Best Lenses for Underwater Photography

A Comprehensive Review

By Scott Gietler

  

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What are the best lenses for underwater use? What are the best macro lenses and wide-angle lenses? Just because a lens is a good choice topside doesn't mean it is the best choice underwater. Let's take a closer look at the recommended options for underwater lenses.

For an explanation of terms such as fisheye focal length, zoom, prime, macro, and wide-angle, read the Lens basics and camera basics page.

 

Recommended underwater dSLR lens choices

In this guide to the best underwater lenses, we will look at the best choices for dslr cameras such as the Canon 5d MKIII, Canon 7d, Nikon D7100, D800, Nikon D7000 & D300s, Nikon D3, Olympus E3, Olympus e620, and other dSLR models.

Lenses can be a very personal choice. It largely depends on what you enjoy taking photos of.

You will probably want to start out buying one wide-angle lens, and 1 macro lens. Please see my lens recommendations below. If you are looking to move into a dSLR system, don't skimp on the lens. Start off with a good macro or wide-angle lens, and at least 1 good strobe. Skimp on the body and/or housing if you need to save money

Scroll down this page to see detailed underwater lens recommendations.

 

Compact camera wet lenses

Please read Wet Lenses for Underwater Photography

 

Micro-four thirds lenses

The Panasonic 8mm fisheye lens is a great option for close-focus wide-angle. Some people use the kit lens with a wet macro lens for everything else.

The Panasonic 45mm macro lens is a sharp, but expensive macro lens. We also really like the new Olympus 60mm macro lens even better.

You can read out complete guide to the best micro-four thirds lenses for underwater photography.

 

Fisheye lens vs. Rectilinear lens

A "fisheye" else is a special kind of ultra-wide lens that gives a curved perspective.

Fisheye lenses let you get closer to your subjects, which is important underwater for color and image sharpness.

 

manta ray taken underwater in bali with fisheye lens
Manta Ray, photo taken while diving Bali

A fisheye lens is needed to get close to large animals like this Manta ray in Bali, surrounded by Snell's window. 10-17mm fisheye at 10mm. F7, 1/200th, ISO 200, dual strobes.

 

Most wide-angle lenses are considered "rectilinear" lenses. The Sigma 8mm, 10mm, 15mm, Olympus 8mm, Tokina 10-17mm, Nikon 10.5mm, Nikon 16mm and the Canon 15mm are all "fisheye" lenses, that are extra-wide lenses with up to a 180 degree of view. Straight lines in the outer areas of the images will appear curved. It is  important to note the 17mm on a fisheye lens is not equivalent to 17mm on a rectilinear lens. See the field of view columns in the lens chart below. For example, the Tokina 10-17mm at 17mm is about as wide as the Nikon 12-24mm lens at 12mm.

Fisheye lenses usually work better behind dome ports underwater than other wide-angle lenses.

Remember that "fisheye" is a property of a lens, not a port. Some dome ports are called "fisheye" dome ports, but that is just a marketing term, meaning they think that dome port works well with a fisheye lens.

 

nikon and tokina fisheyes, great underwater lenses

NIkon 10.5mm fisheye lens, and the tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens with a focus ring on it. Both are great underwater lenses. As you can see, the glass of a fisheye lens is very exposed and care must be taken not to damage it.

 

Further reading on choosing a fisheye lens

Read more here about choosing a fisheye lens versus a regular wide-angle lens for underwater use.

 

Getting sharp corners on Wide-angle lenses   

Many photographers have been frustrated trying to get sharp corners on wide-angle rectilinear lenses underwater, especially in the 10-20mm focal length range. Many professionals end up testing combinations of diopters, ports, and port extensions to find out what works best. Many people simply switch to fisheye lenses. Visit the dome port optics section for more details. I suggest you consult your housing manufacturer or UW photo shop for their most recent recommendations.

