This is a 2 part review. The first part is dedicated to the D7000 camera and this part is an in depth look at the Aquatica AD7000 housing.
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By Keri Wilk
Prior to the release of its Nikon D90 model, Aquatica manufactured its housings primarily by using an aluminum casting process, followed by 3-axis CNC machining. This imposed a number of design restrictions, giving the housings a hard-edged and relatively “boxy” look.
Now, however, they use an in-house state-of-the-art 5-axis CNC machine that can produce very smoothly-contoured surfaces, overhanging internal features, and can eliminate more excess material than ever before, creating lighter housings without compromising strength. There are hardly any straight lines on the D7000 housing, making it look far more sleek and stylish than my father’s D300 housing.
The CNC machined aluminum bodies are anodized black, and then all of the critically-dimensioned areas are masked before baking on a hard powder-coating for increased durability, scratch-resistance, and corrosion prevention.
All of this is great for those interested in aesthetics, but what is (or should be) more important is the housing’s functionality – in particular its ergonomics. In the following, I discuss all of the D7000 housing controls, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses.
The redesigned camera saddle (first seen in the AN-5 for the Sony NEX 5) slides smoothly along two guide-rods into the housing, and locks firmly in place, providing a consistent camera position every time it is installed. It screws into the base of the camera, and can be tightened with most coins. To remove the camera/saddle assembly from the housing, you need to press down on a flat lip extending out from under the camera, then pull on the body, making sure that it is free of obstructions.
The memory cards are easily accessible with the back plate of the housing removed, but the battery compartment is blocked by the bottom of the housing, so the camera needs to be slid out a few inches (not all the way) to access it.
I never took the tightly-fitting backplate o-ring from its groove – I just wiped it and its mating surface with a t-shirt, and sealed it back up every day. However, I was a bit more careful with the port o-rings. Whenever I changed ports, I’d clean the o-ring, groove, and mating surface before attaching it to the housing using their standard bayonet mounting system.
Right Hand Side
Shutter release lever
The correct amount of pressure needed to trigger the shutter is subjective. Some prefer a spongy feel, requiring significant travel to operate, thus making it easy to differentiate between half- and fully-depressed states. Others prefer a hair-trigger, to minimize the time it takes to click off a shot. The AD7000 shutter-release lever is somewhere close to the hair-trigger end of the spectrum. When in “Ch” mode (continuous high-speed shooting, 6 FPS), I would occasionally squeeze out an extra couple of exposures accidentally, so I opted to use the “Cl” mode (continuous low-speed shooting) set to 3FPS instead, and my problem was eliminated.
Main command and sub-command dial knobs
The shutter speed and aperture controls are two of the most frequently used camera functions, so the design and position of the housing’s access knobs are very important.
Their deep ridges, knurled edges, and textured powder-coating combine to give the AD7000’s knobs enough grip to be controlled with a single finger. Because of their large diameters, they require very little torque to rotate, which in my opinion is a good thing. However, because the knobs are so easily spun, it was sometimes difficult to feel the characteristic “snap” when changing these settings on the camera. It’s a trade-off that I’m more than happy to make, since one-finger control is far more important to me.
A toothed pulley connects the housing’s sub-command dial knob to a spring-loaded gear assembly which presses firmly against the camera. It gripped the dial very well, and never missed a beat. This design does its job very well, but on one occasion the pulley shifted so that it was partially hanging off one of the gears. This was more of a head-scratcher than a “problem”, since I couldn’t recreate it, it didn’t affect the knob’s function, and it corrected itself after I rotated the knob a few times. I pointed this out to Aquatica, and they immediately solved the problem by adding a stopper on the problematic gear, preventing slippage from occurring.
The main command dial gear assembly is also spring-loaded along a track, ensuring that the dial is properly engaged every time the camera is installed. It uses a more traditional gear/shaft transmission system to relocate the housing’s knob closer to the user’s thumb, and to make space for the D-PAD, REC, and Live View buttons.
