By Andrej Belic
I started underwater photography ten years ago and my first camera was a Nikon F-100. That camera had a lot of the professional F5 built into a smaller package that made it more suitable for underwater work. It was perfect for me.
When the digital revolution came I was quite sceptical of it. The first two generations of digital cameras had subpar wide angle capabilities, since their sensors produced horrible cyan sunballs and reduced contrast compared to slide film which had been improved for decades.
In 2008 a lot of these downsides were overcome with the introduction of the Nikon D3 that had a full frame sensor with class leading high ISO performance. This made it a suitable camera for taking quality sunball and deep wreck images.
Back then Subal was the first one to introduce a housing for the D3 and I immediately jumped on it. The Subal ND3 changed my approach to underwater photography. The digital advantage of controlling the picture immediately and underwater made things a lot easier. Additionally, the Nikon D3 allowed me to take 1,000 pictures on one dive on the Sardine Run 2008.
The large housing used in conjunction with a dome port made handling the system easy. The buoyancy was almost perfect, as when I lifted my hands from the housing it moved to an angle not more than 20%. On the other hand, shooting macro with a flat port wasn’t as much of a joy. The setup was simply too large. You couldn’t place it on a flat sandbed because the construction of the camera and the housing was too big and extended for more than 5 cm under the lens port. It seemed to be what made the housing so good for wide angle, made it difficult for macro. I was now looking for the digital equivalent of the F-100, a smaller model with many professional features.
Enter the Nikon D7000 and Subal ND7000.
I was lucky enough to receive the first production model of Subal’s housing for Nikon’s newest mid level SLR – the D7000. A lot has been written about this camera that features many new functions for underwater photographers. Highlights include 16 MP sensor with much improved High ISO performance, full HD recording in 1080p/24, a new metering sensor and much more.
Not only did I get the first unit, but also after talking to Subal’s technical engineer Mr. Peter Stangl about I was unhappy with the way the usual metallic bright grey standard color easily wore off, he offered me a choice of color. I was so amazed by this option that I immediately ordered my brand new ND7000 in bright red, something different than the black and grey housings normally seen in Europe and the US.
My color choice was inspired by the look of Subal’s mastermind Mr. Arnold Stepanek’s Bolex Cinesub H16 housing. It was the world’s first uw-cartridge for 120m rolls of 16 mm film and dated back as far as 1982.
However, the decision to go with Subal for my D7000 was based on more than just cosmetics. When I purchased the ND3 I was amazed by the reliability of the camera controls that seemed to work without the need for any further improvement and that’s the most important part of using a housing.
Underwater camera housings have undergone a lot of changes in the last 10 years. While back in the analogue days housings didn’t have much more than 10 openings for controls/connections/viewfinders and ports the ND 7000 has 43! As these buttons are what give you access to the important camera controls, let’s take a closer look:
The front features some new and fascinating innovations. On the top of the front portion are two optical strobe bulkheads that come standard. This is new for Subal, and I have to say I like the idea of optical connections since it eliminates potential electrical problems like the use of two flashguns in parallel mode, or problems with TTL and flash exposure correction.
Another very useful new function is the multiple port adapters. This device can be exchanged to accommodate non Subal ports without the need of restricting adapter rings. This will make life a lot easier for those that want to migrate Subal housings, but don’t want to make the investment in new ports.
On the left of the housing you will find a practical lens release lever that lets you change lenses without opening the back plate of the housing. This is saves time during maintenance.
The right side
On the right side of front portion of the housing is the electronic bulkhead. I chose a S6 connection type since I’m using Subtronic and Seacam flashes, but you can choose which type you want -- Nikonos 5, Ikelite or Sea & Sea flash connections.
Below the bulkhead are a number of important controls -- a lever for the shutter that provides tactile feedback for your finger; a large and easy to use knob for the front dial of the camera; and, a first for a Subal Nikon housing, a port lock for bayonet systems that will make your dives a lot more relaxed since you don’t have to worry about the risk of opening the port by accident and flooding the housing .
The left side
On the upper side of there are more two openings for electrical connections that you can customize individually. Since the D7000 is capable of HD video, a hydrophone can be accommodated. Other options are an HDMI/Video out connector for monitors, or even a remote control. This means, in total, the Subal ND7000 housings offers up to 5 connections-- two optical that come standard and up to three electrical ones which are fully customizable.
Below the bulkheads is the tried and tested large knob for lens zoom or focus control. This knob is retractable in order to change lenses more efficiently, disable manual focus control for prime lenses, or retracting the tray in order to change the SD cards without having to take the camera out of the housing (yes, it is possible!).
The last control on the left side is the focus selector. What is nice about the focus selector on the ND 7000 housing is that it is retractable, allowing you change memory cards and fix the alignment with the camera in housing if you forgot to do so before putting it in (i.e. your camera is in automatic but your housing switch is aligned for manual). This happened to me more than one time with my Non-Subal F100 housing and rendered most of the pictures useless.
One of the most important parts of an underwater housing is the back. On the right side of the back you will find the obligatory AE-L/AF-L lever, easily accessed with your right hand. Below is the record-lever for the D7000s much anticipated video function. To the left is the lever for Live-View. The ergonomics of these two controls and the fact they are both levers, means that you don’t have to move your right hand anymore in order to press buttons and introduce shake to your video.
