Before this review, I dove a total of 4 Nauticam housings, including hundreds of hours spent using the D500 and D810 housings underwater. The things I liked most about them were:
- Ergonomics: handling, controls layout, ease of swapping ports
- The Nauticam vacuum check system
- Robustness: both the NA-D500 and NA-D810 have taken a fair amount of bashing, as I had to crawl on rocks to exit from some of Sydney’s dive sites, more often than I like to admit.
I tried my best to keep my loaned NA-Z9 away from the said rocks, so I can’t comment on its long-term robustness, but this housing felt as sturdy as all the Nauticam beasts I have previously dived with. Interestingly, the manual of my D500 housing recommended servicing it every 2 years / 200 dives, whereas the recommendation for the NA-Z9 housing is a longer 3 years / 500 dives surface interval.
The Nauticam vaccuum check is an excellent system, but it isn’t exactly news, so I’ll focus on the ergonomics of the new housing. Before that though, let’s have a word about the form factor and weight of the Nauticam NA-Z9 housing.
As a full-size pro-body with an integrated grip, the Z9 camera is bigger and heavier than the D810 and D500 DSLRs that I have used the most, but let’s see what that translates into, when you wrap-it up on a housing.
Here is a comparison with my two housings I own:
|Housing external dimensions
|width with handles
|width without handles
|Housing +camera +battery
For the rest of this section, I will discuss the impact on travel-friendliness and use in-the-field, when upgrading from a full frame Nauticam D810 setup to the full frame NA-Z9, since the size/weight of associated ports and lenses will be very similar.
Packing & travel
The width is essentially the same, but the NA-Z9 is 27mm taller and 31mm thicker, than the D810 housing.
Whilst a taller housing is no surprise, I didn’t expect the extra thickness 31mm. The rationale is to make space to fit the FTZ-II adaptor within the housing, which allows re-using the exact same ports that worked with a DSLR, when mounting the same F-mount lens with the Z9. I would have preferred a thinner housing, but I find this trade-off acceptable, as the Z9 housing stills fits in the upper compartment of my Pelican 1637 air case, in the spot where I usually fit my D810 housing.
In terms of baggage allowance, the total penalty ads-up to 1.26 kg.
Diving with a bigger housing
The buoyancy of the NA-Z9 and NA-D810 housings is about the: I needed the same amount of floats, whether I shoot the Z9 with the Z-mount 105mm, or the D810 with the F-mount 105mm macro lens. Meaning, the extra effort when walking towards my favorite shore-diving sites is about 1.26kg.
The other noticeable change is having the lens further from the ground: on the Z9 housing, the N120 port sits 42mm away from the bottom of the housing, compared to a 10mm distance on the D810 housing. On a muck dive or when diving over sand, I knew this 32mm difference would limit my ability to get eye-level with the subject. During the 12 hours of muck-diving I have done with the Z9, I found it annoying only a couple of times. Indeed, this height difference isn’t noticeable when the subject is swimming, hanging on a piece of sponge or rock or whenever the seafloor is sloping down.
All-in-one, If I was travelling to Lembeh for a week of muck diving, I would be very happy to shoot only the Z9 in the NA-Z9 housing.
As usual, Nauticam has designed its housing to ease access to the most useful camera controls, in the form of buttons and levers, positioned within reach from both handles.
Key controls layout
Thanks to an intricate combination of levers and gears, some controls have been relocated quite far from where they sit on the camera. For example, the + and – zoom buttons which are located on the right of the rear LCD screen are accessed via two push buttons, located on the opposite side (near the left handle), which nicely balances the number of push buttons on either side.
The + and – zoom buttons are part of a cluster of four, on the left of the LCD screen, just below the monitor lever, which is where you toggle between EVF and rear LCD.
Another feat is the relocation of the three customizable fn1, fn2 and fn3 buttons: these are located in the front of the Z9, and Nauticam turned them into 3 levers (2 on the left side, 1 on the right).
An intimidating lot of gears and levers are involved in dispatching controls all around the housing. I wouldn’t feel confident enough to self-service such a housing, but in saying that, my previous Nauticam housings have spent over 1000 hours in the water (cumulated) and never had to be sent away for repairs.
Also, I am finding the multi-controller pad makes it easy to quickly navigate through menus or to move around the focus point (AF-C 3D), amongst the hundreds of locations available…
The video switch
This review has been written from an underwater (stills) photography standpoint, and would have been too long if I had done justice to the Z9’s impressive video capabilities.
Besides, I am a primarily as stills photographer: If I see amazing behavior or a short-lived opportunity unfolding before me, my instinct tells me to shoot stills, and it’s usually too late when I think about recording a video clip.
Yet, recording videos with a mirrorless camera is simpler (no need to switch between the viewfinder and the rear LCD), and the Nauticam Z9 housing has made that so easy that I got into the habit of recording small video clips here and there.
The video switch, located just on the right of the 40 degrees mirrorless viewfinder, and the ISO lever, located just behind the video-recording lever.
Concretely, when I see that the subject or scenery would make for an interesting video, I push the video/stills switch from right to left, using my right thumb and without taking my eye away from the EVF. Instantly, the EVF shows me a preview of the exposure, and I will adjust the ISO setting to get the exposure right. Again, I do all this without taking my eyes away from the EVF, as the ISO lever is conveniently located near my left thumb, just behind the… video recording lever! Once I am done and want to return to stills photos, again I keep my eye on the EVF, I flick the video/stills switch in the opposite direction, and here I am, back with my stills photo exposure parameters and ready to fire my strobes.
Hairy frogfish illuminated with continuous lights at night. When I switched to video mode, the preview appeared way too dark. No worries: within seconds I bumped to 12800 ISOs and started recording 4K/60p at 1/125thand f/16. On the last sequence, the front lighting is the focus light of my Retra Flash Pro, through a Retra LSD snoot, at low power. The Z9 certainly copes better with low light than a GoPro!
Make it your own
In the Nikon parlance, “fn” buttons are those meant to be user-defined in terms of their function, and the Z9 has no less than 4 of them! If that’s not enough, the extensive menus let you change the function of several other controls too.
Considering that Nauticam has made all these controls accessible – literally at your fingertips – the levers and buttons of the NA-Z9 can be very much customized to very own liking.
The first day I used the camera, I customized the controls to an extent that felt right, but I kept making adjustments over time. Here are of the customizations I landed with:
- Fn1 lever (right little finger): disables flash, e.g. if I want to shoot a silhouette, check the appearance of my water background.
- Fn2 lever (left ring finger): toggles between FX and DX modes.
- Fn3 lever (left middle finger): enable/disable focus peaking.
The fn2 and fn3 controls are accessed with your left ring and middle fingers, while a chunky knob allows zooming or focus overrides with the left index.
As explained in The Underwater Club’s lesson on housing choices, I consider the ease of swapping lenses as a key criteria in deciding on a housing model, and I’ll conclude the NA-Z9 review on this topic.
Put simply: I don’t like having to open up the main housing door, when my camera still has enough battery and all I need is to quickly swap lenses.
On that note, I am pleased to say the NA-Z9 housing allows an easy swap between F-mount and Z-mount lenses, thanks to 2 lens release buttons located next to the N120 port.
The Z9’s integrated shield protects the expensive 46 MP sensor and reduces my stress level, while the cap is away during a lens-swap.
Z9 review index: