The AquaTech Elite sport housing – submerged and split level imaging concepts
Initial text upload: 15.11.2015 – by Sören Hese
1st update: 20.11.2015
Some comments about the AquaTech Elite sport housing that I acquired early in 2015.
This was on my list since some years but I never had the budget to do this. The situation hasnt changed much in that respect – especially since the Dollar/Euro ratio hasnt moved into the right direction to order lots of gear in the US. After checking the market for diving houses it was obvious that I do not need a diving setup. These DSLR housings for diving are much bigger and heavier and rated for more water depth than “sports housings”. The latter are more for the near surface water sports (sailing, surfing, swimming, canoeing and so on). To go for the Aquatech housing was primarily defined by the supported lens selection. The 14-24 mm from Nikon was only supported by Aquatech as far as I was able to see online.
I used the gear for approx. 15 regatta sailing events now and also tested it for waves for 4 weeks and doing numerous shots in lakes. I can already conclude that its what you expect from a professional package and/or its elevated price point and its totally reliable.
To get a maximum of image sharpness and dynamic range I wanted my Nikon D800/D810 + Nikkor 14-24mm combination in a housing concept – here you clearly end up with an ELITE sport housing from AquaTech.
After all its very hard to develop new perspectives in the domain of yacht and regatta photography – the split level approach isn’t new but it hasnt been used too much so far and there are lots of ways to develop new imaging ideas in this domain – from below water shots or split level shots and images that include the water as abstract art are often more appealing than shooting the yacht with the usual extreme tele lens setup. Help for reasoning is however that the housing can also be used to do more of the wave/water photography that I envisioned often when traveling the northern coasts in summer.
#Construction & Components:
So what is it? The AquaTech housings are not really designed for diving – the depth guarantee is for 10 meters. Thats not much if you are into diving. The AT housings are for waves, surfing and sailing. They are made for this transitional domain between the elements – between air and water – thats where the more graphical and more interesting stuff happens as light hasn’t been absorbed and water can play its sculpturing thing (sorry all you underwater photographer … although I found it pretty exciting to shoot in these clean lakes with lots of vegetation shadowing everything and creating a wild underwater vegetation land/sub-aquatic-scape ).
Construction is pretty much heavy duty with massive polyurethan housing construction, stainless steel controls, 10 mm acryl back-plate, durable aluminium tubes and 5 mm aryl domes, solid metal locking fasteners, interchangeable anodized metal lens ports with a knurled grip surface that makes it easy to tighten everything when mounting the ports. The grip surface is so knurled that you easily scratch everything you touch with the lens port. Overall „fit and finish“ of the housing with its snap fasteners and its big enough screws is just perfect. The setup screws together and is sealed with O-rings everywhere. Weight of the housing is 1.6 kg and the PD135 f.e. adds another 600 gr. Together with the pistol grip/pole extension and other accessories installed you easily reach 3 kg. The DSLR is mounted within the housing with an Arca Style plate that snug-fits precisely into the dove tailed Arca mount that is installed in the housing. The DSLR just moves exactly into place that way and the mechanical trigger of the housing sits exactly above the DSLR trigger.
Figure: Arca style plate setup that keeps the camera within the housing precisely in place.
Key for the functioning is an acryl dome element that is avail for a number of popular lenses. The dome construction is superb but it has one slighty anoying drawback. The sunstar of your lens is slightly distorted and not as accurate as when shot without the dome. If you like to use the sun star reflection as part of your visual concept sometimes – than this has to be taken into account. Overall sharpness and chroma aberration of your lens isnt changed much imo. At least I couldnt find any difference in spatial resolution with the Nikon D800 NEF files after processing in LR. There seem to be some internal color reflections but its a minor issue and not at all comparable with the well known Nikkor 14-24 color reflection/flare issue at 14mm.
Figure: the ELITE housing with PD135 installed with O-ring sealings (in orange). The housing dwarfs the Nikon D800 – though the D800 isn’t really small. The housing construction is just substantial in size.
Housing and back-plate are designed for specific camera types. The Elite housing only works for the D800/D800e and the D810 cameras. You are kind of tied to that camera body form factor for a while. That isnt a real problem and obviously I hope that Nikon shows a D810s soon. D810 will be on the used camera market easily for the next 20 years. In theory you could also integrate a different camera into the housing but the mechanical trigger will not fit to the position of your camera trigger within the housing and ditto the menu buttons on the camera back. Using a 10-Pin controller however you could easily wire-based trigger that other camera. The back-plate offers changing most of the important system parameters and reviewing an image is easily done with the controller buttons.
