Seacam D1X Field Journal (by Stephen Frink)
Seacam Nikon D1X Housing [sample photographs]
Field Journal and Operator's Manual
I'm like you. I wanted to take digital pictures underwater, but not at the expense of quality, convenience, or ergonomics. I knew I would embrace digital at the point when the file sizes were sufficient to use for a magazine cover or a double page spread, and when digital lag was no longer an issue in capturing the "decisive moment". But I also wanted to be able to see what I was doing, precisely, so that meant I needed a SLR camera. I did not want to rely on the approximation of focus that comes from working though a small LCD screen (especially annoying and imprecise in high ambient light). Finally, I wanted to use my existing arsenal of lenses. For me, the Nikon D1X was the point at which professional quality digital imaging is finally viable.
Seacam D1X Housing (front)
Seacam D1X Housing (back)
Of course it helped that Seacam was already committed to making a housing for the Nikon D1, and in fact showed a prototype of that housing last January at the DEMA show. Fortunately when Nikon introduced the D1X and D1H, they had the exact same exterior dimensions and control placement as the original D1. So, the Seacam housing fits all 3 cameras, and the existing ports and accessory viewfinders used on the other contemporary Seacam housings (Nikon F5 and F100, Canon EOS 1N) will also fit on the new D1 series housing.
After an extended time in design and production, the first of the D1 series housings began to arrive in the US in early January 2002. Mine was the first in the country, and I'd like to share some initial observations and suggestions that might facilitate your learning curve with yours.
- First look
- Setting up the camera
- Setting up the housing
- Setting up the lens
- S-C-M switch
- Swivel 45-degree and S180 viewfinders
- Miscellaneous housing controls
- TTL strobe photography
- Maintenance and service
- Depth of operation
- Contact/more information
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The housing is finished in the same "Seacam Silver" as my Seacam F100 housing, although it is slightly bigger. More like the size of an F5 housing actually. When you place the F100 and the D1 side-by-side there isn't a huge difference less than 10% bigger overall. For those of you who already own Seacam housings, you'll find the placement of the command/subcommand dials is similar, the AF zone control is the same, the position and the function of the S/C/M (single servo, continual, and manual focus) lever is identical, as is the visual access to the top LCD. The D1 housing has two more viewing windows though, one to access the monitor and one to access the rear control panel (quality/white balance window).
Once you open the housing, familiar touches are evident. The new housing has
the same wonderful black-flocked material coating the inside to reduce light
reflection and trap errant drips of water. The moisture alarm is standard on
this housing, as are twin Nikonos TTL synch ports and the SCM switch. But one
thing is different
instead of a knurled knob to attach the camera to
the mounting tray; there is now a 1/4x20 stainless steel screw with a flat head
and Allen wrench fitting. There just is not sufficient space at the bottom of
the housing for a knurled nut, so shooters will have to:
1. Keep track of their Allen wrench.
2. Keep track of the small screw. In fact, it might be easy to lose this screw so you should have at least 2 spares every time you go on location.
Note also that unlike the F100 housing that had nearly an inch space between the bottom of the housing and the camera tray, the D1 has about ¼ inch space. That means that if you are careless with your "O" rings there is less dry space to isolate your camera from water intrusion. The moisture alarm will tell you if there is a problem, and the black flocked material will absorb small bits of moisture, but if the moisture alarm sounds, or if you ever suspect a problem, get out of the water as fast as your personal safety will allow.
I. Setting up the camera:
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- Adjust the diopter control on the camera's prism to your own vision. This is crucial when using the pro viewfinder, and also important when using an adjustable viewfinder like the Swivel 45 or S180 viewfinders (see S45 section below). With these viewfinders, you have +/- 3-diopter adjustment in the viewfinder, so regardless where the diopter is set on the camera; you could optimize it for your vision. But if the camera diopter is zeroed in for your own vision first, you can use the camera topside without adjustment, and reassure yourself the diopter settings won't have changed when you put your D1X back in the housing. Because there is so much custom control for viewing correction of this S45 viewfinder, someone else's housing might not appear in focus to your eyes, just as you might find it difficult to read through someone else's glasses. When properly calibrated to your eyes the groundglass will be visible corner-to-corner and sharp focus will be easy to discern.
