Saturday, February 21, 2015

Travelon Waterproof Phone Pouch - a review

How many times in the not-too-distant past have I bought those disposable underwater cameras, only to be disappointed after snapping a roll of film at some tropical dive paradise? It used to be my annual donation to Kodak. All 24 exposures would be a uniform shade of watered-down teal, with some shadowy objects that might have been fish. I had better results photographing the radar-like display of my father's fish finder. 

Now that I have a smartphone and there are commercially-reasonable protective accessories for under water, technology caught up enough for me to try simple point-and-shoot underwater photography again. Prior to our recent trip to Hawaii, Santa gave me the Travelon waterproof phone pouch, which conveniently retails for USD$10 at Eddie Bauer for those on the naughty list. I'll qualify the review below by stating I have no relationship with the manufacturer, and I expect they'd only reach out to a blog that garners 30 views per day (on average) in an act of desperation.

The pouch operates on the same principle as a dry bag, a couple folds of the bag's mouth simply sealed with Velcro keeps the water out of your electronics. A foam-filled "pillow" inside the clear plastic pouch makes it easier to press out most of the air before sealing. The added pressure while submerged will further mold the protective plastic compartment to the form of your device, especially over its camera lens. A neck strap keeps the device on your person and from sinking into the abyss.

First, and most important, the Travelon pouch did its primary job of keeping my phone absolutely dry. That's good, because I didn't really want to explain to my employer that I thought it was a good idea to immerse my company-issued smartphone in salt water. I experimented with two snorkel circuits lasting approximately 30 minutes and 45 minutes. It performed much better than my Columbia watch, supposedly "water resistant" to 100m, which was left with a permanent fog after 5 minutes and some surface splashing. I was able to regularly dive down 10 to 15 feet with no loss of the phone pouch's performance.

Taking photos is a little trickier. Some law of physics dictates that touchscreen icons of a handheld device will not recognize a human finger under water. Even scattered water droplets on the pouch "window" or a wet digit can be troublesome, so turn on your camera app before diving in. If your phone times out quickly before going into sleep mode, you may wish to change that setting. Similarly, a device password should be entered before going into the water; doggie paddling amongst sharp coral formations while working with a wet screen in bright sunlight is likely to result in injury to both you and the coral. Most likely, fellow swimmers won't care so much about you.

Then there is the actual capturing of images. Again, the touch screen shutter controls will not recognize your fingerprint under water, but a physical button on the device itself will work just fine (for instance, either of the volume buttons on the left-hand side when you look face-on at an iPhone 5 will engage image capture. I stuck with the volume "+" button). It can take some manoeuvring, as the excess pouch naturally extends from the sides of your device.

Focussing is a little more problematic. Perhaps there is a way to enable this on your device, but I did not discover it intuitively. Admittedly I didn't research the subject before diving in. Sometimes the focussing box appeared to self-engage, sometimes not. And, most fish aren't cooperative during framing. Imagine, entire species of animals that aren't interested in an endless stream of self portraits.

But the beauty of a digital camera phone is that images are virtually free, and your device can store a lot of failed experiments. I happily snapped images every few seconds, nearly 150 in all, experimenting with different angles of ambient lighting, figuring a handful of shots would be keepers.

Depending on the angle and distance to your subject, there will still be some blue "wash" to many images, but not nearly to the extent of the old, disposable underwater film cameras. And, I was pleased to find most of the images were reasonably focussed, at least at the normal (unzoomed) image settings. They start to look fuzzy when blown up to fill a laptop screen. You can't really expect better performance from a work-around solution for the casual amateur than professional underwater cameras.

Don't expect to be recruited by the Cousteau Society, but cellphone dry bags (at least the Travelon in my experience) will allow you to capture a passable memory of paradise. More importantly, a waterproof phone pouch will protect an expensive electronic communications device from incidental contact with water or even while submerged.