Updated kit review. Tokina 10-17mm lens, Zen mini-dome, Fantasea Line Vacuum Safety System
In staying true to my style I over read reviews and forums and questioned any experienced photographer who would offer advice for months for advice on price, quality, usability and style of shooting which led to the new kit I chose. During lock down I decided to take the plunge on the new kit, not knowing when I would actually get the chance to jump in the water to test it, but finally got the chance to get it wet on a day trip to Lundy island then a week in the Red Sea.
Wide angle fisheye coral landscape, teaming with biodiversity.
Below is a run down of the kit and an honest review of the experience so far
Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom lens
Sigma MC-11 Lens converter
Fantasea Line port converter and zoom ring
Zen 100mm mini dome
Hybrid vacuum pump and pressure sensor
Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom lens
There isn't really much to say about the Tokina it has been a go-to lens for photographers on cropped sensors for years. It's a cracker of a lens, coverage ranging from 180 degrees at full zoom out and an incredible small focal range for close focus wide angle (CFWA). But, a huge drawback for Sony shooters it than it doesn't come with a native mount, meaning lens converters are needed. reading reviews before the upgrade was daunting as there were a mix of reviews on the effectiveness of different converters, and the reviews often didn't justify the price or the affects of the converter itself.
Sigma MC-11 Lens converter
But this is changing and the reviews I saw about the Sigma MC-11 allowing functionality with the Sony E-mount camera body were promising, the videos look like focus was fast, so I took the plunge and went for it. And I have to say, I am really impressed with the results, for photos. Video, not as much but there are work arounds, plus, I'm not a video shooter. The mount converter comes with the ability for firmware updates which is handy, although after the initial update, I haven't gone back to check for anything new. Here are some shots I took of the dogs in the field testing the fish eye effect and the speed of the autof ocus. Chasing dogs getting sharp images was easy with little to no hunting on the camera focus. So the lens and the Sigma MC-11 work a treat, time to get it in the water. For that I need the port converter and zoom ring.
Shooting the dogs on the Sigma and Tokina
Fantasea line FML – FNX Converter 55G and zoom ring
The port converter itself is good quality aluminum alloy, coming in at about 290 g. and the zoom ring and lens holder are super light weigh 3D printed plastic. I have to admit, the toughness of the zoom ring is questionable as i have seen some plastic granules accumulate around the teeth of the zoom pins. I suspect this was due to over rotation of the zoom dial which caused the teeth to grip into the zoom ring, I may have to finesse a way to make sure I can't over zoom past the lens capability.
Zen 100mm mini dome DP-100-ST.
For weeks I was deliberating over the right 100mm dome to go with, in particular, the Sea&Sea, the Zen or the Saga brands. After my cost/weight/quality analysis I couldn't fault the Zen dome, the reviews were solid and other great shooter were using the brand, so I jumped all in.
The construction is really nice, although my dome came with the labeling upside down, which confused me longer than it should have when I was first putting the gear together. What struck me immediately when I put the dome on and locked it into the lens converter, was that it was loose, in that the dome has a good bit or room to twist back and forth when the converter pin has already dropped into place, in terms of movement outwards that might cause a water intake, there was nothing, but I was a little worried at first. So I decided to test the housing with a vacuum pump system installed onto the M16 bulkhead to see if the converter and dome is stabilised under pressure.
Fantasea Hybrid Vacuum Safety System M16A
The hybrid vacuum system comes with the V2 housings and the other current Fantasea Line housings, but as a V1 owner, I wanted to jump at getting the system installed only my housing for that peace of mind.
The kit comes with a dual moisture alarm as well as a pressure sensor alarm system, plus a pump for pre-dive checks. It is super easy to install or replace the existing sensor apart from finding room for the switch and charger pack. I solved this issue by gluing a Velcro pad onto the housing where the charger is tucked away and when its needed it pulls out easy for a connection to a charger. So far it has worked a treat, recharging take a few minutes tops and the system stays powered all day.
So firstly back to the dome port unit. When fully pressurized, the unit is rock solid, I did test by applying pressure in the dome and converter but it is not going to budge, so any subsequent bump underwater will not affect the integrity of the housing. One issue that I did now stumble upon was that when the camera was set up, the battery pack (and SD card) was not accessible. Now Sony batteries for a6500 are well known for not lasting very long, on my last dive trip I was averaging 200 shots over 3 dives, and almost if not depleting the battery each time. So what do you have to do to replace a battery if need be:
Depressurize the housing, take off the dome and the lens hood, Take off the converter and the zoom gear around the Tokina lens, then slide out the camera from the plate. Replace the battery and put it all together again. Is it a faff? Indeed. Does it take long once you are used to it? Nah, and on a good dive boat its no big deal, on a small boat, you are going to get frustrated.
So lets get onto usability. Photography wise, I have not had an issue with focus searching at all . The shutter speed is capped at 1/160 and a few native options are invalid, but the lens had been so fun so far. The only draw back is that at 10mm the lens hood vignettes into frame, meaning shots without cropping are only viable at 12mm onwards, I think ideally the lens should sit a few mm more forward in the dome to solve the issue.
First trip with the lens and port set up at Lundy. Immediately in love with the lens and the seals equally.
Getting in Close
CFWA has been great! On a trip the the Red Sea with soft coral galore, it is very east to tuck the dome in nice and tight and low. The corners are not insanely sharp, but for the stage I am at, I can happily live with it. The only other issue I had on this trip was due to back button focusing, I kept on hitting the record button when trying to one hand the rig and stretch out to get the dome close to a subject, resulting in a few missed shots when I realised I bumped record, but that is a 'me' issue to rectify.
The 100m dome allowed me to pull the camera in tight under this coral ledge to capture the soft coral and the diver and bomey in the distance, something impossible in a larger dome in the same spot without sitting way further back and cropping down.
On the subject of video, the auto focus hunts for me using the MC-11, no two ways about it here, but the best work around was to focus first then record the video. I've had good and bad results with soft focus, but I honestly have spent very little time on it as I primarily shoot still. I will do some dedicated in water testing some time in the future. Speaking with people using the Metabones adapter, they seem to have the opposite issue, so hopefully the issue can get sorted with an updates for both in the future. So after this honest assessment, how do I feel? Well, I love it! the results I've pulled from my first 20 dives have been so fun and I can't wait to try and master the kit into the future. CFWA and getting that full fish eye look has been a blast to learn and the results from the seals was brilliant for first go underwater. The cons are there but its great to know the kit limitation and dive and shoot within those confines in order to shoot to the strengths of the gear and avoid disappointments. I can't see any reason to want any other upgrade until I possibly want to start shooting splits and pine over those sharper corners, but for now I'm stoked.
Light and packable, all kit goes to one carry on
CFWA ability is so fun, getting into tight spots with the fisheye is a huge advantage
Wide angle shots on fisheye are well regarded shots in underwater photography
Vacuum system works well, having that peace of mind is brilliant
Tokina lens is so versatile, perfect lens the for a6500 cropped sensor size
Expensive for conversion MC-11 and port adapter. The MC-11 and port adapter will open up other lenses though so the flexibility of the kit is still great
Dome port only really useful for that one lens, but what a fun and versatile lens it is
Corners aren't mega sharp but still very nice shots
Zoom ring is super light but very soft, I'm wondering how many dives before they get worn down and slip
Vignetting means the most zoomed out scenery is lost
For information about my other gear, check out my previous article here.