Canon 5D Mark II underwater housing shootout

Field Test:

How the Sea & Sea performed

(Note: The pictures I choose that were shot for this review were lost due to a catastrophic dual drive failure at the end of the trip. Ironically the unwanted picks on a 3rd drive survived. So please excuse the picture quality from the Sea & Sea. It does take good pictures.)

I started with an easy setup of 15mm Fisheye with the Zen dome port. This is a staple setup with any housing and fortunately I was diving under an active volcano so there were plenty of growing corals to test the 15mm with a Magic Filter insert.

Shot with 15mm Fisheye with Magic Filter, Manual White Balance in housing

My first minor glitch came on the first dive and it surfaced intermittently throughout the entire trip. The on-off button uses a hard foam with a groove to actuate the power switch on the camera. This switch gave me a bit of trouble every now and then as it would lose grip on the on/off switch.

Another control that wasn’t always working was the mode dial. Like the on/off switch, it uses friction and a few times, it would slip and not change modes. Pressing harder down gave it a bit more grip but it only happened a few times. Neither issues were major but they did happen.

One of my major considerations for any housing is good balance, which is now doubly important as video is now available in DSLRs. Before, an imbalanced housing would just create wrist and arm fatigue. The addition of video demands more stability, which is difficult due to the shape of DSLR housings. Any imbalance would make handling difficult which affects the quality of video.

Shot with 16-35mm L II @ 18mm

I found the MDX Pro easy to balance due to the Zen dome port, which did not cause the housing to pitch dome up.  There was minimal front aft instability. My strobe arms and strobes are all balanced with divinylcell to be slightly positive. The housing handled very well with just the dome port and no strobes, just about 200g negative. Due to the shape and weight distribution, there is always a bit of lateral and axis instability but nothing too major with the right arm setup. It was pretty easy to shoot wide angle video with the balanced handling.

The housing was relatively easy to operate as well. Without the top LCD window, I used the INFO button on the LCD screen for shooting information including modes, exposure settings and AF modes. At first I felt this was just a battery sapping way of doing things but then I realized that all the essential controls was on the LCD in front of me and I could switch from ISO to AF pt selection with a push of the button. It was easier to use especially during night dives or in dark environments.


Shot with 24-105mmL with +3 diopter.

The tactile feedback from the main controls of shutter and * for AF were firm yet easy to actuate. I could easily feel the shutter lever at ½ for AE lock and metering info. This was important when using video mode as I could get metering info by pressing the shutter halfway and adjust the exposure accordingly while still shooting. The reversed levers for AF control allows your hand to stay more “wrist in” close-in position while holding the housing, with the thumb being more naturally in place as your hand grips the handle. Actuating the AF-ON lever, which is the lower lever. Actuating the * lever was very unnatural for me, flicking my thumb up didn’t have the same strength as pressing down. I needed to move my hand out a bit and push up with my thumb straight. It is a bit awkward using the IMAGE REDUCE function.

The gap between the levers isn’t very wide so if you wear thick gloves or have a thick thumb, you may find squeezing the digit between the two levers difficult. My medium large “slender” thumb had no issue but I was using a 1mm glove. If I used a thicker glove like my 4mm Pinnacle Kevlar, I think I’d have issues sliding the thumb between the levers. This may be an issue for people with big thick thumbs or thicker glove users with thick padded finger tips in cold water.


Shot with 24-105L with snoot.

The 0.5x viewfinder worked well but I had to move my head around slightly to see the shooting data around the image. This is because the viewfinder was almost flush to the housing back and my mask prevented me from peering through the viewfinder freely. Viewing from 2.5” away from the viewfinder was not optimal for someone like me accustomed to enlarged viewfinders, which are farther away from the back of the housing.  I could judge focus relatively well but did miss quite a few times, especially with the fisheye! The AF confirm light was out of the frame while I composed the shot so I assumed the AF had locked when it actually hadn’t. It was the camera’s AF issue but due to the smaller view, I couldn’t really tell critical focus for really wide lenses.

There are Sea & Sea options for other viewfinders including 0.66x and 0.8x but I did not test them. There are 3rd party options like the enlarged 100%  or 45° viewfinders from Inon, but it will add to the price but may help those people who need corrective lenses to see properly

Switching to Live View mode to frame and shoot was easy. The clear acrylic window almost gives a 100% view of the LCD screen, with a small portion of the picture obscured by the viewfinder. I could frame the shot while using my peripheral vision to watch for subjects entering the frame. Another advantage of the Live View mode is that one can use it to check focus, with the enlarge tools and window. With access to the Multi-Controller, I could check focus on at 10x magnification on any area of the image. 


