Review: Diving with the Waterproofed Canon HF20

Nearly every other diver on my boat had some sort of photography rig. And not just simple lexan underwater cases, but imposing contraptions with powerful strobes and sturdy handles. I was a little bit intimidated gripping a small plastic mass.

But once I got underwater and watched many of the divers struggling with their rigs, catching protuberances on errant kelp fronds, I felt a little better about wielding this simple Canon setup. As a point-and-shoot (and shoot and shoot) piece of equipment, the whole rig is simple, capable, durable, and—especially compared to similar underwater gear of just a couple years back—cheap enough that it won't be a tragedy when it gets lost at sea. The street price of the HF20 (an AVCHD camcorder with 32GB of flash memory) is $800; the WP-V1 can be found for around $400.

Example video 1, no color correction. See HD version at Vimeo.

Everything you're seeing in these two videos was shot with natural light. Canon added an "Underwater Mode" to the HF20 which attempts to mitigate some of the strange color and contrast issues you'll have underwater. Light at the red end of the spectrum is absorbed especially quickly by water, so the camera tries to account for that by boosting the color toward red. (But not enough for my taste, which is why there are two videos embedded here: one color-corrected; one as it came out of the camera.)

Example video 2, colors tweaked in post. See HD version at Vimeo.

As small as the Canon rig was, lights would have been nice. Underwater photography and videography is a challenge, because even perfectly clean water refracts light much more aggressively than air. Add to that all the plankton and fish droppings and god-knows-what-else in the murk that obscures light like a living fog.

I could have screwed down the WP-V1 onto a light rig—it has a tripod mount on its bottom—but I didn't. If I had, I might not have felt like I needed to tweak the colors later to get them closer to what I felt I had seen with my own eyes. (Or, on some shots, what I wish I had remembered; I'm a bit color-saturation-mad at the moment.)

Additionally, most of the fine controls on the HF20 aren't accessible through the underwater housing. (Unless you use the included infrared remote, but I don't think it nor its magic beams would last long under the ocean.) That leaves just power, record, and photo/video mode buttons, as well as a large lever that controls the zoom. The zoom lever couldn't quite push the toggle on the camera all the way, making zooms a bit slow. Still, for me the controls were sufficient.

Since you can't charge the camera underwater or swap batteries, the easily spotted yellow power button is handy, too. No need to leave the camera on when there's nothing you plan to film.

Review: Diving with the Waterproofed Canon HF20

Of course you can change any setting before you hop into the water. (I turned off Canon's face-following focus system, which means that any mermen I happened to spot remained indistinct.) And getting the case open is a breeze—just push up on the yellow tab at the end, flip open the large black buckle, and do your best not to mangle the rubber gasket that is all that keeps your $800 videocamera from the caustic sea.

I shot a few scenes at the beach before I went on my dive trip, plunging the WP-V1 in and out of the waves. Worked perfectly—except for when I got back to my hotel and realized there was tons of fine sand gummed up against the gasket. I wouldn't call that a failing of the WP-V1 at all—sand is insidious—but it is something of which users should be aware. Like all underwater gear, it needs a good soak in fresh water, too, to make sure that the salt doesn't slowly corrode it in open air, even after the water has dried.

In all, it's quite a deal, especially when compared to the prices of other 1080p-capable cameras and 130-foot-rated underwater housings. The footage, even without any compensatory lighting, can be gorgeous. And while my fellow divers were breaking down their rigs, swaddling them in foam, and packing it all into massive hard cases, I slipped the WP-V1 with the HF20 inside my carry-on bag and walked down the dock.

Review: Diving with the Waterproofed Canon HF20

Inexpensive compared to third-party housings

Review: Diving with the Waterproofed Canon HF20

Simple to use

Review: Diving with the Waterproofed Canon HF20

Underwater mode works fine even without lights

Review: Diving with the Waterproofed Canon HF20

Underwater mode color not as saturated as I'd prefer

Review: Diving with the Waterproofed Canon HF20

Limited manual controls