Why the SeaLife HD+ could be a better choice for you

sealife-micro-hd-sea-dragon-pro-1It’s hard to rival the GoPro, one of the top selling cameras in the world for both surface and underwater video. When we received the SeaLife HD+ camera, we quickly decided that the real question divers would ask is: GoPro or SeaLife HD+? When we told our SeaLife contact that we wanted to do a side by side comparison (with GoPro 4 Silver) I think he was a bit nervous about the challenge. He need not have been concerned.

We have to admit a bit of low expectations before testing the HD+ in the challenging waters of the Pacific Northwest. GoPro owns this category and it was clear that, in the right hands, the GoPro already has proven the capacity for great video. Also, while we had found other SeaLife cameras to be great for casual use in tropical waters, they present more of challenge in our green Pacific Northwest waters. This was SeaLife’s bout to lose but they hung in strong for all rounds. We were pleased and surprised to find the HD+ offers divers some big-picture features that may make them happier than their GoPro wielding buddies.

Touted as the “first permanently sealed underwater camera,” the SeaLife Micro HD+ underwater camera is an extremely easy to use, compact alternative to higher-priced cameras and equipment. Since it’s permanently sealed, it’s completely flood-proof – no failure points for leakage, no doors, no openings, no O-rings to have to clean or replace. This feature turned out to biggest selling point for the divers we interviewed. It was easy to find numerous dive buddies who have lost a GoPro to flooding.

The Micro HD+, carries on with the SeaLife tradition of simplicity. Like it’s brother, the DC 1400 camera, it’s a breeze to set up, using the three large “piano” keys. You just pick the choices of diving with a light or not and you’re ready to splash. We do caution however, that it’s worth reading the manual carefully. It has some detailed settings that can improve your experience. We also found that if you just keep the default setting you may find it shutting off or doing something you don’t expect. Still  SeaLife makes it about as easy as it gets.

One of the first things we learned (which will seem obvious to pros) is that filtering only applies when you are not using a light. There is a lot of advice about how you need different filters for your underwater video camera. This should make sense to all divers because you learn in open-water training how water quickly absorbs colors. For tropical dives you are supposed to have one filter for shallow water and and different one for deeper water. If you dive temperate “green waters” you need another filter. A selling-point feature of the SeaLife cameras is that they have included the tropical filters into the software of the camera (but not the green water filter). With a GoPro you have to buy a filter kit that snaps over the lens.

Everyone told us that these filters were very important. But if you’re going to shoot video with a powerful light source, which is all we shoot, the filtering doesn’t matter. Most of the time we simply turned off the filter feature.

The HD+ is compact, comfortable and feels good in your hand despite being significantly larger than the nano-sized GoPro 4 Silver. Now GoPro has released an even smaller GoPro Hero 4 Session camera. But we found that the larger size has a few nice advantages. The SeaLife is easier to manage than the GoPro even with thick wetsuit or drysuit gloves. and feels better in your hand. The size allows for a larger battery that easily beats the GoPro. Poor battery burn times have always been the major complaint with the GoPro. The Micro HD+ also has rugged rubber case for protection against drops.

sealife-micro-HD-underwater-camera-1_1Another place where size comes into play is tech support. Both companies have good tech support. When we called GoPro we got a competent US based agent. When you call SeaLife you are talking to one of the members of a small staff and the tech support “person” has worked with the development of the camera. It is a very personal experience. This has its advantages, but don’t call during lunch on the US east coast.

Combine your HD+ with SeaLife’s new and equally simple Sea Dragon Light and Flex-Connect Trays, Grips, Arms and you have a great grab-n-go video kit. The Flex-Connect system is truly revolutionary. It snaps together and apart with such ease that you can completely reconfigure your setup underwater. This makes it simple to move the light to the best position for the shot.

The SeaDragon light series offer a full range of lumen ratings at affordable prices. Our test kit had the versatile Sea Dragon 2100 Dual Beam light that makes a both a dive light and a video light. It combines an 800 lumen 15 degree* beam for spot diving and an 2100 lumen 100 degree* (out of water) video flood. We are thrilled that SeaLife has combined the dive and video features into one light. Our contact at SeaLife said they are looking to the near future when many underwater photographers will use flood lights instead of electronic flashes. This would eliminate the need for shutter/flash synchronization. The SeaDragon lights come with a removable proprietary and rechargeable  battery. The included SeaDragon travel case is very nice but it would have been better to see them use “white space” in this case for a removable HD+ camera cutout.

*THE BEAM QUESTION:

When LEDs started replacing HID, halogen and tungsten in the dive light market, the lack of standards created a lot of confusion for divers. There really is no great way of comparing dive lights unless you take them underwater. We learned over the years that more watts meant a brighter light. But LEDs lights were rated in either lumens or lux and this rating was used to blow a lot of smoke in customers faces. It was easy to find lights with LED chips rated at 1000 lumens which, when built into a dive light, were putting out half of that.

Daniel Emerson, CEO of Light and Motion is a crusader for standards in the dive light market. He decided to “encourage” the vendors to get on the standards train. He published test results showing the actual lumen ratings of over a dozen different lights and only two lights came at the advised rating (one being the Light and Motion Sola 1200). Now most the big players’ (including SeaLife) dive lights can be trusted with their advertised lumen ratings (not so for your basic budget dive lights by the way).