Shooting with Liveview mode allows framing while keeping an eye on the subject. Snoot shots are easier but one still has to hope the subjects don’t fidget too much out of the spotlight like the larger anemone fish in this picture

Like all other LCD windows without anti-glare/reflective coatings, this one suffered badly from reflections, especially in strong sunlight at shallow depth. When the conditions are right, the view to the LCD monitor is excellent.

In video mode, the housing requires more compromises. One can preset the SET button to start recording video with one touch. This makes it easy to start shooting video. It isn’t instantaneous but still faster a tape based camcorder which has rested the tape head and has to spool the tape to speed to record. The SET button is down near the middle bottom of the housing back. Some other housing manufacturers have placed the actuating button higher and more to the right to make it more ergonomic.  It’s not a real big deal but a minor quibble about ergonomics, seeing how so much thought was put into the housing’s photo controls.


Reef scene shot with 16-35mm with Magic Filter

Another point to note is the accessory shoe fixture, which limits max weight to 0.75kg/1.7lbs, according to the manual.  This is due to the thinner wall design. This precludes the use of bigger focus lights like the Hartenberger Mini/Maxi Compact lights or adding a 3rd strobe like a Inon Z240. For those with Hartenberger or similar weight focus lights, there are ways to get around this like using a tri-clamp on the handle ball head, so it’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it definitely is a limitation for those with preexisting gear. Being that lightweight isn’t totally positive.

Another design characteristic is the omission of a top window for the LCD display on the top of the camera to compliment the button functions. With the INFO display using the LCD monitor, you have excellent access to shooting information, which more than compensates for the lack of that window. Still, using the LCD monitor drains the battery faster and requires more frequent battery changes and thus removing the camera out of the housing. Furthermore, the rear acrylic has glare issues from reflections in shallow water, which makes it difficult to see the information on screen in bright conditions.

Other observations include the housing finish, which is dark green. Stains from oils (from my sunblock etc) and sea water became visible after a few dives. It wasn’t easily rubbed off but it did not affect the functioning of the housing either. Like I said, a minor quibble for lazy people like myself, who won’t do more than wipe down a housing after soaking in fresh water.

Dome Port Performance: The Zen Dome Port

I did not have the opportunity to test the Sea & Sea ports but Ryan Canon of Reef Photo kindly provided the Zen 8” dome port. The port is ground from BK-7 Schott Borosilicate optical glass and then polished. The anti-reflective coating is internal while the outer part has a hardened coating which prevents internal reflection and reduces flare. The outer coating is also formulated to resist wear from sea water and heavy use.  It is designed with an interchangeable back mount, which allows owners to switch housing brands without having to buy a new dome port. 


Rhinopia shot with 24-105L with +3 diopter

I used 3 lenses with the Zen dome. The 16-35 2.8L II (thanks to Stuart Westmorland for loaning his to me), the 15mm Fisheye and the 24-105 4L IS, which is my favorite lens for not so wide, not so macro general purpose shooting.

The setups were a little more difficult than usual as I wanted to have flexibility in shooting both video and stills. My experiments included combining magic filter (graciously donated by Alex Mustard and Peter Rowlands) with strobes without complimentary filters.

The 16-35L II has a 82mm filter size, which made the use of a diopter without vignetting impossible as I couldn’t find one that was thin enough at 16mm. Thus I used the lens without a diopter, with a 60mm extension tube (recommended by Ryan Canon) With the Zen dome in stills, corners were decent from f11. For a rectilinear ultra wide lens, the corners at f11 and up were good, although not perfect as some signs of distortion exist. I’ll let you judge if they fit your own standards:


Soft coral shot with 16-35L with Magic Filter.

For video, shooting in natural light means having to boost ISO to maintain f8+. I did try shooting at f7.1 but the corners were visibly soft even on the LCD monitor (see pic XX).  The 15mm Fisheye was tested with just the dome port attached. As usual, the 15mm has good corners all the way through. 


Shot with 16-35L @ 16mm, f 8. Note the corners which improve as the f stops go up.

The 24-105mm f4 IS proved to be a useful lens behind the Zen dome port and the 60mm extension port. I used a +3 diopter to help the long end of the lens to focus. Alternatively, if I were shooting bigger subjects, I’d leave out the diopter or use a +2 or +1. The corners at 24mm were very decent although I was surprised to see a bit of softness even with diopter on the Zen. My own tests have the nodal point a bit farther back for this lens and the 60mm port is just out of the optimal range. Still there was no vignetting and it worked up to 105mm, which is good since the lens does extend about 30mm. The reason I like this lens is the 4x zoom ability and the IS, although this still based version does occasionally cause the video to shift wildly when shooting.

Overall, I really liked the Zen dome. The weight matched the MDX Pro to give a very balanced feel, even with the 60mm extension tube. And optically, it worked well with the lenses I shot with, giving good clean corners up to the last 10% of the image, which is very good indeed for a full frame camera.


VIdeo frame capture with 16mm @ f5.6 using the Zen Dome Port