- Make sure the menu/func/wb door is left open
- Set the custom menu on the D1X. Here is an area where personal taste is
a determining factor. I'll just suggest the custom settings that I have found
make the camera work a bit easier in the Seacam housing. Only those settings
that deviate from the factory, plus a couple of optional settings, are noted
- 1. Image Review - set to 1-2 so that the images are displayed in the monitor as they are being recorded to the memory card.
- 6. Focus Area Select - Either 6-0 (factory default) or 6-1 will work with the housing, but I like the wrap-around effect of 6-1 as it allows my to work more quickly in either a vertical or horizontal axis.
- 12. Assign Command Dial - The factory default (12-0) gives shutter
speed control on the command dial and aperture via subcommand. I like
12-1, command dial controls aperture and subcommand controls shutter speed.
Why? Aperture will change far more often and more critically that shutter
speed underwater, and the command dial is easier to access with your finger
on the shutter release lever.
Note that this refers to "D" series lenses only, which I highly recommend for ease of use with this housing. If you are using older style Nikon lenses you will have to use an aperture gear and set custom function 22 at #1. But you won't be able to see the actual F-stop setting through the camera LED and will be reduced to counting the F-stop clicks to know where you are. I had an old style 18mm lens that I used in my Seacam N90S housing, but it was a constant hassle. I upgraded to an 18mm "D" lens and gained auto focus plus the ability to use all the D1X camera functions.
- 18. Monitor Off Delay - I find twenty seconds (18-1 default) sufficient for review and don't want to have the greater battery consumption that goes along with a longer display. But 18-2 gives a full minute for review and/or delete. Plus pressing the shutter release part way, or hitting the monitor button again can manually turn off the monitor. So, this is indeed a viable option for some shooting styles.
- 22. Aperture Setting - I like 22-0 (default), aperture adjusted using subcommand dial so we don't have to use aperture rings. This is a huge advantage with the F5/F100 and D1 series cameras.
- 27. Display Mode - Working quickly underwater I don't think we will have time to study histograms or image highlights, so the default setting of 27-0 makes sense to me.
- 28. NEF (RAW) Image Save - This control can be accessed via the function/subcommand dial, but I doubt whether anyone will need to change this often underwater. Decide what your preset should be according to personal preference.
- 35. Rear Control Panel Display - Again personal preference, but you may find the frame count option of 35-1 more significant than the factory default of 35-0 to show ISO equivalent (sensitivity).
II. Setting up the housing
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- Remove shoulder strap and viewfinder protection ring from D1 series camera.
- Unscrew the 1/4x20 tripod screw on the housing's camera shelf. Keep the retaining nut for future use. Don't lose this retaining nut or the 1/4x20 screw. Very important.
- Set the camera in the S position (on the S/C/M switch) and the housing in the S position as well. This assures the camera will slide into the housing smoothly, and confirms registration of the switch between camera and housing.
- Set camera on/off to off and housing on/off to off.
- There is an exposure mode control on the top of the camera prism for program, center-weighted, and spot metering. To assure access to this control, pull the AE-Select lever out until it stops (about 2mm). Place the function on the camera and the switch in the same position. Close the housing back and press the lever down. The control will now be synchronized with the camera.
- Make sure ISO/strobe control knob is pulled up.
- Make sure the AF-select knob on the back of the housing (white dot) is aligned with the housing (black dot).
- Other controls are clearly marked on the housing and require no special consideration when installing the camera in the housing.
Important - Insert camera into housing and place carefully on camera shelf. Note that the back of the camera should be parallel with the back of the shelf and not canted at an angle. You will see a long threaded screw on the left side of the housing with a rubber cap on the end. This is to arrange minute adjustments for the angle of the camera and assure proper registration with each installation.
Seacam has discovered that there are minute tolerance differences between the cameras from any manufacturer, and without your personal camera on hand; the factory cannot guarantee a perfect fit. However, the combination of tripod screw and adjustment post does allow fine-tuning the housing to your camera.
If adjustment is necessary for your particular camera, loosen the set nut at the bottom of the shaft and adjust the screw accordingly up or down. With the D1 series cameras it is designed to rest on the plastic cover for the manual strobe synch socket. You must have this plastic cover in place for the adjustment screw, so either be very careful with this piece or travel with a spare.