Most of the buttons from the back of the camera can be used with the housing. Also changing setups by moving to specific in camera configuration banks is easy. I usually check some of the split-level shots directly after shooting the series of images – just to control that water drops are not messing up the image layout and that I got the viewing angle right. The preview image with histogr. can be easily judged, zoomed and navigated and rated looking through the back-plate of the housing.
However you cannot power-off the camera without opening the housing and you cannot manually focus the lens (although you can AF the lens with the second trigger of the pistol grip). Manual focus is one of the things that I really would like to have. You can zoom your lens but there is no clutch for the focusing ring – hence no manual focus!
Figure: the Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 with installed NZ1424 ring adapter. The NZ1424 enables the zoom ring control with the ELITE housing but manual focus is not supported.
The housing is part of a system. You select the ports that fit to your lens selection. The PD-135 also works with the NIkkor 24-70mm f2.8 (between 70 and 35 mm) and the dome without extension can be used with the Nikkor 10.5 mm f2.8G fisheye lens although there is a tiny bit of vignetting if you look carefully. Its not perfect (edges are soft) but it works ok. Originally the PD-135 is designed for the Nikkor 14-24 mm f2.8 AFS ED G lens and here everything works as described. You can easily modify the focal length when you install the clutch system for the 14-24 (NZ14-24). All these components are extras – you basically combine as you need. A very handy piece of equipment is the Pole extension trigger. This extension gives you a 70 cm more reach and you can push the housing into the waves from a boat f.e. and trigger the setup without being submerged or diving for that purpose. The cable trigger has two releases one for the AF-System and one for triggering the shutter. You can prefocus the lens and than trigger the camera without a problem. However if you get some water drops on your dome surface the AF-System will likely front focus. This is a real problem if you trigger the camera without looking through the viewfinder. I tend to prefocus the lens to hyper-focal distance, switch-off AF, tape the focus ring and select an aperture that allows enough sharpness to get close objets also into focus. Not too much of a problem with a 14mm lens but you cannot change the concept for some kind of macro wave-art if you like without opening the housing (manual focus isn’t supported).
#Format Choices and Resolution:
With the Nikkor 14-24 mm lens you cover approximately 114° – 84° degree viewing angle on full frame sensors and with the 10.5mm you get 180° on the diagonal of the DX frame and even more on the shaved 10.5 projecting on the full frame sensor. Reasoning / advantage for the shaved Nikkor 10.5 mm (the lens hood is removed – sawing it off carefully): you get a nearly circular projection of your image on the full frame sensor and hence you can decide later to go for vertical or horizontal orientation – one basically shoots a square and you can rotate the image as you like because you do not loose much of definition. The drawback is that you will always only have apr. 12 megapixel of the full FX frame of the D800 left to work with. This is a bit limiting these days. Shaving a 10.5 mm f2.8 is explained here: http://blog.panedia.com/2009/01/19/shaving-the-nikon-105mm-fisheye/ .
Figure: Shaved Nikkor 10.5 mm cropping in post processing.
Using the full DX frame crop is obviously also always possible – this gives 15MP on a D800 FX sensor.
Working with the full frame FX data is however much easier because you can downscale and resample and you have much more flexibility to handle the image – you just have more head-room (spatial/radiometrical) for extreme transformations.
Figure: Full frame (Nikon FX) and slightly cropped split level image with Nikkor 14-24 mm f.2.8 (@f11/f14 // iso 1000).
#Depth of field and ISO values:
Depth of field is clearly not a problem with these wide angle lenses. However if you want to get the maximum resolving power of your lens you should not close the aperture to f11 or f16 – you better stay at f5.8 or f8 and this is not enough to get everything from 1 m to infinity into focus. Using f11 of f13 puts you in diffraction land and the resolution of the lenses slightly drop. To check where this starts its helpful to check dpreview. They are usually spot on. The Nikkor 14-24 test figures are here. To keep short shutter speeds you also want high ISO values – I end up with iso 1000-1250 usually and dynamic range suffers if you up the ISO game. This is relevant because later on in post processing you want to regain brightness and color saturation within the submerged part of your composition – the below water section – and here its nearly impossible to avoid sensor noise. Some localized noise reduction/filtering is therefore needed. Within this section of the image you usually do not need much resolving power because there aren’t much details at all. Although I managed to capture some jellyfish as a foreground – so yes some details :).
