Seacam Silver D800/D800E

 
(December 2012)
 

Every underwater photographer knows the elongated black ellipse with the stylized Seacam logo, which resembles a sea-wave. This small ellipse can be found on silver aluminium products of the topmost quality and reliability, which are famous in the world of underwater photography. By saying that the Seacam is a mere status symbol one would do an injustice to many people, who earn their daily bread with it. First and foremost, the Seacam is a reliable tool that never lets down its owner.

I know the Seacam quite well. I'm lucky that I live only about 200 km away from Voitsberg in Austria, the birthplace of Seacam products. I've visited Harald Hordosch, the company's owner and the main constructor of Seacam products, many times. The first time we met was in 1996, before the famous "silver" series ever saw the light of day. On my first visit he introduced me the housing for the Nikon F90 and told me that he's preparing an entirely new product for the new Nikon F5. Already back then he entrusted me his plans for the future line of silver products, which would later became renowned throughout the world.

I almost never purchase Seacam products by mail from Harald. I prefer to jump in my car and drive to him, whenever I need a new product or maintenance. And we always get tangled in an interesting and fascinating discussion. Before I bought my first Seacam housing for the F5, I constructed and built four underwater housings by myself. Therefore, I'm very interested in his work and sometimes we still exchange interesting ideas while talking. Luckily Harald is a very open-minded person and loves to talk about his future projects, even though many others would in his place guard their secrets more carefully.

Seacam is not a factory. Seacam is a workshop and not even a big one as it happens. The series of housings are not big, but they are meticulously handcrafted and one could say that every single housing is made with a lot of love. Harald likes to take care of every detail so he personally supervises the quality of the final Seacam products. For all that, we know that we got a top-notch product, when we buy from Seacam. Unfortunately such an approach to work that guarantees the highest possible quality also has a downside: the Seacam equipment is not a bargain...

 
 

While constructing his products, Harald always thinks about the hard working professional underwater photographer. Everything is suited for everyday intensive use and has been tested multiple times. The housings are very robust and all parts are oversized, so they can cope with daily strains of professional photographers. The back acrylic glass for instance is 17,5 mm thick. How thick is it in housings of other producers? This is the reason, why Seacam housings are not the smallest available on the market. The inner walls are lined with black fibber flocking that absorbs light and soaks up water in the case of a minor leakage in the housing. All controls without an exception are secured with two O-rings. All levers have suitable springs so that they always return to their resting position. The housings are constructed mainly from six basic materials: aluminium, steel, techno polymer, rubber, acrylic glass and optical glass. Each of those materials is carefully chosen and only the highest quality is selected. Despite all of this, Seacam products are exceptionally elegant. Everything is characteristically curved; there are no sharp edges or corners. It seems like the circle and the ellipse are Harald's favourite geometric bodies. Seacam equipment only comes in two colours – silver or black. If we're precise, there are two shades of silver – the colour of galvanized aluminium and high shine silver, the colour of stainless steel. Silver and black are artfully incorporated into the final product and if people say that some cars are more beautiful than others, than we can rightfully say that Seacam housings with their elegant curved lines are one of the most beautiful housings available.

Seacam products are reliable. Truly reliable. I met many photographers with housings made by other producers on my travels and I won't claim that their housings were not functioning well, but too many times I witnessed some small problems. The gear of the lens did not fit the gear of the housing perfectly, because it was to thin. The screw-threads of the port were too fine and when photographers tried mounting the port on the housing they had to be very careful. With Seacam such trouble simply doesn't occur. From time to time a port is difficult to unwind and we need some assistance, but this is not due to a badly made screw thread - usually the culprit is not enough greased O-ring, when the port is mounted on the housing for some days in a row.

