Read Dr Alex Mustard’s review of the D7000 and the Nauticam NA-D7000

Dr Alex Mustard just took our NA-D7000 prototype to the Red Sea and put it through its paces. Read his glowing review here

http://wetpixel.com/i.php/full/field-review-nikon-d7000-and-nauticam-na-d7000/

FIELD REVIEW: NIKON D7000 & NAUTICAM NA-D7000
Alex Mustard

INTRODUCTION

Down the years, I have tried to review the important digital Nikon SLRs – the ones that have introduced new technology with the promise of taking our images further. Typically these tend to be flagship models, which showcase the new features before they filter down through the Nikon range.

Small in size, but packed with many pro-level features, such as 100% viewfinder, 14-bit A/D converter and 1/320th flash synch.

The D7000 breaks this pattern. This time Nikon is introducing a lot of new tech lower in the range. The D7000 is built and priced for the serious amateur, yet introduces most Nikon users to a significant resolution increase from 10-12MP to 16MP, a new EXPEED 2 processor, a new 2000 pixel RGB metering system, a new 39 point Multi-CAM 4800 auto focus system and full 1080p HD-video. All Nikon users need to pay attention to this camera!

Equally surprising (and impressive) is that Nauticam already have a fully functioning NA-D7000 housing ready so soon after the release of the camera. This is the housing that was shown at DEMA and by the Tuesday after the show, Wetpixel had whisked it from Las Vegas to the marginally less glamorous setting of Stoney Cove in England to begin testing before going on to the Red Sea. Nauticam deserves a lot of respect for not only having a housing to show at DEMA, but that the show-housing was dive ready. Customer deliveries are expected to start within the next few days.

Shown at DEMA 2010 and ready to dive, the compact, but fully featured Nauticam NA-D7000 at Stoney Cove, November 2010.

The aim of this review is to give you an overview and evaluation of the D7000 and the Nauticam housing, facing the typical everyday challenges of underwater photography around both coral reefs and in cold water. Last time I reviewed a Nauticam housing, they were new to the market and I concluded they delivered excellent engineering, build quality and innovative ergonomic solutions at a very competitive price. Since then, the Nauticam brand has grown and grown and now commands an impressive market share. The fast appearance and high quality of this latest housing are further evidence that this company is shifting expectations in the underwater equipment market.

This review evaluates the camera and housing in both cold water and the tropics. The camera is primarily a stills camera but we will cover video too. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 2x Subtronic Alphas on manual. 1/200th @ f/9. ISO 200.

The D7000 is first and foremost a stills camera and this review will concentrate more on this side of its split personality. After all, the majority of its features and settings relate to still photography. However, the D7000 is also capable of high quality video and since I am not a videoist I have enlisted the help of UWP Magazine’s Peter Rowlands to cast his experienced eye on the video performance.

THE NIKON D7000

At first glance the Nikon D7000 looks a natural successor to the D90/D80/D70 series, but on closer analysis its release is clearly at odds with recent Nikon product cycles. Since its first pro-sumer digital SLR, the D100, Nikon has used its top pro-sumer model to showcase new sensor and other technology before passing them down, about a year later, to a smaller, lighter, cheaper camera. The 6MP D100 was followed the 6MP D70, the 10MP D200 led to the 10MP D80, the 12MP D300 spawned the 12MP D90. This time the new 16MP sensor has appeared first in the D7000. Perhaps this is simply where the biggest sales/profits are? Or perhaps it represents a realignment of the Nikon range.

The D7000 is a similar size to the D90, but it is more than a direct successor.

The D7000 has certainly moved upmarket in build quality (with a magnesium-alloy chassis) and price from the D90 and out specs the similarly priced, and still on sale, D300s in almost every important area. It could be that the D7000 is intended to replace both the D90 and D300s, and another camera will replace both the D300s and D700: with three becoming two? We shall see, but it may mean that holding out for a vapourware D400 might not be a good plan.

While we are talking about the Nikon range, it is worth a quick note to say that the lesser Nikon SLRs (D40/D60/D3000/D5000/D3100) are not well suited to underwater photography because they can only focus with AF-S lenses, which prohibits any fisheyes. Also their single control dial means it is fiddly and time consuming to alter shutter speed and aperture. So, surprisingly the D7000 may become the best choice as the entry level Nikon SLR for underwater use, and currently the best DX Nikon for underwater use (being only beaten for resolution by the FX D3X). Make no mistake this is an important camera for UW Nikon users.

