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Nauticam D800 Review
By Keri Wilk, June 28, 2012 @ 07:30 AM (EST)

By Keri Wilk

I recently was given the opportunity to review the Nikon D800 and Nauticam NA-D800 system. I spent three weeks shooting the system in Mexico and Fiji, and while I was originally concerned with its hefty size, it turns out that good things come in big packages. The camera and housing do not feel heavy underwater, and performed beyond my already high expectations. Below are series of my impressions of the rig, as well as visual representations of its capabilities through images.

 

ISO PERFORMANCE

f/11, 1/1.3, ISO1000
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
No strobes

When the specs of the D800 were released, I was a little skeptical about how such a pixel-dense sensor (36MP and 4.8um pixel pitch compared to the D700's 12MP and 8.45um) would perform at high ISO, but my concerns were put to rest when I tried it for myself. Nearly the entire ISO range is usable at screen resolution, but gets a little fuzzy past ISO 6400. For magazine publications, the most unforgiving requirement would be a double page spread, in which case, I'd be perfectly content with submitting images shot all the way up to ISO 1600-3200 after massaging some of the noise away through Adobe Camera Raw. Having such a wide usable range is refreshing, making some difficult low ambient light shots much more easily attainable.



ISO LEVER

f/13, 1/40, ISO320
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
2 Ikelite DS160s

Given that ISO adjustment is now more "mainstream" than ever, Nauticam installed a control lever well within the reach of the left thumb for easy access and rapid adjustments. As ISO performance continues to improve, it makes you wonder how long it will be before there is a designated ISO wheel, just like for shutter speed and aperture.



SHUTTER SPEED and APERTURE

f/14, 1/320, ISO200
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 16-35mm Nikon
2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s

The large size of the control wheels on the NA-D800 for these crucial camera functions make them require very little torque to operate, so they can be spun quickly with little effort without taking your hand off of the right handle. As this bannerfish (above) swam off the bottom into the water column, a quick swipe of my thumb across the wheel bumped the shutter speed up high enough to expose the background properly.



LIVEVIEW

f/13, 1/250, ISO160
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
2 Ikelite DS160s

Liveview on DSLRs has always been marginally useful for wildlife photography, but there are certainly situations when it's a valuable asset. Such was the case when I was shooting almost straight up along a wall, so I used liveview to compose the image with my head as far away from the camera as possible to keep exhaled bubbles from entering the frame.

Conveniently, almost all manual controls are available in liveview (shutter speed, white balance, ISO, and more), but unlike in its predecessors, the aperture can now also be adjusted without leaving liveview, so that exposure adjustments can be made more easily, especially using the large new control wheels on the NA-D800 housing.



DIAGONAL KEYPAD

f/9, 1/160, ISO250
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
2 Ikelite DS160s

Nauticam designed a first-of-its-kind fully functional diagonal-directional pad, which brings back the convenience and intuitive feel of the one built into the camera. This design feature makes it easier to review images, allowing you to navigate to corners with a single press instead of having to stair-step across the frame. The presence of a single plastic ring instead of individual buttons is also easier on the fingers than small stiff buttons.



DYNAMIC RANGE

f/10, 1/200, ISO200
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
2 Ikelite DS160s

The D800 has taken dynamic range to a level that we previously have not seen in a DSLR. Almost unperceivable detail can be pulled out of seemingly dead/black parts of the frame, while at the other end of the spectrum, bright sunballs/rays are rendered very clearly with almost no cyan halo! Increasing the ISO typically corresponds to a decrease in dynamic range, but I remained thoroughly impressed with the D800's performance throughout most of its ISO range.

f/9, 1/40, ISO200
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 16-35mm Nikon @20mm
No strobes

f/14, 1/250, ISO100
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s



RESOLUTION

f/10, 1/60, ISO800
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
No strobes


The D800 is officially the king of resolution among DSLRs at the moment, and even nips at the heels of (or even contends with!) some medium format digital backs. Having this much resolution provides much greater freedom to crop after shooting, rather than trying to nail the composition in-camera. Shots taken in landscape format can even be cropped vertically with plenty of resolution to spare for typical print purposes. And if you're shooting a wide angle lens, and you want a "macro" shot, you can take a close focus wide angle shot, and crop in on the subject with results that are still more than enough for screen resolution.

