Review of the Nikon Z50 and Nauticam Housing
Updated October 2020
Many years ago, I had extensively used a few mirrorless cameras - specifically a Sony NEX5 and NEX7. As a hardcore DSLR shooter, I did like these setups, but wasn’t impressed enough with them to consider making the switch from my regular SLR camera. The Nikon Z50 and Nauticam NA-Z50 housing has me rethinking this.
The Nikon Z50 is the newest in Nikon’s interchangeable-lens mirrorless cameras, offering an APS-C sensor, 20 megapixels stills and 30 FPS 4k video. The kit lens it comes with is a 16-50 f3.5-6.3 Z-mount.
In July 2020, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a brand-new Nauticam Z50 setup for some test-diving and sample images, courtesy of Reef Photo and Video. At the time of this initial writing, I had dived the housing 6 dives, and gave my initial impressions of it below. The side effects of the Cayman Islands COVID-19 shutdown have worked in my favor, and I've had the housing this entire time. As of today, I've had the opportunity to do 2 weeks in Little Cayman aboard the Cayman Aggressor - and over 50 dives now with this little setup, and have almost 400 "keepers" in my Lightroom catalog from it. I've since edited this review to reflect my experiences and some things I've learned since my initial review.
Like all Nauticam housings, the design is well thought out and ergonomics are superb. I particularly like how even though the playback button is located on the bottom right of the camera body, some clever control routing has this function as a lever for your left thumb - consistent with many other DSLR housings. With the exception of the ISO control (something I address later in this article) every function of the camera is easy to operate with your hands on the handles.
The muscle memory of this setup took me a bit to get used to. Several dives were required just to get the camera set up to shoot in a manor I was accustomed to, but once I did, everything clicked, and I began to really enjoy it.
My loaner camera came with a standard viewfinder, however since most Nauticam housings are compatible in this regard, I immediately swapped it with my personal and beloved Nauticam 45 degree viewfinder.
Immediately I noticed it was very negative in the water for such a little camera. Dive 1 was mainly me flailing about as my muscle memory was off from the added weight. Easily resolved using some carbon buoyancy float arms. Using a pair of Nauticam 70x300 and a pair of H2O-Tools 30x300 arms made the setup just slightly negative, and far easier to handle.
What I loved
The wet lenses
This particular configuration came with both the Nauticam WWL-C 130 degree wide lens, and the CMC-1 macro diopter. In my former life, if you had ever asked me about doing both macro and wide angle shooting on the same dive, I’d have given you a hard “no.” Wet lenses just weren’t up to the task. Nauticam has changed the game here, and they claim their WWL wet lens series are “mathematically sharper” than anything else in the market. I don’t doubt it. This lens surprised me in its ability to deliver sharp images corner to corner. The bayonet mounts allow for quick and easy changing from wide angle to macro and back.
I cannot stress how good the quality of the WWL-C lens is. It allows for zoom-through shots, meaning you can use the full range of the kit lens with stunning sharpness. It has been so ingrained in me that zooming into a wide lens underwater yields horrible quality, that I didn't even attempt to do this until about my 10th dive with it. When I did, I was stunned how sharp the image was.
The downside to the WWL-C, is that it's a wet lens, so split shots or over-under photos are not possible with this. Those looking to do split shots will need to consider another wide lens and dome combination for this camera.
The electronic viewfinder surprised me. It was sharp and easy to see corner to corner. One of the nicest things I found was the ability to check my image without removing my eye from the viewfinder after my shot. I found this particularly useful for macro photography - something you just can’t do on a traditional SLR. Normally after a few shots, you need to look at your LCD screen to make sure nothing weird is happening with your strobe placement or power settings, and just to get an idea of how your shot is coming out. On a traditional SLR rig, doing this breaks your focal plane and requires you to recompose the image and focus - something that can often be easier said than done. The movement of your body or the camera required to do this action also can frighten your subject, who could get spooked and disappear on you.
With the electronic viewfinder, you don’t even need to move. The image will appear automatically or on demand without you ever needing to take your eye away. This feature is amazing and has made a huge difference in the quality of my photography. I find with macro, I'm able to get many more opportunities for a shot on my subject, and I can get the lighting and exposure dialed in far better.
That said, initially I found the viewfinder too bright - something easily corrected in the menu settings, but it also contributed to my images to be vastly underexposed. On my first few dives I had forgotten how to bring up the histogram function, so I found myself going by the light meter, and the preview shown on the viewfinder.
Determining focus, either through the e-viewfinder or the LCD is super easy using the center button in the image review. A press of the center button does a super-zoom of the shot center, allowing you to see if the image is in focus or not.
