The high end compacts category of cameras is currently very popular for underwater use.
Naturally, due to the price of housings and the amount of travelling scuba divers do, the ability to generate good underwater shots for a decent price in a small package is sought by many.
The biggest players in this field were and still are Canon with the G (G7, G9 , G10/11/12) series and later joined Nikon with their P (P5000, P5100, P6000, P7000/7100) series. When Nikon released the P7000 camera, it was clear they intend to learn from Canon's experience and create a better version of the extremely popular Canon G12.
The P7000 is an exceptional camera but some issues with auto focus and menu speed made many users choose Canon over it. The P7100 is a game changer in this competition as it eliminates these issues and makes Nikon's recent model clearly better than the Canon G12 and S100 in many ways.
I would like to start by lising the most important features of this camera from an underwater photography standpoint:
28-200mm lens ( 35mm equiv ) which is equivalent x7.1 zoom in optical quality that Nikon is so famous for.
Big (3") clear and hi res ( 921K dots ) LCD screen ( similar to the D90 and D7000 )
720p video with brilliant auto focus and quiet in-video zooming.
Full Manual Controls, Nikon redefined this phrase by adding 4 dials , 2 in the back, one in the front and one on top for EV + 2 function buttons that allow quick ISO change, white balance and other features.
They also added 3 preset modes U1/U2/U3 which can be custom programmed to your favorite shooting settings.
Very short , DSLR-like shutter lag.
Flash TTL in all modes including Manual (which means you can put strobes at TTL and still fully control the image in terms of background exposure and amount of ambient light)..
Low noise level when shooting at high ISO (better than almost any camera with the same size sensor).
Very good mechanical lens stabilization that allows shooting sharp images even when handheld at 1/30 shutter speed.
RAW shooting capability (good for post processing white balance).
Considering all the above features, the outcome is a camera that has every manual control that a DSLR has, at a speed and ease of use that is impressive for a compact. The image quality is probably the best that can be acheived from a 1/1.7" sensor and all at a price of around 400$.
Nothing is completely perfect and some fallbacks of this camera is its size (the canon S100 is half the size and weight) , the standard 28mm lens instead of some wider ones like 24mm which can be found in some compacts today and the lack of 1080p video which is also pretty standard these days. With all the controls on this camera , I am surprised they did not include a one touch video button as many cameras offer today.
Now this is where this package really shines.. Fantasea put in a lot of effort to develop a custom polycarbonate housing for this camera that is perfectly contoured to its design and very ergonomic.
This housing controls every single button and dial that the camera offers which makes it a very complex housing to build but yet they have managed to pull it off and produce a very impressive outcome at a decent price of below 500$.
Here are the major highlights of this housing:
The housing is built from the highest quality materials which makes is very reliable and long lasting. It performs as if it was brand new even after 100 dives (and I am sure many more..) .
The housing features a cold shoe mount which is strong enough to hold even a strobe or action camera.
The port was designed wide enough in a way that it could be used with a wet wide angle lens without vignetting.
Shutter release button is firm but gentle enough to easily feel the half-shutter click. The half shutter is never missed like in Ikelite housings for example.
All the cameras features are illustrated on the buttons which makes it so easy to do anything underwater.
A rotatable latch with a secure lock allows opening and sealing the housing easily and securily.
A monitor shade which is great for snorkelling and shallow diving.
2 Fiber optic connections (S&S type) or a built in flash diffuser is included (one that actually works great).
Front and back finger grips that allows holding the housing in one hand very easily even when attached to an arm and tray.
Built in flash can be popped up using a dedicated button (in case you forgot to do so above water).
Depth rated 60m.
The housing feels very comfortable , easy to hold, buttons are smoothly pressed and the operating depth does not seems to have any effect on the button or dial performance. I can honestly say it is as comfortable to use this camera underwater as it is above water. With the large LCD and illustrated buttons, even the hardly used menu settings can easily be set underwater quickly.
The Nikon P7100 with Fantasea housing is a true breakthrough , for 900$ you get a camera which is simple to use as any compact and has the manual settings and capabilities of a DSLR. This is the perfect camera to learn underwater photography with and by adding the optical accessories and strobes you would get results that would not embarass any underwater photographer.
This package beats the Canon S100 in terms of manual controls, beats the G12 in optics, shutter lag and beats most compacts by featuring strobe TTL in all modes including manual. The image quality is superb and combining that with the amount of manual controls, this camera can produce true professional underwater shots.
Fantasea has put reliability as a top priority for their recent line of housings and you can be sure that this housing was built to last. Even when upgrading to DSLR, there is nothing more important than a compact backup camera when going on an important trip to the maldives.
I would like to add that while I am complimenting this camera to be professional and DSLR-like, it is still a compact and falls short from a DSLR or Mirrorless in many ways:
The small sensor will not allow clear enough shots when going over ISO 400
A wet wide angle lens or macro lens is nowhere near in optical performance to a true macro or wide angle lens.
The P7100 is quick but not nearly as quick as a DSLR or Sony NEX for example.
Aperture control is limited to f/8.0 which forces the use of shutter speed to reduce ambient light.
And of course , the image quality and colors are not the same as your average DSLR or mirror less.
But.. just a quick reminder again, $900, for camera and housing bundle, unbelievable value for money.