If you were to ask an underwater photographer who uses a cropped-sensor DSLR to choose only one wide-angle lens to use forever, the likely response would be the Tokina 10–17mm.
Officially labeled the Tokina AT-X DX 10–17mm F3.5–4.5, this fisheye zoom features a particularly useful focal length range and close-focus ability that makes it the bread and butter for wide-angle photography. In this guide, we explain why this lens should be in your arsenal (if it’s not already) and share tips for creating awesome images with the Tokina 10–17mm.
Fisheye Zoom Lenses for Underwater Photography
You probably know by now that the number one rule for underwater photography is to get close—and then get closer. Fisheye lenses—with their ultra-wide angle of view—have been long established in underwater photography. For topside shooting, fisheyes remain more of a “specialty” lens due to the fact that the ultra-wide viewing angle distorts straight lines.
But underwater, there are few straight lines—excluding man-made objects such as elements of a shipwreck or a pier. And so, fisheye lenses are not only widely used for wide-angle underwater photography, but are truly the workhorses of professional underwater image makers. “I use fisheye lenses extensively,” writes pro photographer Alex Mustard in a 2007 review of the Tokina 10–17mm. “For example, in my first book, The Art of Diving, fisheyes contributed more than 50% of images.”
But while their wide angle of view makes fisheyes great for limiting the amount of water between the photographer and subject, it’s a bit of a catch-22. That ultra-wide view (up to 180 degrees) means that you have to get super close to subjects in order for them to fill the frame. This is less of an obstacle with stationary subjects like shipwrecks or reef scenes, but it poses a challenge for other more skittish subjects like sharks or schooling fish. Enter the fisheye zoom lens.
During its height of popularity in the underwater industry, Pentax produced the first widely used fisheye zooms, such as the 10–17mm and 17–28mm. But they were only available with Pentax mounts, and when Nikon and Canon began to dominate the cropped-sensor DSLR market in the mid-2000s, there was a perfect opportunity for Tokina to release a 10–17mm fisheye compatible with those more popular cameras.
The Tokina 10–17mm combines the wide angle of view of a fisheye with the ability to zoom in on more skittish subjects, such as these hammerheads (shot at 17mm)
About the Tokina 10–17mm
One of the big selling points is the incredible minimum focus distance of the lens: 5.5” (14cm) from the image plane (aka the back of the camera). In practice, there is little to no minimum focus distance when used underwater behind a fisheye dome port. You can be an inch away from a subject and still have the lens achieve proper focus.
The Tokina 10–17mm has a 180-degree diagonal view at 10mm and a 100-degree view at 17mm. Other key specs include a minimum aperture of f/22, which is useful in super-bright conditions or when trying to capture crisp sun balls.
Zooming in on this diving turtle and closing the Tokina’s aperture to f/22 produces a moodier image with a sunball (shot at 15mm)
Additional Equipment Considerations
Because the Tokina 10–17mm is actually a little bit longer than most prime fisheye lenses, some manufacturers recommend the addition of an extension ring to produce the best image quality—especially sharpness in the corners. Consult Backscatter’s Lens and Port Finder to find the right combination for you. Also, make sure to purchase the right zoom gear so that you can take full advantage of the lens’ focal length.
Because of the wide angle of view of the 10–17mm and the versatility of potential subjects to be photographed, it’s really important that you have two strobes. When photographing large scenes at 10mm, be sure to bring the strobes behind the housing and point them slightly outward to avoid harsh hot spots.
Finally, if you find yourself taking a lot of close focus wide-angle, consider purchasing a dedicated mini-dome. This will allow you to bring the lens very close to the subject. More importantly, you will also be able to bring the strobes very close to the lens for even lighting at such a small working distance.
