Should you get a Canon S90 for snorkeling like I did? Yep. It is a fantastic snorkeling camera, and the newest version of it, the S120, is featured on our best snorkeling cameras page.
The S120 now has HD video with a dedicated button, faster shooting and focusing speeds, and a better sensor and an even faster lens at F1.8.
As much as I love this camera, it is not perfect, nor will it be correct for everyone.
Buying the Canon S90 was yet another step in my progress toward getting better pictures while snorkeling, without having the price and size hassle of a DSLR camera and housing. For the last number of years I have gotten a different camera before each snorkel trip, and when I get back I find something I am not thrilled about, and I start looking for a replacement. Not anymore. I will be sticking with the Canon S90 for snorkeling for awhile. I frankly love it, in and out of the water.
The Canon S90 is great for snorkeling. What makes it so unique compared to every other camera available previously is that it has full manual controls in a very small camera, that still has excellent image quality. It also has optical vibration reduction, and very good high ISO performance.
What's great about the Canon S90 (S95) For Snorkeling?
Manual Control Rings
It has two physical control rings, one around the lens on the front of the camera, and one on the back of the camera. You can set these rings to control your F-stop, shutter speeds, ISO, and a variety of other settings.
With previous point and shoot cameras that had a wide angle lens, I tended to get very soft corners in the pictures. This is due to the way water refracts light when you use a flat port on the underwater housing. But with the Canon S90, I have the ability to manually stop down the f-stops on the lens, which greatly reduces this issue. Most often I would stop the camera down to F5, to get good depth of field and sharper corners. And it worked. Although at times I would get soft pictures because of camera and fish motion. So I started to learn when I needed to not stop the lens down as much, and instead opt for faster shutter speeds.
White Balance Adjusting With One Button Push
One superb feature of the Canon S90 is that you can program a button on the back (the S button) so that with one push it will take a new white balance reading. Just point the camera where you want to read, and push that button.
Problems With The Canon S90 For Snorkeling
The first problem is this. Did you understand everything in the paragraphs above? If you are not a skilled photographer who understands how a camera works, what F-stops, shutter speeds, ISO and white balance do, and how to adjust things manually to get what you want, then this camera may be overkill. In fact, if you use this camera in manual mode, and don't know what you are doing, you will likely get much worse results than using a fully automatic camera. Of course you can set the Canon S90 to automatic. But if you are going to do that, why spend the extra money this camera costs to have the manual controls available? But maybe you are not currently that experienced but want to learn how to get better pictures? Then this will be a great camera for you, because having manual controls is a must.
The other problem with this camera that I commonly experience is that it tends to overexpose. I find myself regularly having to set the exposure compensation to 1/3 to 2/3 stops lower, even underwater.
And if I had a final gripe about the S90, it would probably be that it is a touch slow to focus and take a picture. So I will miss a few fish shots because of that. But that is only compared to a DSLR's speed, which really isn't fair. The Canon S90 is better than most any other point and shoot in the speed category.
That's it. I am thrilled with the Canon S90 for snorkeling, and I also love using the camera out of the water. I carry the camera, a small 37mm polarizer filter (that I hold in front of the lens) and an extra battery, in a Case Logic TBC-302 case that is wonderfully compact and fits it all perfectly.
Using the Canon WP-DC35 Housing (WP-DC38 for the S95)
The Canon underwater housing for the Canon S90 (S95) is superb. I can't see any reason to spend the money on the much more expensive housings available from third party companies. It is robust. I have banged it pretty hard against some hard objects with nothing broken. And it has never leaked a drop (just make sure you take good care of your rubber seals). And the best part is that it is not too big and is easy to hold. It is an ideal size for snorkeling. And the price is great.
The front control ring is very easily controlled with your left hand by the dial on the front side of the case. It works perfectly. I almost always have the front control dial set to adjust the F-stops. In that setting the rear control ring is automatically set to adjust exposure compensation. That is good, because the camera tends to overexpose a bit.
The Canon WP-DC35 (WP-DC38) does not have a rear control dial. So it appears that you cannot adjust the camera's rear control ring when it is in the housing. But there is a way to do it that works perfectly fine underwater. First you push and hold down the "S" button on the back of the camera, then either push the left or right side of the control ring buttons, and that will adjust your rear control dial settings. It takes a little getting used to, but becomes easy. I push and hold the button down with my right hand thumb, and press the adjustment buttons below with my left hand thumb.
Magic Filter & Canon S90 (S95) For Snorkeling
In the past I used a magic filter for better colors underwater. These days I tend to just use white balance. But if you do want to use a magic filter, here are instructions on how to cut it out for your case.
Buy some magic filters. Fortunately they come sized at 2"x2". This is just big enough to be cut and still fit perfectly in the front inside of the Canon WP-DC35 square lens port.
Make a template out of paper that is the right size. First cut it to the shape of the front of the lens port.
Then you need to trim it down a bit to fit the slightly smaller size inside. Make it slightly snug so that the filter will not want to move. But get it right in paper first, because you will ruin a magic filter trying to take it in and out of the case if you don't have the size right.
Now grip the magic filter material between your template and another piece of paper. Don't get finger prints on the filter. Now cut around it with scissors, making it exactly the same size.
Now make sure the inside of the lens port is perfectly clean. Make sure the magic filter is clean of dust (blow it off, or wipe it very gently with a lens cloth). Insert it into the port. And then leave it alone. Try not to let dirt get in the case.