After I wrote a previous article about the features of the ND 7000, many people asked me to write a follow up regarding practical issues and the most important question: How is the handling underwater?
In order to do that properly I wanted to include as many details as possible regarding different equipment, especially strobes which I never can get enough of. In the first part of the review I have also written about the lenses I use and why I do so. You can find this here.
My setup for the review consists of the following items:
Nikon D7000 with Tokina 10-17mm/3.5-4.5 fisheye for wrecks, Sigma 8-16mm/4.5-5.6 rectilinear for wide-angle applications, and a Micro Nikkor 105mm/2.8 for macro photography.
For underwater work, I used: Subal ND7000 with angled viewfinder WS45, a 9” domeport with an 18mm extension for the Tokina and a 45mm extension for the Sigma and a macro port with manual focusing for the Nikkor.
In order to write something new and unique I wanted to include as many different large scale strobes as possible so I can compare and evaluate them. The review includes some vintage strobes that are not produced anymore, but are perfectly useable and adaptable, as well as new strobes:
- Seacam Ministrobe housing for Nikon SB-26 that after some modifications works with Nikon SB-800, too. A design from the early 90s that is still useful today.
- Seacam Seastrobe 350 with the electronics of the Subtronic Mega Color, a large and bulky, but powerful workhorse from the late 90s.
- Seacam Seastrobe 250 from 2005, a very versatile strobe with one serious flaw.
- Sea & Sea YS-250, a fast and lightweight strobe with optical non-TTL connections.
- Subtronic Pro 270, powerful and small with innovative features.
- Subtronic Fusion, a small 160 Ws strobe that also doubles as a video light.
- Subtronic Pro 160, even smaller.
Regarding connections I have many cables in different lengths and fittings. I tend to work with the reliable S6 connection (a joint development of Subtronic and Seacam from the 90s), but do also use the standard Nikonos fitting. With the advance in strobe technology I have tried optical cables and a new adapter called Subtronic Optocontrol which is an optical to electronic convertor which accepts both S6 and Nikonos connections.
New equipment inevitably creates new problems. If you wish to have a relaxing stress free holiday and just do photography never try to review anything new or that you’re not familiar with.
After some trial and error sessions I came up with an approach that seemed ideal to me: Subal has minaturized its strobe hotshoe connector inside the housing, so you can popup the strobe and still connect the hotshoe. This means that you don’t have to open the housing and readjust in order to change from optical to electrical connection and vice versa. It is possible to connect strobes electrically and you can use optical strobes as well, even simultaneously. It also seems possible to do independent TTL correction for two optically connected strobes.
Please bear in mind that it took me a lot work to figure out how to make this work.
In order to show you the performance of the strobes as accurate as possible I decided to do no post-processing, all pictures are straight out of the camera JPGs.
Underwater with the Sigma 8-16, Seastrobe 350 and 250
On the second day of my trip we went to a wall where you can find red sea fans at a depth of 45m. Since I wanted to try out my new Sigma lens I didn’t bother with some new and exotic strobe setups and chose the trustworthy Seastrobe 350/Subtronic Mega Color combined with the newer Seastrobe 250 from Seacam.
The Sigma 8-16 is the widest rectilinear lens currently available for the DX format. It has a whopping 114,5° field of view. For underwater work this means that it is very difficult to house and large domes are a must. After a lot of research work and trying out various domes I have chosen Subal’s 9” dome that is coated inside and out. I have also tried different extension rings and stuck with the 45 mm.
The Seastrobe 350 is a 3 kg dinosaur dated from the late 90s, but with some features that aren’t available today. It has a powerful 350 Wattseconds that equals to a guide number of 30 in air or 11 underwater (praxis value). A most sought after feature is the switchable color temperature of 5500°K for macro or wide-angle closeup and 4300°K for normal wide-angle or wrecks. This is enabled by dual strobe bulbs. It shows the battery capacity constantly and has dual connections, N5 or S6. Apart from a variable intensity halogen focus light it also has a needless laser pointer and an optical sensor for wireless triggering. The electronics are from Subtronic in a Seacam housing, is also very fast: 2,5 seconds for strobe recycle at full load, and that at a 350 Ws dump. It is still one of the most powerful strobes available today. Apart from its sheer size and the fact that it can’t do digital TTL, it is still my favorite.