The Tokina 10–17mm takes great close-focus wide-angle images, as with this clownfish-filled anenome framed against a dramatic wall; use a mini-dome to get close in tight spaces (shot at 10mm)
Zooming with the Tokina 10–17mm
So now we have a fisheye lens that has the ability to zoom. But just because you have something doesn’t mean you should use it. In the best scenarios, a zoom turns an unusable shooting situation into one with potential. In the worst case—it becomes a crutch.
If you’re just starting to take wide-angle images with your cropped-sensor DSLR, we might actually recommend starting with a prime fisheye lens such as the Nikon 10.5mm or Sigma EF 15mm. This will force you to get as close to a subject as possible instead of taking up the bad habit of just relying on the zoom.
At 10mm, the diver and shark aren’t prominent in the frame (left image). By changing the focal length to 17mm, we have two primary subjects in the shot (right image). Neither image is cropped
The difference in framing produced by shooting at 10mm and 17mm is quite extreme. And this can be a valuable asset, especially when photographing subjects that would be just too small in the frame of a prime fisheye lens. However, the last thing you want to do is zoom in when you could fill the frame at 10mm. Doing so keeps you further away from your subject, thereby increasing the amount of water separating the subject and you, which can lead to more backscatter and that dreaded blue cast. So how do you decide when to zoom in and when not to zoom in?
When Not to Zoom In
If you’ve just invested in a fisheye lens that has the capability to zoom, it might seem like a pity to leave it at the widest focal length. Why not use a prime fisheye then? You’ll be glad you have the extra zoom when something swims just a little too far away, but for subjects that are motionless or you’d normally shoot with your widest-angle fisheye prime, then there’s no reason to use the zoom as a crutch.
Don’t zoom in for:
- Working with a dive model
- Close-up encounters with large animals (sharks, whales, sea lions, rays)
There is no need to zoom in when taking images of large, still subjects such as reefscapes, wrecks or this beautiful pink soft coral (shot at 10mm)
When to Zoom In
One of the reasons land photographers don’t understand the functionality of a fisheye zoom is that there are few situations demanding such a wide (and distorted) view—and the flexibility to zoom in slightly seems even less useful. Underwater, however, this focal range of 10–17mm (180–100 degrees angle of view) is crucial. Topside photography rarely deals with subjects that are large and close enough one moment, but then three feet too far away the next. Underwater photography is unpredictable at best: You may have intended to photograph a shipwreck at 10mm but not expected that pod of dolphins to pass by 15 feet away. Zooming in for such situations is acceptable—we promise!
It’s okay to zoom in for:
- Large animals keeping their distance
- Schools of fish more than an arm’s reach away
- Close-focus wide-angle subjects
This croc didn’t want me to get any closer: on the left, the image taken at 10mm, and on the right, taken at 15mm
Lighting with the Tokina 10–17mm
Strobe positioning and lighting technique varies greatly depending on whether you’re at 10mm or 17mm—or anything in-between. Shooting at 10mm, you may be photographing a large reefscape, exterior of a wreck, or an up-close encounter with a large animal. In this case, you’ll likely position your strobes as wide as possible, feathered out to cover as much of the scene as possible with strobe light.
But let’s say a turtle swims by—just a bit too far to adequately fill the frame at 10mm. If you want to zoom in to 17mm, you should probably turn down the strobes to avoid backscatter, and adjust settings to rely more on ambient light. You might also use the 17mm focal length to create close-focus wide-angle images, in which case your lighting setup will change once again.
The bottom line is that the Tokina’s 10–17mm range is very versatile, but also demands a variety of lighting techniques based on the subject type. You can take images of big animals, close-focus wide-angle shots, or reefscapes all with this one lens. However, each of these scenarios requires dramatically different lighting setups and manual exposure settings. Consult DPG’s Lighting Guide for the techniques required for a variety of situations.