Aperture and shutter speed are key artistic controls for photographers, Cameras that do not provide independent access to both (e.g. D60/D40) are frustrating to use underwater. Here I photographed the hawkfish with both fast and slow shutter speeds to have different backgrounds. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 105mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200, f/10 @ 1/320th and 1/30th.

The headline grabbing features are 16.2 MP sensor (with 14 bit analogue to digital conversion, which was not on the D90), with an ISO range of 100-6400, which is highly useable throughout. The camera scored particular well in the DXO Mark tests of image quality (as has been discussed in the forums, http://wetpixel.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=38585). The D7000 introduces the 39 point Multi-CAM 4800 AF system and 2016 pixel exposure metering system. The new EXPEED 2 processor is important in enabling high frame rates, full HD video and providing the best image quality (such as smooth tonal gradations). It is the first Nikon for underwater photography that has full 1080 HD video and, uniquely (currently) for a video SLR, offers autofocus during video shooting. In conclusion, the D7000 is an impressive machine, but not a total bargain, costing approximately $1350 USD, £1050 GBP, €1200 Euros.

An important feature for underwater photographers is that the flash will synch to 1/320th, which is always valuable when wanting to reduce ambient light, such as in controlling sunbursts or shooting strong black backgrounds. The synch speeds for similar cameras are: D90 – 1/200th, D300s – 1/320th, 7D – 1/250th and 550D – 1/200th.

D7000 offers a fast flash synch of 1/320th, which is very useful in controlling ambient light. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 2x Subtronic Alphas on manual. 1/320th @ f/13. ISO 200.

The D7000 is a fast, responsive camera, with a robust sounding shutter. It is not the most handsome Nikon, being narrow and tall, and a little square shouldered, but is has a more tactile rubber covering than the D90/D80. The viewfinder is bright, but not that large (and I would recommend buying an external magnified viewfinder, such as the Nauticam 180 I used here), but importantly provides a 100% view. I do not have a D300/D300s for comparison, but the D7000 viewfinder seems identical in specifications.

In addition, to the headline stats it has some interesting features tucked away in the menus. AF fine-tune and exposure metering fine-tune could be beneficial. Nikon’s impressive active D-Lighting is also included, which opens up the dynamic range of images. The D7000 does not have a dedicated AF-ON button, but the AE-L/AF-L button on the back can be customised to function as AF-ON, which simultaneously disables the AF function of the shutter release. This mode can be very useful for focusing, then locking focus supermacro, fast action subjects and other conditions where the camera’s AF might hunt. I use it frequently.

AF-ON basically gives locked focus, until you push it and re-focus. It is useful for fast action with big animals and also for high magnification macro. I locked focus on the Nikon 105mm to minimum and then rocked in and out until this blenny was in focus. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 105mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200, f/16 @ 1/250th.

The camera features a new battery, the EL-EN15, which lasted all day in the Red Sea (4 dives) shooting video and using the pop-up flash to drive TTL strobes. However, most users would feel reassured by buying a spare (especially if they plan to shoot lots of video or rely on optical TTL). Unfortunately, older Nikon batteries are not compatible with this camera.

The D7000 has double SD card slots and is compatible with both SDHC cards (up to 32GB each) and the latest SDXC cards, such as SanDisk’s 64GB monster! The second slot can be used as an overflow, a backup or for sending different file types (e.g. JPGs or movie files)

In conclusion, whatever its position in the Nikon range, this is a heavily spec’ed and impressive camera.

THE NAUTICAM NA-D7000

The last Nauticam housing I reviewed for Wetpixel was for the Nikon D700, but since then I have tried their housings for both the Nikon D300s and Canon 7D. Edward Lai of Nauticam is building a reputation for really listening to users and constantly refining designs. I have my own example of this. Within a few weeks of my Nauticam NA-D700 review for Wetpixel there was a new larger control knob available to make the shutter speed dial easier to reach and use in gloves. In the UK at least, this has become known as Mustard’s Big Knob!

The Nauticam NA-D7000 has a next generation feel, with many minor improvements from Nauticam’s previous Nikon housings, while maintaining the brand’s already widely loved design hallmarks (I have been amazed by how many Nauticams I have seen in the field this year). To described it in one word – it is loaded. Loaded with controls to give you access to all the camera controls. Loaded with excellent engineering, loaded with intelligent ergonomic solutions.

The loaded NA-D7000 certainly has a next generation feel compared with the other Nikon-Nauticams I have tried.