In 2005, Seacam attempted to incorporate most of the features of the 350 in a smaller housing and adapt it to the modern digital world. The 250 Ws that equal a guide number of 9,5 underwater (praxis value) featured a programmable eprom (not a converter that translates dTTL signals to analogue TTL) for digital TTL that also enabled 2nd curtain sync on digital camera. It has a variable LED focus light that can be activated by the AF button of the camera, dual strobe bulbs for switchable color temperature (5500°K and 4300°K} and an optical sensor for wireless operation. Another feature is a dimmable display that shows battery capacity and strobe power level. However, it only has one strobe connection and is so slow that it is almost unusable for critical applications. The strobe recycle time on full power is 5 seconds with NiCd batteries or 6 seconds with Ni-MH. This means that when doing model photography at depth, fast moving subjects, or working on strong currents you will miss shots. Seacam has now discontinued this model and now sells a smaller 150 without switchable color temperature, but with a removable battery pack, for the same price. The recycle time has improved a little bit with 2 seconds.
Subal has developed an LED uncoupled strobe board inside the housing. This allows for the electronic triggering of different model strobes connected in parallel. Different strobes often have differing resistance in circuits and hence are often not compatible.
After preparing the setup and instructing my dive buddy we descended at a wall down to 45 m and stayed there for some 10 min. I focused on the red sea fans with my model swimming some 3-5 m away. The session was very nice and relaxing. All the preparation, research and mind work of the previous days suddenly paid off. It is one of these moments where you forget anything else and are completely focused on the moment. When we were ascending some caves turned up that were interesting to examine. At the boat I immediately checked the pictures and was astonished. The Sigma at 8 mm (12mm on FX) provides a very wide field of view that is an extremely good alternative for fisheye without producing artificial looking curved objects at close distances. Very nice! The 9” dome produced no reflection although I was constantly photographing into the sun. I didn’t even notice my camera housing while operating it at depth. The controls of the Subal ND 7000 are located close to where I would find it on the camera or placed somewhere near my fingers. I could vary the focusing points with ease according to my needs and set the focus exactly where I wanted to. This produced sea fan closeups with extremely sharp corners at f11. However I did miss some good shots due to the slowness of the Seastrobe 250, but others were just perfect.
A new way: Nikkor 105, Subtronic Pro 270 and Sea & Sea YS-250, triggered optically.
On another day the afternoon dive was at a place where there are a lot of fish schools around a rock that goes down to 45 m. I had chosen my macro setup which made me do just a few pictures. It didn’t matter since I wanted to try out something new and that was the possibility to optically trigger strobes and check if the TTL is working or not. While the YS-250 has a proprietary optical connection the Pro 270 has not. However, by using the Optocontrol and some testing and trial and error, I was able to trigger it optically.
The Pro 270 is the most powerful strobe offered by Subtronic. Subtronic has changed its ownership some 2 years ago and the new owner, Mr. Markus Moll, is working to update and innovate his products.The 270 offers 270 Wattseconds of output and an underwater guide number of roughly 10 (praxis value) weighs 1,2 kg and is sized 20 x 10 cm. Although a smaller battery (1,3 Ah) can be accommodated in the strobe itself, Subtronic offers a larger battery pack (2,4 Ah) in a strobe arm that is connected via a short cable and is good for 200 dumps at full power. The pack features Lithium Manganese batteries. Though I was skeptical about including batteries in the strobe arm it certainly has its’ advantages. The whole setup is easier to rotate underwater, the battery can be removed instantly or replaced by another one and it limits the risk of leakage when recharging or replacing internal batteries in the strobe.
The strobe is powerful and fast with some 2,2 seconds recycle time at 270 Ws full power. It provides N5 and S6 connections as well as a dimmable LED focusing light and features a TTL correction on the strobe itself. This only works with a digital TTL converter that can be accommodated in the strobe, in a cable or in a splitter cable where you can control and correct independently two TTL strobes simultaneously. Actually the only two things I’m missing are a built in optical slave sensor (but the Optocontrol or a dedicated outboard slave sensor can do this either) and a switchable color temperature which unfortunately seems to be a relic of the past. But you can order the Pro 270 Ws with either 4500°K or 5500°K strobe bulb. With the Optocontrol the Pro 270 is TTL capable via optical triggering and even the strobe exposure control of the camera works.
