NOTE: The reviewed version of the Hydrophobia 70-200 has now been replaced by an updated, improved version. Details of the new version can be found here. Many things have changed, and the prices have been reduced, so this review is no longer relevant.
Torrential rain or prolonged periods of snow do not generally go hand in hand with photography and camera equipment. Sometimes it has to be avoided to prevent damage to equipment, but sometimes it cannot be avoided while on assignment to cover a particular event. If you find yourself in that situation you might want to think about using a specially designed camera cover such as this very cleverly designed one from ThinkTank Photo.
The first thing I noticed about the Hydrophobia is that even packed into its storage pouch it is not small and weighs in at about 400g. I also have another rain cover from ThinkTank called the Remote 10 (pictured to the right) which is designed for using on remote cameras and it is roughly 1/3 of the size and weight of the Hydrophobia which initially caught me by surprise. The Hydrophobia comes packed into a separate mesh bag which allows it to breathe a bit if you have to fold it up before it has dried out. The bag has a couple of loops on top which allow you to attach a shoulder strap to it but I have to say that I am surprised that there is not an additional cylindrical mesh bag designed to hold the cover on their modular component system. A small mesh bag similar to the R U Thirsty, designed specifically for the Hydrophobia and their very popular belt system would have been great for the sports shooters and photojournalists out there that are using the belt system and want to add a rain cover. Packing into your rolling bag, suitcase backpack in the square bag is fine, but it seems awkward to carry around if you are using a belt system.
When you purchase the rain cover you also need to buy a suitable eyepiece that is compatible with your particular camera. The specialized eyepieces help to complete the waterproofing on the cover by connecting with the rain-proof rubber gusset that goes round the eyepiece. There are currently 4 different eyepieces available, 2 for Canon and 2 for Nikon. Combined with the flap that comes down to cover the eyepiece, this part of the whole cover is a great piece of design. My initial concerns with the durability of the rubber gusset have so far proven unfounded, it feels a bit odd to stretch the hole in the rubber wide open to poke the eyepiece through but so far it has shown no sign of deterioration. The Hydrophobia 70-200 itself retails for $139 for the standard version and $145 for the flash compatible version that I was testing. The compulsory eyepieces though sell for $20 a piece and for me that feels pretty expensive for just the eyepiece. The price of the covers themselves is immediately justifiable when you inspect the quality of construction and detail of design, but the eyepieces are priced too high in my opinion. If you have 2 types of camera like I do ( a Canon 1dMKIV and a 5DMKII) then you need 2 different eyepieces totalling $70. Half the cost again of the cover, and for that all you get is a couple of pieces of molded plastic. Canon replacement eyecups vary from $10 to $15 so more than two or three times the price for such things seem too much and is definitely worth bearing in mind when you are thinking about the overall price of buying into the Hydrophobia system. Once you have taken your regular factory fitted eyepiece off the camera and exchanged it for the ThinkTank one, they have thoughtfully included a small pocket on the side of the rain cover that neatly stores the unused eyepiece until it is time to switch them back again (see photo below). The neatly designed and cleverly thought out little details like this are the sort of thing pros have come to expect from ThinkTank. All the gear is designed and tested heavily by a top selection of working sports and news shooters.
As I mentioned before the Hydrophobia is available in 2 versions. The difference is simply the ability to use a camera mounted flash with one of them. The plastic cover for the flash is permanently attached to the cover and folded into a pocket on the top of the lens when not in use. The 2 photos below show the flash cover in and out of its pocket.
In practice I found the flash cover to be quite big. Even with my Canon 580EX’s head pointing vertically instead of in the forward position that you would use in most situations, there was a couple of inches of room left above the flash even with an omnibounce attached. The Nikon SB-900 is quite a bit larger than the 580 EX so I guess the extra room must be needed for that. I had originally hoped that getting the flash version of the Hydrophobia would allow more flexibility for using it but without any disadvantages. This proved not to be the case though because the plastic used for the flash cover is thick and fairly bulky in itself. It adds noticeable bulk to the whole cover when it is folded into the top pocket and prevents the use of the cover with lenses smaller than a 70-200 f4. This was the factor that I had not considered. The cover is obviously designed around the 70-200 2.8 lens but it works just as well with a 70-200 f4 and also with a Canon 300mm f4. I had hoped that you would also be able to use it with smaller zoom lenses like the 16-35 or perhaps a prime like 24mm 1.4. Lenses with front elements that extend out during zooming might be tricky to use but I had read that some smaller lenses work with Hydrophobia. Albeit with the excess material that normally surrounds the lens barrel, bunched up towards the camera body. A bit of material bunching up would be a small price for the flexibility of using a few more lenses and it even mentions on the ThinkTank website that it is “Compatible with shorter focal length lenses, depending on size”. Unfortunately while this might be the case with the standard Hydrophobia 70-200, the flash compatible variant does not fair so well because the bulk of plastic flash cover does not compress and bunch up like the rip-stop nylon of the rest of the cover. With the flash cover in its pocket I could not get it to work in a satisfactory way with any of my smaller lenses it simply could not bunch far enough back leave a clear opening for the lens. Pulling the flash cover out of it pocket though and simulating a regular Hydrophobia, I can see that it would be possible to use small zooms with that version, but unless you are also using your flash at the time it does not work with this version. A bonus that I did discover though was that the front opening of the lens sleeve was wide enough to poke a 300mm f2.8 though. It wasn’t wide enough or long enough to go around the hood of the 300mm, but you can do it up around the front of the lens and then put the hood on the front of that. You lose a small amount of waterproofing at the front of the lens, but the 300mm f2.8 is well weather sealed anyway so I would consider this a usable option and very useful if you do not own anything longer than a 300mm and don’t wish to purchase the bigger brother, the Hydrophobia 300-600.