The impression continues when you open the housing, which is packed with intricate gears and levers. There is not an ounce of fat on this one! Not that this needs to concern the user. Nauticam clearly put a lot of emphasis on getting the gearing exactly right when they design a housing – so that the right amount of movement on a dial or lever gives the correct feel and response rate. This gives the housing a fantastic quality feel. I could summarise the brand by saying they put in the extra effort in engineering their housings, to make it easier for us in those precious moments underwater. Bravo. The housing is also much smaller than the NA-D700, fitting around camera extremely snugly. The hump for the popped up flash is also much sleeker.

One negative is that there is no window for the data screen on the top of the D7000, although all the stats can be called up on the larger LCD screen with the INFO button. And once you are used to that, you’ll probably prefer it.

The primary controls (shutter, aperture and shutter speed) have all been improved since I last tried a Nauticam. The curved shutter lever gives excellent feel. Note the lack of top window for the data screen on top of the camera.

The most important controls on an underwater housing are the shutter, aperture and shutter speed. I call these the primary controls. Nauticam have worked hard on these since D700 and D300 housings, which were already better than many brands, but not yet leading. The shutter now features a ‘high tactility’ or two stage shutter release, with a curved leaver to fit around your finger. This impressive mechanism offers excellent feeling of the biting point of AF. The aperture command remains similar. It is perfect in the tropics, but with cold fingers in wet, thick gloves in a chilly English lake I would prefer a slightly larger control knob with deeper indentations. It is perfectly useable, but this would make it more easier with your eye on the viewfinder.

The Nauticam aperture control has excellent gearing, so it is easy to run through the settings and easy to avoid nudging it on to the wrong setting. In tropical waters, oversized controls can be a bit annoying, especially those with sharp indentations to make them easy to turn with thick gloves. I don’t believe there can be a perfect design for all conditions, hand sizes etc. That is why, when possible it is good to review housings in both tropical and cold water conditions, as some photographers shoot in both, while others favour one or the other. Hopefully those who favour particular conditions will read comments from that perspective.

Good access to primary controls, such as aperture, are fundamental and these are a photographers tools. By changing to a wide aperture (and correspondingly speeding up the shutter speed) I am able to hide the ugly background and focus attention on the grouper’s face. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 105mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200, left 1/100th @ f/11, right 1/320th @ f/5.

For example, the push buttons for the focus area select are very close together (because of the camera design) and the middle button (which is OK for many options) was not that easy to push without pressing another button (being recessed slightly compared to the button to the left), when wearing the thick gloves required for British freshwater in late November. In the Red Sea, without gloves, these controls were 100% fine. It is also worth noting that Nauticam have moved over to plastic push buttons, which have an easier action than the metal ones I tried last time.

The Nauticam housing will also incorporate a new shutter speed control, but the new knob wasn’t fitted on this test housing (also note that it is not on many of the product shots on the web, which are also of this exact housing). The housing has a shutter speed knob borrowed from the Nauticam NEX-5 production run – which I didn’t like on this housing. But with the right knob the positioning and gearing of the control should be very good. It was perfectly useable with the NEX-5 knob, but didn’t offer one-handed operation (it requires the left hand to hold the left handle). Hopefully the production control will extend beyond the metal of the housing, which should allow one-handed use. Using the same knob as is on the other side of the housing, for the zoom control, would be perfect.

A good shutter speed control is essential for fine tuning the background exposure, which can often be a challenge underwater when it comes to finding the right compromise. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 2x Subtronic Alphas on manual. 1/80th @ f/11. ISO 200.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the D7000, like many cameras, offers the ability to swap the aperture and shutter speed controls to the opposite dials and also to reverse the direction, so they match your preferences.

Other controls of particular note are the live view activation, which is a handy switch that falls easily to your right thumb. It is also an impressive engineering feat to provide such easy access to this and the Record button, which is via a ‘piano key’ control on the housing. That said, although this control is well placed, I found that a piano key style control was not well suited to starting and stopping recording, because it is impossible to press with jogging the housing. As a result all my video clips start and stop with a wobble! I feel a lever sticking out from the housing would be easier to use, although perhaps impossible to engineer.

I always enjoy Nauticam’s separate image review lever, much easier to flip with your left thumb than a push button. And Nauticam’s new two latch system for closing the housing is very well made and easy to use. You don’t need the strong fingers my Subal’s system needs. It is a big improvement over the three snappy metal latches on the D700 and D300 Nauticams (I am still searching for the three handed underwater photographer these suit!).

