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Best Lenses for Underwater Photography


Submitted by admin on 2011-04-08

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Introduction
Full Frame vs Cropped Sensor
Wide Angle Lenses
Macro Lenses

So you've invested a lot of money in a DSLR camera, a quality underwater housing system and your lighting set-up, naturally next you'll be looking to do is expand your photographic opportunities by getting some new glass. It's no secret that lenses aren't exactly objects acquired with pocket change and can set you back thousands of dollars; with that said it's definitely not a part of your setup you'll want to financially hold back on. If money is tight I'd even recommend buying a cheaper DSLR body and spending more on quality lenses.

Underwater photography, while not being cheap - is far cheaper than other forms of wild life photography, primarily because you'll be working with wide angle lenses and not telephoto lenses.

In many cases buying a DSLR will work out a better deal when you buy it with the kit lens, in most cases this will be an 18-55mm lens, which is a zoom lens with a maximum width of 18mm and being extendable to 55mm. And while this may suffice, it's certainly not ideal for underwater photography. While there is definitely a place for zoom lenses in the 20mm - 100mm range in some parts of the ocean, I will be dealing primarily with wide angle and macro lenses here.

Think of the lens as your eyes, because essentially that is what it will be, and as such you want to get the post possible results! So I advise again, do NOT skimp on lenses.

Full Frame vs Cropped Sensor

One of the hot topics in photography these days is the decision on whether to get a full frame camera or a cropped sensor. The full frame cameras will typically be quite a bit more expensive than their cropped sensor counter-parts. In short the difference between the two is that a full frame camera will give you a wider perspective, where as for example a typical 1.6x cropped sensor will allow you to have more zoom distance; this is to say, should you have a 10-20mm lens for an example - on a full frame sensor this lens will give the width advertised, you will be able to go as wide as 10mm and zoom in to 20mm, though this same lens on a 1.6x cropped sensor will give you the range of 16mm - 32mm. A full frame sensor will also give you about 1.5 stops better performance, with the handling of noise and the contrast of an image.

About now I bet you're thinking, "Wow this is great, I really wish I had a full frame camera so I could get the most out of wide angle lenses, especially since he just said I'd primarily be using wide angle lenses for underwater photography".

Well... It isn't as clear cut as that at all. While it's true that the full frame generally produces better performance under certain circumstances, the full frame sensor has its list of drawbacks too.

It's very important to remember that full frame sensors do not handle lenses which were made for cropped sensors very well, and let's just say there's a LOT of lenses which were made with cropped sensors in mind. Some of the most popular underwater photography lenses are made for cropped sensors and by buying a full frame camera you will definitely be limiting yourself.

Scuba Diving Article - Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye
Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye
Photo by Dray van Beeck

When you use a wide angle lens you will also allow yourself to become a possible victim to vignetting. Vignetting is where you experience darkening on the corners of your image and can be produced on both full frame and cropped censors with certain lenses. This is something that differs greatly between lenses and something which is typically seen as a benchmark for a lenses performance, the less vignetting the better. Full frame sensors are far more prone to vignetting when you are not using lenses which were made specifically for a full frame camera. Though there is the ability to use an extender on a full frame which will help prevent vignetting. Though while this may be a good way of making the most of a ‘bad situation’, I don’t see the logic in buying a full frame for underwater photography just to have to spend more in an effort to get images right.

There are far more detailed articles on the internet regarding full frame vs cropped sensors. I've just touched on some of what there is to know.

My personal suggestion for underwater photography would be to stay with a cheaper cropped sensor camera and go for the Canon 7D over the 5D for example. It will give you more flexibility between lenses and in my eyes the full frame camera remains something which serves its purpose best in portrait photography and not in wild life.

Scuba Diving Article - Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye
Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye
Photo by Dray van Beeck

Wide Angle Lenses

Wide angle lenses are vital in underwater photography. Unlike general photography where you have thousands of meters of visibility to work with, underwater visibility is often very limited. A wide angle lens will give you the ability to get closer to the object you want to shoot and as such it will give you a clearer image. Not only this, but wide angle lenses give you that ability to capture reefscape photos in a way that a regular lens just can't.

It is also important to ensure that your underwater housing dome is capable of using wide angle lenses, and you may need to make an additional purchase for this. There's a fascinating article on dome port optics for wide angle lenses on uwphotographyguide.

Tokina AT-X DX 10-17mm F3.5-4.5 Fisheye

The Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye is probably the most used underwater wide angle lens available. A number of our featured photographers use this as their primary underwater lens. Fisheye lenses do not work by the same measurements of width in the sense that a 15mm fisheye will be considerably wider than 15mm on a 10-20mm lens.

    Lens Specifications
  • 380 Grams
  • Dimensions: 71mm x 70mm
  • No filter holder
  • Min. F22 @10mm and F29 @ 17mm

The Tokina 10-17mm is quite a fast lens for a wide angle, with a max aperture of F3.5 though you will find the best results at around F8 to F11, the typical sweet spot for most wide angle lenses.

You will need to work on your strobe positioning if you're going wide angle for the first time, so a little bit of practicing in a local shore dive before heading out is probably the best bet. Using 2 strobes is recommended for any of the wide angle lenses.

