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adamhanlon

The Perfect Underwater Camera

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So...if you had to choose the features for your perfect underwater camera, what would they be?

So...here's a go at  mine:

Basics:
RAW still output.
Manual/Shutter Priority/Aperture Priority modes.
Means of triggering strobes.
Housing/port options.

"Must haves:"
26-28MP cropped sensor (unlikely...but one can dream!)
Acceptable ISO performance up to around ISO 3600
D500/D850 AF system or equivalent. Sadly, this means that mirrorless cameras are not going to cut it for a while...
Battery life for at least one day of shooting.
Two memory card slots.
Acceptable HD video performance.
Hot shoe.
Lens choices including good native fisheye and macro options.
Robust body (although as it will be in a housing, this is not a huge deal).
3.2" LCD with acceptable resolution.
Focus peaking in Live View mode.    

I am deliberately not mentioning price as it is logical that it should be as inexpensive as possible.

 

 

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I'd add:

3 dials for aperture/shutter/ISO adjustment without going into menus

Focus bracketing mode for later stacking

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1 hour ago, adamhanlon said:

...

D500/D850 AF system or equivalent. Sadly, this means that mirrorless cameras are not going to cut it for a while...
...

Do we have some kind of reviews which compared a D500 with the current gen of mirrorless systems? Canon R6 or Sony A7 IV are said to be bodies with outstanding AF systems. Maybe even against the flagships like Canon R3 or Sony A1. 

Would be interesting to see how these complete different approaches to AF are performing. With years of tweaking on the mirrorless side. 

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3600 ISO in APS-C is a way off I think there's no escaping the need to gather more light to overcome the noise.   

Unfortunately I see APS-C as becoming an orphan child, the D500 came out in 2016, they have released couple of mirrorless models in 2019 and 2020.

Noise performance from DXO testing(ISO figures at constant noise)  for APS-C has gone from 352 with the D2H to 977 with the D90(+1.4 stops)  in 5 years to 1480 with the D7500 (+ 0.6 stops) in 9 years.  I don't have data for the Z50 but reviews I found said it was about the same as a D500 sensor.

In full frame it went from 2290 with the D3 in 2007 to 3300 with the Df in 2013 and the Z6 in 2020, a whopping 0.5 stops improvement!  Some newer cameras have sacrificed high ISO performance for better dynamic range   The 2290 in 2007 was increase of 1.6 stops over the 977 for the D90.  Again these numbers are the ISO at a constant measured noise.

I think it's pretty clear sensor technology is in diminishing returns territory.  There's no denying there's been a significant advance in the quality of images since 2003, but noise at high ISO seems to be up against a limit.  Even the new Canon R3 at 4000 is only 0.8 stop better than the D3.  Advances in tech are now being pushed into dynamic range and colour depth and this has been a major factor in improved image quality.

 

 

 

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1 hour ago, Barmaglot said:

I'd add:

3 dials for aperture/shutter/ISO adjustment without going into menus

Focus bracketing mode for later stacking

yes easy access to controls is important a number of ways of doing it but avoiding menus is key. 

Customisable buttons are big plus too.  On Olympus shutter/aperture are controlled by two dials and a single switch converts those dials to change ISO and white balance.  I have a true  one touch white balance on one button and I have programmed another button to activate focus peaking. 

Another neat feature is three custom modes on the mode dial so with one dial I can go from full manual flash shooting to ambient shooting settings for example.  When I put the camera in the housing I switch to C1 and it sets starting shutter/aperture/ISO/WB auto as well as the full set of custom button assignments, drive mode, AF mode and even sets the flash to 1/64 manual power.  I never need to go near the menus UW. It's also lockable to prevent accidental changing.

 

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18 hours ago, ChrisRoss said:

I think it's pretty clear sensor technology is in diminishing returns territory

As I understand it, right now the main frontier is faster readouts (at a sensible cost). The stacked CMOS sensors found in Sony A1 and Nikon Z9 are a major step forward. In theory, mirrorless systems should be capable of better and faster autofocus than SLRs, as they get all of the light that passes through the lens, rather than the portion split off by the pellicle mirror, and they can analyze the image and lock focus on specific features. However, in practice, this capability is restrained by performance of available electronics - sensor readout speed is limited, and it takes a lot of processing power to quickly analyze multi-megapixel images, whereas managing a dedicated PDAF array of maybe a few dozen points is comparatively simple. Electronics are constantly advancing though, and I would be surprised if mirrorless camera AF, at least in the high-end models, does not thoroughly overtake that of SLRs in the next few years.

