I’ve been shooting Nikons for twenty years, and I took the plunge into the digital age with Nikon’s D100 camera. When the D200 camera came out, I bought it immediately, and have since collected three underwater housings for the three bodies that I have. In this review, I’ll cover my experience with these three housings – Ikelite, Sea and Sea, and Light and Motion—from a “real user’s” point of view. This is not a review that covers all aspects of each housing. It’s intended for photographers who may be in the market for such housings and would like to know what the advantages or disadvantages of each housing might be. I am also aware that there are other manufacturer’s housings out there; circumstances have dictated that I have experience with these three housings, and I would welcome trying out housings from other manufacturers if they wish to contact me. Thanks to Ryan Canon at Reef Photo, one of Norbert Wu Productions’ sponsors, for loaning essential gear for this review as well as supporting our work over the past years.
1. Ikelite D200 housing:
The first housing for the D200 on the market was probably the Ikelite. Ikelite’s housings have come a long way since I last used one in the 1980s. This housing is robust and works well. I have almost no complaints about it, and in some ways, it is far better than the other two housings in this review. The new 8” dome port is extremely sharp (see example photo) when paired with lenses like the Nikon 16mm, and it accomodates the Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens without vignetting. The iTTL system works wonderfully and is something I wish I had on all my housings. The viewfinder is adequate and as good as the other two housings. The Ikelite strobe bulkhead is far superior to to the Nikonos TTL bulkheads on the other housings.
I’ve used this housing for the past year, and it has held up just fine. I’ve used the housing for wide-angle, macro, and time-lapse. It has everything I need in a housing – a tripod screw on the bottom, a good dome port that accommodates my very widest lenses, and a good selection of macro ports. The iTTL capability has proven to be surprisingly useful. I am a fan of manual strobes, particularly with digital photography, and feel that TTL capability is generally not needed. However, along with digital photography has come the ability to shoot in lower and lower light levels. With lower light levels, I will raise the ISO of my camera to as much as 800 or 1600. With manual strobes, I would have problems with the strobe overpowering the exposure. With iTTL-enabled strobes, just the right amount of light come from the strobes, making proper exposures in low light conditions much easier. See the over/under image of the salmon for an example, where I was shooting at dusk, in twilight, at ISO 800.
The new 8” dome port is well designed, with a nice shade and neoprene cover available. I believe that the wide-angle shots with the Ikelite dome are the sharpest of all these housings. The photograph of the starfish on the wall at Browning Pass in British Columbia is an example of what this system can do. The image is tack-sharp, the colors are fine, there is no distortion on the edges, and the strobe exposure is perfect. I used the iTTL control to shoot this image at slightly different strobe exposures, and I had little time to fumble with controls during the making of this image, as I was being swept along a wall by a current. This is what iTTL frees you to do – to control the light on your subject even if you are under tremendous time pressure. I’ve lost many a shot by having to take time to adjust the light output and angle of my strobes, and the iTTL capability removes one of these obstacles to successful underwater photography.
The Ikelite housing performs just fine with macro lenses and its macro ports, which fit on more securely than their dome port. I’ve used this housing to take dozens of time-lapse sequences underwater, using lenses varying from the Nikon 18-35mm to the Sigma 50mm macro. Some of these time-lapse sequences can be seen at http://www.norbertwu.com/Film.html.
In time-lapse, the camera is mounted on a tripod and left alone for up to six hours. It’s a testament to this housing that I trusted it to take these sequences unattended for such a long time.
The camera mounts on the back plate of the housing. An control on the back plate allows you to remove the CF card from the camera without having to remove the camera from the back plate. You can also remove the battery from the camera without having to remove the camera from the back plate. Because you can see the controls, putting the camera into the housing is generally pretty easy – but the controls do sometimes get in the way. I’ve had problems with the CSM control, and may have worn the control down just enough so that I can no longer switch from C to S or M during a dive. This could be a big problem.
What problems have I encountered with the Ikelite housing?
