January 2, 2006

Gates Underwater Housing for the Sony FX1 & Z1U

Review by Steve Douglas

Now that you have invested your hard earned cash in order to buy that High Definition Video Sony FX1 or Z1U you've been wanting, trying to decide which underwater housing to slide it into is a major concern to any underwater film maker. The Sony FX-1 and Z1U are both expensive camcorders for most, and wanting the utmost in protection for them is of prime consideration.

There are several factors to concern yourself with; you certainly must be assured of your camcorders protection from the elements, the housing's durability, and ease of use. Your housing must also supply all the necessary controls under the ocean that you would need and want when topside where the camcorder would be in your hands or on your tripod.

Gates Underwater Products has produced just the thing for the scuba diver and filmmaker who wish to bring back the beauty of the depths on high definition video. In business for over 36 years, the San Diego based Gates Products have continually been in the forefront of providing underwater housings for the underwater photographer and videographer almost as quickly as the camcorders hit the market. Keeping up with the many electronic innovations to hit our shores has not always been easy but whether it was 8mm, Mini DV or HDV, Gates has been there for those who insist that the underwater world must be shared via photography and video.

The housing for the FX-1 and Z1U provides almost everything one could ask for. To start off with, made from machined aluminum, it is rated for depths of up to 450 feet/137 meters. Since 98% of most diver/videographers rarely venture below 130 feet/40 meters and the remaining 2% rarely drop below 200 feet/61meters, it is safe to say that this housing can withstand a lot more than anyone will throw at it. The aluminum itself is a 6061 T6 tempered material with a black type III hard anodized finish and then sealed with a nickel acetate process. Now I am not going to pretend that I understand all there is to know about the processing of this housing but I will bare witness that this housing really is bulletproof. I have seen many a Gates housing in the past dropped, bounced, scraped over underwater rocks and ledges and generally treated less respectfully than their owners should have, and the housings continued to do their job. This housing is no different.

   Gates Housing for the Sony X1 & Z1U sans monitor or lights.

The Sony FX-1 and Z1U camcorders are good-sized cams; the flip up LCD screen, now placed on top next to the hot shoe takes up room and the Gates housing was built to accommodate that. This is no pint-sized housing; it is 16" long, 10" in height and with the handles on, 15" wide with a topside weight of 22lbs without the camcorder or batteries. You do not need to start working out at the local gym to transport this housing but I wouldn't plan on taking it out for a long hike either. Gates does supply an optional top handle to help you transport your system over land or simply to lower into or take out of the water. The larger the housing the more inherently stable it is in the water. This translates to fluid, solid (non-shaky) shots. Obviously, the converse is true: small housings are prone to a lot of shakiness. In our MTV world this seems to be more acceptable, but any feature length production or quality TV broadcast avoids a shaky camera. Once in the water, the housing, with camcorder in place, is only slightly negatively buoyant. Buoyancy can be fine-tuned, positive or negative to your preferences. This is an important asset. Just as when shooting topside, a camcorder with a bit of heft, adds steadiness to a hand held shot, I have found that a housing with a slight negative balance also aids in holding a static shot or smooth pan. I have used other housings, which were positively buoyant in the water and found them to be more susceptible to current or surge. However, keep in mind that susceptibility to surge or current is a function of the size, not necessarily it's buoyancy. The bigger it is, the more it acts like a sail. Unplanned shakiness in any shot will usually demand a retake and, underwater, most fish do not hang around for take 2, 3 or 4. Then again, the sharks might come back for another taste; ooops, I mean 'take' but that is another matter. Thus, the solid feel and balance of the Gates housing for the FX-1/Z1U provides confidence to the demanding underwater videographer.

In addition, there is a Pole-cam attachment made for those who want to put their systems in the water but not go in themselves. These pole cams, manufactured by underwater videographer, Bob Gladden, and distributed by Gates Underwater Products, are extremely useful when filming Great Whites when a cage is not handy or when doing underwater searches. The pole cam attachment to the Gates housing provides a great deal of control and matches to the housing with the safety and security of your housing and cam in mind.

   Pole cam controls all movements of the housing while you stay topside nice and dry.

Typical of all Gates housings, the controls are mechanical and plentiful. I have always preferred a mechanical control as it is assuring to me when off on some exotic vacation or shoot somewhere that, because they are mechanical, nothing will go wrong with them. You press or turn a mechanical control and it works; there are no batteries that have been drained, no electronic boards to fry or contacts that fail when you need them most. The color coded controls that you will find most necessary underwater are all accessible with this housing, the power on/off, record/standby, zoom, switching from auto to manual focus, white balance mode/set, Iris, and neutral density filter. Optional controls for gain and white balance presets, expanded focus and shutter speed are also available.

   Just some of the many color coded control levers.