 

Underwater Lens Recommendations

 

Recommended Nikon Lenses for Underwater

Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens

  • Best lens choice for wide-angle. It's sharp, focuses very close. It covers range of Nikon 10.5mm + Nikon 16mm fisheye lenses; Made for cropped sensor dSLRs only. Read my Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens review
underwater photo with tokina 10-17mm  fisheye lens

Photo taken with tokina 10-17mm at 10mm. F11, 1/320th, ISO 320

 

Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens

  • A great choice for WA, not as flexible as tokina 10-17mm, but primes generally have slightly better IQ (image quality).; Made for cropped sensor only, although the lens will work with a full-frame camera. Can be used with a 1.4x teleconverter for close-focus shots that are not so wide, the same as using the tokina 10-17mm at 15mm.

Sigma 8-16mm

  • New rectilinear wide-angle lens, good choice if you want a single lens for topside and underwater. See my sigma 8-16mm review

Nikon 10-24mm,12-24mm, Tokina 11-16mm, Tokina 12-24mm, Sigma 10-20mm

  • All are good choices for a rectilinear wide-angle underwater lens. Read the Nikon 10-24mm lens review. A diopter is needed for these lenses, see the dome port optics section to understand why; mainly used for shooting wrecks, sharks, shy pelagics, and subjects such as models where fisheye distortion is not desired.
  • The nikon 10-24mm and sigma 10-20mm are the best suited for underwater photography because of their close-focus distance
  • All 4 lenses have different ranges, prices, and IQ. For cropped sensor cameras only. See this link for top-side reviews http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/digital-wide-zooms/comparison.htm

 

  • The Sigma 8-16mm is the newest and widest non-fisheye choice, and has a good close-focus distance of 24cm
  • The Nikon 10-24mm was announced on April 14th 2009. It could be a great choice for a wide-angle rectilinear zoom. It focuses at 9.6 inches, closer than the nikon 12-24mm, which focuses at 12 inches. It takes a 77mm filter. Retails at $900. Feedback from underwater photographers has been god.
  • The Tokina 11-16mm will not have enough of a zoom range for sharks/pelagics, but it could be an excellent choice for wrecks, if that is your focus. This lens would probably be my last choice though; I've heard of a couple underwater photographers not happy with this lens
  • The Sigma 10-20mm has a very good reputation for underwater use, due to it's minimum close focusing distance of 24cm. Great choice for wrecks and Wide-angle shots with straight lines, models, etc. This lens is a personal favorite of mine for topside wide-angle photography and is an excellent value for the price, and it very sharp.

 

Nikon 14-24mm

  • The corner sharpness of this lens has been not very good, because it can't take a diopter. It needs a very large dome port.

 

Nikon 16mm fisheye lens

  • Good choice for WA reef shots, but not as flexible as Tokina 10-17mm, and it doesn't focus very close; excellent image quality. Sigma 15mm focuses closer, has the same angle of view and is much less expensive.

Sigma 15mm fisheye lens

 

Nikon 17-35mm or 17-55mm

  • Good choice for sharks and other pelagics, but both are expensive; a diopter will be needed. Nikon 17-5mm is cropped sensor only. use with a dome port

 

Sigma 17-70mm

  • A good choice for a mid-range lens, focuses close. This is the preferred choice out there for a mid-range lens. For cropped-sensor cameras only. Use with a dome port.

 

"Kit lenses" - Nikon 18-55mm, 18-70mm

  • Generally not the best lenses for UW use, because it doesn't focus very close - but will work better with a +2 diopter. I've used the 18-55mm, read the 18-55mm review,  and it took pretty good decent fish and reef photos, not bad for a lens I paid $70 for.

 

Nikon 18-135mm, 18-200mm

  • Much too long a zoom range for a port, very poor choice for underwater use.

