Review and Field Notes: Subal ND4

This isn’t a full on review, since I’ve already reviewed the flagship Nikon D4 for Wetpixel in the NA-D4 housing from Nauticam, following my trips to Iceland and Scotland in April 2012. You can read more here.

The aim of this review is to discuss shooting the camera in my own housing, the Subal ND4, which I have been using since December 2012. Wetpixel’s review coverage is sometimes accused of being biased towards Nauticam, but this is simply a result of Nauticam usually being the fastest to produce new housings. But we’re very keen to review other brands as I hope this shows.

Subal’s ND4 housing with macro port and Subsee +5 filter.

Furthermore, I am well aware that the Nikon D4 doesn’t command a lion’s share of the underwater camera market. So to make this article of interest to more people I’ll use it to share thoughts on shooting FX and underwater photography in general. I’ll focus particularly on some useful tips on autofocus modes, strobe arms, lens choices and custom controls for the housing , which I am asked about regularly.

The D4’s talents remain a little bit under the radar in underwater circles. Nikon thinks the camera is worth twice as much as their D800, but most underwater photographers think different. The D800 is many, many times more popular and while I do know a good number of people using the D4 underwater, they tend to be full time pros, who rarely surface long and when they are out of the water they aren’t the types to share images or thoughts online, saving their efforts for their clients.

Collecting my ND4 in Austria, with Subal CEO Harald Karl. Subal offer customers the option of factory collection, from their fascinating office and engineering workshop in Austria.

Despite having a Subal housing for my D700, selecting Subal for the housing for my D4 was not a foregone conclusion (not least because my previous housing purchase was a Nauticam for my D7000). I actually reconsidered all brands before the purchase and went with the Subal, even though it was not the cheapest option for me.

I have always loved Subal’s primary controls of shutter, aperture and shutter speed, but as housing standards continue to improve, I wanted to be sure Subal were still blazing the trail in ergonomic design, while maintaining the bulletproof reliability my Subals had always demonstrated, before signing on the dotted line. I’ve never had the need to service any of my previous Subals, something well worth considering when comparing the purchasing price of different brands.

There is a no doubt that visiting a housing manufacturer has a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feeling, with rooms piled with every conceivable gadget. If you ever have the chance to visit any housing manufacturer, take it!

As a result of taking my time to decide, I wasn’t one of the first to get an ND4. In fact many Subal users had ND4 and ND800 housings before I went to the charming town of Steyr, in Austria to collect mine. Subal offer factory collection as an option (like Porsche do in Stuttgart), and while Steyr is a little out of the way it is well worth it, if you’ve the time. Factory collection allowed me to add a few options, such as a third synch socket, in case an existing one is damaged by a flood in the field, and a vacuum port to check seals prior to diving. It also allowed me to put my camera in the housing and check if any controls needed adjusting (all housing manufacturers will tell you that Nikon and Canon cameras aren’t all exactly the same size). One control (the vertical grip or second AF-ON control) did need a small adjustment, although I could have easily done this myself.

Fisheye view of the Subal ND4 underwater. Although the housing is a similar size to the ND3, with similar controls, Subal looked at every control to improve ergonomics and functionality. Note how all back plate buttons are migrated closer to the edges of the housing to be more easily reached.

Moving controls to aid housing ergonomics can be a mixed blessing, because the additional complexity means more to go wrong (never in the showroom, but years down the line and on remote assignments). A big selling point for me with the Subal is that it is built like a tank, with simple, strong and elegant engineering solutions.

I took delivery of the housing in late October, but it wasn’t until December that I first took it on an overseas trip. Plunging it straight into the deep end with an assignment shooting lion fish culling and other subjects with Ocean Frontiers in Grand Cayman, followed by a longer trip to Indonesia, visiting NAD-Lembeh, Tasik Ria in Manado and the Indo Siren in Raja Ampat. I am close to 100 dives now with the Subal ND4.

Having already been shooting the D4 underwater and being a long time Subal user meant there was very little acclimatization time when I started using the ND4 in December. I took this on my first dive with the rig on the Kittiwake wreck. Nikon D4 and 16mm lens. Subal ND4 and Zen 230 dome. 1/200th, f/13, ISO 400. Flash.