The dome port slides into the housing and is held in place by rotating it to its end point. There is nothing to prevent the dome from rotating the other way. I’ve often found that the dome is close to its “open” point before jumping in the water. It’s not happened to me yet, but it is conceivable, if not probable, that one of these days, I will jump in the water with the dome in the “open” position, and it may just pop off when I am at the surface. This would, of course, cause an instant and massive flood. I do wish that Ikelite would create some sort of solution to this potential problem, so that the dome port locks into place rather than being able to rotate freely within its base.
The rubber tip on the shutter release control has fallen off a few times during dives, which has been frustrating. I am hoping that glueing this rubber piece on the shaft, rather than using the electrical tape I was using in the past, will solve this problem.
Let me take a moment here to let you know that I am not the most mechanically adept of people. I have been around underwater housings for 25 years, so I know how to maintain them, to solve problems, to wire up strobe connections, and to do minimal amounts of fabrication. But I am the sort of person who may encounter a problem with a housing on a dive, then forget about the problem until the next dive or trip. Therefore, problems that might be simple to solve for more detail-oriented folks – or folks with less equipment to tend to – often turn into long-term problems for me. The disappearing shutter release knob on the Ikelite is one of these long-standing problems that I think that I have now fixed, but am not completely sure.
The housing is somewhat bulky. Its walls will likely flex at great depths, resulting in problems making the controls work. I do not dive deeper than 130 feet or so normally, and I have not encountered any problems. Indeed, I’ve dove with this housing in a raging current on a North Carolina shipwreck, staying at 120 feet for an hour on a rebreather, and the housing has worked perfectly for me during those dives.
I’ve encountered one puzzling problem at least two or three times now. I had two Ikelite DS125 strobes mounted on the housing and the camera turned on. I was not able to trigger the shutter. The only way I could take a picture was by turning the strobes and camera off, then on again. I am convinced that there is some kind of feedback from the strobes to the camera through the iTTL system. When this happens, the electronics disable the camera from firing, and the only solution is to turn everything off – which can be a time-consuming procedure.
The Ikelite is one of the lowest-cost housings for the D200 on the market, representing excellent value for the money. It’s more than capable of professional results. I recommend it highly and intend to keep my existing one for years.
Photos from the field:
Additional housing photos:
2. Light and Motion Titan D200 housing:
Light and Motion, unlike Ikelite and Sea and Sea, does not make many housings for still cameras. Their first still camera housing, the Titan housing for the Nikon D100 camera, was an excellent piece of underwater equipment. I had two of these housings and enjoyed using them. They were well-balanced, relatively small and light, and did not require the user to relearn how to set controls on the camera. I was therefore excited to hear that Light and Motion had decided to make a housing for the Nikon D200 camera. I obtained one of the first ones available, and I took it to Indonesia in May 2007.
The Titan D200 housing from Light and Motion looks similar to the Titan D100 housing. It is well-balanced and takes the same ports, although it is physically larger and heavier than its predecessor. At the time of this writing Light and Motion offered a glass macro port that fit the Nikon 60mm macro and my Sigma 50mm macro, and an 8” glass dome that fits lenses as wide as to the Nikon 16mm lens. I’ve just managed to get my hands on their larger glass dome that will accommodate the Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens without vignetting and am anxious to see if it will give noticeably sharper and/or more colorful results than the acrylic domes used with the Ikelite and Sea and Sea housings. This housing is also able to accommodate the new Nikon 105mm micro VR lens, which is a much thicker lens than its predecessor. The Sea and Sea and Ikelite housings both accommodate this lens also.
One of the biggest advantages of the Titan housings are the fact that they can accept ports from Subal and Sea and Sea with the proper port adapters. I have been using my Sea and Sea 8” acrylic dome on the Titan housing with good results. I’ve also been using the Titan with a Sigma 50mm macro lens and their macro port. The results have been great.