I know a photographer, whose Seacam housing together with his Seacam strobes fell from 1,3 meters to a stone floor. One of the strobes fell directly on a pointy rock. The aluminium in the strobe's body was heavily indented, but it did not get pierced. The strobe still worked and he is still using it up to this day without the need of service at Seacam. The housing fell on the floor with the bottom part first and opened up. The only thing that broke were two plastic cradles, which ensure that both halves of the housing fit together when we close it. He replaced both plastic pieces by himself (without sending the housing to Austria) and the housing, which was not hurt or bent in any other place, continues to work faultlessly. How many other housings would survive such a "test"?

 
 

I'd like to use this opportunity to write about my personal experience with Seacam products.

I often go to Croatia for a three weeks diving adventure with my five meter inflatable boat to a "Robinson" island, where there is no fresh water and electricity. The island is about 15 miles away from the closest point of civilization and it offers amazing diving experiences in the south Adriatic Sea. I usually carry with me my small Bauer compressor, fuel, water, food, diving gear, photography gear, solar cells to charge my photo gear and laptop and basic camping equipment. I get fresh water to clean my housing from the only resident of the island, a shepherd, and keep it in a small plastic barrel throughout my entire three-week stay. Usually I spend the entire day on the boat, so I can only clean my housing with fresh water in the evening. Nevertheless, my Seacam equipment is still working flawlessly and after years and years of intensive use my Seacam housings don't show any traces of corrosion.

Seacam equipment is a long-term investment. Unfortunately, we are forced to change it and buy a new one because of the technological advancement of cameras, not because the housing would wear out. My F5 housing was still fully functional after eight years of intensive use, but the technological advancement forced me to start using digital technology and consequently I had to purchase a new Seacam housing as well. I could have easily used the D2X housing for years to go, since these housings are not like old cars, where parts start to break down the older it gets. After six years of intensive usage it still works like new, only on the outer surface we can see traces of use. Maybe I will slowly have to change the glass of my macro port, which is more than 14 years old (I have it since my F5 times). Because the technology of my D2X camera is out-of-date I had to buy a new camera and that is the only reason why I had to buy a new housing as well.

My first Seacam housing for the F5 came from the very first series of the new silver housings and at the beginning I had some problems with corrosion on the surface - white spots started to appear. Harald quickly solved this problem with a second protection layer for the housing and since then I had no problems whatsoever with the housing.

Since 2006 I've been using my second Seacam housing for the Nikon D2X. I made approximately 1100 working dives with the D2X housing in the past six years (that means about 1200 diving hours) and took about 70.000 shots. I've been using it in all possible underwater environments, including in caves and under the ice. However, 99% of my dives are in the ocean, two thirds of that happens in Croatia in the Adriatic Sea, where I used the housing many times for deep technical dives. It happens very often that producers mark the maximum working depth in a quite optimistic matter (probably thinking: "Oh, recreative divers don't go deeper than 40 m anyway"), but the Seacam label "Tested -80 m" on the other hand is very conservative. My deepest dive with the Seacam housing until now was 90 m, but Harald says that it should endure even 120 m without any problems. And I trust him!

 
 
 
The photo above shows my Seacam D2X housing after six years of intensive use.
 
 
 

The details on the photos above show traces of usage, but considering that this housing was used in more than 1100 dives this is minimal. The only traces of corrosion can be spotted below the stainless steel clip. Let me emphasize again, that my housing remained salty all day long many times and was rinsed in fresh water only in the evening. The seawater gathered under the clip and together with two different metals (aluminium and steel) it created a galvanic cell, which caused this minimal corrosion. The housing corners are slightly rubbed off, but there is no trace of corrosion. The most visible traces of usage can be seen on the plastic parts of the housing.

 
 

The axis of the housing's control looks almost like new even after almost six years after intensive usage. In this entire time I've only sent the housing once to Harald for servicing (approximately about two years after purchase).

After six years I had to say farewell to my old and technologically out-dated D2X and with great joy I bought my new camera, the D800. The moment I got the new camera, I emailed Harald and asked him to reserve me a housing for it, when the new model will be available. At that time Harald was very busy constructing a housing for the D4 to be ready for London's Summer Olympics, so I had to wait several months before the housing for my new D800 was finally launched.

