Thoughts On Mini Domes
This article was first published on Wetpixel.com in March 2010.
Mini-domes have been generating lots of discussion on the Wetpixel forums in the last few months, following new products released by Seacam, Aquatica and Zen, which have been covered here on Wetpixel. Wetpixel's Alex Mustard, a long-time fan of mini-domes, shares his thoughts and some tests, some with surprising results, discussing whether this is the next must have accessory.
THOUGHTS ON MINI DOMES
A mini-dome is small dome port usually around 100mm or 4" in diameter and typically hemispherical in shape. They offer significant advantages to the underwater photographer and I have long considered them an essential piece of kit for certain images. They also have significant drawbacks compared with standard sized domes (200-220mm, 8"-9"). It is important to see both sides of the argument to understand if you should buy one, when you should use it, and how to produce images that you cannot make with a standard dome.
A Zen Underwater mini-dome on my Subal D2X housing. Its small size and light weight making it a boon for travel!
This is not a review of any particular brand of mini-dome (although I used the new Zen 100 dome for the test shots). Instead this is a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages that come with using a dome port of this size and shape (irrespective of the quality of construction, glass etc).
Mini-domes not only allow you to get your lens closer to the subject, but more importantly they allow you to tuck your strobes in very close to the lens to get a pleasing quality of light on the subject at this very small working distance.
Mini-domes have always had a small, but loyal following in underwater photography. Several of my friends in BSoUP have been using them almost exclusively for the last 20 years or more. Which is how I was introduced to them. Up to now, most have been self-made and Barry Guimbellot recently shared some excellent tips on how to do it.
Mini-domes are not new, but previously have been the reserve of the home-made accessory market. Popular among groups of friends, but not widespread. Here is an old shot of my Subal housing for my F100 (film) SLR with a custom-made mini-dome.
However, that has changed. Right now, commercial mini-domes seem like London buses. You wait ages for one to turn up and then three come along at once. They are now available in a range of flavours from Aquatica to Zen!
Mini domes offer some significant advantages. They are smaller, lighter and (usually) cheaper than standard domes. All music the ears of almost every underwater photographer!
Photographically their real advantage is that their small size makes it much easier to position (small) strobes close to the port. This greatly improves the quality of lighting we can achieve in true close focus wide angle (CFWA) and wide angle macro (WAM) shots. However, this important advantage only becomes significant when camera to subject distance is less than about 100mm or 4". Further away it is not significant.
The other advantage for this type of photography is that the small physical size of the port allows us get the lens physically closer to the subject, therefore making it even larger in the frame. For example, I took the photo of the sea urchin (below), which was smaller than half a tennis ball, with the Tokina 10-17mm on its widest setting at 10mm, yet I was able to fill the frame with it. However, this advantage is only realised with a very close focusing lens (like the Tokina 10-17mm or Nikon 10.5mm). Most wide angle lenses will actually give you a large subject magnification with a standard dome than a mini-dome (this is quite a surprise to many people, see examples on page 2).
Mini-domes allowed me to fill the frame (and light it) with this small sea urchin even at 10mm on the Tokina 10-17mm fisheyes. I would not be able to take this perspective with a standard dome.
Small domes can also be used for more typical wide angle photography, but will not perform as well as a standard sized dome. But before we get into the optics we should heed a historical lesson: all the early dome ports were mini-domes. Big domes were too expensive and difficult to make. And they weren't called mini-domes back then, simply domed portholes (port is an abbreviation of porthole, by the way) as they were the only size available. The innovation photographers wanted back then was actually to make them bigger, to overcome some of their optical issues. Photographers getting over-excited about mini-domes as the latest invention should take note!
I go into some detail below, so for those who don't want to get too techie, the take home message is mini-domes are best for CFWA and WAM. The most suitable lenses are close focusing fisheye lenses (e.g. Tokina 10-17mm, Sigma 15mm), rectilinear wide angle zooms will not work well. A mini-dome and fisheye can be used for more standard wide angle, but the lens needs to be stopped down to at least F13 (approx) for decent corner sharpness with DX/APS-C cameras (more on FX/FF). They are unsuitable for split-level images. You can skip to the concluding comments if you want now!
The main negatives associated with mini-domes relate to how the optics affects the virtual image. Every dome port acts as a negative lens underwater, creating a virtual image of the subject (much closer to the camera than the subject really is) that the lens must focus on. A small, highly curved dome will produce a virtual image that is closer to the camera and more steeply curved than a large dome.
Comparison of the virtual images created by an mini-dome and standard dome of a subject at infinity in water. Note that a mini-dome creates a virtual image that is both closer and more curved than is created by a standard dome.
Optical theory tells how close the virtual image will be for a hemispherical dome. Underwater, the virtual image of a subject at infinity will be 4 times the (spherical) radius of the dome (from the centre of the dome), in other words 3 times the radius from the front of the dome.
So for a hemispherical mini-dome, with a diameter of 100mm (4") and a radius of 50mm (2"), a subject at infinity will be seen as a virtual image (distance = 3 x radius) just 150mm (6") from the dome. Of course, our underwater subjects are always closer than infinity, so will require the lens to focus closer still. Standard sized fisheye domes will produce a virtual image that is between 350mm and 450mm from the dome (14"-18").
So mini-domes require lenses that can focus close. Most modern fisheyes fit the bill perfectly, but the Nikon 16mm (that I use on my FX sensor D700), for example, does not focus close enough to be useful with a mini-dome. It provides a valuable lesson about the restrictions of a mini-dome (see below). The Nikon 16mm has a stated minimum focus (note this is sensor to subject) of 250mm, compared with 140mm for a Tokina 10-17mm or Nikon 10.5mm. This translates to about 110mm from the front of the lens for the 16mm. Most rectilinear zoom lenses from Nikon and Canon have minimum focus distances between 280mm and 300mm, which is one limitation of using them with small domes.
You need a lens that focuses close to make full use of a mini-dome. Tthe 16mm FE, although considered a close focusing lens, cannot focus close enough and achieves a larger subject size in the frame with a standard dome, than a mini-dome. These two images were taken with the Nikon 16mm on my D700 behind a standard dome (left) and mini-dome (right). The lens was set on minimum focus and backing slowly away from the subject, I took the picture when the subject was in focus. This lens cannot focus that close (to about 100mm from the dome) and is unable to focus on the virtual image of closer subjects created by the mini-dome.
However, things are very different with the right lens. The Tokina 10-17mm, which can focus very close achieves much larger subject magnification with the mini-dome. I was not able to get any closer to the rubber duck with the standard dome because the duck (on the left, below) was already pressed against the glass. The mini-dome does not stick out as far, I can therefore get the lens closer to the subject and achieve a larger magnification (right).
You need a lens that focuses close to make full use of a mini-dome. The 10-17mm (here on my D2X) can focus right to the dome, which means with the standard dome the subject magnification is limited when glass hits the subject! The smaller mini-dome allows the lens to get closer to the subject and to almost fill the frame with the subject. Note that the lens used for these images has the same angle of view as the previous images.
The other optical consequence of a mini-dome is that the virtual image is steeply curved. Lenses are built to focus on a flat plane and when we focus in the centre of the virtual image the corners are closer to the lens and therefore out of focus. The closer to the camera and the more curved the virtual image (the smaller and more curved the dome) the more of a problem this is. At any given aperture, the corners of our image will be less sharp with a mini-dome than with a large FE dome. Rectilinear wide angle zooms often struggle for corner sharpness behind standard domes, a problem made a lot worse with a mini-dome.
We can overcome corner sharpness by increasing depth of field, stopping the lens down (when possible). Using an APS-C or DX camera will also give us more depth of field for the same angle of view and aperture than on FF/FX, which will also improve the corners. We can also help matters by making sure we have open water in all four corners of the frame.
The example below compares corner sharpness at two apertures (2 stops apart) taken with 10-17mm @ 11mm on DX camera using the Zen mini-dome (since all the mini-domes are the same shape you can expect close to identical performance on this issue from other brands). Note that both look fine at screen resolution, but at 100% the difference in the corners is clear. Also note, that if you mainly show your images projected or online this shortcoming of the mini-dome will be less important to you.
