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Review: Nikon Coolpix P7000 and Fantasea FP7000 housing

Review: Nikon Coolpix P7000 and Fantasea FP7000 housing.
By Tal Mor.

The Fantasea FP7000 housing started shipping to end users at the beginning of April, 2011. I was able to grab one of the first units and take it out to the Bahamas for some test dives. In this review, I will include my experience with both the Nikon P7000 camera and the Fantasea FP7000 housing .

First impressions:

The first thing one immediately notices with this housing is how compact and contoured to the camera it is. Fantasea designed this housing so accurately that even the mode button has to be pulled out in order for the camera to fit inside.

The camera slips inside easily and the quick latch is excellent, definitely the simplest and most reliable method to close and seal a housing. A similar latch can be found on the latest Olympus housings.

The housing is very easy to hold however despite there being a neat place for your thumb, I noticed that this did not allow a steady grip of the housing. Hence, I placed my thumb more to the left after the command dial “bump”. In this position, Fantasea has deliberately placed special grip ribs and these allowed me to grip the housing very steadily one hand.

Whilst most of the controls can be quite easily accessed with one hand, the function button is very difficult to press. I would blame Nikon for placing this button at a very odd location. It’s actually quite impressive that Fantasea took the effort to create an external button for this control but nonetheless I found it almost impossible to use underwater.

I found the zoom handle to be very easy to use but a little weird as it seemed to operate in the reverse way compared to the camera: In order to go wide you would have to pull the handle back whereas on the camera you would have to push it to the left. Maybe this is personal, but it seems this should have been the other way around.

Housing Features:

  1. An external diffuser that is included in the package and allows very even light burst all around the housing when the built-in flash fires.
  2. Removable fiber-optic connections for 2 external strobes.
  3. Rings that allow connecting of an optional side strap (It would have been great if Fantasea included such a strap with their housing).
  4. Depth rating of 60m as opposed to the 40m for many other housings in the market.
  5. Cold shoe connection on top for mounting an external flash. (Personally I would prefer mounting the housing on a tray such as the Fantasea Blue ray tray).

One thing I found to be quite annoying is that the housing is positively buoyant, too much so in my opinion. I found that I had to secure the included lanyard cable tightly to my hand or the camera would float away if I let go of it. On my next dive trip, I’ll be adding the Fantasea tray and arms as well as a strobe which will eliminate this problem.

It is worth mentioning that the shutter button is extremely easy to push half-way for focus. After 10 shots, I found that I was doing this just as if I was shooting without the housing.

Wish list for this housing would include:

What I would wish to add to this housing:

  1. A bit more weight for neutral buoyancy.
  2. Side strap for easier grip with one hand.
  3. A monitor shade. For shallow dives the sun made it very difficult to see what I was shooting.

The diving experience:

The P7000 has some unique features that puts it ahead of its competitors:

  1. 7.1x Optical zoom with Nikkor lens. 28-200mm (35mm Equivalent). The 28mm wide-angle is a huge feature in my opinion, however this is gradually becoming a standard in compact cameras.
  2. Large 1/1.7 Inch CCD.
  3. ISO up to 6400. I was surprised to see the quality of the photos at ISO 1600. The 3200 and 6400 take too much details out of the photos but in low lighting, may be better than nothing.
  4. 3” LCD monitor. This one is a huge feature for underwater use. The extra 0.1” makes a big difference.
  5. RAW shooting capability. An important feature for underwater use as it allows for the adjustment of the color balance manually during post processing.
  6. HD video at 720P (24fps was very smooth and more than enough, manual white balance is also available in this mode).
  7. U1, U2 and U3 programmable modes. I used U1 for shallow depth with natural ambient light and U2 for deep shots with flash.

Speed:

The P7000 has a quoted shutter lag time of 0.2s, almost as good as an SLR. The downside is it takes approximately 1.5s between shots which although faster than most is still not that fast for underwater use.