Note black-flocked material on the inside of the housing. This is a Seacam exclusive and not only blocks extraneous light from bouncing around inside and possibly producing unwanted optical flare, but it traps small amounts of water either accidentally intruding or from hurried film changes while camera or operator is still wet. I've tested this by dropping a teaspoonful of water from on the back of the housing, and incredibly the flocking soaked it all up. Far better than having it sloshing around inside a conventional housing. Then I dried it with a towel and let it air dry for an hour or so and it was totally dry and good to go.
III. Setting up the lens:
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- Zoom lenses - Mount the gears in order: first the zoom, then the
focus, and finally, if using an old style Nikkor lens, mount the aperture
- (A) Zoom gear - Turn the zoom to the shortest focal length. Then push on the lens from the back with gear teeth facing to the left side of the camera body. There is a white dot on the gear that needs to be placed exactly on the scale marking for the zoom. The space between the camera body and the lens gear should be approximately 10mm. Attach the gear via the setscrews, taking care not to over tighten. Make sure the gear on the housing meshes with the gear on the zoom before closing the housing.
- (B) Focus gear - Most AF zooms are operated in auto-focus in
most housings, using one housing control for zoom and one for aperture.
However, with the D1X the command or subcommand dial is used for aperture,
freeing one control to be used for focus and one for zoom. The Seacam
housing offers the option of using manual focus via a focus gear, auto
focus, but not both on the same dive. You must make the decision whether
to shoot manual or AF before going underwater. Attach focus gear in the
same manner as the zoom gear, with the teeth facing to the left side of
the camera body. The distance from the focus gear to the zoom gear should
be about 1mm.
Important - When shooting AF, make sure the focus gear is either off the lens, or perhaps easier, moved forward enough so the gears do not mesh. If you keep the gearing engaged with operating in AF, the resistance from the two gears could damage your lens or camera body.
- AF-MF shift gear/focus gear for macro lenses - For macro lenses (including the 60, 105mm, and 200mm Micro-Nikkors) you'll see a small beveled piece machined on the inside of the AF-MF gear. This has to go over the silver knob on the lens that must be depressed when shifting between AF to MF. Be careful not to hit the full/limit switch when doing so. You'll see a machined clearance area for the limit switch, and proper installation of this gear requires the inner beveled piece hit the knob while the machined indent clears the limit switch. It sounds more complicated than it is, but it might take you a few times to get it right to begin with. The focus gear then goes on, aligning to about 1mm in front of the AF/MF gear, with the teeth for both facing camera left. In practical use, the top left knob on the back of the housing controls AF/MF selection, and the bottom knob is for manual focus. For AF the camera must be set in the C or S focus mode. For manual focus the setting of the S-C-M switch is irrelevant, but the lens must be set to manual focus.
IV. S-C-M switch
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This is standard on the Seacam D1 series housings, and an option on other housings, but I can't imagine why anyone would order a quality housing like this and choose to do without the versatility provided by the S-C-M accessory. Although the S-C-M control is not necessary to shift between AF to MF in lenses that are equipped with the AF/MF control on the lens barrel (like the 60mm and 105mm Micro-Nikkors, and newer lenses like the 14mm Nikkor), the S-C-M is necessary to choose between Single servo and Continuous auto focus.
With the 5 zones of AF in the D1, you may prefer to constantly shoot in AF for your wide-angle lenses, but again that is a personal preference. It is possible to shoot effectively with the Seacam housing without the S-C-M switch, but you'll find imaging scenarios where it helps, and to me, that's justification enough.
