Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nauticam's New Monitor Housing for the Small HD 4.3" Monitor

I have been intrigued with the video capabilities of the new DSLRs like the Canon 7D and Nikon D7000, both cameras which I own and use regularly. However, until now, it has been virtually impossible to shoot good video with these cameras in a housing. The problem is that when shooting video, the photographer must use the back LCD screen on the back of the camera. When you are underwater, trying to keep the camera steady on a small or large subject, then holding the housing out in front of you and trying to judge composition using the back LCD screen just results in shaky, crapola video.

I'm happy to report that this problem has been solved. I've been using Nauticam's new monitor housing for the Small HD 4.3" monitor. I've been shooting stills and then taking video on the same dive, with the same camera (the Canon 7D), and have been immensely happy with the setup.

The Small HD monitor:
Small HD is a small company based in North Carolina that makes a nice 4.3” monitor. The monitor is very bright. I had no problems whatsoever viewing the image on the monitor in the bright conditions on a shallow coral reef. The monitor has all kinds of features and is updated regularly with firmware. I can tell that this is a young, energetic company that is dedicated to customer service and great products. The first monitor came within two days, but when I connected it to my 7D body, it caused the camera to show an “ERR” message. I chatted with Small HD’s technical support department, and they immediately confirmed that I should get another monitor with newer electronics to solve this problem. They shipped out a new monitor in two days along with sending a label that took care of return shipping for the old monitor.

I personally just want a monitor to show me what I am shooting, and I want to have the ability to focus critically using the monitor. I am used to being able to do this with my previous professional-version HDCAM monitors that cost in the thousands of dollars to buy and to house in custom-made housings. The monitor needs to be bright enough so I can see the image in bright sunlit conditions, and the resolution has to be high enough so that I can tell that the image is sharp.

Other features such as peaking, focus assist, blue levels, etc are available on the Small HD monitor. I rarely if ever use these features, but they are there. This is a professional-level monitor.

Small HD can put on a range of powering options for their monitors, such as using AA batteries, Canon LP-6 batteries, and Nikon batteries. I chose to power my monitor with two Canon LP-6 batteries, and this gave me anywhere from 2 to 5 hours of runtime. I can’t give a better estimate since I recharged the batteries often and only ran out of power once, after three dives.

I found that I was not able to judge critical focus using the Small HD monitor while shooting a Canon 60mm macro lens. The image would look sharp, but it could be out of focus without my being able to tell. I therefore started using the optical viewfinder to judge critical focus and composition, then would switch to video mode and use the monitor to see the action. After much trial and error, and some useful hints from Ryan Canon at Reef Photo, I started using the slower but precise Live View autofocus mode, to focus the camera before starting video. From Ryan Canon:

“I focus with live view, using af-on on the back of the camera. I don't have a 7D on me, but I use the standard "back focus" control mapping (af with af-on, no af function on shutter release). It is slower and less accurate than the phase detect focus through the viewfinder, but when that green square does light it up it is always right.

“Focusing with live view on is the same slow contrast detect system that is used when rolling, and it can take 2-3 tries to get critical focus where you want it, but I can execute those three attempts in less time than it takes to focus through the viewfinder and switch to live view.”

I did use the monitor with a Tokina 10-17mm wide-angle lens, and it worked perfectly. The issue of keeping critical focus on the subject was not a problem since the depth of field was much larger. Following a subject around a reef while shooting wide, using the monitor to view the action, resulted in nice, smooth video. I have no more excuses for not shooting great video!

The Nauticam Housing:

Nauticam’s housing for the DP-4 is, as always, elegant and functional, with no wasted space. The monitor sits neatly inside the housing, and a rotating latch seals the housing quickly and without any fuss whatsoever.

It can be a bit tricky getting the HDMI cable inside the housing to go into the monitor, but once I did this a few times, it was quick and easy. A cable from the housing goes to a bulkhead on the housing, and once there, an internal HDMI cable goes to the camera body. Nauticam thoughtfully provided threaded holes in their 7D housing to accommodate accessories like this, so mounting the monitor housing on my camera housing with ball arms and a clamp was easy and worked perfectly. The housing gives full access to all the controls on the monitor.

I love my Nauticam 7D housing. It has two bulkheads (maybe three), and Nauticam provides bulkhead plugs which can be easily machined to accommodate any strobe syncing method a photographer may desire – Nikonos TTL, Ikeilite ICS, or my preference, Electro-Optic (EO) – a relatively simple two-wire method of firing strobes which requires manual settings, but allows me to attach and disconnect my strobes while underwater.

With two bulkheads, I was able to use my EO bulkhead to fire my Ikelite strobes, and I was able to put the wiring for the Nauticam monitor housing in the second bulkhead. I was in photographer’s heaven! For the first time, I am able to take still photographs using my underwater flash units, and then take video by using the Nauticam monitor housing and Light & Motion’s small but powerful Sola lights (I used their Sola 2000 lights, a step down from their top-of-the-line Sola 4000s, but a perfect way to light macro subjects). I even was able to take stills of macro subjects using the Sola 2000 lights. This is the future – small but powerful video lights along with a camera that can take stills and video. Well, the future may just be a video camera from which you grab stills.

There is a delay of a few seconds from the camera to the monitor when changing settings. For instance, if the monitor is turned on and I am shooting stills, then the image review screen shows up on the monitor – not the rear LCD of the camera. This can be useful since I then don’t have to constantly “chimp” to review what I just shot – but unfortunately the approximately 4-second delay from shooting the image to the image showing up on the monitor is too long to make this really useful. Pushing the “Q” menu button to bring up the camera settings also results in a delay. Simply turning the monitor off and reviewing the rear LCD screen solves this problem. There is no delay in showing the image when shooting video. The monitor does show all menu items, viewfinder information, etc – just as the rear LCD screen would show.

I am disappointed that my Nauticam D7000 housing has only one bulkhead. This means that I will have to choose between using my EO-wired strobes or the Nauticam monitor housing. Because this housing can fire my strobes using the optical bulkheads, however, I may not have to make this choice. Shooting the D7000 using optical cords will free up the bulkhead for the monitor. I may use my D7000 housing for wide-angle shooting only, which optical sync is best suited for.

Buy the Small HD monitor and the Nauticam housing as soon as you can! It will vastly improve your underwater shooting. I'm a bit disappointed that I can't judge critical focus using the monitor -- but this is not an issue when using a wide-angle lens. It's only a problem when shooting close-up stuff, and it can be solved. Having the image up on top of the camera in any position I want it, makes all the difference in the world.

Thanks to Ryan Canon and Reef Photo in Fort Lauderdale for loaning me the Nauticam housing to test. I ended up buying it, which shows how important this new piece of gear is for my shooting. Thanks also to Marcel Hagendijk and Maluku Divers for making the photographs for this review possible. All photos of Norbert Wu were taken by Marcel Hagendijk.

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