Underwater housings are infamous for being just about as expensive as the body they’re meant to house. They do an important job — that is, they keep your camera from complete ruin in the water, and they do it reliably (what other way is there when it comes to oceanic saltwater?). Nevertheless, those wanting an option that stings the wallet a bit less will be happy to hear about the Aquatech Base Underwater Sport housing. What better place to test this new, low-cost alternative than in Hawaii?
Apparently, “Hawaii” simply isn’t specific enough. One would assume the standard shallow-water surfing shots we've all seen would be possible anywhere in Hawaii. But apparently, the big island was prepared to expose my naiveté in this regard, as its rocky, mostly volcanic beaches aren’t conducive to the world-famous surfing activities that I learned you can find just about anywhere but on the island of Hawaii. Nevertheless, some other marine-based subject would have to suffice. I decided that snorkeling would allow me to test the ease of use of the housings and was lucky enough to encounter a turtle on my dive, which certainly helped create a subject for my photographs to give us a good baseline.
Note: The photos taken in this review serve little purpose in explaining the actual functions of the underwater housings. For this reason, virtually all technical information is written in the body, while image captions will make particular notes pertaining more to the effect a setting might have on a particular image.
It’s easy to understand why some might be frustrated with the expense of what they might consider to be a glorified piece of reinforced plastic. However, when you compare the features being offered and see what’s really possible with something like the Aquatech Elite housing, it becomes apparent that a little more thought went into this than that required for your standard injection molding. Almost every button on the back of the camera is covered with a fully functional, waterproof "extension" button to provide access to virtually any setting while shooting under water. That’s handy to have (more on that later), but do you really need all of those controls? How can the Base housing with more limited control compare? Can you ‘get away’ with it?
Base Sport Housing
Aquatech’s newest release, the Base housing, brings reliable, shallow-water performance (up to 33 feet/10 meters) in the financial grasp of those looking to spend less than $1,000. In many ways, it’s nearly identical to its bigger brother. Despite the vast difference in color (which is a helpful indicator of which version you’re grabbing out of the bag if you have one of each), both are about the same size and shape, both support the same lens ports, and both feature identical latches and triggering hardware, etc. All of Aquatech’s underwater housing accessories work across both housings. The only differences to speak of are in the number of controls that are translated through the backplate via a system of pins that press down various buttons within the housing and on the camera.
The Base feels almost identical to the Elite in the hand. Again, there is very little separating the two. To be honest, there’s simply not much to review with the Base housing. It’s a very sturdy and basic system that does exactly what’s promised. I set the camera to some kind of auto mode (a shutter priority at 1/500th or 1/1000th of a second helps ensure that scurrying fish stay sharp, despite the fact that most underwater wildlife keeps moving at a fairly slow pace), and I’m ready to go.
Inserting the camera into the housing requires the attachment of a dedicated bottom plate, after which the camera simply slides into groves that hold the plate, much like any Arca-Swiss tripod plate. On the front end, simply dab a small amount of oil to the rubber gasket of the lens port opening before firmly screwing in the lens port of your choice.
These days, with the great performance of cameras like the D750 when it comes to mid- and high-ISO settings, it’s easy to let the camera determine metering, which is necessary given the limited control you have of the camera settings once it’s inside the housing. I normally like to underexpose by about two-thirds of a stop or so in order to preserve highlight detail. But under water, there simply aren’t too many extreme highlights. So that wasn’t as much of a concern to me.
If I want to keep my aperture at a reasonable level, I can put the camera in full manual mode with the same shutter speed, the aperture set at f/2 or f/2.8 to keep light coming in fairly well (it gets dark pretty fast under water), and set the camera to auto-ISO in order to create a sort of ISO-priority mode. I find this is the best all-around solution for underwater shooting with the Base housing.
One of the best aspects of this housing, however, is what it comes with. For nearly half the price of the Elite housing, the Base comes ready to shoot with a standard lens port for most 24mm through 50mm prime lenses, a pistol grip, and a cable release that I found to be an almost required part for these housings. Meanwhile, the Elite housing still requires a lens port and does not come with a pistol grip or cable release.
Autofocus was also made difficult by the fact that the water was not the most clear, even though it had a beautiful blue color to it. Here's a quick example of the original shot compared to an edited shot, for which I had to increase contrast, correct the color cast, and even employ a heavy amount of Lightroom's new Dehaze effect to get any detail out of the shot.
Note on the Shutter Release
Both housings feature the same shutter release button in the position you would expect it to be in. However, because of the combination of the awkward housing size and the strength needed to depress the shutter button, I found the cable release that is included in the Base housing package (and otherwise optional as a package with the pistol grip) to be extremely helpful in shooting underwater.