V. Swivel 45-degree and S180 viewfinders
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S180 and S40 Viewfinders, on Seacam D1X Housings
There are three viewfinders available for the Seacam D1 and F100 (The F5 also offers the option of using the DA-30). The pro viewfinder, the S45 (for swivel 45-agree), and the new S180, offering the same magnified view but without the angled viewing perspective. It views straight into the camera's viewfinder, effectively functioning much like a DA-30 action finder on an F5. I like the pro viewfinder for quickly moving subjects like sharks and dolphins, but for precise focus and composition, particularly with most wide angle and fish/macro photography, I use the S45. Actually, since I use reading glasses, I find the S45 or S180 a better choice for almost all my UW photography with Seacam housings. For shooting with the 105mm or 200mm Micro-Nikkors, the S180 is far more intuitive and easy to use. Because the viewfinder is nearly on the same plane as the subject, there is less searching required to find it in the ground glass. A camouflaged subject like a pygmy seahorse can be tough with the S45, but much easier with the S180. Actually, these two viewfinders are reason enough to buy a Seacam housing. Both are awesome, and since the D1 series housing does not come equipped with an Action finder like the F5, to really truly see what you are doing requires one of these magnified viewing systems. For younger eyes, unaffected by presbyopia, the pro viewfinder might be just fine. But, I can't imagine why someone would buy the best digital camera available, put it in the best housing available, and then not go with the best viewfinder. Macro shooters, I advise the S180. Those who want to shoot over/unders with their head out of the water or for general fish photography, the S45 rules.
Note that the D1 series housing is available with any of the 3 viewfinders or none. Actually I ordered mine with none because I have both the Pro and S45 viewfinder for my F100 housing. I intend to buy an S180 as well and then use the S45 and S180 on either my F100 or D1X. On very rare occasions I use the Pro viewfinder, mostly for quickly moving subjects like dolphins or a shark feed.
All viewfinders are equipped with double O-rings and are held in place by a delrin split ring. No tools are required for installation. Simply slip the retaining ring off from inside the housing and push out to remove. When you reinstall the viewfinder you'll notice the retaining ring is very slightly concave. Make sure the curved surface faces into the housing.
Once the S45 viewfinder is removed you'll see a spring with a rounded rod that fits in an socket on the housing. This in turn engages one of four indents on the viewfinder to give confirmation of the 90/180/270/360 degree position. This is for convenience only and is not a necessary part of the viewfinder. Actually I misplaced the spring on my N90S housing and used it for several years without bothering to replace it. The spring is for the S45 viewfinder and is not to be used with the pro viewfinder. The housing viewfinder protection cap has a small box built-in so you can safely store the spring assembly when not in use.
Remember to fine-tune the S45/S180 for your personal vision. To do so, mount the S45/S180 on the housing and pick a lens that will demonstrate fine focus (like the 105mm Micro-Nikkor). You could use a wide angle, but small deviance in precise focus may not show up as easily. Focus the lens (manually or AF) on a stationary subject. Obviously the housing has to be stationary as well. Now remove the black knurled end-cap on the viewfinder by turning counterclockwise. You'll see this is a threaded delrin piece with an O-ring seal. Inside you'll see the viewfinder optic, which you can adjust by gripping the black aluminum bezel around the glass and turning right or left. If you run it all the way through the range you'll achieve a +3 to -3 diopter correction. Make sure it is exactly focused for you, but remember to hold your eye far enough away from the glass to simulate wearing a facemask. Screw the end-cap back on and you're ready to shoot. By the way, you'll notice that the glass viewfinder wobbles inside once the end-cap is off. This is normal. When you put the end-cap back in place it will be held firmly in position.
Note on S45 for over/unders - The S45 is terrific for over/unders because it allows you to keep your head above the water and you won't even need a facemask. I've used this while laying on my belly on the swim platform to shoot white sharks in South Africa, while kneeling on the shallow sand for photographing stingrays at Grand Cayman's Sandbar, and for shooting fashion over/unders for the Victoria's Secret swimwear catalog. It is a very productive weapon in your creative arsenal, especially when used in conjunction with the 9" Superdome. The Superdome spreads any surface chop over a wider area, thereby making over/unders possible in rougher seas than is possible with a 6" or 8" dome from other manufacturers. Also, water sheets off glass quicker than Plexiglas, so those annoying water droplets on the topside portion of the frame are less likely to appear.
