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Part 1 Diving with the Sony Alpha-6000 – Camera and Housing
What's a Macro Guy to Do?

By Bill Van Antwerp, President, LA Underwater Photo Society
Introduction: We just completed a 2-week trip to PNG followed by a week in Bali. Before the trip, I changed systems (again) and brought only the Sony alpha-6000 camera, the Zeiss 50 macro lens and a brand new Nauticam Housing for the camera. For strobes I brought along a couple of Inon S2000s and a couple of Sea & Sea YS-D1.

The Camera: Before we get to the diving and underwater use, lets take a look at the camera. The Alpha 6000 is quite small; here is a comparison of the A-6000 to the Olympus OM-D E-M1.  The sensor size of the Sony is much larger, it is 23.5 x 15.6 mm while the Olympus is 17.3 x 13 mm; the Sony is 24 megapixels while the Olympus is 16.
Sony Alpha 6000 vs. Olympus OM-D E-M1
Sony Alpha 6000 vs. Olympus OM-D E-M1 (top)
Since lenses need to be designed to cover a specific sensor size, the macro lenses for APS-C sensors are typically larger than those for micro 4/3 sensors.
Zeiss 50 mm macro lens vs. Olympus 60 mm macro lens
Since most of our underwater photographs are taken using strobes, it is important to understand the flash system of the camera. The A-6000 has a tiny built in strobe and it can fire only in fill flash (TTL) mode with no manual mode possible.

How well does TTL work on the camera?

Not terribly well in my opinion. These were shot with the following parameters:
Camera in manual mode, shutter speed at 1/160 second, the max sync speed, internal flash set to fill mode, center point focus and center point metering, and the camera lens approximately 1 foot from the subject. The flash is rated with a guide number of 20 feet so at a 1 foot distance f/20 should be perfectly exposed and here you can see that even f/14 is underexposed. The exposures at f/5.6 to f/11 are fine but at higher and lower exposures the camera struggles. 

This brings me to some of the things I really like about the camera and things that I think are major limitations.

  1. The camera is quite small, very easy to use and the menu system is much simpler than say the Olympus cameras. 
  2. The large sensor can lead to beautiful photographs when coupled with the right lenses.  Native ISO of 100 is also great, really gorgeous and very low noise shots. 
  3. The Zeiss lens is quite sharp, with beautiful bokeh and great color rendition. 
  1. There is no manual flash mode, only fill/TTL. This often leads (after 5 shots or so) to ridiculously long cycle time for the internal flash to fire. It also significantly eats into battery life.
  2. The camera has a maximum flash sync speed of only 1/160 second. This is far too slow for serious wide-angle shots, particularly sunballs and makes it hard to reduce ambient light and get black backgrounds.
  3. The Zeiss lens while quite nice and quite sharp is rather slow to focus and hunts a lot, and the camera will fire the shutter with nothing apparently in focus. This leads to quite a few missed shots and quite a few throw away shots with nothing in the frame in focus.
Nauticam A6000
The HousingThe Nauticam housing for the Sony A-6000 is very much like any of the micro 4/3 housings from Nauticam.  The housing is black anodized aluminum that fits the camera like a glove and the camera mounts inside the housing with a mounting plate that securely locks in place. Unlike the NA-EM1 Nauticam housing with integral handles, the A6000 housing uses on of the Nauticam tray systems with no handle stabilization. I used a Flexitray with two handles with the system. Since I set up my system to have quite a bit of flotation, I have set it up as shown below.

My System
The system is shown here the way that I dove it most frequently with 2 Inon strobes on very short arms and a focus light attached to the body. Occasionally I shot it with two Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes, which are a bit larger and quite a bit more powerful. I always used the housing with the vacuum system installed; it is something that everyone should use for every housing. The vacuum system from Nauticam is quite nice, easy to use, and once the vacuum is pumped down it held for at least 24 hours, so I could set the camera up the night before an early dive. The port system for the housing is great, with positive locking assured if you can close the port latch.