Figure: Full frame (Nikon FX) split level image with Nikkor 14-24 mm f.2.8 (@f11/f14 // iso 1000) (Schlank&Rank regatta event – Fehmarn belt)
#Handling, Composition and Image Previsualisation:
Well this is clearly the tricky part of the story. Most people do not even understand that you cannot see the picture when you work submerged with a pole extension. Composing a shot is never less possible in a controlled way. You have to know the lens viewing angle and position yourself close enough to get a full frame coverage without clipping of yacht/object details. If you add the illumination conditions to the mix you can create very appealing shots. The very low perspective makes small waves look huge and waves cover complete yachts and only leave some parts of the rig left over. After a while you know what works and you also get a feeling for the needed tilt.
Figure: Difficult concept – full speed – trying to get a closely positioned downwind shot with a strong wide angle and lots of spray. Shot @ 21 mm, f11, 1/3200 s, ISO1000. Being close – but not too close – to the dinghy is the challenge here.
I usually do not change any in-camera parameters during the photo shooting with the AT housing. Sometimes I modified the ISO values but its rare. I use the zoom function to go from 14 to 24 mm often, but its easily done with the screw that fits into the inner clutch ring. Manual refocusing would be helpful but it is not available with any lens but AT might change this in the future. Composition clearly boils down to how close you can get and how to position against the sun. The wide angle effect only works when you are very close and this is difficult – especially within a sailing regatta event where all sailors fight for windward meters and as a photographer you are often disturbing the concentration of the sailors and occasionally you also get flak for being too close (although the same sailors will likely give you an overwhelming hug when you present some spectacular shots within the PhotosOfTheDay slideshow at night). Its often about „balance“ – being close enough for these shots but not too close. I think that this is the most problematic aspect – the housing shots only work when you are really close. One needs a very fast and small Zodiak and a helmsmen to maneuver it precisely to get it right. That is also why the technique is a bit limited to those situations where you are not moving too fast and when waves are small. At least the semi submerged (clean split-level) shots are only really possible with stellar weather conditions and low wind speeds.
Obviously the housing is also made for the coastal wave/surf photography and the underwater shots in river and lake environments also come out nicely. Here I find pre-visualization much more of a problem. I can pre visualize the sailing shots but its more difficult to compose underwater plants in front of the sun that shines through the water. Basically what is needed is a wire transfer of the HDMI output to an external monitor that sits on top of your pole extension grip and where you could basically see the cameras life view image /or lots of fun with diving. And no, Wifi transmission doesn’t work through water so a transmitter won’t help here (and a transmitter doesn’t fit into the housing). One needs to drill a hole into the housing to get an HDMI signal out. The 10 pin connector that is used to trigger the camera cannot be used because it only supports 3 different wires. Well I will clearly change to a new housing if they manage to integrated this connector – that would really increase the keeper rate.
The wave shots are a numbers game. You need to get the one keeper, when the wave collapses and this is only done with frames per second (fps). The D800 gets 5 done in 20x30crop mode. This is a wee bit on the slow side. The D810 is a wee bit faster with 6fps and basically you want anything with more than 8fps here. So the D800/D810 is the wrong setup for the wave shootings. For the sailing shots its much less a numbers game. You can control some of the defining parameters quite well depending on how much swell/waves you have.
I found that the mirror box of the DSLR must be much cleaner for shooting with the housing than without. Was wondering for a while what the reason is for lots of dust spots on the sensor after every session. It is likely the upside down position of the camera while shooting that shuffles dirt on the sensor (with the pole extension installed the housing enters the water in upside-down position). Obviously the movements within the water and the upside-down position of the camera together make particles just move erratic within the mirror box and they finally end up on the sensor. As most of the shots with the housing are shot with f8-f13 on a super wide angle – every dust particle on the sensor can be easily identified. Cleaning the camera really helps to reduced dust spot correction in post processing. I spend an hour before every shooting doing a dry clean of the sensors (VisibleDust AB) and also cleaning the ground glas and the mirror box carefully with some small paint brushes.