Continuing on though with the clever details of the rain cover you can see an elastic loop on the underside in the photo above This is a where you fold away your regular camera shoulder strap because the Hydrophobia comes with its own shoulder strap. The provided strap is one of ThinkTanks regular straps which are a low profile kind of strap.Personally I already use these straps on all my cameras because I appreciate how little room they take up in my bag and they have a nice solid rubber grip on the back, but those that prefer a wider strap to spread the weight a little bit might want to add a custom strap in its place if you think you might spend a lot of time with the camera round your neck in the cover.
The strap attaches to a solid rubber mounting point on the topside that sits just in front of the camera body. Further forwards that you would normally have it attached, but in a perfect spot for balancing the camera and a 70-200 2.8. On the underside of the rubber mounting point, inside the the rain cover, you will find a strap that needs to be attached around the lens. This transfers the weight of the camera to the external strap. If you pick up the rain cover by its strap without doing up this under-strap you will see your beloved camera fall very quickly to the floor so double and triple check this!! The buckle has a rubber pad between itself and the lens to prevent any damage and it can be adjusted to suit the width of different lenses.
The Hydrophobia is made from a form of rip-stop nylon coated with a waterproofing agent. The overall feel of the material is that of a high quality ski jacket and all of the material seams are taped and sealed on the inside and the main entry zipper for inserting the camera is seam-sealed as well. With everything done up as it should be there is no way your camera is getting wet, even in the heaviest deluge or the nastiest snow storm. If you find yourself in particularly dusty and sandy situation the cover would also work well to prevent sandy particles from getting into every nook and cranny. The front of the cover is secured via a rubber backed velcro strap that grips and tightens around the lens hood. If you have some down time and wish to leave the cover in place there is also a handy front cover for the lens that is secured to the main cover and stowed away in its own pouch when not needed.
Access to the camera while in the cover is done via two hand sleeves. The left hand one is in a slightly forward positioning to allow you to have one hand on the lens and also allow the use of a monopod or tripod if the lens collar is used for the mounting point and not the camera base. The right-hand sleeve is in position to allow easy access to all of the camera bodies main controls and both sleeves have elasticated entries to keep the rain/snow/dust out. The main zipper runs right along the bottom of the camera body which allows easy access to memory card slots and batteries both on pro bodies which are removed on the left, and smaller bodies like the Canon 5d MKII where batteries are dropped out from the bottom of the right hand side. If you are caught in a storm and need to change either of these things your gear will still remain protected. The clear plastic back panel is large enough to view the whole of the camera body and the plastic is clear enough to chimp a decent enough look at the LCD screen to make sure you are getting what you need.
- Extremely waterproof
- Well constructed from very sturdy materials
- Large plastic back is easy to see all the controls
- Easy to change batteries and memory cards under the cover
- Usable with a 300mm 2.8 ( see note above though)
- Drawstring around sleeves great for keeping the cold and snow out
- Front lens cover very useful during non-shooting time
- Usable with a monopod or tripod with collared lenses
- Cleverly designed built in neck strap.
- Very expensive eyepiece(s) need to be purchase separately for varying cameras
- Thick plastic material to cover flash prevents usage with shorter lenses than a 70-200 f4 (Hydrophobia 70-200 Flash version only)
- Not an un-noticeable amount of extra bulk to put into your camera bag
- No easy attachment to store on TT belt system
Pro level cameras these days are well weather sealed but still not designed for prolonged use in heavy rain. If you shoot with a pro body/lens combination then chances are you are being paid to do a job and you can’t afford to fail because your gear gave up or because you were hiding from the elements. The Hydrophobia will undoubtedly protect your camera, the quality of the materials easily lives up to the standards set by other ThinkTank gear. I was pleased to see that I could get it to work with my 300mm f2.8 but disappointed to see that I could not get it to work with smaller lenses than a 70-200 f4. I feel like the regular non-flash compatible version would be a far better purchase for 90% of people because of the potential to use it with these smaller lenses.When I originally thought about which one I would rather use I actually chose the flash version not because I wanted to use a flash with it ( I hardly ever use an on-camera flash for my work) but because I often find myself using a pocketwizard in snowy or rainy conditions. In practice though, for the number of times I do this it is not worth having the flash version I think. It just adds too much bulk to the whole thing. What would have been a perfect solution is one single version of the Hydrophobia, with separate velco-on flash or pocketwizzard attachments that you could keep in your bag and use when needed. I’m sure a watertight solution of that sort would have been tricky to manufacture though because it would compromise the integrity of the waterproofing directly above the camera. Perhaps a nylon flash sleeve could have worked though with only a small plastic window at the top where the light is emitted. Functionally though, the flash sleeve is my only complaint. Everything else works perfectly and there are lots of clever little details that justify the fairly high price tag. I have seen lots of people wrap cameras in plastic bags and they might work in a pinch, but if you want total piece of mind all day long then this is the way to go. For most people I would recommend the regular Hydrophobia and not the Flash version unless you are absolutely convinced that you will use an on-camera flash in the rain on a very regular basis, bearing in mind that if you do, you will only be able to use a 70-200 lens with it, nothing shorter.
As readers of my blog everyone that spends more that $50 in the ThinkTank online web store is entitled to a free accessory bag when they complete the checkout process. Choose from cable management bags or lens bags and access the store by clicking this link!