24fps
Max movie pixels
320 x 240
Voice recording/sound annotation
6.95mm (42mm 25mm-equivalent)
2.5 feet, 1.5 feet
1/1000 to 1/10 sec
auto, manual, 6 presets including two for underwater