The Nauticam NA-D7000 incorporates two excellent locking latch mechanisms. The levers on the back of the housing with the red unlocking buttons.

A control worth mentioning on the D7000 is the AF-mode button, which is hidden in a new position compared to any Nikon I have used and I could not find it without the manual! It is in the centre of the AF-M (like the M-S-C) switch, rather than being a switch on the back of the housing, as it is on the D200/D2/D300/D700/D3. While it caught me out, it didn’t catch out Mr Lai and the Nauticam has push button access despite its awkward position. This is an important control (for changing AF modes and AF point groupings) and I hope that no housing manufacturers miss providing access to it in its new position.

The housing I tested did not have a switch to push the pop up flash back down. Nauticam tell me that there wasn’t time to add this control before DEMA, but it will be on the production housings. This is a very useful feature making it the work of a moment to switch over to shooting a silhouette, for example. Furthermore, even if we turn off our strobes, leaving the popup flash up limits the max shutter speed to the synchronisation speed. And if we’re using TTL, it drains the battery and slows the frame rate significantly (as the camera dumps full power through the popup flash (as it sees no light) which locks the camera as the capacitors refill. The D7000 menus allow you to turn off the onboard flash while it is still popped up, but this takes time and still limits the shutter speed. A popup flash push down lever is a very useful feature for any housing based around optical strobe synch and I am glad to hear that Nauticam will continue to offer it – I hope others do too.

The AF button is in a new position for Nikon cameras, access on the Nauticam is via a push button below the M-AF switch and lens zoom/focus knob. However, the test housing did not have a lever to depress the pop up flash, which can be very useful. This feature will be on the production housing.

The Nauticam housing is based around optical flash synch, but electrical flash synch is possible through a single synch socket. In the UK I shot a pair of Inon Z240s triggered optically using the lowest manual power on the camera, with the Inons set on manual flash power. In the Red Sea for wide angle, I used a pair of Subtronic Alphas attached with a Sea & Sea electronic cable splitter, also on manual. For fish portraits and macro I used a pair of Inon Z240s triggered optically and almost always set on TTL. I did one dive with a single Inon (on TTL) and one with a single Subtronic (manual), but mainly dived with twin strobes. All worked well, although a significant amount of camera fettling is require to switch from optical to electronic strobes between dives. (It was good to see Ikelite announcing an optical triggering solution for their strobes at DEMA, last week.)

The housing is biased towards optical TTL, but electronic synch works well. But to fire my two Subtronic strobes I needed a splitter in the cable because the housing on has a single electric synch socket. The big Subtronics really show off the compact dimensions of the Nauticam NA-D7000.

During the test I used the Tokina 10-17mm behind Nauticam’s impressive and not expensive acrylic mini-dome. The image quality was very good, and this port is well worth checking out if you area a Nauticam user. I will post some detailed images from this port on the forums, when I get a chance. I also shot the Nikon 105mm VR AF-S and Nikon 60mm AF-S behind Nauticam ports and tried the 105mm with a 1.7x teleconverter and Canon 500D dioptre – but flash problems (Subtronic!) prevented me from shooting (luckily I had my D700 sitting on the jetty ready to take over).

Finally, the housing was fitted with Nauticam’s excellent 180 degree magnifying viewfinder. This gives an clear, bright view of the subject, although since I normally use a 45 degree viewfinder, it did take me a couple of dives to adjust, particularly for macro shooting. When I reviewed the Nauticam D700 housing I wasn’t a fan of the extra complexity added by the adjustable dioptre knob, which I felt could be easily knocked out of focus. I don’t wear glasses, but I am sure I will need them when I am older, and many underwater photographers have told me how useful they find this feature on the Nauticam. So I stand corrected, the adjustable dioptre is a very useful feature! It also does not block the LCD screen and proves a useful shade for it when shooting video.

I stand corrected. Everyone keeps telling me how great the adjustable dioptre is on the Nauticam 180 viewfinder. I’m told I’ll appreciate it when I need glasses!

WIDE ANGLE STILLS

I shot wide angle in both the UK and Egypt. I was keen to see how this new sensor performed in terms of detail, colour, dynamic range and noise. Unlike the D90, the D7000 has the 14 bit A/D converter (first introduced on the D3) meaning it can produce 14 bit RAW files. This, combined with processing from the new EXPEED 2 chip, promises strong performance across the image quality board. It comfortably outperforms the D300s and D90 on the, sometimes controversial, DXO Mark tests.

