Review: Aquatica AD7100 housings by Tim Rock

Author using the AD7100 at Yap’s manta cleaning station.

Have Camera, Will Travel

Review of the new Aquatica AD7100

Story and Photos by TIM ROCK

I had a busy couple of months planned starting in late August and ending well into October. It would include traveling to Yap in Micronesia for the annual Manta Fest shootout at Manta Ray Bay Hotel. Yap is not only great for it’s famous mantas but also has a superb shark venue, lot of big fish schools, drop offs and some fine macro sites. Then it was on to the South Pacific to spend nearly three weeks on a catamaran with the main focus being humpback whales but we would also free dive reefs, snorkel with mantas and see some other big marine mammals like false orcas.

Split shot as Yap’s Divers boat goes through Miil Channel.

I had a couple of new cameras, Nikon D7100s, to play with. So I gave the folks at Aquatica a call to see how the AD7100 housing production was coming. I was told with a little luck and help from FedEx I could get the first one off the line. I got it with two days to spare, gave it a quick test in my home waters of Guam at the Tumon Bay Marine Preserve and then it was off to Yap.

Pyramid butterflyfish on the outer reef in Yap, Micronesia.

Now I must tell you that I am a DX fan. I have been waiting for the mythical “Nikon D400” for too many years now. I waited and waited and used all the other Nikon DXs… the D200, D300, D90 and D7000. The “D400” was supposedly going to come out and put the DX world on its ear in September 2012. After that month came and went, I knew I had to start moving on. So after a lot of gnashing of teeth about going full frame to the Nikon D800E, I opted for what is the new DX Nikon flagship camera, the Nikon D7100. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback at the small buffer of the D7100. Didn’t seem like much of a flagship with only a second or two of RAW high speed shooting before the buffer filled up.

Manta at the cleaning station in Yap.

But it does have a 24MP sensor and Nikon did a few other things like: Adding 1080P video, extraordinary low light performance and the ability to render highlights with excellent detail. Coupled with the excellent range of optics it uses (that I already had in my camera bag) plus the affordable price (I can buy 2 bodies and still have change as opposed to buying just one D800E body). I also shoot a lot of land images and the extra focal length you get with a telephoto lens and the crop sensor has always appealed to me, especially for African safaris and leaping whales.

A humpback leaves the water in Ha’apai, Tonga.

So in the end, I went with it. I did some reading online. The folks at Nikonians.com are always a responsive bunch and some nature and sports shooters told me the buffer size problem was tackled best by investing in some high speed SD cards. So I got a 128G card with a 95MB write speed and a couple of 64G cards with 95MB write speeds. These have made a world of difference. On Consecutive Low I can click away at 3-4 FPS for quite a while. And even on high it shoots and writes quickly. Of course, underwater with big marine creatures, the camera is only really reading black, white and blue so the camera’s buffer handles free diving situations and shallow diving quite well.

Mating mantas in Tonga.

In addition, I frequently read Thom Hogan. His take on DX vs. FX is pretty much the same as mine, that is, manufacturers make more money selling full frame bodies so they promote them more. Thus, they push them as being better in quality. As Hogan says, “basically what’s happening right now is that camera makers are preying on your “wants” and not your “needs.” Put another way, if everyone wasn’t so lusting over full frame bodies Nikon would have had to have come out with the crop sensor D400 and some more DX lenses by now.” I have a pretty full range of lenses that work fine with DX, especially underwater, including the Sigma 8-16, Nikkor 10.5mm and 14-24, Tokina 10-17, Sigma 8mm circular fisheye, a Nikon 10-24 and a few others. With a wide array like that to choose from, FX looked too limiting for my underwater needs. (… and as I write, Nikon has announced yet another new FX-format DSLR called the Nikon Df DSLR… I rest my case.)

The author with the AD7100 and a mother and calf humpback in Ha’apai, Tonga (©Christian Jansen photo).

