Camera And Housing Overview. Part 2.
The Nauticam NA-D4.
I must start by giving kudos to Nauticam for having a working D4 housing ready at the start of April 2012 for me to take to Iceland and then on to Scotland, just weeks after the first production D4 cameras were delivered.
The design is evolutionary, not revolution. Rather like the D4 itself. And this pleases me. The D4 is a professional workhorse and I want a reliable housing, not one that looks great in the showroom (or in ‘my housing has this’ forum discussions) and whose flashy features loose their shine quickly in the field.
The NA-D4 utilises many design solutions already tried and tested in production on existing Nauticam housings. It is most similar to the latest NA-D7000V housing (although much bigger) and includes popular features like Nauticam’s excellent port and housing locking mechanisms. The aim of this section of the review is to detail many of the features of the housing related to taking photos and videos underwater. The D4 is a complex camera and there are many, many features and despite the length of this section there are still some I haven’t had time to cover.
The housing has a quality feel and is good looking. Many housings for bigger camera bodies can look a bit boxy, but the bulk of the NA-D4 is nicely broken up with creases machined in the metal (think BMW flame surfacing) and also the red port lock. Nauticam knows it has to do a very impressive job with the NA-D4, because it represents their first foray into this particular segment of the market. First impressions are very positive.
The NA-D4 is Nauticam’s first housing for a flagship SLR camera from Nikon or Canon. Such camera housings do not sell in as big numbers, but are used by many of the world’s best-known pro-shooters and act as halo products for the remainder of the range. Nauticam already have a halo product in their NA-645DF housing for the 60 MP Phase One 645, but it is not a system that you are likely to bump into much on dive boats!
Of course, Nauticam has already built a strong market share at all other levels of the housing market so already have lots of customers who will be considering an upgrade. Also they offer an excellent set of port adaptors making it simple to switch systems. Furthermore, Sea & Sea have decided not to follow their D3 housing with a D4, providing an additional opening for Nauticam at this level. Finally, a significant section of flagship housing sales are for advertising/sports etc shoots where underwater equipment is bought for a single assignment and therefore the photographer has no gear legacy.
That’s more than enough market talk. Lets focus on the housing. Everyone’s first impression is “oooh, isn’t it big!” I was also travelling with a Nauticam NA-D7000 and when I put them side by side they really appeared to be at different scales. Although the difference is much less by the time the whole system is built with strobes, arms etc. In the water it is easy to handle and more neutral than the NA-D7000.
All flagship camera housings have this extra size to fit the height of camera body with its inbuilt vertical grip. The positive is that larger housings usually are close to neutrally buoyant and have better trim and handling than smaller housings. The NA-D4 was actually slightly positively buoyant in the configuration I used.
The negatives are that flagship camera housings are larger and heavier for travel. Also the extra height stops you getting the camera as low to the seabed as you can with smaller housings, which will reduce the amount of separation you can achieve with the subject when shooting horizontal macro shots on the seabed (this is less of an issue for verticals as the housings are not really any wider). This is usually not a big issue for wide angle shooting and the housing was still smaller than my Zen 230 port (see photo above).
So in conclusion, yes, it is big which has more drawbacks out of the water than in it.
The most important controls on any underwater housing are the access to shutter, shutter speed and aperture. I usually refer to these as the primary controls, as they are the ones we use for almost every shot (and also for adjusting other features on the camera, such as exposure compensation, focus mode etc).
How these work is usually a major determining factor in how I rate a housing. Nauticam have improved these again since the last of their housing’s I reviewed - the NA-D7000 (non V version). It is also the area I tend to comment on in detail because these controls are our main interaction with the housing and therefore where we derive the most pleasure from using it.
The NA-D4 uses Nauticam’s double geared shutter release that gives excellent fine control and works very well through thick gloves. I do prefer the direct connection of the shutter release in my Subal (achieved with an single piece of metal, expertly shaped) as the direct connection allows me to feel the camera vibrate slightly as the AF bites (when I am shooting at arms’ length). But there is no doubt Nauticam’s shutter release works just as well and I don’t believe there is a right or wrong here, just personal preference.
