Guides & Tutorials

Choosing the best lens for DSLR underwater

lenses 2“Which lenses should I use for underwater photography?”

For Nikon & Canon DSLR’s, Full Frame and Cropped

 

By far, the most important thing when shooting with a DSLR, both top-side and below, is choosing the correct lens.

Underwater, this becomes even more important, because every lens needs different gear and ports, so you want to keep your lens arsenal to a minimum.

If you’ve finally decided your DSLR is ready for the Big Blue, the first thing you need to decide is which lens you will use and then adjust your setup accordingly.

A few common DSLR’s used today for underwater photography are the Nikon D7200 & D7100, D810, D5500 & D5300, D500, Canon 5DS / 5DSR / 5D III & 7D Mark 2, 80D, 700D and 750D.

We’ll go over the best options for Nikon Cropped Sensor, Nikon Full Frame, Canon Cropped Sensor and Canon Full Frame.

If you want to pass on the introduction, just skip to the bottom line:

Best Underwater Lens for Nikon Cropped Sensor

Best Underwater Lens for Nikon Full Frame

Best Underwater Lens for Canon Cropped Sensor

Best Underwater Lens for Canon Full Frame

First of all, choosing a lens depends what type of photography you prefer? Wide angle, Macro, Video, Fashion etc.
Usually it’s best to get at least one wide angle lens and one macro lens. Wide angle is an easier form of photography, so if you lack experience, I would start out with wide and advance to macro.

I recommend not looking for a “general, all-purpose underwater lens”


I recommend not looking for a “general, all-purpose underwater lens”
. Why? Because then all your photos will be “general and all-purpose”. You probably won’t get the best out of any of them.

Underwater, you can’t have your cake and eat it too..
Just try to remember your favorite underwater photos – They were probably all taken either with a cool wide effect or were extreme closeups showing remarkable detail.
Start out with your favorite type – either Macro or Wide and upgrade to the other when you feel like it and have the budget.

Lighting underwater is extremely important. Without that, you won’t be able to get the best out of your lens. If you are shooting stills, getting a strobe would be wise. If you’re into videos, get a good video light. Shooting underwater with a dSLR without lighting gear is like getting a Ferrari and staying under 20mph.

A little introduction to lenses:

( you can click here to skip this intro and get to the point, but I recommend reading this )

Fisheye Lens

As I mentioned earlier, starting off with a wide angle (WA) would be the best choice. Even better is getting a fisheye ultra-wide lens.

Above water, a lot of photographers avoid fisheye lens because the distortion is too surreal for some to handle (though most buy it FOR that special effect). The distortion we all know, makes straight lines bend in a circular fashion. Luckily, there aren’t that many straight lines underwater! I guess that’s why fish have fish eyes and you don’t see them complaining.

Another very important reason to get a fisheye lens, is that underwater, the closer you get, the cooler your photo will be! Whether you are shooting a tiny Nudibranch, or if you’re lucky enough, a Great Blue Whale, you can’t go wrong by getting closer. Even closer! That’s it…

The problem with most lenses is that they have minimum focusing distance, due to optical limitations. Underwater, that limitation gets even worse (due to some more optical mumbo jumbo). Hence getting close to that awesome blue whale will just result in a blurry shot of blue nothingness.
Fisheye lenses are optically made to focus at super close distances so naturally they’re perfect for underwater.

Remember that the “Minimum Focus Distance” on the lens specs is measured from the sensor, not the tip of the lens! So if it says 5.5″ for the Tokina 10-17, in reality it’s less than an inch from the lens tip.

Finally, fisheye lens make it much easier to shoot over-and-under shots, which are plain awesome!

Fisheye lens are optically made to focus at super close distances so naturally they’re perfect for underwater.


Rectilinear Ultra Wide Angle Lens

This type of lens is made for wide angle, but without any barrel distortion. This doesn’t mean there’s no distortion, because you are still trying to fit a very wide piece of scenery to a regular sized frame. The distortion here maintains the straight lines straight, but the rectilinear perspective will cause objects to appear increasingly stretched and enlarged as they near the edge of the frame.

These are quite common above water, and are also very good underwater, though less common than the fisheye lenses. One of the reasons is that Fisheye lenses work better under dome ports, due to optical technicalities.
If you are looking for just one ultra wide lens for above water and below, this would be a good choice.

Margriet Tilstra // Blue Shark taken with Nikon D80 + NIKKOR 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED AF-S DX. Settings: 14mm, f/8, 1/125 ISO 100
Margriet Tilstra // Blue Shark taken with Nikon D80 + NIKKOR 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED AF-S DX. Settings: 14mm, f/8, 1/125 ISO 100

Macro lens

Macro is originally defined as “getting your object to be at least the same size on 35mm film as it is in real life”. That’s called 1:1 magnification that everyone talks about. Once you develop that 35mm film on an A2 paper, you get a pretty huge bug on your wall. Today film is rarely used, and quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter what the exact value of magnification it is, as long as we get small stuff to appear big in our photos!

