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Subal and Nikon F801 - An alternative to an RS?

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 47 (March 1993)

In January 1992 the Nikonos RS was announced and I, like many other underwater photographers, thought that perfection had at last arrived. For more than ten years my preference has been for housed SLR camera systems, which have the advantage of both a large through the lens viewfinder and the wide choice of lenses available. The major drawbacks have always been size and weight of the housed system, especially if a motor drive is included an aluminium housing is used.

The Nikonos RS seemed to offer most of the advantages of a housed system, although a little limited on lens choice at present, with the added bonus of a compact light unit with auto focus and various Exposure modes, metering modes etc. However, having set my heart on one I was then bowled over by the price of the body and lenses, not to mention the dedicated flash! A complete system will cost in the region of £6,000-£6,500 depending on which lenses you choose! These figures can be improved on by purchasing overseas (Nikon's pricing policy in the UK has always puzzled me) but this route obviously presents one or two other difficulties.


Following my disappointment I decided to look at what the alternatives to my trusty Nikon F2 and Hugyfot housing might be, as I felt sure that there must be as auto focus camera/housing combination which would give similar if not equal features. I discounted the option of a Nikon f4 as the housings available offered no size/weight advantage over my existing system and the combined price was close to the Nikonos RS. However, my searches soon revealed that there were several housings coming onto the market for the Nikon F801 which were to be extremely compact. light and reasonably priced. The Nikon F801 offers all the features of the Nikonos RS and has a bright screen, "high eye-point" viewfinder as standard, which although not quite as large as the action finder, does offer full screen viewing in a housing. It is also considerably cheaper than the Nikon f4 and there is a healthy secondhand market for them (typically £250 for a camera body!) My choice of housing was eventually narrowed down to that of the Austrian manufacturer Subal, and following a fortuitous test dive with a system belonging to David Nardini, my mind was made up.

The housing is constructed from cast aluminium and is an extremely close-fit around the camera. It is obvious that a lot of thought and design time has gone into the most efficient use of space for gears and controls in the narrow confines. The finish of the housing body itself and the gears and controls are all of a high standard with everything meshing and contacting smoothly. The external surfaces of the housing are coated in a tough epoxy paint whilst the internal surfaces are anodized black. The camera mounts in the front half of the housing which allows easy film changing. Similarly the flash connector, a Nikonos TTL five pin socket as standard, is on the front of the housing and connects via the camera's hot shoe. The controls provided are as follows: camera on/off, Shutter speed, programme mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, auto/manual focus (on the camera), aperture, zoom, manual focus (on the lens), and of course shutter release. One could argue that this gives too much choice! But dependent on the lens combination and prevailing conditions these options are invaluable.


There is a wide range of ports available which allow use of all the lenses which are popular with underwater photographers, from the extremes of a 105 mm macro to a 14 mm ultra wide-angle (16 mm dome to come, although it is possible to make your own) and also several zoom lenses which provide great flexibility dependent on the zoom range chosen. Ports for the zoom lenses are offered with the choice of flat or dome ports. Gears for aperture, zoom and focus are available specifically for Nikon and Sigma lenses, although they will fit a wide variety of other independent lenses. The ports are manufactured from a heavy grade plastic composite and use glass as a viewing medium. The ports attach to the housing body via a neat bayonet system using a piston seal "O" ring, and are quick and easy to change. The range of lenses accommodated offers far greater flexibility than the Nikonos RS at present and at a fraction of the cost, with the added benefit once again of a lively secondhand market. My lens choice has been the Nikkor 60 mm macro, Nikkor 20 mm, Sigma 90 mm macro (which fits behind the 60 mm port), Sigma 16 mm fisheye and Tokina 28-70 mm zoom with macro. All of these lenses operate well in the housing and the zoom offers double exposures using the camera's multi-exposure control if you modify the meter change control on the housing.


The rear of the housing is located by means of pins, and retained by two "key" operated screws, which I feel are more secure that the traditional over-centre catches. The back plate also includes a small threaded pimple which contacts the viewfinder illumination button on the back of the camera for use in dim conditions. The viewing port is large and very close to the camera's own viewfinder. On the top right of the back plate is a further port for viewing the camera's LCD display, which shows frame number, Shutter speed, aperture, mode, etc. Once closed the housing is easily held in one hand with the thumb resting in a moulded grip on the back plate and the index finger resting over the focus/shutter release. The weight on land varies between 5-7 pounds dependent on the lens/port combination in use, which compares well with the RS. In the water the housing is entirely neutral with only the weight of the flash unit to cope with.


All Nikonos compatible TTL flash guns will happily operate with the system and Subal also manufacture a housing for the Nikon SB20 and SB24 flash guns. The housing comes fitted with a an Oceanic/Sea and Sea flash arm mounting shoe as standard on the top plate and there are two threaded mounting points on its base plate for additional flash mounts.


So the acid question is what is the system like to use underwater? For me it has been both a revelation and joy. The viewfinder is exceptionally clear and bright (more so than my Nikon F2 action finder) and with a low volume mask can be seen in its entirety with all the viewfinder information. The small size and neutral weight make handling a dream and all the controls function positively and smoothly. I am also amazed at how well the auto focus lenses function underwater even with macro lenses aimed into dim holes. If light levels prove too low than manual focus can be selected and the focus control engaged with the lens - total flexibility.


So there is a comparable choice to the RS which offers similar camera functions and greater flexibility in lens choice at present, and all at a fraction of the cost. The only obvious differences is the size of the viewfinder, but even compared to the traditional action finder I have found this to be no disadvantage at all. Housings for the Nikon F801 are now manufactured by at least five companies in Europe, two in the USA, and tow in Canada. My choice was based on the cost, size and weight and the number of controls that Subal offer. With the cost of a housing body at less than £600 in the UK, the judicious choice of secondhand camera and lenses will build a system priced at far less than the Nikon RS body alone! Worth considering, until maybe there are a few secondhand RS cameras on the market.

Reproduced from in focus 47. Mar. 93 with kind permission of Mark Webster (

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