Canon Powershot D30

REAL WORLD Review

The Powershot D30 is the latest in Canon's line of waterproof & shockproof cameras. Designed to be a take-anywhere camera that will still produce reliably good photos at the end of the day, the D-series have been around since 2009. Back in the day, unless you wanted to spend money on a more capable camera with a suitable housing, this style of action-cam was your only real option and as such, filled the niche pretty well. As well as that, it's been a firm favourite as a casual, family-friendly camera to use on holiday & around the pool.

However, of late Canon have seen competition from a new angle. With the arrival & adoption of Go Pro Hero-series cameras, the D-series are facing tougher challenges than ever before. 

I've taken the latest in the D-series - D30 - and pushed it to the limit of its design to see if this 12 megapixel device can meet the claims Canon says it can.

 

Out Of The Box

The camera, a battery and charger and wrists strap are all you get.

Usage & Handling

I've split my review into two sections, focusing first on the general useage and out-of-water performance initially then the underwater capability later. First impressions are that it's a very simple camera - easy to use with a sensible, no frills control layout which Canon have sensibly adopted from their other compact lines. Closer inspection of the functions & the menu shows the full extent of the camera's features & shooting modes which follow equally simple lines. The most advanced shooting mode is Program mode though there are a few other specialised options such as underwater macro, snow and the more common "scene" modes such as fireworks, miniature & toy-camera. For more casual photographers this will be fine but having only the P mode to give any degree of control will no doubt frustrate anyone more serious about their photography (unless you're an idiot). It was something of a surprise to be so restricted, I must admit, and did annoy me quite a bit in the early days of playing with the camera. It firmly places it in the casual/amateur camp but on reflection, this is exactly the niche Canon is trying to fill.

With so few options available to you when shooting, it's very literally a point and shoot. Everything is tailored completely around taking essentially all technical choice out of the hands of the photographer. Generally speaking, under good conditions it does a correspondingly good job, just like you'd expect from a beginner level compact. For those who use it on holiday, especially in bright & sunny conditions, it can produce nice results.

The three main buttons, namely the power, shutter and movie mode, are prominently placed on the top and are easy to find & use underwater.

It's a very family-friendly camera. Big, chunky buttons and a decent size screen help with useability and Canon have rated it shockproof to 2 metres. I tested this a fair few times, occasionally on purpose, and can attest that it does indeed survive a drop onto concrete from that height. A very useful feature to have! Even the screen seemed to be tougher than others I've used, no doubt due to sturdier construction to survive underwater pressure. The front lens is also covered by an additional layer of toughened glass to help it survive pressure.

Large buttons, a large, scratch-proof screen and rugged grips definitely fit the tough, action-cam styling

In normal, day-to-day operation the D30 does everything you'd expect from a camera at this price aimed at this market. Even if you don't expect to push the camera to its water- & shock-proof limits, if you want something to take on holiday with the kids it will be a decent job. You can trust it to a child and not worry they will break it. This is a very useful feature, not only because it will save your main camera or phone from damage but giving a child a take-anywhere camera might just help to promote their photography and creativity because you won't need to constantly keep an eye on them!

The second part of the review was the area I was MUCH more interested in and where I spent the bulk of my time testing it - the underwater capability. Based on discussions with visitors to the site & on scuba diving forums, it seems to be a common question. Is the D30 worth getting or do you need to spend more money on another camera and a dedicated camerato get decent results? This is what I set out to test.

The first thing to note is the water-sealing elements themselves. Like with a dedicated underwater housing for another camera, the key components that make the camera water-tight are O-rings. These, shown in the image below, are yellow rubber rings that make each of the internal compartments watertight. It's VERY important to check these before using the camera underwater as a compromised O-ring will turn your D30 into a bright blue brick immediately. Make sure they are dirt & grit free, they aren't already wet and the rubber is still supple and not cracked. Ensure the ring is correctly seated all the way around the edge of the hatch.

In bringing you this review, I have a confession. The first D30 I used worked OK on land but taking it on my first shallow dive it worked for a few seconds then abruptly died, never to turn back on. The seals were fine, the camera was in perfect working order before hitting the water... yet still it died. Doing research across major camera retailers & online shopping sites, this seems to be a fairly common problem. I'm not wholly surprised, it's a very low-cost option after all, and the general trend I've seen is that cameras are either going to leak immediately they are used or are fine. There don't seem to be many cases where the camera works for a few months then abruptly breaks, and all the cases I did contact people it seems like they weren't taking proper care of the O-rings. If you do buy a D30, make sure you buy from a place with a cast-iron returns policy.

The second review unit I tried was absolutely fine in all aspects.

While using it underwater I tested it in two main environments - the swimming pool and on a 6-dive liveaboard scuba trip to Malaysia - and I'll discuss all the quirks, features & flaws you'll likely encounter in an underwater environment.

If you've been diving you will know the effect the water has on colour. Red light is absorbed so everything looks a lot bluer and the water absorbs sunlight so everything is darker, especially as you dive deeper. To offset the former, the camera has a preset underwater white balance which adds in a lot of extra red to the final image. This can either be set manually and applicable to all your photos or is automatically applied when you choose the underwater macro mode. This mode is one of the two main ways you will likely end up using the camera and is designed to let you get close-up images of fish & marine life.

