Subal’s new FS2 housing for the Fuji S2 is a near clone of the D10 housing for the Nikon D100 introduced earlier this year – the housing body is nearly identical, with the main differences concerning lay-out of display areas and controls on the back. Both are direct lineal descendants of the N10/N80/ProCase F5 family of Subal housings developed over 1998-2000 for the F100, F80 and F5 Nikon film SLRs.
The ability to reuse elements of the D10 design made it possible to get the FS2 housing to customers faster than might otherwise have been the case. I had already ordered a D10 housing in March when I heard Subal had just completed a prototype housing for the Fuji S2. When I contacted Subal, they said the new housing would be in production in July, and graciously allowed me to switch my order to the Fuji housing.
I have now used the FS2 housing and S2 Pro camera on more than 30 dives in Indonesia. While there are still many steps to climb on the digital learning curve, I was generally delighted with the results of these initial dives.
Lenses used were the Nikon AFS 12-24 DX for wide angle, 17-35 AFS for medium-wide and fish portraits, and the 105 mm micro. Both the 12-24 DX and the 17-35 AFS lenses were used with the DP-FE2 dome port and a 50 mm extension ring.
The housing is cast in aluminum alloy, hard coated and painted. Details and finish are everything you would expect from Subal.
The FS2 can use the full range of Subal lens ports, all of which are made using optical glass, with the body and hood made from polyacetal resin. Digital shooters who want to shoot true wide-angle with lenses such as the Nikon 12-24 DX zoom or the new 10.5 mm DX fish-eye will prefer the optically superior FE2 dome port to the older DP-SWB. There are also flat ports for Nikon’s 60, 105, and 200 mm micro lenses and the 70-180 micro zoom, available with or without manual focus controls on the port body.
Almost all the camera controls on the Fuji S2 Pro are available on the housing. In fact, the only controls NOT available on the housing are the depth-of-field preview button, focus area lock, and film advance mode selector (or release-mode switch, in Fuji-speak). The digital operations buttons on the camera back are of course all replicated as well, providing full control of digital image settings, including white balance, image file size and quality.
Subal brackets are mounted on the T-plates on top of this housing for strobe arms and an external light meter or aiming light.
Two Nikonos-V bulkhead synch ports are standard. READY and TTL are enabled on both ports. If strobes are connected to both ports using single synch cords, the READY wire should be disabled on one to avoid sending duplicate READY signals to the camera. But using a double synch cord connected to one synch port (treating the other as a back-up) is a better arrangement.
Note that the Fuji S2 Auto-focus assist illuminator lamp is non-functional inside the housing, so this function should be disabled for underwater use by changing custom setting 15 to OFF.
The new Nikon 12-24 DX worked extremely well with the FE2 dome for wide-angle scenics, delivering bright, saturated and very sharp images. The zoom control has a positive, short travel.
Detail from red bordered area in image on the left
The reduced image area means that the Nikon 17-35 AFS works like a 26-52 zoom lens, making it very useful for portraits of medium-sized subjects which are difficult to approach close enough to use the 12-24 DX.
The Fuji camera operates in standard TTL mode when spot metering or manual exposure mode is selected. In aperture or shutter priority exposure with either matrix or center-weighted metering, the camera presumably emulates Nikon’s Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill Flash. Maximum synch speed is 1/125. Slow synch and rear curtain modes are available. The Fuji manual has nothing to say about non-Nikon flashes or strobes, other than “don’t.” I used two Ikelite SS200 strobes, connected via a double synch cord.
After several dives shooting wide angle in manual exposure mode, I switched to aperture priority. This had never worked well for me with my film camera housing, but quickly became my favorite approach with this camera. The matrix metering system did a surprisingly good job of balancing ambient light and fill flash underwater. I used minus one half stop flash compensation as a starting point, bracketing or adjusting upward or downward after viewing the image I just shot in the LCD window.
Macro with the 105 mm 2.8 micro lens
Macro also worked very well, but the 105 mm lens is a very different animal than on a digital camera with a restricted (23.0 x 15.5 mm.) sensor area. I’m used to using the 105 mm as an all-purpose macro and close-up lens on a full-frame film SLR camera. On the Fuji S2 Pro, I had trouble getting medium-small subjects entirely into the frame. Having to move the camera further back degraded image quality and increased the distance between my strobes and subject, forcing me to use larger apertures, which in turn led to loss of depth of field.
Right: The need to back off due to smaller sensor area relative to 35 mm SLR forces wider apertures and poor depth-of-field when using 105 mm as close-up lens. The mouth of this Inimicus is badly out of focus.
Conversely, however, the Fuji S2 Pro with the 105 mm was excellent with smaller subjects that could be shot at optimal distances, producing images with good contrast and color saturation at magnifications of better than 1:1. High resolution (4256 x 2848) can be severely cropped without apparent loss of image quality.