It was deja vu all over again when LEDs became the choice for video and tech lights. Beam angle doesn’t matter much for a general dive light. But if you have a POV camera with a 140 degree fisheye lens you want the beam angle wide enough to light the important stuff. On the other end of the spectrum tech divers often prefer single digit FOV so they can use the tight beam to signal a buddy.

Emerson is now testing advertised beam angles. He finds the same manufacturers (including SeaLife) that used inflated lumen ratings are now advertising beam angles with two important words missing – “IN WATER.” Again Light and Motion is leading the charge for change. They test their lights in water and advertise them that way. They also publish comparative ratings for competitors. The in-water rating for the SeaLife SeaDragon advertised at 100 degree beam angle (in air) is only 39 degrees (in water).

We still give the SeaDragon lights high marks but wish that SeaLife would join the standard and advertise the light with its in water beam angles. Be an educated consumer and realize that 60 degree beam angle on a Light and Motion will have about 20 degrees more beam angle underwater than the 100 degree SeaDragon. That still made for good video but it’s good to know what you are purchasing.

By the way, note that the field of view of any camera is also measured in air so, like the lights, it will be much less underwater.

One cannot be sure but we believe that the pricing of SeaDragon light has caused Light and Motion and others to lower the price of their competitive products.

How many lumens you actually need is a question heard not only among the divers but likely would be loudly expressed by many of our subjects in the underwater world, like the sleeping octopus we shine our light upon, or the school of fish that scatters when hit with out intense light beams. We shot some of our test video with the Sola 1200 and found that it was plenty for us. Macro videos looked better at even lower lumen settings. We recommend that you make sure your choice of lights has a low-med-high settings.

A “SEALED” PARADOX:

We had to chuckle at what “seems” to be a marketing paradox that comes from having to tout a sealed camera and a accessible light system that opens to replace batteries. The HD+ camera is vigorously promoted as having the advantage of being sealed but never leaking. This illustrates the pros of the “never leak” system but not the cons. For instance, while you don’t have to change batteries or recharge between dives, you have to send the camera back to the factory when the battery wears out. The SeaDragon light is vigorously promoted as having a removable battery that you can change between dives. (This great feature is positioned as competing with the Sola from Light and Motion sealed lights). We found both brands of lights worked very well for us and battery life was not an issue on our dive trips. One caveat is, should the SeaDragon battery compartment leak, the company claims water cannot enter the sealed electronics of the light system. To sum up, both the sealed and accessible systems offer great advantages and a few trade offs depending on your personal needs.

While you can do without filters if you have the SeaDragon light, you will want the macro lens attachment. Without it we regularly got too close and blurred our images. This is same issue with either the Micro HD+ or the GoPro. The HD+ has a simple macro lens that snaps on to the case and hangs from a strap while not in use. We used it most of the time with good results. The SeaLife macro lens looks really cheap (like 50 cent magnifying glass cheap) but it did a fine job. I wouldn’t step on it, however, as it looks like it would crush easily.

VIDEO TRANSFER:

Both cameras have a built in WiFi and this makes it easy to view or transfer your videos.  The GoPro system is much more advanced and you can easily control the camera with your smartphone. But both systems will get your video from one device to another. We were able to play the SeaLife videos direct to our 70 inch TV. This did not work well with the GoPro. The Micro HD+ shoots video in a standard format. The GoPro uses a propitiatory format that can be converted.

Both cameras can also transfer and charge via USB cable. The connection on the HD+ plus is a little kludgy and you will likely lose the small adapter and/or the rubber insert at some point so get an extra.

THE VERDICT:

Before you just follow the GoPro herd you should think carefully about what you really want and need in an underwater video kit. The prices of both cameras are similar. SeaLife offers an alternative that may be the smart choice, making you a happy diver. We found using the SeaLife felt like a more relaxing choice because of its grab and go, no leak, no assembly design.

As for quality of video; In blind testing everyone said the side-by-side SeaLife and GoPro videos were equally good quality on both small and big screens.

POV cameras are not still cameras. The SeaLife and GoPro will both take still photos. They do video well but keep your expectations low on still photos.

The SeaLife camera also comes in a cheaper HD (non plus) option. Our recommendation? Just spend the money and get the HD+.

After out of the box testing of both the SeaLife HD+ and the GoPro Hero 4 Silver we were pleasantly pleased with the HD+. The side by side comparison videos were of equal quality when both camera’s setting were matched. When we laid out our findings quite a few divers said they would choose the HD+ over the GoPro. Certainly the GoPro has a larger range of features that will make it a choice for pros. But it is our impression that a majority of the divers who want to shoot underwater video prefer the simple, leakproof, grab-and-go choice offered by the HD+. One said, “I don’t want to be afraid I am going flood my camera on every dive.” if that’s how you feel, the Micro HD+ is this camera is for.

IF….You don’t want to have to overthink the process. You don’t want to have to disassemble and carefully reassemble your you camera kit between dives. You want a simple camera kit with big buttons that you can manipulate underwater. You want to leave all that complexity to the video-geeks. What are we talking about? You want a SeaLife Micro HD+.

We hope this helps you make a decision. You can check out the details for all the SeaLife cameras and lights at http://www.sealife-cameras.com.

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