Macro Lenses for Full Frame Cameras

Written by Kevin Palmer 2012

I shot my first Nikonos camera in 1973, but it wasn’t until 1992 that I started shooting an SLR camera in a housing. The improvement in my photography was instantly evident and while I continued to enjoy shooting the superb Nikonos 15mm lens, every other focal length was the province of my housed camera. It was no accident that I started publishing my first photos two years later. One of the most exciting things about shooting a housed camera was the chance to enjoy a long macro lens like the Nikon 105mm underwater. The Nikon lens (like the Canon 100) was (and is) fantastically sharp and even with early autofocus, it worked light years better than other options. It was not uncommon to see fellow photographers spend an entire dive trip using that one lens. Then came the digital revolution and cropped sensor cameras made these lenses really impressive as we gained relative depth of field and greater reproduction capability. For some, the thought of giving up the crop sensor benefits on their macro lenses is unthinkable. As a long time shooter of cropped sensor digital cameras for macro, I was curious as to what the transition to the D4’s full frame sensor would offer.

Utilizing the D4 in Nauticam housing makes the transition fairly seamless. The NA-D4 housing controls are placed so naturally that adjustments are second nature within a couple of dives. The AF-On control that is often critical in macro shooting is easily reached while maintaining access to the shutter release. Even the bulk of the professional rig is quickly forgotten once the proper buoyancy is achieved and I found myself frequently shooting single handed while using my pointer as a stand-off.

In terms of shooting full frame macro, the most obvious thing that occurs is the apparent change in focal length and field of view at a given distance. What that really equates to is a little redefining of a lens’s use in addition to some pleasant discoveries. Most notable is that almost anything you shoot on the D4 works well – really well. The autofocus which is shared with the D800 is just stunningly good. The Nikon 105 VR that has always been fast focusing (and sometimes fast hunting) is now just fast and rock solid – almost no hunting. That focus light that was nearly essential for a lot of macro shooting becomes more optional with the D4 until things get really dark. The improved low light AF ability is not just on paper – it is an improvement you can use.

Relative reproduction of a bumble bee shrimp with a Nikon 105 lens on an FX sensor (left) and DX sensor (right)


For those with crop sensor experience, the 105mm takes on much of the role the 60mm macro used to, only better. Yes there is some depth of field loss at a given aperture, but maximum reproduction ratio is further from the lens than the 60mm and on a full frame camera, the 105 becomes a superb portrait lens as well as a macro critter lens. And yes, to equal the maximum reproduction ratio of a cropped sensor camera, a close up wet lens needs to be employed more often. Fortunately there are excellent flip mount lens holders now (Nauticam, Saga, Reefnet) that make this easier than ever.

The combination of the D4 and the 105 VR is ideal to catch smaller fast moving fish like this blacklip butterflyfish. The speed of autofocus of this combination is impressive and with minimal background interference focus tracking works beautifully. F14 1/160 ISO 100

Classic 60mm crop sensor perspective shot with 105mm on the D4. F22 1/200 ISO 100

Frogfish are easy subjects for almost any macro lens, but this fellow was sitting on a rubble strewn sea floor. In spite of the Nauticam D4’s apparent size, a reasonably long lens allows composing for a near level appearance.

Another typical 105mm anemone fish subject demonstrates how the dynamic range of the new D4 sensor allows for very subtle lighting exposures.

The 105mm lens allows plenty of working room to capture behavior shots such as these nudibranchs. Purple can be a challenging color for many digital cameras, but the D4 handles these tones nicely with little color correction.

A macro lens is rarely thought of for sharks, but a 105mm on a full frame sensor camera can work well with a small white tip swimming in a predictable pattern. The D4 allowed me to rapidly shoot over 20 portrait shots with strobes set to low power. F4 1/100 ISO 100

A rare moment in tight quarters where a 60mm lens would have offered more composing options, but it is still easy to find portrait crops.

Two different approaches to using the 105mm as a portrait lens for colorful examples of ornate ghost pipefish. F22 1/200 ISO 100

This urchin cling fish is a difficult subject because of its constant motion and the ever present spines that can distract the auto focus. Choosing a single focus point and tracking the subject proved fairly easy and provides a great opportunity to play with interesting bokeh effects (the out-of-focus urchin highlights) thanks to the shallow depth of field.