With my index finger on the shutter release, my thumb and middle finger had no difficulty reaching and rotating these knobs, allowing me to quickly adjust exposure settings when shooting moving subjects.
+/- EV control lever
This spring-loaded lever is positioned just behind the shutter-release, and can be held down with either the middle or index finger. While it’s depressed, your thumb can easily rotate the main command dial knob to set the EV compensation. This information is displayed in the viewfinder, so immediately after reviewing an image’s exposure, you can return to framing the subject and make the necessary EV adjustments. I seldom use this camera function underwater, but it’s good to have it available nonetheless.
AE-L/AF-L button lever
Located just in front of the main command dial knob, it can be triggered with your right thumb to lock focus and exposure settings. The function of this button can be re-assigned through the menu (CUSTOM SETTINGS MENU>Controls>Assign AE-L/AF-L button). I usually kept it assigned as an AF-ON button (which simultaneously de-activates the shutter-release’s AF function) for shooting supermacro. It can also be assigned as an AF-L button only (without locking exposure), or to lock flash exposure when using optically triggered strobes.
On the prototype that I used, there was nothing to prevent this lever from being rotated indefinitely, so there was no indication of when my thumb had pressed it far enough. Within a few days of hearing this, Aquatica sent me 3D renders of a modified internal component, which restricts rotation to a 30 degree arc (approximately). This revised design will be incorporated in production models.
This lever is on the top right surface of the housing. Its two-pronged internal mechanism must be properly oriented before installing the camera. Otherwise, the ON/OFF switch might not be engaged enough to function.
Record button and Live View lever
Above the 5-button D-pad and behind the main command dial, this button/lever combo is located on one of the corners of the housing.
These housing controls have been moved a significant distance from their location on the camera body, making them much more easily accessible than if they were directly transposed from the body to the housing. The Live View lever on this prototype was missing its return-spring, so I had to manually swing it back and forth to switch between modes - production models will not have this issue. Switching in and out of live view was easy to do with my thumb on the lever, without releasing my grip on the handle.
Occasionally, at moderate depths (50-90ft), the record button wouldn’t spring back up after being depressed. I pointed out this flaw to Aquatica, and once I returned the housing, they were able to pinpoint the problem to the walls of the button-hole not being masked properly before powder-coating. This caused the walls to be slightly thicker and textured (rather than being smooth), resulting in the button being held down from the extra frictional force. They’ve designed new masking plugs for these button holes to prevent this from occurring in production models.
Just below the record button on the backplate are 5 buttons organized in a circle, corresponding to the UP, DOWN, LEFT, and RIGHT arrows, and a central OK button on the camera body. These buttons have been moved as far to the right of the housing as possible using a combination of laser-cut metal linkages and guide-pins.
The prototype that I used had a bit of a clearance issue with the live view lever. When this lever was at rest, it prevented the UP button from being depressed, and partially restricted the LEFT button. They were already aware of this issue, had redesigned the necessary linkage, and had new parts being made for production models even before this prototype hit the water.
Just under the D-pad is the INFO button. Pressing it once brings up all relevant shooting information on the LCD screen, allowing adjustments to be made without looking at the top LCD panel (which there is no window for) or through the viewfinder. Pressing it a second time brings up a second shooting menu, where movie quality, noise reduction, color space, picture control, and active D-lighting can be set. The 3 customizable camera buttons (AE-L/AF-L, Fn, and Preview) can be quickly assigned through this screen as well. I used this button very frequently. With your hand on the grip, it also requires a bit of a stretch to get to, but this wasn’t an issue since you’d never need to press it while shooting. The same masking problem caused this button to stick down occasionally, and Aquatica has implemented the same solution as for the record button.
