I’m always up for a photographic challenge. Having an extreme macro wet lens for testing isn’t something that happens everyday… Besides that was something I was anticipating, for a long time. I couldn’t hold my joy when Elab / Nauticam Bali gave me a Nauticam SMC-2 wet lens sample for, for testing and reviewing.
I started using SMC-1 roughly two years ago, on a cropped sensor DSLr camera (Nikon D7100 and 7200, afterwards). Once upgrading to full frame (Nikon D810), I missed that extra range, which allowed me to frame these 2 / 3 mm critters, without need for cropping.
However, after making a quick test on land, and a few dives with it, I realise it wasn’t exactly what I expected.
Firstly, its use, at the beginning, was incredibly challenging. On seeing the images from the first dive on my laptop, I realised there were only one or two acceptably sharp images. I believed my hands were firm and my rig was stable… Well, not enough! All my career on UW photography came through my mind. How I struggled to frame and focus with a 60 mm lens; then, how I struggled with the increased minimum focus distance of the 105 mm. Then, how hard it was to get close enough and manually focus with the SMC-1.
And now, finally, I was re-learning macro shooting, with SMC-2.
Focusing with Nauticam SMC-2 wet lens – the ultimate challenge
Nauticam SMC-2 wet lens is made for full frame sensors. Like SMC-1, it gets optimum results when coupled with a 100mm (ish) macro lens. For this review I used it on Nikon D810, along with Nikon 105 Micro VR 2.8.
Fortunately, the learning process was quite faster than with SMC-1. After two dives with Nauticam SMC-2 wet lens, I was getting the consistency I wanted… It’s still not easy, since maximum focusing distance is roughly half of the one used for SMC-1. That means some limitations on critters I’m able to shoot. It also opens the way for countless others I wouldn’t even try before.
Focus is intimately related to depth of field. So, I had to learn how to deal with aperture. DSLr camera viewfinders show the preview image at the lens max. aperture (or F/2.8, for fast lenses). That means previewing an image on F/2.8, which looks be totally different from the captured image.
That’s challenging for two reasons:
On approaching the critter, one can just see a blur background colour until reaching the max. focusing distance, so it needs to take extra care not to smash it against the glass, or scratch the front glass against a nearby rock. Finding the critter itself through the viewfinder, requires some patience.
After spotting it, I must wonder what the final result will be, as F/2.8 only allows me to see the focused area. All the rest shows as a creamy bokeh. I realised I made many shots with foolish framing. Also, sometimes there were “things” in front of the main subject, that couldn’t be seen through the viewfinder, which also ruined the shots.
Aperture selection on DSLr cameras
On choosing aperture I must say I hardly get any D.O.F. (depth of field) at all below F/18. Using F/16 is possible for an effect or conceptual shot; F/25 would be a bokeh shot with an ethereal feel. From F/32 to F/51, I’d get the detailed image of the subject, but there will be loads of diffraction. To use those last aperture values, I need to manually pre-focus, using the rotating knob in my housing, and then approach the critter, as auto-focus often hunts and lowers aperture to F/32.
I found the absolute sweet spot on this lens around F/29 – F/32, on Nikon rigs. Canon 100 Macro lens has a different building concept. I don’t know the reason, but it retains a perceived wider D.O.F. at bigger apertures. I’ve seen sharp, detailed images at F/16 and below.
Diffraction will always be a consequence of shooting these smaller apertures, necessary for such magnification. I can notice it on the 105 alone, from F/16 onwards. However, as I’m not shooting for 100% outdoor size prints, and I’m mostly reducing 7360 X 4912 pixel images into 2048 X 1367 pixel compressed jpegs, it’s hardly noticeable – the SMC-2 is made to fill the frame with the subjects, not to crop. Images produced with it even with diffraction, are far more detailed than the equivalent crops, shot with SMC-1.
Why I ended up loving this lens
Once I realised what I’m capable of doing with the SMC-2, I really started to love it, because:
Despite being a specific tool for super macro, it’s super versatile, allowing shooting different styles, from ethereal bokehs, to super sharp microscopic / scientific critter images.
Magnification changes a lot according to focusing distance, so one can fill the frame with decently sized (1 cm “ish”) shrimps and nudibranchs as well as with a few millimetre sized isopods.
Colour rendition is outstanding and chromatic aberrations / fringing is very well controlled, considering the optic limitations of such a huge amplification.
One may find it a bit pricey, considering other wet lenses, but this is something capable of producing unique results. It sets up an entirely new world of possibilites for creativeness on super macro underwater shooting.
