Choosing a macro lens – DSLR shooters

 

So you have a DSLr camera and an “all rounder” kit lens. You get a housing for it and start shooting underwater. After some dives, you feel comfortable with your rig and want to improve your macro results by buying a true macro lens. That’s when you start wondering: which focal distance makes more sense, for a macro lens? 40mm, 60mm, 85mm or 100/105mm ?

  • I’m a Nikon user and been shooting underwater with D7100, D7200 and lately with D810. I personally owned Nikon 60 Micro AF-D 2.8, Nikon 105 Micro AF-D 2.8, and currently own Nikon 60 Micro AF-S 2.8 and Nikon 105 Micro VR 2.8, so the article will cover Nikon Lenses. Other brand users, please do the necessary extrapolations. Nikon macro lenses are labeled as “micro”.
Let’s start answering the easiest questions:

Should I get theNikon 40mm f/2.8 G DX?

4037891468In one word. No! …It’s cheap, but the minimum focus distance is just 35mm, from the front of the lens. The front element moves back and forward as you focus. On most occasions, there will be an unneeded space inside your dome port, preventing you from taking full advantage of this lens magnification. Often you’d be able to focus on the dome port glass itself – there won’t be enough distance to lighten your subject. Also, this lens has no ED glass, meaning, more chromatic aberrations than the competitors. As Ken Rockwell summarises: …this is a spectacular lens, so long as macro isn’t your main reason for getting it.

Should I get the Nikon 85mm f/3.5 G DX?

2960370796I have never used this lens, so I cannot give a personal opinion. However, there is some information you may consider before making your decision:

Why wouldn’t you choose this lens?

  • Unlike the 60 and 105mm lenses, which both have f/2.8 as max. aperture, this one has f/3.5. This means that it allows 1/3 less light into your viewfinder (and thus, your pentaprism and phase detection autofocus) than f/2.8. You and your camera, see the image though the viewfinder at the maximum aperture for focusing, regardless of which aperture you select. (Meaning f/2.8 or more, depending on the lens. Fast lens, with a max. aperture / f. value lower than that, will still focus at f/2.8.) The slower the lens (the higher f. value), the harder it is to acquire focus in low light. That may make some difference if your subject is particularly sensitive to focusing lights. Bear in mind that, at minimum focusing distances (which you’ll often use), none of these three are truly f/2.8.  Nikon 105 VR Micro is really an f/4.8 lens, the 60 mm AF-S is f/3.9 and the 85 mm is f/5!
  • This lens claims 1:1 reproduction ratio, meaning, it can fill the frame with an object measuring, roughly, 24 mm wide (the size of a DX sensor). Other lenses (60 and 105) do 1:1 on a 36 mm wide sensor, so that is a “different” 1:1. It actually means that they exceed 1:1 on a DX camera. (So that’s why we can say the 60mm is, roughly, 90 mm equivalent on DX).
  • Optics isn’t great: Ken Rockwell scores it a 3 out of 5. DXO Labs give it a 20 overall score, when paired with the flagship Nikon D500, and 10 megapixel equivalence in sharpness.  This means that you have the same detail as if you had an absolutely perfect lens coupled to a 10 Megapixel sensor camera… Makes you wonder.Coupled with the same Nikon D500, the 60mm lens scored 24 (same 10 Mp. sharpness, by the way) and the 105 got the same score but with an extra megapixel in sharpness (11). Having said so, sharpness isn’t gonna make such a difference on most macro situations, as the particles in water, the dome port glass, and the diffraction (from shooting, usually, at small apertures) will steal most of it.

Why would you choose this lens?

If you’re a DX shooter and are not planning to upgrade, you’ll have:
  • Greater working distance than the with the 60mm lens (145mm from the front glass, according to Ken Rockwell)
  • Greater D.O.F. than the 105 mm, at the same aperture.
  • Allegedly fast autofocus (I didn’t test it myself so I cannot be sure. On many situations, later to be explained, you’ll use manual focus, anyway.)
  • Smoother bokeh than the 60 mm. (Again, it’s not a result from my own testing, but what I believe to be, from the pictures I’ve seen.)
  • Cheap price ($526.95, from Amazon, 70 dollar less than AF-S 60. Looks like a nice trade for the increased working distance.
Overall, it will come down to your shooting style. If you haven’t got one yet, maybe you can develop it with the this 85 mm lens, and then realise in which way to evolve.