Only a few days before my five weeks trip to Egypt and Indonesia, Harald sent me a message that my housing was ready. Together with the new housing I also bought the newest viewfinder S10 and the Superdome (SD), specifically the Superdeep version of the SD dome port. I've decided for the SD based on my previous tests, which are described here. Harald says that the SD dome port is more sensitive to pressure than other parts of their equipment, because of its big flat surface and thus should really not be used deeper than 80 m. This is the reason, why I chose the "Superdeep" version, which is tested up to 160 m.

 
 

Harald Hordosch with the newest product of his line: Seacam Silver D800/D800E

 
 
 

The raw product, precision milled on a CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machine from one piece of aluminium.

When I visited Harald he showed me, as usually, his production process for a new housing – for a long time already his products are not casted, but rather milled from a single piece of aluminium. I brought my new camera with me and Harald instructed me very detailed on how to insert the camera into the new housing and how to use it in the most effective way.

 
 

We already got used to the fact that camera producers surprise us with new and improved products, but the underwater housing is basically an aluminium box, which has to seal the camera well and transmit the commands from the photographer to the camera's buttons – surely, nothing new can be discovered here, or so I thought. The transition from the housing for the F5 to that for the D2X was truly a big step forward – a digital camera has much more buttons that are relevant to the photographer compared to an old film camera. So the D2X housing was definitely much more complex than that for the F5, and it had almost triple the amount of controls. But what about the D800 housing? Does the D800 even have more buttons than the D2X? When I first held the new D800 housing in my hands I saw how very wrong I was. What I experienced was an enormous progress made by Seacam in the last few years.

 
 
 
 
 
 

I immediately noticed some of the new features on the new housing:

  • new closing system
  • newly made controls to the camera's buttons, which are guided towards the edge of the housing by levers, which makes them easier to reach by hand
  • some newly designed controls (i.e. shutter release)
  • new water alarm
  • two rubber wheels with springs to press better on the camera
  • coaxial controls to some buttons on the camera

In addition to that, Seacam made a completely new and smaller viewfinder S10, and all their ports now feature an additional O-ring for extra safety.

 
 

The S180 (left) and S10 (right) viewfinders.

 
 
 

The new S10 viewfinder is much smaller compared to the old S180, but surprisingly, the picture in the viewfinder is not smaller than it used to be and it's visible from the same comfortable distance, just like with the S180 viewfinder. In addition to the smaller size and weight, the new S10 viewfinder has two other improved key features: firstly, the picture is viewed under the angle of 10°. This slight deviation from the optic axis is small enough not to disturb in vertical (portrait) pictures, yet in macro photography it helps to make the viewing more comfortable.

 
 

The second and in my opinion more important improved feature is the fact, that the new viewfinder does not cover the photo preview on the camera's monitor at all, while the old viewfinders S180 and S45 covered a substantial part of the monitor. By using the new viewfinder the photographer can comfortably see the entire monitor even with cameras that have a lower profile, like the D800. The viewfinder can be mounted and unmounted in seconds without the need to use any tools.

 
 
 
 
 

The housing with a macro port for the 60 mm lens.

 
 
 
 
 

Housing with the big Superdome (SD) dome port. The SD dome port is truly big and the housing is practically hidden behind it. Despite the big air balloon in it, I was afraid that it would be too heavy because of its thicker back wall (the Superdeep version). Under water I discovered that it's actually very well balanced and not too heavy at all. On the contrary, I started thinking that the normal version of the SD might have even been to light, so the Superdeep version was probably a better choice anyway. While shooting (when the housing is without strobes) the dome port causes the housing to turn slightly upwards, but not so much that our wrist would hurt because of it. On the other hand, this can be a good thing as well - when we put the housing on the rocky sea floor we don't need to fear it would turn glass-down.