The Sea & Sea YS-250 is a different kind of beast. First of all it’s very fast, a whopping 1,8 seconds at 250 Ws full power which equals an uw-guide number of 9,5 (praxis value). It’s also lightweight at 1,8 kg. The color temperature is 5600°K, but a diffuser is provided that softens the light and makes it 5200°K and according to the manufacturer also widens the beam to a similar value as the Subtronic. The YS-250 has three optical connections, two for slave and one for main strobe where you can route to another slave strobe. Very nice! It also features a NiMH battery that is good for 160 strobes and a non-dimmable LED focus light. The Sea & Sea would be the perfect strobe but it has one serious flaw. The optical connections do not work in TTL mode. In order to get that you need to buy an outboard converter and connect electrically via Sea & Sea’s proprietary cables that are not compatible with Nikonos 5 standard - a real pity. This would have eased many things. Though the strobe comes quite cheap at 1.200 €, the converter is another 500 € and if you add cables it costs the same or more as the Subtronic that is more versatile and has a higher battery capacity. We can only hope that the successor will have optical TTL capability that would make a very good strobe perfect. Strangely, the smaller Sea & Sea strobes like the YS-110 and YS-01 do feature optical TTL capability. Another annoyance on the YS-250 are the small dials. While I could use them with bare hands it wasn’t possible with gloves. Cold water divers beware!
For the dive I connected the Subtronic via Optocontrol and cable with the optical connectors of the ND 7000, the Sea & Sea was also connected optically and set in manual mode at quarter power. I descended to 40 m to find a small grouper sitting on a yellow sponge. This made an interesting subject for trying out the TTL capability of the Subtronic and it worked as expected. Even the strobe exposure correction on the camera was working. Very nice! But be careful! Optical connections are not as reliable as electrical S6. Once connected, the electrical connection, if it’s not damaged, will always fire. With optical ones you need to test it before every dive in advance and sometimes it won’t work at all, for example if the connector has been moved a little bit due to carelessness during the dive, or a rock or a hand or whatever (this can be fixed instantly, but requires some cautiousness during photography). Another downside is the color temperature of the Subtronic (4500°K), which is perfect for wide-angle but for macro needs some tweaking in post processing in order to get color accurate results. While this certainly is not a problem on 40 m or a night dive you have to accept that if you want macro closeups with blue backgrounds, the shifting of the color temperature will affect your blue and make it a little duller.
Optical cables have the potential advantages of full and independent TTL or manual control via camera (with built in strobe) for two or more strobes, can trigger strobe at 2nd curtain sync with ease which older (electrically connected) strobes can’t. They are smaller in size, cheaper and there is nothing can break. You can attach, readjust or remove them underwater (a few years ago you had to pay a small fortune for electrical wet connections and now it’s for free). They also eliminate potential electrical problems of parallel connected strobes that are not compatible due to different resistances in the electrical circuit (older Subtronics with modern ones or different modern models, but also strobes from other manufacturers). However with Subal’s new strobeboard in the housing of the ND7000 this certainly poses no problem.
As far as I’m informed there are currently three standards of optical connection: Inon, Sea & Sea/Olympus and Nauticam. Vice versa with electrical connections there are four: N(ikonos) 5 pin, S(ubtronic) 6 pin, Sea & Sea 5 pin and Ikelite 5 pin (in an S6 like arrangement). Apart from that some exotic, expensive and professional grade electrical wet connections exist, for example the W6 from Subaqua Imaging Systems. The problem with this array of different connectors is that either you’re stuck with one system or need plenty of different cables and adapters in order to compare or review them.
The future will show which way will work better. Currently however, electrical connections,though complicated and bulky, are still leading regarding reliability and do work with cameras without a built in strobe.
Reliable, accurate and fast: Nikkor 105, SB-800 in Ministrobe housing with S6 connection, Sea & Sea YS-250 via optical connection
For the very interesting night dive I wanted to try out something trustworthy combined with a new strobe. 10 years ago I have bought something that still seems to me the ultimate strobe housing. By then it was already outdated, but not for me. A fully equipped aluminum housing for Nikon strobes.
The Ministrobe features a lacquered housing with four controls for Nikon strobes SB-24/25/26. That was more than you ever needed, since I only needed two of them: On/Off and M/TTL. It has a window for the display and one for the ready signal which is quite nice. There is even an acoustic leak alarm that I needed once. It is equipped with a reliable S6 connection and it has a built-in battery pack with a non-dimmable halogen focus light that is great during night dives. But the best feature is that it has a power cable from Quantum so you can connect the strobe to the battery pack of the housing. This means much improved strobe capacity and faster recycle time. Since the housing is for the SB-26 it can also accommodate the smaller SB-800 which is perfect for digital TTL macro photography. I had one control refitted so I can switch the SB-800 On/Off during the dive and the power cable improved the strobe recycle time from 3,5 seconds to 2,5 seconds which is more than enough for macro and using an additional strobe. The Nikon strobes have an underwater guide number of 5.6 (praxis value). I also did a refit of the housing’s battery pack and switched from NiCd to NiMH batteries that gave me a capacity increase for more than 40%. While the Ministrobe was connected to the camera housing via traditional electric cable, a second strobe was used in manual mode at quarter power triggered via optical connection: the Sea & Sea YS-250.
The results were remarkable and astonished me. During the night dive I had the chance to find all sorts of amazing critters and take as many pictures as I wanted without having to worry about battery capacity or strobe recycle time. I shot well over 100 pictures with the halogen focus light turned on for about 30 minutes. Still the battery had enough capacity to provide me with even more. The Ministrobe with SB-800 and the YS-250 recycled faster than I could shoot so I didn’t miss one single shot! Since both strobes have a color temperature of 5600°K the color accuracy was as perfect as the TTL metering. The Subal ND-7000 allowed me to switch focus modes, change focus points or adjust strobe exposure without having to look away from the viewfinder. The small size of the housing and the angled viewfinder made working on a flat bottom easy. Due to the focus light the AF immediately snapped everything sharp that I wanted. All that mattered was my creativity and the subject itself. The performance of the whole setup has impressed me so much that I will use it again and again till something better shows up, maybe dual TTL, though I’m not sure if the strobe exposure can be further improved.
Large scale strobe setup for wrecks: Tokina 10-17, three strobes on a 10 m cable, and two on the camera
After the macro setup on the night dive has been proved such a success I wanted to dig further and try out something I had never done before. I had experimented with two strong strobes coupled together wirelessly and one of them connected to a 10 m cable. They were held by an assistant diver who – from a distance of 2-3 meters – illuminated wrecks while I was photographing from another point of view. The ability to do that with a coupled power of mind blowing 600 Wattseconds opened new possibilities to do wreck photography. The only thing missing were two strobes to illuminate the foreground when applicable.
Equipped with an armada of 7 strobes for the review I had the chance to experiment with 5 of them: 2 on the camera and 3 on a long cable that was held by an assistant diver. The three strobes on the cable were Subtronic Pro 270, Seastrobe 350 and Sea & Sea 250. And the two on the camera were Subtronic Pro 160 and the Subtronic Fusion.
The Subtronic Fusion is a very small strobe with 70mm x 180mm and it barely weighs 1 kg grams. The strobe arm doubles as a battery pack with Li-Mn batteries. It has only one strobe connection that can be equipped with either N5 or S6. The strobe bulb is usually 4500°K color temperature but can be ordered with 5500°K. With an installed or an outboard converter the strobe can do TTL. But the best feature is that the Fusion also works as a 21 Watt LED video lamp. Actually you get a ready equipped strobe with 160 Wattseconds that equal an underwater guide number of 8 (praxis value, on air it’s 25) and a video light that can be used for some applications and is very travel friendly. Due to the size the dials are quite small (but larger than on the Sea & Sea), so with gloves on the operation can be quite tricky.
The Subtronic Pro 160 has the same features as the Fusion without the video light. Instead it uses a standard LED focus light. It is Subtronic’s bread and butter strobe since it is more than enough for most applications. 160 Ws means underwater guide number of 8 (praxis value, on air it’s 25) while most people are satisfied with 5,6 (eg. Nikon housed strobes, Inons, Sea & Sea YS-110, etc.). It weighs only 750g.
