By Stan Sholik
When most photographers think of a sound blimp it’s usually in connection with shooting on a movie or television set when sound is being recorded. A sound blimp with a lens tube connected effectively silences the sound of a SLR anywhere beyond a couple of feet from it.
Using a sound blimp isn’t limited to shooting film or television stills. I have used a sound blimp for more than 20 years and have never been on a movie or TV set. I use a sound blimp to photograph symphonic, choral and dance productions, as well as theatrical plays. Other photographers use a sound blimp for surveillance, courtroom, wildlife and even sports, such as golf, photography. Sound blimps also provide environmental protection in harsh sand and dust environments.
After 20 years, the foam in my blimp has had it, and I was ready to send it to the manufacturer for refitting when I discovered a new source for sound blimps, AquaTech, located in Orange County, Calif. AquaTech is best known for their waterproof sport and surf housings and their line of environmental shields for cameras and lenses. I contacted AquaTech and received a sound blimp for a Nikon D3X/D3S/D3 to test. Other models are available for Nikon D700, D300s/D300 and Canon 5D Mark II cameras.
The external controls straddle the viewfinder eyepiece. The ribbed soft rubber pads on the hand grips and the shape of the body make holding the AquaTech blimp with both hands solid and comfortable. There are D-rings on the hand grips for attaching an accessory shoulder strap.
The AquaTech sound blimp is a far cry from the Jacobson blimp that I own. Rather than a squarish box, the AquaTech looks more like an underwater housing. And although it is less than 1/2-pound lighter, the ribbed rubber hand straps and the contoured grip built into the body make it far easier to carry and hold. The entire back surface of the AquaTech blimp is hard clear plastic, covered on the inside with sound-deadening foam. A window cut into the foam allows you to see the LCD screen and through the viewfinder.
But the biggest advantage to the AquaTech is borrowed from their sport and surf housings. There are three controls on the back of the blimp (see above) that mate with controls on the rear of the camera. Pressing one allows you to review the last image. Pressing another allows you to activate the autoexposure/autofocus (AE-L/AF-L) lock button on the camera to perform whatever function you have programmed for it in the Custom settings.
The third control is the best. It is a black knob that mates with the Main Command dial at the upper right on the Nikon D-series camera back. Turning this knob allows you to quickly change the shutter speed or aperture, depending on how you have programmed the Main Command dial, without opening the blimp. These controls bring the sound blimp into the current century and make it versatile in situations where the lighting conditions are constantly changing, situations unlike movie or TV sets where the lighting is determined well before still photography begins.
The AquaTech blimp is constructed of polyurethane, with stainless steel, aluminum and high-strength plastic used for the controls. A two-stage release, which I found a little too secure and impossible to work with gloves, latches the back to the main body of the blimp.
Thick, sound-dampening foam lines the interior of the blimp. There is a connection for the remote terminal on the camera.
The release on the front of the blimp connects to the remote terminal on the camera. The connection cord is sufficiently long to allow you to easily remove the camera from the blimp. I did find the release button tricky to operate. It takes more pressure than I would like to move it to the half-way position to activate autofocus, and I had my share of wasted frames when I pushed it too hard and released the shutter. I use a monopod at the longer shutter speeds that I generally use with a 70-200mm lens, and the AquaTech has both 1/4- and 3/8-inch mounts on its base.
The sound blimp with the 70-200mm f2.8 Nikkor lens tube attached. Turning the lens tube allows you to zoom the lens.
AquaTech supplies, at additional cost, lens tubes that screw into the front of the blimp housing. The lens tubes also contain sound-absorbing foam and are essential for maximum silence. However, even without a lens tube, the camera noise is significantly less than an unprotected camera. As production ramps up, the AquaTech website will list readily available tubes. I needed one for a previous-generation 70-200mm lens, and AquaTech obliged by making one. The lens tube allows control of the zoom ring, but not the manual focus ring. The front plate of the lens tube is heavy glass, but it is not multi-coated. I would have preferred a front plate for the lens tube that is a screw-in filter. That way it could be easily cleaned, or replaced with a multicoated filter.
In use, the blimp is as pleasurable to use as a device that totally encloses your camera and lens can be. The three controls on the blimp mate with their respective controls on the camera. It is such a pleasure to finally have the ability to adjust exposure when light conditions change without opening the blimp. The AE/AF lock button is useful when using autoexposure modes, but now that I can adjust my shutter speeds, I shoot in manual mode. And I’m not one to give more than a quick glance at the LCD after a capture, so I don’t have a lot of use for the review button unless I have the automatic review after capture disabled when I’m shooting in a darkened theater. But there are times when these controls will come in handy, and they operate as advertised. Now all we need is for Nikon to create a single control that allows photographers to independently adjust shutter speed and aperture so that we can use the camera in fully manual mode when enclosed in a blimp!
Street price of the AquaTech sound blimp for most camera bodies is $995. Lens tubes cost an additional $300 or more depending on the lens. If you need a sound blimp, there is none better on the market than the AquaTech.
Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, Calif., specializing in still life and macro photography. His fifth book, “HDR Efex Pro: After the Shoot” (Wiley Publishing) is available in October, 2011.