A pet peeve of mine with the camera, is that this very useful INFO screen disappears when you touch the shutter release. So, every time you adjust exposure, and take another shot, you need to press the INFO button again to re-display the information. Alternatively, the ON/OFF switch can be configured to activate the INFO screen as well, and is more accessible than the INFO button. However, while it may be easier to use the ON/OFF lever than the INFO button, the INFO screen still annoyingly disappears when the shutter release is touched.
Metering method button
This is on top of the housing, just behind the ON/OFF button. I left the camera in matrix metering mode for the whole trip, so I never had to use this button. A little dexterity is needed for this one, since the main command dial has to be rotated while the button is held down. You can either remove your right hand from the grip to perform both tasks at once, or you can reach over to press the button with your left hand, while rotating the command dial with your right. A little awkward, but I wouldn’t have complained if this button wasn’t even included in the housing.
A useful piece of information was brought to my attention by Jean Bruneau (Aquatica’s technical advisor) when I sent him my list of issues with the housing. Normally, the WB, ISO, +/- EV, QUAL, AF servo, and metering method buttons must be held down while adjustments are made with the main or sub-command dials. However, “hidden” in the custom settings menu is a function that changes how these buttons operate (Custom Settings Menu>Controls>Release button to use dial). When this menu item is in its ON state, these buttons no longer need to be held down to be adjusted. Instead, you can remove your finger from them once they’ve been pressed, then the command dials can be used separately. This way, all of these buttons can essentially be operated with one hand (at a time).
Left Hand Side
I could easily reach and rotate the zoom/focus knob with my index finger alone, but I preferred a two-finger approach, using my thumb to pinch it. It rotates very smoothly, and is large and textured enough to grip it very well when, for example, taking slow shutter speed zoom shots.
The knob is made of two parts – a knurled section that is connected to the internal gear assembly, and a smooth section that, when rotated, disengages the internal gearing assembly from the lens’ zoom/focus gear. This is a helpful feature for safely installing geared lenses, since it eliminates the possibility of gear interference.
Mode dial knob and release mode dial knob
The mode dial knob is the same as the main and sub-command dial knobs – deep-ridged with a knurled perimeter. There isn’t a viewing window on the housing to see which mode you’re in, but pressing the INFO button will display this information in the top-left corner of the rear LCD. I could reach and rotate it with my left thumb with my hand still on the handle.
The U1 and U2 modes can store and instantly recall user-saved camera settings. I set U1 as a starting point for macro photography (ISO 100, 1/320, f/11, WB @ 4760K, AF-S, single-point focus), and set U2 as a starting point for shooting video (ISO 400, 1/30, f/8, WB @ PRE, AF-S, subject tracking mode).
The release mode dial knob is slightly smaller than the mode dial knob, and requires two hands to operate – one is needed to hold down the lock release, while another is needed to rotate the knob. There’s no easy way of doing this accurately with one hand but, fortunately, this is a dial that is rarely used (at least for me). I primarily shoot in low-speed continuous mode (set at 3 or 4 FPS), which can easily take single exposures as well as relatively quick sequences. For split shots, I switch over to the high-speed continuous mode (6 FPS) in order to maximize my chances of capturing a pleasing waterline.
Pop-up flash opener/closer
This is a two-way lever. Pressing it down or up will open or close the camera’s pop-up flash, respectively. It is located on the top-left corner of the housing, well within reach of your left thumb. Shooting with electronic sync cords renders this lever useless, but when using fiber optics to trigger strobes, this can be very useful. Instead of manually turning off your strobes to shoot solely with ambient light, the pop-up flash can be closed instead.
M/AF switch lever and AF-servo/focus area button
The M/AF switch lever and concentric AF-servo/focus-area button are cleverly combined into a single unit, just below the zoom knob. Rotating the M/AF lever is smooth and easy, but it always took me a few moments to blindly locate the camera’s switch with this 2-prong mechanism. Once it was in place, I had no problems, and could switch back and forth freely (which I rarely did). This assembly should be retracted (pulled away from the camera) before removing the camera from the housing, since it can snag pretty easily on the lens or lens gear on the way out.