The other advantage of this housing is its ROC strobe controls, which allow you to manually increase or decrease a strobe’s light output. Unfortunately, I gave up on using these ROC controls after my first dive, when the Nikonos TTL bulkheads on the housing became corroded by a touch of salt water (see above for an explanation of this common problem). I’ve used an EO adpater on the bulkheads since that first dive, and my strobes have therefore been used on manual – with no problems at all.
I have to admit that I’ve experienced more frustrating episodes with this housing than the other two in this review. My biggest complaint about the housing is that it puts another layer between the camera and the user. If a user is already familiar with the controls of the D200 and just wants to get in the water and start shooting, the many different setups and time required to wait for the housing to sync with the camera can be maddening.
Installing the D200 camera in this housing requires the user to spend a great deal of time modifying the camera’s setup menus to fit the housing’s electronic and physical requirements. The camera is controlled by a microprocessor inside the housing rather than through manual controls on the housing. I’ve spent an hour or two each time I’ve come back to this housing to re-learn how to set the camera up. Each time I set the housing up for a first-time use for a trip, it takes several tries before I remember all the settings on the camera body that I need to set properly. If, for instance, I do not remember to set the focus mode selector on the camera body to “C” and the housing control to “unlocked”, then I will often not be able to change the M-S-C switch once I am underwater.
The following is a partial “cheat sheet” that I have written up to remind myself each time I set up the Titan D200 housing:
1. always set camera USB setting from mass storage to PTP in the camera menu.
2. position focus mode selector on camera to C.
3. Focus selector lock on outside of housing should be in unlocked position.
4. Set the “meter on” mode to infinity in the camera menu.
Each time that the camera is turned on, it takes about 10 seconds for the computer inside the housing to initialize. During this time, you cannot use the camera or housing. This wait of several seconds becomes more and more bothersome, because you have to continually turn the housing off to conserve battery power (a major issue with this housing).
Sometimes I find the camera in a mode where I cannot display previously shot images. The “display image” button just won’t work, and/or only multiple thumbnails of images show up. I’ve been able to solve this by turning the camera off, turning it on, and setting the meter mode to infinity. I don’t like keeping the camera in this infinity mode for too long since it really eats up the batteries. But perhaps this is the only solution.
The Titan housing draws power from the camera while the camera is on. The computer inside the housing draws power, as does the need to keep the camera in the infinity setting of “meter on” mode (most topside shooter are happy with keeping the setting for “meter on” at about 6 to 8 seconds rather than infinity). Light and Motion estimates that a typical battery will last about 2.5 hours; enough for one dive, but probably not enough for two. This means that the user has to continually open up the housing and remove the camera/tray to replace the batteries, and this in turn causes drops of water to enter the housing, no matter how careful the user may be. Having to open the housing up after each and every dive, and having to remove the camera/tray to replace a battery, is quite a hassle and is one of the major drawbacks to using this housing. I am not sure if there is a solution, but I hope that Light and Motion will address this issue, perhaps by providing a way to power the computer in the housing separately, and/or a way to make the housing go to purely manual controls in case the user wants a battery-saving mode. Perhaps a user could set the manual shutter speed and aperture that he wants with the housing powered on, then if he shuts off that power, he can operate the camera without the housing’s computer powered on.
One consequence of this aspect of this housing is that I am unable to use it a a time-lapse camera. I’ve been doing a lot of these sequences with D200 cameras in Ikelite and Sea and Sea cameras.
To conserve battery power, I turn the camera off whenever possible, even while underwater. It always resets itself (I prefer manual mode) to f5.6. If I am shooting macro, this is a hassle because every time that I turn it on and off again, I must set the aperture back to something like f16 or f11. I asked Light and Motion if there was a way to prevent this resetting of the aperture each time the camera is turned off – the answer is no.
In short, you must change out the battery on the Nikon D200 camera body after every dive if you are using the Titan housing. I’ve forgotten to do this several times now, and have found myself rushing to get ready for a dive only to find that the battery in my Titan housing is completely drained (I left the camera on while in between dives) or without enough of a charge to last the next dive. Other cameras in housings have not had this battery drain problem and will last one or two days between battery changes.