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I think there are still frontiers in the sensor tech. Just a few things that come to my mind.

Variable curved sensors

Would be great for corner sharpness, but needs new lenses. Patenten are there but I think its just to expansive.

Global Shutter

Current stacked sensors like the A1, Z9 or R3 are quite fast, but global shutter is the real dream. 

Beyond CMOS-Sensor

We have stuff like SPAD in the Pipeline. Or someone gets Foveon propper done for low light.

 

And besides this, real good software implementation like the Zeiss ZX1

Personal I think the next gen. cameras in 3 to 5 years will be all shutterless by the help of stacked sensors. Curved will get into the market with fixed lens bodies and I really hope we will get finally an real OS for the bodies on Android basis with app stores and better UI and AI functions to boost the images even further like handhold long exposure and so on. 

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The issue with on-chip contrast AF systems is that they are all algorithmically driven. This will always limit use cases that are atypical (i.e. underwater using dome ports!) For better or worse, camera engineers do not design cameras for underwater use.

The option of dedicated phase AF sensors that is available in cameras with a mirror, currently seems faster and more accurate than on-chip systems. Of course, this is a field where things will change, but I remain unconvinced that our use case will get any priority. 

The optical advantage of moving the lens' rear element closer to the sensor is a potential bonus of all the new mirrorless flanges. This is definitely a potential improvement, but should be qualified by 2 factors. Firstly, we shoot through water, with all the inherent optical issues this produces and secondly, this limits lens choices. Until there is a full complement of the lens that are useful for underwater use, we can't take advantage of these optical advantages.

Hence my choice remains an SLR. I appreciate that I will eventually be forced to change to mirrorless though :)

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20 minutes ago, adamhanlon said:

The issue with on-chip contrast AF systems is that they are all algorithmically driven.

Mirrorless cameras (with the exception of Panasonic) haven't relied on pure contrast-driven AF systems for quite a few years now; it's all hybrid with PDAF sensor points integrated into the sensor. As I understand it, they use PDAF for the initial focus throw, and then fine-tune it with image analysis from the sensor at large (which, these days, is also a deal more sophisticated than simple contrast detection).

24 minutes ago, adamhanlon said:

This will always limit use cases that are atypical (i.e. underwater using dome ports!)

Even my fairly old Sony A6300 is locking onto moving fish. I recall reading reviews that mentioned eye-AF working underwater on the A1.

26 minutes ago, adamhanlon said:

Hence my choice remains an SLR. I appreciate that I will eventually be forced to change to mirrorless though :)

I learned the basics of photography on a film SLR (Zenit-E) back in the 90s, but I've never so much as touched a DSLR. The mirrorless A6300 is my first 'serious' digital camera, so perhaps I don't have much of a basis for comparison - the only piece of electronics in that Zenit was a selenium cell light-meter cell above the lens port.

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Well, there is now Hybrid AF systems in the mirrorless world, so you get contrast and phase detect systems. Don't know for sure how good these on chip phase detect system are against the dedicated chip system but I can't compare these because I'm just a beginner. 

I would really like to see a real test of these systems for underwater but sadly the hobby is to small that someone could create tests and reviews like in the tech space. If there would even be one team like Gamersnexus for the hardware world, who creates detailed and reliable tests, we would be blessed. I even struggel to find good tests for domeports vs water contact optics. Its just to expansive for most people to run these test in a controlled environment. 

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The real improvement in digital cameras will come when the manufacturers start designing decent User Interface software. That could be done with existing hardware, it doesn't need dream hardware or new manufacturing. It could be done with existing cameras.

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25 minutes ago, JohnLiddiard said:

The real improvement in digital cameras will come when the manufacturers start designing decent User Interface software.

Be careful what you wish for. Any modern UI designed these days will be touchscreen-driven, which may be fine on land... but go ahead and put it in a housing. Imagine operating, say, a Zeiss ZX1 underwater.

Edited by Barmaglot

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I'm interested in the opening post here -  a couple of points caught  my eye. 

First up the mention on the ideal underwater camera having a crop sensor -  is this based on keeping the size down and avoiding the bigger domes, or IQ? I would  have thought most people were in agreement that the ultimate IQ will come from a full frame camera - albeit crop sensors are superb  these days. 

Also, I don't understand the belief that mirrorless AF is still behind DSLRs. Certainly on land mirrorless continuous AF easily outperforms DSLRs, but I do have to admit to not using my R5 underwater -  I'm still on my D500 for UW, but on land the R5 destroys my now sold D5. By all counts from people I know, the Sony A1 is another step up again. 

