Nauticam SMC-2 wet lens – First impression review

Sep 21, 2017

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My learning curve, with wet lenses

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.

Image Gallery

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.

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:

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