I really like the aperture control wheel, which is a significant improvement over the NA-D7000 housing. It is perfectly positioned to be easy to move with one finger and turns freely and precisely, even when wearing gloves (and with numb fingers inside them).
For me I find it moves the opposite direction to my expectation (which I guess means opposite to what I am used to on my Subal). This is a very minor point, but I would prefer it if stopping down equaled rotating the dial down. It does not seem possible to reverse just the direction of this dial in the D4’s menus. Others will prefer it the way it is.
The shutter speed (rear or primary control dial) is very impressive and also easy to move with just your thumb and turns freely and precisely. I find it is easier to reach when I have my left hand on the other handle, than when I hold the housing in just my right hand. This will depend on the size of your hands and whether you use the handle spacers (which I do).
There is another option when wearing gloves because you can also push and wedge your right hand between the right handle and the housing, directly gripping the housing. This makes it very easy to access all three controls and to use the system one handed. It is a tip I picked up from Steve Jones, who uses it on his Seacam housing. It only really works with gloves as the padding allows you to wedge your hand.
The amazing ISO performance of the D4 means that ISO has really become another control on exposure and as a result access to the ISO button is a really important feature on D4 housings. The ISO button on the D4 is on the back, below the LCD screen, which is not easy to reach while your eye is on the viewfinder. Nauticam deserve a lot of praise for realizing this and providing a dedicated ISO lever on the back of the housing that falls beneath your left thumb.
To change ISO you press this lever with your left thumb and rotate the rear command dial (the one for shutter speed) to change ISO. I was able to make all these changes during actual shooting – which is all you can ask for in a housing.
While testing the D4 in Scotland I was fortunate to find a pair of courting dragonets, a rare sight in the North Atlantic. They spawn in a similar way to mandarinfish (which are also dragonets) although they are not as colourful. Their spawning rise lasted about 10 seconds during which I took many photos and even felt confident to change aperture, shutter speed and ISO, to achieve the settings I wanted as I moved closer to the pair.
The NA-D4 provides access to almost all the controls of the D4. The prototype housing even providing access to the voice memo button (I have already written to Nauticam to say there is little need for this underwater), so it might not be on the production version!
An eye catching feature is the Nauticam multi-selector control, that allows left, right, up and down and diagonal movements when moving focus points, navigating menus and browsing zoomed in images.
I would like to comment more on how it works. But the rush to deliver the prototype to me for testing meant that it was not connected on my housing. Nauticam offered to send me a replacement housing for the Scottish leg of my shoot, but I didn’t feel this was a valuable use of their resources. Please check out existing NA-D7000v reviews and forthcoming NA-D800 reviews for information on this feature.
As a general comment I am a little concerned by the current trend to move push buttons around too much on the back of housings. I know that saying ‘we moved these so that they are easier to reach’ helps sell housings in the shops and they are easier to reach underwater. But I have also seen these relocated push buttons causing reliability problems on a number of housing brands in the field. They always work perfectly in the showroom, but I do believe they have a major potential to cause problems as housings age. Maybe I should start a forum thread on “relocated push button problems” to see if this is a real problem – or just one that I have been seeing?
To continue being side tracked – reliability is one of the hardest factors to assess when reviewing equipment. The forums are always where these things are revealed. But do read reports with care, all products will have a few people not getting along with them. Never be put off by one or two, but if you are regularly reading about issues then alarm bells should ring. I gave the NA-D4 a particularly hard life on this trip. Several days without washing (unless you count snow fall) and leaving it outside in very cold conditions and performed faultlessly.
The other note worthy features of the NA-D4 are the paddles, which give particularly good ergonomic access to some of the cameras most important controls. There are two on each side. On the right these operate AF-ON (lower) and video record (upper) and on the left image review (lower) and INFO (upper).