Note on S45 for fish photography - Warning ... The first few times you try the S45 for moving fish you probably won't like it. Your instincts of aiming will need to be relearned. You will have spent years shooting through an SLR with what is essentially a straight-on viewing system. The eyepiece might be a few millimeters above the lens, but you are essentially looking through the camera with your eye and your subject on the same plane. With the S45 you need to bend your head forward slightly and look into the viewfinder. If you keep your head upright and bring the viewfinder to your eye, you'll probably instinctively aim above your subject. In my experience it will take three or four dives for this to feel right. With greater familiarity the S45 will become instinctive as well, and you'll come to appreciate the magnified field of view and precision of focus.
In my opinion, the S45 is perfect for macro, fish photography, wide-angle reef scenics, and over/unders. What is not good for is blue water photos of swiftly moving pelagics. If I'm shooting sharks or dolphins, anything where the action may be happening fast and furious, I prefer the pro viewfinder or S180. (Also, the S45 and S180 will add weight to the housing package since there is a lot of glass and aluminum, with no substantial air pocket inside to provide buoyancy. This too might be a small concern when shooting in the open sea, or breathe-hold diving with spotted dolphins or humpbacks for example.) The fact that viewfinders can easily be changed before the dive, on the boat, without any tools of any kind, is one of the beauties of the Seacam system.
VI. Miscellaneous housing controls
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While I don't personally use every one of these controls, for some styles of photography there are other useful external controls on the housing.
- Off/0n LCD Light - Used to turn the camera on and off. Turn all the way to the left to illuminate the LCD.
- AE Select - This moves the three controls on the top of the prism by pushing in and turning (to select spot, center weighted, or matrix metering).
- +/- comp, mode - Move switch forward + turn command dial to control exposure compensation. Move switch back + turn the command dial to select mode (P, M, S, A).
- Shutter release - Diagonal lever at housing right.
- Synch ports - Two Nikonos TTL synch ports will be installed at the upper right and left corners of the housing unless otherwise specified. Ikelite connectors are available by special order.
- Command dial - I program camera to operate aperture with the command dial, knob at camera right rear.
- Subcommand dial - I program camera to operate shutter speed with subcommand dial, knob at camera right forward.
- BKT/strobe comp/manual - Actually, this is mislabeled on my housing. It should say BKT/ISO/Strobe. This is a control that allows you to depress one of three buttons on the top left of the camera, and then move either the command or subcommand dial while the buttons are depressed. This controls bracketing, strobe controls, and ISO. Refers to your camera owners' manual to see exactly what changes the command and subcommand dial will effect.
- AF Select - Choose between five zones of AF. See Custom Setting section for use tips.
- Zoom, AF-MF - Depending on which lens gear you have installed, this knob on the housing left top will operate the AF-MF switch on a macro lens, or the zoom gear on a zoom optic.
- Man. Focus - This knob at housing left bottom is the manual focus control.
- S-C-M switch - Shifts between Single Servo AF, Continuous AF, and Manual focus on the camera.
- Test-Set/Reset - Actually this one is mislabeled on my housing as well. Probably a difference between US D1X housings and Seacam's European issue camera. For North America the label should say "Monitor/Delete". This is a rocker switch that when pushed forward engages the camera's monitor button, and when pulled back hits the "delete" button.
- Function/CSM - This will require a preset before putting the camera in the
housing. Before closing the camera back, do the following:
1. Turn camera on
2. Press menu
3. Go to shooting menu
4. Toggle down to "assign function"
5. Go to assign function menu and choose Qual
6. Confirm Qual is set in shooting menu
Now when you pull the rocker lever back you depress the function button and turning the command dial allows the choice of Fine, Normal, or Basic jpegs, or whichever high resolution you have preset (either TIFF or NEF) at whatever compression you have preset. Pressing the subcommand dial lets you choose black and white or color in jpeg mode, or RAW, RGB, CbCr while in High-resolution setting.
If you push the rocker switch forward you'll access white balance. The command dial will give various white balance options, and the subcommand dial will bring up any personal presets you might have programmed.