Should you get one the old AF-D lenses (60 or 105mm)?

2930257166Having owned both of them, my answer is, again: No!
Here are the reasons why:
Assuming price is the reason for getting and AF-D lens, you will probably dig on E-Bay or something similar, for a used sample. So first I’m giving some reasons why you shouldn’t buy a used lens in general, and then, an AF-D lens in particular.

In general:

  • Lenses used in humid environments (such as UW housings, live aboard boats, beach resorts, and so on) are prone to getting fungus. Fungus are contagious and can ruin your camera sensor or your other lenses. Proper cleaning of fungus is expensive, sometimes more expensive than the the lens itself. You don’t want a suspicious lens among your collection.
  •  Lenses that were dismantled and cleaned for fungus may look the same as new, but are not: once the fungus “eat” the glass coating, it cannot be restored, unless the whole element is replaced (which seldom happens). Lens assembly has “tolerances”, which translate in sample variations
  • That’s one of the reasons why a Carl Zeiss manual lens costs ten times the price of a Nikon, though the later has autofocus and vibration reduction. When a lens is re-assembled, threads are tightened to “roughly” but not “precisely” the previous position so the elements relative positions change. Reassembled lens can become sharper, but it’s more likely to to become softer.

In particular:

  • AF-D lenses are auto focused by means of a screw with an infinite thread. That is prone to wear and tear, so autofocus is loosing precision with age.

Why you shouldn’t buy an AF-D lens for UW macro usage?

  • Again, because focus is driven by means of that screw: That takes ages to actually do it – on many situations you will miss the action and miss the shot. Even when the image is apparently on focus, as the mechanism is very imprecise, and you often deal with paper thin D.O.F, it may still be out of focus, when you later look at if on your laptop screen.
  • You need to rotate a small lever to switch from autofocus to manual focus, or risk damaging your camera. That’s also time consuming, often causing you to miss the action. AF-S (the new versions) have instant manual focus override, meaning you can just grab the focusing knob (assuming you have a focus ring installed on your lens, which you should) and correct focus, if needed.
  • Also, there isn’t ED glass on these older models, so they are prone to chromatic aberrations.

Nikon 60 AF-D (with infinite tread, slow in focus) sells for $516.95 in Amazon. Nikon 60 AF-S (the one with built in focusing motor) sells for $596.95 in Amazon. The difference is 80 usd, roughly the price two dives. Think on how many dives will you do with this lens, and what the difference in price will be, divided for all of them. Do these cents saved, worth the ruined shots?

So, we narrowed the choice to two lens models: Nikon 60 AF-S Micro f/2.8G ED and Nikon 105 AF-S VR Micro /2.8G IF-ED. There are many 3rd party lenses you can also choose from. Having never used them, I cannot give any recommendations. Bear in mind that wet lenses / wet diopters (which you’re probably using if you keep shooting macro) are made to be used with the main brands models (Canon or Nikon) so they may not perform to their best with 3rd party lenses. Again, I believe it’s not the best decision to spend maybe 3 or 4000 USD (at least) on an UW housing, plus strobes, plus arms, plus cables, plus dome ports and extensions, and so on, then spending a few more in dives and dive-trips (not to mention the dive gear itself) and finally compromising it all by saving some hundreds on a 3rd party macro lens…
Anyway, the main purpose of this article is not to discuss brands. Is to understand the practical differences between focal distances.

What are the main differences between 60 and 105 mm lenses?

  • Working distance. Both of them are capable of 1:1 magnification. The 60 gets it at 48mm from the front element and the 105 at 154mm. This means that, though it seems that the 105 has more magnification, it really doesn’t. You just get this idea because, at the same distance, objects look bigger, but in absolute terms, both lens do the same.
  • Optical quality. The 105 Lens has anti-reflection Nano Cristal coating. Colours look more vivid than with 60. DXO Labs rate, overall, the 105 mm lens with 34 points and the 60 mm with 30. They refer better sharpness, better transmission, less distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations. The 105 also has VR stabilisation, but it’s absolutely useless underwater. Leave it off!
  • Auto focus speed. From experience, the 60mm lens focus rather slower than the 105. How much slower? Nerve wrecking slower for me, in some circumstances, but that’s very, very subjective.

How does that translate into the real world?

From the specs, one should be tempted to favour the 105mm lens. Again, I’m not even considering price in here. At $896.95, Amazon price, this piece of glass costs 300 USD more than the 60 AF-S. Is it worth it? Consider them both as tools. They’re worth for what you can get done. So let’s go through what will be the typical usage for each of them.