The image on the right is a crop of the yellow-bordered area in the full-frame image on the left.
One change I intend to make is to add an additional small arm segment to my macro strobe arms so that I can position the strobes further forward, making it possible to use tighter apertures on larger subjects located further from the lens. But it’s clear that the 105 mm is not an optimal lens for close-up work with this camera, and should be largely restricted to pure macro work.
Set up and top-side handling
Quick release clamps have replaced the screw-type fasteners which made opening and closing the housing a time-consuming operation on the earlier generations of Subal housings, I know best (e.g., the Miniflex housing for the Nikon F801S). The center of the clamp lever must be depressed before turning the lever outwards to open the back. I can’t imagine these ever coming open accidentally.
I recommend storing the main O-ring off the body when the camera is not in use, and it should always be removed before flying if a port is mounted.
The camera body slides in to the housing on a tray. The camera body must be removed to change batteries, but this is not required to exchange memory cards or switch lenses.
A lever on the top of the housing operates the lens release button on the front of the camera body, making it possible to remove and switch lenses without removing the camera body from the housing, which can be difficult or impossible with certain ports and lenses on housings lacking this feature. Changing over from wide-angle to macro (and back) was much easier and faster than on my old film camera housing.
FS2 with FE2 dome port, Subal handles, strobe arms mounted on T-plates on top of housing. In this configuration, the housing exerts considerable torque on the wrists, and can be difficult to operate with only the right hand. Note Fastex clips for keeping strobe arms under control when handling the rig above water.
Like any housed SLR camera, the FS2 weighs quite a bit out of the water when loaded with a big glass dome port, two large wide-angle strobes and long strobe arms. It makes sense to arrange some system for stabilizing the strobe arms for topside handling and passing the rig to and from boats.
I use fastex clips attached to the strobe arm segments with plastic ties. These lock the folded arms into a rigid triangle, making it possible to pick up the housing by grabbing any part of either arm. At the end of a dive the arms can be refolded and clipped together in the water before passing the housing back up to the boat.
The main camera controls, including shutter, front and rear control wheels (which normally control aperture and shutter speed), exposure and flash compensation, AE/AF lock and zoom are all accessible underwater and easy to use without taking your eye from the viewfinder.
Camera controls are located where you would want them, usually close to their position on the Fuji S2 camera. It didn’t take long to become familiar enough with key controls to use them without taking my eye from the viewfinder.
The shutter is oversize and has good travel. The front control wheel is in the front, just under the shutter, while the rear wheel, AE/AF lock, and focus zone selectors are on the back within reach of the thumb of the right hand. All can be used without removing the right hand from the handle or the index finger from the shutter. The zoom/focus control and manual/auto focus selector switch are on the right, as are port-mounted manual focus controls. Exposure compensation, flash compensation, and the LCD illuminator buttons are on the top of the housing.
Left: Showing shutter, front control wheel. Right: Showing zoom and focus mode selector.
Selecting exposure mode or flash synch mode, setting exposure or flash compensation, invoking auto-bracketing and changing focus or metering mode all require more attention. Most photographers will also want to verify that they are making the change they want by checking the control visually and then confirming the result in the top LCD window or viewfinder data display. When changing focus area, however, it is important to avoid pressing the MENU/OK button by mistake.
The rear LCD monitor will show the image you have just taken for two seconds immediately, so you can quickly check whether the exposure is basically correct. This feature is disabled when you are shooting quickly and image data is buffered. The LCD monitor is very bright, and when viewed underwater, some images may incorrectly appear over-exposed. LCD brightness can be adjusted.
Although the design and positioning of the camera controls on the FS2 housing are excellent, there are problems with balance when using a dome port and long strobe arms. I was using UltraLight Control Systems (ULCS) strobe arms on the T-plates on the top of the housing. This is the only mounting option when using Subal handles, which are not designed to accept strobe arm mountings.
FE2 dome port with 50 mm extension ring. The large, buoyant dome port exerts a powerful torque, making the housing want to float front-side up. Mounting strobe arms on the T-plates on top of the housing may exacerbate this problem.
The large, buoyant dome port wants to turn the housing front-side up. Adding an extension behind the dome port, which is required to use the 12-24 DX or 17-35 ASF zoom lenses, increases the twisting force. Strobe arms mounted on top of the housing exacerbate this tendency when the arms are extended, particularly when the strobes are positioned higher than the housing body. They act as lever arms that also want to rotate the housing forwards or backwards. Combined, these forces generate a torque that tires the wrists after multiple long dives.