I use AF-ON focus a great deal (this is where autofocus is not activated by the shutter button, but only when the AF-ON button is pressed). I find this very useful for big animal photography, split levels and super macro. I have written many articles on why, so won’t expand here.
The record lever for video is well placed. Although I prefer to set video record as the shutter release (a D4 option) and used this instead.
It is well worth mentioning that this control on the housing works across the divide between the front and rear of the housing. Nauticam have placed the control conveniently on the back of the housing (for your right thumb) but it actually activates a button on the front of the camera. Although most users will never notice it, when you open the housing the control comes apart, seamlessly fitting back together when the housing is closed.
It is a feature that neatly encapsulates Nauticam’s design philosophy of going that extra mile to make their housings as easy as possible for the user to shoot.
Image review is a button we all use a lot and it is something of a Nauticam trademark to incorporate it on a convenient lever. The INFO lever is also a welcome addition as it is much easier to reach than the button placed low on the rear of the camera. The INFO button is particularly useful because the NA-D4 lacks a window for the camera’s top LCD screen.
To mop up a few other points quickly. The D4 follows the D7000 in moving all the AF controls to the old M-S-C switch. This change was surely motivated by freeing up more space on the back of the camera for video controls, although Nikon dress it up as an ergonomic improvement. This is debatable on land, but underwater it is clearly less convenient to press a small button on the left side of the housing and then move the control dials on the right to scroll through AF modes. It was much faster to change AF modes on the D3 and D2 than D4 underwater.
The NA-D4 offers no directional control over the D4’s joy-stick controls (sub-selector), only the option is pressing it to utilize the sub-selector for AE or AF lock. The function of sub-selector can be changed to also allow quick access to flash off (good for silhouettes), start bracketing sequence (good for HDR), review images or other functions. I do not expect any housing manufacturer to provide direction access to the directional aspect of this control, which basically replicate the function of the multi-selector.
Two levers on the back of the camera make it simple to switch to liveview mode for both video and still shooting. You can see these in the photos above. Nauticam’s over-sized levers were simple to use in gloves.
Memory cards can be changed with the D4 in the housing. But to change battery you need to remove the camera from the housing and take it off its tray.
I’ll finish this section with one of the talking points on the NA-D4. Why offer fibre optic flash ports on a housing with no pop-up flash? Firstly because many users no favour fibre optic strobe synch for lightness and reliability and some strobes are now fibre only. Also there is space to fit a manual strobe triggering device into this housing, which will work at higher frame rates than pop-up flash (see this discussion on Wetpixel. Also Nauticam offers additional electronic bulkheads that can replace these optical connectors to allow more electronic strobes to be connected (although I have never seen them myself).
The pre-production housing only had a single electronic synch socket and I used a dual cable, kindly lent by Nauticam UK. I am not a fan of this solution. One of the key strengths of the D4 is connectivity and I would like to see more options for connecting accessories on the housing. I would like to see as standard at least two electronic strobe bulkheads and a third with an option for HDMI output or a third electronic as a spare in the field. I can also imagine some users wanting to connect the D4 to an Ethernet cable underwater (to control it remotely via Nikon control) and it would be good to see more options for expansion in this area, even if the housing is supplied with blanked off sockets.
Overall though, the NA-D4 is very impressive. Packed with features and intelligent design solutions. It was an easy housing to use and one that performed faultlessly during my shoots in Iceland and Scotland. I was particularly impressed with the primary controls (I now include ISO in that) and the ease of changing them while shooting.
Next: ISO, image quality and comments on shooting FX.
(2) Camera and housing overview: Part 1 D4 camera.
(3) Camera and housing overview: Part 2 NA-D4 housing.
(4) ISO, image quality and shooting FX.
(5) Autofocus and shooting experience (macro and wide, stills and video).
(6) Comparisons with other cameras and conclusion.