The four images below show a comparison of images shot in underwater macro & "regular macro" modes. See the comments for some unusual quirks I've noticed.

This is a beach-ball shot less than a metre below the surface of the water in a swimming pool, shot in Underwater Macro mode at the widest focal length. You can see from my leg on the right that the white balance is quite red and it's most noticeable when compared to the third image.

The underwater macro mode at full zoom, at effectively 140mm. Although the lighting was very good, being so close to the surface on a sunny day, you can see that the results are very good. The sharpness is especially good; you'll just have to trust me but it's rendering the print quality of the inflatable beach ball very well!

This is the exact same scene shot in normal macro mode and AWB. Probably a lot closer to what you'd expect looking at a beach-ball underwater! Quality at this wide-angle setting is pretty good here. 

This is the first oddity I noticed. When I enabled macro mode - but not Underwater Macro mode - then tried to zoom in to the full 140mm focal length like image 2 above, in this mode it absolutely refused to focus. On close inspection, it actually disables macro mode for about 1/3 of the zoom range.

This is bizarre. You can only use the camera for it's full macro capability in Underwater Macro mode. Standard macro seems to have a different set of parameters to underwater macro for some inexplicable reason!

I'll talk more about the AWB vs underwater white balance mode in the image quality section but in general useage it also highlighted another significant flaw of the camera. It can only shoot JPG, RAW shooting is not an option. This is a big problem. Even though the camera does have a dedicated UW-white balance and a small degree of tweaking is possible in photoshop, the ability to correct the white balance of a JPG is much reduced. This is a big oversight on Canon's part in my opinion and it limits the overall image quality you can expect to get out of the camera - the net effect of the decision will ultimately only serve to frustrate people who want to get the best image quality.

Another drawback is the battery life. Although the camera did make it through each of my hour-long dives, it did need recharging between sessions and in a couple of cases it was flashing red just before the end. This isn't a huge surprise, it's a small camera with a small battery. To be fair, I didn't even expect it to last the whole hour. My recommendation is to get a couple of batteries and make sure you keep them charged.

The battery life is even more of a cause for concern when you use the built-in flash although personally I found my results when I deliberately chose to use it were mixed. Generally speaking, you only need the flash for macro shots but beware - the efficacy of flash underwater depends hugely on the conditions and when it's fired head-on like it is mounted on the D30 it is often not that useful or flattering. Backscatter is the main problem. I've demonstrated this in the image quality section below, but generally speaking you need to light your subject from the sides using dedicated strobes and firing it from the front doesn't always work. It's useful to have as an option but it will drain the battery quickly and the net effect can be hit and miss. I kept the flash turned off and only manually used it for very specific purposes.

Focusing above ground the camera is good. It's pretty similar in terms of speed & accuracy to most compact cameras or smartphone cameras, and is at its best at wide angles. When zoomed in to the full reach of the lens the screen lags in all but the brightest conditions and getting focus locked on your target is much more hit & miss. Underwater, the AF is better than I'd expected but struggles at the telephoto end too. If you have good technique and hold the camera as steady as you can before, during and after the shutter has been pressed you will see better results.

I've mentioned the controls & menu already but underwater it really does shine. Big buttons, easy menus and simple controls are definitely very useful in those conditions and the big red movie button is especially handy! Generally speaking most underwater photos are either wider-angle scenic shots or close-in efforts trying to capture details of coral or underwater life and its very easy to switch between these two modes quickly and easily.

I don't normally mention the strap with a camera as it's usually the first thing I replace but for an underwater camera it's particularly important it does the job - in this case, it definitely does.

The camera itself is negatively buoyant so if you drop it, it's sinking. It's rated at 25 metres and I took it to this depth without a single problem.

Image Quality

With so few controls available to the photographer it's important that the images it produces in auto-mode are satisfying enough. In P-mode, the only option we have is setting the ISO.  In shallow water, or playing around beside the pool, it's likely the camera will stick in the ISO 100-400 range and the image quality here is pretty good, definitely very useable. From 800 and above the ISO quality drops significantly and shooting conditions are even more important.

In each image I'll go through the background to the photo and point out areas of interest.

The leaf above was shot in an essentially perfect underwater setting, very close to the surface on a sunny day. ISO 100-400 were indistinguishable and of good quality so the triptych image below shows ISO 800, 1600 and 3200 from left to right. 800 isn't bad, 1600 is quite respectable although bear in mind it's the centre of the frame in the best conditions you will ever get underwater and using a stationary subject. 3200 is poor, detail is lost and the colour has changed noticeably. I'd advise never using 3200 if you can help it.

The beginning of a long day. Shot at 6 in the morning at ISO 800, the black areas are quite clean and the image still is relatively sharp. Colours are a little dull & muted though, in reality things were more vibrant.