One of the things I like about all the post D3/D300 Nikons is their picture controls, which are standardised across the range, so the colour response of one model is similar to another. I adjusted the D7000 to the same settings as I use on my D700 and when I downloaded my first Red Sea dive into Lightroom, the pictures looked just like my D700 shots. As a result, I was really happy with the colours that the D7000 produced from dive 1.

Using the same Nikon picture controls as on my camera, meant I was really pleased with the look of the D7000 files from the start. The image quality is impressive and the extra resolution is noticeable over my 12MP D700. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 2x Subtronic Alphas on manual. 1/125th @ f/13. ISO 200.

A continuing area of interest in digital sensors is their ability (or not) to capture the beauty and atmosphere of a sunburst underwater. The root of the problem is that slide film was naturally predisposed to dealing with excessive highlights, which is what a sunburst is. Digital sensors have a more linear response to different intensities of light and once it gets too bright, no data can be recorded and detail is lost or clipped. As an analogy, we can think of film as having more elasticity in its response to light. As more and more light hits film so it stretches and copes with the exposure. A digital sensor has a less elastic response and once the light levels get too high it is overwhelmed (it snaps). But with each generation the sensors get better and better, more elastic if you like.

Unsurprisingly, I was able to test this many times with the D7000 in Egypt and much more shockingly, also in England! The D7000 is at least as good as my D700 at capturing sunbursts. Arguably better, although I was never able to shoot them side by side to be sure. This camera seems one of the best I have seen yet, in this regard.

The D7000 RAW files capture impressive dynamic range and do a very pleasing job of capturing sun rays. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 2x Inon Z240s on manual. 1/320th @ f/14. ISO 400.

A particular challenge for digital cameras has been capturing sunbursts at depth. I was impressed that the D7000 captured the rays and the ball of the sun (without a nasty cyan halo) here, without the need for a lot of underexposure, which robs the image of a pleasing water colour. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 2x Subtronic Alphas on manual. 1/250th @ f/14. ISO 200.

One of the strengths of the D7000 is its high ISO performance, which is one of the very best of any non-full frame SLR. I posted a “straight from the camera” full res JPG, shot of a woodpecker at ISO 3200, on Wetpixel forums a while ago, if any wants to see. I had hoped to use the UK dives to examine high ISO noise, but the viz in Stoney was so poor that even the low ISO shots are full of grain – from the particulate in the water! Making them useless for this purpose. Luckily I was able to find a dark corner of a cave in the Red Sea.

High ISOs are perfectly useable from the D7000. Noise builds consistently, but never gets ugly. It is amazing how far Nikon have come in this area since the D2X/D200 generation. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. ISO 1600 and 3200

Unlike my D700, which shows no noise from ISO 100-800, followed by a gradual increase in noise there after. The D7000 is different and noise builds gradually with each successive rating, but even in the RAW files is never ugly and would certainly print really cleanly. The cave shots below, at ISO 1600 and 3200, would be perfectly useable. Its performance has caused me to recalibrate what I thought possible for a DX high megapixel camera at high ISO.

I generally shot the D7000 at ISO 200 as standard. ISO 100 is available, but the advantage in image quality takes some dedicated pixel peeping to spot. I am not sure I can see it. I preferred the extra stop of ISO 200. Open water is reproduced cleanly and there is great detail at 100%.

Even an available light image is clean and packed with detail, see crop below. There is a crop from a macro shot on the next page. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 1/80th @ f/11. ISO 200.

100% crop showing detail from above.

A couple of other things of note: I found that the 39-point dynamic area AF was all I needed for wide angle. The AF sensors cover a large percentage of the frame and this mode kept my pictures in focus in both the UK and Red Sea with the 10-17mm. Simple. Things are more complex for macro.

The final surprise was Live View. As a Nikon user I have got pretty used to Live View being a waste of space, with a neverending click-clack-clunk of shutter lag whenever you want to take a picture. The D7000 is very different and live view will take pictures instantly as long as it is in focus. So we can either focus and then shoot, or what I favoured with a wide angle lens, focus and lock the camera in manual focus – meaning there is no lag. This makes live view really useful and I used it quite a bit when shooting wide angle from low angles where I couldn’t get my eye to the viewfinder. At certain times, such as shark dives, I could see myself shooting exclusively this way. I think that many Nikon users will find many uses for shooting their D7000, at arms length, like a compact.