Pressing the AF-servo/focus area button was a little awkward. With my hand on the grip, it is directly in line with my ring finger, but was too stiff for me to press down comfortably with it. If I wanted to use my (stronger) middle finger, it required me to bend it somewhat unnaturally, and was still uncomfortable to use. Instead, I found that removing my hand from the handle, and depressing it with my thumb was the best option. The focus area (single, 9-point, 21-point, 39-point, AUTO, or 3D) could then be adjusted with the sub-command dial knob, and the AF-servo mode (AF-A, AF-S, or AF-C) could be adjusted with the main command dial knob.
Menu, WB, ISO/ZOOM IN, QUAL/ZOOM OUT, Playback, Delete
These buttons are located just left of the LCD screen in a vertical line, and are all within reach of my thumb (the delete button took a little stretching though). I never had to fiddle around to adjust WB or ISO settings - I was able to easily locate and use them with my eye to the viewfinder.
A pair of optical bulkheads comes standard on the AD7000, but, if you prefer, a pair of traditional electronic bulkheads can be installed instead (Ikelite, Nikonos, or a combination of the two). The benefits of optically synced strobes are hard to ignore – full TTL compatibility with S-TTL strobes, lightweight fiber optic cables as opposed to bulky electrical cords, modest price tags, and safe, idiot-proof housing connections.
I was using a pair of Ikelite DS160s, without a TTL converter, and without the optical converter that they showed off at DEMA, so was forced to use the strobes manually with electrical sync cords. Their new bulkhead system consists of a central circuit board with 3 female outlets – 2 for bulkheads, and 1 for the hot-shoe.
In the rush to get this test equipment assembled and shipped to me before leaving for Dominica (it arrived the day before I left!), some excess soldering flux was left behind on the hot-shoe, which made my strobes go bananas. Wiping the contacts clean and letting them dry overnight fixed the problem. Nonetheless, I told Aquatica about this issue, and they’ve assured me that instead of using solder to connect hot-shoe pins to the bulkhead wires, they’re using a crimping process, which mechanically combines them instead, eliminating the possibility of short circuits due to flux. Just another great example of Aquatica’s commitment to improving their designs based on photographers’ experiences.
Port lock and lens-release mechanism
If you’ve used a housing without a locking port for long enough, you’ve probably had it unknowingly rotate dangerously close to its “release” position at some point (especially with large dome ports). To prevent this from happening, housing manufacturers have come up with various designs to lock the port in place.
Aquatica’s solution is elaborate and complicated on the inside, but all of the gears, springs, shafts, and cams are controlled by a single lever located to the left of the port. When the lever is rotated far enough, the locking cam mechanism moves out of the way, allowing a port to be installed. Then, to lock the port, you simply press the lever like you would a button, and it springs into place.
The primary function of this assembly is to lock the port, but Aquatica has also incorporated a lens-release lever. When the mechanism is in its “locked” state, pressing the lever like a button depresses the camera’s lens-release button, eliminating the need to squeeze your fingers (or Allen keys) between the port opening and lens, as has been required in the past. This also means that the camera body doesn’t need to be removed from the housing to change lenses. When the mechanism is in its “unlocked” state, the camera can be removed from the housing with the lens still attached.
Solid machined-aluminum housings are great because of their tight tolerances, strength, durability, and aesthetics, but blindly trusting your camera to be safely sealed inside their dark cavities can make the
first few minutes of every dive a bit nerve-racking. However, much of this stress can be alleviated by installing a moisture alarm in the housing, which Aquatica is including as a standard feature.
Basically consisting of a battery, a bright LED, a speaker, and a few wires, moisture alarms are very simple and effective tools that, in my opinion, are essential to any underwater camera system.