Other than that, for me, I just want easy access to the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO controls, along with playback options. I think a mirrorless with revere through the viewfinder would be great for macro so you don't have to keep moving to look at the rear screen.

All that with a housing and lens setup to access water contact optics

Mike

Edited by pooley
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On 2/4/2022 at 11:47 AM, Barmaglot said:

Be careful what you wish for. Any modern UI designed these days will be touchscreen-driven, which may be fine on land... but go ahead and put it in a housing. Imagine operating, say, a Zeiss ZX1 underwater.

A very good point. My wish is modified to "designing decent User Interface software that can work in a housing"

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I haven’t been following photography equipment advances for the last few years and based on everything I’d read a few years back, mirrorless was not a consideration. When I learned one of my local fellow sports shooters I respect changed to Z 9 bodies I took notice.

Recently I have become more passionate again about photography and after researching the new Nikon Z 9, my opinion on mirrorless has changed. I placed an order and flagged NPS Priority Purchase. I have no clue what the delivery time frame will be.

I visited the forum expecting to read all about the Nikon Z 9 and the new housings being announced for it. I may be search challenged but can’t find much. I recently ordered a Z 9, not with UW photography in mind but it would be nice to consolidate the equipment I use.

It seems to check all the boxes.

Basics:

RAW still output. RAW and JPG - Check

Manual/Shutter Priority/Aperture Priority modes. Check

Means of triggering strobes. Check

Housing/port options. Nauticam Nikon Z9 Underwater Housing NA-Z9

"Must haves:"

26-28MP cropped sensor (unlikely...but one can dream!)  45.7M Pixel FF FX (36x24) sensor with multiple crop options including Auto DX Crop.  1.2x(30x20), DX 1.5x(24x16), 5:4(30x34)

Acceptable ISO performance up to around ISO 3600 – ISO 64-25600, EV 32 to 102400.

D500/D850 AF system or equivalent. Sadly, this means that mirrorless cameras are not going to cut it for a while... The Z 9 AF has surpassed even the D6 in AF capability, includes all AF modes either the D850 or D6 has and adds additional capability. Subject detection sounds interesting, at least above the sea. I have read the enhanced Eye detection autofocus has worked when photographing fish in an aquarium.

Battery life for at least one day of shooting. – Battery Life is less than a D6 but should get through a day of diving without issue. I have yet to research how video impacts battery life and reports indicate the advance in video capabilities mean it will be used more often.

Two memory card slots. Yes, CFexpress (Type B) and XQD type memory.

Acceptable HD video performance. I am reading very positive reports including 8K 30p.

Hot shoe. Yes and supports all recent Nikon Speedlights and Flash accessories.

Lens choices including good native fisheye and macro options. Nikon has a growing list of promising Z system lenses with UW potential plus with the FTZ II Mount Adapter Full AF/AE is supported when using FX or DX AF-S Type G/D/E, AF-P type G/E, AF-I type D lenses and AF-S/AF-I Teleconverters. This includes the AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED, AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D and AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED.

Robust body (although as it will be in a housing, this is not a huge deal). The Z 9 body is comparable in build quality to a D6.

3.2" LCD with acceptable resolution. Z 9 includes a 3.2 inch, 2,100K-dot, 4-axis tilting touchscreen.

Focus peaking in Live View mode.   Yes

I am deliberately not mentioning price as it is logical that it should be as inexpensive as possible.

Price may hurt. $5,499.95 US. Add a second battery (older Nikon batteries will work but won't last as long), a lens mount adapter if you want to use F mount lenses, maybe some new CFexpress type B memory cards and any Z lenses you want to buy. The only UW housing I found was Nauticam NA-Z9 for $7,223.00. You add all that up and it begins to take some real money.

https://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-products/product/mirrorless-cameras/z-9.html

 

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21 minutes ago, GeorgeH said:

I recently ordered a Z 9, not with UW photography in mind but it would be nice to consolidate the equipment I use.

I'm with you on consolidating. The Z9 sounds pretty darned good - but I'm not sure I'd want to take one underwater: overkill, I'd suggest.

The D5/D6 was pretty spectacular but, for me anyway, the D500 made more sense for underwater use. I'm in no rush, but a D500 equivalent for the Z9 would be pretty nice.....

