A few days ago I received the first production model of Subal’s housing for Nikons newest SLR – the D7000. A lot has been written about this camera that features a lot of new functions for the underwater photographer. The most important are a 16 MP sensor with much improved high ISO performance, full HD recording in 1080p/24, a new metering sensor and much more. All these functions were implemented in a small and lightweight camera for the bargain price of 1.000 €.
I started underwater photography ten years ago and my first camera was a Nikon F-100 that had a lot of the professional F5 built into a smaller package that made it more suitable for underwater work, especially macro photography on flat sand or rocks where all those tiny little creatures use to hide. When the digital revolution came I was quite skeptical about it. The first two generations of digital cameras had an awful performance for wide-angle work since their sensors produced horrible cyan sunballs and reduced contrast compared to slide film which had been improved for decades. Another disadvantage was a smaller sensor with a reduced wide-angle performance and inferior lenses.
In 2008 a lot of these downsides were overcome with the introduction of the Nikon D3 that had a full frame sensor with class-leading high ISO performance which made it suitable for deep wreck photography. Since I’m from Austria and Croatia – with its’ myriads of wrecks from two world wars - is not far away, this was much of an advantage to me. Back then Subal was the first one to introduce a housing for the D3 and I immediately jumped on it. But a housing is not the only thing important for an underwater photographer. Other tools are viewfinders which improve the comfort of composing and dome ports that decide the quality and sharpness of the picture. At Boot 2008 Subal introduced a nice and handy angled viewfinder which I was accustomed to, and a 10” domeport that was sharper for 1 to 1,5 f-stops than my previous 9” dome. Since Subal’s housing of the D3/s/X was also small and light and wasn’t heavier than my F-100 housing from another manufacturer I decided to change my underwater photography supplier and made the move.
The Subal ND3 has changed the way I was doing underwater photography. The digital advantage of controlling the picture immediately and underwater made things a lot easier. The Nikon D3 made me do up to 1,000 pictures on one dive on the Sardine Run 2008.
I learned that not the size of the cf card is the limiting factor in underwater photography, but the battery capacity of the flash which is around 500-600 shots even when you’re using large state of the art flashes. The 10” dome made wreck/reef shots possible at an aperture beginning at 5.6 that were sharp from the centre to the corners.
The large housing made the buoyancy neutral with the dome on, and I found that when I lifted my hands from the housing it moved a little bit to an angle not more than 20%. I just couldn’t believe it that this comfort was possible. On the other hand macro wasn’t as much of a joy. The setup was simply too large. You couldn’t place it on a flat sand bottom because the construction of the camera and the housing was too big and extended for more than 5 cm under the lens port. It seemed to be that what you gained for wide-angle you lost for macro.
Prelude to Subal ND-700.
As much as I liked the ND3/10 inch dome setup, it just wasn’t perfect. The 10” dome was sharp but was not coated inside. That meant that when you pointed it into the sun with a fisheye lens you could live with it. But when you used a rectilinear wide-angle zoom lens like Nikon’s 17-35/2.8, you had to tolerate reflections inside the port. After discussions with Subal’s representatives they were able to come up with a solution: A large dome port with an anti-reflective coating inside and outside. The dome port has been pressure tested to 120m or 13 bar
All these factors provided the basis for my decision to purchase a Subal ND7000. Subal had financial problems in late 2010 that were due to the consequences of the world financial crisis. Subal’s Viennese distributor Mr. Harald Karl restructured the company at the beginning of 2011.
The Subal ND-7000 was announced for March 2011 delivery. However due to the internal business issues mentioned above, the introduction has been delayed up until now. I was the lucky one to receive the first production model of the much acclaimed ND-7000. Not only that, last year I talked with Subal’s technical engineer Mr. Peter Stangl since I was unhappy with the color hardiness of Subal’s metallic bright grey standard color as it showed the dark grey military spec hard coating that was under it all too soon. He immediately provided me with a solution of a choice of over 20 colors where I could just get any color of the rainbow that suited my tastes best. I was so amazed by this option that I immediately ordered my brand new ND7000 in BRIGHT RED since I already got bored with all the silver and black housings of the last decade.
I understand that this is an amazing color, but not for everyone. However, if you prefer something else, Subal offer a choice of any different shade of any color.
I consider this the most interesting design improvement of any housing manufacturer up to date. With my color choice I was inspired by the look of Subal’s mastermind Mr. Arnold Stepanek’s housing Bolex Cinesub H16 with the world’s first uw-cartridge for 120m rolls of 16 mm film dated back as far as 1982. A housing that shaped the ideas of professional underwater movie makers for 20 years, when it was alternated by HDV.