The new closing system of the housing is the first thing I've noticed among the improvements. The old stainless-steel clips are gone and Seacam developed a new system with two handles (Titanium SAFETY LOCK fastening system), which is simpler and most of all safer for use. When I say "safer" I'm not just referring to the photographer's fingers, which could get hurt if catches with the clips with strong springs while closing the housing, I also believe it's safer for the camera too.

 
 
 

The new handles are constructed in a way that it's impossible they would open up under water and it's not possible to close the housing in the unlikely case that the main O-ring would jump out of its groove. With the old system of clips with very strong springs this was theoretically possible, and if it happened it would cause the camera to drown.

The housing has controls that lead to the majority of buttons and commands of the camera. It will be simpler if I list the buttons that do not have controls leading to them:

  • Depth-of-field preview button on the front side of the camera
  • Fn (function) button on the front side of the camera
  • AE-L / AF-L button
  • Dioptre adjustment control
  • Eyepiece shutter lever
  • Release mode dial (S, CL, CH,...)

From all the buttons listed above, the underwater photographer might miss only the Fn (function) button and the AE-L / AF-L button.

Seacam D800 is one of the housings, which enables also metering selector (spot, centre-weighted or matrix) on the camera. Because the button of the metering selector is so close to the viewfinder, Harald had to solve this problem with the help of two gears.
 
 

On the left back-side of the housing the buttons are arranged in the same way as on the camera:

  • Menu button
  • Protect / Picture Control
  • Playback zoom in button (+)
  • Playback zoom out button (-) and Thumbnails
  • (OK) button

The buttons are arranged in a zigzag pattern so that the distance between them is bigger and it's easier to access them with thick or dry gloves.

On the right back-side of the housing the following buttons can be found from top to bottom:

  • Metering selector (spot, central or matrix)
  • (Enter) button
  • "Live view" button
  • Live view selector (camera or video)
  • "Info" button
  • The multi selector ("Joystick") is located on the extreme right side of the housing, so that the buttons are easier to access with the right thumb even while holding the housing's handle with the same hand. These buttons are spread in a zigzag pattern as well and separated enough from each other so we can easily access them with thick or dry gloves. The button distribution is logical and intuitive.
 
 

The left top-side of the housing is where we'll find the four main controllers in the same positions like on the camera (except shooting mode: S, CL, CH...):

  • "Qual" button (Image quality)
  • White balance (WB)
  • Bracketing
  • ISO sensitivity
  • On the back part of the left upper side of the housing there is also a small combined lever, which is typical for Seacam housings for Nikon cameras: by pushing it in, we activate playback button, by pulling it out, we delete the current photo.

The second combined lever is on the right upper side and it's also a standard on Seacam's Nikon housings. By pushing it back, we press the exposure mode control button (M, A, S, P) on the camera, by pushing it front, we press the exposure compensation button (+/- correction factors).

The power switch is located on the front of the right upper edge.

 
 

On the back of the upper right side of the housing we can find the wheel for the main command dial (in manual exposure mode the shutter speed can be controlled with this wheel). Right beside it is the lever to activate the AF-ON button.

In the front side of the camera on the right the shutter-release button is located, which has a double function. By pressing it towards (like the trigger of a gun), we release the shutter of the camera and take a shot. By pushing it forward, the movie-record button is pressed (over the coaxial cable). The first push forward starts the recording and the second one stops it.

Above the shutter-release button the right (additional) flash socket for the cable for the second strobe is located.

Beneath the shutter-release button a wheel, that turns the sub-command dial on the camera, is located (in manual exposure mode, this is the wheel to change f-stop values).

Even lower than that we can find an additional hole (covered with a plastic lid) for the third socket, which can be custom built-in for the remote control.

 
 

The left side of the housing features the following (from top to bottom):

  • The left (main) socket for the cable of the first (main) strobe
  • Double-function lever. By pushing it up, we press the lens release button. This function is very welcomed, since this button is often hard to reach or even unreachable (if the lens has a big diameter or a focusing/zoom wheel). The D2X housing didn't have this feature, so a special stick was necessary to press this button. By pushing the lever down, over the coaxial cable, the AF-mode button is pressed (AF-S, AF-C and different selections of specific AF sensors).
  • Under this lever we can find one bellow the other two bigger wheels, which turn two gears inside the housing. We can use them to zoom, manual focus or switching between A-M on older macro lenses.
  • A small lever is located on the bottom, which we can use to switch between automatic and manual focusing (Focus-mode selector).
 