The battery life
Battery life is shockingly good. In my past experiences with mirrorless cameras, I found the battery would last 2 or 3 dives if you were lucky. You get far more life with the Z50 battery. Out of habit I charged this battery between trips, but even after a 2-tank boat dive, I noticed the battery meter hadn’t dropped even a single bar. I’ve since stopped charging it to see how many dives I can get out of it.
The Nauticam housing for this is the N100 version, which simply means the port is 100mm across. This in my humble opinion, is the perfect size. It's compact and can travel easily, yet large enough where the controls are all ergonomic and can be comfortably accessed from the grips - something that can be hampered on smaller compact housings.
The image quality
The end result, once I got used to the differences in operation, were just as good, and mostly better than what I normally achieve on my SLR rig.
What I didn’t love
The very first thing I didn't care for was the focus ability when shooting macro. Getting sharp focus when using the WWL-C wide angle was a non-issue, and otherwise flawless. It was hard to get shots that weren't in focus. However, shots in macro were far more difficult. Super macro shots using the CMC-1 were maddeningly difficult and I found myself yearning for the manual focus control of my DSLR. I noticed the lens tended to 'hunt' for focus and had a hard time actually locking on to the focus point.
To be fair, I was not using a focus light, so this could have added to my issue. Also I did manage to make the task easier by switching focus to a single point mode, and the 4-way control makes it easy to put this focus point exactly where you want, but it was more challenging than what I was used to. From looking at the lens arrangement, a manual focus control might be technically possible, but not without a major housing redesign, so that’s not likely to happen.
In the grand scheme of things, this isn't that bad and I was still able to get some great super-macro shots with it.
Initially, I found this maddening, until I got used to it. The standby timer is a user-adjustable setting that allows for the camera to go into sleep mode after a period of time, which of course is a power savings measure. The default on the Z50 is 30 second - after 30 seconds of inactivity, it will go to sleep.
Really what I disliked was not the standby timer itself, but rather the time it takes to wake the camera from sleep mode, which according to my tests is a full second. This may not seem like a long delay until you are trying to get one of those very fast shots when some unexpected activity occurs.
I find this sort of scenario happens rather often, to me anyway. I will turn and see something perfectly placed or composed, or some animal will just appear from nowhere, and I'll want to take a (sometimes blind) shot instantly. On most SLR's even when the meter has gone to sleep, you can still instantly fire off a photo. Not on the Z50. The shutter will not fire until it has woken up after this one-second delay. The best example I can give is this shark shot here:
I was on a dive site in Little Cayman, about to examine a section of the wall, when I looked up and saw a reef shark heading right for me, only 3 feet away. He had just popped out of an adjacent canyon and I couldn't see him coming. My camera settings were about right from my previous photo and the camera was aimed in the right direction so I pulled the shutter release - and nothing. The camera was asleep. This aggravated me, as the shark was in the perfect position for what could have been a very good shot.
I found similar instances occurred many times. I got in the habit of giving the shutter a half-press when I knew I was about to take a shot of something, but occasionally one of these super quick action events would occur, and I'd miss out. You can change this in the Custom settings menu. C3 - power off delay, allows you to change the standby timer to a variety of intervals, or even off completely at the downside of shorter battery usage.
The internal flash
Like most mirrorless cameras, the camera’s internal strobe triggers your external flash. While there is a very innovative control on the left rear of the housing to activate and deactivate the internal flash, the flash tube itself is very tiny. As a result, shots taken in quick succession can cause it to overheat. When this happens, the camera will not allow you to take any more shots until it cools off. I was shooting in manual flash mode, using the absolute minimum power the flash allows (1/32nd of a second) and I still found it overheating with a reasonable frame rate. On 2 occasions I lost the opportunity for some good images, when I found my subject perfectly framed, yet the camera would not fire.
This Painted Elysia shot below is a great example. I spent 20 minutes with this little guy, who was about 1 centimeter long. They key to success (for me anyway) with shots like this is taking lots of them to ensure your razor thin depth of field is in the right spot. I probably took hundreds of shots as he crawled up and down coral on the reef. At one point, I found him in the perfect spot, but I couldn't get the camera to fire - the flash needed to cool off.
However, this flash issue is easily resolved using an optical trigger. The solution for me was to remove the optical flash trigger from another housing I had on loan, and install it into this NA-Z50 housing. The change took about 3 minutes to do, and worked perfectly.
An optical trigger isn't a necessity. In fact I've shot mostly without one, and with sensible interval between your shots, it will be just fine. That said, any serous shooter will be well advised to get one. When you need to shoot a lot of shots of a subject to get that perfect photo, even at a reasonable frame rate, the internal flash will overheat and prevent more exposures.
