By Jean Rydberg
Nikon's initial entries into the full frame mirrorless camera arena could not be more welcome. This space has been dominated by Sony Alpha cameras like the A7R III, and Nikon shooters have been waiting patiently for some time now. We don't think Nikon shooters will be disappointed. Both cameras are highly capable from both an imaging and a video standpoint.
Photographers requiring ultra-high 45.7 megapixel resolution will automatically reach for the Z7. If video is your primary function then you will likely be happier opting for the lower priced Z6. Both cameras handle and function superbly underwater so lets dive right in to the details.
ISO 200 • f/9 • 1/124 • Beautiful details captured in a clown dorid by the Nikon Z7, Nikkor 105mm macro lens, an Ikelite Z7 housing, and dual Ikelite DS-161 strobes • Copyright Nirupam Nigam
Nikon Z7 vs Nikon D850
When directly comparing the mirrorless Z7 to the Nikon D850 DSLR, the key drawbacks are slower autofocus in low light settings, slightly less dynamic range, and shorter battery life. But there are a few major advantages for underwater shooting. For one, the camera body is 3/4 pound (330g) lighter. This may not sound like a lot but it makes a significant difference both when packing your carry-on and in system buoyancy underwater (read: arm fatigue) . We also like the Z7's electronic viewfinder (EVF) both for its performance when composing a shot and also its ability to be used for image review. When combined with a magnifying viewfinder it's phenomenal, especially for those of us with tired, old eyes. It also has a slight leg up over the D850 on 4K video capture.
Nikon Z6 vs Z7
The Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras don't just look the same on the outside, they also share a lot of the same shooting features. The Z6 has a lower resolution 24.5 megapixel full frame sensor and fewer autofocus points. The Z6 will have a slight advantage in fast action situations with an impressive 12 frames per second (fps) burst frame rate compared to 9 fps for the Z7. The Z6 captures oversampled video from the entire width of its sensor resulting in video that's higher quality than the Z7 whether you're shooting in 4K or 1080p. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the price tag with the Z6 camera body ringing up at about 40% less than the 46 megapixel Z7.
The Nikon Z7 mirrorless camera next to the Nikon D850 DSLR. The Z7 is significantly smaller and lighter, but has a 25% larger lens mount throat diameter (i.e. the hole where the lens attaches). This allows much more light to reach the edges of the camera sensor when used with Z-mount lenses.
The Nikon Z Lens Mount
The bad news is that there are not a lot of new Z-mount lenses to start with, but the new lens mount is very promising. In a side-by-side comparison with the old F-mount, the Z mount throat diameter is significantly larger. The Z mount measures at 55mm compared to the F mount at 44mm. This means more light can hit the sensors (when using Z mount lenses) allowing manufacturers to design faster lenses like the Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 which is on its lens roadmap for the next year.
Nikon's roadmap for lens releases as of April 20, 2019 shows a Z-mount 58mm f/0.95 coming up later in 2019 along with a 24mm f/1.8. The 85mm and 70-200mm lenses won't be good choices for underwater use, but the lineup for 2020 is promising.
The critical piece of the puzzle is the F-to-Z mount adapter which will allow you to use your favorite F-mount lenses with autofocus supported for AF-S and AF-I lenses. As of April 20, 2019, Nikon USA is offering the Mount Adapter FTZ for FREE with the purchase of a Z6 or Z7 camera body, which is a pretty outstanding deal reflecting a savings of about $250US. We have found that our go-to Nikon F-mount lenses operate well with the adapter, including our favorite wide angle lens the Nikon 8-15mm Fisheye.
Both Z6 and Z7 cameras feature in-body image stabilization which is great news for future lens options from both Nikon and third party manufacturers.
ISO 160 • f/16 • 1/125 • Sculpin eye photographed with the Nikon Z7 in an Ikelite Z7 housing, Nikkor 105mm macro lens, and dual Ikelite DS-161 strobes • Copyright Nirupam Nigam
Housing Size, Weight, and Construction
Support for the larger lens mount and wide range of optional accessories necessitates a housing sized similarly to DSLR-type camera systems. This actually has a dual benefit of positive offset buoyancy. Handling of the Z6/Z7 housing is superb with the lighter weight camera bodies. The extra buoyancy virtually eliminates system-based fatigue and makes shooting over-unders dramatically easier.
Saltwater is a highly destructive element of nature. ABS-PC is a no-brainer for underwater use because it's fundamentally corrosion proof and capable of withstanding pressure well beyond our 200ft (60m) depth ratings (it's the control tension that varies at greater depths and can cause the camera to become inoperable).
Ikelite 200DL Underwater Housing for Nikon Z6, Z7 (red) overlaid with the Nauticam NA-Z7 (blue) underwater housing shows that size is virtually identical. The Ikelite housing weighs nearly 2 lbs less and is significantly closer to neutral buoyancy.
Thanks to ABS-PC construction, the 200DL housing is 30% lighter than the comparable Nauticam model made of aluminum (nearly 2 pounds / 0.9 kg less).
Housing design, machining, assembly, and testing all take place at our sole facility in Indianapolis, IN, USA. Each housing is tested at depth in a pressure chamber and individually test fitted with a working camera to adjust all controls and confirm function. Controls can be micro-adjusted by the user using the included hex key tools to accommodate minor variations in camera tolerances.
Setting Up the System
Every element is designed to instill confidence and streamline the process of getting ready to hit the water. The camera mounts with a small machined plate that slides firmly into the mount inside the front of the housing. The camera mount plate is unobtrusive and allows full access to the camera's battery and memory card slot. It never needs to be removed even when shooting topside. A 1/4-20 thread in the bottom of the camera mount allows it to be attached directly to a standard tripod.
The camera mount attaches with a standard 1/4-20 threaded bolt. Its profile is unobtrusive and allows full access to the camera's battery compartment and memory card slots. A 1/4-20 threaded hole behind the camera mounting bolt allows it to be attached to a tripod when you have the camera out of the housing and are shooting on the surface.
Three double-passivated high-grade stainless steel lid snaps ensure the perfect distribution of pressure on the housing's rear o-ring. The unique groove-less rear o-ring seal requires no lubricant and is designed to reduce build-up of debris and help to prevent user error.
The o-ring seal forms a thick black line which is clearly visible through the back of the housing when the unit is sealed.
The shape of the o-ring is important to reliable sealing. The most dependable seal is provided by a shape that is closest to the o-ring's natural shape (a circle) with all outer radii and no unusual bends. The shape of our housing is designed to optimize this (without turning into a bowling ball) and evenly distribute pressure across this seal. This makes the rear seal of the housing virtually fool proof.
Comparing the shape of the Ikelite 200DL Underwater Housing rear o-ring seal (left) with the Nauticam NA-Z7 seal (right). The black lines are the o-rings; the red dots are the pressure points exerted by the housing closure mechanisms.
A built-in vacuum valve allows you to draw a vacuum on the housing after assembling and prior to entering the water. A vacuum system helps you to check for potential leaks by simulating water pressure at one atmosphere. Our vacuum valve is designed to be low profile to stay out of the way of hands and cords.
Audible and visual indicators are necessary for systems where you cannot see inside of the housing. They are also susceptible to false triggering and too-small-to-be-detectable leaks. There is no substitute for the ability to clearly see that your camera is safe.
Controls and Ergonomics
Nikon designs cameras that feel good in your hands, with simple to use menu systems. The Z6 and Z7 camera bodies are no exceptions. The controls on the housing are where you need and expect them to be. Learn the camera and you will intuitively understand the housing out of the box. In case you forget, control markings are laser engraved on the back. Unlike painted indicia, these symbols are 100% resistant to rubbing off or fading.
Hard anodized aluminum push buttons are lightweight and operate smoothly with minimal maintenance. Control locations are clearly indicated on the back of the housing with laser engraved symbols matching what's on the camera.
All knobs are soft-touch style for a tactile feeling with or without gloves. A large 5-lobed knob is right at the fingertips of your left hand for comfortable access to zoom or focus without removing your hand from the handle, regardless of the length of the lens. The knob drives a simple gearing system with affordable and lightweight zoom/focus gears available for a wide variety of Z-mount and F-mount lenses.
A lens release lever below the zoom knob allows you to change lenses in between dives without removing the camera from the housing. The control operates in two ways to remove either Z-mount lenses or F-mount lenses using the FTZ adapter. Due to its size and shape, is necessary to detach lenses attached with the FTZ adapter prior to removing the camera body from the housing. This is quick and easy to do with the DL port mount.
All control knobs are soft-touch style including the huge 5-lobed zoom/focus knob on the side of the housing.
Customize the i Menu
The i menu provides quick and easy access to a variety of functions. In the camera's custom settings menu you can add additional functions to the menu. We recommend adding Flash compensation and ISO to this menu.
Power Off Delays
The best photos are often being in the right place at the right time- AND being ready to take the shot. Fractions of a second can mean the difference between going home with a winner or missing it. Instead of turning your camera off and on to conserve battery, use the custom settings menu to adjust the camera's power-off delays for Playback, Menus, Image review, and Standby.
The camera will go to sleep after the set period of time which consumes a negligible amount of battery. To wake the camera back up, simply half-pull the shutter or press any button.
Curved levers for the shutter and AF-ON button allow for fast and easy shooting, especially when using the back button focus technique.
Back Button Focus
This technique is commonly used for high speed photography and could be your best friend when shooting super macro. It can be awkward at first but we encourage you to read about it, learn it, and use it. A curved shutter lever brings the AF-ON button to the side of the housing for this very purpose. The control is set up to feel super natural when engaged with your thumb, keeping your index finger on the shutter trigger.
Nikon's electronic viewfinder (EVF) is one of the best we've seen so far on any mirrorless digital camera. It's big and bright and provides a corner to corner view of the image. Positioning of the camera in relation to the housing's viewfinder mount has been optimized for use with the optional Straight or 45º Magnified Viewfinders.
Magnified viewfinders are to the photographer as lenses are to the camera. Good glass makes all the difference in the world. A magnified viewfinder improves your ability to properly compose a shot and determine whether you are obtaining focus on the right point. With newer mirrorless cameras, the EVF serves dual purpose as a means of reviewing your images as if in a darkroom without the glare of the sun to contend with.
A magnified viewfinder makes all the difference for both composition and image review. Magnified viewfinders are available in both Straight (pictured) and 45 Degree versions.
TTL Strobe Compatibility
The housing comes standard with an Ikelite ICS-5 bulkhead and manual flash hotshoe for fast and reliable electrical triggering of external strobes. Sync cords are available for Ikelite strobes (usable with both digital and older non-digital film strobes) as well as those from SEA&SEA, INON, Retra, and others featuring an electrical bulkhead.
"What a joy to shoot…. Quick recycle times, great resolution, relatively high burst speeds, and accurate TTL all came together to create a system that takes amazing photos with very little effort. It almost felt like all I needed to do was point and shoot (very quickly at that)." - Excerpt from product review by Nirupam Nigam, Editor-in-Chief Underwater Photography Guide
The real power of the system can be unleashed when the DL1 DS Link Nikon TTL Converter is used. An electrical TTL flash connection is essential for taking advantage of the cameras' high speed frame rates of 12 fps (Z6) and 9 fps (Z7) respectively. The DL1 allows you to switch between TTL and manual strobe exposure at the touch of a button. Flash compensation can be dialed into the camera quickly by assigning the function to the i menu. Don't believe the myth that TTL is no good for wide angle. TTL strobe exposure is your friend in about 98% of underwater shooting scenarios. See images taken with the DL1 and Nikon D850 here.
Note TTL flash does not mean manual shooting mode on the camera. You can use manual shooting mode (that is, adjust the shutter speed and aperture manually) together with TTL strobe exposure.
ISO 200 • f/7.1 • 1/125 • The only way to capture this shot so close to a quick wolf eel was to use the electronic viewfinder. Photographed with the Nikon Z7 in an Ikelite Z7 housing, with a Nikkor 8-15mm fisheye lens, and dual Ikelite DS-161 strobes • Copyright Nirupam Nigam
As we mentioned before, both Z6 and Z7 shoot phenomenal video underwater, with a bit of an advantage going to the Z6. On the housing the video recording start/stop button is clearly indicated with bright red anodizing. The push button style operation makes it easy to use without being easy to accidentally use (which can be equally frustrating whether ruining videos or drain your battery).
We found that the Z6 performs very well in the water with smooth and sharp focusing, great stabilization, and great color range. An optional Trim Weight System attaches quickly and easily to the bottom of the tray without the need for tools. The trim system uses a standard dive weight that you can get at your destination so there's no need to literally add dead weight to your already tight luggage restrictions. The trim system provides front to back weight distribution for customized balance depending on the port and lens you are using.
"If you’re a hard-core video shooter, Ikelite might actually be one of your best options. With the design of the Z7 housing, Ikelite really focused on trim. The trim weight rail system, combined with a large port, makes the Ikelite housing neutrally buoyant and almost perfectly in trim. This is a great addition for wide angle video footage and ads more image stabilization to an already excellent 5-axis IBIS system." - Nirupam Nigam
M16 Accessory Port
A spare M16 threaded accessory port is built into the top of the housing for the attachment of third party accessories, most notably for HDMI monitors. We recommend contacting Dive and See who offer a variety of monitor solutions and have experience fitting monitors to Ikelite housings. Nauticam also make some bulkhead accessories which may be fitted to this port.
The spare M16 accessory port shown with Nauticam HDMI bulkhead attached.
We usually shy away from the first-in-line of any series, but Nikon's Z6 and Z7 are a notable exception to the rule. Both cameras are a joy to use in the water and the resulting images and video quality are excellent. If you're already a Nikon shooter, the ability to keep using your current lenses and the familiar feel of the cameras are major advantages. No camera is perfect and you'll find that your greatest limiting factor is time in the water. To date, manufacturers tend to only release new full frame mirrorless or DSLR cameras every two years or so and we wouldn't recommend waiting that long to get on the bandwagon.
"Before the Z7, I had never shot a mirrorless camera or housing with such a high "keeper" rate. I recommend this housing for anyone who would like to take the Nikon Z6 or Z7 underwater, and especially to those who are interested in the wide range of accessories that come with it. It’s hard to be disappointed." - Nirupam Nigam
Nirupam Nigam was kind to share some of his photos taken with the Z7 and excerpts from his review for Underwater Photography Guide online. Check out Nirupam's full review of the 200DL Underwater Housing for the Nikon Z6 & Z7. You may also be interested in his extended analysis of the Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras for underwater photography.
Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!