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The Best Crop-Sensor Nikon Macro Lens for Underwater that Nobody is Using.

Text and Photos by Kevin Palmer and Tanya Burnett

 A lot of macro enthusiasts shoot Nikons underwater and Nikon has always embraced macro shooters by offering perhaps more macro lens options than any other camera manufacturer. The two most popular lenses, by far, have been the Nikkor 60mm 2.8 (D&G series) and the Nikkor 105mm 2.8 (D&G series). Both the older D series and newer G series lenses provide excellent image quality and in the newer versions, reasonable focus speed.

For APS-C (Crop Sensor) shooters, the 60mm macro lens has been prized for its easy use and friendly focusing characteristics. It is indeed a great fish portrait lens and a good macro lens assuming the subject will let you get very close. But because if focuses so closely, it has never been a great lens for shy subjects and it generally doesn’t work well with macro wet lenses to get anything better than 1 to 1 macro reproduction on little critters. This leads many to try Nikon’s 105mm macro lens which definitely provides more reach for shy subjects and can offer great super macro potential with macro wet lenses. But the down side is that many people find the lens a little too challenging to focus and a bit limiting as it is difficult to frame even modest size subjects like frogfish without backing away a little farther than is ideal for lighting and image quality. Fortunately, there is a near perfect compromise lens providing much of the best qualities of both lenses and few, if any, of the downsides.

Enter the AF-S Micro Nikkor 85mm 1:3.5G ED VR lens. The only reason I can see this lens having gotten overlooked as much as it does is that it is strictly a DX lens and not full frame. But that has its advantages as well. This lens is surprisingly small and light (just a little bigger than the 60mm) for the larger focal length and not half the size of a 105mm. But for a Nikon D7500/D500/Z-50, this lens really hits the sweet spot.

 You would be hard pressed to get this close to a small goby or blenny with a 60mm lens. The 85 has minimum focus over 10" from the camera.

So if you already own a 60mm, is an 85mm going to make much difference? Actually, the difference is surprisingly large. The 85mm is the fastest and easiest focusing lens of the bunch – better than the 60mm and much, much better than the 105. The 85mm also gives you more reach, without being too far from larger subjects. But one of the coolest features is how well the 85mm works with macro wet lenses for super macro. If you have been struggling with a 60mm lens and a diopter to take pictures of ¼” nudies and cropping the heck out of the shot, you will love what you can do with the 85mm and a strong macro wet lens. It comes very close to the reproduction you get with a 105mm and macro wet lens, but with much easier to achieve results!

Nice smooth Bokeh for shallow depth of field shots.

Tack sharp across the image when you want it.

No problem shooting larger subjects, similar to what you would use a 60mm for.

You might be able to get a small blenny shot with a 60mm or 105mm...

...but can you get this kind of uncropped shot? You can with an 85mm and Nauticam SMC-1.

This nudibranch is about 3/4" and perfect for the 85mm.

Here it is with a close up lens on the 85mm port.

 The auto focus is so fast, that even a soft coral crab perched on a sea pen waving in the current is an easy shot.

 Would your macro lens allow you to auto-focus inside a tunicate to catch a crustacean?

 This cling fish looks pretty great in its crinoid...

...but downright amazing with a Nauticam SMC on the Nikon 85mm.

Close ups will tell a story you haven't been able tell before.

But if all you want to do is just easily capture great marine life doing its thing, the 85mm macro is hard to beat.