In order to get that sort of magnification, we have to get close, again. Now we aren’t using a wide angle like before so the focus limitation is much worse, and most lens that aren’t designed for macro just won’t focus closer than 30-50cm even on the widest focal range. When zooming in focus distance deteriorates. That’s where the macro lens comes in. It adjusts the optical distances so that you can get really close even with larger focal lengths (60mm to 105mm etc.). Basically you’re zooming in AND getting closer. Underwater it’s important to keep a safe working distance to avoid scaring away your object, and still being able to fill the frame and focus easily.

Note that for macro lenses, you would use a Flat Port on your housing. This increases the magnification and is easier for focus.

Iyad Suleyman // Blenny Portrait, taken with Nikon D3s, Sigma 150mm lens, +10SubSee and +5 SubSee; Camera settings: ISO100, f/20, 1/200s
Iyad Suleyman // Blenny Portrait, taken with Nikon D3s, Sigma 150mm lens, +10SubSee and +5 SubSee; Camera settings: ISO100, f/20, 1/200s

Marcello Di Francesco // THE INTRUDER, Levanto,Ligurian Sea, Italy Canon 500D + Canon 100mm. Settings: F11 1/200 ISO100
Marcello Di Francesco // THE INTRUDER, Levanto,Ligurian Sea, Italy
Canon 500D + Canon 100mm. Settings: F11 1/200 ISO100

All The Rest

The regular lenses you love above water, such as the 18-55mm, 18-70mm, 18-135mm, 18-200mm, 50mm, 85mm, 70-200mm and more, are relatively inconvenient, inadequate or even useless underwater, so it’s best to stick with the ones described here.
If you are on a tight budget, that might be a good reason to stay with your kit lens and considering upgrading later on. You can greatly improve their results by adding a wet diopter, or dry if your port and lens allow it.

Ok let’s dive right in! 

Best Lens for Nikon Cropped Sensor

Wide Angle:

Tokina 10-17mm f3.5-4.5 Fisheye
MSRP: $579
Min Focus Distance: 5.6″

The 10-17 is perfect for underwater. The close focusing distance, 180° to 100° angle of view, low price and excellent image quality make this lens one of our favorites. This is probably your best option for cropped sensor, Nikon or Canon.

Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM Rectilinear
MSRP: $440
Min Focus Distance: 9.4″

Very close focusing distance, very low price and great for topside use as well. A lot of photographer looking for a lens that will fit above water and below, and don’t appreciate the fisheye distortion effect, go for this lens. The aperture is not ideal, but underwater usually relies on strobe light and closed apertures anyway, so it won’t be a problem.

Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED
MSRP: $689
Min Focus Distance: 5.5″

Considered slightly better optical quality than the Tokina, but allows less flexibility and higher price. When choosing between the two, I would opt for the Tokina.

Ran Mor // Blue-Spotted Stingray losing at Hide & Seek. Taken in Eilat, Israel with Nikon D90 + Nikon 10.5mm. Settings: f/8, 1/200 sec, ISO 250.
Ran Mor // Blue-Spotted Stingray losing at Hide & Seek. Taken in Eilat, Israel with Nikon D90 + Nikon 10.5mm. Settings: f/8, 1/200 sec, ISO 250.

Macro:

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR Macro
MSRP: $899
Min Focus Distance: 12.4″

The most common macro lens for Nikon users. Produces outstanding results and provides a good working distance as to not scare away your objects.  It has great focusing abilities, as long as you have good lighting or a focusing light. When encountered with low viz or dark dives, you might have some trouble with Auto Focus. I’ve heard that the older version of the lens actually does a better job there, but in all other terms, the newer VR model is better. There are more differences that we won’t go into here, but bottom line is that both are excellent.

Margriet Tilstra // Two Pygmy seahorses taken with D80 + Nikon 105mm f/2.8.
Margriet Tilstra // Two Pygmy seahorses taken with D80 + Nikon 105mm f/2.8.

Nikon 60mm f2.8D AF Micro
MSRP: $479
Min Focus Distance: 8.8″

Many photographers get this lens as a second macro lens, to handle lower visibility dives and leave some background in their shots to show the creature’s natural surroundings. It’s pretty much a matter of choice.

Best Lens for Nikon Full Frame

Wide Angle:

Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye
MSRP: $480
Min Focus Distance: 7.2″

This lens provides excellent results! It’s almost half price from it’s competitor – the Nikon 16mm, has significantly better focus distance which is very important fro CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle) and produces very sharp images when stopping down the aperture to f/8 and above. Most reviews say it’s a better choice than the Nikon 16mm.

