More or less pushed into digital underwater photography !?
What does that mean? Just let me give a brief explanation, how this could happen. I stepped into underwater photography about 15 years ago when I came to Jeddah at Saudi Arabiaâ€™s Red Sea coast. A Nikonos V with lenses from 20mm to 80mm was my first setup, which has been replaced by a Nikon F3 with sports finder in a Hugyphot housing combined with two Hartenberger flash units in 1992. When purchasing a Nikonos RS system 3 years later, I thought I had reached the top of the line especially true for optical performance however handling with auto focus could have been improved. The RS has been my companion during recent years until the day I got the shocking message from our local film processing lab that slide films will no longer be processed!
What to do? I was already shooting digital at this time (on land) and honestly spoken all my analogue gear even my medium format cameras spend all their time on the shelf since then.
So it was obvious to look for a proper housing for my D2X. Choices were more versatile than expected. Thanks to the web I was able to collect a lot of information until I contacted Blake from Aquatica who responded immediately to my remaining open questions. In the end the only open issue which could have canceled my decision to go for the Aquatica housing was the view finder. Unfortunately the D2x is not as modular as for example the F5 or F3 with the opportunity to replace the standard finder by a sports finder. Needless to say anything about the brilliant RS view finder, which set a certain standard I got used to all the recent years. Finally I didnâ€™t want to wait for the first reviews about the new D2x housing and I could imagine a big demand for these housings at Aquatica. So I decided to hurry to be one of the first users despite the unknown view finder performance.
End of October the box has landed with all its goodies. It took a bit longer due to a few customized changes. The housing has been assembled quickly for a first pool test with 4 lbs soft weights inside to keep it on the poolâ€™s bottom. The original polyâ€¦ handles have been replaced by aluminum handles fixed via custom made brackets to the housing due to improved ruggedness when combined with my heavy flash units. I placed the housing on our compoundâ€™s pool ground in 2 m depth for approximately half an hour and checked the moisture alarm frequently. The first hurdle has been taken successfully, the housing was properly sealed. In the next step I fixed the D2x with a 14mm lens and added my old Hartenberger flash lights which still do their work properly even after more than 10 years in the field. My first impression of the view finder was â€¦wow! I could clearly see a magnified picture of the viewfinder in a suitable distance from the housingâ€™s rear side. So composing a picture is definitely a joy and I really donâ€™t miss the predecessors in this field. During this pool session I tested the 20mm and 60mm micro lenses additionally, played with different camera settings and was amazed about being able to use all the cameraâ€™s features under water. Checking correct exposure values with the separated RGB histograms for example is a perfect tool on the way to increase capturing efficiency.
During this pool night I faced some trouble with flash firing, i.e. from time to time the flash hasnâ€™t been triggered. When removing the connector from the cameraâ€™s hot shoe I noticed one of the spring loaded contacts stuck in the hot shoe connectorâ€™s housing. What happened? The seat of that connector in the cameraâ€™s hot shoe is very tight, so I had to push it with force into its position and bended the foremost contact most likely during this action. This problem has been rectified with little contact alignment after disassembling the connector. This contact bending can be avoided by using an aid, which works like a shoe-horn by pushing these spring loaded contacts back while sliding the connector into the cameraâ€™s hot shoe and releasing the contacts one after the other. But a long term solution could only be a little change in the design. Either stronger contacts could be used or the actual contacts and/or their PCB could be slightly moved upwards in its housing for better contact guidance.
After a further alignment of the release lever, the housing was ready for its first dive in the Red Sea. For this first sea dive the D2x carried a 14mm lens (at this time it was a Sigma AF lens), the 8â€ dome port plus shade has been used and one Hartenberger 250 flash unit mounted onto the left handle. Unfortunately the conditions werenâ€™t that good for wide angle photography, e.g. lots of nutrition particles in the water due to temperatures above 30Â°C. I was quite excited when entering the sea, many thoughts were turning around in my mind and in fancy I saw the red LED for moisture alarm blinking and asking myself what to do, ifâ€¦. . But nothing happened, I calmed down very soon, forgot all my worries, handled the camera as I was used to the predecessors, changed additionally settings for WB (white balance) as well as operation modes, selected different auto focus brackets and modes, checked the exposure values on the RGB histograms and shot one picture after the other until the frame counter reached an estimated number of 33 exposed frames. I still must have this number in my blood from the old film days. The last three or four frames have always been reserved as spare just to have at least a few remaining unexposed pics for any likely event. A look through the large housingâ€™s top window on the cameraâ€™s top display gave evidence of plenty remaining shots, which was somehow sedative. A 1 GB extreme ultra III CF card has been used during this dive, which gives space for almost 90 shots when stored as compressed raw, which I use exclusively. RAW seems to be most suitable especially when it comes to WB settings. The auto WB usually doesnâ€™t give satisfying results under water, so I leave the WB always fixed to 5000K, which unfortunately works properly only for one fixed object camera distance but has to be tuned later in post processing. Usually the number of frames per film roll was the limiting factor for my dive time, but on this first digi dive my empty tank forced me to ascend while there was still space on my CF card! A new experience.
Further dives followed with different lenses, but I have to admit most dives were done with the 60mm micro Nikkor and I have never seen before so many details in my pictures, even when my Velvia 50 slides have been digitized with my Nikon ED8000 scanner at highest possible resolution. Wow!
This picture taking machine is the most versatile I have ever used under water. Its view finder is excellent, the handling is intuitive, the overall balancing is good. Yes, it is of course dependent on the used lens and port combinations and further more on the used flash gear. Almost every single camera button can be reached and used through its corresponding housingâ€™s control. For the one who is in doubt, every control is labeled, which will help in the initial phase of use. The windows in the housing are perfectly matched to the cameraâ€™s windows with just one minor exception: the program mode indicator cannot be seen, if you look straight onto this window. The overall impression is rugged with only one weak point, the acrylic port glasses. These need to be handled with care in order to avoid scratches. But thatâ€™s true for any port. Moreover this housing is as solid as a rock and inspires confidence. Operation of the latches is simple and save and contributes to the overall confidential impression. Changing a port is simple and usually it stays fixed in its end position. But once the 8â€dome port is fixed with an extension ring I would feel saver if this combination could be somehow locked in its end position.
I am looking forward to receiving a new 10.5mm fisheye lens and a 14mm Nikkor as a replacement for my old manual focus 15mm Nikkor within the next days. Unsharp captures due to personal mistakes while focusing manually will be history very soon. The auto focus on the D2x is amazing and I really appreciate its capabilities. Sure I am not saying that auto focus is everything, but it makes life much easier. And so does my D2x housed in this wonderful Aquatica housing.