Text and images by Hergen Spalink
Below is a setup guide for the Nikon Z8 in the Nauticam NA-Z8 housing for use in capturing underwater wide-angle and macro still images based on my personal experience with the camera. Images are from Komodo, the Banda Sea and Raja Ampat in Indonesia. For wide-angle, the optics are either the WACP-C or WWL-C paired with the Nikkor Z 24-50mm f/4-6.3 Lens. Macro is shot using the Nikkor Z MC 105mm f/2,8 VR S Macro lens with the N120 Macro Port 80 and the SMC-1 & 2 for super-macro. Lighting was provided by a set of Sea & Sea YS-D3 Duo strobes for wide-angle and Backscatter MF-2 strobes for macro paired with the OS-1 snoot.
One of the great benefits of the latest mirrorless cameras is the ability to customize so many aspects of their operation and interface. I'm sure others have had success setting their camera up a different way. This setup works well when using the Nauticam NA-Z8 housing but may not work well with other brands that don't allow for the same level of access to camera controls.
Please treat this as a starting point to develop your own "Best Settings Guide" that match your shooting style.
Whaleshark photographed near a bagan in Saleh Bay, Indonesia. Shot using the WWL-C in Auto ISO with highlight protection metering and an EV compensation of '-1'.
The AF-C 3D Tracking is amazing, especially for macro and even super-macro. I exclusively shoot using back-button autofocus by which exclusively holding down the 'AF-ON' button triggers autofocus. On the Z8, as opposed to other mirrorless systems, the camera will not show a review after the shot if you continue to depress the 'AF-ON' button while releasing the shutter. Instead, the camera will only show the review when the 'AF-ON' button is released. This, combined with zero blackout from the electronic shutter, allows for capturing the best moment of action or movement. So you can shoot, review, continue focusing and continue shooting without interruption until the action has passed.
This pair of robust ghost pipefish were gently moving across the bottom feeding. Locking autofocus on the eye and foregoing image review after the first shot by holding down the 'AF-ON' lever, the camera was able to the track the eye so I could focus on aiming the snoot and composition.
Even with subjects that are fairly stationary, not having to worry about the subject being in focus really allows more time for composition and creative lighting. The camera locked onto the eye/face of the goby and held it while I recomposed and lit the subject with the snoot.
To set this up, first remove the triggering of auto-focus from the shutter by navigating to the 'a' 'Focus' menu > 'a6 AF Activation' > 'OFF'. Autofocus will now only be activated when the 'AF-ON' button is depressed.
Set the camera to continuous autofocus by pressing the dedicated 'Focus Mode' button on the front left of the camera/housing and use the main control dial on the rear of the camera to cycle between 'AF-S', 'AF-C', and 'MF' focus modes. Use the sub-command dial to change the focus type area to '3D'. Additional focus menu settings that should be set are disabling the 'a12 Built-in AF-assist illuminator' > 'OFF' as it will not function inside the housing and just drains battery. 'A13 Focus peaking' is incredibly useful for macro and should be set to 'ON'. You can then choose the color you prefer as well as the sensitivity in the same 'a13' menu. I found 'Yellow' for the color and '2 (Standard)' for the 'Focus peaking sensitivity' to be most useful for me. Also, 'a1 AF-C priority selection' should be set to 'Release' so that the cameras will fire even if the subject isn't in focus. The camera features "Subject Detection' whereby the camera attempts to identify certain subject types in the frame and allow you to focus on that subject (and track it when in '3D Tracking'). You can choose which types of subjects it will look for in the 'Photo Shooting Menu' > AF Subject detection options'. I turn them all off, I prefer to place my focus point atop where I want to track and the activate AF.
No-blackout shooting, alongside the ability to block review via 'AF-ON' means choosing the right part of a subjects behavior even easier.
To see the image review after taking a shot, this must be enabled in the 'Playback Menu' > 'Picture review' > 'ON'. To cycle through the different review modes, press the 'Disp' button. To limit which review modes are available, you can choose to enable as many of the options as you like in 'Playback menu' > 'Playback display options'. I usually only use 'None (Picture only)' and 'RGB Histogram'.
A wonderful Nikon feature that is continued in the Z8 is the ability to quickly adjust the focus of the lens manually (if you have the optional focus gear installed) without having to switch the camera into manual focus. Moving the manual focus gear will also cause the focus peaking to engage (if it hasn't occurred during autofocus). Focus peaking can be set in 'a13 Focus Peaking'.
Sea Snake (L): Even with wide-angle subjects, the ability to shoot without blackout lets you continue to shoot a scene without loosing track of your subject. The difference is bigger than you'd think so don't knock it until you've tried it.
Octopus (R): Focus peaking makes determining critical focus even easier, especially important when shooting shallow depth of field images
EVF Setup and Customization:
The EVF of the Z8 is one of the best for underwater use due to it's customizability. The settings below will help alleviate one of the biggest pain-points for underwater shooters using a mirrorless camera, the color of the scene as it appears through the EVF.
Unlike some other mirrorless cameras, the appearance of the scene in the EVF is independent of the metering when in the 'Adjust for ease of viewing' mode. In this mode the camera attempts to enhance the ability to view all elements of the scene (the foreground).
The EVF's other mode 'Show effect of settings' will display the scene as it would look with any exposure and profile settings applied. In high-contrast scenes such as a backlit reef, the foreground may appear too dark to allow for effective composition. Switching between the two modes helps balance judging background exposure and composition and foreground composition. The Z8 makes this process extremely simple and quick. First a note on customizing the 'Adjust for ease of viewing mode' before detailing the setup of switching the viewing modes.
Capturing backlit foreground subjects with a dynamic background such as schools of fusiliers makes being able to quickly switch between viewing modes essential and the Z8 does an exceptional job.
This particular customization is one of my favorite functions of the Z8. With most EVF cameras, the scene will appear overly blue or green as the color temperature cannot be adjusted without also effecting the way a captured image appears on review. With the Z8, the color temperature and tint of the viewfinder can be adjusted manually in the 'Adjust for ease of viewing' mode.
Custmize this in 'd8 View Mode (Photo Lv) > 'Adjust for ease of viewing' > 'Custom' > 'White Balance' with the values below.
PRO TIP: Setting the color temperature to the maximum value of 10,000K as well as full red (A-B value of A5. 5) and full magenta (G-M Value of M5. 5) values allows for a more Optical-Viewfinderesque shooting experience. When switching to the 'Show Effects of Settings' mode, there is no distracting on-screen notification and the switch is extremely fast.
Reef Scene (L): Soft corals and reef fish off Seraua island. By having the colors in the scene appear more lifelike in the EVF allows for easier composition and more DSLResque experience with all the benefits of an EVF.
Reef Scene (R): Soft corals cling to rock beneath the small rock next to Boo Windows in Misool. Instant review helps insure you can adjust your lighting without pulling your eye away from the viewfinder and the scene.
The best way to setup the switching between viewing modes is to assign the record button to switch the modes. So in 'f' Menu > 'Controls' > 'Custom Controls (shooting)' > 'f2 Video Record Button' is assigned to 'View Mode (photo Lv)'. This will then switch between the two modes when the 'Record' button is pressed. As it's on the same thumb lever on the NA-Z8 as the 'AF-ON' button, it's easy to switch quickly when trying to compose a backlit wide-angle subject or to see how your background will look with the current settings.
The best way to maximize the potential of the EVF is to install one of the Nauticam Full Frame Viewfinders. I prefer the angled 40º 0.8:1 version with a lower magnification, allowing me to see the entire EVF corner-to-corner.
The dedicated Monitor/Viewfinder switch button on the cowling of the EVF means not having to use a button that could be customized for another purpose. In order for this to properly function as only switching between manual selection of the viewfinder and manual selection of the monitor, the other modes must be disabled. This can be done in the 'Setup Menu' > 'Limit monitor mode selection' where only 'Viewfinder Only' and 'Monitor Only' should be checked, all other options disabled.