The camcorder installs neatly and simply by attaching it to a bottom 'tray' which then slides into place in the housing secured quickly by thumbscrews. Also in the housing is a color correction internal flip filter available in blue or green water versions. I find that most dive/filming conditions require the blue water version and the flip filter is easy to flip on or off. A second flip filter can be optionally installed for either a diopter for macro work or a second UR filter either blue or green.

A connection can be found inside the housing, which plugs into your video out on the camcorder. This supplies your picture should you choose to add an external color monitor to the housing. While the monitor is an optional purchase, it is one that is not superfluous. I find them to be very helpful when setting up a shot's composition or when I am swimming straight into a large school of jacks, barracuda or even hammer head sharks. The monitor fits neatly into the accessory dovetail rails, which then can be slid forward or backward to whatever location on the housing is most comfortable to you.

However, acknowledging that the HDV critical focus is extremely important due to the inherent 6X resolution over standard DV, for close up macro work and critical focus situations I bring my eye back down to the higher resolution of the magnified viewfinder on the housing's rear plate. As an extra note on this topic, the video out provided by the housing can also be used to run a feed to a surface monitor as well.

   Connection from Sony Z1U's video out feeds to monitor on top of housing.

There are other manufacturers of quality underwater housings. However, several of them do not allow room for the larger camcorder batteries. This limits the shooter to more frequent battery changes and, therefore, more times that the housing itself must be opened in order to get to the camcorder. When any housing is open, there is an increased vulnerability for the camcorder. Someone shaking a wet head of hair, spilling a drink on the camera table, or simply greater exposure to the salt air is not good for your Sony. The Gates housing for the FX-1/Z1-U will allow batteries up to the NPF 970 providing more 'in housing time'. Access to the camcorder is excellent, as you do not need to remove the cam from the Gates housing to switch out either tape or battery. You simply unlatch the back plate, install your next battery or tape and close it up again. This fast and easy process limits unfortunate occurrences including floods. Operator error is the most common reason why a housing may get water inside, usually a disastrous event so the less a housing has to be opened, the less risk of problems.

   The sliding tray, tightened with thumbscrews, holds the camcorder securely in place.
   Meanwhile, there is easy access to the camcorder itself.

Once the FX1 or Z1U is installed the rear of the housing closes securely with three separate Positive Lock stainless steel latches, which confirm for you that your housing is correctly sealed and ready to go. This is a 'tried and true' method of establishing an o-ring seal on a pressure-proof housing. Each latch places over 50 lbs of positive force on the o-ring surface, assuring a seal both in shallow water (where rinse tank floods occur) and deep water as well. While I always, as a habit, check these latches before going underwater, I have never had one fail on me or accidentally open up.

The dome port that comes standard with this housing is made from optical acrylic material that is field replaceable. Other Gates ports have polycarbonate domes which have an anti-scratch coating and are also field replaceable should the need arise. I have used this same dome type on several different Gates housings and have found them to be of very good quality. Minor scratches gotten from an unintended ledge generally do not effect the shot, however, should a more severe scratch be incurred, that you can change out the port for a new one is a valuable asset particularly in remote regions of the globe where your shoot may be held. A standard, or dome port, corrects for the distortions of water (the 25% closer/larger similar to that which you experience with your facemask). The dome port does not magnify a camera's FOV but rather preserves what is already in the camera.

Gates does supply optional Super Wide Angle and Super Macro Ports of exceptional quality made by Fathom Imaging. These are not cheap but to the videographer who must have the very best; these will do the job beautifully. Any port is interchangeable via a bayonet mount for easy switching. The standard port will allow you to zoom through about two-thirds of the focal length without needing to adjust your focus.

All Gates Underwater video housings come with a two-year renewable warranty and the housing for the Sony FX-1/Z1-U is no exception. All maintenance and repairs are done 'in house' so you needn't worry about your housing getting misplaced in Korea somewhere.

The bottom line is that if you are a videographer whose desire is to have the utmost in protection and reliability in an underwater housing for your Sony HDV cam, than this housing just can't be overlooked. Its absolute ruggedness and dependability is virtually assured. This is one product I can enthusiastically say for the very first time, "Tell 'em Steve sent you". You'll be happy you did.

Steve Douglas, is an underwater videographer and contributor to numerous film festivals around the world. A winner of the 1999 Pacific Coast Underwater Film Competition, 2003 IVIE competition, 2004 Los Angeles Underwater Photographic competition, and the prestigious 2005 International Beneath the Sea Film Competition, Steve has also worked on the feature film "The Deep Blue Sea", contributed footage to the Seaworld parks for their Atlantis production, and is one of the principal organizers of the San Diego UnderSea Film Exhibition. Steve leads both underwater filming expeditions and African safaris with upcoming filming excursions to Kenya, Bali and the Red Sea. Feel free to contact him if you are interested in joining Steve on any of these trips. www.worldfilmsandtravel.com


copyright © Steve Douglas 2006

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