Nikon 60 AF-S Micro f/2.8G ED

2671750905I find this lens both the easiest and the hardest to shoot.

Why the easiest:

  • For big to medium sized macro critters (let’s say from a very roughly 20 cm to 5 cm) you can get close enough to avoid backscatter, still have plenty of distance to properly light them. – The D.O.F is very forgiving (comparing to a 105 mm lens), on “normal” aperture values (let’s say, from f/8 until f.16). This means you can slightly miss focus and still have acceptable images for the social media.

    Nikon 60 AF-S Micro f/2.8G EDImage gallery:

Why the hardest:

  • It allows you to create bokeh images, almost looking like if they were done with reverse ring macro technique. It’s possible to use it fully open (going down to f/3.5) and still retaining sharpness: that’s when focusing becomes critical.
  • It is a remarkable tool for black water diving, as you can get really close (so it’s easier to frame the subject than with the 105). However, I find autofocus a bit slow, and it hunts.
  • It allows the use of wet diopters with increased depth of field There are some specific circumstances where that can be crucial, allowing you to get an otherwise impossible shit. However, the working distance would be smaller or inexistent, posing some problems for strobe / continuous light usage.
  • It doesn’t excel in terms of bokeh at “normal” macro apertures (from f/8 onwards) so either you find a suitable not so distracting, background, or you have to open it wide, to get subject isolation.
  • I find it a bit too contrasty and dull (regarding colours) comparing to the 105. If the subject isn’t naturally vibrant and colourful, it’s not so easy to create a visually appealing image. Overexposing is also easier, partially because of optics, partially because of the reduced working distance.

Usage with Nauticam Macro Converters:

Nikon D810 + Nikon 60 Micro AF-S + Nauticam SMC-1 gallery 

Nikon D810 + Nikon 60 Micro AF-S + Nauticam SMC-2 gallery 

 
It’s certainly possible and it can produce interesting results. Bear in mind that these wet lenses were designed to be used with 100 / 105 mm macro lens, so the game changes quite a bit when coupled with a 60 mm. Overall, you get:
  • Considerably less magnification (SMC-2 on a 60mm is, somehow, less powerful than the SMC-1 on a 105).
  • Less working distance. It’s possible to focus on the external glass of both of them.
  • Way more depth of field, which translate on lower f/ values, and less diffraction (the only reason why it makes it worthwhile).
I don’t consider too profitable to bring a 60 mm lens underwater with the intention to use SMC-1 or 2, but, on the contrary, if you own them and want to use this lens underwater for any other reason, you may as well bring them, just in case.

Nikon 105 AF-S VR Micro /2.8G IF-ED

4028642069Comparing to the Nikon 60 AF-S G, 2.8:

  • Shallow depths of field. Focusing is harder as you need to stop down quite a bit, to get ANY D.O.F. I find f/8 – f/11, to be the absolute minimum values to have a noticeable sharp area on the image.
  • Using smaller apertures, and shooting further away from your subject (as you’ll often do) requires extra strobe power. Using continuous light (torches), ambient light and, balancing ambient light with strobe light (to get blue backgrounds), won’t be so easy. You’d probably end shooting at higher ISO under such circumstances.

 

Nikon D810 + Nikon 105 AF-S VR Micro 2.8 gallery

 

Theme and subject selection are very different from the ones used for the 60 mm Nikon AF-S 2.8.

  • Shallowness of D.O.F. somehow limits, or better saying, moulds the way you conceive a shot. You’ll start looking for sceneries where there is a single main subject; you’ll try front or side shots, and be extra cautious on shooting from an angle. If, with a 60mm lens, one of  your main goals was to get rid of distracting elements, with a 105mm, you’ll be concerned about getting enough D.O.F for the subject to be perceived and the image to make sense.
  • Subject isolation is easier, for the same reason.
  • It allows you to fill the frame with skittish critters as you can stay further away from them (provided you have clear water, powerful strobes and /or longer strobe arms).
  • Autofocus speed expands the shooting possibilities: like capturing erratically moving fishes, or small swimming critters (these, while using a wet lens).

Steadiness crucial with this lens. Also, the shooting trigger movement must be way smoother, to avoid camera shake and missing focus at the last moment.

– It’s the way to go, for super-macro with wet diopters, like SMC-1 and 2.

Nikon D810 + Nikon 105 AF-S VR Micro 2.8 + Nauticam SMC-1 gallery

Nikon D810 + Nikon 105 AF-S VR Micro 2.8 + Nauticam SMC-2 gallery

– Images usually look lively, more colourful, vivid and with better contrast. If shot with an appropriate technique and good quality strobes, they’ll require less processing.

Overall thoughts:

No single lens can do it all, regarding underwater macro shooting – choose the one that better suits your shooting needs:

  •  60 mm should be your choice, if you mostly do fish portraits, fish schools, and decently size critters. Also, if you’re on a budget, it’s cheaper and works with cheaper, smaller strobes. It’s possible to couple it with an internal diopter (Kenko 1.4, for instance) though I don’t recommend it for many reasons. (It’s also the only one suiting Inon Bug Eye, but that’s beyond the scope of this article).
  • 105 mm should be your choice if you also shoot macro out of water, or want a lens that can also double as a portrait lens. It’s a must if you’re serious on going super-macro and plan to invest on wet diopters.

Dome port options:

Nauticam has quite a few ways to go, regarding how to take these macro lens underwater. Find them here
A few thoughts:18701-e1484553347880
  • You should choose your ports and extensions thinking in advance, what will you do next in your UW shooting career. Will you stick to just one macro lens, or do you plan to buy them both? Will you shoot wide-angle, as well? If so, would you go for a fisheye, a rectilinear lens, or both? It’s probably hard to figure it out as you start, but it will save you money (and weight), longterm.
  • If starting with a 60 mm lens, you’d probably go for Macro Port 60. The M67 tread allows you to attach filters (for fluorescence shots, for example), wet diopters, and a flip diopter holder (Check them here). It’s also a bit forgiving on strobe placement, as the tread acts like a shade, preventing the light to get through your lens and cause flare.
  • Assuming that, later on, you’ll buy the 105 mm, you just have to add a 30 mm extension. (20mm works just fine, if you don’t use a filter on your lens). If you plan to use exclusively the 105 mm lens, you may go for N120 Macro Port 87.
  • As for the extension rings, you’ll need one of them, if you shoot wide angle with the new Nikon 8-15 fisheye (that depends on your dome choice).
  • DX shooters, planning to use Tokina 10-16 fisheye on a 4’33 acrylic dome, will also need the 20 mm extension ring (There are two versions of the same dome, with or without the extra 20mm). You’d save weight on your bag if using the same 20mm extension ring for both macro and wide angle.
  • Nikon 85 Micro VR doesn’t have a dedicated port, so either you go for a combination of a compact port base, a compact extension and a compact port, or you take the aforementioned Macro Port 60 and add a 10 mm extension ring We haven’t tested it but, according to the announced lens dimensions, it should work.

Recommended accessories:

  • DSLr cameras have excellent autofocus, these days. On most macro situations, it’s all you need. However, there are many occasions where you need to focus manually:
    • When using snoots, as the subject distance is fixed.
    • When the usage of a focusing light is not recommended (for very skittish critters, for instance) and the autofocus cannot cope.
    • On most black water situations, when there are so many critters and debris, that the autofocus gets messed up on which one to chose.
    • When using wet diopters (as the D.O.F is so shallow that the area to focus is smaller than the chosen focusing window).
    • When shooting at the minimum focus distance, for maximum magnification. Usually, autofocus stops before reaching the lens limit.
    • In general, when the autofocus hunt.
These circumstances occur far often than one may expect and so, I strongly recommend getting a focusing ring, for serious macro work.
Nauticam-viewfinder
  • As previously mentioned, DSLr show an image, on the viewfinder, at max. aperture. Then, they shoot at the chosen aperture, which, for macro and super-macro, tend to be very small. This means that what you see on the viewfinder is very different from the actual photo. Focusing and framing under these circumstances can be quite tricky. Standard viewfinders crop the image seen and show it on very small size. Most critters stay on the sea bottom, making it very hard to look through the viewfinder. So, I recommend Nauticam 45º Viewfinder with external knob for eyesight compensation, capable of delivering a 1:1 image of the camera finder.
  • If using external diopters, a flip diopter holder is very important, not only to keep them handy and protected, but also to make sure they are properly aligned when shooting. Find the all the models in here.
Hope all of this information is helpful on making a future decision on which way to go on choosing your macro gear. Feel free to comment on the box below. Happy shooting!

 

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