 

Nikon 50mm F1.4, 50mm F1.8

  • Great lenses topside, but very poor choices for  underwater, close focus distance is 1.5ft for these lenses, that is very far away. You have been warned :)

 

Nikon 60mm macro lens

 
underwater photo with nikon 60mm lens
Anemone, photo taken with nikon 60mm lens.
F16, 1/320th, ISO 400
 
 
seahorse in bali, 60mm macro lens
Seahorse in Bali. F9, 1/250th, ISO 200, side/back-lighted
 
scorpionfish at catalina island, nikon 60mm macro lens
A 50mm or  60mm lens will show a little more of the background than a 100 or 105mm lens. Scorpionfish at catalina island, D80 + 60mm lens, F14, 1/160th, ISO 200.
 

 

Nikon 85mm F3.5 VR

  • This lens came out Dec 2009. This will be a popular 3rd option for macro lenses. However, this lens is DX only. Still, I think the 60mm and 105mm are the top 2 choices.

Tamron 90mm

  • This lens is supposed to be quite sharp, and it does 1:1 magnification, and it's an FX lens. Use it in the port made for the new Nikon 105mm lens. This lens might be a good choice for a longer macro lens if you don't want to pay for the Nikon 105mm.  

 

Nikon 105mm macro

  • Excellent choice for macro, does 1:1, good for skittish subjects; longer working distance than the 60mm; sometimes hard to focus in low-light or low-vis. Works great underwater with a diopter.
  • There are two versions, the old version and the newer VR version. Click here for a comparison. I've also put up a review on the nikon 105mm lens.
 
hilton's aeolid nudibranch, nikon 105mm lens
Photo taken with nikon 105mm lens. notice the nice blurred background. D80, F18, 1/125th, ISO160
 
Schooling glassfish underwater, bali
 Schooling glassfish in bali, F13, 1/250th, ISO 200. The 105mm gives you the distance to deal with skittish fish like these.
 
 
Nikon 70-180mm
  • This lens does not do 1:1 macro, but will come closer with a diopter. Magnification is 1:1.33 at 180mm, and 1:3 at 70mm. I've seen great results from this lens, especially fish portraits and skittish critters.  Users enjoy the flexibility of the zoom. Please note, this lens is no longer being made, and is hard to find, and hard to find a port & zoom ring for.

Nikon Underwater Lens Chart 

Lens
Diagonal Field of view on D300
Aperture
Max magnification & min. focus distance (from back of the lens)
Best Price (see note)
Nikon 10.5mm fisheye
180 
F2.8
1:5, 14cm
535
Nikon 16mm fisheye
120
F2.8
1:10, 25cm
750
Tokina 10-17mm fisheye
180-100
F3.5-F4.5
1:2.5, 14cm
480
Nikon 10-24mm 109-61 F3.5-F4.5 1:5, 24cm 900
Sigma 10-20mm
109-70
F4-F5.6
1:6.7, 24cm
420
Nikon 12-24mm
99-61
F4
1:8, 30cm
845
Tokina 12-24mm
99-61
F4
1:8, 30cm
435
Tokina 11-16mm
104-82
F2.8
1:11.6, 30cm
590
Nikon 17-35mm
79-43
F2.8
1:4.6, 28cm
1450
Nikon 17-55mm
79-29
F2.8
1:5, 36cm
1140
Sigma 17-70mm
80-23
F2.8-F4.5
1:2.3, 20cm
320
Tokina 35mm
43
F2.8
1:1, 14cm
460
Nikon 60mm (old version)
 
F2.8
1:1, 22cm
395
Nikon 60mm AF-S (new version)
 
F2.8
1:1, 18.5cm
486
Nikon 85mm Macro (DX Lens)
 
F3.5
1:1, 27cm
530
Tamron 90mm Macro
 
F2.8
1:1, 29cm
440
Nikon 105mm VR
 
F2.8
1:1, 31cm
730
Nikon 70-180mm
 
F4.5-F5.6
variable, 37cm
1300 used
 
Note: the maximum magnification on wide-angle lens will be greater with a diopter, since you can focus closer
 

Recommended Canon Lenses for Underwater Use

Canon 8-15mm circular fisheye

  • Great lens, excellent choice, a must have for full-frame shooters. Very sharp, expensive. Works great underwater with the right dome. Read out Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens review

Canon 10-22mm, Sigma 10-20mm

  • Wide rectilinear lens, used for wrecks, and often used by people who already have one for topside. Cropped sensor only. The new Sigma 8-16mm lens is also a choice.

Tokina 10-17mm fisheye

  • The best wide-angle choice, cropped sensor only.

 

Sigma 8-16mm

  • New rectilinear wide-angle lens, good choice if you want a single lens for topside and underwater. See my sigma 8-16mm review

 

Sigma 15mm fisheye

  • People are quite happy with this lens, great IQ, focuses closer than the Canon 15mm - which is important in underwater optics. Top choice for full-frame shooters

Canon 15mm fisheye

  • This lens costs more than the Sigma 15mm fisheye, but most people don’t seem to see better results. The Sigma 15mm focuses closer.

Inon UFL-MR130 Macro-Fisheye Lens

  • This lens is a new innovative semi-fisheye wet lens that works only with the Canon 60mm EF-S lens. It captures a macro-view in the center, and a wide-angle view on the edges. An Inon housing must be used. More information on the Inon UFL-MR130 is found here.

 

Canon 16-35mm F2.8 lens

  • Excellent quality lens, although due to the price most people seem to go for the 17-40mm. This lens has 2 versions  - the "old" version 16-35mm I and the "new" version, 16-35mm II. The new version is very wide, check to make sure it will fit in your port, as far as I know it will not fit in Ikelite port. The newer version is supposed to be much better than the old version. This lens is popular with full-frame shooters for sharks, tight shots of schools of fish, etc.

Canon 17-40mm

  • Good mid-range choice. If you are undecided between the 16-35mm and the 17-40mm lens, you are not alone. Excellent image IQ behind a mid-range lens flat port.
  • Here are some tests underwater that Stephen Frink did: http://www.seacamusa.com/16-35-test.shtml

Tamron 17-50mm

  • Potential mid-range choice if you wanted one for top-side use indoors or for portraits. Otherwise the sigma 17-70mm will give you twice the magnification on the macro end. Cropped-sensor only.

 

Sigma 17-70mm

  • Good mid-range choice, cropped sensor only. Use with a dome port.

Canon 24mmL F1.4

  • Excellent lens, commonly used by pro’s, used for specific WA subjects (models, pelagics), especially on full-frame cameras.

Canon 24mm F2.8

  • Good lens, good choice for a prime, but not as stellar as the Canon 24mm F1.4

Canon EF-S 60mm macro lens

  • Great macro lens, but it doesn’t take a teleconverter, unless you use an extension tube in between the two. For cropped sensor cameras only.

Canon 100mm

  • Great macro lens, highly recommended for cropped sensor and full-frame shooters

Sigma 100mm

  • Many people have switched to the Canon 100mm due to the slow auto-focusing of this lens

Sigma 150mm

  • Used by full-frame users for macro & shy subjects, working distance is quite far
 