Because of the versatility of the Tokina 10–17mm, you will be forced to learn to light a variety of situations: After spending an entire dive photographing reef scenes, I brought my strobes in tight to the dome for this close-focus wide-angle capture of a frogfish (shot at 10mm)
Underwater Photography Tips for the Tokina 10–17mm
Try Close-Focus Wide Angle: One of the reasons the Tokina 10–17mm has remained popular for underwater photography is its ability to take advantage of the incredible minimum focus distance for close-focus wide-angle photography. By zooming in to 17mm, you can photograph a small (or even macro-sized subject) a central focus of the frame, while including more of the environment through the wide angle of view. We encourage you to read DPG’s guide to close-focus wide angle by Alex Mustard, in which many images were captured using the Tokina 10–17mm.
The Tokina 10–17mm is an invaluable tool for close-focus wide angle. Here, with a small leaffish (2–3 inches), using a 17mm focal length helps the subject better fill the frame
Stick with One Focal Length: The Tokina’s 10–17mm range is a double-edged sword—it opens up countless image possibilities, from big animals, to close-focus wide-angle, to reefscapes. However, each of these scenarios requires dramatically different lighting setups and manual exposure settings. If you’re just getting started with the lens, try to stick to a single focal length, adjusting only if an extraordinary opportunity presents itself. Once you’re comfortable with the lens and with lighting a variety of subjects, you can begin to use it as a “jack of all trades” on a given dive.
If you’re just getting started using a fisheye zoom, it’s best to plan to use one focal length for an entire dive (ideally the widest focal length) and only zoom when needed (image shot at 15mm)
Use Narrower Apertures: One technical concern about the Tokina 10–17mm is a slight lack of sharpness, especially around the corners. Fringing or chromatic aberration with the Tokina 10–17mm compared to prime fisheyes is a long-debated topic, but most photographers are willing to sacrifice a little sharpness for the ability to zoom. Still, using a narrower aperture (at least f/8–f/11) will help increase the sharpness, particularly in the corners. If you’re forced to compromise between a more open aperture or ISO/shutter speed, make sure not to sacrifice depth of field.
Using apertures narrower than f/8 when photographing large scenes will help ensure higher edge quality, as seen in this image taken at f/8 (at 10mm)
Experiment with Filters: The Tokina’s 180-degree viewing angle lends itself to capturing very large scenes, from massive wrecks to colorful coral reefs that extend out of view. Lighting such large scenes entirely with strobes is unrealistic, and the use of a filter becomes handy to restore proper color and contrast to the image. Unfortunately, the Tokina 10–17mm lacks a rear filter ring mount. However, Magic Filters provides a guide to attaching their products safely to both the Nikon- and Canon-mount versions of the lens.
The Tokina 10–17mm can photograph immense scenes, but your strobes cannot. Using filters helps bring back color and contrast to scenes too large to be covered by strobes (shot at 10mm)
Pay Attention to Lines: The underwater realm lacks many of the straight, man-made lines of the topside world. As a result, the extreme distortion produced by ultra-wide fisheye lenses is not particularly disturbing—indeed, the exaggerated perspective is often a boon. However, there are some straight lines to be found underwater, particularly inside wrecks, around jetties, piers and ropes. So, while you may find the 10mm focal length ideal for photographing the exterior of a wreck, when inside the ship consider using the 17mm focal length to limit the distortion and produce more natural lines.
The distortion of the exterior of the wreck at 10mm doesn’t detract from the image (left). Once inside, switching to 16mm avoids curved lines (right)
For more than a decade, the Tokina 10–17mm has been the go-to wide-angle lens for cropped-sensor DSLR underwater photographers. The combination of an ultra-wide angle of view, performance, and versatility are simply hard to beat. If you have to pack a single lens for a trip, the Tokina 10–17mm is a good bet. In fact, many photographers make sure it’s the setup packed in their carry-on bags.
Learning how to take advantage of the zoom, without using it as a crutch, is a key skill for wide-angle underwater photography. By following this guide, and with practice, you’ll be able to create fantastic images of massive schools of fish, enormous whale sharks, huge wrecks, vast reefscapes, and even macro subjects—all with a single lens.