Nikon D300 underwater photography tests with sailfish Sea & Sea released us an early version of their MDX-D300 underwater housing for the Nikon D300 just in time for my sailfish expedition on December 31, 2007. Personally, I was really hoping for their MDX-D3 housing for the Nikon D3, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to put the Nikon D300 and Sea & Sea MDX-D300 through a real-world test. Sailfish were a perfect test subject for the Nikon D300. These fish torpedoes require smooth camera pans and a shutter speeds of 1/250th to capture sharp frames. At such high shutter speeds, I was required to shoot at ISO 400 or greater to maintain apertures of f4 to F5.6. The new low noise CMOS sensor in the Nikon D300 was a perfect match. I brought my higher megapixel Nikon D2x as a backup, but it never got wet. Our expedition was unlucky with the weather, but the Nikon D300 and Sea & Sea MDX-D300 housing performed flawlessly. Sunballs are back! I hesitate to be the boy that cried wolf, but I've never captured sunballs as good as those I've seen with this test dive of the Nikon D300. I promise to post more details on all my sunball tests asap. Camera settings and raw conversion techniques do seem to make a significant difference. More to follow... ISO 400 settings very smooth Blue light is the most challenging tone for all digital capture devices. Deep blue tones typically exhibit the most noise of any color channel. As with topside photographers that shoot at twilight, we underwater photographers are unfortunately pushing the limits of available digital technology. Based on my tests, D300 files shot at ISO 400 are as good or better than ISO 100 shots from the Nikon D200 and D2x. I was thrilled with the smooth gradients at ISO 400 but found noise creeping in at ISO 800. That being said, ISO 800 shots were on par with ISO 400 from previous Nikon cameras. My topside tests with the Nikon D3 have me confident that it will deliver even better high ISO performance. I can't wait to get the D3 wet, but the D300 is clearly a significant leap forward for underwater photography in a low cost, compact Nikon SLR. I'm quite certain I'd never get film scans this clean at ISO 400. Accuracy required with exposure settings As with all digital cameras, you must shoot accurate exposures with the D300 to avoid the noise enhancing effects of brightening a dark image in post-processing. Poor exposure at higher ISO settings is a significant penalty. Use the RGB histogram to push your exposure setting as bright as possible without clipping highlight detail. Avoid sharpening during Raw Conversions Some people choose to apply a small amount (25%) of sharpening during raw conversion. I found that any amount of sharpening was detrimental to the smoothness of blue gradients during raw conversions and would highly recommend only selective (masked) sharpening on the final output file. Warning: watch out for Picture Control Settings The latest series of Nikon and Canon SLR cameras feature Picture Control or Picture Style controls that allow the user to modify sharpening, brightness, contrast, and saturation values. These settings can only be modified in the original manufacturer's raw converter software and are not available in the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in. Users of Adobe Camera Raw might unknowingly apply unwanted sharpening or saturation to their images, thus I recommend disabling these camera settings or using the original raw converter for all raw conversions. Dynamic-area Autofocus was incredibly fast and accurate I made the mistake of locking my focus during significant changes in available light on a few sailfish passes. When shooting at F4 or F5.6, you have little depth of field and it's critical to focus directly on the subject. I was pleasantly surprised with the speed and accuracy of Dynamic-area Autofocus on the D300. I found the default 9-point AF-area set to center zone perfect for sailfish and dolphins as they zipped in and out of shooting range. High-Resolution LCD Monitor and Liveview Shooting The 3-inch high-resolution LCD and zoom in/out buttons made it incredibly easy to verify critical focus while still in the water. After zooming in and scrolling around the frame, simply press the OK button to return to full-frame view. While the screen resolution does allow for critical focus, shooting fast-moving subjects is not a reality for Liveview mode. With Liveview mode, you can frame the first image, but the screen goes black during continuous shooting. Liveview on the D300 will be a popular mode for macro and reefscape underwater photography, but the viewfinder will need to stay on your mask for fast action. MDX-D300 housing assembly, feel, and finish The Sea & Sea MDX-D300 has a very solid feel in the hand and its water weight seems lighter than the Sea & Sea DX-D200 housing. Unlike the previous cast model, the MDX-D300 is milled from a solid block of aluminum and thus has a more rugged finish. It survived 2 weeks of very poor maintenance (freshwater rinses out of a gas can) and cleaned up easily with no signs of corrosion or fatigue. The quick lock camera tray makes camera installation easy, but when using a zoom lens, it's best to wiggle the zoom knob prior to locking down the tray to ensure a precise install. MDX-D300 housing viewfinder options Personally, I find all stock viewfinders on underwater housings to be difficult if not impossible to use for accurate composition and focus verification. The stock viewfinder on the Sea & Sea MDX-D300 is no exception. I received the housing hours before departure and was unable to install the new Inon Straight (180) viewfinder and chose to use the Inon 45 viewfinder instead. The Inon 45 offers a bright crisp image with the largest angle of acceptance, but I found the 45-degree angle (head down) view to be difficult for the fast action of sailfish and dolphins. I brought the stock viewfinder along but determined I'd rather have the large view of the Inon 45. I was able to adapt my technique over the period of a few days and would now like to travel with both the 45 and 180 viewfinders and swap based on my subjects. MDX-D300 housing control ergonomics The Sea & Sea DX-D300 housing features oversized knobs and buttons that are easily controlled with even gloved hands. Essential controls (shutter release, aperture, shutter speed, and focus lock) are easily reached with a large hand, but small-handed users will likely find essential controls more difficult with only one hand supporting the housing. The round and non-indexed knobs for MSC and AF-area Mode require practice to accurately adjust on the fly, but unlike myself, most users don't regularly access these controls. The unique barrel style control for the Sub Command Dial (aperture) is very convenient but is half occluded by the Fisheye Dome Port when not using an extension ring. While I'm quite fond of the smoother controls and ergonomics of the Subal line of underwater housings, I was able to operate all controls on the MDX-D300 quickly within 15 minutes of the first dive. The last Sea & Sea housing I personally shot was their Nikon F5 underwater housing and it was a personal favorite. This new line of MDX housings is a great step back to their previous attention to detail. Hat's off to the new design team at Sea & Sea! Unique features of Function, AE-L/AF-L, and AF-ON Buttons (These comments are quite detailed and directed more to the housing design industry.)New custom settings in the Nikon D3 and D300 allow the user to program the AE-L/AF-L button to the same custom offerings as the Function button. The Function button is located on the front of the camera body (near the lens mount) and is difficult if not impossible to include in a housing design. The AE-L/AF-L and AF-ON buttons are conveniently located on the back of the camera. The MDX-D300 housing offers access to either of these buttons with a very cool pull and lock lever that allows the user to switch from one to another control while underwater. Unfortunately, the MDX-D300 (and other housings) do not allow simultaneous access to both buttons. As underwater photographers, we would really like access to both AE-L/AF-L and AF-ON buttons. The AF-ON button could be used to activate focus and operate similar to what Canon shooters call back focus. Press AF-ON to focus, let go and the focus is locked. With simultaneous access to the AE-L/AF-L button, we could use the custom options to program this button for Flash Off (or numerous other options). With Flash Off, we could temporarily disable strobes for silhouette shots when the subject is too far away for good flash fill. Summary In my humble opinion, the Nikon D300 offers the most significant advance in underwater digital photography since the Nikon D100. It's beyond instant digital feedback and produces images on par and arguably better than results I've ever achieved with 35mm film. When considered at ISO 400, the results are clearly better than scanned slide film. The Sea & Sea MDX-D300 housing might not be perfected in high-end ergonomics, but it is clearly a professional level housing at a great price. If Sea & Sea continues on this MDX design and invests a little more in tactile smoothness, they could easily position themselves as the best housing / best price on the world market.