The 10-17mm also offers flexibility; when an extender is added you can achieve some really interesting macro type shots with a unique perspective on the image.

As far as fisheye lenses go, the Tokina 10-17mm is brilliant and works extremely well for underwater photography. While full frame sensors will look at prime fisheye lenses, if you're shooting on a cropped sensor the 10-17mm is probably one of the best lenses you can buy for typical wide angle underwater photography.

Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM

While the Tokina 10-17mm offers great underwater shots, being a fisheye; it is subject to lots of barrel distortion. Of course being a fisheye, this is what you want - though there are occasions where you may want to have straight lines when diving, such as when diving wrecks or under piers, this is where the Sigma 8-16mm can come in useful.

    Lens Specifications
  • 545 Grams
  • No filter thread
  • Min. F22 @8mm and F29 @ 16mm

The Sigma 8-16mm has taken rectilinear wide angle lenses to the next step. The Sigma 10-20mm, which has remained a very popular wide angle lens offered a field of view of 107' at 10mm where the 8-16mm offers 121' at its widest point - still well short of the field of view offered by the Tokina fisheye.

The Sigma 8-16mm produces the kind of images you could expect from it. Sigma did well on the 10-20mm, so it's only natural that they would want to bring over their wide angle success to this new lens, and optically they have. The Sigma 8-16mm produces extremely sharp images. Though apparently the USM is a bit noisy, not having tested it myself I am unable to compare, but I always found my 10-20mm Sigma to be quiet.

The lens is definitely a quality piece of glass and should you find yourself wanting a rectilinear wide angle lens that will offer you straight lines without the barrel distortion of a fisheye lens then the Sigma 8-16mm can definitely be something to investigate more in.

A useful review and image samples can be found on the following website: Nauticamusa

Manufacturer Details

Scuba Diving Article - Nikon 105mm Macro
Nikon 105mm Macro
Photo by Dray van Beeck

Macro Lenses

Many underwater photographers want to focus primarily on macro photography and for this you will need to invest in a macro lens. A macro lens revolves around a desire for a shallow depth of field.

Where wide angle photography will typically want a fairly large depth of field and for as much detail to come through as possible, macro lenses allow you to focus on a single certain object. Dedicated macro lenses will typically have a fixed focal length - most commonly either a 50mm or 60mm or a 100mm or 105mm, though there are other options available.

Canon 105mm/Nikon 100mm

While Canon and Nikon produce their own macro lenses to be used on their own camera body, these two lenses produce similar results so we will take a look at them together.

The Canon 105mm and Nikon 100mm macro lenses both have fixed lengths of 105mm and 100mm respectively. These lenses will offer you the ability to keep a fair distance from the subject when taking the photograph without having to risk scaring it off. This will be needed for small fish, shrimp and other marine life that don't like you getting too close.

Scuba Diving Article - Canon 100mm Macro
Canon 100mm Macro
Photo by Kim Yusuf

At 100mm or 105mm the distance can cause a few problems if the waters are of particularly bad visibility, though the versatility of this lens outweighs that small negative factor, and in my mind these lenses are probably first choice if you're looking for a macro lens. They both have good reputations in underwater photography and provide sharp images, as one would hope with a macro lens. These lenses also impressed me with their shallow depth of field appearance, which is superior to some of the other macro lenses.

Personally I'd advise on getting at least a 100mm when it comes to macro photography. It's often just not practical to need to get on top of a subject when taking the photograph. And I should add that Sigma also makes a quality 105mm macro lens.

Canon/Nikon 60mm

The 60mm macro lens is the other popular macro lens and comes with its own set of pros and cons.

At 60mm you will be required to get close to your subject, though this isn't always a bad thing. Often during shooting you will encounter pieces of coral growth which block the view of subject; this is where using a 60mm will help you, you will be able to get passed the object blocking the subject of your shot more often this way.

With that said, as can be expected; the closer you get the subject the more likely it is to flee. Using the 60mm will work well on subjects such as crustaceans, plants and sea creatures that do not scare easily, though I wouldn't recommend trying to use a 60mm macro lens when you're after a mantis shrimp.

Two other pros that the 60mm has going for it is that considering you need to get so close to your subject for the shot, it means that you can get clearer images in lower visibility than the 100mm. It also has a better auto-focus meaning that low light conditions such as night dives become more easily handled.

Side Note: For those interested in longer macro lenses there is the Sigma 150mm macro, though I was unable to find sample images of this lens for underwater photography. It's a quality long range macro lens and if anyone has any samples of how it performs underwater I'd love to hear about it below. The Sigma 150mm macro was also developed with full frame cameras in mind.

In conclusion, these are just 4 of the commonly used, high quality lenses which will serve you well in underwater photography. If you're starting out I would definitely suggest in getting the wide angle first before you head into macro photography, though many prefer to do it the other way around and in the end it's really up to you. This article is just meant to give suggestions for lenses to look into, be sure to read several in-depth reviews on a product before making the decision to actually buy it.

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 2011-04-14
5 out of 5 stars Nice article! I am still learning underwater photography as a beginner. It's a bit expensive for me but I want to continue, This article may help when I reach that area of underwater photography!

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