Macro underwater photography is a great place to start your journey in underwater photography. It’s much simpler than wide angle, and good shots can be achieved with much less gear.
Once you’re ready to commit to underwater macro photography (read Michele Westmorland's guides to the basics of macro photography), you will need to get kitted up, and the following guide, prepared exclusively for Adorama, will help you get the right equipment for you needs. Everything in this guide is available from the Adrorama Underwater Photography Gear Dept.
If you have a semi-decent modern compact digital camera, available through Adorama, you don’t need much beyond a waterproof camera housing, which you can buy at Adorama, to get started. Your camera will likely have a macro mode, which is usually designated by a flower symbol. This mode tells the lens to start its autofocusing from the foreground rather than the background, and allows you to focus closer to your subject. Simply switch your compact camera into macro, and you’re pretty much ready to go.
There are a few accessories that can improve your images even more . The first one, and we’ll touch on this later, is at least one strobe (view all underwater strobes at Adorama) for reasons we’ve discussed before. The internal flash on the camera really doesn’t cut it underwater.
Another helpful accessory for compact macro shooters is an external macro wet lens, which can be found in the Adorama Underwater Lens department. These wet lenses, named because they can be added or removed underwater, are small lenses that can be attached to the outside of your housing’s port to increase the magnification of the camera’s built in lens. They allow you to focus closer to your subject and get tighter shots. These wet lenses range in magnification, and you can even get some that are 10X in strength!
If you are shooting macro with an SLR camera, the most important piece of equipment is your lens. Only certain lenses are true macro lenses, meaning that they are capable of shooting at a 1:1 magnification. Underwater photographers largely work with only two specific focal lengths: 60mm and 100/105mm. Both Canon and Nikon make popular prime 60mm lenses that are carried by Adorama, and Nikon offers a 105mm ,while Canon offers a 100mm. Sigma and Tokina also offer macro lenses with similar focal lengths that can be used underwater as well that you can buy through Adorama as well.
Canon EFS 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, available at Adorama
Nikon 60mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor lens, available at Adorama
60mm vs. 100/105mm
If you are only interested in one macro lens, then you will need to decide whih focal length is best for you. There are a number of different criteria to consider when deciding which to purchase.
Canon Macro 100mm f/2.8 lens, available at Adorama
Nikon Micro Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G lens, available at Adorama
Working Distance and Minimum Focus Distance
The working distance of a macro lens is the distance from the front of the lens to the subject when the lens is at maximum magnification (1:1). Generally, the longer the focal length, the longer the minimum focus distance – so the Nikon Micro Nikkor 105mm has a working distance of 12 inches, while the 60mm has a working distance of 7 inches. Having a longer working distance allows you to achieve high magnification at farther distances, which is useful when shooting small, skittish subjects that might flee upon close approach.
When shooting macro, you must also consider your lens’ minimum focus distance, which is the shortest distance from the sensor to the subject that a lens can focus. For example, the Nikon 60mm macro lens has a minimum focus distance of 8.8 inches, which means that if the sensor is closer than 8.8 inches from the subject, then the lens will not be able to focus. Like minimum focus distance, the longer the focal length of a lens, the longer its minimum focus distance. The Nikon 105mm macro lens has a minimum focus distance of 12.4 inches, almost 4 inches longer than the 60mm.
So while the Nikon 105mm can achieve a 1:1 magnification at 12 inches, it can’t focus any closer than that distance. This can be prohibitive if you need to get closer to your subject, such as when water is really murky or you are only using one small strobe. In these situations, a 60mm that can focus closer might be a better option.
Angle of view
As with choosing any lens, the angle of view is an important aspect to consider. The 60mm has a greater angle of view than the 100/105mm, which means it captures a larger area of the scene. Therefore, it’s important to think about what you will be photographing when deciding on a macro lens. If you are shooting larger fish (around the size of a football), the narrow angle of the view in the 100/105mm lens would force you to back up in order to fit the entire subject in the frame. Remember, the key to underwater photography is to get close, so this can be detrimental to your shot. However, if you want to get tight shots of small animals(around the size of a fingernail), then the 100/105mm is a better choice. With the 60mm, much more of the surrounding scene is included in the image, causing the subject to take up less of the frame.
It’s important to realize that both lenses are capable of full 1:1 life size magnification, but at this magnification, the subject will be smaller relative to the size of the frame with a 60mm since it has a shorter angle of view.
Ease of Use
For most first-time underwater shooters, the biggest factor to consider is the lens’ ease of use. The 60mm lens has a much shorter learning curve than the 100/105mm. The shorter focal length gives it a greater depth of field, so you have more room for error with your focusing. Additionally, focusing itself is much easier. New photographers often complain of the 100/105mm “searching” when trying to auto focus at full magnification, making focusing on small subjects tricky and frustrating. The 60mm, on the other hand, tends to find the focus very quickly, allowing you to concentrate on the composition and exposure.
Sample photo shot with 60mm macro lens.
That said, many professionals or advanced shooters end up preferring the 100/105mm as the narrow angle of view removes more of the distracting background, creating tight crops on small subjects. The limited depth of the field of longer focal lengths can also be appealing, as blurring out the backgrounds can create a desirable aesthetic effect.
So if you are dedicated to shooting small subjects and willing to practice, consider the 100/105mm, but if you want to start with something that can produce good results right away and offers more versatility in the subjects you can photograph, go with the 60mm.
Sample photo shot with a 105mm macro lens.
Once you have selected a lens, you will need to get a port, which is a fairly simple task. SLR housings are essentially modular pieces of equipment that allow you to use a variety of different lenses by fitting different lens ports. Every housing manufacturer makes ports for the popular underwater lenses, so just ask for the correct port for you lens.
Macro ports are flat ports. They have a flat piece of glass at the end and are relatively inexpensive when compared to the rounded dome ports needed for wide angle. Before you purchase a lens for underwater use, make sure that your housing manufacturer also makes a port for it, as not all lenses have ports made for them.
Sea and Sea YS D1 underwater strobe, available at Adorama.
The last item you will need—strobes—are just as important in taking quality images as the lens itself. A good strobe will not only give you the ability to light up your images, but will make them sharp, colorful and crisp as well. A good strobe is not only powerful, but also emits good quality light. If you have a powerful strobe, like the new SEA & SEA YS-D1, which is available at Adorama you can get away with using only one for underwater macro photography. However, adding a second strobe can help remove unwanted shadows when getting more creative with side lighting.
Sea and Sea YS 01 underwater strobe from Adorama.
If you are using a compact camera, adding a strobe is still important, as the internal flash often creates backscatter (link to my backscatter article) and gives off weak, poor quality light. There are a number of small, relatively inexpensive strobes, such as the SEA & SEA YS-01, which is stocked by Adorama, that will add back the colors lost underwater.