So with DX D7100 cameras in hands, it was time to set up the underwater housing. As I said, my go-to wide-angle lenses are the Nikkor 14-24mm, Tokina 10-17 and Sigma 8-16mm whilst for macro I like the Sigma 50mm macro and Tokina 100mm macro. I also use the new Aquatica close-up kit a lot. It has been invaluable in shooting macro life around Guam for my new book about the island’s marine preserves.

Wire coral gobies in Yap with 100mm macro.

The Aquatica AD7100 housing is a good looking housing… a bit larger than the AD7000. I like this extra room as, among other things, I can put my car key inside when I go beach diving or snorkeling in Guam. I also like the fact that at night, with Aquatica’s large macro ports, the Nikon modeling light lets me shoot critters that are shy of a bright spotting lights by using the camera’s on-board focusing light. Aquatica coats the housings with a baked on, tough as nails, powder coating. I can tell you my AD7100 housing is jet black and way cool.

Frontal shot of the AD7100.

Aquatica has always has a high standard of quality. This translates into a housing that goes much deeper than I do. It has a depth rating of 300ft/90 meters, and the AD7100 and others are upgradeable to 425ft/130m. Since I figured the deepest I would be going in the next two months was 30m, I was covered well in the depth department. It also seems a bit heavier, like a D200 housing, which I like for shooting video as I find it makes it a bit easier to steady the shot. Since the start/stop button for the video is close to the shutter release, turning video on and off is a simple, one-finger matter that doesn’t get in the way of looking through the rear video window.

Split shot of a reef blacktip kind of riding a grey reef shark at Vertigo, Yap.

I’ve been using Aquatica gear for a long time. Hence I can use every port that I currently own, so no extra accessory expense is incurred in updating a housing body. Aquatica gets input from underwater photographers, the ultimate end users, and actually puts that feedback into their products. As a result, this housing was thoughtfully designed with a lot of great ideas that I could see immediately upon taking it out of the box and unwrapping the swaddling paper. The shooting right side was uncluttered with some redesigned features that allows very quick and easy access to the controls with a lot of one and two finger controls functions. Large buttons for important functions and different-sized playback and function buttons highlight the right side keys.

Manta Fest photo contest winner Judy Bennett using the AD7100 for her winning shot at Yap’s Vertigo Reef.

The rear button array on the left hand side is angled at 15 degrees for ease of access, and the Multi Controller assembly has been redesigned to feel more natural. This very important control is accessed via 5 individual buttons on the camera body, giving the user an intuitive feel when going through menus or when reviewing images. Frontal controls benefit from newly designed 3 spring arrays, ensuring smooth precise operation of the crucial shutter release, as well as nearby video record and exposure compensation levers. Transmission of the aperture value is now through an accurate belt system.

I liked the larger body for one reason especially, the use of the 8” dome is now possible without an extension ring. The AD7000 requires a small extension. On the AD7000, the dome lock release was very hard to get to. Not so on the AD7100. Changing ports is simple and they lock quickly and securely into place. I had to make a quick adjustment on the steps of the whale boat and was able to do this without climbing back on board for a lengthy procedure.

Blacktip on the surface using the 8” dome and 14-24 Nikkor at 14.

I found my favorite workhorse lens, the Tokina 10-17mm, will fare very well without the 18456 extension. This made for easy handling and nice CFWA images. It helps to be stopped down (f/8 or smaller) to get the corners in line.

Yap’s great Vertigo shark dive sometimes requires some fast exposure changes. You shoot into blue water, into the reef and into the sun depending on how you have positioned yourself. And there are lots of grey reef and blacktip sharks that swim by you, around you and over you. With the AD7100, functions are clearly identified with permanent pad printed paint for quick visual identification. This also eliminates the frustration of searching for relocated controls. I was able to go from shooting into the sun to shooting 6 stops difference at the reef in a couple of finger moves without even moving my eye from the viewfinder. Very handy for these kinds of fast action situations.

Gray reef and sunburst at Yap’s Vertigo Reef.