Live View has generally been a waste of space on Nikons until now. With focused locked there shutter lag is eliminated. I shot a lot of wide angle using the screen instead of the viewfinder, especially for low shooting angles. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 2x Subtronic Alphas on manual. 1/100th @ f/13. ISO 200.

CLOSE-UP AND MACRO STILLS

I was keen to put the D7000 to work shooting macro after two years behind a FX Nikon. Suddenly depth of focus always seems to save you, instead of never quite being enough – and lenses give me the right amount of magnification, rather than not quite enough! I shot the camera with the Nikon AF-S 105mm and 60mm and really enjoyed it. Despite its small size, the Nauticam housing is light in the water (helped by the fact the D7000 is not a heavy camera) and a real pleasure to use for this type of shooting.

My main interest for this review was testing how well the optical TTL metering and autofocus would perform with the D7000’s new metering and AF systems. Both really impressed from the outset, although did require a little fiddling with the settings in the menus to get the best results (I’ll expand on this below). On my first macro dive with the camera I shot a range of fish scale detail shots on free swimming fish. The AF locked on and the TTL handled the exposure. This is a really easy way to shoot.

The excellent TTL and AF meant I was able to zap off these fish patterns in a matter of minutes. All are uncropped. All Nikon D7000 + Nikon 105mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200.

The D7000’s exposure meter is a newly developed 2016 pixel RGB sensor that evaluates auto exposure and iTTL exposure as well as contributing to autofocus performance. In 3D AF tracking it can identify subjects by colour, which aids in tracking them around the frame, but more of that in a moment. The last 18 months or so has seen more and more housing manufacturer’s switching over to ease of use and convenience of fibre optic flash triggering, which also makes it straightforward to incorporate TTL. The new exposure metering for the D7000 should make this more accurate because the 2016 pixel sensor is used to control the TTL.

I found I had to dial in +0.7 flash exposure compensation (with my Inon Z240s) and once I’d done this, all my shots exposed reliably including a wide range of fish images, shot against different backgrounds. Even when a fish was small in the frame (we can’t always get as close as we’d like!) the camera still produced reliable exposures. And even when I tried the more extreme technique of fluorescence images, the TTL did a great job, while testing out Glowdive’s filters (more about them in a review, coming soon). The D7000 was very impressive in controlling exposures. I didn’t try TTL for wide angle.

Once I had dialed in +0.7 exposure compensation on the camera, the TTL gave excellent exposures in a variety of conditions. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 60mm AF-S. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200, 1/160th @ f/13.

Autofocus performance is likely to be a critical factor for some photographers in deciding whether to go for the D7000. The D7000 trumps the D300s in most specifications, but the biggest exception underwater is autofocus. The D7000 uses a new Multi-CAM 4800 DX autofocus sensor compared with the D300s’s Multi-CAM 3500 DX. But don’t be fooled by the names: the D7000 has 39 points including 9 cross type sensors, while the D300s has 51 points and 15 cross type sensors (the significantly lower specified D90 has just 11 points and 1cross type sensor). The D7000 clearly sits between the two, but closer to the D300s. The question is how close?

I normally shoot with a Nikon D700 (which like the D300 uses the Multi-CAM 3500) and really didn’t miss it. All the DX Nikon’s have a better frame coverage with their AF, than the FX Nikon’s. In the bright conditions in the Red Sea and in the gloomy British lake I never struggled with the AF, it just got me shot after shot. It is always a good sign when you don’t notice a technology; you just get on with shooting. We often dived into the evening (Red Sea days are short in November) and I never needed a focus light. At night the camera focused very well with the red light mode of my Sola 600 and even with the UV light of the Glowdive torch, when shooting fluorescence. Ultimately, I was very happy with the D7000 AF. It is certainly not a step on from the D300/D300s/D700/D3, but doesn’t feel far away.

The D7000’s AF is accurate and allows the 16MP sensor to record excellent detail. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 105mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200, 1/320th @ f/14.

100% crop from above – note these have been saved for web at high compression so there is JPG noise in them too.

That said, D7000 AF modes are not all useful. I found the default AF-A mode (Auto-server AF – which switches automatically between AF-S and AF-C) was just too confused by the underwater world through a macro lens. I prefer AF-C (Continuous) underwater because generally neither you nor the subject can be guaranteed to be stationary. I found the Auto Area AF and 39 point dynamic area AF a little disappointing. But the 3D tracking mode (driven with data from the new metering system) was very good for moving subjects (or for focusing then recomposing on a stationary subject – where the AF point will track the subject as you recompose). I also really liked the 9-point dynamic area AF mode, particular for off centre composition as you can move this cluster of 9 points around the frame. If you are a D7000 owner, I’d suggest starting with these two for macro.

