Aquatica D100 Housing

Ratings Summary
The Essentials - 8/10
Controls and Functions - 9/10
Balance and Handling - 7/10
Ports - 8/10
Aesthetic & Finishing - 6 /10
Value for Money - 10/10
Nikon D100 Camera - 8/10

"The Aquatica D100 housing is a joy to use; fits the camera like a glove, relatively big viewfinder, all controls accessible and easy to use, even at 50 metres. The optics of the ports are remarkably sharp for its class" - Michael AW

In early June this year I realised that I must go to Raja Ampat to complete a final shoot for my new coffee-table book, Richest Reefs, which I have just completed. Short of time, and with no chance for a re-shoot (by the time you read this the book will be printed and on its way to the bookshop), I decided to take a second digital camera along for the trip. The Nikon D100 camera body and its Aquatica housing arrived the night before my departure. The entire exercise of opening the boxes, preparing the housing, popping a CompactFlash (CF) card, lens and battery into the camera, and completing the rig with twin Ikelite strobes, took me about 30 minutes. Sure, I may be familiar with cameras and housings, but this camera and housing are really easy to set up, fitting each other like a glove on a hand.

The Essentials
Rating = 8/10

The set-up is simple and obvious. You don’t need to be an engineer to use the Aquatica housing. Given time my two-year-old could even figure it out!

The base plate is permanently fixed to the housing and it uses the same two-latch system as all good camera housings. A new adjustable handle system allows those with small or big hands to adjust a sliding tray to perfectly position the handles so that the controls are comfortably manageable. This is an excellent innovation. The housing is also space savvy. When on the go, the handles break down into two parts for easy packing and are easily adjustable with the provision of an Allen key. Note that, after 30 odd dives, mine became loose, so they must be well tightened.

To set up the system simply align the camera, pop it in and tighten the screw on the base plate. Make sure that the camera is off, that the control on the housing is also in the off position, and that the CSM (focus)setting corresponds to the camera. You will find out very quickly if you have not done this right.

The CF card is easily accessible, but the camera must be unscrewed from the base plate to change the battery - a very simple process. The D100 is energy efficient. I only needed to change the battery once every two days; that is with four or five dives per day, shooting a full 1-gig card per dive!

Controls and Functions
Rating = 9/10

All camera controls are accessible and, during my Raja Ampat shoot, performed flawlessly. Some controls I find excessive and not necessary but, then again, each photographer shoots differently. The LCD monitor is easy to see and all the buttons work well, even at 50 metres. I don’t delete images underwater. With the limitations inherent in the strobe of my choice, I shoot only in manual mode and make adjustments if necessary. I bracket aperture using the front control dial which is comfortably accessible without having to remove either my finger from the trigger or my eyes from the viewfinder.

The viewfinder is small compared to a SEACAM housing, but a giant compared to the finder on the NEXUS D100 housing. I also use auto-focus for all shots. The other controls I sometimes use are to change the ISO, white balance and shutter speed. Access to those buttons became second nature very quickly. The housing exceeded my expectations for its controls and functions.

Although the information window is provided, it’s tough to see the information on the upper right of the housing. This is mainly due to the camera rather than a flaw of the housing. However, the most vital information one needs to see is in the viewfinder, so it’s really not a big deal.

Balance and Handling
Rating = 7/10

Compared to my D1X set-up, the D100 in the Aquatica housing with twin strobes is negatively buoyant but handles like a Nikonos V rig. Okay, nearly. Because the D100 is bigger than a common SLR, such as the F90 or F100, expect drag when swimming in a current with a wide angle set-up. But with a macro set-up, the system is relatively well balanced. Adjusting controls on the move is a snap, as the controls and buttons are well positioned.

Rating = 8/10

Existing Aquatica users will be pleased to know that the D100 housing accepts their existing ports. Although I am a big fan of mineral glass ports, they can be as much as four times more expensive. Especially in the case of the Aquatica dome, the saving can be significant. The 8” dome handles all the wide angle prime lenses, including the 16mm fisheye lens. Though my tests were done with the Nikon 14mm, 24mm, 18mm and the 16mm fisheye, the latter essentially became my lens of choice for this digital set up. The digital crop inherent in the D100 actually eliminates most or all of the edge softness. The 60mm flat port can be combined with extensions in order to use the 105mm, 200mm and 70-180mm macro lenses.

The port systems are easy to pop in and out and lens changing is done from the front, without having to remove the camera from the housing. Having witnessed quite a few flooded Subal housings during free dives and shooting in shallow water with heavy surge conditions, I tend to be wary of the bayonet mount system. However, I have not heard of similar problems with the Aquatica.

Value for Money
Rating = 10/10

My shoot with the Aquatica unit extended over 14 days in a harsh, remote location. Despite huge bumps in a fast speed boat, dropping it on rocky and sandy sea floors and five airport transits each way, the camera, lenses, housing and ports all survived the journey with minimal scratches. I could actually pass off the unit as new.