Some people comment: „Ahh its by coincidence – you just don’t know what you get or do you?“ No its not and by now I know what I get. After lots of shots with this housing I can reproduce some effects (allthough not all) and some viewangle related effects. The split-level shots can be done/reproduced for every boat if the sun shines. Its only depending on water quality, weather conditions and if your zodiac helmsmen can position you at the exact right place that you want/need – the latter is usually just a question of communication. I usually prefer to drive the boat myself but there are regatta shootings where this just doesn’t work and here the pilot of your Zodiac can make or kill your image composition idea. Its more difficult to reproduce specific water spray effects with foreground bokeh – but even here techniques to regenerate the effect every time exist and you could experiment with new ones. I do have some nice ideas for next year that I really want to test – and no :) I am not bringing a pot with jellyfish to every regatta race now :-).
The support from AquaTech was very helpful to solve some problems with water that entered the housing at my first tests. I easily resolved these issues and found that the O-rings had no grease and that the lens port had to be tightened much more. The cable connector had a defect but AquaTech send me a replacement free of charge „the next day“ by FedEx. Support by AquaTech is indeed very proactive, specific and extremely helpful. They do everything to solve your issues – and most of the issues are user problems – not understanding how to deal with the O-ring sealings f.e.. After 20k shots this year the replacement trigger is also not working anymore but to be fair – I really put this device to the test and shot for weeks in the baltic Sea and the North Sea and covered various events in 2015 with this setup. It lived in a car, was dragged through beach sand and bounced around and kicked on my backpack during our summer trailing at the coasts and I really wasn’t too much pampering this trigger – occasionally the handle with trigger was also dragged over sand-treated decks etc. – so I am not surprised that a new one is needed. The dome port now also shows some minor scratches.
Putting all extras together and adding tax and FedEx – the AquaTech setup is kind of a real investment – especially as you need an additional camera body and more 32GB CF card space and additional backup battery etc.. You will also generate much more data – this adds up in post and quickly fills your external disc space and backup/archive disc space – it has to pay back somehow (and it makes me wonder what people think that complain about the “cost of an image”).
– acryl dome does not degrade sharpness in general (but see „Cons“ below)
– very good housing construction – superb build
– handling and full control of camera parameters – it works as advertised
– the housing is reliable – I put my D800 +14-24 combo into that setup without any concerns
(so far only test with 2 m water depth – I am not doing diving with that setup)
– various lenses supported – even used port equipment avail sometimes
– perfect and very quick support by AquaTech
– price point (with all extras) is a bit on the heavy side
– the acrylic dome port of the PD135 degrades the lens specific sunstar reflections (softens the edges slightly) – a minor “Con”
– acrylic dome tends to collect small scratches quickly – be as careful as possible (this can be repaired with dedicated polishing substances)
Overall: Yes the housing concept from AquaTech works and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy exactly the same setup again. I used the housing now for about 20000 shots this year and It provides lots of flexibility for extreme viewing angles. It takes time to get used to not have the usual pre-visualization. Also water drops complicate everything and ISO/aperture settings have to be experimentally optimized but its possible to reproduce some unique imaging concepts once you mastered the port techniques and learned/understood how wide your lens is.
#Some helpful links:
#Aquatech equipment used:
Elite AquaTech Sports Housing for Nikon D810, PD-135 Dome Port with, NZ-1424 Zoom Adapter Kit, Pole Shutter Kit – Extension Kit with Pistol Grip, Sport Housing Cover, Sport Housing Leash, Small Dome Port Cover, Novus Cleaning /Scratch Remover Kit, GoPro Mounting Kit, Spare O-Ring Set
#Alternatives (kind of) are:
Ikelite (no port for the Nikkor 14-24, more affordable than AquaTech but limited lens support),
Essex (no D800 supported?),
SPL (no Nikon D800 supported as far as I can see, well known and lots of fans in the surf photography domain),
LEye (recent Nikon bodies supported? good online feedback for support),
CMT (no D800 supported as far as is visible on the website)
Brother (no control at all from the outside but very affordable priced).
mtk – Sören
#Some shots (all made with the ELITE housing and using a D800/Nikkor AFS 14-24 mm f2.8G or Nikkor AF-D DX 10.5 mm f2.8G)