Nikon 16mm f/2.8 Fisheye
MSRP: $919
Min Focus Distance: 10.2″

This is also a very good lens. You would be quite pleased with the results whether you get this or the previous 15mm, though focus distance is not as good on this one. If you liked the Nikon 10.5 on cropped sensor, this lens would be a natural transition.

Iyad Suleyman // Whale shark, taken with Nikon D3s, AF Fisheye Nikkor 16mm; Camera settings: ISO250, f/6.3, 1/160s
Iyad Suleyman // Whale shark, taken with Nikon D3s, AF Fisheye Nikkor 16mm; Camera settings: ISO250, f/6.3, 1/160s

Nikon 16-35mm f/4G ED VR Wide Angle
MSRP: $1256
Min Focus Distance: 11.02″

If you prefer not getting the fisheye distortion, this is an excellent choice. The focus distance and aperture is a compromise, but the zoom ability is great and no need for diopters as opposed to other lenses in that range.

Iyad Suleyman // Whale shark, taken with Nikon D800e, AF-S Nikkor 16-35, Camera settings: ISO125, f/5.6, 1/125s
Iyad Suleyman // Whale shark, taken with Nikon D800e, AF-S Nikkor 16-35, Camera settings: ISO125, f/5.6, 1/125s

Macro:

Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR Macro
MSRP: $899
Min Focus Distance: 12.4″

In addition to what I wrote before – when considering full frame, this lens is much preferred over the 60mm.  Mostly due the better field of view here. The 60mm is just too wide for good macro shots. You can however combine it with a wet diopter and improve that, but that means losing some image quality.

Iyad Suleyman // Nudibranch, taken with Nikon D3s, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm, SubSee +10; Camera settings: ISO160, f/16, 1/100s
Iyad Suleyman // Nudibranch, taken with Nikon D3s, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm, SubSee +10; Camera settings: ISO160, f/16, 1/100s

Nikon 60mm f2.8D AF Micro
MSRP: $479
Min Focus Distance: 8.8″

See above.

Iyad Suleyman // Blenny Portrait, taken with Nikon D800e, AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm lens, SubSee +10; Camera settings: ISO125, f/13, 1/160s
Iyad Suleyman // Blenny Portrait, taken with Nikon D800e, AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm lens, SubSee +10; Camera settings: ISO125, f/13, 1/160s

Best Lens for Canon Cropped Sensor

Wide Angle:

Tokina 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 fisheye
MSRP: $579
Min Focus Distance: 5.6″

The 10-17 is perfect for underwater. The close focusing distance, 180° to 100° angle of view, low price and excellent image quality make this lens one of our favorites. This is probably your best option for cropped sensor, Nikon or Canon.

Marcello Di Francesco // Pescador Island view. Taken with Canon EOS 450D + Tokina 10-17. Settings: 10mm F8 1/80 ISO200
Marcello Di Francesco // Pescador Island view. Taken with Canon EOS 450D + Tokina 10-17. Settings: 10mm F8 1/80 ISO200

Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5
MSRP: $649
Min Focus Distance: 9.5″

If you prefer a rectilinear lens, that will serve you above water as well, the 10-22 is a very good choice. It’s certainly wide enough, and if you use it with a +2 or +4 diopter underwater, you can improve the focus distance and get great photos.

Douglas Klug // Taken with Canon EOS REBEL T4i + Canon 10-22mm. Settings: 22mm F8 1/200 ISO400
Douglas Klug // Taken with Canon EOS REBEL T4i + Canon 10-22mm. Settings: 22mm F8 1/200 ISO400

Macro:

Canon 60mm f/2.8 Macro
MSRP: $370
Min Focus Distance: 8.4″

Usually the preferred macro lens for cropped sensors. It’s price is much more appealing, the lens is very versatile and can take in some of the background or do a 1:1 if you move in close enough (Slowly! Don’t scare your object away…) and produces sharp quality images.

Marcello Di Francesco // "CONTACT EYE" Ambon, Indonesia Canon 500D + NImar Housing Canon 60mm + 2 inon Z240 F14 1/250 ISO100
Marcello Di Francesco // “CONTACT EYE”
Ambon, Indonesia
Canon 500D + NImar Housing
Canon 60mm + 2 inon Z240
F14 1/250 ISO100

 

Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro
MSRP: $1,050
Min Focus Distance: 14.1″

If you feel you need the working distance, and like composing tight close-ups shots, go for this lens.

