I started out with one of these when I was first learning how to take pictures underwater. It served its purpose, as I quickly learned what I really needed (and sold it). So why did I buy another one? Because it was cheaper than a roll of film and came with a flashgun, so it was worth a punt to see if the flashgun could work with my Nikonos (it doesn’t). But it could make sense if you needed to take pictures in really bad conditions.
What you get is a big camera that is resistant to sand, mud and rain (and any sense of style). Unlike its smaller brother the MX-10 this camera has a zone-focusing lens and retains the basic light metering. The main restriction for land use is the slow fixed shutter speed of 1/100. If you buy the Motormarine II EX model you get range of speeds covering 1/15 to 1/125. No real gain and it points to how this camera was intended to be used: with flash. But if I was using this thing it would probably be in poor light and bad weather, so I would be using the built-in flash or the (huge) external one. The external flash is more sophisticated, as it meters off the film. If you were going to use this for flash photography in grim conditions you should definitely get the external flashgun with the camera. The internal flash has a guide number of 10 and turning it on sets the lens wide open to f3.5. So on a sunny day you are likely to overexpose the background by around four stops. The big external flash allows for some adjustment, so it is possible to juggle the aperture and distance for effect. But that’s really not what this camera is for. It works best underwater with the external flash, it works on the surface without flash, or it will survive horrid conditions on the surface. If I had to shoot on film in wind-blown sand or salt spray, this would be an ideal tool.
The camera runs off two AA cells and the external flash takes another four. The camera’s batteries power the wind-on, meter and the internal flash. It uses DX coding for film speed but only recognises 100 or 400 ISO. So far, pretty basic.
Aperture and distance are set on dials on the front of the camera, so the ergonomics are pretty poor. There is a built-in close-up or macro option of 0.5m, but framing could be a problem.
In use, and without the flash, you tend to set the distance and then look through the viewfinder while you twiddle the aperture dial until the red exposure light turns green. With the internal flash on you’re basically confined to 2-3m distance. You wouldn’t use the built-in flash underwater as it is close to the lens so will cause loads of backscatter. The external flash has a big extending arm and tilting head, so it can be aimed to give the best lighting.
The camera takes a range of wide-angle supplementary lenses made by Sea & Sea. They use a standard bayonet fitting and can be found quite cheap. The main reason for these is to bring back the narrowing of field of view you get underwater due to refraction, where a 35mm lens narrows to about the same angle of view as a 50mm lens. They can be fitted and removed underwater, but you tend to fit one and leave it to avoid dropping it. They also work on the surface so are useful if you can find them. Mine has a wide-angle adapter that gives me the equivalent of a 20mm lens. I’ve also got an underwater-use 16mm adapter. This is not as good as the legendary Nikonos 15mm underwater lens, but can at least be removed underwater to give you a narrower field of view if you need it. Coupled with the external flash the 16mm adapter actually works pretty well underwater. The depth of field is such that you really don’t need to fiddle with the focusing.
So what is this large lump of yellow plastic good for? It’s too much of a handful for scuba diving but is a cheap starter for something like snorkelling or other water sports. It works best with flash, either the built-in one for close work or the big external one. The zone focusing makes it a good candidate for a card rangefinder. I made one and laminated it, then attached it to the camera. For beach/ surf/ surface use I’d drop the external flash. For underwater use, the ideal setup would use the external flash and a wide or 16mm lens adapter.
The lens has square aperture blades. This is not a problem – Olympus did the same with their compacts. It can mean though that backscatter-lit silt underwater appears square. On the surface you’ll probably not notice it.
Why would you want one of these? If you wanted to shoot on film in the surf, on a beach or in foul weather and were happy using flash. But they are quite limited and outside of their narrow use-case will frustrate you. Indeed, most underwater film cameras were rapidly replaced with digital as the benefits of autofocus, autoexposure, a preview screen and after-shot review far outweigh any supposed quality difference. But, as a rufty-tufty camera it works well, and with the correct adapters and flash it can work well underwater.
So if you get down and dirty and you can find one of these at the right price, have a go.