What’s In My Bag?
In this article we will cover various lenses for Nikon DX cameras. DX refers to the size of the digital image sensor. DX is also known as the APS-C format which is approximately 24×16 mm. Its dimensions are about 2/3 those of the 35mm film format (29mm vs 43mm diagonal, approx.).
Super Wide Rectilinear
Nikon AF 60mm /2.8D
For those starting out in underwater DSLR photography, we have no higher recommendation than to start with the Nikon AF 60mm.
The older D version of the 60mm macro didn’t focus as fast as its replacement, and had an inconvenient AF-MF switch on the lens barrel that had to be actuated mechanically. That being said, the lens is sharp enough, and even though it focuses slowly, it focuses accurately. The new AF-S 60 is a better lens, but if you already own a 60m /2.8D it might not make sense to upgrade it.
Nikon AF-S 60mm /2.8G
I had just about talked myself out of traveling with the older 60mm /2.8D lens. Much of its functionality was duplicated by the Sigma 17-70 HSM. Then Nikon came along and added some very worthwhile upgrades to this lens, and it wound up back in my bag. The new lens focuses very quickly and accurately, and images a very smooth out of focus area.
This is usually the first lens I’ll recommend to new photographers. With its fast accurate autofocus, this lens will deliver results right away with little frustration.
The AF-S 60 can attain 1:1 macro, but does so basically at the end of your macro port. If a subject can run away, it probably won’t let you get that close. This is a great lens for fish portraits, macros of sessile subjects, and for close-up shooting in dirty water. More...
Nikon AF 105mm /2.8D
105mm, 1/125th, f/16
105mm, 1/125th, f/20
This is a similar situation to the one mentioned above with AF-S 60. The new AF-S VR 105mm /2.8G is much sharper, and has a significantly more pleasing out of focus area. Many beautiful underwater photographs have been taken with the 105 D, so if you already own this lens it might make more sense to put the price difference toward a good focus light.
Nikon AF-S VR 105mm /2.8G
I use this lens on 9/10 macro dives. There are almost too may reasons to list why this lens works so well, but I’ll do my best to try.
The main advantage of this lens is the added standoff distance gained over the shorter macros. The 105 VR attains 1:1 reproduction about 6” in front of your port, giving you some breathing room between the underwater housing and skittish subjects.
The longer minimum focus distance also allows the use of wetmate or housed close up lenses for super macro shooting. I’ll often use a +6-+10 diopter wet lens on the end of the port, which brings the minimum focus distance in to about 3” in front of the port, but allows 2:1 shooting.
Being a longer macro, its autofocus will tend to hunt, so a good focus light is very important. The af motor is very fast, but some times it has trouble locking. A focus gear isn’t absolutely critical with this lens if your underwater housing offers convenient access to the AE-L/AF-L or AF-ON controls from the right handle. Assuming you can access these buttons easily, you can “lock & rock” with this lens, allowing you to let auto focus get close, lock af, then rock in and out for fine focus.
The curved aperture blades on this lens yield a very smooth out of focus area, and this lens is very sharp. More...
Tokina 10-17mm /3.5-4.5 Fisheye Zoom
This is my favorite wide angle lens. Period.
Tokina 10-17 at 10mm, 1/250 second, f/8
I know it isn’t made by Nikon, and I know it isn’t a /2.8 lens, but this is a very good optic which perfectly suits what I want in a fisheye lens for underwater photography.
This close focusing fisheye lens works extremely well behind nearly every dome port, even allowing specialty ports like the Zen Underwater DP-100 Fisheye Macro port to be used.
Lionfish on Reef; Close Focus Wide Angle
Tokina 10-17 at 10mm, 1/250 second, f/8
This is an extremely wide lens that focuses very close. At 10mm, its field of view is nearly 180 degrees. When zoomed to 17mm, it has a 110 degree field of view. I use this lens at 10mm for close focus wide angle shooting, and will zoom in on occasion to crop to a more pleasing composition, or frame a more skittish subject tightly. This versatility makes 10-17 my go to lens on DX or EF-S Camera. More...
Tokina 10-17mm at 10mm
Tokina 10-17mm at 11mm
Nikon DX 10.5mm /2.8G
This is a superb lens optically, but in the end, it isn’t versatile enough. The focal length is perfect for close focus wide angle shooting, but when a great hammerhead swims by at about 6 feet away you’ll wish you had some zoom. Barrel distortion is apparent, but this isn’t too big of an issue if you keep your primary subject centered in the frame. More...
10mm, 1/200th, f/6.3
Sigma 15mm /2.8
This too is a very good lens, and used to be my first choice in the days prior to Tokina 10-17. Sigma 15 has a 110 degree field of view on a DX sensor, and just a touch of barrel distortion, but not enough to be distracting. More...
Nikon 16mm /2.8D
This is a good lens, but Sigma 15mm was always my first choice due to its better close focus ability. More...
Nikon AF-S 10-24 /3.5-4.5G DX
There are situations where a fisheye lens is just too wide, and in these I’ll reach for a superwide rectilinear lens like the 10-24. Subjects like scalloped hammerheads, eagle rays, and pelagic fish often won’t let you get close enough to give these magnificent subjects the prominence they deserve with a fisheye lens, and you’ll need something with more reach. There are lots of options, and most of them are decent, but 10-24 has become my choice because it has slightly sharper corners with most dome ports.