Dual optical strobe connectors come standard with the housing, and can fit the popular optical cords available on the market. For the classic strobe connectivity that I prefer with my trusty Ikelites, or those that prefer electrically connected TTL converters, the housing can be fitted with Nikonos or Ikelite type connectors.

Truth be told, I normally use my housing like a Nikonos, with everything set on manual. So this allowed me set things up for macro at Yap’s Slow & Easy dive site for nudibranchs, leaf fish and wire coral gobies. The housing body has an extra mounting point on top for a focus or video light (or other accessories). I used my L&M Sola for spotting. There are three additional mounting points underneath for various brackets or for attaching a tripod for video.

Speckled goby shot with 100mm macro at Slow & Easy Reef, Yap.

Aquatica housings have been available with a lens release for a long time now and there is also a moveable focus knob to move the focus gear away from the lens gear. For something like the monster 14-24, this allows removal of the lens through the front of the housing. With the handy 10-17, the controls provide a quick extract of the camera from the rear without removal of the lens. And the camera base mounting plate fits the camera snugly and pops securely into place when inserting the D7100 body.

Baby humpback breaching from the water level in Ha’apai, Tonga.

Viewing on the Aquatica AD7100 is through a Galileo type eyepiece and this was great not only for macro, but also for viewing whales. On one session trying to snorkel like a mad person while trying to keep up with a mother whale and her frolicking, breaching calf, I was able to easily look in to change the F-stop and grab a shot from surface level of the calf just leaving the water. When shooting the big cetaceans, you sometimes have to quickly look away to make sure you’re not getting too close to the whales (as wide angles can distort the reality of how close you really are… sometimes you’re REALLY closer than you thought) and then look back to compose. The Galileo eyepiece was fine in these situations. The housing can be fitted with the Aqua Viewfinder as well.

Mother and calf humpback drifting in a Ha’apai channel in Tonga.

I tried shooting some shark video in Yap as well as my first whale video in Tonga. I managed to get a small speck of dust on my lens for the whales so the video isn’t perfect, but I had fun with it anyway. I worked in TV news for many years shooting video and the new 1080P video makes this camera a real tool. I am excited to try more.

But wait, there’s more! Micronesia is not to be left out. Here is the video at Yap’s Vertigo Reef with the grey reef and blacktip sharks. No enhancements, just run straight through iMovie. Not bad looking vid for natural light and no filters.

I think this may be the best designed housing Aquatica has come up with in recent editions. How they keep up with all the various cameras, I don’t know. But this one is truly a winner.

For more of my stills shot with the D7100 and AD7100 in Yap and Tonga, please check out my Tonga and Yap page on my Photoshelter site.

FTC disclaimer: The Aquatica AD7100 underwater housing was supplied to Tim Rock by Aquatica for the purpose of this review and for his professional feedback. Rock has been the Aquatica dealer in Micronesia for Aquatica and Ikelite products for 20 years and has been a user of Aquatica products for over 25 years. Rock is currently on Damai 1 in Triton Bay, Indonesia, and will be purchasing this housing from Aquatica when he returns.

The sun sets on the Tongan reefs as chromis grab a last bite before sundown.

About the author:

Tim Rock specializes in the marine world and is an author, photographer and owner of a photo gallery on the island of Guam in the western Pacific. He attended the journalism program at the University of Nebraska - Omaha and has been a professional broadcast and print photojournalist for 30 years. In his early years his news photography appeared on CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN. The majority of his career has been in the Western and Indo Pacific reporting on environmental and conservation issues. He has won the prestigious Excellence in the Use of Photography from the Society of Publishers in Asia. His Aquaquest Micronesia TV show was an ACE award finalist. He works as a correspondent for numerous Pacific Rim magazines. He is the author and main contributor to over a dozen Lonely Planet/Pisces series diving & snorkling guides. Rock’s photographic work is represented by Getty Images Lonely Planet Collection, Sea Pics and Double Blue, his own Guam-based agency and other top photographic agents worldwide. See his work on his website and his books on Blurb. His books are also featured through Apple’s iTunes