Canon Sure Shot A1 Underwater 35mm Compact

"Where's that fish going to be in 10 seconds?" A SCUBA review.
Mar 17 '03 (Updated Mar 17 '03)

Author's Product Rating
Product Rating: 3.0

Ease of Use:
Photo Quality:
Battery Life:

Small, light, durable, inexpensive

Underwater image quality is barely adequate

The Bottom Line
Until a dedicated underwater digital camera arrives, this is a somewhat workable stop-gap for divers.
Full Review
I bought this camera as an alternative (antidote) to hauling around Nikonos or underwater-housed digital camera big-rigs. Therefore, this review covers the use of this camera only as used for SCUBA, i.e. underwater, not on land.

As anyone who must occasionally carry their own dive gear knows, a Nikonos rig is like a cancer; it just keeps getting bigger, bulkier and more obtrusive (and expensive). With multiple off-camera strobes, close-up fixtures, mounting brackets, etc., I've seen yard-long monsters that take two people to gingerly handle. Add to all that an underwater housings that is the size of a small refrigerator and you've got a rig that will scare away anything and everything for a 1/2 mile. Pretty soon you've got more pelican cases than dive gear.

Sooner or later, at least for me, it all becomes too much. All that preparation, all that cleaning, all that hauling; it can make recreational diving feel like work. But every time I dive without a camera, something miraculous always happens.

The idea of a small, cheap, durable underwater camera that I could sneak away in my BCD pocket, while not providing the Nikonos-quality shots, would at least allow me to document some of the otherwise missed images. Further, the small camera is much less likely to touch the coral; something I am loathe to do.

The choices I researched where the Sea & Sea MX-n line, the Minolta Vectis Weathermatic APS system and the Canon Sureshot A1. The Sea & Sea was pretty large and expensive (around $450) for what I considered a small throw-away camera. The Weathermatic had some cool features, but used heinous APS film, which is just a bit better than the old 110 sized film and just as limited in options. So the Canon won the day.

The Sureshot A1 documentation does not try to hide the fact that the camera is warranted to be functional and waterproof only down to 5 meters (16.4 feet.) Unfortunately, coral walls start anywhere from 20 to 120 feet and continue to much deeper. This impasse is the reason I wanted to spend as little as possible on the camera.

Until about 45 feet down, the camera works just as it did at 15 feet. Below 45 feet, an interesting thing happens: the shutter release is pressed down automatically by the water pressure. This can be overcome by turning off the camera until just before you want to take a shot. Turning on the camera, then, in tantamount to taking a shot.

At about 55 fsw the self-timer button is also automatically pressed down by the pressure. This is a little trickier to overcome: you have to plan your shot for 10 seconds into the future. Turn the camera on and the self-timer light in the front starts blinking immediately. I have taken numerous shots of myself looking into the lens to see what's happening before I figured the self timer thing out. Now I catch myself thinking, "where's that fish going to be in 10 seconds?"

I have found that a depths deeper than 65 feet, the camera is so crushed by the pressure that the camera back pushes the film plane slightly out of focus. Out of morbid curiosity, I found that at about 95 feet the film is so pinched between the back and the innards, the films advance jams. But amazingly the camera, mine at least, does not leak (or implode).

Aside from the obvious pressure-related issues, the camera was clearly built for above-water use. Underwater, the camera has only three modes, all are fixed apature:

1) No flash: 3.25 to 10 ft fixed focus (apparent 2.5 to 7.5 ft)
2) Force flash: 3.25 to 10 ft fixed focus (apparent 2.5 to 7.5 ft)
3) Force flash macro: 1.5 to 3.25 ft fixed focus (apparent 1 to 2.5 ft)

The no flash and flash modes can be set on the camera dial, but the macro mode is spring-loaded and requires two hands to operate; one for the shutter release and one to hold down the dial. The prefocus ranges are generally inadequate: I find I want to shoot things that are either 12 to 20 feet away or, more often, 3 to 11 inches away.

Although there is a faint guide in the viewfinder, parallax error can become an film-burner when used in macro mode as the viewfinder lens does not change aspect at closer ranges. Parallax error occurs when the camera is close enough to the subject that the viewfinder and the camera lens are pointing at different parts of the frame. A common symptom of parallax is decapitation in close-up shots.

Image quality:
Remembering the limitations of the prefocus ranges is the primary barrier to making good images with this camera. Underwater, things appear about 1/3 closer than they are, so you've got to remember to keep the distances in mind when framing a shot. Most of my blown shots where blurry from getting too close to the subject.

The flash is another problem in that it doesn't illuminate much past 4 feet. Having the flash on-camera results in hot-spots and casting awkward shadows in macro mode, but that's to be expected. In general, though, the exposures have adequate density and exposure.

It's typical to use 400 speed print film, which is grainier and coarser than a slower speed film. I haven't tried using slide film yet, but I get the feeling it wouldn't really work. Altogether, the images are barely adequate to make 4.6 prints from.

I've loaded about 50 rolls of film in and out of this camera and, as I mentioned above, have never had a leak. But then I'm pretty accustomed to underwater camera care and maintenance and it is routine to soak the camera in a bucket of fresh water after each use. I haven't repacked (greased) the o-rings yet, but it's on my to-do. ;)

Annoying Disclaimer:
I cannot be held responsible for what you do with your property, and I do not advise voiding the warranty of your camera. This review is intended to be informational, not advisory.


Amount Paid (US$): 130.00