A group of trevally chasing a school baitfish in Misool, Raja Ampat. Being able to see exactly what your background will look like is an incredible feature when shooting dynamic bluewater scenes.
What overlays you see in the Viewfinder can also be customized. By pressing the 'DISP' button, you can cycle through the various modes. You can disable or customize these modes in the 'Custom Settings Menu' > 'd18 Custom viewfinder shooting display' menu. You can set up to four displays that can be cycled through. I prefer to have only two. One features only the 'SIMPLE' and 'DETAIL' shooting info while the other features only the 'SIMPLE' data. I also enable 'd19 High fps viewfinder display' to give a more optical viewfinder feel to the EVF.
Battery and Temperature Settings:
Also, in the settings menu, the 'Auto temperature cutout' should be set to 'HIGH' to prevent the camera from preventing shooting when the camera temperature increases. I also prefer to disable 'Touch controls' as they don't work in the housing anyway and can cause you to accidentally change something when taking the camera out of the housing or installing it. I left the 'Energy Saving (photo mode) turned 'ON' and didn't find it caused to large a delay. I would simply half-press the shutter as I brought the camera up to my eye and it would be fully awake by the time I got my eye situated.
To save battery, switch the camera into 'Airplane Mode' as the wireless functions are not useful underwater anyway. This can be done in the 'Network' Menu. To further save battery, in the 'c Controls' Menu > 'c3 Power off delay' you can set the camera timeout for 'Playback', 'Menu', 'Picture Review' and 'Standby timer'. The options for 'Playback' and 'Picture Review' will also affect how long the image persists after the shot is taken before going away. You can also always, half-press the shutter to exit review/playback.
When trying to include light rays into a shot, seeing how they'll appear before you even press the shutter is incredibly helpful. These anemone fish cruise over a perfect hard coral garden in Banda Neira.
Exposure & Shooting Mode Settings:
In the 'Metering/exposure' Menu it's helpful to set the 'ISO sensitivity step value' to '1/3' and 'EV steps for exposure control' to '1/3' as well to be able to fine tune aperture, shutter speed and ISO in 1/3-stop increments.
It's helpful to customize the camera's 'i-menu' as it can be used to quickly access certain functions such as white balance, release mode, metering and flash controls. This can done in the 'f Controls' Menu > 'f1 Customize i menu'. I like the first available slot to be 'Flash Mode'. This allows me to quickly turn on and off the flash trigger when I want to shoot a silhouette or natural light image without having to turn off my strobes. I assign 'White balance' to the second slot and 'Metering' to the third slot.
Another situation where having more of a "what you see is what you get" ability is incredibly helpful. The waves crashing would change the background exposure dramatically as I waited for a snake to show up. Being able to see it before I shoot, I was able to adjust the shutter speed to keep up.
Also, in the 'f Controls' Menu is 'f6 Release button to use dial' which I set to 'ON'. This means that when you press the button for 'ISO', you don't need to hold it down while using the main/sub command dials to adjust the settings. Simply press the button once, then adjust the setting and either press the 'OK' button or half-press the shutter to leave that setting. This is especially useful when the camera is inside the housing as pressing and holding a button and simultaneously turning a dial can be difficult and will likely just result in an unintended setting such as aperture or shutter speed being changed.
Again, please use this as a starting point to setup the Z8 according to your needs. The menu system is vast and nearly every button is customizable. Customizations can be saved and recalled using the 'Custom Settings Banks' for items contained in the 'Custom Settings Menu' and the 'Shooting Menu Bank' for photo shooting and video recording menu options. You can save the settings mentioned in the article to these Banks for future recall.
Moray eels sharing a cleaning station. The small diameter and zoom capabilities of the WACP-C allows you to get close and bring your lighting in to light the subject just the way you want.
The Z8 is an incredible tool for both wide-angle and macro still imaging and the interface will feel familiar to those coming from previous Nikon offerings. Through setting the camera up to accommodate your shooting style, you can leverage the features to help you capture the action that presents itself to you.