Unfortunately the dive itself didn’t turn out as expected. There was strong current and the water got quite cold. Even worse, it was my buddy’s first time as a model. I had twin tanks and stayed for 30 min on 30 m giving me 25 minutes of deco. The Sea & Sea strobe didn’t fire at all since I wasn’t provided with a manual and I had chosen the wrong slave setting (as I learned later). Still the pictures weren’t bad and demonstrated the potential capability of this setup. I tried to repeat the dive but due to weather restrictions this wasn’t possible anymore. I certainly will work on that matter and provide the results at a later stage.
Another disappointment was the optical performance of the Tokina 10-17. That was interesting since I heard so many good things about it. Either I got a bad production model or the users of the Tokina prefer versatility over optical performance. I’ve already read that it’s not very sharp compared to primes but the resolution is inferior to the Sigma 8-16. The Sigma rectilinear is also sharper than the Tokina which is astonishing since the curvature of a fisheye should make it superior behind domes. I will investigate this matter further and plan on switching the Tokina with a Sigma 10mm prime fisheye.
Fish photography: Sigma 8-16, Subtronic Pro 270, wired optically
After been to Croatia, I went to an Austrian lake where there was an apnea photography championship. The lake is famous for its’ chars (a trout like fish) and some sturgeons. I wanted to try out how the equipment is performing on fast moving fish. I chose the Sigma because of its’ zoom capabilities, and took the Subtronic Pro 270 because of TTL capability with the Optocontrol and an optical cable. Again, nothing went wrong. The TTL worked as expected, I could do the strobe exposure correction. The autofocus of the D7000 did its’ best to make the pictures as sharp as possible which wasn’t always possible. The Pro 270 strobe recycled as fast as expected and proved itself useable for the demanding work of capturing fast moving underwater animals. I can recommend this setup for the Sardine Run or sharks or dolphins or sailfishes or whatever is moving very fast through the water. You can add another strobe if you want to, but one 270 Ws can handle that application with ease, either. A colleague of me used two Subtronic Pro 160s (with built in TTL converters, wired electrically via N5 connection) for the same application, so that’s another possibility.
The overall handling of the ND-7000.
By my opinion the best technical equipment is one that you forget about when you’re using it.
I found this to be the case with the ND-7000. I found that I could access all camera functions easily and used most of them frequently. I found the small size, ability to switch focus points and change f stops to be great for macro use. The angled viewfinder is small and neat and works well. The macro port will work either with AF or manual focus, the more important knobs are large and can be operated with gloves on. I’m not sure if this is possible with the smaller ones like exposure mode and shooting mode (which you don’t change often anyway). I tried it with gloves on and while the exposure mode should work the shooting mode was quite tricky.
For wide-angle, the buoyancy depended on the setup with the strobes. For example, the Subtronics should be used with neoprene hoods or the whole setup will become quite negative. When using the Seacams I noticed that the older and larger 350 was positively buoyant with the hood on (and neutral without) while the smaller 250 was neutral with the hood (and slightly negative without). I had to hold it a little more firmly when the strobes were on either side. However, when I put one on top and one on side it was straight and easy to hold. Due to strobe arms all setups were a little negative. You can use floats and/or carbon arms if you want to equalize but you don’t have to. As I have written in the preview of the ND7000, larger housings like the ND3 perform better in buoyancy with large domes. Since the ND7000 is so small a large dome will try to float on top unless it is stabilized by a neutral strobe or light or whatever on top of the camera. This is certainly more important for video and I will do a follow up on that matter as soon as the live view prism viewfinder from Subal becomes available.
Regarding strobe work there is no need to worry at all. As I have explained in the first part of my review the Subal has dual optical connections (Sea & Sea standard) and there are third party accessories that let you mount 2 optical connectors on one of the housing. That means that up to 4 strobes can be connected optically with the ND7000. Additionally, Subal is offering the possibility of up to 3 electrical connectors. Since the strobe board inside the housing is LED uncoupled any strobe can be connected in parallel mode without any circuit incompatibilities to other strobes. Currently I have dual S6 connections but plan on adding a third N5 for reviewing purposes.
