I’ve finally got around to sorting through the photos I took on my trip to Ko Phi Phi a couple of weeks ago. As I mentioned previously apart from my D800 camera I had the loan of a GoPro 4, and at the last minute also a Nikon 1 AW1 which is an underwater version of the Nikon 1 compact range, so I had a lot of fun underwater comparing those 2 cameras. I took a lot of video with both, I was thinking of perhaps doing a comparison video for Youtube but that might have to wait until Santa brings me a new laptop for Christmas, my current machine grinds to a halt trying to edit and render the video files !
I do have some stills for comparison though:
(Nikon on the left, GoPro on the right, both straight out of camera)
The Nikon came with an 11-27.5mm zoom, and even at it’s widest setting there is a huge difference from the GoPro’s fixed lens. GoPro do not seem to publicise their focal length, and Lightroom just says it is an f2.8. You can tweak some of the GoPro settings in their “protune” mode but basically what you see is what you get, while the Nikon AW1 has the full range of modes and settings. You can shoot RAW, various JPG qualities, or RAW+JPG, using shutter or aperture priority, manual, program or various scene modes that you typically find on a compact camera.
So with the GoPro you should get some decent photos straight out of the box while you might not with the Nikon. While you can adjust it to improve your photos, you could also make things worse by choosing the wrong setting. One of it’s settings is an underwatermode, with 3 sub settings : standard, scuba and closeup, but no explanation of what standard meant. I started in standard mode and found the colour balance and shutter speeds a bit strange, I’m guessing that mode is meant for on the surface. I switched to scuba mode and got much better photos, especially after turning auto ISO off and just setting it to 1600. Auto ISO would set a high ISO and get a fast shutter speed for one photo, then seconds later in similar light it would change to a low ISO and a slow shutter speed resulting in one good photo and one blurred one !
Scuba mode is a bit of a misnomer though, as the camera is only waterproof to 14m and most scuba divers would go beyond that depth. The GoPro is rated to 40m, but I think any serious underwater photographer would be buying an underwaterhousing and a DSLR rather than either of these 2 cameras. (If you want to see some examples look at Indah’s underwater photographs here ) For just snorkelling though these would be fine IMHO.
For video I used both cameras with a one metre ‘selfie stick” to get deeper and closer without scaring the fish away so much, just press the record button and lower the camera down. With the Nikon set at around 12-15mm focussing seemed OK, and of course the GoPro has a really wide depth of field.
The GoPro has a timelapse mode where it will take a photo every 0.5 to 60 seconds depending on what you set, which I used for still photos with the selfie stick, find something interesting, start the timelapse and aim the camera and hopefully you will get at least some photos at the right moment. You will almost certainly get lots of duds too though ! You could just use normal photo mode and handhold the camera but with the GoPro’s wideangle lens you would have to really get close up to fill the frame.
The Nikon does not have a timelapse mode, so your only option for underwater stills is to handhold and press the shutter button manually. With the 11-27.5mm zoom you do not have to get so close as with the GoPro but focussing can be a bit tricky at 27mm while you are swimming along ! It did tend to hunt for focus quite a lot.
The Silver edition of the GoPro 4 has a touchscreen on the rear, but you can only use that with the “touch backdoor” which is only waterproof to 3 metres, not much good for snorkelling, so you would have to change settings by pushing the mode and select buttons.
The Nikon’s controls are a lot easier to read and use in the water, including a “motion control” where you press one button then tilt the camera to select a different mode.
If you do set it to an underwater mode you will get a “nag screen” telling you to make sure the battery and card compartment is clean of sand and grit and to make sure the door is closed and locked.
I had the screen “auto off “ function for both cameras set to one minute and had enough battery life to get a full afternoons snorkelling from both, although the Nikon has a GPS location and depth/altitude log which would probably drain the battery if I had left it turned on.
So, what camera would I choose to buy for a snorkelling holiday ? GoPro or Nikon AW1 ?
To be honest I am not sure, but probably the Nikon AW 1. Both cameras take good videos, but the stills from the Nikon are slightly better to my eye plus as it shoots RAW you can edit and adjust colour cast more than you can with the JPGs of the GoPro. It is also a more capable camera out of the water than the GoPro for holiday snapshots, but of course if you are also planning on going bungee jumping or other extreme holiday activities the GoPro comes into it’s own then.
But I think this needs more research, so I am going on a live-aboard snorkelling trip to the Similan Islands in February and I’ve already got the loan of both cameras again ! Yes, it’s a tough life, is n’t it.
UPDATE: after my trip to the Similans I have uploaded a couple of videos, one for each camera. For the Gopro see https://youtu.be/E81pkw8YdBY and for the Nikon version it is at https://youtu.be/j0iqaRegaP4. I am working on a direct comparison, pre colour correction, but I might need to make another trip for more footage 🙂