It's always a bit nerve-racking to use new equipment for the first time on a big trip. My stay in Tonga is just over five weeks, and if anything goes wrong, I don't have a lot of options for getting replacement gear.
This time around though, I didn't have much of a choice, as I've just upgraded to Canon 5D Mark II bodies from my trusty Canon 5D cameras.
Canon modified the Mark II bodies from the original 5D just enough that my old housings wouldn't work, so I had to get new ones to go along with the new DSLR cameras (...why can't they take pity on underwater photographers every once in a while?).
I've only been using these housings for a few weeks, and then only for snorkelling and natural light photography (as opposed to diving and taking pictures with strobes), so it's still early days as far as my learning curve with both housings. For what it's worth, here are some of my thoughts at this stage, starting with a couple of general points:
First, if you've been on a trip with me or sent me a question asking "Which housing should I get?", you'll know that I don't make a point of pushing any particular brand, because everyone's needs are different, and there are a number of issues to consider when you invest in a DSLR housing system.
For starters, you should ensure that there's a reliable dealer and authorised service agent near you for any equipment you're considering, as there is a 100% chance that you'll need help at some stage. Even if you know what you're doing, you'll want someone nearby who can perform regular servicing and maintenance for you.
In my case, I have Aquaforum for the Zillion housing, and Scubacam for the Seacam housing. Both shops are knowledgeable and reliable, so I bug them a lot (such a major understatement!) with questions. They have spare parts on hand, and they can help me customise whenever I need something (which is pretty much always).
The fact that I have these two reliable shops to consult plays a big role in why I have the two housings I have now.
Second, I don't believe that there is a perfect system. Over the years, I've used Nexus, Sea & Sea, Subal, and Zillion...and now Seacam. Each brand has its strengths, as well as things that could be improved. I've taken photos that I like with all of them. The key is to find the right combination of features and functionality that suits your needs and budget.
Making sure you research and understand the housings you're considering is probably the best thing you can do before you take the plunge. These days, there's a ready pool of information on websites and internet forums, so all it takes is an investment of time to research.
By "research", I mean reading before you ask questions. Research doesn't mean firing off a barrage of generic, no-thought queries to random people, like: "Which brand is best? Which ports should I get? Which accessories should I buy? Where is the best price? How do I use all the stuff?". If you do that, you probably won't get a meaningful reply, so you won't learn much.
So how are my two housings performing?
Let's start with Zillion, since I've been using Zillion housings for a while. For what I'm doing on this trip...surface photography on snorkel, the Zillion housing performs beautifully. It's light and compact (the housing is made of ABS plastic), which means minimal drag in the water. Even though the housing is light on land, it's slightly negative in the water, because it's shaped to just fit the camera, which means there's not a lot of air in the housing.
I love the results I get when I combine the Zillion 5D Mark II housing with the Pro One dome. The dome is a perfect match for a 15mm fisheye lens, and with a +2 diopter and 6cm of extension tubes, my 17-40mm zoom lens is nice and crisp.
Of course, I've been using Zillion housings for a while, and I provide a lot of feedback to the manufacturer, so many of the features are things that, by definition, work for me.
Seacam housings are new to me. Of course, I've played with other people's Seacam gear, but the 5D Mark II housing is the first Seacam housing I've actually used.
Initial verdict...all the positive feedback I hear from other photographers is well deserved. The housing is about as sturdy and solid as you can get. In fact, it's the most solidly built housing I've ever used. The machining of the gears, levers, buttons, etc. is excellent. All the pieces fit and work together perfectly, showing amazing attention to detail. Accessing all the controls on the camera body is easy.
Something that will probably only make sense to people who've used many diffferent housings...I love the hybrid bayonet/ screw mount for the port. I'm generally wary of bayonet mounts because the only time I've flooded a camera due to my own fault was with a bayonet mount that didn't seat properly. Yet, bayonet mounts ensure that your ports align the same way all the time...which makes life much easier when you have multiple housings and ports and switch back and forth during a trip.
I prefer screw mounts for the security (you can't screw the port in if it's seated improperly), but since every screw-mount port flange varies a bit, you often have to re-align dome shades and other attendant pieces each time you switch ports...a major pain in the rear.
The Seacam housing incorporates a unique solution...a screw mount that locks like a bayonet mount. In other words, you screw the port on, but it locks into place like a bayonet mount, giving you the same alignment each time...the best of both worlds.
I know...you have to be a major underwater photography geek to do cartwheels over something like this, but I would certainly do cartwheels...if I could.
Using two different housings creates some inherent challenges.
For instance, the grips are different on each housing, which means I need to fine-tune the way I hold each one. I know this sounds like a trivial matter, but every split-second counts with fast-action whales, so it took me a few days to adjust.
Also, the Seacam housing with the fisheye port attached is positively buoyant in the water, while the Zillion is somewhat negative. I've learned to fine-tune the timing and speed I use to bring the camera around to my eye for each housing, so I can nail the shots I want with both housings.
The layout and placement of the controls on the two housings are different, so it's taken a while for everything to become second nature. After three weeks or so, however, I can just about manipulate all the main controls on both housings without thinking too much. By the end of this trip, I should have it down cold.
The difference in knobs and such will probably become more of an issue when I'm doing reef and macro photography, as I'll need to access the shutter, aperture and ISO controls more often. I don't anticipate this being a major problem though. It just means I'll have to squeeze a bit more performance from my brain (oh yeah...that'll definitely be an issue).
In summary, I'm extremely happy with both my housing choices for the upgrade to 5D Mark II cameras. Naturally, it's taken some time to "get the feel" of each new housing, but as you can see from my recent posts, I've had no problems getting humpback images.
My next trip after this is also a snorkel-based trip (looking for sperm whales), but after that, I'll have an opportunity to use both housings for reef photography. I'll post more about using the housings then.