The ISO adjustment
I had originally written that changing the ISO on this camera when it's in the housing was very awkward. And it was, if you use the stock camera settings which required you to hold the ISO button while you moved the rear command dial. However as Kevin Palmer of Reef Photo pointed out to me, that this issue can be mitigated with a camera setting. In the custom settings menu > controls > 'Release button to use dial' should be set to "on." When this is enabled the ISO button becomes a toggle control, rather than a momentary on control, making ISO changes far easier underwater.
Shutter sync speed and HSS
I had originally written about the limitation of the maximum shutter speed when using a strobe is 1/200th of a second. A bit too slow for my taste, and I had said I wished it could go up to 1/250th or 1/320th like some other cameras do. Even use of the flash trigger board in manual mode had kept the shutter speed firmly capped at 1/200.
When I wrote this, it was questioned, as most Nikon cameras will allow higher shutter speeds when using an electronically triggered manual flash. That's been my experience as well, however using both 5-pin TTL and 2-pin manual hotshoes would limit the shutter speed to 1/200th.
After some research I discovered there is a setting in the camera, custom settings menu > bracketing/flash > e1 - Flash sync speed, that allows for a mode called Auto FP. According to the Z50 manual, use of Auto FP "enables auto FP high-speed sync with compatible flash units" and "shutter speeds as fast as 1/4000 can be selected by the camera or by the user." After some though in the matter, I had a hypothesis that using the Inon Z330's TTL mode, I might be able to use the Nauticam Optical Trigger to get High Speed Sync to work. I set up a quick bench test, and low and behold it worked! The shots below are my bench test photos, using the optical trigger, and a single Inon Z330, with shutter speeds at 1/500th, 1/800th, and 1/1250th respectively. For those interested, I've left the metadata in the photos for you to examine.
Unfortunately, I shot my mouth off too quickly. I began touting this was a feature shooters could use, and someone asked me how I managed to pull this off. Sadly my results seemed to be a fluke, Although sometimes the strobe will sync correctly, mostly it will not. During further test shots, I was able to make it work on perhaps 1 out of 20 shots, although I'm still unclear why it worked fine on my first 5 test photos. There are optical flash triggers and underwater strobes which are marketed to reliably shoot high speed sync, however since I don't have either of these, I can't write about how it works.
For now, the takeaway is if you're shooting this system with traditional underwater strobes, you're stuck with a maximum 1/200th of a second shutter speed. I can make this work for almost all scenarios but there are times I wish I could go a bit higher.
Custom white balance
On this camera, like all Nikon cameras, the custom white balance feature is horrible. The process of assigning what Nikon calls 'Preset Manual' or copying white balance from a photograph is long, complex and just doesn't work well. Even when you perform the operation correctly, the end result for underwater use just isn't good. Canon has Nikon completely beat in this regard. Fortunately this is only required if you're trying to shoot ambient light video with a custom white balance. For images shot in RAW, it isn't really a problem.
My own personal benchmark of any camera system boils down to this: is it easy to operate and can you get good results? The answer to both these questions is yes.
I really like this camera, and would confidently recommend this setup. It’s compact and lightweight, versatile, and yields great images and video. The wet lenses yield great quality images - something I would not have dreamed of years ago. They also allow for the underwater photographer's Holy Grail - the ability to do both macro and wide angle on the same dive.
The setup as I tested it (less strobes and arms) would retail for around $7,500, which is expensive, however I did have a few luxury accessories like the optical trigger and 45 viewfinder. Those looking to keep this more affordable can forgo the viewfinder, trigger, and CMC-1 lens, bringing the cost down to around $5,500. Something that really makes it worth considering.
A comparable equipped DSLR rig would in my rough estimation cost $2,000 more, and not have the same versatility these wet lenses offer. In addition, the more compact nature of this setup will make it travel easier than its big brother SLR setups.
The electronic viewfinder changes the game for me when it comes to macro photography. The downside compared to a SLR? Well I really didn't find one. I did find the focus difficult on macro and super macro, and the loss of a manual focus mechanism is somewhat frustrating, but certainly not a deal breaker for me. I was still able to get great macro shots using this setup in the limited time I played with it. I imagine when I try again with a focus light, I will have better luck. The other minor gripes I've listed were for the benefit of the reader, and are things easily addressed.
For those looking to upgrade from a point and shoot, I can confidently recommend this camera, housing and configuration. What about for DSLR shooters? It may seem like moving from a SLR camera to a mirrorless is a step down. However speaking purely from an underwater perspective, it isn't. My image quality overall has substantially improved with this setup, and that's really what matters at the end of the day.
My opinion is this is completely worth making the switch, and as a matter of fact, I plan to do exactly that. If I were not a Canon shooter with a large assortment of lenses and speedlights, I would be buying this very setup. As soon as Canon releases an equivalent system (hopefully the M5 mark II?) I will be looking at that or a Canon R5.
If I owned Nikon glass? I would without hesitation buy this.
I'll leave you with some more of the shots I've taken with this setup: