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Monday, 29 November 2010

Review: Kodak PlaySport HD Video Camera

KC game me a Kodak Playsport Zx3 camera to take to Maui to shoot underwater pictures and movies.

I don't tend to shoot a lot of movies in the first place; I have had the ability to do movies (including HD ones) on my last 3 digital cameras and basically never used it. So I was mostly interested in something that was good for shooting underwater, and that was good enough that I could take it skiing with me in the winter.

The PlaySport isn't it. I don't recommend the device at all.

First the Pros:
1) The thing is a breeze to use. Point and push the button to record. Push the same button to stop recording. Switching between 5 MP still pictures and various movie qualities is easy.

2) The photo quality is good, usually. For the times when it's not, see #6 in the Cons section below.

3) It's reasonably well designed for right handed people, with the control buttons in logical places.

4) I'm pretty sure you could operate the start/stop button with gloves on.

Now the cons:
1) The screen can't be seen in bright sunshine or underwater. Kodak claims it added "filter" modes to the display to make this better, but they don't make a darn bit of difference. So it's a "point and hope" camera underwater, and not much better on a sunny day above water.

2) It's not waterproof by any means. On my 3rd day snorkling with it, it leaked and died, turning on but refusing to stay on. After a lot of searching on the web (the documentation is miserable; see #12 below), I found that's how it responds when it leaks. To dry it out, you open the two access doors, remove the battery and memory card, and leave it open for 24hrs. I did this and it dried and started working again. Two snorkel days later, it died the same way (power on them immediatly power off), then an hour later just died for good. Now it won't even power on, and it's because the thing isn't actually waterproof. It's rated to only 3 m, which isn't deep, but I never took it more than 2 m down and it still leaked. It was normal to find water in the HDMI/USB connector compartment at the end of the day.

3) The one button on/off thing is great so long as you know if you're currently on or off. But the red "record" light that tells you if you're on or off is in the display that can't be seen. On numerous occasions, I stopped a recording when I thought I was starting it. I missed several recordings because it was already recording for some reason when I pressed the button. It really should have a separate start and a stop button instead of a single button.

4) Underwater audio is poor at best, and water stays in the microphone when you take it briefly out of the water.

5) The movie files are HUGE; figure 1 Mb per second for 720p mode (and it has a 1080p mode that make even bigger movies). This probably isn't the fault of the camera but of the compression mode used. I ended up shooting only in WVGA mode to reduce the download & upload times.

6) It has an "underwater" mode that supposedly colour corrects underwater shots. However, while better than no colour correction, this mode doesn't correct anywhere near enough. Every photo I took needed additional post processing in iPhoto (all aare too green with poor white balance). Photos taken in very shallow water in bright sunlight were best, but lower light or in cloud and the coulour balance was awful even with underwater mode on. Some samples are below.

This first one is bright sunshine, shallow water, underwater mode on, colour uncorrected. Looks pretty decent.

Cloudy day, shallow water, underwater mode on, colour uncorrected. Looks green.

Same photo, "fixed" in iPhoto by dropping the tint and re-adjusting the white balance.

7) The movies need underwater colour correction too; however, when you move them to iMovie, the already big file size basically increases in size by an order of magnitude (your 18 second, 19 Mb file becomes a 190 Mb iMovie). This isn't the camera's fault, but it still sucks.

This movie was shot with underwater mode on, but is otherwise uncorrected. I was just floating, with the camera never more than 6' underwater in bright sunshine; the total water depth is about 30' (this was really clear). The green cast is still there. If I knew how, I would adjust the white balance and drop the green out of the tint.

8) The underwater mode is forgotton when the unit turns off (or turns itself off). So if it automatically turns itself off in a power save mode while you're snorkling, you need to go through an awkward set of push buttons using a menu on the screen you can't see to turn it back on. My way around this was to put it in underwater mode and set it to take still pictures, then shoot one still every minute or so, switching it to movie mode only when I needed to make movies.

9) You can't control how long the time is before it goes to sleep, and the documentation doesn't tell you (after using it 5 days, I think it's between 90 and 120 seconds).

10) When the battery is removed, the automatic photo counter is reset to 0001, resulting in files with replicate names. This gives iPhoto grief on uploads, because it sees duplicate file names.

11) The owners manual says the batteries basically stop working at -5 C, so it would have to be kept warm for use as a ski camera.

12) Did I mention the documentation was miserable? The paper stuff supplied with the camera was brief, but hey, you can download the extended info on the web. The extended info is vacuous, but it is twice as long.

So the thing is basically a piece of junk. It's bigger and fatter than most cell phones with the only incremental capability being that it's waterproof, and it's actually not waterproof at all. Splashproof maybe, but it's useless for snorkling.

On the bright side, it only cost $150. Now, if KC could only find the receipt, we could send it in for repairs and try to get it working again.