I wanted to show an example early on of what the camera can do when things pan out perfectly. This was quite deep, but I'd steadied myself and the fish seemed to be comfortable with my presence. They still moved quickly when I did, but settled down when I made a concerted effort to stay still.

Lit with the flash in Underwater Macro mode, this shows you CAN get good underwater shots on your dive but I must stress, this was one of only a few that were good enough for my standards.

You can still see flaws, specifically that the flash has lit the particulate matter in the water. This is the backscatter and is very, very hard to avoid unless you're in super calm & clean water.

This is an "almost-made it" shot. The fish are blurred, the backscatter is horrible and the higher ISO is evident.  Such a shame!

A weird sea-anemone, this shot shows the typical results I'd get using flash with the D30. This level of backscatter is very typical when using a front-set flash.

Here the flash brings out the colours of the coral and the backscatter isn't such a problem. I was pleased and surprised this shot came out OK as at the time the AF was struggling to lock.

This is what the underwater white balance does to skin tones when you forget to turn it off! 

Despite being only a few metres away from a fellow diver as we sit stationary in shallow water - at 3m on our safety stop - using the lens at full zoom the camera has focused on bubbles rising from below rather than the much more obvious and contrasty target.

Really impressive sharpness on these sea-urchin spines! The little white dots on the black urchins are part of the animal.

The black, sausage like object is a sea-cucumber. I'm not sure what the peculiar object it's touching is but I think it's another type of cucumber. This shows the effect of not using the underwater white balance.

Dynamic range isn't great but it has at least managed to avoid blowing out the sky while keeping some detail in the shadowy area of the boat.

The D30 also offers video shooting as you'd expect from a modern camera and features full HD recording as well as 120/240 fps slow-motion recording at 640x480 or 320x240 resolution respectively. A sample of the latter is shown below and as you can see the resolution is hopelessly bad. Compared to what's available on other compacts, this feels like a token effort and I never found any real world use for it. The full HD mode at 24fps was considerably better but again the overall quality depended hugely on the shooting conditions. You'll certainly get some memorable video of your swimming/diving adventures to share on YouTube & Facebook but it'll be far from professional standard.

Specifications

  • 12.1 megapixel sensor
  • Built in 5x optical zoom, 28-140mm (35mm equiv.)
  • Aperture range from f/3.9 (wide) - f/4.8 (tele)
  • 3" LCD screen, 0.46mp resolution
  • Waterproof to 25 metres
  • Shockproof to 2 metres

Conclusion

I've written & rewritten this conclusion so many times as I settled on my final thoughts! Initially I was quite dimissive of the camera and this opinion was reinforced when the first unit I received failed abruptly on just the first dive. With the absence of manual controls I wrote the camera off as one-trick pony and the trick - the waterproofing - didn't even work!

Still, I persisted with it and the second unit was a better experience, mostly because of how it worked underwater. Because I started from a photography purist standpoint I ended up frustrated. Watching others use it on the liveaboard I noticed they didn't care at all that it lacked a full suite of controls and features. It took pictures that looked OK and they liked it. That is one of the main standout highlights for this camera; a point & shoot just like your phone but which is MUCH more sturdy & reliable and where you can take it anywhere. 

As for it being an option for a serious underwater camera... that's more difficult to answer. It is certainly capable of producing the occasional very good image, and will produce some decent underwater shots to help you remember your holidays & dive trips. The HD video is pretty good too and at the price point you'd struggle to get the equivalent quality elsewhere. In essence, you can expect to get typical point & shoot quality a fair amount of the time and the occasional really good shot. Is it better than a dedicated camera in a housing? No, definitely not. With the latter having manual controls and the ability to control flash much better it was never realistically going to. Getting good shots from the D30 can occasionally feel like luck is a bigger factor than photographer judgement.

Where this camera is best suited is for the casual holiday/snorkelling crowd or for a diver who is looking for something cheap to video their experiences, maybe catching the odd snapshot for their dive log. At a push, I think it could actually fill the role as a cheap intro to underwater photography, something to help you decide if it's something you want to take more seriously. At first I wondered if it was going to be competition for something like a Go Pro - it really isn't, but that's because it's doing a different job entirely.  A Go-Pro would undoubtedly give better video quality, probably be as hit-and-miss for stills and is considerably more expensive. The normal progression for someone looking to get into underwater photography has usually been a compact camera with manual controls, such as an S120, before migrating up to a DSLR, attaching various dedicated strobes along the way. I can see the D30 fitting in as a preceding step before the compact camera option. Divers can buy a D30 and see if they are interested in taking it further; if you decide it's not for you, it's far cheaper than getting a Go-Pro or compact plus housing and you still have something for snorkelling or messing around in the pool. Don't expect miracles from it and it won't disappoint.

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Strudy, reliable, family friendly camera that will take (almost) anything you throw at it
  • Camera is rated waterproof to a depth exceeding that of most recreational divers!
  • HD video quality is pretty good

Cons

  • Image quality is hugely dependent on luck & conditions, no RAW is a major oversight
  • Slow-mo video is hopelessly bad
  • Lack of manual controls
  • Battery life is only borderline; may run out on longer dives