This transparent shrimp in a rare neon orange carpet anemone is an example of 105mm lens and a Subsee +10 wet lens. The shrimp is approximately 10mm in length and the depth of field is so shallow that one claw is in focus and the other is not, but the Nauticam D4 rig is quite capable of producing high quality super macro.. F25 1/320 ISO 100

Trying to replicate the effective focal length of the 105mm on a crop sensor camera (approximately 155mm) requires another approach. The easiest solution for many is to employ a 1.4X or 1.5X tele-extender to the 105mm to achieve a similar focal length. A slight loss in image quality can be expected, but it makes an easy travel friendly option. Another is to utilize a longer lens like the Sigma 150mm macro lens. The Sigma lens has a minimum focus distance (MFD) of 15” in front of the lens which can be a bit long for in-water use. Using a high quality dry close up lens on the front of the 150mm reduces this MFD closer to about what the 105mm MFD is and closely replicates what the maximum reproduction ratio of the 105 on a cropped sensor camera would be. Thanks to the D4’s powerful AF function the lens is surprisingly easy to use and proved an exceptional tool for shy subjects, but sometimes a bit of a handful for super macro work.

Few fish look more intricate than the Ornate Ghost Pipefish which only really shows its detail against an open water dark background created by the high shutter speed and small aperture. The D4 rendering is just fantastic. Notice the detail on the crinoid arm on the left that indicates this pipefish is about 1.5” long. F/25 1/250 ISO 100

One of the most challenging subjects to photograph well is the Orange Banded Pipefish which in this case is carrying eggs. This can be an exercise in aggravation as the skinny subject zooms back and forth in front of a busy background. Using a single focal point of the D4 locked on the eye of the pipefish as much as possible eventually yielded success – much easier than I would have expected. The shallow DOF of the 150 is obvious and one can expect plenty of reject shots on a tough subject. F/22 1/320 ISO 100

The ubiquitous Coral grouper can be found on many tropical reefs and always makes a dramatic impression. In this case, the sigma 150mm makes a very nice portrait lens allowing a chance to shoot the shy subject at a distance and shows spectacular color and detail. F/25  1/320 ISO 100

Another example of a long lens facilitating the capture of a shy subject – the beautiful square spot anthias - with an up close perspective. F18 1/200 ISO 100

The otherworldly Xeno Crab on a wire coral is one of my favorite macro critters. The surreal porcelain-like quality of the carapace is captured by the D4 and Sigma 150mm in lovely detail utilizing the Subsee +5 close up lens. I was pleasantly surprised how easy the Nauticam D4 housing was to use for this level of macro work. F25 1/320 ISO100

This cardinal fish with eggs is where the D4 and a long macro are truly in their element. A skittish subject caught with rapid exposures and perfect auto focus. F14 1/320 ISO 100

This 1” anemone fish is again amazingly easy subject matter for the D4 auto focus – almost every shot of this fast moving subject was sharp. F25 1/320 ISO 100


Who is the black sheep in this family?” One of the pleasures of shooting a Nauticam housing in general and the NA D4 in specific is that the controls and operation are so user friendly that more time can be spent finding and composing shots that tell a story about behavior. F36 1/320 ISo 100

This emperor shrimp on a sea cucumber is perhaps the most challenging kind of shot for the 150mm lens. A constantly moving subject, less than a 1/2” long while utilizing a +5 Subsee wet lens. Still, the Nauticam D4 housing can be shot steady with one hand when necessary and tracks amazingly well.

One of the most difficult conditions for any auto focus is a small transparent subject free swimming in low visibility (under 10’). The D4 with 150mm was excellent with about 60 percent of shots of the 1” shrimp in focus, though backscatter was a problem in the low viability. A high shutter speed was used to eliminate the green water background – no cropping. F22 1/320 ISO 100

The sequence that follows is a demonstration of the relative reproduction capability of the Sigma 150mm lens on the D4 with a dry close up lens (Canon 500D) mounted directly on the Sigma. The second and third shot are examples of adding a +5 wet lens and finally a +10 wet lens. The shots are of Saddleback Anemone Fish eggs and they are extremely tiny – roughly the size of a pencil point. In the first shot, only the eggs in the foreground are in focus and that is where the additional examples are shot to allow room for the very doting parents who watched my every move. No images are cropped.

Sigma 150 w/ Canon 500D close up lens. F29 1/320 ISO 100

Sigma 150 w/ canon 500D Close up lens and Subsee +5 Diopter. F29 1/320 ISO 100

Sigma 150 w/ canon 500D Close up lens and Subsee +10 Diopter. F29 1/320 ISO 100 

Notice the extremely shallow depth of field and some distortion towards the edges – this is a pretty tricky combination and generally easier on the shorter macro lenses. None the less, pretty fun stuff!