Nauticam SMC-2 – First impressions

DSC_4481Nauticam SMC-2 with Nikon D810 + Nikon 105 Micro VR 2.8

I was really excited when I got Nauticam SMC-2 for a test run. (Courtesy of Elab / Nauticam Bali)

I started using SMC-1 roughly two years ago, on a cropped sensor DSLr camera (Nikon D7100 and 7200, afterwards). Once upgrading to full frame (Nikon D810), I missed that extra range, which allowed me to frame these 2 / 3 mm critters, without need for cropping.

However, after making a quick test on land, and  a few dives with it, I realise it wasn’t exactly what I expected.

Firstly, its use, at the beginning, was incredibly challenging. On seeing the images from the first dive on my laptop, I realised there were only one or two acceptably sharp images. I believed my hands were firm and my rig was stable… Well, not enough! All my career on UW photography came through my mind. How I struggled to frame and focus with a 60 mm lens; then, how I struggled with the increased minimum focus distance of the 105 mm. Then, how hard it was to get close enough and manually focus with the SMC-1. And now, finally, I was re-learning macro shooting, with SMC-2.

Fortunately, the learning process was quite faster. After two dives with SMC-2, I was getting the consistency I wanted… It’s still not easy, since maximum focusing distance is roughly half of the one used for SMC-1. That means some limitations on critters I’m able to shoot, which is not much of a problem, since it also opens the way for countless others I wouldn’t even try before.

Then it was all about dealing with aperture. DSLr camera viewfinders show the preview image at the lens max. aperture (or f. 2.8, for fast lenses). That means previewing an image on f.2.8 and then shooting maybe at f.36. That’s challenging for two reasons:

– On approaching the critter, one can just see a blur background colour until reaching the max. focusing distance, so it needs to take extra care not to smash it against the glass, or scratch the front glass against a nearby rock. Finding the critter itself through the viewfinder, requires some patience.

– After spotting it, I must wonder what the final result will be, as f.2.8 only allows me to see the focused area. All the rest shows as a creamy bokeh. I realised I made many shots with foolish framing. Also, sometimes there were “things” in front of the main subject, that couldn’t be seen through the viewfinder, which also ruined the shots.

On choosing aperture I must say I hardly get any D.O.F. (depth of field) at all below f.22. Using f.16 is possible for an effect or conceptual shot; f.32 would be a bokeh shot with an ethereal feel.  From f.36 to f.51, I’d get the detailed image of the subject. To use those last aperture values, I need to manually pre-focus, using the rotating knob in my housing, and then approach the critter, as auto-focus often hunts and lowers aperture to f.32.

Diffraction will always be a consequence of shooting these smaller apertures, necessary for such magnification. I can notice it on the 105 alone, from f.16 onwards. However, as I’m not shooting for 100% outdoor size prints, and I’m mostly reducing 7360 X 4912 pixel images into 2048 X 1367 pixel compressed jpegs, it’s hardly noticeable – the SMC-2 is made to fill the frame with the subjects, not to crop. Images produced with it even with diffraction, are far more detailed than the equivalent crops, shot with SMC-1.

Once I realised what I’m capable of doing with the SMC-2, I really started to love it, because:

– Despite being a specific tool for super macro, it’s super versatile, allowing shooting different styles, from ethereal bokehs, to super sharp microscopic / scientific critter images.

– Magnification changes a lot according to focusing distance, so one can fill the frame with decently sized (1 cm “ish”) shrimps and nudibranchs as well as with a few millimetre sized isopods.

– Colour rendition is outstanding and chromatic aberrations / fringing is very well controlled, considering the optic limitations of such a huge amplification.

One may find it a bit pricey, considering other wet lenses, but this is something capable of producing unique results. It sets up an entirely new world of possibilites for creativeness on super macro underwater shooting.

All shots made with Nikon D810, Nikon 105 Micro VR 2.8, Nauticam SMC-2; Nauticam NA-D810; 2 x Subtronic Nova (except the first one) and Sola 2500 Video torch.

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