I’ve been able to use my Sony A7rIII camera underwater in the Galapagos, Madagascar and Tanzania since September. I’ve got opinions. And a blog. So here we are.
The camera works as a system with my Nauticam NA-A7RIII housing, so I’ll add notes on all the various components.
This is my full setup:
- Sony A7rIII camera.
- Spare Sony battery.
- Nauticam NA-A7RIII housing.
- Nauticam M16 vacuum valve II. Best thing ever. Definitely get this. Allows you to check that the housing is properly sealed.
- 100 mm Zen fisheye dome port on Nauticam 120-100 port adapter. The Canon housings have a 120 mm port opening, while the Sony has 100 mm, so the adapter is required to use the Canon fisheye lens (below).
- Canon 8-15 mm fisheye lens on a Metabones V adapter. Again, to use the Canon lens on the Sony camera, an adapter is needed here too. You need to unscrew the tripod mount on the Metabones adapter before it’ll fit in the housing.
- Nauticam C815-Z zoom gear for the Canon fisheye. This isn’t required, unless you’re planning to use the full circular (8 mm) fisheye – I just leave the lens on 15 mm.
- Nauticam N100 macro port 105 for the Sony 90 mm macro lens.
- Sony 90 mm macro lens.
- Nauticam SE90-F focus gear for the Sony 90 mm macro lens. This is helpful for fine manual focus. I’m not sure that it’s needed for normal macro work, as you can combine auto- and manual focus to good effect – see details below – but it’s necessary for full manual focus, such as when I’m shooting fluorescence. You’d probably need it for supermacro work too.
- Nauticam M14 Nikonos 5-pin bulkhead with universal hotshoe connection and Sea & Sea Dual Nikonos Sync Cable. Urgh. These cables and connectors are required to use my YS-D2 strobes with the Sony camera. It’s a significant pain if you’re switching between no-strobe and yes-strobe work regularly, as I am when I’m interspersing snorkelling with diving. The system does work fine; it’s just annoying having to crack open and modify the housing to use the strobes. My previous camera worked with fibre optic cables that attached externally, quickly and easily, and with no need to open the M14 port on the housing. I miss that.
- 2x Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes. The link is to the current, slightly upgraded J version. I like these strobes a lot, but if you’re starting this system from scratch I’d buy strobes that’ll work with fibre optic sync cords – see above. I use the 120° diffusers on the strobes.
- Panasonic Eneloop rechargeable AA batteries and charger. I get through 3+ regular dives with these.
- Ultralight strobe arms (2x each of 8 in and 5 inch arms, I think) and 6x clamps. Another long arm (in place of the 5 inch) would be useful for some wide angle shots, but this works alright.
- 8x Stix Jumbo Floats when set up for macro (with strobes) to get near-neutral buoyancy. I probably need to add a couple more when using the fisheye with strobes.
- 128 GB Sony SDXC UHS-II memory cards (and a USB card reader). You’ll want a UHS-II card to get the full speed from the main card slot (the lower one on the camera). I bought the 128 GB card to minimise the need for card swaps, and I’m glad I did.
Note that I got a discount on the Nauticam equipment via a sponsorship arrangement with Nauticam USA, as they wanted to support our research and conservation activities. I’ve tried not to let that affect this review, but I really like the housing anyway – this is my third Nauticam housing, and they’ve all been brilliant. My previous two, from 2012 and 2015, are fully functional and still in use with my friends Jodi and Clare. If you’re diving regularly, Nauticam are worth the extra cost over polycarbonate housings.
If the list above feels overwhelming, well, that’s how I felt too. It’s best to check your specific needs for underwater photography with the team at Reef Photo. They were super helpful in ensuring I was buying exactly what I needed, and that all the various components would work together.
It’s also important to note that this system is massive overkill for most photographers. It’s also painfully expensive – as in, it’s the largest purchase I’ve ever made. I’ll post some additional recommendations at different (= lower) price points soon.
Why did I choose the Sony A7rIII?
These are both great cameras. However, as I’ve become more serious with my photography, there were a few issues I was running into. The video is poor on the E-M1, and the 16 MP sensor didn’t give me a lot of scope for printing photos large. The micro 4/3 sensors also have some limitations for wildlife photography, especially in poor light, as does the autofocus. The newer E-M1 mkII is an expensive camera, and I couldn’t justify the cost of upgrading (as I’d need a new housing, too) for a marginal gain. The quality telephoto lenses are costly, too.
