Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ortlieb Aquazoom - A Review by Jaakko Heikka

There are many blogs I enjoy but, thus far, I have avoided guest posts even though I have a good relationship with many of the authors of those blogs, and respect their writing, photography and expertise. However, this is changing as my view of the importance of community online takes on a greater significance. Following on from my post recently about the way in which I carry my own camera when mountaineering and backpacking, Jaakko Heikka in the first of several guest posts over the coming months, tells us about another option and one which saw some discussion recently among outdoor enthusiasts - the Ortlieb Aquazoom.

Jaakko's blog, Korpijaakko, is as he describes it his personal views on all walks of outdoor life. I was drawn to it as a consequence of his arctic experiences - in particular his Ultima Thule 2011 unsupported 3 week skiing expedition to Svalbard - and his excellent photography. The Aquazoom is great piece of kit and getting some rave reviews, but have a look at what Jaakko has to say about it before you decide.


Ortlieb Aquazoom Waterproof Camera Bag

When spending a lot of time outdoors you end up occasionally getting wet and so does your gear. This doesn’t kill you but there are some pieces of gear we’d like to keep dry at all costs. One of those things is a non-waterproof camera.




I’ve found the Ortlieb Aqua-Zoom camera bag to be nearly perfect solution for my needs. It’s a simple waterproof camera bag that fits a DSLR body with one lens attached. The bag delivers what I need as it: 

  • is completely waterproof, 
  • is easy to use, and 
  • provides some impact protection. 


Technical background

Behind the simple product are high tech materials and manufacturing techniques and Ortlieb’s 30+ years of experience.

Ortlieb uses only materials specially made for their specifications. The Aqua-Zoom is made of PU coated cordura variant called PS36C. It is waterproof up to 100 000 mm watercolum (yes, one hundred thousand millimeters), uses special PU-coating which is fold resistant up to 100 000 folds, weights about 360 gramm/sqm and is tear resistant to around 1800 Newtons (i.e. plenty).


The Quickseal Closure used on Aqua-Zoom is technically a beefed up version of ziplock bag closure with a slider. It provides easy and quick access and 100% dust protection but it’s not strictly speaking waterproof but only splash proof meeting the IP64 requirements.

The inside is lined with 7 mm thick cell foam padding to provide impact protection for the contents. The front and back foam panels are welded into place but the U-shaped side panel is removable. In addition there is some soft Velcro attached on the front and back panel for cell foam spacer (included).

The Aqua-Zoom is made in Germany using laser cutting and high-frequency 3-D-welding with about 10 mm overlapping seams. This makes the structure nearly indestructible and Ortlieb gives it a five-year guarantee.

Features

For me Ortlieb stands for durable state-of-the-art waterproof gear and the Aqua-Zoom is no exception. The textured cordura outer feels very robust as does the coating on the inside and the workmanship is top notch.




The inner dimensions of the padded part are roughly 24 cm high, 15 cm wide and 12 cm deep on the top tapering quite strongly towards the bottom. There is also some additional space above the padding. The Aqua-Zoom is marketed to weight 340 grams but on my scale the bare bag clocks only 202 grams.



The sizing means the Aqua-Zoom can take any normal DLSR body without a battery grip. It’s a tight fit with the big full sensor bodies like Canon 5D series or Nikon DX00 series but they should still fit. A lens up to the size of Canon EF 70-200 4 L IS or similar fits in but bigger lenses are starting to be a struggle because of the tapered bottom part. In addition to a body and there’s room for some small items on the bottom or top or on the sides of the lens but this is not very convenient.

The volume is enough for most but for the rare trip with combination of very wet and very cold conditions it would be nice to have a bigger model that could accommodate a DSLR with a battery grip attached.



The bag has four welded plastic D-rings (two on each side) for attaching shoulder strap, accessory harness system or similar means of carry. The bag comes with a quite nice adjustable webbing shoulder strap with snap-hooks and removable padding but I haven’t used it much.



In addition to the D-rings there are two four-way loops (with 40 mm vertical and 25 mm horizontal slots) on the back side for attaching a belt or other means of carrying. I use a simple webbing belt made of 40 mm webbing, a triglide and a buckle. It works well enough but it is not the perfect solution.

The Aqua-Zoom uses the aforementioned ziplock style Quickseal Closure which is quick and easy to use but only guaranteed to be splash proof and not really waterproof (meeting the IP64 criteria). I’d like to see a more robust and secure closing mechanism but it shouldn’t hinder the ease of use and quick accessibility.







The tech specs on Ortlieb website warn that ”temperatures below -5°C/23°F may affect the function of the sealing lip”. I’ve broken one Aquazoom and one Protect bag with similar system when using them in temps below -30°C. The plastic on the sealing lips freezes and breaks when used in this cold. They aren’t really meant to be used in arctic winter temperatures anyway.

In Use

I’ve used different Ortlieb products for about five years and even the oldest are still in great shape. The Aqua-Zoom bags I’ve used for over two years and they’ve seen a lot of use in variety of conditions. Except breaking the closure in too cold temperatures they’ve worked flawlessly.

The Aqua-Zoom has even survived a user-error case of a long stretch of rocky class II white water swimming under a packraft and even though the closure mechanism is not specked up to that it kept my camera completely dry. I’ve also used it in below -20°C temperatures in Iceland without problems but generally I wouldn’t recommend operating the closure mechanism below freezing.



