As a photo pro in Indonesia, I see a lot of complex rigs come through with a bewildering array of accessories in tow. And whether they have a compact, mirrorless or full-frame camera at their heart, these systems can leave photographers feeling overwhelmed and outmatched. While there are a handful of rugged compacts on the market that can do double duty underwater, it is only quite recently that the world has been introduced to a new kind of permanently sealed digital camera specifically designed for underwater use—the SeaLife Micro HD.
The SeaLife Micro HD is clearly customized for someone just looking to get into the game and who wants to avoid the hassle of maintenance and the fear of a flood. The idea behind the SeaLife Micro HD, from its leak-free design to its easy-to-use controls, is that you should spend as little time and energy as possible on getting ready to take images or video—and more time actually doing it.
Specifications at a Glance
- Three configuration options: camera only, single photo-video light, and dual photo-video lights
- Permanently sealed and depth-rated to 200 feet (60 meters)
- 13-megapixel still images
- 130-degree f/2.8 fisheye lens (20mm equivalent)
- Full 1080p HD video at 30 frames per second (or 720p at 60fps)
- Instant focus lens (12 inches minimum focus)
- Continuous shooting (1 frame per second)
- Piano key controls
- Internal Li-ion 2400 mAh
The Micro HD's built-in 130-degree lens is designed specifically for capturing wide-angle scenes like this one underwater
About the Micro HD
SeaLife offers two versions of the camera, depending on the user’s needs and budget. The major difference is in the amount of internal storage space: The Micro HD offers 16GB, while the Micro HD+ can store up to 32GB. As well, the Micro HD+ includes the ability to share images and videos directly to your computer or mobile device via Wi-Fi.
Setting aside the differences in storage space, the imaging specifications for the cameras are identical, and more importantly, optimized for underwater photography. Most notably, the camera features a 20mm film equivalent lens with a 130-degree field of view. Having a wide field of view is critical for underwater photography as it allows the photographer to fit large subjects into the frame, as well as to get closer and limit the amount of light-absorbing water between lens and subject. The 20mm lens is considerably wider than that found on most compact cameras.
Three piano keys make for simple operation, even when using thick gloves or in exciting environments where you are more worried about the subjects in front of you than your camera controls
Keeping It Simple with the Micro HD
Sometimes simplicity is a thing of beauty. For those who don’t want to worry about water damage to the camera and still achieve quality results in a variety of underwater (and topside) situations, the Micro HD delivers. To start with, SeaLife has designed the set-up of the Micro HD to be effortless. There’s not a lot that can go wrong, since it’s completely sealed and you only have three configuration options: camera only, single photo-video light, and dual photo-video lights. In the case of using artificial lighting, the Micro HD is designed for use with photo-video lights rather than strobes, which also keeps things simple: The idea is what you see on the display before taking the picture is how the image turns out.
Having the camera permanently sealed not only eliminates the possibility of flooding, but it also streamlines two other tricky elements of underwater imaging: battery charging and memory cards. The exterior of the camera features a waterproof USB port, which charges the camera without the need to fuss over batteries. The USB port also works to transfer files from the built-in memory to your computer or other device.
The simplicity of the camera design continues with the camera controls. Sealife has whittled down the controls to three “piano key” buttons and a large shutter button on top. The Micro HD is built to be rugged enough for any environment, so the wide piano keys are the logical choice as they can be operated with thick gloves. Each of the three piano keys has a dual function: Video/up control, Menu/down control, and Playback/return (also serves as on/off when held for two seconds).
The Micro HD is capable of producing colorful images through its several setup modes, but using additional lights such as SeaLife’s Sea Dragon series adds even more color and contrast
Setting Up the SeaLife Micro HD
Set-up is designed to be as straightforward as possible, and the camera’s “Easy Set-Up” software guides the user through a series of menus to select the proper mode for the shooting conditions. Before each dive (or other topside adventure) you simply have to select between “Land” and “Underwater” modes. Assuming you’re ready to get your camera wet, there are three main modes: “Camera Only,” “Camera + External Light,” and “Camera + 2 External Lights.”
