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Optical TTL and Nikon D7000

Life underwater

I have fancied for some time to take a new camera under water which I could use for long-term as I bought my current camera back in 2007 and since then it has been my perfect partner during my dives. Due to the technological novelties which permanently appear in photography usually better, higher resolution and quicker cameras are launched on the market. However, this development has slowed down in the recent years due to the regrettable earthquake which hit Japan and the floods which affected Nikon’s plants in Thailand. As a result up to present there has been no proper successor of Nikon D300. When my friend, Józsi Tóth, bought a Nikon D7000 camera with a Subal housing, I had an excellent opportunity for some testing. Although this camera is aimed at a lower category than D300 at its time but thanks to the developments of recent years even preliminary tests have proved to be a success. However, I missed one thing from my previous camera, the video function which could have been very useful in some situations. Although, I do not that I would join the video department in the future.
Photo: © Dániel Selmeczi

The other important and new feature (at least for me) was the optical flash trigger. After the digital revolution nor Nikon, neither Canon offered their new flash technology, iTTL and eTTL , for open source. This cause a serious problem for underwater photography in the first few years. Since the traditional flashes could only be used in manual mode, it was no problem as the right exposure could be checked on the LCD. But TTL flashes can be very useful if we use them in rapidly changing conditions.
Opinions are divided among professional underwater photographers whether manual or TTL flashes are better or more useful. I vote for the latter, in any event. The other option is a TTL system flash with housing which is not an ideal solution and it does not make parallel usage of two flashes possible.
Producers quickly realised the problem, for example IKELITE came out with its own solution for housing and made its DSflashes compatible with digital cameras. The TTL problem still existed at producers such as SUBAL, SEACAM , SEA&SEA, AQUATI CA, etc. For this problem Heinrich- Weikamp’s iTTL and eTTL adapters offer a solution, as they can be built in any kind of housing, thus TTL option for several flashes has become available. Unfortunately, as I mentioned these are not 100 percent solutions as they just tried to map factory coding by decryption. I call this method, according to my experiences, manual TTL as I had to adjust the flash to every situation in the hope of appropriate lighting. Its advantage that its operation recognisable and the photographer can still enjoy the freedom provided by TTL .
A few years ago the optic cable solution appeared for compact cameras where the inner flash of the camera triggered the outer flash but its performance had to be controlled manually. Its advantage was that without any electronics it made outer light sources usable through a simple optical cable.
Photo: © Dániel Selmeczi

Soon housing accessories for DSLRs has been launched by a Taiwanese producer NAUTI CAM , equipped with optical connection, anticipating the raison d’etre of this method for high-end cameras. Thus became the usage of factory TTL flash control available under water too with absolute freedom and it was named S-TTL . It is interesting that I was rather sceptical about this option, I did not believe that it would react quick enough and I thought that its control from the inner flash would be unstable and its inner battery would discharge too quickly. I was preparing for the test after such antecedents so for my two-weeks Sudan trip I packed up my old IKELITE flashes with normal synchronous cables just in case.
Now let’s see what kind of system goes under the water: NIKON D7000, Subal housing, INONz-240 flashes, optical cable, ultralight arms. I do not want to deal with the camera too much as plenty of tests are available on the Internet, I just say that in my private opinion this camera is suitable for almost every kind of situation for any underwater photographer.
The housing produced by Austrian company SUBAL which has produced excellent quality products for underwater photography in the recent years, as this housing also proves it. Every button and function can be reached from “outside”, on the housing ergonomically designed so they can be managed even in gloves while looking through the viewfinder. They all work perfectly including even some complicated solutions such as the opening and closing of the inner flash and the design of the liveview button. It is equipped with Sea&Sea optical flash (during usage the light of the inner flash gets out of the housing only through the optical cable) and normal Nikon V flash with 45-degree outer viewfinder. In case we want to use an electronic flash synchronous cable, then we can use the flashes in manual mode.
The flashes come from Japan’s INON and have achieved serious recognition with their compact size and reliability among photographers.
The flash works with 4 pieces of AA sized battery and equipped with LED target light, optical and normal cables (in case of the latter only manual control is available). This serious performance out of this small size is just unbelievable. The flash is equipped with a 1” ball which perfectly fits to the usual arm system. Every test starts at home when I set up the equipment and search for a proper test figure, with as many colours and high contrast differences as possible.
First exposure, I see that both flashes work, I open the aperture a bit, another expo and I look at the picture, it’s perfect, I go towards the other extreme f20 and it’s still flawless. I am a bit shocked at the result, both at the speed and the perfection. I start to shoot a series and do not stop until ten pictures, the result: all good. I am electrified by the opportunity but I say to myself, well, we will see how the system works under the water. I choose my usual, favourite lens, TO KINA 10-17 for the first dive. For my first pictures, I start with the colourful soft corals which occur in enormous quantity in the Sudanese waters. Their advantage is that they are spectacular and the sun can be easily composed into the picture and, of course, they do not go away.
Photo: © Dániel Selmeczi

After a quick composition, sharpness and light metering is OK, I adjust 0.0 compensation to the flash and expose. The result is perfect, I check the histogram and it is OK. It is not bad for a start, but let’s see some more complicated theme as if I was waiting for an error to appear since the system has held its own so far. Mackerel flocks used to be a challenge for the electronics as the silvery fish can be easily overexposed. I set the position of the flashes, luckily the flock let me come close, I make a few exposures and withdraw a bit. The result is perfect. I am only curious to see how it works at macro photography. I choose a 105 micro lens for my night dive. The inbuilt LED of the flash is doing a good service, although its light a bit too concentrated but the diffuser which comes with it and the red cover can do a good service to approach timid beings.
I start with one of my favourite themes, the details of sleeping parrot fish as incredible colours and shapes can be discovered in the details. The system works perfectly again, I feel like I was shooting on the surface with a factory system flash, it just cannot make any errors. One of my concerns was that due to the the usage of the inner flash the battery of the camera can be overheated and discharge too soon. But after 901 pictures and three days of shooting the battery meter still shows 28 percent. It is also incredible that I could photograph 5 or 6 dives through with the AA batteries of the flash and it still did not discharge at the end of the day. During the two weeks never had happened any communication or overexposure problem. There was a button which I surprisingly almost forget where was: the flash compensation. But to mention something negative - I have used high performance flashes the last few years SUBTRONIC NOVA, IKELITE DS161 and INON’s performance lagged behind these products. It causes a disadvantage that you have to position the flashes more precisely and in case of small aperture its usage is limited at wide-angle shootings. But in average situations the flashes always provided a sufficient performance. The ISO performance of today’s cameras is excellent so this little deficiency can be easily compensated.
At the end of a test like this the question always has to be raised: Do I want to use this system for long-term? The answer is definitely YES, both the performance and the size of the camera shell are an ideal choice for underwater photographers, the size of the flash is optimal and can be an advantage at flights. Not last, if I want a real TTL than the optical solution can be a key in the future.
Text and pictures: Dániel Selmeczi www.selmeczidaniel.com
The products mentioned above can be purchased and advice is available at: www.fotosub.hu
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