 

The inner front side of the housing.

 
 

Transmissions on the front left side of the housing.

 
 

Transmissions on the front right side of the housing (slide with the mouse over the right photo). Harald told me once that no two cameras are completely the same, because of their rubber parts. This has caused him many problems in fine-tuning the housings, and lately he's solving the problem very elegantly by installing springs which press the driving wheels towards the camera.

 
 

The AF mode selection system (left) and the system for movie recording (right). Slide with the mouse over the photos!

 
 

Control leading to the exposure mode button (M, A, S, P) and to the exposure compensation button (+/- correction factors). Slide with the mouse over the photos!

 
 

The inner back side of the housing.

 
 

Controls leading to buttons on the left upper side of the camera ("Qual" button (Image quality), White balance (WB), Bracketing and ISO sensitivity).

 
 

Control leading to buttons for Playback and Delete (left). The picture on the right shows controls leading to buttons on the back left edge of the camera (Menu button, Protect / Picture Control, Playback zoom in button (+), Playback zoom out button (-) and "Ok" button).

 
 

The picture on the left shows the new alarm device, signalling a water-leakage with sound and a LED light (visible in the upper window). The picture on the right shows the complex right side on the back wall in the housing.

 
 

Controls leading to the multi selector.

 
 

Control leading to the wheel, which turns the main command dial on the camera (it has springs to press better on the camera), control leading to the AF-ON button and the geared transmission to the metering selector (spot, central or matrix).

 
 
 

Camera in the housing.

The housing has a very ergonomic design, despite not being among the smallest models on the market. The handling is very easy and intuitive. Following are some photos, which show how the housing fits even in smaller, female hands.

 
 
 

Pressing the shutter-release button (left) and f-stop control (right).

 
 

Shutter speed control.

 
 

Using the multi selector.

 
 

Using the shutter speed control and the shutter-release button at the same time. On Seacam housings, the back-side wheel is slightly easier to turn with a thumb than the frontal one, which is usually turned with the index or middle finger. Because the f-stop value is more important in underwater photography than the shutter speed, some underwater photographers decide to switch the functions of the front and back wheel of the camera in the user settings menu. This way they can control the f-stop value with their thumb on the back wheel.

 
 

Using buttons on the back left edge of the camera.

 
 

Zooming or manual focusing.

I have only one comment about the D800 Seacam housing or rather a warning for its users: the lever for the focus-mode selector, which is locater bottom left, on the front side, moves quite easily. Unfortunately its configuration is that the camera is automatically focusing when the lever is turned down. It happens quite often that the lever moves into the upper position (manual focus) when we for instance hit the sea floor or rock with the housing. One time (right at the beginning, when I was just getting to know the housing) the lever accidentally turned the camera to manual focus. I was shooting with a fisheye lens and did not notice that the photos were (slightly) unsharp. Only after transferring the photos to the computer I saw that most of them were soft (except the ones, where the main subject was about 30 cm away from the lens). Since then I always keep on checking with my left hand if the lever is in the right position for autofocus (down).

Despite this minor flaw I can say without a single doubt that the new Seacam housing is a technical masterpiece. When I showed it to a fellow photographer, who is still using the D200 with a Seacam housing she told me: "I thought the D200 housing is perfect, but now I see that improvements are still possible." Just like the D800 is in my opinion currently the best Nikon camera for underwater photographers, the Seacam Silver D800/D800E housing is probably the best housing available for it on the market.

In conclusion I would like to emphasize again, that I bought my Seacam housing (and paid for it), so this review is not intended to express thanks for gift/sponsor housing or anything of that sort. This review is based strictly on my personal opinion about the product.