Note from editor: This is a guest blog post by Lazaro Ruda. We’re publishing it here, un-edited.
Nauticam NA-7D Canon 7D Housing
In this ever changing world of electronics, keeping up with the latest camera gear can be difficult. “It’s the cook not the pan” is the adage that has kept me from upgrading from my five year old Canon 20D in a Subal housing. If the shape of the shutter button is not permanently engraved in my finger there’s still more to learn about the camera system.
So it was with great reluctancy that I accepted an offer from Ryan at Reef Photo and Video (http://www.reefphotovideo.com/) to try out a Canon 7D camera inside the much talked about Nauticam NA-7D housing. While I had heard nothing but great things about both the camera and the housing there was a pleasant degree of comfort I had acquired over the years of using my Canon 20D.
Alas, I was up against the godfather of underwater camera toys and Ryan “made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.” Giving me a couple of weeks to trial test the whole setup in my home waters of Palm Beach, Florida gave me the opportunity to put this setup through its paces before I would decide whether it would replace my trusty Canon 20D setup on my maiden voyage to Indonesia.
Pouring over the inner workings of the Nauticam housing there is no question it is an engineering marvel of levers and gears that make its ergonomics one of its most impressive features. Most of the camera’s controls are within easy reach without the need to remove your hands off the housing’s handles. The controls on the top of the camera are the only ones that require a little stretching, but if there’s a control such as ISO or flash exposure compensation that is quickly needed this can be easily accessed via the Quick control button on the back of the camera.
There are buttons on the housing for every single control except for the RAW/JPEG, depth of field preview, LCD panel illumination, and the lens release button (Update: the lens release button has been added in their latest revision of the housing). Many important buttons have been relocated to within easy reach from the handles. The all important AF start button (AF-ON) is available via a thumb-controlled lever. Right below it is the video Start / Stop button which is also activated via a lever. Moving this control, located on the center top of the Canon 7D camera, to the side of the housing means there is less chances of camera shake when starting or stopping a video recording.
Buttons are located on the top right of the housing for the Canon’s metering mode / white balance selection, AF mode / drive mode selection, ISO speed setting / flash exposure compensation, and the multi-function (M-Fn) button.
The dial on the left hand side of the housing controls zoom functionality on the lens. Its longer gear ratio allows for minute adjustment to the full zoom range. A mode change dial is located on the upper left hand corner with a small viewing window. When using this dial I prefer to view the information on the rear display than peering through the small viewing window.
Three accessory ports are located throughout the housing. Two on either top side of the housing — one of which can be used for installing a wired bulkhead for your strobe and the other for the optional hydrophone. The third accessory port located on the left center of the housing can be used for installing a remote switch port and other DIY possibilities. Hopefully a 90 degree mini-HDMI cable will be available at some point for the addition of a larger external monitor. Two fiber optic ports are located at the center front of the housing.
The all important shutter and aperture controls are conveniently placed within reach of the thumb and middle finger of your right hand. After input from previous Nauticam housing owners the rubber knobs for these controls have gone through several revisions. The ones on the housing I used are a deeply grooved, no-slip design.
An ingenious yet simply designed set of buttons are arranged in a pie-shaped pattern around the multi-controller button on the center rear of the housing. Quick access to this button means you can easily navigate throughout an image that has been magnified on the rear LCD. Using a combination of buttons you can even navigate diagonally. Some sources say this button was designed on a paper napkin over dinner one night. It is nice to finally have access to this functionality after so many years without it.
The off / on switch is located at the top left corner. This switch can reset itself in case it did not match up with the camera’s. Last, but certainly not least, is the shutter button on the camera. Having used the Subal’s smooth shutter button release button for years I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed the slightly less springy yet sensitive shutter button of the Nauticam — half press was easily attainable.
The use of the Canon 7D onboard popup flash for triggering external strobes optically meant the design of the housing was only slightly taller than the Subal housing for my Canon 20D. The weight of the housing, sans any port, is approximately 6.5 lbs — 1.5 lbs over that of the Subal 20D housing.
Installing the camera into the housing is simple with its tray system. Simply slide and lock a lever to secure the camera. Access to the compact flash card is possible with the camera installed in the housing’s tray. Changing batteries in the camera requires sliding the camera off the tray, though. A large domed flashing light and screeching sound indicates that the leak detector has been activated by the intrusion of water. A welcome addition was the fact there was enough space to leave the rubber eyepiece on the Canon 7D. Doing so on my Subal 20D would certainly cause a flood.
Another of the Nauticam’s big draw aside from its ergonomics is the number of port adapters available for it. It wasn’t long ago that once you purchased one particular brand of underwater housing any upgrades were going to be to the same maker unless you wanted to purchase all new wide angle and macro ports. This is no longer the case and Nauticam has set the trend by offering adapters that will allow Subal, Aquatica, Sea & Sea, Seacam, Nexus, and Ikelite ports to fit on the Nauticam housing. Using the Subal adapter on the Nauticam housing I was able to use all my different macro and wide angle ports without any problems (Update: a problem using the Subal fisheye dome without the use of an extension and Inon’s fiber optic cables has been resolved by using Nauticam’s own set of fiber optic cables).
Nauticam’s custom port locking system is simple and secure. Ports are popped into place without the need to push and twist the port avoiding the possibility of an o-ring dislodging itself. An external locking lever locks the port and keeps it from coming lose.
My only apprehension about the housing was the lack of a top window where I could easily observe the camera’s settings and properly meter while drifting down the reef. As it turns out many housing makers have followed suit with the newer cameras. This lack of a window is due to the complexity of the gearing in that corner of the housing. Viewing the large LCD screen on the back of the camera was almost as simple although using an enlarging viewfinder means having to hold the setup a little high to see the top settings buried just below the viewfinder’s underside.
With little knowledge of the inner workings of the Canon 7D I poured over the manual over night and by the next morning I was underwater shooting away. With so much functionality available to me I felt a bit overwhelmed at first, especially switching from stills to video, but I soon got into the rhythm of things.
Peering my eye through the Inon 45 degree viewfinder that Ryan recommended for shooting macro I was soon in visual heaven. How I could have survived all these years without the use of an enlarging viewfinder, even with my excellent vision, was beyond me? The image on the large screen, even while displaying the histogram, was leaps and bounds ahead of my Canon 20D. Notable to mention is the fact that switching between the Inon 45 degree viewfinder and the stock Nauticam eyepiece took only seconds. This is a nice feature if you’re going to be shooting a lot of video and do not want the magnifying viewfinder in the way.
Attached to the Nauticam housing was their Subal port adapter along with a four inch DP-64B Subal dome port which has worked really well for me with the Tokina 10-17mm and Nauticam’s custom gear — vignetting just slightly at 10mm due to the shade (a problem with using that specific dome port), but showing no distortion at the edges. A better option for those wanting to use a small port is to look into the Zen DP-100 dome port (http://www.zenunderwater.com).
Close focus wide angle photos was the flavor of the day and much to my surprise the TTL functionality appeared to nail the exposure every time with the Inon Z-240 strobes. Adjusting the flash exposure compensation was sometimes needed. Waiting on the camera’s onboard flash to recycle was occasionally a problem, but only because I was using the TTL functionality. If I preferred to have the camera’s onboard strobe keep up with a fast-paced shooting style all that is necessary was to switch the onboard flash mode on the Canon 7D to manual and set the flash output to 1/128 (all via the Flash Control menu).
This camera setup’s additional weight was quite apparent underwater especially compared to my Subal Canon 20D setup which is neutral, or close to it, with most lenses except the 100mm macro. This extra weight did come in handy when shooting video in a current and allowed for steadier handheld shots.
As the week progressed the use of the camera quickly became easier. Switching from shooting photos to videos was quick and easy thanks to the easy access levers and Canon’s Camera User Settings (C1,C2,C3) on the mode dial. The housing’s ease of use made my next encounter an important aspect.
On one of my dives on the reefs in Palm Beach, Florida I came across a fresh water alligator sitting in the sand in sixty feet of water near the reef. With the Nauticam in-hand I took a couple of shots and with the video capabilities easily available to me I quickly switched over and captured some video so others wouldn’t believe I had just Photoshopped an alligator on the reef.