Corner sharpness issues associated with a small dome. These two images of the same subject are taken with D2X + 10-17mm @ 11mm using the Zen mini-dome. The left at f/7.1, right at f/14 (this is a 2 stop difference). At screen res, both look acceptable.
These images are 100% crops of the corners of the images above. At f/7.1 corner sharpness is not acceptable to me. But shut down two stops (f/14) and it is much improved, and while still not perfect is acceptable IMO. As long as you can shoot at f/13-f/14 or more you should get acceptable results on DX/APS-C with the a mini-dome. These are screen grabs from Lightroom.
I also did pool tests, where I was able to compare the mini and stand domes. From these I concluded that the corner sharpness difference between a big dome and small dome is about 1.5-2 stops (i.e. for the same corner sharpness as f/8 on a large dome, you need to be at f/14-f/16 on the small dome). I have deleted these files so I can't show them. But Ryan Canon said on the Wetpixel forums that they found the same in their tests of the Zen mini-dome against the standard Zen dome.
An obvious limitation of the small size of a mini-dome is that it is unsuitable for split-level images, because the meniscus of the water takes up a much larger proportion of the frame and is harder to control.
Finally, mini-domes, because the dome is so close to the lens, can cause problems housing a variety of lenses. Fisheyes, in particular, with their wide view can be troublesome and the dome really needs to be set up for one particular lens. If the lens is too far forward the hood/shade will hit the inside of the glass. If the lens is too far back it will see the sides of the port/shade. The difference is very small and too small to be solves with port extension rings.
For a real world example, the Zen mini-dome I tested was setup for the Tokina 10-17mm on a DX Nikon in a Subal housing, and worked perfectly. However, when I tried to use this port with a Nikon 16mm and Sigma 15mm on a FX Nikon in a Subal housing I had problems. The Nikon 16mm, a slightly shorter lens than the Tokina 10-17mm would see the shade of the port, causing cut off in the image (see first duck images). (This should not be called vignetting, BTW, which is an optical effect of a lens causing darker corners of the frame. This is just blockage or cut off, no need for fancy words that mean something else!). The Sigma 15mm was even more of a problem. Its longer hood meant that it could only fit in the port focused on infinity, when it tried to focus closer its longer hood hit the glass. While as the same time also suffering cut off from the port shade. The Sigma 15mm requires either some of its shade or that of the port being machined away to work.
In all this techno chat it is easy to loose sight of the fact that mini-domes allow us to create images that we could not with a big dome: taking wide angle views with a relatively small subject dominating the foreground. And because of the small size of the dome we can achieve a high quality of lighting (with big domes these photos always have the light behind the subject and the face of the fish in the semi-shade). This is exciting news for the underwater photographer.
So, should you get one?
If you are a keen underwater photographer, who already has a large dome port then a mini-dome should be high on your shopping list. Like the best accessories it will expand your portfolio allowing you to take photos that you cannot at present (such as WAM). The case will be even stronger if you shoot with an APS-C or DX camera. A mini-dome will also provide a light-weight travel alternative to your main dome, such as when travelling to macro focused destinations such as Lembeh.
If you are new to SLRs and looking for a cheaper alternative to a standard sized fisheye dome then the mini-dome does fit the bill. With a very close focusing fisheye lens (such as the Tokina 10-17mm), it will allow you to take a wide range of images from WAM to CFWA to standard wide angle. Just remember to keep the lens stopped down whenever possible. A mini-dome will also lessen the inevitable baggage expansion that comes hand in hand with the upgrade to SLR.
But there are a few warnings. First, as discussed above, the mini-dome has some optical shortfalls. If it is your only dome you will not be able to shoot quality split level images and you will struggle to get good results from lenses other than your fisheye. If you already own or consider buying a rectilinear wide angle zoom, then you will be buying a standard sized dome in the future too. Buying both and mini-dome and standard dome is always more expensive than just buying a standard dome in the first place!
Many of my most popular images were produced using mini-domes and I will always remain a big fan. I consider it an essential piece of kit. Just less essential than a standard sized dome.
Perhaps sometimes you can get too close. The author photographed with Zen mini-dome. D700 + 15.
Alex Mustard – March 2010.
Many thanks to Adam Hanlon for lending me his Zen 100 port and for help and support from Richard and Ryan and Reef Photo and Video.