When Sony approached me to test out their new video camera Sony Action Cam HDR AS-15, I was really excited – I was heading to the Maldives for a dive trip and having a video camera was an unexpected bonus. Unlike previous trips where I was expecting to see a lot of smaller creatures and do a lot of photography (like Manado), this trip’s highlights were to see quite a lot more larger animals like whale sharks and manta rays, and my dinky little camera with no strobes has never been very effective in capturing good video.
Here’s a review of my week spent using this Action Cam:
The first thing I noticed about the camera was the size of the thing – it’s really small! As an action camera I wasn’t expecting anything too bulky, but this was pretty slim and compact, fitting into my grip quite comfortably. It comes with a waterproof casing to protect the camera which is also quite compact and streamlined.
There is also no viewfinder, which contributes to its small size but also means you can’t review or frame your shots easily. That’s less crucial if you’re mounting it somewhere, but for a diver you basically go in shooting blind and can only see whether you captured everything adequately when you transfer the images to the computer. What that means is that footage of your wonderful whale shark might not be as wonderful because you’ve cut parts off.
Easy to use
I had a night before I flew off to figure out how to use it. It’s built to be fairly easy to use – the big red button is for recording, with 2 side buttons to toggle different options, with a small LCD screen for verbal instructions.
when the casing is on, you’re limited to just toggling the record button, so you can’t change settings midway through recording without taking out the case. Since I was using it underwater, that basically meant I had to decide on my settings for that dive and could not change it midway. I prefer not to open and close the casing too often between dives as well (little bit paranoid about flooding the camera!) so quite often I left the settings for the entire day. You also need the settings to toggle the power off, so during action you just let it switch off automatically.
SETTING UP FOR SCUBA DIVING
I did a little bit of Googling beforehand and found that in the latest software updates, some improvements had been made specifically for underwater videography, namely that there was a WATER mode which allowed for auto white balancing – the software on my loaner was still of the old one, but upgrading to the latest 3.0 version was a pretty simple affair, by downloading the new patch from the Sony website and installing it via USB on my mac like any other programme.
Also, there is now a Diving Door (S$60), a dedicated front lens cover of the video camera especially for underwater shooting, where the round curved surface of the usual door is replaced by a flat square one. Some videos online demonstrate the difference shooting with the diving door, which while bulkier, allows for more in-focus shots. You’ll need to purchase the replacement doors separately, but luckily the loaner I had came with this door and its very simple to replace.
I only wish my loaner had come with the headband accessory (S$35) which allows for the camera to be attached to ones head, that would leave me properly hands free. I had a spare lanyard to loop it around my neck so I wouldn’t lose it underwater. Because of its small size and smooth surface of the casing with no handholds, it was a little hard to handle with my dive gloves on – I ended up diving with one glove on so I could toggle the video camera more easily.
On land the wide angle (170 degrees vs the usual 120 degrees) gives a very pronounced fisheye effect which is a bit disorienting – it seems less obvious underwater, though you can see the edges of the casing in the top corners. Also, day-time shots in good lighting obviously produce the best results, night shots are a tad noisy and blurry.
I ended up shooting 23GB worth of video (I know right, reviewing all that was like, woah), but here’s a week’s worth of awesome scuba diving in the Maldives compressed into one minute of highlights.
As you can see, the HD quality is pretty stellar in some of the shots, particularly that of the close-ups of the baby eagle ray and the little reef shark.
If you want to compare the quality of the Action Cam vs the video function off my camera, go check out the videos of my whale sharks and manta rays below – I’ve clearly labelled the footage so you know which is taken by what, and you can judge for yourself the quality.
SOME PRACTICAL IMPROVEMENTS
I was told I needed to buy the anti-fog strip (S$19.90) separately, which given it’s an underwater casing means that there’s a pretty high likelihood it will be used underwater, so I feel relatively inexpensive features like this should be built in from the start, perhaps with the diving door. My casing didn’t fog up though, thankfully.
It was also pretty hard to tell whether the camera is level or not without a viewfinder or whether stuff was even in frame. You’ll need some trial and error to figure out the best settings and it seems like the best way to film is to actually hold the camera right in front of your face/eyes so you get an approximation of what you’re actually looking at.
A lot of the additional info I found was through online research – the printed manual could afford to be a little more elaborate, especially about the app – I liked the idea of the WiFi and being able to see the playback on my phone, but for some reason I couldn’t get it to sync up with my phone so that was a bit of a bust. Perhaps it was because I had a shitty signal out at sea, but even back home I couldn’t get it to sync up, ah well.
All in all, it’s a pretty decent video camera, easy to use and good quality overall – check it out at the Sony Online shop retailing at S$399 without the accessories. If anyone else has used the Sony Action Cam, do chip in and tell me about your experience with it.
Thanks to Sony and Gerald for loaning me the Sony Action Cam HDR to use on this Maldives trip.