Since the release of the Canon 5d Mark II in 2008, SLR cameras have been designed to incorporate the ability to produce HD video. This “convergence” has continued, with the latest Canon and Nikon models each vying to be multimedia capable, rather than solely existing as still cameras. Whilst how well various models do this is the subject of some debate, what unifies all current SLRs is a relatively limited ability to view what is being shot or to review this effectively. Despite camera LCD screen sizes increasing and often being of excellent quality, the position of them on the back of the camera body makes them very awkward. HD video is very susceptible to focus problems and not being able to review footage in real-time makes it very difficult to be sure that the crucial elements are in the frame and sharp.
Underwater, with the addition of a housing and some form of viewfinder, using video modes on these cameras is pretty much a process of pointing the camera at the action and hoping that you are framing it correctly and getting it in focus. Shooting through the water column creates specific problems with autofocus particularly which typically are simply impossible to see on a camera LCD screen.
On the surface, SLR filmmakers have been using various external monitors to supplement camera’s LCD screens for some time. These are often mounted into a rail or cage system that also allows the operator to handle the camera more smoothly. Monitors can also be fitted with eyepieces to make electronic viewfinders. In much the same way as filmmakers often use external microphones and sound recording apparatus with SLRs, in order to overcome the shortcomings inherent in the camera’s design, so the addition of external monitors to supplement or replace the integrated LCDs has become common.
For some time, Gates has offered the ability to attach its video monitors onto specific brands of housing as an engineering solution. The available options exploded at DEMA in 2011, where external monitors were very much the talk of the show, with Backscatter housing the Sony CLM-V55 monitor, Amphibico/Aquatica a 3.5” OLED monitor, Hugyfot a 5” Marshall one, and Subal planning to offer an SD monitor with a shutter release built in. This will be great for polecams or remote release (think Garden Eels). Also at the show, Nauticam debuted a housing for the SmallHD DP4 monitor.
The issue for many of the housing manufacturers is the ability to route the required HDMI cable through the housing wall and, once in, inside the housing. Often this requires more space than is available inside the housing, and a larger diameter port to allow a larger bulkhead.
I have been diving and using the SmallHD monitor in a Nauticam NA-DP4 housing for some months. This review is not intended to compare this set up with any other units available for other remanufactures, as it is the only one I have used. It is intended however to provide some information and guidance about monitors in general.
SmallHD DP4 HD Monitor.
The SmallHD DP4 is a 4.3” backlit LCD monitor designed specifically to be used as a field monitor. It has “Full Screen” scale modes for use with Nikon and Canon SLRs, frame guides that work with SLR signals, Focus assist and Peaking filters (more later) and a battery life of 6 hours when used with two Canon LP-E6 batteries. It provides inputs via HDMI, Component and Composite and is capable of displaying 1080p signals such as those output from RED, Sony NEX FS 100 and NanoFlash recorders.
The SLR scale feature increases the output from a Nikon or Canon camera to be shown in the full screen area at 16:9 on the DP4. This means that the viewable screen area is effectively larger than that displayed on a 5” monitor without the feature.
The DP4 has a number of filters specifically used to ensure focus. HD is so difficult to focus, that the normal “naked eye” test is not reliable. Specifically, the DP4 offers Peaking and Focus Assist. The former over-sharpens the image to give a frosted look to areas that are in focus, while the latter darkens the overall image and outlines the areas in focus with a white border. SmallHD has produced a short film demonstrating these two modes on their website:
Controls on the monitor are fairly simple, an on/off button, a rotating control dial to scroll and which is pushed to select, and two push buttons that can have functions assigned to them (and one exits the menu as well)
The DP4 is very small, sized at only 4.75” (114mm) x 3.25” (83mm) x 0.90” (19mm) and weighing in at only 6.4oz (0.18kg). It is typically supplied with a back plate that takes two Canon LP-E6 camera batteries (4 hours), but other power options include back plates for two Nikon EN-EL15 batteries (4 hours), Two Sony FS-100 batteries (13 hours) or 6 X AA batteries. The latter two do not fit into the Nauticam housing. For topside use, the monitor can also be powered with the supplied mains adapter.
The DP4 is supplied with accessories, including cables, mains adapter, sunshade and screen protector. It currently retails at $449.00.
In creating the housing for the DP4, Nauticam has used their experience making compact camera housings to the full. The actual housing is a fairly simple black anodized aluminum design with a locking rotary latch and large LCD screen to view the monitor. Controls on the housing faithfully replicate those on the monitor: An on/off button, a rotating control dial to scroll, with a secondary button to select and a further two push buttons for the function assign/exit buttons.
The housing contains the standard Nauticam visual/audible leak detector, has a sacrificial anode and a 1” ball mounting on its base.
Also on the base of the housing is the HDMI cable entry point. This is oversized to allow the excess cable necessary in order to insert and remove the monitor to fall inside it out of the way. It s also furnished by a heavy duty strain relief and cable gland. The cable is “fixed” in place and cannot be removed without tools.
On the housing end of the cable, there is a bulkhead that is screwed into the 25mm port that is now standard on newer Nauticam housings. The cable from the housing terminates in a mini HDMI male plug, with a triangular insert to ensure correct orientation into the bulkhead. This is then secured with an o ring sealed sleeve that screws down over both cable plug and bulkhead.