But it’s just more than that. When I purchased the ND3 I was amazed by the reliability of the camera controls that seemed to work without any further improvement necessary.
Underwater camera housings have undergone a lot of changes in the last 10 years. While back in the analogue days housings didn’t have much more than 10 openings for controls/connections/viewfinders and ports the ND 7000 has 43. Let’s take a closer look:
The front features some new innovations for Subal. On the top are two optical connections as a standard. Personally that’s new for me either but I have to say I like the idea of optical connections since it eliminates potential electrical problems like the use of two flashguns in parallel mode, the not functioning 2nd curtain sync of almost all flashes, or problems with TTL and flash exposure correction. The German flash producer Subtronic already has an adapter connecting optical cables with standard electrical N5/S6 flashes and I will test it as soon as I get my hands on it.
Another very useful new function is the multiple port adapter. This device can be exchanged to accommodate non Subal ports without the need of restricting adapter rings. This will make life a lot easier for those that want a Subal housing but are not willing to sell their valuable flat and dome ports.
To the left of the housing – or right from your point of view - there is a lens release lever that let you change lenses without opening the backplate of the housing.
The right side:
Here is an opening for an electrical connection. I have chosen a reliable S6 since I’m using Subtronic and Seacam flashes. Other options include N5, Ikelite or Sea & Sea flash connections. Below is a lever for the shutter that provides tactile feedback for your finger. A large knob for the front dial of the camera. Lastly, Subal have introduced a port lock that prevents rotation of the ports and them disengaging.
One of the most interesting parts of an underwater housing is the back and the Subal ND7000 is no exception to this. On the right side is the AE-L/AF-L lever activated by the right hand. Below is the REC-lever for the D7000s video function. To the left is the lever for Live-View. As far as I know, Subal is the only manufacturer that has lever operation for both REC and Live-View operation. That means that you don’t have to move your right hand anymore in order to press some buttons and hence induce shake to your video. A large knob complements the section for the right hand.
Subal has changed the positions of the focus point selector; they have been moved apart, so that you can easily press them even with gloves on and the buttons are slightly angled so that you can feel them. Further down, the info button is at exactly the same location as on the camera.
Next is a large window for the LCD and the interchangeable viewfinders. The whole rear window is removable in order to house Subal’s prism viewfinder that let you overlook the monitor from a comfortable 30° view. This feature should be available by the end of June and should be a great tool for videographers.
On the left side of the window are buttons for all available controls on the D7000. All have been moved to the left in order to be controlled by the thumb.
Subal have used their standard Quick Lock system to close the backplate.
The left side:
On the upper side are two openings for electrical connections that you can customize individually. Since the D7000 features video, a hydrophone can be accommodated or an HDMI/Video out connector for monitors or even a remote control. Whatever suits your needs best. That means that with the ND7000 housing you potentially have 5 external connections, 2 optical and up to three electrical ones.
Below is the large knob for zoom or focus control of the lenses, retractable in order to change lenses more effectively, disable manual focus control for prime lenses or retracting the tray in order to change the SD cards without having to take the camera out of the housing (yes, it is possible).
The last control is the focus selector and again this is a special one since it can also be retracted. This is not only necessary for changing memory cards, but also if you happen to forget to align the housings’ control with the cameras’ before going diving. This happened to me more than one time with my Non-Subal F100 housing and rendered most of the pictures useless. It was a great relief when I switched to the ND3 and I very much appreciate this feature. With the Nikon D7000 the Focus selector has a small button that is very important for changing focus modes with the dials.
The upper side:
To the right is the usual Subal layout featuring buttons mirroring their position on the camera. I have to admit that I never use the metering button since I always measure with matrix, and I don’t need the exposure compensation button because I’ll do the quick exposure compensation with dials (the custom function b3 has to be turned on). To the side is the lens for the moisture alarm
The On/Off switch is a lever that can be retracted if you forget to align it correctly with the camera. While other manufacturers have cut the display window Subal has stuck to its rules of providing any possible camera function and by my opinion this was a very wise move since I can think of a lot of photo techniques were you need the upper display information. The most important is macro work on a flat sand bed where you certainly will face problems when needing information from the LCD screen below the viewfinder. On the side of the top is the lever for pushing the camera’s pop-up flash back into place.
On top of the housing you will find a connection for accessories like focus lights. In front are two additional holes. Subal’s new boss, Mr. Harald Karl, has explained me that this is for some sort of cage that lets you mount up to 4 optical cables, for 4 flashes, onto the two sockets at the front. That means an actual potential for 7 connections on the housing: 4 optical and 3 electrical.
I can’t think of any setup that will need all these external devices at once but I certainly will use a hydrophone and S6 connectors and maybe even a video/remote for polecam work so it’s good to know that all possible connections are provided.