The problem is particularly serious when the photographer is using one hand to maintain position with a finger on a rock or piece of dead coral, leaving only the right hand to and operate the camera. Holding the rig steady is even harder when the photographer needs to manipulate camera controls using one finger and/or the thumb of the right hand. If you add a head-on current that catches the tops of the strobe arms and pushes them back, it can be nearly impossible to compose, handle the camera controls and shoot while holding the entire rig in position with only the right hand. But this is often exactly what you need to do.
The problem boils down to physics, not housing design, and is hardly unique to this housing. Not much that can be done about the buoyancy of a large dome port. The next time I take this housing in the water, however, I plan to leave the Subal handles at home and use ULCS handles on a tray bolted to the bottom of the housing. Mounting the strobe arms on the tops of the handles should improve the balance of the housing. Bolting two 250 g. weights to the bottom of the tray could also help.
Alternative configuration with strobe arms mounted on handles affixed to tray (Ultralight Control Systems). Attaching weights to the bottom of the tray may also help stabilize the housing underwater.
There is no balance problem when the housing is configured for shooting macro, because the flat ports used for the 60 mm and 105 mm lenses are not as buoyant and the strobes are positioned close to the housing on short arms.
Flat port with manual focus control for 105 mm macro lens.
Some intrinsic problems
The Fuji S2 Pro camera raises some issues unrelated to the Subal housing that pose special problems for underwater photographers.
The Fuji S2 is somewhat notorious for its hybrid power system. Two CR123A lithium batteries run basic camera operations camera, while four AA (alkaline or nickel-metal hydride only) power digital image processing.
There are two battery charge indicators, one on the top LCD for the lithium CR123A’s and another on the rear display panel for the AAs. On my camera, alas, these charge indicators don’t show low until just before the batteries run out. Just because both indicators show a full charge doesn’t necessarily mean there is enough power in either set of batteries to keep the camera going for a full dive.
How long batteries last will vary depending on batteries, shooting style, temperature, how much time is spent viewing images in the rear LCD window, and how the camera is used out of the water. (Transferring images directly from the camera to a laptop or other storage device uses camera power, while removing the memory card and transferring images via a card reader or digital album does not.)
If you are on a live-aboard and doing three or four dives daily, I would recommend using high quality rechargeable nickel-metal hydride AA batteries and changing them every day. The best approach is to always have one set of four AAs in the charger while using a second set in the camera, with keeping a third set in reserve. (Mark or label the batteries in each set so that you don’t mix them up.) As for the CR-123A lithium batteries, make sure you have a sufficient stock on hand before traveling to a location where they may not be available or heading out on a live-aboard trip.
The S2 Pro viewfinder is simply frustrating. Fuji retained the original viewfinder and prism optics of the Nikon N80/F80, simply masking out the outer parts of the viewfinder image that are not covered by the CCD sensor. However, the viewfinder information display bar remains where it was on the N80/F80. What this means is that the image in the viewfinder is much smaller than on an equivalent film SLR, with a big piece of empty space between the image and the information display. The most that one can say is that Subal’s housing optics make the viewfinder image just as big and easy to see as it is looking through the camera on land with no housing. But that’s not saying a lot.
Digital image handling
The information in this section primarily concerns the Fuji S2 Pro camera, rather than the Subal FS2 housing, but there are a number of issues of potential interest to underwater photographers considering migrating from a film SLR system.
Among the biggest attractions of a digital SLR system for a film photographer is the ability to shoot 75 full-sized CCD-RAW images on a single dive with a 1 GB flash memory card – or more with a bigger memory card or if a smaller file format is selected - and delete trial shots and mistakes underwater.
Diving from a small boat with no protected working area, the photographer can easily do two dives without needing to open the housing and camera. Conversely, diving on a live-aboard, it’s not uncommon to find one has taken nearly 300 images (or more) in four dives on a single day.
The downside is that all these images need to be transferred and stored on other media or devicec before the next dive. It’s not the same as tossing the exposed roll of film into a bag and loading a fresh roll.
Shooting CCD-RAW, on the Fuji S2 Pro, 300 images will require about 4 GB of space. A ten-day trip could generate as much as 40 GB of raw images, not including any TIFF or Photoshop working files generated along the way. TIFF files converted from CCD-RAW at maximum channel depth and file size are 35.6 MB.
The Fuji S2 Pro can transfer images directly to a laptop using USB or a Firewire connection, or the memory card can be transferred from the camera to a card reader or digital album. I used two 1 GB flash memory cards, alternating them so that I could close the camera and housing and set up for the next dive while the card I had just used was being read to another device.