Of all the superwide rectilinear lenses I’ve tested, this one has the best corner sharpness behind common 8” domes. Even with large domes, you’ll still see some corner softness, and it will be more apparent at closer focusing distances and open apertures. In most cases a single element close-up lens (commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as a diopter) improves corner sharpness, but this isn’t without consequence. The close-up lens will also reduce the field of view, increase pincushion distortion, and increase purple fringing. In general I’ll use a close-up lens in situations where soft corners are distracting (wrecks, reefs), but won’t when shooting sharks & pelagics in blue water.
You probably aren’t going to be happy with the corner sharpness you’ll get using this lens behind a 6 or 7” dome port. The 8 or 9” options are much better. More...
Nikon 12-24 /4G
This is a nice lens for topside shooting, but I’ve always struggled to attain good corner sharpness with this lens underwater. For some reason, 10-24 is better. This is still a good option if you already own it, I’d just use a +2 close-up lens and an 8” dome to improve corner sharpness. More...
Tokina 11-16 /2.8
I have to admit, I love to shoot this lens topside. The short focal length (which I can hand hold even after a few cups of coffee) and /2.8 aperture make this one of my favorites in low light conditions. Its relatively limited range and slightly softer corners in most dome ports have led me to prefer Nikon’s 10-24. This is a very good option, though. More...
Tokina 12-24 /4
This is another good choice, especially if you already own it. Lots of reviews have stated this lens is as sharp as the Nikon 12-24/4, but has slightly more CA. More...
Sigma 10-20 /3.5-4.5
This is another usable option, but it has the weakest corner sharpness of all of the lenses listed here. More...
Sigma 17-70 /2.8-4.0 HSM
There have been three versions of this lens (original, HSM, and the current OS HSM), and all three are good choices for underwater shooting. The HSM and OS HSM lenses are dramatically fatter than the original, and can be difficult to sort out a zoom gear solution for, but we do have solutions for most major housing brands. More...
17-70mm at 26mm, 1/160th, f/9
A midrange zoom like this is not my first choice for underwater shooting, but there are situations where a lens that is almost wide angle, and almost macro, is appropriate. This range works well for fish id shots, skittish big fish, and “almost” shooting. These strengths can be useful on an exploratory dive, night dives, or dives when you just need a change of pace.
17-70mm at 38mm, 1/60th, f/4
The real key to choosing a midrange zoom is to pay attention to the lens’ maximum reproduction ratio. This Sigma zoom gets the nod here purely because it can shoot 1:2 macro (a subject about 4cm across on DX). Most of the Nikon options are limited to 1:4 or worse macro shooting, which doesn’t give me the versatility I need in this lens. This close focusing ability also means this lens can be shot behind most dome ports without a close-up lens.
17mm, 1/160th, f/16
A lens of this range can be shot behind either a dome port or a flat port. Which is better depends on your goals… If you want to use the midrange zoom for bigger stuff that is skittish, or for fish portraits, I think a dome is the best choice. If closeup shooting with a bit of versatility is your preference, a flat port is a good choice (but there might be a bit of vignetting at 17mm, depending upon the diameter of the flat port front). I almost always use this lens behind a dome, as I’m looking for a change of pace from the other macros in my bag when I mount this lens. If I didn’t travel with a 60mm macro, I might think about adding a flat port for this lens.
Nikon AF-S DX 17-55 /2.8G
17-55 is a joy to use topside, but it's more weak 1:XXXX reproduction ratio have kept it from becoming one of my favorite lenses underwater. It is very sharp, focuses very quickly, and can be a fine mid-range and almost wide angle option behind a dome with a +2 or +4 close-up lens. More...
Sigma 18-50 /2.8
This is a good choice, capable of shooting 1:3 macro, and fast. This is a fat lens, which can complicate zoom gear availability though.
Nikon 18-55 VR & Nikon 18-55 VR II
These lenses certainly aren’t the best choices, but they are packaged in kits with lots of digital slr cameras, so we encounter them frequently. They don’t have the macro ability of 17-70, but are decent for fish portraits and almost wide angle shooting behind a dome with a +2 or +4 close up lens. More...
35mm on DX has the same field of view as a 52.5mm lens on full frame, so this is a very familiar lens to a photographer coming from a full frame system. Personally I’m after a longer focal length here. More...
Sigma 70mm /2.8
Good optically, but slow focusing.
Nikon AF-S DX 85mm /3.5G
This is a cool newer lens built for the DX format. 85mm focuses extremely quickly, and accurately. The focal length sits nicely between 60 and 105, and could serve as a replacement for both lenses for someone on a budget that was willing to sacrifice FX compatibility and some working distance. More...
Nikon 105 & 1.4 Teleconverter
Sigma 150mm /2.8
This lens is very good optically, and combined with a close-up lens it is an excellent super macro tool. Personally I find it a bit too long on a DX sensor for close quarters macro work, but it can excel with shy subjects that can only be shot at a distance of 18” - 24+” The autofocus can be a bit challenging on older DX cameras compared to the newest camera bodies on the market. More...