Marcello Di Francesco // The Emperor ! Taken with Canon EOS 500D + Canon 100mm. Settings: 100mm F14 1/250 ISO100
Marcello Di Francesco // The Emperor ! Taken with Canon EOS 500D + Canon 100mm. Settings: 100mm F14 1/250 ISO100

Iyad Suleyman // Lovely couple, taken with Canon 60D, Canon EF100 mm macro lens, SubSee +10; Camera settings: ISO100, f/16, 1/125s
Iyad Suleyman // Lovely couple, taken with Canon 60D, Canon EF100 mm macro lens, SubSee +10; Camera settings: ISO100, f/16, 1/125s

Best Lens for Canon Full Frame

Wide Angle:

Sigma 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye
MSRP: $480
Min Focus Distance: 7.2″

This small lens, as I mentioned before, is quite surprising considering it’s budget cost. Not only for cropped sensors, but for Full Frame as well, this is considered a fine choice for your wide angle shots.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
MSRP: $1,699
Min Focus Distance: 11.2″

One of the most common lenses for Full Frame shooters. It’s range is similar to that of the Tokina 10-17, which gives you plenty of options, but users say it’s not always worth the price tag and rather go with the Sigma 15mm.

Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye
MSRP: $1,499
Min Focus Distance: 6.2″

The quality of this lens is outstanding.  Note that on the widest range of this lens, on Full Frame, your image will be a full 180 circle on a black background. Focus distance is minimal, focusing at less than an inch from the glass and the zoom gives you some creative options. Most photographers will tend to use the 15mm end more often, which is sharper than the Sigma and Canon 15mm prime, and doesn’t appear circular on the frame as the rest of the lenses range.

Marteyne van Well // Two Mantas, taken at Hithadhoo Corner, Laamu Atoll, Maldives with Canon 5D Mark III + Canon EF 8-15mm F/4L Fisheye USM. Settings: at 15mm, f8, 1/200, ISO 160
Marteyne van Well // Two Mantas, taken at Hithadhoo Corner, Laamu Atoll, Maldives with Canon 5D Mark III + Canon EF 8-15mm F/4L Fisheye USM. Settings: at 15mm, f8, 1/200, ISO 160

Macro:

Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro
MSRP: $1,050
Min Focus Distance: 14.1″

As I mentioned before with Nikon, Full Frame photographers prefer using this one because the 60mm is too wide to get that proper macro you were looking for. This would be the best choice for FF Canon bodies.

 

Marteyne van Well // Shrimp in a Bottle, taken at Jahir I, Lembeh, Indonesia with Canon 5D Mark III + Canon EF 100mm F/2.8L IS USM. Settings: f22, 1/250, ISO 100
Marteyne van Well // Shrimp in a Bottle, taken at Jahir I, Lembeh, Indonesia with Canon 5D Mark III + Canon EF 100mm F/2.8L IS USM. Settings: f22, 1/250, ISO 100

Marteyne van Well // Emperor Shrimp on sea cucumber, taken at TK3 in Lembeh, Indonesia, with Canon 5D Mark III + Canon EF 100mm F/2.8L IS USM. Settings: f13, 1/250, ISO 200
Marteyne van Well // Emperor Shrimp on sea cucumber, taken at TK3 in Lembeh, Indonesia, with Canon 5D Mark III + Canon EF 100mm F/2.8L IS USM. Settings: f13, 1/250, ISO 200

That’s it.

Last thing I want you to remember is this:

Don’t get hung up on equipment! Get one lens and master it.

Learn how to achieve the best shots with it. You can create magazine-worth shots with just about every lens, if you know what you’re doing. Read about photography and lighting. Study the works of professional photographers. Learn about marine life and their habits.

Amazing photos are created by amazing photographers, not their lens or their gear.

Dive safe and protect marine life and the reefs 🙂


Ran Mor
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Ran Mor

Sales and Marketing at Mozaik Underwater Cameras
Ran is a professional photographer for over 14 years. His passion for scuba diving and photography has pushed him to combine his profession and hobby and become a professional underwater photographer. Teaching is one of his greatest passions and over the years he has shared his experience with many divers and aspiring photographers. Along with his wife Danielle, an experienced Scuba Instructor, they have founded Dive and More, leading dive trips and UW photo workshops all over the world. Ran is also an electrical engineer and an avid internet marketing specialist.
Visit his personal portfolio at www.ranmorphoto.com.
Ran Mor
Follow me!

1 comment

  1. Mark March 27, 2015

    I’ve used the Nikon 16-35, Nikon 105 VR macro and Tamron 28-75 and while the former 2 are sharper, the Tamron is so versatile in the Ikelite housing with an 8″ dome. I can focus from infinity to about 1 inch in front of the dome and have the zoom range. Have you ever tried that kind of combo?

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