AQUATICA AD7000 housing (continued).
LEFT HAND SIDE:
I could easily reach and rotate the zoom/focus knob with my index finger alone, but I preferred a two-finger approach, using my thumb to pinch it. It rotates very smoothly, and is large and textured enough to grip it very well when, for example, taking slow shutter speed zoom shots.
The knob is made of two parts – a knurled section that is connected to the internal gear assembly, and a smooth section that, when rotated, disengages the internal gearing assembly from the lens’ zoom/focus gear. This is a helpful feature for safely installing geared lenses, since it eliminates the possibility of gear interference.
Mode dial knob and release mode dial knob:
The mode dial knob is the same as the main and sub-command dial knobs – deep-ridged with a knurled perimeter. There isn’t a viewing window on the housing to see which mode you’re in, but pressing the INFO button will display this information in the top-left corner of the rear LCD. I could reach and rotate it with my left thumb with my hand still on the handle.
The U1 and U2 modes can store and instantly recall user-saved camera settings. I set U1 as a starting point for macro photography (ISO 100, 1/320, f/11, WB @ 4760K, AF-S, single-point focus), and set U2 as a starting point for shooting video (ISO 400, 1/30, f/8, WB @ PRE, AF-S, subject tracking mode).
The release mode dial knob is slightly smaller than the mode dial knob, and requires two hands to operate – one is needed to hold down the lock release, while another is needed to rotate the knob. There’s no easy way of doing this accurately with one hand but, fortunately, this is a dial that is rarely used (at least for me). I primarily shoot in low-speed continuous mode (set at 3 or 4 FPS), which can easily take single exposures as well as relatively quick sequences. For split shots, I switch over to the high-speed continuous mode (6 FPS) in order to maximize my chances of capturing a pleasing waterline.
Pop-up flash opener/closer:
This is a two-way lever. Pressing it down or up will open or close the camera’s pop-up flash, respectively. It is located on the top-left corner of the housing, well within reach of your left thumb. Shooting with electronic sync cords renders this lever useless, but when using fiber optics to trigger strobes, this can be very useful. Instead of manually turning off your strobes to shoot solely with ambient light, the pop-up flash can be closed instead.
M/AF switch lever and AF-servo/focus area button:
The M/AF switch lever and concentric AF-servo/focus-area button are cleverly combined into a single unit, just below the zoom knob. Rotating the M/AF lever is smooth and easy, but it always took me a few moments to blindly locate the camera’s switch with this 2-prong mechanism. Once it was in place, I had no problems, and could switch back and forth freely (which I rarely did). This assembly should be retracted (pulled away from the camera) before removing the camera from the housing, since it can snag pretty easily on the lens or lens gear on the way out.
Pressing the AF-servo/focus area button was a little awkward. With my hand on the grip, it is directly in line with my ring finger, but was too stiff for me to press down comfortably with it. If I wanted to use my (stronger) middle finger, it required me to bend it somewhat unnaturally, and was still uncomfortable to use. Instead, I found that removing my hand from the handle, and depressing it with my thumb was the best option. The focus area (single, 9-point, 21-point, 39-point, AUTO, or 3D) could then be adjusted with the sub-command dial knob, and the AF-servo mode (AF-A, AF-S, or AF-C) could be adjusted with the main command dial knob.
Menu, WB, ISO/ZOOM IN, QUAL/ZOOM OUT, Playback, Delete:
These buttons are located just left of the LCD screen in a vertical line, and are all within reach of my thumb (the delete button took a little stretching though). I never had to fiddle around to adjust WB or ISO settings - I was able to easily locate and use them with my eye to the viewfinder.
A pair of optical bulkheads comes standard on the AD7000, but, if you prefer, a pair of traditional electronic bulkheads can be installed instead (Ikelite, Nikonos, or a combination of the two). The benefits of optically synced strobes are hard to ignore – full TTL compatibility with S-TTL strobes, lightweight fiber optic cables as opposed to bulky electrical cords, modest price tags, and safe, idiot-proof housing connections.
I was using a pair of Ikelite DS160s, without a TTL converter, and without the optical converter that they showed off at DEMA, so was forced to use the strobes manually with electrical sync cords. Their new bulkhead system consists of a central circuit board with 3 female outlets – 2 for bulkheads, and 1 for the hot-shoe.
In one corner of the circuit board is a small switchboard which governs TTL functionality. When all of the switches are in the “ON” or “UP” position, the TTL contacts in the right bulkhead are activated, making automatic flash exposure possible when used with compatible strobes or TTL converters. The left bulkhead is strictly for manual strobes.
In the rush to get this test equipment assembled and shipped to me before leaving for Dominica (it arrived the day before I left!), some excess soldering flux was left behind on the hot-shoe, which made my strobes go bananas. Wiping the contacts clean and letting them dry overnight fixed the problem. Nonetheless, I told Aquatica about this issue, and they’ve assured me that instead of using solder to connect hot-shoe pins to the bulkhead wires, they’re using a crimping process, which mechanically combines them instead, eliminating the possibility of short circuits due to flux. Just another great example of Aquatica’s commitment to improving their designs based on photographers’ experiences.
Port lock and lens-release mechanism:
If you’ve used a housing without a locking port for long enough, you’ve probably had it unknowingly rotate dangerously close to its “release” position at some point (especially with large dome ports). To prevent this from happening, housing manufacturers have come up with various designs to lock the port in place.
Aquatica’s solution is elaborate and complicated on the inside, but all of the gears, springs, shafts, and cams are controlled by a single lever located to the left of the port. When the lever is rotated far enough, the locking cam mechanism moves out of the way, allowing a port to be installed. Then, to lock the port, you simply press the lever like you would a button, and it springs into place.
The primary function of this assembly is to lock the port, but Aquatica has also incorporated a lens-release lever. When the mechanism is in its “locked” state, pressing the lever like a button depresses the camera’s lens-release button, eliminating the need to squeeze your fingers (or Allen keys) between the port opening and lens, as has been required in the past. This also means that the camera body doesn’t need to be removed from the housing to change lenses. When the mechanism is in its “unlocked” state, the camera can be removed from the housing with the lens still attached.
Solid machined-aluminum housings are great because of their tight tolerances, strength, durability, and aesthetics, but blindly trusting your camera to be safely sealed inside their dark cavities can make the first few minutes of every dive a bit nerve-racking. However, much of this stress can be alleviated by installing a moisture alarm in the housing, which Aquatica is including as a standard feature.
Basically consisting of a battery, a bright LED, a speaker, and a few wires, moisture alarms are very simple and effective tools that, in my opinion, are essential to any underwater camera system.