Putting the setup through a number of dives on both the reef and on Palm Beach’s famous Phil Foster Park muck dive convinced me this camera was ready for Indonesia. How sure was I? I purchased my own Canon 7D camera so I would have two cameras available to me in Indonesia. I was already sold on this setup.
Before leaving for Indonesia I made one modification to the housing. Having been accustomed to the comfortable hand strap on my Subal housing, I attached the Subal strap to the Nauticam housing using a pair of tie-wraps. Handholding the Nauticam underwater with one hand while shooting was now an easier task.
Bound for Indonesia
With all my gear neatly packed in two 15 lbs. carry-on sized Polar Bear coolers (http://www.polarbearcoolers.com/) my complete setup went with me on every step of the way on its way to the Lembeh Straits. Thankfully my girlfriend was generous enough to carry one of the bags as her carry-on and we survived on bare essentials through the long plane ride.
The Nauticam housing was all setup with two Inon Z-240 strobes attached to the ball mounts located on the top of the housing. On the second set of ball mounts located on the handles I attached a Fisheye FixLED500 and FixLED1000 light that would serve as my video lights. The whole setup was compact enough, albeit heavy, to fit inside the carry-on sized Polar Bear cooler.
As the two weeks in Indonesia progressed I found myself more and more comfortable with the Nauticam housing. So much so that I rarely had to take my eye off the viewfinder to make camera adjustments and I could change to shooting video within a couple of seconds. This was most notable when switching to different AF area selection modes.
After going through a couple of revisions, I can honestly say that the latest Nauticam NA-7D housing is not lacking or troublesome in any way. Some early issues were quickly revised and the housing redone (something I have rarely seen any other manufacturer do).
A couple noted issues include:
Working the housing’s latches is a bit cumbersome in comparison to the twist locks on my Subal. It is not difficult to catch your fingers in between the latches and the handles of the housing. Taking the latches apart to clean out the track where the underlying latch lock is located is sometimes necessary when diving in silty conditions as any sand can keep these locks from functioning correctly. This is a simple 5 minute fix by removing two screws (be careful not to lose the spring when disassembling and reassembling the latch! This spring is under tension under the latch.)
When using the Canon 100mm lens I had to be extremely cautious that the manual / auto focus or the focus limit buttons on the lens aren’t accidentally tripped when installing the camera in the housing. This has been a problem even with my Subal housing. These two buttons are, in my opinion, useless on this lens and if you want to avoid any problems it might be best to carefully glue them in place or shave them down.
The handles on the housing have some spring to them, in part because they were mounting points for strobes or light, but at no time did this cause any issues.
Even with its couple of quirks I still feel this housing compliments the use of the Canon 7D for underwater photography nicely. There is no question this housing was designed with the input of an underwater photographer. The ease with which it makes the controls on the camera possible is worth its weight in gold. Fumbling with camera controls when an alligator is staring you down and giving you a split second to react before fleeing is a very important aspect of an underwater camera housing’s design.
Just as important is upgradeability. The underwater photography realm is riddled with expenses. It is good to see a manufacturer who has had the forethought to make adapters that will make numerous ports from different manufacturers useable with their housings even if it means losing out on the sale of one of their ports. These kinds of innovations are what make customers flock to their products and I am almost certain that Nauticam’s future in the underwater camera world is sure to be fruitful.
Return of the 20D
After a couple of glorious weeks of trying out the Nauticam NA-7D housing I had to reluctantly return the equipment back to Ryan at Reef Photo and Video. The godfather of underwater toys had unequivocally made another future sale with his ingenious marketing technique. Perhaps his marketing technique could be applied to the housing and automobile industry with much success... “Sir, try out your dream home (or car) for a couple of weeks and let me know what you think.” I have no doubt sales will quickly climb.
Unfortunately, until my bank account completes its multi-stage decompression stops I will have to make do with my trusty Subal and Canon 20D camera. Looking through the viewfinder on my Subal or the tiny LCD screen is like watching a movie on a 10 inch screen in an IMAX theatre. This cook is going to have to get used to cooking on an egg fryer instead of a wok, but thankfully the joy of cooking remains the same.