THE NAUTICAM NA-D7000
The last Nauticam housing I reviewed for Wetpixel was for the Nikon D700, but since then I have tried their housings for both the Nikon D300s and Canon 7D. Edward Lai of Nauticam is building a reputation for really listening to users and constantly refining designs. I have my own example of this. Within a few weeks of my Nauticam NA-D700 review for Wetpixel there was a new larger control knob available to make the shutter speed dial easier to reach and use in gloves. In the UK at least, this has become known as Mustard’s Big Knob!
The Nauticam NA-D7000 has a next generation feel, with many minor improvements from Nauticam’s previous Nikon housings, while maintaining the brand’s already widely loved design hallmarks (I have been amazed by how many Nauticams I have seen in the field this year). To described it in one word - it is loaded. Loaded with controls to give you access to all the camera controls. Loaded with excellent engineering, loaded with intelligent ergonomic solutions.
The impression continues when you open the housing, which is packed with intricate gears and levers. There is not an ounce of fat on this one! Not that this needs to concern the user. Nauticam clearly put a lot of emphasis on getting the gearing exactly right when they design a housing – so that the right amount of movement on a dial or lever gives the correct feel and response rate. This gives the housing a fantastic quality feel. I could summarise the brand by saying they put in the extra effort in engineering their housings, to make it easier for us in those precious moments underwater. Bravo. The housing is also much smaller than the NA-D700, fitting around camera extremely snugly. The hump for the popped up flash is also much sleeker.
One negative is that there is no window for the data screen on the top of the D7000, although all the stats can be called up on the larger LCD screen with the INFO button. And once you are used to that, you’ll probably prefer it.
The most important controls on an underwater housing are the shutter, aperture and shutter speed. I call these the primary controls. Nauticam have worked hard on these since D700 and D300 housings, which were already better than many brands, but not yet leading. The shutter now features a ‘high tactility’ or two stage shutter release, with a curved leaver to fit around your finger. This impressive mechanism offers excellent feeling of the biting point of AF. The aperture command remains similar. It is perfect in the tropics, but with cold fingers in wet, thick gloves in a chilly English lake I would prefer a slightly larger control knob with deeper indentations. It is perfectly useable, but this would make it more easier with your eye on the viewfinder.
The Nauticam aperture control has excellent gearing, so it is easy to run through the settings and easy to avoid nudging it on to the wrong setting. In tropical waters, oversized controls can be a bit annoying, especially those with sharp indentations to make them easy to turn with thick gloves. I don’t believe there can be a perfect design for all conditions, hand sizes etc. That is why, when possible it is good to review housings in both tropical and cold water conditions, as some photographers shoot in both, while others favour one or the other. Hopefully those who favour particular conditions will read comments from that perspective.
For example, the push buttons for the focus area select are very close together (because of the camera design) and the middle button (which is OK for many options) was not that easy to push without pressing another button (being recessed slightly compared to the button to the left), when wearing the thick gloves required for British freshwater in late November. In the Red Sea, without gloves, these controls were 100% fine. It is also worth noting that Nauticam have moved over to plastic push buttons, which have an easier action than the metal ones I tried last time.
The Nauticam housing will also incorporate a new shutter speed control, but the new knob wasn’t fitted on this test housing (also note that it is not on many of the product shots on the web, which are also of this exact housing). The housing has a shutter speed knob borrowed from the Nauticam NEX-5 production run – which I didn’t like on this housing. But with the right knob the positioning and gearing of the control should be very good. It was perfectly useable with the NEX-5 knob, but didn’t offer one-handed operation (it requires the left hand to hold the left handle). Hopefully the production control will extend beyond the metal of the housing, which should allow one-handed use. Using the same knob as is on the other side of the housing, for the zoom control, would be perfect.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the D7000, like many cameras, offers the ability to swap the aperture and shutter speed controls to the opposite dials and also to reverse the direction, so they match your preferences.
