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Aquatica A7D Review - Ryan Pedlow

The release of Canon's EOS 7D in late 2009 caused a stir with photographers around the world, and led many, including myself, to make the upgrade to this latest crop sensor camera. Packed full of new features, including an 18 megapixel sensor, 1080p video, 8 frames per second continuous shooting, a 100% viewfinder and a new faster and more accurate AF system, it was an obvious choice for many Canon shooters coming from entry level and prosumer dSLR's such as the 500D and 50D. For underwater photographers, there was a lot of anticipation as to what housings would become available, and what new features they would have. For myself, already a happy Aquatica user with a 40D, this was obviously one housing I was keeping an eye out for, and upon seeing the initial designs and images of the housing, quickly put in a pre order for. Much to my pleasure, it was also one of the first 7D housings to hit the market, arriving in Australia in early 2010.

Having a few months with the camera before the housing arrived was a bonus, as it gave me an initial chance to learn the differences with this new model, what it was capable of, and especially, where each control was. High definition video was the biggest selling point for me, as I'd started to find myself wanting to shoot both video and photos on the one dive in the past, and occasionally even diving with both a video camera and dSLR at the same time. While the 7D isn't a camcorder in that it hasn't been designed specifically for making videos, what I'd managed to produce with it initially on land, especially when using a tripod, has come out looking quite impressive. The Canon 7D and it's full frame big brother the 5DmkII have also recently been used to film a number of television shows and segments, including the season finale of House, and on some recent underwater wreck footage aired on Australia's 7:30 Report by Damien Siviero. However, the speed of the camera was what surprised me most, both the 8 fps burst mode and the new AF system. The accuracy of the AF system was also vastly improved, with the camera now rarely hunting to lock onto something in a dark area. The new weather sealing on the camera was also quite a nice feature, especially during the wet season in Tropical North Queensland, and has moved me to purchase some weather sealed L lenses from Canon for above water work.

Upon receiving the housing, as all boys with their new toys do, I had it out of the box in a heartbeat, installing the camera inside, and playing with all the new buttons and levers, snapping photos of everything I saw. Inserting the camera in the housing was as easy as with previous Aquatica models, simply mount the camera to the tray and slide it in. My housing is set up with optical bulkheads to fire my Inon Z240 strobes, a decision I considered non-stop while in the process of ordering the housing, as this would be a new way of firing strobes for me, having used Nikonos bulkheads and electrical connections in the past. One thing I would soon realise is that life is a lot easier if you remember to pop up the camera's flash as you insert it into the housing, as there is no direct button to push the flash up on the housing (or push it back down to turn it off). However, as with a lot of other things with this camera, there is a way around it just in case you miss your pre dive check, by putting the camera into AUTO mode and taking a photo in a dark place (or with your port covered by something dark).

Initial impressions of the A7D housing prior to taking it diving were that it was slightly smaller and lighter than the A40D housing, that it had Aquatica's usual attention to ergonomics, seemed to be quite rugged, and the buttons on the housing all now had larger bore holes, meaning they would be easier to flush out with fresh water when rinsing. The back of the housing gives a nice clear view of the rear camera LCD, although there are no longer windows on top of the housing to view top LCD or to see the mode wheel. These were not things that I would come to miss however, as the rear LCD gives all the information you need. Aquatica's port mounting and locking system is, as always, solid and reliable. A nice new feature going from the A40D is the external button to release the port lock, meaning removing a port from the housing is a breeze. The only issue I've only had with using Aquatica's ports is that there is no way to lock an extension ring onto a port. This is not a problem when in the water, as the water pressure holds everything together. However, when above water, I've often had my port fall off, so have taken to taping them into place. Also new from the A40D was a retractable lens release lever, meaning when the camera and lens are fitted with most zoom gears, the camera can still be removed from the back of the housing (note this is still not the case with some zoom gears, such as the one for the Sigma 17-70mm, making for an annoying process if you wish to remove the camera, or even just battery or memory card).

Of course the real test would come once I got the housing wet, and a few days later saw me taking my A7D housing diving for the first time, on the outer GBR. In the water the housing performed well, being only slightly negative with an 8" dome port and Inon strobes, easily manageable without any floats even when shooting for long periods of time with one hand. With a macro port the housing becomes slightly more negative, however still far from being a problem. I found all the buttons I needed to shoot images to be right under my fingertips, the buttons to the left of the LCD even being angled to make them even easier to access. The shutter lever is nice and responsive, making it quite easy to half pull to focus the lens before firing a shot. The wheels to control the camera's front and rear wheels (shutter speed and aperture) also fall underneath your fingertips, meaning you can quickly change exposure settings without moving your hands from the handles, as is the large and easy to use zoom wheel. With the standard viewfinder that the housing comes with, the 7D's new larger 100% viewfinder becomes more noticeable, making it a lot easier to see through than the 40D.

Since then, I've racked up over 200 dives with my Aquatica A7D housing, and am very impressed with it. Made in Canada, and designed to withstand cold, deep and harsh conditions, the housing is rugged and robust, and like all Aquatica housings, looks like it will stand the test of time. It’s corrosion free as when I first pulled it out of the box, and every button and lever is still as smooth to use as ever. Firing the strobes with the camera's internal flash and fibre optics took a little bit of getting used to, however it is not a decision I've regretted in the least. The ease of TTL when needed and not having flood-prone Nikonos bulkheads has made it worthwhile. The camera's flash does not recycle as fast as my Inon Z240's in most cases when using TTL, however for situations where a faster frame rate is needed, shooting with both strobes and camera flash in manual (and camera flash turned down to minimum power), this is easily overcome and will let you shoot as fast as your strobes can handle. TTL exposure is spot on in most situations, and while not something I'd use all the time, can be an invaluable tool for standard lighting.

Shooting video underwater with an SLR has been something of a learning process.
Macro video seems to be quite shaky, although an underwater tripod (such as the one recently released by Aquatica) would help significantly. Wide angle with a red filter and manual white balance or with a set of video lights has produced some pleasing results, and is something I'm planning on exploring further in the future. A simple flick of a switch on the back of the housing puts the camera into video mode, and another button starts and stops it. While the Aquatica housing has been designed with excellent ergonomics for shooting photos in mind, this is not quite the case for video, with the start/stop button being just out of reach of your right thumb, making for a shaky start and finish of each clip as you let go of the handle. The housing allows for nice smooth filming when shooting wide angle scenes.

All up the Aquatica A7D is a housing I am very pleased with and is well in line with the high level of quality that Aquatica have continued to provide over the years.
While some negatives may exist, these are quite small things in the scheme of things, and are far outweighed by the many positives the housing has. For anyone looking for a workhorse of a housing, with great ergonomics for shooting photos, that will last the test of time, it is a product I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

 

 

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