Meanwhile, the Nikon was an improvement for wildlife, but travelling with two systems takes up too much space. I also liked to compose through my LCD a lot with the Olympus, especially for ground-level shots, and the Nikon doesn’t have a flip-out LCD – and the live view autofocus is hopeless.
Enter Sony. The A7III, a full-frame sensor camera with excellent image quality, video, autofocus and low-light performance, was announced at the same price as the E-M1 mk II.
Friends of mine had tried – and complained about – the 2nd-generation Sony cameras, as they had problems with battery life and over-heating. Those issues have been solved in this third generation.
I was equally captivated by the Nikon D850. The lens selection was far better than that available for Sony cameras, and the autofocus and resolution both sounded fantastic. Weatherproofing and ergonomics were both well-reviewed, too.
If I was just shooting wildlife on land, I’d probably have bought a D850. However, I think mirrorless cameras have some significant advantages for underwater use:
- The housings are smaller, and cheaper. The Nauticam housing for the Nikon D850 retails at $3800, and weighs 3.07 kg. The NA-A7RIII housing (which fits both the A7rIII or A7III cameras) is $$2850, and 2.42 kg.
- Underwater, I prefer to compose via the LCD than the viewfinder. It’s a larger screen, and with the slight tilt it’s easy to see from a low camera angle. Lots of people use a viewfinder attachment for DSLRs, but they’re an expensive add-on, and I often shoot one-handed while freediving and swimming fast. You can use the LCD on a DSLR, too, but they use a completely different (and worse) focusing system.
Note that many people feel differently, with some justification too:
However, I think people coming from using DSLRs underwater are used to a different style of shooting. Not worse, but different. I’ve always used mirrorless, so I’m used to shooting with them.
I thought this was an excellent (general) breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of the two cameras:
Note that, while it was the A7III that got me interested in Sony as a system, obviously I ended up buying the A7rIII. Why? I thought the extra resolution would be useful (24 MP on the A7III vs 42.4 MP on the A7rIII), and it is, although it comes at a premium. Otherwise, they’re very similar cameras.
Is the A7rIII & Nauticam housing a good underwater photography setup?
Hells yes. It’s an excellent system.
My favourite features are:
- The battery life. It’s a big improvement over my past mirrorless cameras. It shows the actual percentage remaining, which is helpful. My previous camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M1, only displayed three bars to indicate battery life. It would die immediately after dropping to two bars. The Sony is far, far better. I can easily get through three dives, or several days of whale sharking, with minimal neuroses.
- The sensor is incredible. The resolution is amazing, as is the dynamic range. The high ISO performance is a vast improvement too.
- I really like using focus peaking for macro.
- The housing is just generally fantastic. Ergonomics are great.
- There’s easy access to the video function, which is really nice sometimes, although I accidentally switch it on sporadically. However, see below for a rant on video settings…
Things I’m less fond of (I’m nitpicking, to some extent, but whatevs):
- The lack of a native fisheye lens. The best option – a Canon 8-15 mm on a Metabones V adapter – adds a lot of bulk and weight to what would otherwise be a compact setup. It’s much larger than my previous Olympus OM-D E-M1 system. To be fair, the extra weight makes freediving a bit easier though. The Canon lens does work fine on the Sony camera – but ensure you’re rocking the 2.0 firmware in the camera to unlock full autofocus functionality.
- The 100 mm Zen port is designed to allow the shade to be removed to enable full circular fisheye shots, which is hypothetically useful, but the external o-ring system on the port is a total pain. I’ve wrapped the whole thing in electrical tape and just treat the system as a regular 15 mm fisheye lens.
- The Sony 90 mm lens is slow to focus, and hunts a lot. It helps to use AF-S in ‘release priority’. Useful video here. I’ve added more detail on how I use this lens below in the macro setup section.
- The inexplicable decision to have the video button adopt the current still settings, rather than my predefined video settings. Why, Sony, why?
- The camera doesn’t work with a flash trigger with my Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes. I have to use a hard-wired setup instead of my much-loved optical sync cables (see above). Total ballache.