First, a little background info:
All materials (air, water, wood, etc.) have an attribute known as “acoustic impedance”, which is proportional to that material’s density, and to the frequency of sound trying to travel through it. When sound is traveling between 2 materials, the more similar their impedances, the more easily sound is transmitted. Microphones present in DSLRs have an acoustic impedance close to that of air, so they perform at their best when used in it (on land?). When that same microphone tries to record sound in an aluminum underwater housing, the results are usually inferior. Metal has a much higher acoustic impedance (because it is much more dense) than air and water, so only a fraction of incoming sound pressure reaches the camera’s microphone after traveling through the walls of the housing. Hydrophones are specifically-designed microphones with acoustic impedances very close to that of water, so they’re (theoretically) able to record sound underwater much more accurately.
Now, onto Aquatica’s hydrophone.
Aquatica is the only DSLR housing manufacturer to provide a hydrophone as a housing option – let alone as a standard feature. Located just above the zoom knob on the top-left side of the housing, it is installed through an extra hole, which can also accept their remote triggers (or potentially an HDMI bulkhead for using an external video monitor…). The cable coming from the hydrophone has a stereo microphone jack (despite providing only mono audio recording) and connects to the camera through an access panel on its left side. Unfortunately, when the access panel is open, it interferes with the housing’s main o-ring, so extra care must be taken when closing the housing with the hydrophone connected.
Around Dominica, there are 2 main underwater acoustic attractions that I’m aware of – the communicating cetaceans that populate the waters, and a dive site called “Champagne”. The latter has dozens of streams of volcanic gas bubbles fizzing from the seafloor, sounding like an open can of carbonated pop.
Getting into the water with their resident sperm whales requires a costly permit from authorities, so that got moved from my to-do list to my bucket list. However, I was able to dive at Champagne a few times, so I did somehydrophone testing there
Audio captured with and without the hydrophone is very different – but not in the way that I expected.
When the camera’s internal microphone is in a very quiet environment (i.e. an underwater housing), its sensitivity is, by default, automatically increased to bring out faint noises. Then, when the relative silence is interrupted by the crashing sounds of exhaled bubbles, the hiss from inhaling through a regulator, or the whirr of an autofocus motor, the camera cannot re-adjust the sensitivity rapidly enough to prevent a sharp spike in the volume. This creates very harsh sounds with a hard-edged feeling.
I didn’t realize until after the trip that the sensitivity of the microphone can be locked at one of three levels (low, medium, or high), but I suspect any one of them will not deal adequately with the range of underwater sounds typically encountered.
On the other hand, when the hydrophone is connected, the sensitivity level remains constant, and a broad range of underwater sounds is recorded without any abrupt spikes in volume. The sound of exhaled bubbles is reduced to a faint gurgle, inhalations become a whisper, and the autofocus motor becomes almost inaudible, but the crackling sounds of the reef can still be heard. It was even sensitive enough to pick up the hiss of my leaky first-stage. Although sound levels are much more balanced and smooth with the hydrophone, they are also slightly less intense.
The difference between the microphone and hydrophone is somewhat analogous to a pair of sensors having different dynamic ranges. At a given ISO (gain), one sensor might be able record brighter highlights (high frequency sounds) and darker shadows (low frequency sounds) in a single frame (unit of time) than the other sensor.
Aqua View Finder
If you’ve never used an external viewfinder on your underwater camera housing, then you really don’t know what you’re missing. I used standard housing viewfinders for a dozen years before finally getting a taste of the good life in 2008 - and now I can’t (won’t) go back. Standard viewfinders don’t allow the entire frame to be seen at once, so it can be difficult getting precisely framed images. I often had to resort to what I call the “Ray Charles Technique” for framing with standard viewfinders – that is, moving my head side-to-side to piece together the full image in my mind. While external viewfinders are often viewed as a luxury item, they are regarded as a necessity by most serious underwater photographers. Who wants to spend thousands of dollars getting to a tropical (or sub-antarctic) destination, only to waste time and miss opportunities underwater?
The 8-element, black anodized and powder-coated Aqua View Finder eliminates guesswork when framing an image, providing a bright, clear view of the entire frame, even with your mask slightly away from it. Just like the camera’s eyepiece, you can fine-tune the dioptric strength of the Aqua View Finder using a special tool provided with the viewfinder kit. It doesn’t obstruct the rear LCD at all, so you can review images and access menus without restriction.
Standard mounting holes
Shooting videos with a rock-steady camera is vital to producing professional-looking material. So, Aquatica included 3 threaded (1/4”-20) holes in the base of the AD7000 to allow the attachment of any standard tripod (or TLC’s new tripod, released at DEMA 2010). Tripods are useful for videos, but are also helpful for keeping the camera still enough to take long exposures underwater.
There are 3 camera buttons that have been excluded from the AD7000.
First is the bracketing button, located just under the pop-up flash button. I can’t remember the last time I used this function on land, let alone underwater, so not having access to it didn’t bother me at all.
Second is the programmable function button (“Fn”). Its location on the camera (the nook between the camera grip and the lens mount) is likely what prevented this button from being incorporated in the housing design. There are already so many gears/levers/pulleys/springs/shafts in that corner of the housing, that I can’t imagine how another would’ve been included. I rarely use any of the functions that it can be programmed to operate, so I didn’t miss this one either.
Last is the preview button (“Pv”), which, by default, is used to check the depth of field of an image before taking a shot. Tucked underneath the lens, this button is in an equally awkward location, making a housing control difficult to incorporate. It can be programmed to operate all of the same function as the Fn button, so also belongs to the “unmissed” category.
Boasting a new autofocus module, new metering system, new image processor, and new sensor (amongst other things), this consumer-level camera probably would have been regarded as a pro-level camera if it had a full frame sensor and a pro-style body. The recording of HD videos isn’t my cup of tea, but it seems like this capability could be a very productive when placed in skilled hands. The Nikon D7000 is easily the best DX format camera that I have ever used (but don’t tell my D300 I said that…).
With regard to the AD7000, there is only so much that 3D modeling programs can simulate and predict, so prototypes are never perfect. That’s why it is so important to thoroughly test a prototype before production begins, especially for an expensive piece of equipment like an underwater camera housing.
The design problems that I encountered with the prototype AD7000 were immediately addressed and rectified by Aquatica’s design team, which demonstrated the kind of dedication to quality that is essential for a company’s survival in this highly competitive industry. Of the few minor inconveniences that I mentioned, related to button placement, stiffness, and type, they were all based on my personal preferences, and were rather insignificant. Overall, I was very happy with the AD7000’s performance.
Including a moisture alarm and a hydrophone as standard housing features was a very generous gesture, which I’m sure users will appreciate. And if the multifunctional port-lock/lens-release is any indication of the capability of Aquatica’s engineering team, they have a bright and innovative future ahead of them.
This review would not have been possible without Aquatica loaning me their AD7000 prototype. But they didn’t just box it up and ship it over to me… Aquatica’s president, Norma Alonzo, hand-delivered the package, and made sure that I had everything I needed. I communicated by phone and email with several other members of Aquatica’s staff, who were very helpful when troubleshooting in the field. These members include Blake Stoughton (co-owner), Joe Bendahan (marketing director), Luc Beauregard (engineer) and Jean Bruneau (technical advisor, who also loaned me some of his personal camera gear).
For more information about Aquatica gear, visit: http://aquatica.ca
Located in a quiet area just south of Dominica’s capital, Roseau, and minutes away from the popular Soufriere Scott’s Head Marine Reserve, Castle Comfort Lodge is a very homey oceanfront facility with only 14 rooms that, once again, made my stay with them a great pleasure (this was my 5th stay).
Operated from Castle Comfort Lodge’s dock, Dive Dominica is a very professional dive facility capable of efficiently servicing both small and large groups of divers.
For more information about Castle Comfort and Dive Dominica, visit: For more information, visit: http://www.castlecomfortdivelodge.com
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