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Review: A look at the next generation of distortion-free underwater lenses

September, 2003


Field of (Vision) Dreams: If you build it they will come!

A Revolution in Underwater Video
Lenses for HD, DV and 16:9
A look at the next generation of distortion-free underwater lenses

By Jay Garbose Underwater Video Producer and FCP'er

It must have been foresight that the New Underwater Lens Revolution is based in the Southbridge area of central Massachusetts once considered the Optical Capital of the World. American Optical has had more companies spin-off than any other in the world. A pair of visionaries at Fathom Imaging, originally a brainchild of JBV Optical Products and Micro Optech, is working to provide our industry with the highest quality distortion-free lenses to accommodate the new generation of high-definition and wide-screen format digital camcorders and still cameras.

The formidable optical and laser expertise of Dr. Paul Remijan (above right) and John B. Voyles (above left) has been employed in the medical, military and industrial sectors for over 35 years. They are both protégés of John Wilbur Hicks, one of the inventors of fiber optics in High Definition communication technology.

Dr. Remijan got his PhD in optical physics for the design and manufacture of high precision analytical instruments. He worked on the Hubble Telescope. His true acumen is in designing optical equipment and studying the human eye. But that's what is intriguing about his venture into underwater lenses. He knows how the human eye works. He is the R&D man and quiet one.

Voyles is the "master optician of analytical optics" in the world of lenses, prisms, mirrors and beams. He specializes in the hands-on manufacture of high-quality laser optics, thin film coatings, and optical assembly. He worked on laser optical beam delivery systems for unmanned submarines. He is the outgoing business and PR man.

Fathom Imaging is now at the forefront of the field of specialized lenses and adaptors for underwater image acquisition. And it makes sense that if they can help man see into space at great distances and to see into the human body on a microscopic level, then why not the ocean bottom, too? With concepts and designs by Dr. Remijan and optical production technologies by Voyles, all of the major underwater camera housing manufacturers want these type lenses made to work with their own cutting-edge products

Water complicates videography. Underwater videographers complicate videography. Considering the myriad sea critters and conditions we encounter, we also ask the impossible of our camera setups. Ultimately, either you "got the shot" or did not. So it is welcome news when a lens of the highest quality and, frankly, considerable expense, delivers crystal clear imagery for wide-angle as well as macro photography in both water and air with full zoom-through capability. Imagine no vignetting and extremely low distortion of the entire field of view eventually up to 110 degrees for NTSC or PAL in seawater. No more "fisheye" tunnel vision.

It must be a housing manufacturer's nightmare to produce a housing for the newest camcorder that, on today's market, gets replaced every eighteen months. Of course, the electronics companies drive it all. When Sony, Canon, JVC and Panasonic introduce new camcorders requiring a housing by each company, think what a precision lens maker faces when designing for a new camera that fits in each housing differently and has a different field of vision, focal angle and length. That's enough to make someone who is 20/20 go blurry-eyed.

And what must a lens maker produce to justify the average $4000-$6,500 MSRP cost? Remarkable video with high resolution, incredible clarity, minimum distortion, no vignetting, color correction, versatility, and durability! All pretty amazing considering the staggering demands of digital camera and broadcast technology to produce instantaneous revolutionary optic solutions. Essentially, Fathom Imaging's lenses are a custom-made matched set for each camera in every housing as if it were an individual eyeglass prescription.

I had the opportunity to test their SWAP (Super Wide Angle Port) 100-degree underwater adaptor with support for 12X zoom, air and water lens made for Gates Underwater Products' Sony VX-2000/PD150 housing. Sea trials occurred on three ocean dives off Palm Beach, Florida, to 50, 80 and 100 feet lasting about three hours total. The Fathom Super Wide Angle Port has six (6) high precision glass elements, all with a custom High Efficiency Broad Band Anti-Reflective (HEBBAR) coating, providing superior light transmission. The elements are assembled with a nitrogen purge and vacuum seal process, and the external BK-7 dome element has a super hard laser coating that stands up to seawater and aggressive post-dive cleaning. It fits externally with a double o-ring neck that penetrates a precise distance into the housing opening. It pushes in and turns positively until it stops.

The camera is locked into place on a sled that has two prongs in front and a fixed screw in the rear to prevent the slightest misalignment. I suggest they provide a quick, tool-less release for rapid removal of the camera from the housing for quick tape changes alone.

The lens is fairly large and heavy requiring a PVC flotation tube bungeed around it to keep its nose up. Although the entire unit is heavy on land, it can be managed with one hand down below. It is so well balanced that it pans on a steady horizontal plane while weighted slightly negatively to keep from floating up.