I found using the correct AF mode made a big difference to the D7000’s performance. Here Auto Area AF was confused by a straight forward subject. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 60mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL.

Same subject, but a different AF mode (9-point dynamic) gave much more pleasing results. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 105mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200, 1/320th @ f/14.

VIDEO SHOOTING

I am not a videoist, so I invited Peter Rowlands to join me on the Red Sea leg of the trip to help me assess the video capabilities of the D7000. As editor of Underwater Photography Magazine, he is used to reviewing cameras. Perhaps less well known, is that he is also a highly accomplished videographer. Peter has directed and was main camera operator on two history documentaries on the second World War wrecks HMS Royal Oak and HMS Dasher, and his footage has been used widely on the BBC, such as recently in series Coast. Sadly, he couldn’t reprise his normal role of large object in the background of my pictures, as our dive guide Cath provided a far more appealing silhouette.

Peter Rowlands testing the video capabilities of the D7000. Unfortunately, on the one dive we had for this, the light was very hard and not well suited for video.

The good news is that D7000 video image quality is really impressive. On our last trip to the Red Sea in June, Peter used both Nikon D300s and Canon 7D cameras. The 7D wiped the floor with that Nikon. The D7000 levels the playing field with Canon, shooting 1080p at 24 frames per second (with H.264/mpeg-4 video compression). Peter’s impression having been editing lots of his 7D footage recently, is that the D7000 edges it marginally on the definition in the underwater footage (both shot with the Tokina 10-17mm) over a range of ISO settings. Such statements are rocket fuel to fanboys – so don’t get carried away. The take home message is that the D7000 is the first Nikon to be on a par with what Canon Video SLRs can achieve underwater.

Filmed by Peter Rowlands. The D7000 certainly can produce pleasing results, with good colours, contrast and detail. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Magic filter. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome.

Of course that is only part of the story. Peter is keen to point out that the major failing of Video SLRs is not their image quality, but in their ability to actually get the shot. All stills photographers know that our images sell because of what is in them, rather than what we shot them with. And he tells me that with video this is perhaps more true. He explains that video is about immersing the viewer in the story and anything that jolts them out of it, such as small technical issues (wobbly shots, focus dropping out, abrupt jumps in exposure) interrupt the illusion of the story. This is often where video SLRs fall down compared with true video cameras. Peter remarks that the best image quality in the world has little value when you cannot nail the sequence due to handling limitations. The strength of video SLRs is in highly controlled shooting situations (on a tripod in controlled or unchanging conditions). Underwater filming is, most of the time, the exact opposite.

Filmed by Peter Rowlands. The D7000 certainly can produce pleasing results, although this turtle was a little deep for strong colours with available light. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Magic filter. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome.

This goes some of the way to explain some of the other frustrations with the video handling of the housing, as no SLR housing manufacturer is currently going to sacrifice stills capability for video ergonomics. The SLR wobble at the top and tail of each clip, or a general lack of smoothness in hand-held tracking or panning shots is often the giveaway.

That said the D7000 does have some features to get excited about. A new introduction is that autofocus can be active during filming. There are two modes: AF-S (Single servo for static subjects) and AF-F (Full time servo for moving subjects). I took a couple of test clips with the D7000 and 60mm macro lens to demonstrate its effectiveness with static subjects and moving subjects. With static subjects the autofocus did an excellent job in moving between and foreground and background subject (like most video cameras do) which is very useful for establishing or reveal shots to start sequences. To achieve a similarly smooth focus pull with only manual focus would take considerable skill. Much of the time, I can see users just leaving this focus mode activated with wide angle and it taking care of most subjects.

I took this short clip to show the AF-F in action – as I switched between filming a foreground and background coral. I am very impressed with this performance. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 60mm (no filter). Nauticam NA-D7000, Flat port.

I also tracked a moving fish, a challenging flitting butterfly fish, the D7000 did a reasonably impressive job, but ultimately when focus is lost, so is the viewer from the story. Maybe a more skilled videographer might be able to get more from it than me – as I am not used to tracking fish like this. So there is potential here, but I don’t want to draw a strong conclusion either way.  I will simply post a clip below – so your more experienced eyes can judge if the capabilities of AF-F look suitable for your needs and how they compare with your current system.