I have switched the standard Subal handles for ones from Ultralight and can confirm that they do have a better grip since they are thicker and rubberized. This has helped a lot. In air, these make it is easier to carry heavy setups and underwater you won’t notice the grips at all since your hand is more relaxed. I have moved the left one as far away from the camera as possible in order to hold the camera more firmly due to leverage. On the right side I have made a compromise between a firm grip and the possibility to reach front and back controls. Everything worked well and I can recommend this setup without hesitation. Another advantage is that you get additional ball adapters that can work instead of the Subal base adapters or with them together for up to 4 strobe or light arms. Please be advised that the brackets of the handles have to be modified by your local dive/photo shop since they are not aligned with newer style Subal housings.
I have also purchased Ultralight triple clamps for various reasons like mounting strobes and lamps simultaneously on one arm or for triple strobe setups like my wreck setup mentioned before. They also do work for coupling 1” Sea & Sea ball adapters with 24 cm Seacam ones though it’s not perfect. You can couple Ultralight balls with o-rings with Seacam ones without. It is also possible to couple two 22 cm Subal balls together though I would recommend adding an o-ring on the balls for improved performance. Unfortunately it is very hard to couple a 22 cm Subal ball with a 24 cm Seacam or a 1” Sea & Sea and make it stable. There are other solutions on the market for that, like the Vario-Clamp from Mike Dive. But all Subtronic strobes do offer the possibility to screw another ball in, so you have to organize yourself in advance if you’re planning comparison reviews or if you’re planning to mix different systems.
With the Subal ND7000 I feel that I can comfortably close the housing chapter since it satisfies what I want in a housing. I have owned a Seacam F100 and a Subal ND3 and both of them are way behind the ND7000. I like the customizable color option a lot. When you can decide which color you want for your housing you have a very sophisticated freedom of choice. It’s like buying a new car.
Regarding lenses I was impressed by the picture quality and corner sharpness of the Sigma 8-16 behind the 9” coated dome port. I feel that this is a winning combination: sharpness, detail and resolution and a lot better than I had expected.
By comparison the Tokina 10-17 was a disappointment, lacking sharpness and resolution. That is quite strange, since there are so many people out there using it. I do understand that it is a very versatile lens and for most photographers the optical performance might be good enough.
I have also compared the shots with the D7000 to some of the D3. It seems that the DX format has an edge over FX in terms of depth of field and it might be correct that this extends to one f-stop. Another advantage of the DX format is that the focus points are more spread on the smaller format, so it’s easier to get perfect focus.
However, other factors do count as well. The much higher priced professional FX lenses are sharper than the ones for DX. More than that, the sensors of the cameras are different, too. Additionally I couldn’t compare as I wanted to since on the D3 I had a 10” dome while on the D7000 it was a 9”. But I will investigate this matter further since I consider it very fascinating.
Regarding strobes I prefer Subtronic over Sea & Sea since it is more versatile and compatible with other brands and has the connections I need. The Subtronic Pro 270 will be added to my usual lineup. It’s very small and powerful, has Li-Mn batteries without any memory effect, and the possibility of optical TTL metering with the Optocontrol sensor.
The Subal ND7000 has changed a lot in the way I was doing underwater photography. It’s very small and lightweight, features all the controls you will ever need for underwater work and can be used for multiple strobe photography. Subal’s port system is complete and adaptable to all kind of lenses. There are four different viewfinders and a monitor option.
About the author: Andrej Belic has been into diving since 2000 and has covered all possible aspects of diving including scuba, trimix, rebreather, caves, wreck penetration and freediving. A lot of this action has been photographed and sold to Austrian, German and international dive magazines, as well as photo agencies around the world. Please visit his website for more information.
The Subtronic Pro 270 was loaned to the reviewer by Subtronic-Germany for the purpose of the review.
The Sea & Sea YS-250 was supplied to the reviewer by Nautica-Vienna for the purpose of the review.
The Subtronic Fusion was supplied to the reviewer by Subal-Austria for the purpose of the review.
The Subtronic Pro 160 was supplied by Harald Slauschek (photographer) for the purpose of the review.
The Subal ND7000, viewfinder and ports; Seacam 350, Seacam 250, Seacam Ministrobe were purchased by the reviewer from Subal and Seacam.