There are some caveats to this. If I had been scuba-diving and not snorkeling, it would have been easier to control a lot of aspects of the housing. However, I also found the firmness of the shutter release made it slightly difficult (but not impossible) to feel when I had the shutter depressed just half-way for autofocus.
What’s so great about the cable release is that it’s completely external. One end plugs into a proprietary three-pin connection near the front of the housing (again, this is the same for both models) while the other end features two buttons — one dedicated to engaging autofocus, and the other dedicated to engaging the shutter. This made it much easier for me to control the camera in every situation. For this reason, I would highly recommend using it (or, alternatively, buying it to begin with if you end up with the Elite housing).
In addition to the shutter control afforded by the Base housing, all of the dials and buttons of the Elite housing ultimately allow control over playback, the menu system, the entire multi-controller (the D-Pad), the rear shutter dial, the movie/still recording switch and live view button, the AE-L/AF-L button, and more. Essentially, this includes control of every notable function except for “Delete” and the front control dial, which controls aperture by default on Nikon bodies.
While no one should care about the delete button, I wouldn’t be alarmed with the lack of control for the aperture control dial, either, since every camera manufacturer allows you to switch the assigned function of both dials for shutter or aperture control depending on your preference. Still, this is something you should keep in mind. But should you forget to change any necessary settings before you insert the camera, the full menu control will let you adjust your settings in the water accordingly.
One should keep in mind, however, that there is no super easy, piece-of-cake solution to the underwater housing. They're all bulky, they all keep water out, and they all do more or less what they promise. But at the end of the day, it's still slightly clunky - as you'd expect. Aquatech alleviates some of the 'funniness' of using an underwater housing partly by allowing you to fine-tune the distance of each button's rod from the button in the housing. In this way, if you find that any button seems difficult to press or isn't quite doing the trick, you can simply rotate it to screw it in further, thereby custom-tailoring that button to require a specific amount of travel according to your liking.
Alternatively, I found that the solution for dial rotation was quite difficult to use. It's rather clever that Aquatech found a way to adjust the dial to begin with, but it's certainly not a smooth process, as it essentially uses a very basic mechanism to apply enough friction through a combination of depressing and rotating of the control in order to change its position. This isn't a huge deal, however, as I was still able to control the rear dial with some work. But it does make the case for living with a more automatic metering mode if your shoot does not require fully manual operation. Then again, the complexity of underwater shooting would push anyone to automate anything and everything possible.
The amount of control one has with the Elite housing is hard to beat when looking back on shooting with both systems. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to say that the Elite housing is absolutely necessary.
However, if I either were a full-time underwater photographer, were to regularly switch between video and still photography, or were shooting a more involved underwater shoot, I would say that the Elite housing is hands-down the way to go.
At nearly $2,000, it takes all of this to get me there. But given that the D750 housing (as well as a number of others) are currently on sale — in this case for $1,495 — it immediately becomes even more difficult to make this decision. That’s still a 50 percent premium over the Base housing, but if it’s something you’re going to do quite often, it might be considered stupid to not go the extra mile when it comes to your underwater housing.
Again, don’t forget that the Elite housing still needs a lens port and a cable release plus pistol grip package (assuming you want it after the case I made for it). This might push you back in favor of the Base housing. But that will depend on your budget, of course. Either way, it’s not bad to have options.
What I Liked
- Full control of virtually every camera function
- Slightly more robust, all-metal camera plate and hardware
- Currently on sale for $1,495 for the Nikon D750 version (a few others are on sale, too, currently)
- Affordable $995 price-point
- Doesn't skimp, as it offers the same depth-rating, protection, and basic features of the Elite housing
- Comes with everything you need to get started: a standard lens port, pistol grip, and cable release (this package is a huge value)
- Sturdy design
- Easy to switch between both systems
- Reasonable depth rating of 33 feet/10 meters
What I Didn't Like
- Still quite a bit more expensive once you add accessories
- Slightly cheaper camera plate material (but I personally really don't think this matters given that the stress on this part is extremely minimal in any situation)
- Built-in shutter button is difficult to depress
- The camera plate restricts access to the battery compartment should you need to change it
- A flat screwdriver is not included, but is necessary to attach the camera plate (but a dime will do the trick in a pinch)
At the end of the day, the best news is that the newly released Base housing doesn’t cut any corners. It offers less dedicated control over your body, but it’s not that much of an inconvenience, especially considering the new system nearly halves the cost of getting into a professional underwater camera setup. On the other hand, the Elite housing offers full control at a cost that's currently slightly cheaper for particular bodies.