The Gates' housing lives up to its "bulletproof" reputation with their machined aluminum, black type III "hard" anodized finish sealed with a nickel-acetate process. The test housing was newly upgraded with an improved white balance control. Mine came with the optional color monitor although the magnified viewfinder worked well. I would like to have their optional microphone and water intrusion alarm. I am spoiled by electronic controls, but Gates is known for building "tanks" whose manual levers and wheels are mostly fool proof. I was impressed by the ease of their use.

Fathom Imaging explains that high magnification close-ups can be recorded at full zoom when an object is only 6 inches from the port vertex in air and 18 inches from the port vertex in seawater. Minimum Underwater Object Distance (MUOD) is compressed from 44 inches from a conventional flat port using a ZEF (Zoom Enable Feature) designed into the adaptor. The purpose of ZEF is to duplicate macro lens magnification by enabling effective use of the entire 12X zoom range of the VX 2000 camcorder lens. Magnification at full 12X zoom is substantial and equivalent to the magnification attained by setting the camcorder at "half zoom" and adding a 2-diopter macro lens. Some model lenses work just in water with full zoom and some in air and water allowing split-shots, but with no zoom. Their product line of lenses and adaptors range from 60 to 110 degrees of Field of View (FOV) with less than 3% distortion over the entire FOV in seawater and up to 120 degrees in air!

Shooting in 4:3 mode, with the Fathom Super Wide Angle Port SWAP, there was no vignetting at all. All the corners were crisp. My own TRV900/BlueFin Light & Motion setup with its super wide-angle lens performs exceptionally, but occasionally shows vignetting in the upper corners when I edit in Final Cut Pro. That's okay for today's TV. I immediately noticed that the features on a sea turtle's shell in the foreground were sharp, and the divers swimming in the far background were in focus too. With no lights (HID lamps optionally available), but using the convenient highly effective flip-down color-correction filter and a manually adjusted white balance, I was able to achieve rich, warm spectrum tones at 90 feet. The lens did so well in poor visibility and low light, divers seeing the video couldn't believe they were on the same dive. The lens's non-reflective coatings minimize sunflares generated by light bouncing off the inside of the elements.

Although most underwater videographers avoid zooming with the camera, I was able to focus easily on a swimming turtle's head from 50 feet and pull back for a truly clear long shot. That is not easy especially with the particulates in the water. In most shots, including the jpeg stills from the memory stick function, you'd think there was no water at all. I could use my body as the zoom as I normally do, and actually dimple a sponge with the dome of the lens with a slight blur at the point of contact at macro range. You still need a diopter for the super macro shots. I couldn't be sure how close I was through the viewfinder. Because of the design, split shots across the air-water refraction line are not only possible, but also quite visually appealing. No one wants to open a housing to change lenses in salt air unless necessary. Being able to go from wide-angle to macro keeps the subject matter options open. So, wide-angle and macro capability with one lens is the long and short of versatility. As another approach, most housing manufacturers now offer optional wet-mount lens adaptor systems that allow swap of the external parts while underwater. I have not tried one but it is too easy to trap seawater and floaty things between the camera lens and the adaptor.

As to durability, and adaptability, I warned them that I field test by putting the product through its paces by normal use, my normal use. I swim through and hit objects like soft corals and sponges as I approach a subject. I fall off the boat with the camera on. I have been known to bump off a sandpaper-skinned shark if it doesn't afford me the mutual respect due my Florida Bar Association membership card. So the lens better take it, especially at those prices. It better withstand the everyday bumps and dings associated with being on and getting on and off boats in rough seas. Other than the boat crew putting the plastic lens and eyepiece covers on, the rig got shoved in the fresh water dip tank like any other snap shooter.

The entire Atlantic seaboard experienced an unexplained summer of coastal cold-water upwellings that brought record low water temperatures. Underwater photographers learn fast that rapid change in temperature can fog the best system with condensation and even disable the camcorder's tape advance. Just going between air-conditioning to tropical outdoors may do it. During testing, the prototype SWAP did not fog after descent from a hot surface to the 57-degree bottom. Fathom's special assembly process in their NASA-like, clean whiteroom makes that quick recovery possible.

The big four housing makers are Gates Underwater Products, Light & Motion Industries, Amphibico and Sea & Sea. Fathom has tried various partnering arrangements with these companies, but may be fast evolving into an end provider in its own right. Fathom Imaging's entry into the underwater videography market was in 1995 when Dr. Remijan designed the first glass $6,500 asphere for Val Ranetkins, founder of Amphibico. He had to specially adapt it for their VX1000 housing's existing small bulkhead lens opening. Amphibico still sells it for their TRV900/950, VX2000/PD150, and VX1000 setups. In 1997-98, Dr. Remijan designed Amphibico's High-Definition Underwater Adaptor for the Sony HDW-F900 to match the Canon lens for their still-in-use HD housing. When the VX2000/PD150 came out, Amphibico decided to go its own way and try to make its own lenses. Amphibico recently came out with a compact super wide-angle 100-degree aspheric lens for $1,995 for all its bayonet-mounted housings.

