Let me start with a confession: I’m a quality freak! When it comes to photography and video, I get my kicks from producing quality results. For example, with my photography, I have used Hasselblad and Leica gear for the last couple of decades. I like capturing interesting images – but only if the quality is great. Underwater, for many years I enjoyed the quality results of the Nikonos V and Velvia film. So, when I switched to underwater video about 7 years ago, while I enjoyed the story-telling paradigm, I chaffed at the lack of quality when the footage was loaded into the editing suite. It also bugged me that, when shooting, I could see ways of improving my footage through manual controls but the prosumer housings did not provide these controls.
Then, a few weeks ago, I heard about the Canon XF100. Could this be the answer? A professional quality video camera, small enough and light enough for underwater use but still portable enough for remote travel.
After some investigation, I found that I currently had only two housing options: The Equinox HD8X, with mechanical controls, and the BS Kinetics’ Takla Makan, modified electronically for the XF100. As they are both reasonably priced, I ordered one of each and put them through some trials. The one I have decided to stick with is the BS Kinetics’ Takla Makan, for reasons discussed below.
I’ve just returned from my first weekend diving with the Canon XF100.
First of all, to set expectations, I have to tell you that it was a lousy weekend dive trip. We experienced very windy conditions out on the South China Sea, with a strong south-easterly blowing in from across the sea. Not many places to shelter from the big swells. To add to our woes, a huge current was running, stirring up the sediments. First dive, we found a tiny vortex out of the current at the end of a small island. Visibility was a couple of meters and the swell kept rolling us around. Next two dives we dived a wreck and found some shelter inside but poor viz. Fourth dive was the only passable dive, a nice little night dive, but still low visibility, swirling particles and a lot of surge. Sunday was so rough we cancelled the dives and came home early. So, it was not the best trip to be trying out a new housing. Half the time I was worried about bashing into some coral or smashing the housing on the stern of the dive boat when climbing out with big waves crashing over the platform.
The setup I was testing this weekend was the Canon XF100 in the BS Kinetics’ Takla Makan housing, customised for the XF100.
Side note: Takla Makan is a dessert in northwest China. BS Kinetics name all their housings after desserts, reflecting their intention to keep things dry inside…
Stability: First task was to get the weight right. The Takla Makan, made from carbon-fibre, weighs in at a very light 6 kg, even with camera inside, excellent for a plane carry-on. It needs about 4 kg of ballast to make it neutral. The weight system I worked out is to slide a small weight pouch onto the bottom frame of each arm, with 1 kg weight in each; tidy, out-of-the-way and gives a nice low stability. I mounted my L&M Sola 1200s locline arms on the top of 3 of the handles. When all setup, it is a bit heavy out of the water but slightly negative and very stable underwater
Seals: No leaking problems. The housing comes with an alarm system. But, with just two large o-rings (housing middle and around the port), the housing seems to be quite a low leak risk. Tested to 80 meters, with a 160 meter option available if required.
Controls: Manual control is the real strength of this housing. Every conceivable control: focus (auto, auto-lock, manual), zoom, iris, ND, shutter, gain, WB (auto, kelvin, sunlight, manual x 2), zoom speed, and all the menus. The primary controls are all on the right vertical panel, within distance of the right thumb. The secondary controls are in a horizontal row on the back and are controlled through switching though 6 modes, then operating the controls in that mode. Bit of a memory test but, within a few minutes, I’d mastered the WB and Iris mode settings - enough to get going. The controls are all magnetic, through the housing skin, and have a nice positive push. Maybe slightly longer travel on each control button than my previous housing but something I’ll quickly get used to.
Monitor: I opted for the new 4.3 inch 16:9 monitor. It shows a large SD version of the HD video that the camera is capturing and displays all the camera data. Easy to read.
Battery: With the biggest battery that Canon sells (~8 hours) and the NiMH batteries inside the housing (~6 hours) and a pair of 64Gb CF memory cards, you can shoot all day without opening the housing, a real plus on a wet dive boat. The on-off button on the housing puts the camera into “sleep” so it wakes up quite quickly. Using the housing’s on-off switch seems to be enough to conserve both batteries between dives. It’ll need more experimenting to find the limit, but 4 dives over 12 hours didn’t put much of a dent into either the camera or housing battery.
Results: Given the lousy conditions on the test weekend, I did not shoot enough great footage to edit a whole dive trip story but I did get a few nice shots, especially on the night dive. I can see from the results that this is going to be a great set-up.
Short XF100 clip on Vimeo:
Portability: My starting objective was a professional camera that was carry-on portable for remote dive travel. Given its size, I was concerned about the portability of the XF100 housing, but the Takla Makan just fits neatly into the same carry-on bag I used for my previous prosumer housing and camera. There is even enough space for the housing handles and L&M Sola lights. It’ll just pass the carry-on test for size and weight. So, even if my checked-in dive bag goes astray, I’ll still be able to shoot. As the ballast needs 4 x 1kg lead dive weights, you can slip them into the pouches when you arrive at the dive boat.
Improvements: I’m working on a couple of things to improve the setup. Firstly, it does need a handle. Passing it up from the water to the boat is a bit of a hassle, given that it goes from 0 kg to 10 kg as it leaves the water. We jury-rigged a rope handle for the weekend. A friend who happens to be an aircraft engineer is working on an aluminium H-shaped handle that’ll mount on top of the 4 handles. Secondly, I’ve bought a Canon WA adapter lens for the camera and am talking to BS Kinetics about a dome for the housing. Except for macro, this will be better than using the standard lens and a flat port. Finally, I’ve ordered some more locline and will mount a WB card on top of the 4th handle. Not sure exactly what color to use for the WB card but, from early experiments, I suspect a very light pink might be right.
Prognosis: This is the one! For now, anyway…
Comparison 1: Sony CX550 in L&M Bluefin Pro; the Sony/L&M, of course, is smaller and a little lighter (not much lighter - when the Takla Makan has its ballast off). And the controls on the L&M are great. But the rich colors, quality codec, light sensitivity and manual controls of the XF100 put it into a different league.
Comparison 2: Canon XF100 in Equinox HD8X; same camera so same quality results. Underwater the Equinox is the most stable housing I have ever used. The Takla Makan beats the Equinox on just two points; the Takla Makan is a whole lot easier for travel and the electronic controls are easier to operate. The Equinox is quite a bit cheaper. Both units are very well made. Both will shoot good video. Because I travel a lot, I’ve opted to keep the Takla Makan.
Thanks to Wetpixel member David Cheung (CheungyDiver) from ScubaCam for helping to make all this happen. David also spent the weekend rolling around on the South China Sea, testing a 3D camera - but I’ll let him tell that story himself.
About the author: Peter Walker is a Singapore based underwater photographer, filmmaker and technologist. He continues to be excited by the wonderful world of photography and enjoys scuba diving with either a camera or video camera. Please visit his website for more information.