A New Contender:
Sea & Sea Enters the Mirrorless Market

Sea & Sea has been busily redesigning and re-inventing their product MDX offerings to be more competitive. The first of these was the MDX-RX100 compact housing that was released last spring. Now they've released the first of their new mirrorless line, the MDX-A6000.
Sea & Sea has done their homework and the housing is easy to hold and use, with larger dials and labeled controls. It should be a little easier to use than the Nauticam version in some ways. Sea & Sea has used the same sort of locking lever and internal bayonet mount that Nauticam pioneered (rumor has it that it was licensed from them).
The housing is more angular with unusual mounting options directly on the housing for base-to-ball mounts, which may/may not be useful - a tray is the best idea to spread your arms and strobes. But the angular shape allows for the video button and the zoom control to be spread out so that your hand doesn't accidentally hit it while going for the the AF button or rear dial - one of Bill's chief complaints above. This results in a housing that should be much easier to use with gloves.
Other differences include the Vacuum leak detection system on the Nauticam. Sea & Sea has a leak detector as an option (and it's not cheap).
Initially Sea & Sea only has two ports as well, Nauticam has a complete selection for all the Sony lenses, but in the coming months more port and gear options will be forthcoming.
Consumers are the winner here, more selection and competition should spur better design and pricing.
How well does the housing work? The Nauticam housing works quite well with a few minor and a couple of major issues.  The camera goes in the housing with a satisfying feel, a nice click and it is seated firmly.  The two major issues I have with the housing are the placement of the AEL button, which is inboard of the record button. I am a big believer in using AEL for composition but with this housing it is a pain since I kept turning on the recording and this was in tropical waters with no gloves. At home in California in dry-gloves this will be virtually impossible.

The second complaint is that threaded port for the ball mount on the top of the housing is not keyed as it is on some other Nauticam housing which means that the focus light spins more or less freely even when the ball mount is tightened as much as possible by hand. Having to use a tool to tighten and remove a ball mount is not an elegant solution, keying the threaded hole works quite well.

I have a few minor complaints about the housing. The first is aimed at some of the materials used in construction of the system. Like with many other Nauticam products, rusting of stainless steel components is a problem. On my Flexitray, the screws holding the handles to the base are severely rusted. One other minor issue is that the handles on the system are quite flexible; unlike the more "professional" Nauticam micro 4/3 housings that have integrated handle braces, this one is quite bendy.  Finally, while there is a button to raise the camera flash after loading in the housing, about half the time it doesn't work properly with the flash sticking on the plastic plate of the flash ports. I learned this the hard way on several dives where I had one working strobe on the left side of the housing and with no right side strobe. I changed cords, and did a lot of diagnostics underwater instead of taking pictures but eventually figured it out. If you use the system make sure that you put the camera in the housing, then raise the flash and make sure it is seated properly before closing the back.
The system as configured using dual strobes in TTL mode show almost the exact same pattern of exposure as the native system with both Inon and Sea & Sea strobes, with underexposure at the small apertures that one typically uses for macro photography. After a few dives with TTL, I switched the strobes to manual and ignoring the pre-flash was able to get quite nice exposures on most subjects.  I will take a look at the underwater performance in the second part of this review.

Conclusions on the system – Overall I think the system works quite well with a few limitations. The camera is very nice, very ergonomic and the lens is capable of stunning photographs. The housing is small, very ergonomic (with the exception of the AEL button) and I had no issues with performance of the system.  The major quibbles I have are with some of the choices that Sony has made with the camera; no manual flash mode, and a sync speed of only 1/160 second. The Zeiss lens creates beautiful images, but even with a 1200-lumen focus light was a bit slow to focus. Once focus was achieved though, the pictures I think were amazing. This is a great system for shooting macro subjects and when coupled with the Nauticam SMC, super-macro with the system can be fantastic.  Getting black backgrounds at 1/160th shutter speed can be challenging but I would recommend this for the macro heads out there.

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