On the bottom part of the back plate are the D-pad buttons and OK button. The buttons have been moved apart so that you can easily press them even with gloves on, and are slightly angled so that you can feel them apart. A little farther down is the info button that aligns directly with the camera’s corresponding button.
In the center of the back plate is the all-important large window for the LCD and area for the interchangeable viewfinders. Herein lies another great innovation -- The whole window is removable in order to house Subal’s new and industry first prism viewfinder that lets you view a monitor from a comfortable 30 degree view. The viewfinder is set to be available by the end of June, and is designed with videographers in mind.
On the left side of the window are buttons for all available controls on the D7000 and can be easily controlled by your thumb.
On each side of the back plate are Subal’s Quick Lock system latches that closes the back plate smooth, easy and secure without any risk of damaging the o-ring.
As with most housings, the top buttons of the housing are located at the same location as the camera. I have to admit that I never use the metering button since I keep my camera on matrix, and I don’t need the exposure compensation button because I’ll do the quick exposure compensation with dials (the custom function b3 has to be turned on), so this is not really an important area for me. Also on the top is viewing area for the leak detector, which beeps and flashes when activated.
The On/Off switch is a very easy to use lever that, again, can be retracted if you forget to align it with the camera. While other manufacturers have dropped the top display window, Subal has kept it, and, in my opinion, this was a wise move since I can think of a lot of photo scenarios where the upper display information would be useful. One such situation is on a flat sand bed where it is difficult to get low enough to clearly see the LCD screen below the viewfinder.
Also on the top is the lever for pushing the cameras’ pop up flash back into place if you decide you don’t want shoot with strobes when using fiber optics.
On top of the housing you will find a connection for accessories like focus lights. In front are two additional holes. Apparently these holes can be used to add 2 additional fiber optic bulkheads. That brings the grand total to 7 connections on the housing: 4 optical and 3 electrical. What is Subal trying to do to us! How about six flashes via fiber optic and s6 connecters, a monitor from a video out connection and a hydrophone for video and a remote control.
I’m just joking, I can’t think of any setup that will need all these things at once, but I certainly will use a hydrophone and S6 connectors and maybe even a video/remote for polecam work -- so it’s good to know that all possible connections are provided .
On the left side of the top portion of the housing is the mode switch with a rotary control. The motor drive release is a taller rotary knob and a button that you have to press down and switch simultaneously. Not very easy to do but you don’t use this function all too often.
The flash button also lies in this area, and is one of the most exciting controls on the camera. It not only serves and the flash pop up button, but also functions as flash exposure control. Since I primarily used pro cameras without a built in flash, the ability to adjust the flash was one of the features I sorely missed.
The inner part of the ND7000 is as beautifully crafted as the outside and it features the same red colour, which reminds me of the new Lamborghini Aventador!
At the top you’ll find the circuit for the flashes that lets you choose either TTL or manual,-- standard in Subal for years. On the right side is the control for the front dial. It’s spring loaded so it grips the dial firmly and won’t let loose over the time. Below is the port lock for additional safety. Far on the right is the circuit for the optical and acoustic alarm.
On the left side you will see the retractable focus mode selector and a little is retractable - zoom/focus control. Farther up is the lever for lens release that can be swung out of the way for retracting the tray when changing cards. In the left corner is the beautiful crafted spring loaded control for the BKT-Control.
The most striking feature of the backplate is its’ sheer elegance due to a simplicistic minimalistic design that nevertheless seems to handle the complex arrangement of the controls with ease. This will definitely be a game changer for the coming decade.
Subal has the reputation for building small and light underwater housings. The ND7000 is no exception -- It measures 220 x 190 x 140 mm and weighs 2,300 grams.
Viewfinders were for a very long time neglected as an essential underwater tool. Seacam was the first to market with its large 45 deg. viewfinder. Subal followed up and introduced a straight viewfinder some 10 years ago. In 2008, Subal presented a nice and handy 45 deg. viewfinder that had the advantage of not blocking the LCD while producing a picture minimally smaller than Seacam’s. I have always used angled oculars/viewfinders since I consider them more comfortable to use while diving. I used it on various occasions chasing fast swimming pelagics like dolphins, sharks and sailfishes without any problem and still use it exclusively.
However there are other photographers out there with different techniques and tastes. Subal currently offers a few variations -- A standard viewfinder, a large straight one, the GS180, and an angled 45 degree one – the WS45.
The WS-45 didn’t obstruct the viewfinder on the D3, and does so a little on the D7000. When it is placed horizontally it can work as a sunshade for Live-view or Video.
However none of these viewfinders are optimal for doing serious videography. For those using the D7000 for a lot of video, Subal is offering two state of the art options. One is a 5” monitor that offers the advantage of doing unrestricted photography and videography on one dive since you can use the viewfinder, the LCD, and the monitor simultaneously. However, while the monitor is small, the battery pack accompanying it is not. It is connected under the housing, and while this setup will certainly improve the stability for a small housing like the D7000, with large dome ports it’s also quite negative and as much as it will suit you for wide-angle work it will be a handicap for macro.
Subal will also be be introducing the world’s first prism viewfinder that will angle the picture of the camera’s LCD at 30 deg. for comfortable viewing and videography. I plan to review it as soon as it becomes available which should be at the end of June (hopefully). I am going to put the D7000 and Subal housing through tests in Crotia and follow up with the second part of the review on how the camera handles underwater.
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