VII. TTL strobe photography with the Nikon
D1 series cameras
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The submersible strobes you have been using with your Nikonos or other housed cameras will not work TTL with the D1X. In fact, they may not work at all. I've tried an Ikelite 200 for example, and it won't even fire with a D1X unless you use a manual synch cord. Probably most other strobes won't either. The one strobe that does work of course is the Nikon SB28DX dedicated speedlight. The trick is how to get it underwater. Fortunately, Seacam has long made a housing for the SB26/SB28 strobes called the "Systemflash". The Systemflash has a cast aluminum housing finished in Seacam Silver, a slightly amber tinted (for color correction) glass dome port, and a built-in rechargeable model light. The strobe sits in a hot shoe, extended full length instead of its normal 90-degree position. It works extremely well for fish and macro photography, but here's a hint: the zoom function of the speedlight will narrow the beam significantly when working with a lens like the 105mm Micro-Nikkor. Try pulling down the built-in diffuser to lock the angle of coverage at 20mm instead. I was getting black shots on some shots at night because my strobe was slightly misaimed as a function of the narrow beam angle. The internal diffuser helped considerably in this regard. For wide-angle, I still prefer a manual strobe for the increased angle of coverage and variable power settings.
VIII. Maintenance and Service
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As with any new housing, even though it will have been pressure tested at the factory, make the first dive without a camera inside. I take a 2-pound weight and wrap in a small towel so it can't scratch or damage the housing interior or ports, and then I dive to a depth of at least 30 feet. The rinse bucket or a swimming pool really isn't deep enough. The factory hydrostatic test will take the housing to a much greater depth, but testing in a pressure pot cannot actually operate controls while under pressure. My routine with a new housing is to sit on the bottom and operate all the controls while watching things through the port. If there are bubbles coming out, there is water coming in.
However, in the four Seacam housings I have owned so far, I've never had a leak. Except once (with my very first Minicam housing for my N90S) I was careless reassembling a camera after a dive and had the main O-ring pop out of the groove. I put the housing back in the rinse tank for a final rinse and immediately heard the moisture alarm shrieking. I took the housing back out and found most of the fresh water had been absorbed by the black flocking material on the inside of the housing, and fortunately no water ever touched the camera or lens. It did teach me to be more careful about greasing and placing the O rings properly in position, and also reinforced my desire to always have the optional moisture alarm on all my housings.
Obviously the best maintenance will be a thorough fresh water rinse after every dive. Unscrew the handles if you don't intend to use the housing for a long time, just to assure the screws don't seize.
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You'll note there are two small plates, one under each handle. These are sacrificial anodes. They are just like zincs on the bottom of a boat. Any corrosion will attack here first. Seacam recommends changing the zincs every year, but that will depend on your amount of in-water time with the housing. Inspect them occasionally and if the metal is eating away, replace them.
Electrolysis - Note that electrolysis can occur at the synch port when dissimilar metals are used. Combine the aluminum of the Seacam port with a stainless steel threaded connector, add electricity, and electrolysis can happen in only the course of a few days. If you use the new Seacam or Ikelite delrin connectors, no problem with corrosion. If you use the Nikonos connectors, you'll have aluminum-to-aluminum so electrolysis is minimal. But the old Ikelite stainless steel connectors, or stainless E-O connectors like I use, are a problem. You must disconnect and clean the fittings regularly. Actually, it should be done daily to minimize the corrosion.
The factory suggests "the main O-ring and the port O-ring should be replaced every year. One O-ring set, lubricant and contact oil for the plug will be delivered with the housing. The O-rings at the shaft glands require no maintenance and should be replaced every 3 to 5 years. When adhering to the required operating conditions we recommend a factory service every 3 to 5 years depending on how often the housing is used."
VIII. Depth of operation -
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The Seacam guarantee, as per owner's manual and with original translation, is as follows: "For the housing delivered we shall give a year's guarantee for function and tightness from the date of invoice. This guarantee shall not apply in the event of accident damage, negligence, improper handling, damage to cords, water entering at improperly screwed front ports and plugged connections, capacity loss of batteries, disregarding of operating conditions and operating instructions, as well as unauthorized repairs or changes. Seacam shall not be liable for indirect damage, or damage to built-in cameras, and reserves the right to make technical changes and replacements." Stephen Frink Photographic Inc. assumes no liability beyond the manufacturer's warranty above.
For further information on the operation of your housing, contact:
Stephen Frink Photographic
PO Box 2720, Mile Marker 102.5 Overseas Highway
Key Largo, FL 33037
(800) 451-3737, (305) 451-3737, fax (305) 451-5147