The guys mention firmware/software improvement. The one I think I'd welcome is a Matrix-like program that I can upload into my thinking: "backlight, HSS, moving fish, tiny eye, award-winning.... beep.. beep... yep, I've just programmed that in through the hyper-neural-link. Bingo".  

Red pill time, I think.

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3 minutes ago, TimG said:

I'm with you on consolidating. The Z9 sounds pretty darned good - but I'm not sure I'd want to take one underwater: overkill, I'd suggest.

The D5/D6 was pretty spectacular but, for me anyway, the D500 made more sense for underwater use. I'm in no rush, but a D500 equivalent for the Z9 would be pretty nice.....

The guys mention firmware/software improvement. The one I think I'd welcome is a Matrix-like program that I can upload into my thinking: "backlight, HSS, moving fish, tiny eye, award-winning.... beep.. beep... yep, I've just programmed that in through the hyper-neural-link. Bingo".  

Red pill time, I think.

Valid points and overkill is probably accurate but the subject is "The perfect camera". If I assume the camera and housing must be available, than the D500 is available but presumed discontinued and a DX version of the Z 9 is unknown. 

The more I learn about the Z 9 the more impressed I am. I wonder how in body VR would help my occasional buoyancy control challenges.

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4 hours ago, GeorgeH said:

Valid points and overkill is probably accurate but the subject is "The perfect camera". If I assume the camera and housing must be available, than the D500 is available but presumed discontinued and a DX version of the Z 9 is unknown. 

The more I learn about the Z 9 the more impressed I am. I wonder how in body VR would help my occasional buoyancy control challenges.

It could be argued that perfect is also enough but not too much.  One of the points against full frame is the expense and the big domes.  The extra resolution is nice but actually truly achieving that underwater is big challenge.  The air-water interface and the water itself degrade images significantly - blurring the advantage that full frame has on land.  The latest water contact optics help a lot of course but cost as much as your housing.

But then if you can afford it and it gives you pleasure, why not?

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1 hour ago, ChrisRoss said:

It could be argued that perfect is also enough but not too much.  One of the points against full frame is the expense and the big domes.  The extra resolution is nice but actually truly achieving that underwater is big challenge.  The air-water interface and the water itself degrade images significantly - blurring the advantage that full frame has on land.  The latest water contact optics help a lot of course but cost as much as your housing.

But then if you can afford it and it gives you pleasure, why not?

I didn't order a Z 9 for underwater and will probably never get an UW housing for it. Personally I like the larger pixels of FF vs DX sensors. I even prefer the larger D5/D6 pixels to the D850. This doesn't make as much difference when using strobes but on dry land, without flash, they seem more pleasing to my eye and more forgiving. I already have an Aquatica system with all the ports I would want to use, A D3S housing I can barely give away and a D850 housing I am very happy with.

I've never bought a body with UW photography as the priority. I've just tried to use the same body I needed for my sports photography.

I'll now need to research what these latest water contact optics are. Thanks.

Edited by GeorgeH

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Hmm.   There can't be a perfect camera.  It seems as you demand more quality, the size goes up and the lens choices go down.  Every dive has to be a specialty dive - macro//supermacro, wide, video, etc.

Or you demand less and less weight and complexity until you arrive at a cell phone in a housing.

Or you demand flexibility and end up with something like a Sony RX100 with a mid-range zoom lens.

Or you dive a big macro DSLR/ML rig and mount a GoPro on top of that for some video.

Now for me, I accept the limitations of specializing on dives with limited lens selections.  I dive with a D850 and either a 105mm macro or a 16-35 wide angle.  Nothing in between.  But the results I get have me not wanting to give up anything, so for me a better camera has to be better than the D850 at something without giving up anything.  That might be the Z9 now, but ultimately the things I really want because the D850 is lacking are related to video.  Internal prores raw and usable autofocus during video would top my list there.  More pixels might be useful. 

If I could find a Z9 in stock somewhere, I would have ordered one by now in a weak moment.  Some clear advantages over a D850 without some of the Z7 disadvantages.

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@GeorgeH

Chatting to the Nikon Pros that I know (outside of the published marketing reviews) they all admit that the AF on D850/D500 is still better than that of the Z6II/Z7II. None of them have used production versions of the the Z9 enough yet to have a real feeling either way. Certainly, no one has used it underwater much yet.

Until there are suitable lenses available for UW use, this holds true: "The optical advantage of moving the lens' rear element closer to the sensor is a potential bonus of all the new mirrorless flanges. This is definitely a potential improvement, but should be qualified by 2 factors. Firstly, we shoot through water, with all the inherent optical issues this produces and secondly, this limits lens choices. Until there is a full complement of the lens that are useful for underwater use, we can't take advantage of these optical advantages."