Canon Underwater Lens Chart 

Lens
Diagonal Field of view on Canon 50D
Aperture
Max magnification & min. focus distance
Best Price (see note below)
Sigma 15mm fisheye
108
F2.8
1:5, 15cm
650
Canon 15mm fisheye 108 F2.8 1:7, 20cm 640
Tokina 10-17mm fisheye
180-100
F3.5-F4.5
1:2.5, 14cm
480
Sigma 10-20mm
107-68
F4-F5.6
1:6.7, 24cm
420
Canon 10-22mm
107-63
F3.5-F4.5
1:6, 24cm
700
Tokina 12-24mm
97-59
F4
1:8, 30cm
435
Tokina 11-16mm
104-82
F2.8
1:11.6, 30cm
590
Canon 17-40mm
77-37
F4
1:4.2, 28cm
700
Canon 16-35mm II
80-42
F2.8
 1:4.5, 28cm
1450
Tamron 17-50mm 78-31 F2.8 1:4.5, 27cm 420
Canon 18-55mm IS 74-28 F3.5-5.6 1:3, 25cm 420
Sigma 17-70mm
77-11
F2.8-F4.5
1:2.3, 20cm
320
Inon UFL-MR130
130
wet lens
 ?, 0cm
1100
Canon 24mmL
59
F1.4
 1:6, 25cm
1150
Tokina 35mm Macro
42
F2.8
1:1, 14cm
460
Canon EF-S 60mm Macro
25
F2.8
1:1, 20cm
400
Canon 100mm Macro USM
15
F2.8
1:1, 31cm
570
Sigma 105mm 15 F2.8 1:1,31cm 480
Sigma 150mm   F2.8 1:1,38cm 670
 
 
Prices are for comparison purposes only. Prices are the best price I found online in Feb 2009 from the places I have bought from - Tri-state, B&H, Sigma4less, adorama, or Amazon. Lenses might be gray-market.
 

Best lenses - recommended starting lens kits

Nikon cropped sensor lens recommendations:

 
After buying those 2 lenses, consider:
  • Nikon 105mm VR (as a 2nd macro lens). Read a comparison between the 60mm and 105mm
  • Sigma 17-70mm (for marine life shots & pelagics, with the proper dome port support, extension, and zoom ring)
  • Nikon 10-24mm (for sharks, whales, other pelagics)
 

Nikon Full frame lens recommendations:

  • Sigma 15mm fisheye ***
  • Nikon 16-35mm F4 VR
  • Nikon 105mm ***

For very skittish subjects, you can also consider the Sigma 150mm macro, and for larger fish, the Nikon 60mm AF-S macro.

 
Note: So far, as of early 2009, results from the Nikon 14-24mm have been reported not to be very good, due to the fact that this lens will not take a diopter.
 

Olympus dSLR Lens recommendations

  • Zuiko 8mm fisheye
  • Zuiko 7-14mm or zuiko 9-18mm. The 7-14mm is wider, and of higher quality, but costs double.
  • Zuiko 14-54mm – good mid-range lens
  • Zuiko 35mm macro.  - good for larger fish and macro subjects. working distance is a little too close, but on the plus side, it does 1:1 macro (18mm across)
  • Zuiko 50mm.  Best lens for macro. Also works well with a 1.4x teleconverter. Does 1:2 macro (36mm across).
  • Sigma 105mm – slow auto-focus, and a little too long with the 2.0 crop factor. Not highly recommended
 

Olympus Lens example photos

 
janolus nudibranch, catalina, olympus 50mm macro lens
Taken with Olympus 50mm lens, photo by Peter Gallup. F18, 1/160th, ISO 200
 
sea turtle, olympus 14-42mm lens
Taken with the Olympus 14-42mm zoom, at 14mm. Photo by Peter Gallup. F5.6, 1/125th, ISO 200
 
underwater photo taken with olympus 8mm fisheye lens
Taken with an Olympus 8mm fisheye lens with an E-300, photo by Chuck Catlett.
 

Canon cropped sensor lens recommendations:

 

Canon Full frame lens recommendations:

  • Sigma 15mm or Canon 8-15mm fisheye ***
  • Canon 24mm prime (F1.4 or F2.8, depending on your budget)
  • Canon 17-40mm or 16-35mm II zoom, depending on your budget
  • Canon 100mm ***
  • Sigma 150mm (as a 2nd macro lens, for very shy subjects)

 

Further Reading 

Underwater Camera selection guide

Underwater ports

Underwater strobes

Dome Port Optics

Full-frame: choosing the Sigma or Tokina fisheye

 


 

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Comments

Angle of the lens

Hi there

Just a question regarding the reduced angle of view under water.

