The 3 essential lenses for Underwater Videography
I think we as creators can often become a bit obsessed about the camera gear that we use. I know I'm certainly guilty of this, and over the past 10 years I've owned 12 lenses for use on land and underwater. Today I only own 4, and 3 of them are lenses I bring beneath the waves. This is not an article about how amazing these lenses are, although I love them, but it's actually about what types of lenses I recommend you get for use underwater.
And if you stick around to the end of the article, I will give my personal tips on how to choose a lens for any of these categories. But at the end of the day, which specific lens you choose to get depends on your camera system, budget and what gear is actually right for you.
So lets get started with wide-angle lenses, or actually ultra wide-angle lenses. This is a favorite among most shooters I know, who are capturing either large subjects or underwater landscapes. One of the big advantages of these lenses underwater is that you can get quite close to your subjects while still having everything in frame, which is even more helpful if you are diving places with poor visibility. And because you can be closer to your subject, your colors will look better, regardless if you are lighting your subject with ambient or artificial light. But it also gives a great look in general and can help to create depth in your images by showing more foreground elements.
The wide angle lens that I use is the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 lens. I should also say I shoot underwater on the Panasonic GH5 and I use a metabones speedbooster ultra to adapt this lens to this camera. So the full frame equivalent is roughly 16 to 23mm. Now I love the wide field of view that this lens gives me and I find 16mm to be plenty wide for most of my needs. I sadly don't shoot truly massive subjects on a regular basis like big whales, and if I did I might want to get something slightly wider, but for what I shoot with animals like mid-sized whale sharks being my biggest subject, I find 16mm to be the perfect fit. Now this is a rectangular lens, which means for the most part it keeps things from distorting.
Back in the day I used to own a fisheye lens for my then Canon 7D setup, which was the Sigma 10mm f2.8 fisheye. This was the first ultra wide angle lens that I bought, and while I didn't know that much about lenses back then I got pretty lucky with that one. But I no longer shoot on fisheye lenses, despite it being very popular among underwater video shooters. And the reason I don't use them is that I do a lot of motion in my shots. Like I will tilt the camera or move with it and having the landscape or subject warp mid shot was too distracting for me. So with my personal shooting style, it didn't quite fit and I moved on to rectangular lenses instead.
Next up is wide to normal zoom lenses, often referred to as all around lenses. They are great for being able to capture subjects ranging from large to small which when scuba diving can be a huge advantage, because lets face it you never really know what you're going to encounter down there. So this is the type of lens that I use probably 70% of the time, and the one that I own is the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8. This lens becomes roughly a 25-50mm full frame equivalent when connected to my GH5 using the metabones adapter, and it also gives me a aperture value of f1.3.
Now very few people use this lens underwater because for most shooters, wide open aperture isn't a priority. But I love having the advantage both for low light and for shallow depth of field as this fits my shooting style well. What I do miss however is a bit more range on the long side of the lens, 50mm is good but having a lens that can go up to 70 or 105 would be much better for smaller subjects or to grab better detail shots from further away. One of the lenses I used to own was the Canon 15-85, which on the 7D was like a 24-135mm lens. And that was a crazy good range to have underwater and I do kind of miss it, but I'm a sucker for aperture.
Finally we get to the world of filming macro subjects, which requires macro lenses. These come in a large variety of focal ranges and magnifying strength. True macro is referred to as a 1:1 ratio, which basically means that subjects will be displayed in true scale in your shots. The lens I use is the only micro four third lens that I own, the very tiny Olympus 60mm f2.8, which is the same as a 120mm full frame equivalent. Basically what that means is I shoot a lot of tiny stuff, like nudibranchs.
Capturing macro is a very fun discipline to get into but it requires a lot of patience and depending on where you are in the world, a lot of time searching for stuff. However it's also very rewarding to capture creatures rarely seen by others due to their small size or excellent camouflage. On larger camera setups it requires a separate port system called a flat port, so there is an added cost of starting up besides the cost of the lens.
Finally as promised, I will give you a few pointers on how to choose the lens that is right for you. First, make sure you pair your lens needs to what subjects you tend to shoot. If you mainly dive in an area famous for large marine life, investing in a macro setup may not be necessary. Also make sure that the lenses you buy are bright enough for the environment you dive in. For example for those that like to dive far up the northern hemisphere, I recommend looking for lenses that boast an aperture value of f2.8. Last and this is important, read lots and lots of reviews. You want your lens to be sharp, image stabilization might be important to you and you want to make sure the lens you're getting is priced well for what you get. Essentially getting the right gear means spending a bit of time researching and understanding what you need, within whichever lens type you are looking to use.
Thank you so much for reading this article. If you have any questions please leave them in a comment below and I will make sure that I get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you for reading and happy diving!