Sand. Seawater. Dirt. Rough handling. Foul language. OK, maybe not the last one. Although the full set does sound like a good weekend.
Maybe these are the things you want your camera to handle. I’ve shot stuff in the past that meant I had to put the camera in the airing cupboard for a week to dry it out. Rain is one thing, but wind-blown sand is a horror. This stuff leaves you with scratchy focusing or crunchy cameras. You need something that laughs in the face of danger.
Lots of modern digital cameras have weather sealing, and you can buy compact cameras that are sealed and waterproof to five meters or so. But this is a review of the cheap-ass end of the market, based on stuff I own and use. The stuff that I don’t have to take special care of or dry out after use.
First up, the Sea and Sea MX-10. This is a very basic yellow plastic housebrick with a dedicated flashgun. Basic, because the lens is fixed focus and the shutter fires at 1/100. You have the joy of controlling the aperture and there is a rudimentary built-in meter that works for 100 or 400 ISO.
It’s a child’s toy amongst cameras – big, simple, strong. I printed and laminated the table of focus ranges for each aperture and then just get close enough to put the subject in the sharp zone. On land the lens is focused at 2.5m so you use the aperture to control the depth of field around it.
The only real drawback is the cheap two-blade aperture that forms a square hole, so turns your bokeh into cubes. It’s big, tough, very simple to use and (if you shop carefully) cheap as chips. A nice feature is that the lens front has a standard bayonet fitting common to Sea and Sea that lets you use their supplementary wide-angle lenses. You need these underwater as the refraction reduces the angle of view of the 32mm lens to nearer 45-50mm. On land it lets you get more in or keep bigger subjects in the sharp zone of the lens.
For a camera this crude and simple it actually works quite well. Plus you can drop it in the sand or the sea, take it swimming or go out in a British summer. Just don’t pay a lot for one – this is not a sophisticated camera.
Prior to this I had its big brother, the Motormarine II EX. This has a focusing lens controlled by a dial on the front of the body, that also includes a close-up setting. The EX model also includes a choice of shutter speeds, but they only run from 1/125 to 1/15. Frankly, I found it a bit of a handful. While you can scale-focus the lens you have no indication of the depth of field (unlike the Nikonos, of which more later). The camera uses DX coding but only recognises 50, 100 and 400 ISO film. Granted, it works, but the aperture and focus dials are hard to read underwater, particularly if you are of a certain age and need reading specs. Above water it falls into the gap between Lomo and hi-fi – it has some controls so you need to fiddle with it but not enough to make it worth the effort. I got some good pictures with it and learned a lot, but sold it on with no regrets.
35mm f3.5 lens. My copy of the manual says 34 elements in 3 groups, but you’d only get that if you dropped it. I reckon they meant 4 elements in 3 groups, making it a Tessar.
Focusing down to 0.5m.
Built in flash with GN10 at 100ISO.
DX coding for 50, 100 and 400ISO.
For a while after the EX I had a Minolta Weathermatic 35DL. I thought this was going to be the answer. It had autofocus and a dual-lens setup that gave you 35mm or 50mm. It was waterproof to 5m. But the focusing broke, even though the camera kept working. I only found out after shooting a whole roll of impressionistic fuzz. Late 80s electronics to blame, I expect. Verdit? Fragile.
Next up is a Japanese oddity – the Konica Genba Kantoku 28WB. I admit to buying one of these when I read a review on 35mmc. This was the replacement for the Minolta, and it seems to be working better. It’s basically splash and dirt-proof rather than waterproof. The sharp wide-angle lens was meant for recording building projects. It’s chunky and has just enough controls to be useful – you can force the flash on or off and use a macro mode. If you keep the sun off the glass cover in front of the lens it takes a good snap. You also have the joy of a camera that can be thrown in a bag, used in the rain or dragged through as much dirt as you can eat. It also looks rather funky, like an overgrown point and shoot. This gets used a lot on beaches and it works well.
28mm F3.5 lens of 8 elements in 7 groups. Minimum focusing distance of 0.5 meter. Shutter speed range from 1/4 to 1/280 second. Metering by a CdS sensor with a range of 5.5 to 16.5 EV (ISO 100). The built-in flash has a range up to 5m at ISO 100 and 10m with ISO 400 film. Film loading and advance are automatic with a motor drive. Film speed set by DX coding.
At the top end of the range comes the Nikonos. There are two basic types – the ones up to type 3 that were manual and came apart for loading and the later types 4, 4a and 5 that had a conventional opening back. You can spend a lot of money on these if you go for one with a flashgun or wide-angle lens. Be aware though that lenses wider than the standard 35mm will usually only work underwater. For surface to damp places stick with the 35mm. There is an 80mm lens for it, but this is a scale-focusing camera so unless you also carry a rangefinder about with you, stick with the 35mm. So if you want one, go for the 35mm lens, no flash or extras and in orange rather than the optional green.
Mine is a type 5 and what you get is a heavy and robust camera with autoexposure, shutter speeds up to 1/1000 and a very nice 35mm lens. The focusing is by guesswork, but the lens does have a lovely pair of markers that show the depth of field for each aperture. It couldn’t be simpler to set an aperture, set the point of focus to give you a useful range and let the camera handle the exposure (unless you confuse the metric and imperial distance scales).
The viewfinder has a high eye relief as it is meant to work with a diving mask. The frame lines are well within the visible area, so it’s easy to see things coming into frame. Given that you keep the seals clean this camera will survive just about anything. They were used by photographers in Vietnam, which is where I understand the desire for an 80mm lens came from. Probably the low-vis green paint option too.
This is the expensive and heavy end of the range of tough film cameras. It can be cheap though, especially if you look for mis-spellings and partial names.
So, what do I recommend? If I’m going where I need a water and dirt resistant camera my first choice is the Konica. It’s not heavy (it’s my brother), it’s easy to use quickly and the lens is sharp.
Next would be the Nikonos. Great lens and more control over the camera. No flash though. Well, not a sensible flash that you could carry about with you.
If there was a risk of destroying the camera or things could get hectic, it would be the MX-10. With the flash attached and the aperture set there is nothing to fiddle with. Get the subject in the sharp zone and go. And if they attack, you can fend them off with it. An anti-zombie camera.
Or forget all this nonsense and buy a nice ruggedised digital point and shoot.