Once the camera is set up and working underwater, the housing is a joy to use. It is well-balanced, and all the controls are well-placed. The housing’s electronic controls are a bit easier to use than manual controls, but I have been able to easily adapt to either method.
One huge, possible advantage of buying the Titan housing is the following: the housing is physically large enough to fit new bodies from Nikon, like the recently announced D300. The “second layer” of controlling the camera that I complain about above might prove to be quite a smart thing for Light and Motion to have done. The camera is controlled using the USB port on the camera. If the new D300 camera fits in the housing and can be controlled by the existing USB controller and software, then Light and Motion will be able to bring a D300 housing to market much more quickly than other manufacturers. This way, L&M could be very quick to market – and reward the folks who purchased a Titan D200 housing – by being able to house new D300 cameras using existing housings. Hopefully only a firmware update would be needed, and perhaps a new back for the housing. This would be a very cool outcome for users who have invested in the Titan D200 housing.
Photos from the field:
3. Sea and Sea D200 housing:
I’ve owned several Sea and Sea housings throughout my career, and I particularly liked the housings that they made for the Nikon N90s body. I am heartened to see that Sea and Sea has gone back to this compact, aluminum form factor for their new housings, including their D200 housing. The D200 housing is very similar to the older N90 housings, and it accepts the same ports and gears that all my old Sea and Sea housings used.
The Sea and Sea housing is a pleasure to use, and it is a snap to set up the camera inside the housing. The camera is mounted on a tray which is then mounted inside the housing. Removing the CF card can be done without removing the camera from the housing; removing the battery requires removing the camera from the housing – which is no problem as the camera/tray is easy to remove. The controls all make sense and work easily, with minimal fuss. If you know how to use the camera and have it set up, putting it inside the housing and using it is a breeze. I cannot stress how much I like this fact. Having once learned how a camera body works, I don’t want to have to learn an entirely new way of controlling the camera (which I have to do with the Light and Motion Titan housing).
Because of the compact design, the housing is heavy underwater. I am used to shooting macro one-handed, with one hand holding the housing and tripping the shutter release, and one hand holding onto a dead part of the reef. Because the Sea and Sea housing is negative underwater, I am re-thinking how I use this housing, and may use the housing primarily for shooting wide-angle rather than macro. I’ll use a housing that is more neutrally buoyant – such as the Ikelite or Light and Motion – for my macro shots, which often require me to hover at a location, holding steady, for several minutes at a time.
I like the Sea and Sea ports very much. They have big O-rings that are easy to put in. You know if the port is in place or not, and if the O-rings are in place correctly. I’ve flooded my Subal housings because the thin O-rings on their ports have gotten squeezed when mounting the port on the housing. This is not a problem that can happen with the Sea and Sea ports. The 8” acrylic dome port works well with my Nikon 10.5mm and 16mm lenses, and I’ve just seen great results from a friend using a Tokina 10-17mm lens and compact dome port with an SX extension ring and a compact dome port.
The macro ports are fine and standard, but I have had one problem with them. Sea and Sea’s standard and custom NX macro ports have thick rubber all around the ports and on the front, to protect the port. When diving in cold water such as California and British Columbia, this thick rubber around the port retains heat. When the housing hits the cold water, the port fogs up! I’ve waited in cold British Columbia waters for 20 minutes for the port to clear up. I’ve ripped off the top rubber part of my custom flat port, and this solved the problem for most dives. I am thinking of buying another port and somehow getting all the protective off the port using a razor blade and much manual labor. One good thing about my existing large-diameter NX macro ports and extension ring – the new Nikon 105mm macro VR lens, which has a much larger diameter than the older 105mm macro lens – fits in the housing and these ports just fine. No modifications are needed.
The controls work just fine, and require very little forethought or fiddling. I’ve generally been able to get to a location, put the camera on the tray, make sure that the gear for the CSM knob is engaged correctly, and am good to go. The process of setting up the camera in the housing takes just five minutes, and I don’t have to repeatedly take the camera in and out of the housing, and off the tray, to readjust things. In other words, the housing is well-designed and forgiving enough so that the user does not have to remember a lot of steps to fit the camera correctly inside the housing.