Using the FTZ adaptor removed all the optical advantages of the Z flange mount. 

In fact, with the Z mount lenses currently on offer, the only real wide angle lens solution is the WACP, which adds another $5,000 to the package!

What made you chose the Z9 over the (much cheaper) D850, or even more pertinently, D500? I can see no actual advantage (for underwater use), but am perhaps missing something? 

I like the large pixels idea, and perhaps and should add this to the list, but equally, this would mean that a Sony aSIII would be the best tool?

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I don't think Nikon is the king of Autofocus for mirrorless though. By all accounts the current crop of sony cameras blows everything else out of the water in terms of AF. Maybe it's just unwarranted hype, but I believe too many people are saying it's true. Personally, all those FF systems are too large for me, so my perfect AW camera would still be travel friendly and likely in MFT format. 

It would have global shutter for unlimited sync speed and probably more megapixels than the current ones (30 maybe). I think that with current tech, only one of those is realistic though, in which case I'd prefer global shutter. While the AF of my current EM5 (original) sometimes leaves me wanting better AF, I think that already a camera like the EM1mkII would be good enough for my needs in terms of AF. I don't really think that UW photography is the most challenging for AF, certainly not anywhere near BiF.

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16 minutes ago, hyp said:

I don't think Nikon is the king of Autofocus for mirrorless though. By all accounts the current crop of sony cameras blows everything else out of the water in terms of AF.

As I understand it, a big step forward in mirrorless AF is owed to the faster readout from stacked CMOS sensors that are found in Sony A1 and Nikon Z9, but for now, this does not translate to improvement down the product line.

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1 hour ago, adamhanlon said:

@GeorgeH

Chatting to the Nikon Pros that I know (outside of the published marketing reviews) they all admit that the AF on D850/D500 is still better than that of the Z6II/Z7II. None of them have used production versions of the the Z9 enough yet to have a real feeling either way. Certainly, no one has used it underwater much yet.

Until there are suitable lenses available for UW use, this holds true: "The optical advantage of moving the lens' rear element closer to the sensor is a potential bonus of all the new mirrorless flanges. This is definitely a potential improvement, but should be qualified by 2 factors. Firstly, we shoot through water, with all the inherent optical issues this produces and secondly, this limits lens choices. Until there is a full complement of the lens that are useful for underwater use, we can't take advantage of these optical advantages."

Using the FTZ adaptor removed all the optical advantages of the Z flange mount. 

In fact, with the Z mount lenses currently on offer, the only real wide angle lens solution is the WACP, which adds another $5,000 to the package!

What made you chose the Z9 over the (much cheaper) D850, or even more pertinently, D500? I can see no actual advantage (for underwater use), but am perhaps missing something? 

I like the large pixels idea, and perhaps and should add this to the list, but equally, this would mean that a Sony aSIII would be the best tool?

Hi Adam, I believe for stills  pixel size does not materially impact overall image noise.  If you look at an individual pixel it has collected less light and if noise from the pixel is constant then that pixel is noisier.  Whoever you don't print and frame pixels or post them online - you print or post the whole image or a crop from it.  The biggest impact for getting more signal is the area of the sensor.  The signal/noise in an image overall is set largely by the amount of light collected - the more light the less noisy the image - for same output - so same pixel dimension on the monitor or same printed size.

Noise is broken down into components and includes shot noise and read noise .  Shot noise scales with area so the net result is the same on a signal to noise basis, read noise is theoretically the same for each read So more pixels read equals more noise but it doesn't add arithmetically, if you have 4x the pixels, read noise is 2x the base.  The noise might be a small amount greater on a small pixel sensor but it's in pixel peeping territory. See for example this article:  https://www.dpreview.com/articles/5365920428/the-effect-of-pixel-and-sensor-sizes-on-noise/2

Special use cases like video may be a different story as you don't generally want to resize video and the A7SIII for example I believe takes the video directly from the sensor without interpolation for 4K.

All sorts of other gremlins can get in the way of the best image of course, but these days they seem well under control and images quality on top end cameras is really very good.

Also to be technically correct, Z flange mount allows the designer to change the lens design so the rear element is closer, but it's theoretical advantage that the lens designer may or may not take advantage of and probably drowned out by resolution lost with the air-water interface issues in all but the very best  optics (WACP) .  F mount lens will give the same optical performance on Z camera as they do on the F mount DSLR.

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