I took this short clip to show the AF-F tracking a fast and erratic moving fish. Although I did choose a butterfly fish without a tail to slow it down! The camera tracks it at times, but also looses it. On both clips you can hear the camera focusing, so audio is no use. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 60mm (no filter). Nauticam NA-D7000, Flat port.

Peter’s preference is typically for AF-ON (push to refocus) rather than continuous focusing during video – but he found the D7000 as disappointment in this regard with the 10-17mm and filter. His footage is very nice though, so I think he’s being fussy. I set the camera up for him to try this mode (on his request), rather than the AF-F mode and given the lack of time he didn’t get to try that. We only had three diving days in the Red Sea, and on the one dive he shot video the light was very hard. Manual focus is also possible with focus gears.

Another annoyance with the D7000’s video mode underwater is that manual white balance cannot be set in live view mode. You must turn off live view, activate preset white balance and take a photo to set it. Then return to live view and start recording. The D7000 also does not have a full manual exposure, although the manual movie settings do allow both shutter speed and ISO to be adjusted manually. In the Auto exposure mode, AE-L can be used to hold the exposure during a clip (the well positioned lever on the Nauticam stops this from being another wobble moment) and exposure compensation can be used.

CONCLUSIONS

The D7000 is an excellent underwater camera that fulfils many briefs for Nikon users underwater. As the replacement for the D90 it is currently the best model for those wanting to get into Nikon SLR underwater photography. But more serious shooters should not dismiss it, thinking it wholly part of the D90 lineage. It packs plenty of pro-features into its small frame (100% viewfinder, 1/320th synch, 14-bit A/D converter etc). The reality is that the D7000 is also the best DX Nikon out there, an important point for those wanting to use the Tokina 10-17mm. This camera is certain to have a very wide appeal.

I would choose the D7000 over any other of Nikon’s DX SLRs. Nikon D7000 + Tokina 10-17mm. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam 4.5” mini dome. 1/80th @ f/14. ISO 200.

The D7000 brings impressive image quality, extra resolution from 16MP, very useable high ISO performance and full HD video to Nikon shooters. I would choose one every time over the D300s (and obviously any other DX Nikon), and I would understand any D300 owner who was tempted to upgrade, despite, at first glance, this appearing as a sideways move. Autofocus is probably the only area it lags marginally behind the D300 for underwater photography (trumping it in most others), but it is so close as to be of little significance.

The D7000’s AF can nail fast moving fish with ease, although I would say it is marginally poorer than the D300. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 105mm VR. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. ISO 200, 1/320th @ f/14.

The image quality for video is excellent and the autofocus in this mode works well for all but the most challenging, erratic moving, subjects (e.g. individual fish swimming). It is very capable of producing excellent quality footage underwater. However, I can’t endorse buying and SLR solely for video, because there is no doubt that a dedicated video camera remains a better tool (in the unpredictable and uncontrollable) underwater world for most subjects. But if you want the ability to shoot both from one system, it is by far the best yet from Nikon.

There is little doubt this is an important camera for Nikon shooters and Nauticam have certainly stolen a march on their competitors by getting such a quality housing available so quickly. The Nauticam NA-D7000 is loaded with featured and characterised with intelligent engineering solutions, designed to make underwater photography easier for the user. There are plenty of people on the Wetpixel forums who are expecting deliveries in the next few days.

I have certainly really enjoyed my time the D7000 and Nauticam housing (it is back with the dealer now). The camera and housing impressed me more than I expected. The Nauticam is on sale almost immediately and other manufacturers will have to produce some special products to top it.

That said, there are some other impressive housings in development (such as Aquatica and Subal) and if you don’t need to dive with the D7000 immediately, you might want to wait and see those released next year. At Wetpixel, we are hoping to organise a group test of D7000 housings in Jan/Feb (if you are a housing manufacturer, please contact Adam Hanlon to get your product included). But having tried the Nauticam in a range of conditions, these other manufacturers are going to have to come up with something pretty special to make a more compelling option for this excellent little camera.

Alex Mustard November 2010.
www.amustard.com

As always we value your comments.

Brain coral fluorescence. Nikon D7000 + Nikon 60mm AF-S. Nauticam NA-D7000, Nauticam flatport. 2x Inon Z240 strobes on TTL. Glowdive Filters. ISO 200, 1/320th @ f/9.

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