Guides & Tutorials

Native Lenses vs. Wet Lenses for Underwater Photography

It used to be very simple. DSLR shooters underwater would use native wide angle and macro lenses, whereas compact shooters relied mostly on wet lenses to extend their range and get proper wide angle or macro.

Nowadays, in the mirrorless era, the lines have blurred and it’s quite hard to decide which way to go.

In this article we’ll discuss the differences between using a native camera lens with a compatible port, vs using a flat port with a wet lens attached.

The Case for DSLR Lenses Underwater

When using a DSLR, it’s quite straightforward. For the most part, DSLR lenses don’t play very well with wet lenses, so you’re pretty much forced to use native lenses (check out this guide on choosing the right one for you).

This is mainly due to the physical size of the lenses and port opening, which would require massive and expensive wet lenses to produce proper results.

There are exceptions of course.

Macro wet lenses are very common and UW photographers use them all the time, mounted on a dedicated macro lens such as the Canon 100mm or Nikon 105mm. These wet lenses significantly increase the already quite good magnification of the native lens and allows super macro, filling the frame with the tiniest subjects.

Super macro shot taken in Bonaire with the Nikon 105mm + Nauticam SMC-1 wet lens

This cannot be achieved with a macro lens alone, since it has limited magnification and longer minimum focus distance.

In addition, Nauticam have produced a line of high end wide angle wet ports, such as the WACP and the new WACP-2 which are designed to fit on native lenses and produce a wider, crisp image without compromising on quality.

However, these ports would cost you just over $7000 USD (yikes!), so they are aimed mostly at professional photographers.

Nauticam 0.8X Wide Angle Conversion Port (WACP-2)

The case for underwater compacts

Compact cameras have a fixed lens. These days most compacts have a wide focal range of 24mm and varying zoom capabilities.

Macro capabilities also vary between cameras, but for most cameras, built-in macro isn’t all that impressive.

This means that in order to get any proper wide angle shot, or great macro shot, wet lenses are required.

Some Nauticam housings, as well as Ikelite, allow interchangeable ports. With those housings you can use a dome port to extend your wide angle range by 25%, but it still isn’t the nice fisheye effect we usually look for in underwater photos.

Read this article to learn everything you need to know about wet lenses

Mirrorless Cameras – Native Lenses vs Wet Lenses

This is where it becomes interesting!

Mirrorless cameras are a combination between compact and DSLR. They have interchangeable lenses, but are small enough to accommodate wet lenses, both wide angle and macro with pretty good results.

The question is, which is right for you?

Pros of using native lenses on mirrorless cameras:

  1. Native lenses produce the best optical quality -The lens is perfectly designed for the camera, the recommended port combination is tested before hand for optimal optical results and overall the result is best.
  2. Easy to shoot split shots (over / under) – This type of shot is much much easier with a native wide angle lens and dome port. It’s not impossible to achieve with a wet lens, but much more challenging and results are not as nice.
    Read this article on how to get perfect split shots
  3. Corners sharpness is best – The first noticeable reduction in quality when using wet lenses is soft corners. This happens because of the heavy optical modifications done by all the additional elements. With native lenses the light beams are aligned much better towards the sensor and corner sharpness is usually better. This also means you can use a wide aperture, letting more light in, without worrying about your corners!
  4. Zoom is usually possible and doesn’t harm quality –  When using a wide angle wet lens, in certain combinations zooming in won’t work at all, since the camera won’t focus. With native lenses this is never an issue.
  5. More working distance for macro photography – Wet lenses improve your magnification, but also lock you to a certain working distance, that is usually very short, making the shot much more challenging, especially if your buoyancy isn’t perfect yet or you’re dealing with currents. With native lenses you can use the entire focus distance range and shoot both macro shots and medium shots without changing anything.
  6. Buoyancy is often easier – Wet lenses weigh quite a lot underwater, whereas dome ports provide positive buoyancy due to the air trapped inside. This helps you with buoyancy instead of dragging you down, requiring additional float arms to reach that perfect neutral buoyancy.
  7. No vignetting (black corners) – Some wet wide angle lenses and all macro lenses requires zooming in to get rid of the black corners. With wide angle lenses it’s usually minor, but does require remembering to zoom in, or cropping it afterwards. With macro lenses it’s a necessity in order to use the macro lense properly. With native lenses there is usually full coverage on the entire frame even at the widest setting.

Sample photos taken with a mirrorless camera and native lenses (no wet lenses used)

Pros of using wet lenses on mirrorless cameras:

  1. Versatility is the name of the game – Going on a macro dive when a giant manta passes by? No problem! Quickly change between your macro and wide angle lenses and shoot away. Many of us know the feeling of getting “stuck” with the wrong lens on our camera underwater and watching the beautiful, rare subject swim away…
  2. More affordable – Going with native lenses often requires at least two expensive lenses and two expensive port combinations. Using wet lenses often cuts down the costs, since you can use just your kit lens with flat port and change between wide and macro wet lenses, that are generally more affordable.
  3. More travel friendly – Lets face it, dome ports are massive and quite fragile. Traveling with a big dome port can be a drag. Wet wide angle lenses are often smaller (though they could be quite heavy…), and usually have a nice padded case that comes with to protect it.

Sample photos taken with a mirrorless camera + wet lenses

Conclusion

As you can see, the pros for native lenses usually outweigh the pros for wet lenses, but the two crucial decision makers are versatility and price. If those are top priority for you, then by all means get wet lenses! They are definitely capable of stunning results.

Use our ultimate guide to underwater wet lenses to determine which ones are best for you. You can also contact us via the online chat to get some advice from our photo pros!

However, if price is not a priority and you’re lucky enough to dive quite often, I would recommend native lenses for best quality and optimal results.

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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
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