- The files are huge. ~80 MB and over for uncompressed raw files, or accept lossy compression for smaller files. Be prepared to upgrade your hard drives. That may seem like an unfair criticism – after all, it’s a high-resolution 42 MP camera – but the lossless compression on the 45 MP Nikon D850 results in ~52 MB files. Keep up, Sony.
- There are two SD card slots, but only one is an SDXC II slot (the lower one). Using the top slot dramatically slows buffer clearance time, so don’t use it except in case of emergency. You’re locked out of some camera functionality while the buffer is processing.
- The camera doesn’t white balance well for underwater wide-angle video, apparently (I haven’t tried yet). There’s a workaround though. See all the details here, and a more detailed tutorial here.
- My strobes don’t sync at 1/250 sec. They’re supposed to. There’s a black band across the top of the photo if I try it. That’s a pain if you want black backgrounds on macro. And who doesn’t love black backgrounds on macro?
Setting up the A7rIII
The downside of a fully-featured, highly customisable camera?
So. Many. Options.
First, to understand the basic setup, check out this video:
Open it on YouTube and you can skip around to the relevant features in the video caption (see clickable timestamps). Very useful.
I’ve got some standard settings, which I’ll get into now, but I’ll customise certain buttons for ease of use if I’m shooting macro or wide angle for consecutive dives. See my notes on that in the relevant setup guides below. This is also my primary wildlife photography camera, so some of the features I want quick access on land to are less useful underwater, but I’ll list them here anyway.
My buttons are setup as follows:
- C1: ‘Silent Shooting’ on / off. I don’t use this underwater, although it could be useful – the strobes won’t fire in silent (electronic shutter) mode, so it should allow you to switch quickly between regular strobe shots and silhouettes (when you don’t want the strobes to fire).
- C2: Full-frame / crop-frame (‘APS-C S35 / Full Frm Sel.’). This is effectively a 1.5x digital zoom (you’re shooting at 18 MP in crop-frame mode). That provides a ‘zoomed-in’ look for macro, or makes my fisheye lens look more like a regular wide angle. Potentially useful, although I haven’t used it yet. You can also just crop the full-frame shot, there’s no difference. However, the 1.5x mode also makes the subject look bigger in the viewfinder, which is cool. I use this feature a lot for wildlife photography, particularly with small birds. Note, though, that when the buffer is emptying you can’t switch back to full-frame – I’ve been caught out by this on several occasions. Also, be careful with this button – there’s no obvious visual indicator that it’s changed to crop mode, and I’ve accidentally switched a couple of times.
- C3: ‘Flash Mode’. I like being able to switch between regular fill-flash and rear-sync flash for low-light motion-blur photos.
- C4: ‘White Balance’. I thought I might want to set custom white balance for video. I haven’t yet, but it’s ready if I do.
Other setup notes:
- I use back-button focus (using the AF-ON button) for macro, but shutter-linked autofocus underwater for wide angle. Makes it easier to shoot one-handed.
- Turn off the ‘setting effect’ when shooting with strobes, as otherwise (for macro especially) the LCD will just look black.
- I’ve mapped the button in the middle of the control dial to autofocus mode.
- Pressing the focus joystick returns the focus point to the central position (‘Focus Standard’).
- I usually have Auto Review set to 2 sec.
- I set the display to just show me basic information. I’ve got zebra stripes set to let me know (on review) if I’ve over-exposed part of the image.
- I’m always shooting in raw.
- If you’ve got the EVF / LCD set to auto switch, which I always do (it’s the default), you don’t have to worry about it underwater. The Nauticam tray holds the LCD at an angle, which automatically turns off the eye-detect-switch. You’ll have to switch manually between the EVF and LCD if you do want to change.
Once you’ve got the buttons customised to your satisfaction, you won’t need to go into the menus often – which is good, as they’re confusing.
Setting up the A7rIII for Wide Angle Photography (Natural Light)
My go-to natural light settings for the A7rIII and Canon 8-15 mm fisheye:
- Manual mode. Normally, for whale sharks, I’ll be using 1/250 sec and f/8. The corners aren’t sharp at f/8 on the 100 mm port, but it’s not a big deal if it’s just water in shot.