When it comes to value for money, after this extensive field test, I have no problem rating the unit 10/10. Presently, www.digideep.com lists 12 current or announced housings for the D100 with prices ranging from about US$1,900 to US$2,900. For a basic package of the Aquatica D100 housing, an 8” dome port and a macro port for the 60mm, the listed published price is US$2,500 (approximately A$3,800). For the same money you couldn’t buy a competitive housing from one of the recognised manufacturers, especially one with equivalent functions and quality. (Check out the Scuba Diver Xplorer Club special introductory offer for the Aquatica package - page???).

The Nikon D100 Camera
Rating = 8/10

Although this is not a camera review magazine, for the purpose of this feature, here are a few essential features that I find interesting in the Nikon D100 from the point of view of the underwater photographer.

The camera is a 6MP digital SLR, similar in price to the Canon EOS D60, but that is as far as the similarity goes. There are many differences between the two cameras, but none as significant as the light-gathering sensors used by each. The EOS D60 uses a second-generation CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) sensor, while the D100 sports a new CCD (charged capacitance device) sensor.

My understanding is that CCD technology is still ahead of CMOS when it comes to delivering superior image quality across a broad spectrum of lighting conditions, especially when shooting wrecks and seascapes. Across a wide range of lighting conditions, the D100 delivers extremely high image quality, as evidenced by the images in this feature. Note the skin tones in the photograph of the boys, the saturated colours, and the ornate detail maintained in their homemade goggles.

On the image-capture side, the D100 features a 6.31 megapixel CCD that records a 6.0MP resolution (3008 x 2000 pixels) image at up to 12-bits per colour. The added bit-depth helps improve colour rendition, differentiation of gradations in boldly coloured subjects, as well as shadow and highlight detail. The nudibranch image demonstrates this.

Although the camera offers two raw NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) modes (uncompressed and compressed), TIFF and varied JPEG settings, I shoot exclusively in NEF uncompressed. As the price of a 1-gig CF card with 30 times write speed is down to about A$450, there’s no reason to shoot in compressed mode anymore. In burst mode (continuous shooting setting), the D100 captures up to six JPEG images at a rapid 3 frames per second, and up to four raw NEF images.

The D100’s CCD is smaller than a 35mm film frame at 23.7 x 15.6 mm. The smaller size captures a narrower field of view, equivalent to a lens focal-length magnification of 1.5x when using any of the compatible Nikon lenses. For example, to get a wide angle view equivalent to a 28mm lens on the F100, I would have to use the 18mm lens.

The D100 is more than A$5,000 cheaper than its big brother, the D1X. Although the D1X has a larger buffer (enabling it to write more images, faster), the D100 image file size is bigger, contributing significantly to picture quality. Remember, file size is everything in digital photography. Like the Aquatica housing, the D100 delivers a stunning combination of features and controls at a price that is within reach of a serious amateur.

Final Judgment
This review is based on my use of the D100 and Aquatica system on an actual professional photographic shoot. The pictures produced are being used in publications and some of them have been published in a new high quality coffee-table book. My observations and opinions on the Aquatica housing and D100 are solely based on actual use. The camera and housing delivers everything it promises, and much more, at a very competitive price. Other more expensive offerings may soon offer better performance but, meanwhile, I am happy working with the D100 in an Aquatica housing.

16mm lens; 1/60, f32; strobe at ½ power

Wageo Passage - Colour is just about spot-on here. The always-difficult green background is exactly the optimum hue. The saturation in the gorgonian fan is very accurate.

16mm lens; 1/60, f11; minus 1 EV natural light

Boys in the Water -- I set EV to minus one. Skin tones are about right and the shadow details are quite spectacular; not too hot, not to dull. The D100 picks up fantastic detail, with very high resolution throughout the frame. Detail is also very good in the deep shadows, with low noise, setting at ISO 400.

60mm lens; 1/60, f32; strobe at ¼ power

105mm lens; 1/60, f45; strobe at ¼ power

Nudibranch and Spinecheek Anemonefish - For macro work, the smaller size CCD is an advantage - a 105mm becomes a 170mm! Using the Ikelite S200, ISO setting at 250 and bracketing the strobe power, I can achieve successful exposure at f45.The depth of field is unbeatable by any film camera set up.

24mm lens; 1/60, f11; strobe at ¼ power

Details, details, details - This picture of a basket star is ideal to check out the details. This picture was captured with a single S200 strobe. All the details of the intricate star are above average.

105mm lens; 1/60, f45; strobe at ¼ power

Blenny - A good picture of the elusive blenny demands a capable camera system as well as skill. The D100 camera and lens are obviously capable of delivering the fine details and colour rendition required for this image.

Aquatica D100 Housing - At a Glance

Dimensions        216 x 110 x 197 mm / 8.64 x 4.4 x 7.88 inch
Weight (exc. camera)   3500 g / 7.7 lbs
Buoyancy (exc. camera)   negative
Max. depth   90 m / 300 ft.
Body material   marine grade aluminium
Colour   gold, powder coat with clear top coat
Ext. strobe connector   yes, option for second
LCD viewfinder   yes
Dry lenses / port system   yes, bayonet mount
Integrated handles   yes, adjustable, aluminium form fitting
Accessory attachment   Technical Lighting Control Arms, Ultralight
Controls   all major controls
Optional features    
Moisture alarm   yes, optical