 



FRAME RATE

f/9, 1/40, ISO400
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 16-35mm Nikon @35mm
2 Ikelite DS160s

The downside of the high resolution is that the frame rate suffers, which I don't find to be terribly important underwater, since strobe recycle times are often the limiting factor. I never felt that I missed an opportunity with the D800's 4fps.

f/14, 1/125, ISO250
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 16-35mm Nikon @19mm
2 Ikelite DS160s



SD + CF CARD SLOTS

f/9, 1/250, ISO800
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
6 Ikelite DS160s, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s, homemade optical triggers

The D800's 70MB RAW + JPG files means that big cards are a must to be sure that you won't run out of space through the course of a dive day, so being able to use SD and CF cards is a nice feature. SD cards are less expensive and slower, but CF cards are more expensive and faster, so with the option to use both you have the best of both worlds. I shot with a 32GB Lexar Professional CF card as my primary storage, and a 64GB Sandisk Extreme Pro SD card as my auxiliary, and never felt worried about running low on space, even on subject-rich 5-dive days in Fiji. The NA-D800 has been designed so that both cards can be pulled from the camera without having to take the camera out of the housing.



AUTOFOCUS

f/16, 1/200, ISO200
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
3 Ikelite DS160s, 2 Sea & Sea YS-D1s, homemade optical triggers

Its new autofocus system ("Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX" AF sensor) is faster than any Iive ever used before, never frustrating me. The majority of the time, I used the single servo autofocus mode with a single point selected, but sometimes I found the AF-C 3D tracking mode useful. The 3D mode worked especially well with subjects that moved along erratic paths (damselfishes, blennies, etc.). Additionally, the D800 can focus in extremely low levels of light (-2 EV) - on subjects that my eyes couldn't even make out!

f/14, 1/250, ISO250
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 105mm Nikon
2 Ikelite DS160s



AF-ON

f/29, 1/250, ISO200
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 105mm Nikon, ReefNet +10 SubSee
2 Ikelite DS160s

Realizing the benefit of using the AF-ON button to govern autofocus activation, Nauticam made a large lever accessible by your right thumb, directly opposite the shutter release lever. By eliminating autofocus activation from the shutter release button, and designating the AF-ON button as the sole autofocus mechanism, the camera essentially always has the focus "locked." This simultaneously prevents accidental shutter actuations, and makes macro/supermacro focus bracketing one-step easier.



FX VS. DX-CROP MODE

f/22, 1/250, ISO100
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 105mm Nikon, ReefNet +10 SubSee
2 Ikelite DS160s

For the DX shooters out there who are apprehensive about getting the FX D800, have no fear - the D800 can be set to use only a DX-size portion of the sensor (and some other crops as well). Shooting in DX mode allows a shutter speed of 1/500s to be used, which is higher than the native 1/320s FX sync speed. But, cropping the sensor also means cropping the viewfinder as well, so framing the subject can be a little more difficult. This can be somewhat alleviated by using one of Nauticam's external viewfinders (45 or 180 degree) which magnifies the camera's viewfinder image. I would use this only if I were shooting with the intent of submitting the photos to competitions, which sometimes don't allow cropping. While I was content using fixed focal length FX fisheye lenses (Sigma 15mm and Nikon 16mm), some might find it preferable to use the DX-crop mode with the popular Tokina 10-17mm, even at the cost of a diminished viewfinder.

f/22, 1/250, ISO100
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 105mm Nikon, ReefNet +10 SubSee
2 Ikelite DS160s

FX cameras are sometimes not given the macro credit that they deserve. Achieving the same apparent magnification level as DX cameras is more difficult, but even by simply using a Nikon 105VR with a ReefNet +10 SubSee, the D800's frame could be filled with a subject 11mm  (1/2in) tall.



POP-UP FLASH

f/14, 1/125, ISO200
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 16-35mm Nikon @35mm
No strobes

When using fiber optic sync cords, having the ability to open and close the pop-up flash is a very useful feature. A rear lever positioned above the viewfinder within reach of my (freakishly long) left thumb is used to close the flash, while a side-mounted button can be pressed to open it back up. Not only are these useful design features in case you forget to pop the flash before sealing the housing, but it can also be used as an "on/off" switch for your strobes if you want to quickly change between ambient light and artificial light shots. This is much more convenient than having to turn the strobes off manually, or pointing them away from the subject.



TRAVELLING ZOOM GEAR

f/10, 1/250, ISO200
Nauticam NA-D800, Zen 230 dome, 15mm Sigma fisheye
No strobes

To facilitate in the insertion and removal of lenses which require zoom/focus gears, the entire zoom gear assembly inside the housing is mobile-sliding a lever beside the zoom knob shifts the assembly out of the way, clearing a path for any lens.



MOVIE MODE

Having a quick control of the aperture while in liveview movie mode, in addition to all other manual controls, makes shooting video more convenient than previous models. The system's liveview contrast-based autofocus is essentially useless -  slow, and very clumsy. The camera doesn't have any "user preset" modes (like the D7000), but the last exposure settings in movie mode are kept in memory and recalled whenever switching back to it.

 

 


 

When purchasing underwater photography equipment like the product mentioned in this article, please support DPG by supporting our retail partner -- Backscatter.com.

 

 

 

 

Morten Bjorn Larsen
Jun 28, 2012 3:40 PM
Morten Bjorn Larsen wrote:
Great work Keri - both text and photos!
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