The Camera Only mode is primarily there for using the Micro HD while snorkeling, or other shallow, bright waters where additional artificial light isn’t necessary. If you select the single light option, the camera defaults to 9-megapixel stills at 90 degrees because your video light will unlikely be able to cover a greater field of view. With the increased coverage provided by two lights, “Camera + 2 External Lights” changes the settings to 13-megapixel images at 130 degrees.
To really take advantage of the camera’s maximum field of view, and provide enough even lighting to illuminate an entire wide-angle scene, the use of two lights became my preferred method. However, purchasing two powerful lights like the Sea Dragon 2500 isn’t always in the budget, so the Micro HD is easily expandable and customizable with the array of SeaLife lights, flex connect arms, and grips.
(Editor’s Note: Our user’s guide to SeaLife’s Sea Dragon lights can help you select the proper lighting for your needs.)
Even those completely new to underwater photography will be able to easily find the right mode through the setup menu
Photography with the Sealife Micro HD
I spent a couple of weeks with the camera system in the North Sulawesi region of Indonesia, including Bangka Island and the Lembeh Strait. While the region is perhaps best known for its macro life, wide-angle opportunities abound with soft coral reefs and schooling fish. Opting to use two external lights with a 130-degree field of view is ideal for getting up close and illuminating large subjects and scenes. Bangka dives are punctuated with large soft corals, schools of fish and sponges.
The long focal lengths of many compact camera lenses is great for topside photography, but impractical underwater: you’d have to be four or five feet away to fit a soft coral in the frame, at which point your video lights wouldn’t be able to light the subject. With the 130-degree field of view on the Micro HD, I could fit even large subjects like a giant sponge or schooling fish entirely in the frame at the minimum focus distance of one foot. Being so close minimizes the water column separating the subject from the camera, bringing back color and contrast with the lights.
The minimum focus distance and wide angle of view are ideal for capturing large scenes, while being close enough to illuminate with video lights
Another benefit of having a camera specifically designed for underwater use is that it can optimize color for the underwater world. With so many compact cameras, without choosing a custom white balance setting, blue backgrounds are always washed out—likely the result of white balance modes not optimized for specific underwater environments. With the Micro HD, there are more fine-tuning options for underwater use, including U/W Shallow (shallower than 25 feet) and U/W Deep (deeper than 25 feet). Using the U/W Deep white balance, along with continuous light from my Sea Dragon lights, I produced an image of a colorful lionfish positioned starkly against a blue background.
The camera’s wide built-in lens struggles to capture subjects smaller than six inches. With a minimum focus distance of 12 inches, subjects smaller than the size of a tennis ball are usually too small in the frame. SeaLife does offer a quick-mounting macro wet lens for shooting at distances from 6 to 24 inches. I wasn’t able to test the lens for this review, but the reduced minimum focus distance should allow you to shoot macro subjects with the Micro HD.
The camera’s wide 130-degree field of view is capable of fitting into the frame not only medium-sized subjects, but an entire wide-angle reef scenic
Shooting Video with the Micro HD
As a videographer by trade, I’m always excited to flip the switch (literally) from stills to video. The Micro HD really shines when shooting video. While diving shallow with the sun at my back and using the U/W Shallow white balance, I got some nice results even without the use of video lights. I’d recommend using a tray with two video lights for the best results, as the camera is small and hard to hold steady on its own.
In addition to stills, the Micro HD produces full 1080p HD video at 30 frames per second, which really shows off the beauty of the dives in Indonesia
Who Should Consider the Micro HD?
The Micro HD has one advantage over every other camera: It’s designed to be used underwater. The piano keys, Easy Set-Up mode, and custom white balance settings make it suited for aspiring photographers and videographers who don’t want to worry about maintenance or manuals, but are simply ready to get in the water, in almost any conditions, and start shooting. While the simplicity of the Micro HD makes it ideal for beginners, its 1080p HD video and 13-megapixel still images position it as a camera that will also be an attractive option for more-experienced photographers wanting a straightforward and hassle-free shooting experience.
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