Review of UK-Germany housing for Pentax *istDS
By Mark Stiebel
After numerous Google-translated emails back and forth with Uwe Kiehl at UK-Germany (based in…you guessed it…Germany) over close to two months, yesterday UPS delivered a nice taped up cardboard box containing one of these:
So now its time to give up on the frustration and total lack of underwater control of my Sony DSC-P10 camera, and take on the challenge of capturing some decent underwater photos using this new aluminum housing for my Pentax *istDS, supported by an Inon Z-240 strobe. Stay tuned for a full run-down after I’ve taken the rig for a test run. Err, dive.
In The Box
The basic housing kit came with the housing (obviously) plus a flat port suitable for the Pentax DA18-55mm kit lens. Any lens of a similar size will fit, however the zoom ring supplied is custom suited to the particular lens. Also included was an extension ring to extend the port by another 5cm or so, in order to accommodate the DFA-100mm macro. I elected not to purchase a dome port for the DA14mm because I don’t have that lens, and the dome ports are expensive! Maybe next year I can get the dome port and the lens!
Also included was a lens cover for the port as well as a plastic bag containing a tube of o-ring grease and two o-rings - one for the lens port and one for the housing. No instructions came with the housing, except for one A4 sheet with a photo of the lens with zoom-ring attached, showing how to line it up properly. Not that there’s much instruction required for the housing, but it would have been nice to at least see some care and maintenance guidlines.
Definitely looks and feels like a quality product. Very well finished and solidly built, as one usually expects from the Germans. It took me a couple of tries to figure out how to release the two catches, but straightforward to open once I figured the trick of pushing the locking mechanism before loosening the catch. Once released, the right hand side catch hits the handle, so the back of the housing needs to be shifted to the left to unhook the catch before it can be removed.
The camera fits nice and snuggly onto the base plate, and is quite easy to secure via a thumbscrew into the tripod mount. The only things to watch out for are the strobe connector, the Av activator and the on/off switch getting in the way and lining up properly. One the camera is in place the memory card is still accessible, but not the battery compartment. Although with a 1Gb or 2Gb SD card paired with either AA lithiums or 2600mAH NiMHs, I’m confident the camera will have enough to go a full days diving without having to replace either.
Securing the back of the housing requires a little maneuvering to get the right-hand catch around the handle, but quite easy once done a couple of times. Even though the lens port mount feels very solid and smooth, there is no positive locking mechanism. All that is required to remove the port is to rotate it one eighth of a turn and pull it off. It was a little disconcerting at first, however it does require some effort to do even on dry land, so I very much doubt it will “accidentally” come loose underwater.
The only two controls on the camera that are not available with the housing are AF/MF switch and the pop-up flash button. Obviously the pop-up flash is not required, and neither is manual focus, since the lens ports don’t have a manual focus ring. UK-Germany did offer to make a focus ring for the DFA 100mm macro, but I think AF will be sufficient 90% of the time, especially paired with a focus-light equipped strobe.
One control I was doubtful of was the AV button. In Manual mode, the shutter speed on the *istDS is control by turning the multi-function wheel, and the aperture by holding the AV buttons whilst turning the multi-function wheel. Could be a challenge in the housing. But no, the AV control is not a button, but a lever. So turning it counter clockwise presses the button on the camera, and leaves it depressed until the control is turned back. This makes it easy to select a shutter speed, and then turn the control to “aperture selection”. The only issue here is that although the shutter fires with the AV button depressed, it does not show an image preview on the LCD screen.
There is one 5-pin Nikonos-type strobe bulkhead (the red cap) to connect most underwater strobes available on the market. The standard Sea & Sea cable requires a bulkhead with 3 solid pins and 2 spring loaded ones, however mine was supplied with 5 solid pins. I have emailed UK-Germany and Uwe has been quick to respond asking if I would be comfortable changing it myself, and then promptly packing a replace bulkhead with diagrams to send to me. That should hopefully arrive in a couple of days. The other option is to break off the two offending pins, which shouldn’t hurt operation of the strobe, since it does not support TTL anyway - all that is required is ground, strobe ready, and FIRE!
Pros & Cons
- Solid and well build
- Looks better than transparent polycarb!
- Easy to remove and replace the camera
- Great response for purchase and support direct from the manufacturer, even when emailing via Google translator
- Handle has an M8 socket to attach additional arms etc
- It’s for a Pentax!
- Only one handle (although attaching a strobe arm to the left acts as a second handle)
- No facility to mount a base plate
- No positive locking mechanism on lens ports
- Tricky to get the hang of the catches
- No support for TTL
In The Water
The camera with housing has now gone on three dives, after one check-out dip with just the housing for about 5 minutes at 5 metres under the pier. On the first outing (a 26m wreck dive followed by a 80min, 6m pier dive), I had a setting wrong on my Inon Z-240, so it was putting out only very little light. Even so, I still managed to get a couple of reasonably well exposed photos, but some post processing was required.
After consulting the forums at Scuba Board and re-reading the relevant sections on the strobe manual, my second outing was much more fruitful. It was a reef dive with most interest around depths of 25m-40m, so not much ambient light and not much bottom time.
I mostly left the strobe at full power (with a -0.5EV diffuser) and camera at f/9.5 and 1/125. After all my worrying, the size of the viewfinder is pretty much a non-issue. Its still plenty large and definitely bright enough to frame a focus. With little ambient light, if the target light on my strobe wasn’t aimed properly, the camera did struggle to focus on occasion. It is possible to set up the camera to ignore focus lock in AF by pressing ‘OK’ when pulling the trigger - easy above ground, but a little cumbersome when the camera is in a housing. Nevertheless, it may be something to try next time.
All the external controls, and the way they transfer operation to inside the housing is all well thought out, and the black “fuzzy” lining inside the housing is a nice finishing touch which supposedly will help in absorbing any minor leaks. VERY minor leaks.
After taking this housing for only a few dives so far, I am extremely happy with my results. It feels so much better to hold and use than my previous underwater camera (Sony DSC-P10 P&S), and I actually enjoy taking pictures instead of being frustrated by my equipment.
It is still a little unfortunate that TTL control does not work, however I am currently working on a circuit to convert the Pentax TTL signal to a Nikonos signal. The other enhancement possibly on its way is a 45º viewfinder which UK-Germany are developing at the moment. It should be magnified and will hopefully retrofit onto most of their housings.
And finally a few pics. With the 18-55 kit lens and flat port, the pictures come out very sharp in the centre of the image, but even at 55mm there is still some distortion towards the edges, which should be helped by the use of a dome port instead.
These are samples of the first outing, with the incorrect strobe setting. Less than ten acceptable shots out of almost 100.
And a couple of samples from the second outing, with the correct settings. I only took ten photos for the whole dive, but almost all were acceptable.