That's when Fathom offered its lenses and know-how to Gates and Light & Motion. Ellwyn Gates and his successor, John Ellerbrock, the new forward thinking owner of Gates, eagerly adapted their company's housings to specifically allow mating with Fathom Imaging's lenses and then ordered their complete product line to market. That willingness to change allowed the effect of Dr. Remijan's optics to be maximized. Ellerbrock is looking ahead to having lens adaptors available when each new full HD camera is made public. On September 21st, Gates announced the introduction of the WP25, WP35 and SWP25 ports designed by Fathom Imaging for all their housings including the HD1 Hi Definition housing. "The SWP25 is a Hi Performance port with full zoom through capability, allowing unprecedented 110° wide angle down to 1.6" full frame macro shots."

In Light & Motion's case, Fathom designed, adapted, manufactured and provided the optical components for the super wide 100-degree aspheric lens for their BlueFin VX2000/PD150 housings, which they assemble and sell themselves. A SWAP for their TRV900/950 is on the way. Fathom Imaging offers a made-to-order custom-built 100-degree lens for Sea & Sea's VX2000/PD150 housing. Fathom is seeking resellers of their entire product line.

Fathom Imaging is engineering professional lenses but also looking ahead to bring high-quality, affordable lenses to the amateurs at entry level. Fathom will be making for four feature specific lens category levels (professional, semi-professional, advanced and entry level) which can even be mounted on less expensive recreational housings. Smaller housing companies like Equinox Underwater Products (manual controls), Ocean Images, Inc. and UnderSea Video Housings (electronic controls) are benefiting from these innovations. More and more, in order to take advantage of all of a camcorder's functional capabilities via the LANC, all housings will have some hybrid combination of manual and electronic housing controls.

Where is it heading? Jean-Michel Cousteau and Wes Skiles are using Fathom Imaging 's HD products. With their own innovations, Howard Hall and Bob Cranston have "gone where no one has gone before" with IMAX. James Cameron has updated his 3D-stereoscopic image technology and adapted it for underwater. There is a lot of new equipment out there. If a lens can do this with today's mini-DV and DVCAM cameras, then its capabilities will be transforming with HD CCD's and wide-screen mode. Video no longer ends up just on your TV. Digital video now outputs to movie house wide screen, home media center HD plasma screens, wide screen computer LCD monitors, DVD's, Video CD's MPEG4, streaming video, and digital tape. That puts some hefty expectations on the High Resolution display of all those millions of pixels no matter on what size screen it is shown. Digital cinematography is merging with all of it.

Fathom Imaging continues to break new ground. Now, they are building an adaptor kit that will make possible attachment of professional lenses to less expensive housings. So, Fathom Imaging's lenses will be accessible for all levels of shooters and will work with all housings even if custom fitting their lenses is needed for any mating system. Camcorder lenses are also available for the Sony TRV900/950 and PDX10 and for the Canon XL1S and GL2 series in a number of configurations and prices. There is one for the Canon EOS-1DS digital still camera. In R&D are lenses for the JVC JY-HD10U and HDK-79EX Full Digital HDTV Camera System. I am anxious to see their new 1:12 diopter Super Macro Zoom lens. That should fill a screen with something really small! Fathom Imaging is building it and they are coming.

Content related Links: (Light & Motion)

©2003Jay Garbose Underwater Video & Internet Productions

Jay Garbose: Inspired by Ron and Valerie Taylor's shark documentaries and exploits, Jay Garbose's years practicing law gave way to his full-time profession as Jay Garbose Underwater Video & Internet Productions in Florida. He is producing broadcast quality documentaries and internet productions with Final Cut Pro. Recently, he has been interviewed and shown footage on the West Palm Beach NBC affiliate and has had his videos featured on a news story on The Today Show. Other credits include footage contributed to HBO for an Emmy-award winning special on endangered species, Texas Educational TV, local TV news stories and file footage at National Geographic. The Smithsonian Marine Station in Florida has his videos on permanent display. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Mote Marine Institute both use his videos in their research. Jay has dived all over the world in Florida, Australia, Indonesia, Bali, Komodo, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Red Sea, Mexico, Costa Rica, Caymans, Honduras and the Bahamas.

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