The bulkhead has a further female mini HDMI plug inside the housing, into which an appropriate cable can be inserted to connect into the camera’s HDMI out. When not in use, the bulkhead has a metal cover that screws down over the o ring seals to ensure water tightness. The whole system is very simple and quick to install and the design very elegant.
The internal cable routing can be an issue, and Nauticam has specifically increased the size and internal space of their NA-D7000V housing to accommodate this. In addition, as mentioned above, the bulkhead is a bigger diameter than that of older models. If you plan to use a monitor with an older Nauticam housing, or another manufacturer’s housing, I would suggest consulting with a dealer to ensure that there is enough space for the HDMI plug and wiring.
The NA-DP4 housing retails at £969.95.
The NA-DP4 is simple to set up and use. The bulkhead simply screws into the housing port, and the internal wiring runs down into the camera.
Due to the plug orientation on the camera’s HDMI socket, on my Nikon D7000 (and D800), the wire needs to loop around before insertion, rather than being able to mate directly into the socket. Caution is needed here, as the camera’s weatherproof covers tend to be awkward to locate so that they do not get caught in the housing’s closure. It is essential that this is checked once the housing is closed prior to diving.
Externally, the site from the monitor simply aligns with the female HDMI plug and the sealing cover screws into place. The bulkhead is not watertight, so if the housing is used with it installed without a monitor attached or for travel, Nauticam supply a metal cap that sells onto the bulkheads o rings to ensure no water ingress.
The NA-DP4 attaches to the housing via a standard 1” ball, which allows a lot of mounting options.
The monitor itself has several settings that help viewing it underwater:
In the System menu, Backlight should be set to 9 or 10 (out of 10). This helps it compete with bright ambient light.
In the Image menu, Brightness and Contrast should be at about 50 of 100. Brighter is washed out, darker is flat. Color Temperature is adjustable via individual RGB channels, I have left it at its default
I have set Peaking as one of the two preset buttons. This allows the user to toggle easily from the peaking filter to a conventional display. I have set the other preset button to Focus Assist.
Upon power up, the monitor gives through a home screen display, before entering a blue screen with “No Sync” displayed.
If the scroll wheel is activated, this gives a list of presets. At the bottom of these are three listed as “N DSLR REC”, “C DSLR REC” and “PLAYBACK”. The former two should be used to give full screen viewing for Canon or Nikon SLRs. They are selected by pressing the scroll wheel or by pressing the menu button on the housing when they are highlighted.
Once the monitor is set up and connected, the camera should be put into Live View, and the signal will be output onto the monitor. Most cameras give a choice of what information is displayed in Live View, and the DP4 will display whatever is selected.
The monitor is very light, and the housing relatively large, so it does not affect system buoyancy adversely. In fresh water it is slightly negative.
In use the monitor also allows a natural position in the water, with the camera being held below and slightly forward of the diver, with the monitor slightly angled upwards. The diver can then keep both subject and monitor in his or her line of sight.
For macro and super macro, it is likely that to achieve good results, the camera will need to be tripod mounted. The depth of field is so narrow, especially with super macro, that the actual focus point is almost impossible to determine with the naked eye. The DP4’s Peaking and Focus Assist filters really make this type of filming possible with SLRs. In addition, for moving objects and manual focusing, it is possible to follow focus.
I think it is a matter of personal preference, but I tend to use the Peaking filter more than the Focus Assist, as I find it hard to frame with the latter.
The screen is bright, however, in shallow water and bright conditions, it can be hard to see. I believe that Nauticam are planning to produce a shade, although the test unit does not have one. This is an essential piece of equipment. The on/off button on both the monitor and housing are very easy to inadvertently activate. I suggest that you only mount the battery immediately before shooting, otherwise there is the chance that the unit has activated and your batteries will be exhausted.
The future may well see devices like the Atomos Ninja 2 utilizing the clean HDMI out that the new Nikon cameras offer. These devices integrate viewing and storage into a single convenient unit and should be able to be housed for underwater use.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that this is not a comparative one, as I have not used any other monitor/housing combination. What I can say is that the Nauticam NA-DP4 and SmallHD monitor is a robust and elegantly engineered product that more than fulfills my expectations and needs. I highly recommend an external monitor for all SLR shooters, and from my own experience, can state that the Nauticam version seems to tick all the boxes.
To finish with, if you are planning to shoot video underwater with an SLR, then you should factor an external monitor into your plans! It causes a huge increase in productivity, by simply making it possible to effectively frame and focus what you are shooting. It is very possible to produce pleasing video without an external monitor, but using one makes the process so much easier. For those of us who are not dedicated video shooters, and may shoot both stills and video on a single dive, the ability to use both enhanced viewfinders for stills and the monitor for video makes this truly viable. The downside to this is the additional bulk of the monitor, and the additional lighting requirements for shooting video.
FTC Disclosure. The NA-DP4 housing and SmallHD DP4 monitor were supplied for the review by Alex Tattersall of Underwater Visions. Many thanks for his and Nauticam’s support. Both were subsequently purchased by the reviewer.