Or we could throw it out, which at this moment is more appealing.

Save your money and buy one of those cheap disposable underwater cameras, then scan the photos you take with it.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Ups and Downs of Beach Life

So yesterday our beach was invaded by nasty Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish. These are not good. Fortunately, they were not big guys; all the ones washed up on the beach were about less than 2" across with tentacles between 6" and 12". But at least 3 people were stung, and even the little ones make red welts like huge bee stings or mosquito bites. Here's a macro shot of one. The bodies are clear, but the tentacles are blue. Fortunately they sparkle in the sun, so were easy to see.

Once folks realized they were there and in the water, the beach pretty much cleared out. These things come into Hawaiian waters on a cycle associated with the moon; box jellies do the same thing. In fact, you can find online calendars that tell you when they're expected. High winds tend to blow them ashore.

Today, when we went back, we checked the high water line and found none before going snorkeling. It was a great snorkel day; we saw 4 turtles, 2 eels and an octopus who was fun to watch because he was being harassed by some fish. The winds were strong this afternoon too; sure enough, more jellies showed up, though not as many as yesterday.

But in with them was a critter I've never seen before. He looked like a jelly but had a shell.

Turns out this is a violet snail, which I think is an exceptionally cool critter. Turns out this little guy eats man-of-war jellyfish, making him my buddy. They are a snail that lives in the ocean and floats on a mass of bubbles, and basically float around at the whims of the wind. Needless to say, if a batch of jellies washes up on shore, these little guys are not usually far behind.

And you thought hanging out on a beach was just about snorkeling and boogie boarding.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Maui Day 1: Sharks & Stuff

I do not intend to post daily while on Maui, but when the first thing I film with my new underwater movie camera is a shark, I just can't help it.

I was snorkeling in a little cove chasing some angelfish when a White Tipped Reef Shark came by. These guys are pretty benign; "docile and approachable" is how my fish guidebook describes them.

I quickly switched to movie mode and followed him swimming along. You can tell I'm new with this camera; he stays too high in the frame (I can't see the display under water) and I didn't stop the thing filming fast enough.

He was about 4' long and about 15' from me at the closest. He didn't seem to care about my presence at all. We were surprised at the lack of fish on the reef; maybe he was why.

Then a huge turtle, who I had seen with his butt parked under a rock, woke up and drifted by.

The last thing I played with was an attempt to shoot a video of a boogie board ride. The waves today were very good for this; not too big and easy to ride. While the "point of view" movies were good, it was far more fun to film KC...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Off to Maui, Again

We're off for the next few weeks to Maui once again. I hope to post occasionally with movies from my new underwater camera while there, so check in occasionally.

Jello will be safe and sound while we are gone; I think he likes our house sitter more than he likes me.

Back on Nov 28...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Lesueur Ridge, Almost

We have planned to go up Lesueur Ridge at the south end of the Ghost for some time, but every time have been foiled by weather. Twice this summer including just a few weeks back, we skipped it because it was overcast & drizzling. Today's forecast was for increasing cloudiness and rain starting late in the afternoon. So we aimed to get the the trailhead early enough to get at least a short loop in before the weather turned.

Based on a detailed road map I obtained from the MD of Bighorn, we opted to get to the trailhead via Richards Road, which runs between the 1A just west of Morley and the Forestry Trunk Road right at the Ghost access road. This was not a good idea. The road is blocked by a very large 50' puddle that is in fact part of a lake that the road skirts. The puddle sits right on the northern boundary of the Stoney Indian Reserve. Here's where the road is blocked, by the lake in the middle of the photo.

And here's a zoomed out shot. Lesueur Ridge is at the top left of the picture, the 1A at the bottom, and Richards Road is marked.

So but for a huge 50' long puddle, we would have been at the trailhead at 2 PM. We tried to go around the lake to the west on something marked as a road on the map and visible in the satellite image, a "road" which skirts the northern boudary of the Stoney Reserve. But this stopped being a road in short order, becoming a deeply rutted truck track. So we had to backtrack down Richard Road to the 1A again, head east on the 1A to the Forestry Trunk Road, then follow it back to the Ghost access road to get to the trailhead. This took almost an hour. The weather was socking in more and more as we drove, and just as we got to the trailhead, it started to rain. Within 5 minutes, it was absolutely pouring, and the temperature had dropped from a tolerable in the rain 14° to a rather less pleasant 5°. So we bailed; the third time was not lucky.

We thought that since we were out here, we would check out Richard Road from the north. Surprisingly, this road is paved (the Forestry Trunk Road here is not). Or at least it's paved to about 2,000' from the lake, where it just stops being a road and starts being a poor truck trail.

So we did no hiking today, disappointing because my friend Marcin from M&M Hikes sent me a GPS track for this route. But we did get to explore the Stoney Reserve, and get barked at by a lot of dogs.