The P7000 has some very good ISO settings. I used the Auto and Hi Auto feature to allow the camera to go up to 800 or 1600 ISO and was thus able to keep the shutter speed high even at a deeper depth. Here are a couple of shots with High ISO:

ISO 660 with camera set to high ISO mode.

ISO 920 with camera set to high ISO mode.

When shooting in shallow depth’s (less than 20 feet), I used manual White Balance and no flash.

When shooting deeper, and especially below 60 feet, I used the Color temperature white balance (at around 6500K) and the built-in flash set to manual in order to light my subject.

In order to capture the blue color of the water, I took the EV compensation one full stop down and turned off the flash to avoid backscatter.

When the built-in flash is popped out, it cannot be disabled (only via the menu by choosing Flash control —> Off ). This is very inconvenient as with this housing, the flash cannot be pushed back in. I used the U1 and U2 programmable modes to switch between flash and no flash.

White Balance:

Mastering white balance on this camera was a crucial step to get good images. I played with a few options: Auto, Color Temp and Pre.

The auto white balance mode is irrelevant underwater as the images are completely blue and colors are completely faded.

The Color Temp worked well at bringing back a bit of red when using the built-in flash. I set it to between 6000-6800K and managed to improve the colors of the background a bit while still having the subject lit by the flash.

Manual White balance is the best way to go and this was the mode I was shooting in most of the time. I used the diffuser as a reference, which whilst not ideal, was simple and easy to use. I found that the best results could be achieved by setting the white balance at around 15-20 feet and shooting like that for the whole dive. Setting the white balance at 60 feet removes too much color and produces a grayish image. Of course this varies significantly between dive sites, water visibility and weather (sunny or cloudy) but I found that using a setting of 6500K between 5 to 20 feet and then setting manual white balance from 20 feet on produces the best results.

Auto white balance at 20 feet.

Manual white balance preset at 20 feet.

Manual white balance preset at 45 feet.

Manual White Balance at 15 feet preset at 20 feet.

Taken at 30 feet with 20 feet manual white balance.

Autofocus:

After trying all the focus modes underwater, I must say the P7000’s autofocus is not great underwater. I found the auto mode to be the best but I would prefer the spot focus to be better. There were too many times underwater where I saw the red rectangle identifying that the scenes were not under-lit. Above water the auto focus works well.

Accessories:

While the 28mm (35mm equivalent) lens is great, it is definitely not wide enough for underwater photography. Fantasea plan to release the Big Eye wide-angle lens for the FP7000 in June and this will be a “must=have” accessory for this housing. It is likely that other manufacturers will follow suit .I found that when shooting the wrecks in the pictures, I wished that I had had a wide-angle lens with me.

Fantasea will also be releasing a red filter for this housing.

Video:

The P7000 can shoot 720p at 24fps with manual white balance.

Conclusion:

I feel that the P7000 + FP7000 is the best camera and housing bundle available at its price. It is better than either the G12 Canon housing or Ikelite housing in size and ergonomics. Its price is lower than any such high-end point and shoot bundle. If SLR is too much for you or you travel a lot, this combination offers a great choice of camera and housing. It is not an SLR but for the price it is currently offered for is as close as it gets.

As mentioned before, the Fantasea housing makes using the camera underwater as close as possible to using it above water.

As a personal note about the camera, there are some average reviews online about the P7000 and some suggest it is disappointing. I disagree with this as I found the camera to be excellent, versatile, very “SLR-like” with great image quality, a superb lens and good shooting speed. I would agree that the menus are a bit slow, RAW shooting is very slow and the autofocus could be better but it is important not to forget that this is a $400 compact camera.

More images and video from the P7000/FP7000 can be seen on Flickr and YouTube.

Fantasea currently offers the P7000 camera and housing bundle for $849, and the P7000 housing only for $399.

Tal Mor is the marketing executive and co-founder of Mozaik Underwater Cameras and has been diving and taking pictures underwater since he was 16. For more information about Mozaik, please email them.