Most of the use has been hiking and I’ve carried the bag on my waist with the simple belt described above. This has led to some wear on the belt loops (after about 18 months of use) and I think the belt loops will be the first part to eventually fail, though it will probably take another two years of use. A better carrying system would increase the durability of the loops and as Ortlieb doesn’t offer one I should probably make one myself.



Conclusions

In my opinion the Ortlieb Aqua-Zoom is a superb camera bag for carrying a DSLR in dusty or wet conditions. It’s simple and light enough for hiking and provides easy access but still provides enough protection for most conditions imaginable and in real life use it even exceeds the promised levels of protection. There aren’t many bells and whistles and if you need, for example, several extra pockets then this is not the camera bag you are looking for. For me, it’s all I need.

Words and photos by Jaakko Heikka


15 comments:

  1. Good review, thanks Jaakko. This confirms what I've heard – an excellent bag for everything except deep winter. I'll probably get one for next year's hiking. Impressive that it handled a packraft submersion.

    I suppose in many respects the bag I currently use – the Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW – is probably better for winter. It's constructed from material with a basic zip. There are none of those plastics that freeze and become brittle below -20ºC.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice review. I've got a Aqua-Cam myself (over a year now), which is very similar - good to know about the cold weather impact on the quickseal closure (haven't used mine below -20 degrees celcius, so far no issues). I've also dragged it through water (and submersed for short period of time) with no leaks whatsoever, so the quickseal seems pretty solid. However the seal can blow open pretty easily if pressure is applied on half-filled bag (especially without internals), so that's something I am a bit more cautious now.

    During the film SLR times I had the original (I think it was the first version, around 1999) of the Aqua-Zoom that had the roll-top closure - it was pretty quick to open and close and completely solid and waterproof, would still like to see that as an option for the quickseal in these type of camera bags.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent product. What I love about the Aqua-Zoom is that it keeps your camera close at hand and quick to deploy. To many other cases need extra waterproof bags or covers with time consuming roll-tops. If you can't get to your camera, you won't use it.

    ZIIIIP! - bang, and you camera is in your hand ready to use. A few seconds later it's back inside and 'waterproof'.

    A few tips. Firstly: Keep the zipper lubed. Secondly: roll the top back to reveal the top of the foam insert, take a sharp craft knife and slice angles into the top edge of the foam (image below). This really cuts down on the lens and body catching on the top of the foam, especially when using a lens hood. Lastly: stick a couple of silica gel sachets in the bottom to deal with any trapped moisture when your camera has been used in any 'weather' :)

    The points people make about the materials and use in really cold temperatures seem valid but I wouldn't expect too much rain at -20C so a regular zippered bag should suffice.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think you got it right, Mark. The end of the review might be a bit misleading as in winter I also use a Lowepro bag. To be precise Off Trail 2, a simple top loading bag with integrated belt. It has been fine down to -39C and I don't find the additional belt (the integrated one on the Lowepro or the one I use with Aquazoom) to be a problem. Though I've been thinking a system similar to yours for the Aquazoom.

    ReplyDelete
  5.  I'd also like to have an option of the traditional roll-top closure bag. But on the other hand, the quickseal has worked really well for me. I've never had it bursting even though I've been probably sitting on the bag several times when it's been inside a pulka... Maybe it's because of the inserts and because it was pretty well packed with some gear (not camera that time).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Joe! Very good tips. There will be some cutting to be done tomorrow... Have to also try the silica sachets as I occasionally have quite a lot of spray on my camera and end up having a table spoon or two of water in the bag. How much moisture the sachets can handle?

    The time when I used the bag in below -20C was on Vatnajökull ski expedition when we had several days of rain but also temps below -20C on the same trip. Gotta love the Icelandic climate! :D

    ReplyDelete
  7. The camera bags of Ortlieb started with a roll top closure, had later  those lip-sealing added and then the roll top eliminated. Those lips are exremly fragile, you get defects in all kinds of weather and temperatures.
    Two of my friends own the Aqua Cam and with both the seals broke within a year. Ortlieb repalces the defect items, but what does that help you on a trip. I got myself a second-hand one and would never buy a current one.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for your input Alexander - it was very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I forgot to add:
    The Ortlieb Aqua Zoom Plus has a normal lid with velcro and the upper part of the body folds over when closing, like with a messenger bag. Completely rain-proof, but of course shouldnt be submerged or hold upside-down in the rain. Also for very fine sand its no hindrance, too. I use it since several years.
    German company Foto König http://koenig-photobags.de/schultertasche-litebag-2.phtml
    coopertes with Ortlieb, They are the only one to use the Ortlieb tecnology of welded seams and the roll-top closure of old. 

    ReplyDelete
  10. Just for information as it's a bit ralated to the topic: Ortlieb has announced a new even more waterproof camera bag for DSLR cameras called the V-Shot. It closes with TiZip zipper which should be plenty more durable than the fragile lips of the Aquazoom and it also offers proper IP67 rating. Very, very interesting product. More info here: http://www.ortlieb.com/_prod.php?lang=en&produkt=vshot

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi. Can someone tell me what kind of lubricant I need to apply to the closure mechanism as the instructions show that I need to do this.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I got a tube of lubricant with the case. It's called Tizip, and is made of Polydimethylsiloxane & inorganic fillers. Made by Titex Vertriebs.

    It's very sticky stuff. When you apply it, your camera tends to get some on it as you put it in or take it out the case. A bit annoying. I'd hate to get some on the lens.

    ReplyDelete