Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sony Sportspack First Look

The Sony Sportspack is an underwater enclosure for Sony brand camcorders. This is actually the third model, which works with most Sony camcorders made after 2006. The Sportspack provides protection from rain, snow and sand, and can be used underwater down to 17 feet. This is really a bit of a mashup between an unboxing and a First Look, as I have yet to do any serious testing of the Sportspack.

The Sony Sportspack arrived at the end of a couple of very wet weeks, and immediately the weather improved. I was really hoping for some heavy rain to give it a test, but since then, we’ve had two very fine weeks, with a threat of a third, and I can’t help thinking that the camera gods are having a laugh at my expense.

Anyway, it’s a very cool piece of gear; all clear acrylic and white plastic. It opens at the back, and there’s an O-ring that you are supposed to inspect and grease (and replace after a year.) The camera sits on a large plastic shoe, and several different shoes are included to match different models. It turned out that the one inside the unit matched my camera (there’s a table in the instructions to show which camera goes with each shoe.) You are also supposed to install a "reflex prevention ring" on the front of the camera. It’s unclear what this does; it barely covered the front of the HDV-XR500V I tested with; and I can’t really figure out what’s it does unless it’s just there to stop the flash from firing. The instructions say it "prevents external light from being reflected inside the sports pack and entering the lens." It was a little difficult to attach; at first I wasn’t sure if it screwed on or was pushed on. It turn’s out that it’s screwed on; and you have to be very careful threading it.

Inserting camera into unit

The controller cable is long enough that you can easily connect the camera while it’s outside the unit, and then push it in. The unit is not huge, but there’s a lot of space around the XR500V.

On the side of the unit is a mirror that flips out, and has two ‘shades” that flip up and down to anchor the mirror as well as shade it. Unfortunately, this makes it impossible to see the camera screen from above. It’s a pity they couldn’t have angled the mirror a little, which might have let you look down from the top as well as from the back. Admittedly an angled mirror would be distorted, but it would be better than nothing.

Mirror Unit

The large control buttons let you power on and off the camera, as well as zoom in and out and start and stop recording. You can also take stills if you want. These controls are large and require a real “push” to operate. You aren’t going to be finessing the zooms with this. And though this unit is a Sony unit, and is intended and sold only for their cameras, you could easily put another small camcorder in there; you’d just have to start recording before you put the camera in the unit, and you’d have no control over zooming.

First Tests
After two weeks of no rain, I decided to take the Sportspack down to a local pond and try it out. First I reread the instructions, and discovered that you aren’t supposed to leave it closed when not in use as that can damage the O-ring – oops.

As instructed, I took out the O-ring and greased it, then I dropped some anti-fog on the inside of the glass front of the unit. The instructions suggested using a cotton swab to apply the solution. I tried one of those cotton buds you stick in your ear (unused.) That worked okay for spreading the stuff, but didn’t do a good job of cleaning up the excess. In fact the glass looked awfully wavy after I was done. In the end, I used an old cotton t-shirt to clean the glass.

Unit Controls

I then filled a large plastic bin with water and took the Sportspack for a dunk test. That seemed to work fine, so I put the camera in, and repeated the test (figuring that if the camera was going to get wet, clean water was marginally better than dirty pond water.) That worked fine too, so I put on my rubber boots, grabbed a towel and a container of clean water (to rinse after dunking in the pond water) and drove down to the pond.

That’s when I discovered that my rubber boots leaked!

I did manage a quick dunk test, which failed miserably. Not because the unit failed to keep the water out, but because I didn’t realize how “high” the lens is in the unit. I put it over half way into the water, figuring I wanted to get a shot just under the water, as the water was pretty dark and hazy. It turned out that the lens of the camera wasn’t even under the water! Still the unit was mostly under water, and worked, so even a failed test can add to your knowledge!

The only other thing I noted from this abortive test is how difficult it is to see what’s going on with the view finder. Perhaps that’s underlined by the fact that I didn’t realize that the camera wasn’t “under water,” when it was shooting.

In conclusion, the unit seems nicely put together and you really feel like Jacques Cousteau waving it around. And it seems to protect the camera just fine; if my dunk test is anything to go by. It’s not without limitations, but if you want to take an expensive camera out into the rain to play, it makes for some good protection. I hope to actually rack up some hours using the thing, and then I’ll post more.

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