I have a lens which shows 120 degrees on land. Does anyone know approximately how much that will be under water?

I hope someone can help me.

- Jonatan

hi Jonathan - I believe it

hi Jonathan - I believe it would be around 90-92 degrees underwater behind a flat port... 120 degrees behind a dome port. Perhaps someone who knows the exact physics can step in and give a precise answer. - Scott

Scott Gietler Owner/Editor, Underwater Photography Guide & Bluewater Photo http://www.uwphotographyguide.com http://www.bluewaterphotostore.com

Thank you

That really is a good piece of information! Thank you, Scott. I've been searching for something like that for a long time.

The video-camera is behind a small round glass, with a diameter of 35mm, and the hight of the curve is 5mm.

If anyone have a way of calculating the reduction of the angle of view, please let me know.

Kind regards Jonatan

Samyang/Rokinon 8mm review?

Hi Scott, just wondering, has anyone tried using a Samyang/Rokinon/Polar 8mm ? aside from manual aperture and focus (was thinking its set to infinity prior going down for focus) , on aperture maybe a focus gear, always wondered

thanks

j

hello, i have a nikon d90 and

hello, i have a nikon d90 and wanting to set up for underwater photography,lens choice will be a tokina 10-17 mm for a start ,can any one help me with further set up ,housing ,ports,strobes etc,

thanks
Paul

Hi I am going to make a pilot

Hi I am going to make a pilot program for TV with underwater shots and with the Canon 5d mkii
I was looking at the Nimar housing have you any feedback on this housing?

Hi Scott, I like your

Hi Scott,
I like your recommendations for the best Olympus lenses. To that list I would add the 11-22 mm f/2.8-3.5 wide angle lens (22 to 44 mm equivalent). Behind an Ikelite 8" dome port with the #5510.24 Port Body the lens is sharp over its full range of zoom. It is a very versatile lens for WA to normal view. So far, I actually prefer it over the 7-14 mm lens , but I need to try the 7-14 mm lens at smaller apertures to see if it's sharper at 7 mm when stopped down. The 8 mm f/3.5 fish eye is the best lens for WA, so far as I can tell in my first year of shooting an Olympus DSLR. I'm shooting with the E-330 in an Ikelite housing with dual DS-125 strobes.
Thanks for listing these lenses.
dave

Hi I just started to use a

Hi

I just started to use a SLR Canon EOS 500D now with Canon 60mm macro, I would buy a wideangle and are undecided between a Tokina 10-17 or Tokina 11-16
and what do you Think?
what are the practical differences in use with these two lens?
is clear to me are well aware of the differences in price, size and weight of the two lenses, but I wonder if the 11-16 is more expensive, is brighter, marked Pro, I wonder maybe it will be better?
Maybe my questions are a bit naive but I have not much experience and I would not miss purchase.

Thanks

The Tokina 10-17mm will be

The Tokina 10-17mm will be much better underwater, and much wider for better wide-angle results. The Tokina 11-16mm is general for people shooting  video who understand why they are choosing that lens. - Scott

Scott Gietler Owner/Editor, Underwater Photography Guide & Bluewater Photo http://www.uwphotographyguide.com http://www.bluewaterphotostore.com

Hello there - Great website!

Hello there - Great website! It seems hard to find a lot of good info on underwater shooting...

Just wondering what you think of these underwater bags? I have a 5dmk2 and was thinking about getting this bag Ewa-marine U-BXP...

I have the 100mm 2.8 L lens - was thinking about using that for my primary underwater lens... It seems if I get a bag I need to decide what lens I'm going to use (dif bag for each lens) - I also have a 24-105 L

I see you recommend the 100mm lens - is that mostly for macro or will it work ok as a general underwater lens for me?

Thanks a lot :)