For someone coming to digital from a film SLR, the array of new devices needed to keep up with the flow of image data - all needing their own power connections and/or chargers - can be intimidating. On my first trip with the Fuji S2 Pro and the Subal housing, I found I sometimes found myself using five sets of power points at the same time, and some needed almost full-time:
1 – Laptop computer
2 – Nixvue 20 GB digital album and card reader
3 – Nimh AA battery charger
4 – Ikelite charger for SS200 strobes
5 – HP CD burner (my ageing laptop can’t store the images from the whole trip)
If you are planning a live-aboard trip, check ahead to make sure the A/C power is suitable for your equipment, appropriate adaptors are available, and that there are enough power points for all the photographers that will be on board. It also makes sense to plan in advance for how to handle work flow and data storage.
Label or mark all chargers, USB or Firewire connector cords and detachable power cords, as these can easily be mislaid on a crowded camera or charging table, and there may be other photographers on the boat with similar or identical gear.
The Fuji S2Pro will save files in JPEG, TIFF-RGB or CCD raw (RAF) formats. Images come in four sizes with three different quality levels.
1440 x 960 (1.38 megapixels)
Normal: 350 KB/image (JPEG)
Fine: 690 KB/image (JPEG)
High: 4.1 MB/image (TIFF-RGB)
2304 x 1536 (3.53 megapixels)
Normal: 660 KB/image (JPEG)
Fine: 1.3 MB/image (JPEG)
High: 10.4 MB/image (TIFF-RGB)
3024 x 2016 (6.12 megapixels)
Normal: 1.1 MB/image (JPEG)
Fine: 2.3 MB/image (JPEG)
High: 17.9 MB/image (TIFF-RGB)
4256 x 2648 (12.1 megapixels)
Normal: 2.2 MB/image (JPEG)
Fine: 4.7 MB/image (JPEG)
High (1): 12.4 MB/image (CCD-RAW – 16 bit/channel)
High (2): 35.5 MB/image (RGB-TIFF)
The number of frames you can shoot depends on the file size and image quality settings selected and the memory media capacity. The 1 GB flash memory card can store up to 76 full-size CCD-RAW images, 210-220 with image quality set to “Fine”, or 425-430 images sized at 3024 x 2016 and set to “Fine”.
Many underwater photographers will be primarily interested in the CCD-RAW option, not least because this makes it possible to select white balance and color settings and adjust exposure at the time the image is converted into a TIFF file. In all other file modes, you are stuck with the settings in the camera at the time the picture was taken. CCD-RAW files are 16 bit per channel 4256 x 2648 files, and no image processing is performed in the camera.
Raw files must be converted to another format (normally TIFF) before they can be viewed or worked on in a program such as Photoshop. The LE program that comes with the camera converts RAW files into TIFF files, using the settings that were selected in the camera at the time the picture was taken. An optional software CD (called the Hyper-Utility Disk) contains a more powerful program, EX, which allows changing settings at the time of conversion.
The most recent 2.0 version of the EX conversion has the following options:
Color Conversion Space
16 bit/channel TIFF with Adobe RGB (1998) ICC profile
16 bit/channel TIFF with FujiFilm FinePix RGB 1.8 ICC profile
8 bit/channel Exif RGB TIFF with sRGB IEC61966-2.1 colorspace
From –1.0 EV to +3.0 EV in 1/6 EV steps
Standard light sources (AUTO, Fine, Shade, Daylight Flourescent, White
Flourescent, Cool White Flourescent, Incandescent, Custom 1, Custom 2
Manual (setting color temperature manually, range 2500K –9500 K)
Gray picker (using eye dropper to select grey area in the preview image)
STANDARD (Provia), HIGH (Velvia), ORIGINAL (Astia), Black/White
STANDARD, HARD, or ORIGINAL
STANDARD, HARD, OFF
The FS2 housing is an elegant and well thought-out piece of equipment. Subal’s first-rate engineering, design and port optics, combined with the state-of-the-current-art Fuji S2 Pro and superior Nikon lenses, add up to a formidable system that can produce excellent professional quality images.
The question of what level of technical capability and price justifies “switching over” from film cameras to a digital system is an individual one that every photographer will answer differently. (For some, the answer may be “never”.)
New technical advances in digital cameras are coming quickly. The situation is comparable to the rapid waves of progress in laptop and desktop computers a decade ago, when new products establishing new standards of performance were often superseded within only months or weeks of hitting the market.
The second issue, therefore, is determining the point at which technical capabilities of digital systems is “good enough” that the next incremental advances do not render the current “state-of-the-art” generation hopelessly obsolete.
New cameras surpassing the Fuji S2 Pro in terms of resolution and other features will no doubt be available in the not to distant future. However, the decision by leading underwater housing manufacturers such as Subal, Aquatica, Nexus, Ikelite and others to produce specialized housings for the Fuji S2 Pro and/or Nikon D100 lines of cameras indicate a level of confidence that this generation of digital SLRs will continue to attract serious photographers for some time to come. Personally, I don’t expect to feel any need to upgrade from this system for many years.