The aperture knob is the only control that has given me problems, and it is not a big deal. In order to change the aperture by one stop, I must twirl the aperture knob several times to get to where I want. I generally find myself just twirling the aperture knob repeatedly before arriving at the aperture that I would like.
I have two complaints about this housing. First, there is no tripod mount on the bottom of the housing!! This is a huge omission by Sea and Sea, and I’ve noticed it on their other new housings. If there was one thing I’d ask Sea and Sea to do from now on – it is to include a tripod mount socket on the bottom of all their housings. I’ve had to make my own U-shaped bracket in order to mount this housing on a tripod.
The other big problem I’ve encountered with this housing are the Nikonos TTL bulkheads. Now, all Nikonos TTL bulkheads are terrible. They seem designed to attract water, and the first time the cord is disconnected from the bulkhead, water will drip into the bulkhead, causing corrosion and problems. I’ve gotten used to working around this problem by always trying to remove cords from the bulkhead so that water flows upside down, and when the bulkheads are completely dry. One of my solutions is to use EO (Electro-Optic) adapters that are almost always attached to the bulkheads during my trips. I only remove these adapters, which are 20 years old, at the end of trips or when the bulkheads are completely dry. In 20 years of using these adapters, I have rarely had problems with them. However, after a week of using my EO adapters on my Sea and Sea housing, I managed to strip both of the bulkheads on the Sea and Sea housing. I’ll repeat – these EO adapters have worked fine on other housings for 20 years.
These bulkheads seem designed to work best – and perhaps only with – Sea and Sea cords and strobes. I had other EO pigtail adapters made from older Ikelite cords – and they simply would not fit in the Sea and Sea bulkheads. I had Subaquatic Camera Repair (in Monterey, California) install new EO bulkheads in my Sea and Sea housing. Now I am limited to using EO-equipped strobes on manual only, but that is fine with me.
I am happy to discuss EO cords, strobes, where to get EO supplies, etc, if I receive enough requests to do so.
Photos from the field:
Electro-optic (EO) adapters and Nikonos TTL bulkheads:
I’d like to see a better viewfinder on all these housings. Light and Motion has promised a full-frame optical viewfinder for the Titan housing, and I am anxiously awaiting its release. I have heard that some users have been able to put Inon and other full-frame viewfinders on the Ikelite housing, and from what I understand, Light and Motion is going this route now.
The newer Nikon D200 camera bodies have power problems that Nikon has not been good about telling users about. Here’s the problem. I put a fully charged battery in the D200. I power it up. About 25% of the time, the camera turns off, indicating (falsely) that the battery is too low. This is a brand new camera with a brand new battery, fully charged.
I spoke with a Nikon service technician in Canada who told me that Nikon had seen these problems but was not sure what the solution was. He had me fill in a long questionnaire, and after I contacted him a month later, one of his colleagues told me to send the body and battery in to Nikon for repair. The funny thing is that this body had just been into Nikon repair to fix a problem where lenses mounted on it would not align properly with the pins on the camera body. They did not bother fixing or analyzing the power problem. This pretty much sums up the service quality that I’ve come to expect from Nikon over 25 years of using their equipment. One hint the first Nikon tech gave me was that newer bodies, with newer firmware, seem to have the problem more than older bodies. This has been my experience. From one of the Nikon forums, I saw this post “From what I’ve seen on these and other forums, the problem has more to do with the 2.0.0 upgrade than it does anything else. Not the act of upgrading, but rather, a bug in the 2.0.0 firmware.”
Regardless of the problems I’ve had and describe here, please do not get the wrong message. I am very happy with my Nikon D200 cameras, the new lineup of Nikon lenses, and the three housings that I’ve used for this camera. They’ve all worked well for me in large part.
Norbert Wu Productions