- Auto ISO with base 100, max 3200.
- Wide area continuous autofocus. Note that tracking autofocus (which is my usual go-to for wildlife) doesn’t work on this lens with the Metabones.
- Matrix metering.
- High continuous frame rate (8 fps), although I’m not sure full speed is available on adapted lenses.
- Cloudy white balance.
Setting up the A7rIII for Wide Angle Photography (With Strobes)
My go-to settings for the A7rIII and Canon 8-15 mm fisheye, when using Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes:
- Manual mode. My normal starting settings are 1/100 sec and f/10.
- ISO 200. I’ve got this assigned to the AEL button at the moment, although the default position (right side of the control dial) is fine.
- Wide area continuous autofocus. If that’s not focusing on the right area – it’s usually good – you could switch to a single focus point and place it using the joystick, if your subject is stationary-ish.
- Matrix metering.
- Single shot.
- Cloudy white balance.
- Manual strobe power (usually set to 16 initially).
- Fill flash mode, unless I’m using slow shutter speeds, in which case I’ll use rear sync.
You may also want to switch between 42.4 mp “fisheye” and 18.84 mp “wide angle” in camera, as sometimes a fisheye is just too wide. As above, that was a major selling point of the A7rIII over the 24 mp A7III for me, although I haven’t used it underwater at all yet. See the video below for setup details etc, if it sounds like that might be helpful for you:
Setting up the A7rIII for Macro Photography (With Strobes)
My go-to settings for the A7rIII and Sony 90 mm macro, when using Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes:
- Manual mode. My normal starting settings are 1/200 sec and f/18. The max strobe sync speed is supposed to be 1/250 sec, but it doesn’t seem to work properly (I get a black band across the top of the photo). That may be an issue with either the sync cords or the strobes, rather than the camera itself. I haven’t fully tested it yet.
- ISO 100. I’ve assigned this to the AEL button, although I never really change it for macro (except fluoro photography, which is a special case).
- Single point autofocus. (‘Flexible Spot M’). Set ‘release priority’ to speed up initial autofocus lock acquisition in AF-S. See a helpful video here. It’ll also speed it up if you use the focus limiter switch on the lens. I’m currently trialling the DMF focus mode, which combines autofocus with focus peaking for fine adjustment. I move the camera slightly forward or back to achieve exact focus (focus peaking is set to red, and ‘high’). It only works properly with back-button focus (the AF-ON lever is well-placed on the housing), as otherwise the camera will lose focus when you hit the shutter.
- Matrix metering.
- Single shot.
- Cloudy white balance.
- Manual strobe (usually set to 22 initially).
Setting up the A7rIII for Video (Natural Light)
Still working on this! I haven’t shot many videos yet.
- I ummed and ahhed about 1080p / 60 fps vs 4k / 30 fps. 60 fps is useful underwater, as you can slow it down to half-speed to make it look epic (and less jittery, if your buoyancy was a bit off). I’m using 4k at the moment. 4k can also be stabilised during post-production if you’ve got the appropriate software (which I haven’t).
- The crop frame / APS-C mode is supposed to provide (very) slightly nicer video in 4k, as it is sampled from the sensor differently (and betterly).
- Switching to video using the red button on the camera / downward thumb lever on the housing will apply the settings you were using for stills, rather than any specific pre-set video settings. That’s super dumb. Ideally, you’d probably be shooting video in manual or shutter priority mode, with shutter speed set to ~2x your frame rate (i.e. 1/60 sec for 30 fps 4k), maybe manual aperture, and Auto ISO to maintain a constant(ish) exposure. You’ll have to program that to the movie mode or one of the custom modes (on the upper mode dial) and switch to that for optimal video. That’s not a super-fast or one-handed switch, so it’s really annoying if you’re in a hurry. I hope Sony will provide a firmware update to at least give an option to preset the ‘instant video’ settings.
- As I mentioned earlier, the camera doesn’t white balance well for underwater wide-angle video, apparently. There’s a workaround. See all the details here, and a more detailed tutorial on easy colour correction in Lightroom here.
- I’m still working out the best focus mode. Will update when I’ve tested a few options.
Phew. That was a lot of writing. Hope it’s useful!
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