Other controls of particular note are the live view activation, which is a handy switch that falls easily to your right thumb. It is also an impressive engineering feat to provide such easy access to this and the Record button, which is via a ‘piano key’ control on the housing. That said, although this control is well placed, I found that a piano key style control was not well suited to starting and stopping recording, because it is impossible to press with jogging the housing. As a result all my video clips start and stop with a wobble! I feel a lever sticking out from the housing would be easier to use, although perhaps impossible to engineer.
I always enjoy Nauticam’s separate image review lever, much easier to flip with your left thumb than a push button. And Nauticam’s new two latch system for closing the housing is very well made and easy to use. You don’t need the strong fingers my Subal’s system needs. It is a big improvement over the three snappy metal latches on the D700 and D300 Nauticams (I am still searching for the three handed underwater photographer these suit!).
A control worth mentioning on the D7000 is the AF-mode button, which is hidden in a new position compared to any Nikon I have used and I could not find it without the manual! It is in the centre of the AF-M (like the M-S-C) switch, rather than being a switch on the back of the housing, as it is on the D200/D2/D300/D700/D3. While it caught me out, it didn’t catch out Mr Lai and the Nauticam has push button access despite its awkward position. This is an important control (for changing AF modes and AF point groupings) and I hope that no housing manufacturers miss providing access to it in its new position.
The housing I tested did not have a switch to push the pop up flash back down. Nauticam tell me that there wasn’t time to add this control before DEMA, but it will be on the production housings. This is a very useful feature making it the work of a moment to switch over to shooting a silhouette, for example. Furthermore, even if we turn off our strobes, leaving the popup flash up limits the max shutter speed to the synchronisation speed. And if we’re using TTL, it drains the battery and slows the frame rate significantly (as the camera dumps full power through the popup flash (as it sees no light) which locks the camera as the capacitors refill. The D7000 menus allow you to turn off the onboard flash while it is still popped up, but this takes time and still limits the shutter speed. A popup flash push down lever is a very useful feature for any housing based around optical strobe synch and I am glad to hear that Nauticam will continue to offer it – I hope others do too.
The Nauticam housing is based around optical flash synch, but electrical flash synch is possible through a single synch socket. In the UK I shot a pair of Inon Z240s triggered optically using the lowest manual power on the camera, with the Inons set on manual flash power. In the Red Sea for wide angle, I used a pair of Subtronic Alphas attached with a Sea & Sea electronic cable splitter, also on manual. For fish portraits and macro I used a pair of Inon Z240s triggered optically and almost always set on TTL. I did one dive with a single Inon (on TTL) and one with a single Subtronic (manual), but mainly dived with twin strobes. All worked well, although a significant amount of camera fettling is require to switch from optical to electronic strobes between dives. (It was good to see Ikelite announcing an optical triggering solution for their strobes at DEMA, last week.)
During the test I used the Tokina 10-17mm behind Nauticam’s impressive and not expensive acrylic mini-dome. The image quality was very good, and this port is well worth checking out if you area a Nauticam user. I will post some detailed images from this port on the forums, when I get a chance. I also shot the Nikon 105mm VR AF-S and Nikon 60mm AF-S behind Nauticam ports and tried the 105mm with a 1.7x teleconverter and Canon 500D dioptre – but flash problems (Subtronic!) prevented me from shooting (luckily I had my D700 sitting on the jetty ready to take over).
Finally, the housing was fitted with Nauticam’s excellent 180 degree magnifying viewfinder. This gives an clear, bright view of the subject, although since I normally use a 45 degree viewfinder, it did take me a couple of dives to adjust, particularly for macro shooting. When I reviewed the Nauticam D700 housing I wasn’t a fan of the extra complexity added by the adjustable dioptre knob, which I felt could be easily knocked out of focus. I don’t wear glasses, but I am sure I will need them when I am older, and many underwater photographers have told me how useful they find this feature on the Nauticam. So I stand corrected, the adjustable dioptre is a very useful feature! It also does not block the LCD screen and proves a useful shade for it when shooting video.
I stand corrected. Everyone keeps telling me how great the adjustable dioptre is on the Nauticam 180 viewfinder. I’m told I’ll appreciate it when I need glasses!