All shots made with Nikon D810, Nikon 105 Micro VR 2.8, Nauticam SMC-2; Nauticam NA-D810; 2 x Subtronic Nova (except the first one) and Sola 2500 Video torch.
Happy two friends – Two ladybugs (amphipods) I was lucky to find on the same hydroid, on the same focal plan. Less than 20 % crop on this image. Sharpness was increased in post processing, but the data from the raw file was really there, otherwise, it would have been artefacts instead of details. 1/250, f.45, ISO 100
Coral Polyp – One of my first shots with SMC-2. Shot with continuous light (Sola video 2500). The bokeh is just outstanding and I love the colours too. Notice, the center is a bit off focus, so, at this aperture, only a small area behind it retains full sharpness. 1/200, f.20, ISO 220
Fire mall – A fire worm stepped in, and I attempted some shots. I found very cool to be able to shoot the detail from its back. The two parallel lines, in the center, give the picture its meaning. As the worm was moving, f.16 here makes not much sense. It was a “trial and error” which accidentally got right. The whole fire worm was about 3 cm long. 1/250, f.16, ISO 80
Nudibranch’s gills – It looks like rocks above the sea, on a long exposure shot. Again, a great example of the bokeh’s ability of the SMC-2. 1/250, f.29, ISO 80
Skeleton meal – Ever wondered how a skeleton shrimp (Caprellidae sp.) head would look like? Here it is, and eating and amphipod (I suspect some kind of small ladybug) It was cropped to frame, around 20 %. 1/250, f.32, ISO 80
Zanzibar Whip Coral Shrimp – (Dasycaris zanzibarica). A predictable, common shot, I did just to show its doable. The whole shrimp, was smaller than average, about 3 mm in length. Detail was enhanced in PP. 1/250, f.40, ISO 100
Whip coral goby – (Bryaninops yongei), front shot, on a curly whip coral. A hard one to pull out, as the coral itself stood sometimes in front of the goby without I even noticing it, because of the extremely shallow D.O.F. on the preview. 1/250, f.32, ISO 100
Golden Eye – transparent goby on a pink sponge. Absolute sharpness on the eyes and smooth contrast on the sponge. I could have probably been lower on the D.O.F. But I wanted to retain the whole eye detail. An example of when SMC-C typical shallow D.O.F. can be an advantage. 1/250, f.40, ISO 100
Blind sheep – A Cyclops “Shaun the sheep” (Costasiella sp.) sap sucking slug. For some reason, it only has one “eye”, meaning the black cell who are able to react to light. Even at f.45, the antennas and the front area is notoriously defocused. 1/250, f.45, ISO 80
Shaun the sheep – Another, more common, Costasiella sp. sap sucking slug. Image uncropped, at minimum focus distance and minimum aperture for the wider D.O.F. This is one of the tiniest specimens I found (about 2 mm in length). Colours are great, aberrations aren’t noticeable. It’s about how far the SMC-2 goes, and it’s pretty far! 1/250, f.51, ISO 100
Santia – some sort of amphipod colony, living in a white sponge. I previously noticed there were some 1 mm black spots crawling around in it, so I gave it a try on actually seeing how would they look like. Image is 30% cropped. 1/250, f.45, ISO 100
Thorunna halourga – I guess it’s a juvenile (4mm in length). A good example on how SMC-2 can help on critter ID, as it shows the tiniest details, as seen on the nearest rhinophore. 1/250, f.40, ISO 100
Hypselodoris zephyra – What wasn’t more than an nudibranch ID shot, ended up looking nice, as the SMC-2 got the light reflection of the strobe light on the surrounding brown bottom and rendered it into a nice brown / reddish bokeh, adding some character to the image. 1/250, f.45, ISO 100
Pink ladibug – An amphipod among a colony of juveniles, on a hydroid. I used ISO 80 to reduce the be able to underexpose and reduce the glittering effect of the strobes on its back. There is a hardly noticeable of chromatic aberration on the right small white ladybug and, despite the diffraction, the sharpness, at this size image, is still formidable. 1/250, f.45, ISO 80
Hypselodoris maculosa – Juvenile. Again, a dreamy, image of a fairly known nudibranch, here presented as a front shot. All but the rhinophores is bokeh, which makes a difference from a distracting, boring image, into an overall pleasing one. 1/250, f.32, ISO 100
I ended up buying Nauticam SMC-2 wet lens. Find some more images captured with it, both in Bali, and in Lembeh.
Though a bit too extreme for Super 35 video sensors, I also used it in a few scenes on the following videos: