If you’ve spent enough time around underwater macro photographers, then you’re bound to hear a similar question: “Do you use a 60mm or 105mm lens?”
Now, the correct answer should be, “Both.” Each lens has its advantages for certain situations, and can limit your creativity in other instances. But many underwater photographers—especially those with entrenched habits—have one go-to lens.
In this article, we break down each macro lens for beginners to know when to utilize the specific focal length. And, hopefully, we can inspire the “Team 60” or “Team 105” to give the other lens more love.
105mm vs. 60mm: Two Focal Lengths, One Goal
First note: When we say 105mm and 60mm, we aren’t referring solely to those exact focal lengths. These are the most common for Nikon (Nikkor) lenses, but Canon users would be quick to point out their two primary macro lenses have focal lengths of 50mm and 100mm. Then, of course, you have all the new macro lenses introduced for mirrorless cameras. And when you factor in cropped factors vs. full-frame cameras, you have to add in even more focal length variations.
So, when we refer to the 60mm and 105mm lenses in the following, the 60mm represents focal lengths of 45–65mm and the 105mm represents focal lengths of 100–120mm. These are two distinct ranges and each is best used for specific situations.
This pygmy seahorse is roughly an inch in length, but is hidden deep within a sea fan, meaning the photographer needs the extra focal length of the 105mm lens
This shrimp isn’t much larger than the seahorse, but it’s in an accessible area, so the photographer can get close with the 60mm lens
The Best Macro Lens for Underwater Macro Photography
A big misconception is that longer focal lengths produce more magnification or better overall macro images. There is no “better” lens for underwater photography over the other. So if you’re looking for that answer, we are sorry to disappoint.
Rather, it’s important to consider the benefits and challenges of using either a “short macro lens” (50–60mm) or a “longer macro lens” (90–105mm). Here, we break down how to decide which lens to use on a given dive or for a specific subject or technique. If you’re looking to buy only a single macro lens, then skip to the conclusion, where we give advice on how to approach this decision.
A 60mm lens is versatile and can photograph macro critters like shrimp or larger subjects like turtles or sharks—or this spiny lobster
Short Macro Lenses for Underwater Photography
Macro lenses with a focal range around 60mm are a popular choice for beginning interchangeable lens underwater photographers. The simple reason is that the focal length is extremely versatile. With a 60mm lens, you can take a portrait of a turtle, large eel, or any medium-sized subjects. At the same time, it allows you to get close enough to photograph macro subjects like seahorses or crustaceans.
When talking about using a short macro lens such as the 60mm or 55mm, the key specification is minimum focus distance. In the case of the Nikkor 60mm, the minimum focus distance is roughly six inches. This close focus distance is ideal for macro subjects that will allow you to get within that distance in order to fill the frame.
A shorter focal length doesn’t mean you can’t take an image of a small subject. This (uncropped) image is of a small underwater “bug” clinging to a toy
This focal range is ideal when you can get close to your subjects, ideally no more than six to eight inches from your dome port. This is especially significant in low-visibility environments where you want to be as close as possible when limiting backscatter with strobe positioning.
Sample Subjects: Seahorses, nudibranchs, shrimp, crabs, eels, and still reef fish (stonefish, lionfish, scorpionfish, etc.)
The 60mm is also useful for taking profile images of larger subjects like this shark, where the 105mm would push the shooter too far away
A blenny and a Christmas tree worm pair up for this colorful image, taken only six inches away with the 60mm lens
Long Macro Lenses for Underwater Photography
The myth that longer focal length macro lenses produce better images has long existed in the underwater photography community. Longer focal length marco lenses have a narrower field of view, helping to fill the frame with subjects that are further away. For example, the Nikkor 60mm lens has a horizontal field of view of 22 degrees, compared to 12 degrees for the 105mm lens.
But that does not mean it can be used as a crutch to magnify small subjects. Rather, the 105mm lens is best served for shy subjects or fast-moving subjects that won’t allow you to come within the six-to-eight-inch working distance of the 60mm. The 105mm lens has a minimum focus distance of 12 inches.
Sample Subjects: Moving reef fish, shy critters, distant subjects
If a blenny is shy, you can use the longer focal length of the 105mm to fill the frame with the subject
Mandarinfish are notoriously shy subjects, ideal for the longer focal length macro lens
Which Lens Do I Choose? Three Shooting Scenarios
Scenario 1: Anemonefish
Imagine there is a beautiful anemone filled with anemonefish on the top of a tropical reef. On the one hand, the anemone isn’t going anywhere, so you can get as close as you want. You could come within six inches to fill the frame with a 60mm lens.
However, anemonefish tend to be a bit shy at times and move about quickly. By using a 105mm lens instead, you will be pushed further away by the minimum focus distance. But your distance from the anemone won’t spook the fish as much and you’ll have better luck at filling the frame with the subject.
A 105mm lens was used to fill the frame with this shy anemonefish, which tends to hide when a photographer gets too close
Scenario 2: Frogfish in the Muck
Now, you’re on a muck dive and come across a small (fist-sized) frogfish sitting in some silt. You could use a 105mm lens to fill the frame of the frogfish from 12 inches away.
However, the particulates in the water mean you want to be as close as possible to the subject to minimize backscatter. Plus, most frogfish tend to be pretty sedentary. Using the 60mm lens and getting within just a few inches will create a more impactful image with more effective strobe light and minimal backscatter.
A shorter focal length macro lens is great for sedentary subjects, further isolated by the use of a snoot
Situation 3: Eel in the Rubble
Now let’s say you come across a medium-sized moray eel sticking its head out of some rubble. Eels, for the most part, stay in the same space. And because it’s a decent-sized moray eel, you can fill the frame with either lens. How do you decide?
Well, consider the effect of using the longer focal length lens: Because you are further away from the subject, the image will have less depth, which can be combined with open aperture values to blur out the background and emphasize the subject. Alternatively, you can eliminate the distracting rubble with the close focus distance of the short macro lens (60mm) by getting close and filling the frame solely with the eel’s portrait. At a certain point, it becomes an artistic choice.
With the 60mm, it was possible to get close and fill the frame with this eel
This image was taken with a 105mm in order to be a bit farther away as the eel snapped at a nearby rival
Choosing Between the 60mm and 105mm for Macro Underwater Photography
As you can see, there are clearly situations where each lens shines. For macro subjects where you can get as close as needed, a short macro lens helps you fill the frame and makes lighting with strobes much easier from a close distance. However, not all subjects are accommodating: If you can’t get close to a subject without altering its behavior or scaring it away, a long macro lens is the way to go.
But let’s say you only have the budget—or space—for one of these lenses. Which do you choose? The 60mm is probably the way to go. It is more versatile and can be combined with a super-macro wet lens accessory if you need even more magnification and/or shorter working distance with smaller subjects.
Most importantly, however, it will force you to get as close as possible to your subjects. The 105mm lens is a great tool for shy subjects, but is often used as a crutch. Go with the 60mm and you will build the skill set to photograph the majority of macro critters. Only when you find yourself handicapped should you think of investing in a long macro lens like the 105/100mm.
A reef squid at night requires lots of artificial strobe light, which is made possible by getting close with the 60mm lens