A dream come true: Fitting two harlequin shrimp and a model in the same shot (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18, 1/40s, ISO 800)
If you have read my review of the Nauticam EMWL, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of this underwater “bugeye” system, for it enables the most extreme, eye-catching close-focus wide-angle (CFWA) images. A fisheye lens, mounted behind a mini-dome, has long been the go-to setup for CFWA, but the Nauticam EMWL offers higher magnification ratios and the ability to get much closer to critters, due to its tiny, pointy front optic. Put simply, the EMWL produces the unique perspective you’d have if you and your fisheye setup shrank by about five times! This is why you might hear EMWL users say they are “rediscovering” their favorite dive sites.
A couple of years after the EMWL came out, Nauticam announced an accessory that piqued my curiosity: the Angled Relay Lens, which can be used in the place of the original straight 150mm/6in Relay Lens. At first, I couldn’t quite grasp the reasoning behind this new product: In two years of shooting the EMWL, I didn’t see why I wouldn’t want to use the straight Relay Lens. What was the problem being solved?
The Angled Relay Lens, on display at ADEX Singapore 2023
I parked that thought until I visited the Nauticam booth at ADEX Singapore a few months ago, where Peter Mooney (Nauticam Australia) showed me around the latest innovations. The use-case for that particular product? Frame your subject against a blue water background—even when it’s crawling on the sand!
That was it, I was sold! I knew that I needed to get my hands on this newfangled device, and as luck would have it, Nauticam was willing to provide me with the Angled Relay Lens for the purpose of writing this review. The timing worked really well: I received the lens just before flying to North Sulawesi, Indonesia for six days of diving at Lembeh Resort, followed by a few days at Murex Manado and Murex Bangka.
My EMWL setup ready to shoot the Lembeh Strait (with thanks to Jacob Guy). I attached the E-Ocean floats that I normally use with the straight Relay Lens. E-Ocean is prototyping floats specifically designed for the Angled Relay Lens, which I will be trying soon
The Problem Being Solved
It became obvious when Peter articulated it: Although the assembled EMWL system has quite a narrow diameter, since it is centered on your camera’s optical axis, you’ll inevitably shoot at a slightly downwards angle if your subject is on the sand. The same goes when using a mini-dome, and it’s simply a fact we’ve learned to accept: You can get some blue water in the photo, but the critter is going to have sand/muck behind it. So it goes.
Top: A humpback scorpionfish shot with the straight Relay Lens and 100° Objective Lens (Nikon D810, Nikon AF-S 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 100°, f/18, 1/50s, ISO 640). Bottom: The same species, shot with the Angled Relay Lens and 160° Objective Lens. The difference is obvious (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18, 1/160s, ISO 800)
Enter another Nauticam engineering feat, the Angled Relay Lens, which turns a straight optical system into a bent one with two “turns,” resulting in an upwards 45° angle, over the optical axis.
This is what the whole system looks like when the Angled Relay Lens is used instead of the straight Relay Lens
The Angled Relay Lens (top) is longer and heavier than the straight Relay Lens (bottom)
As part of my introduction to underwater photography course, beginners learn that wide-angle photos generally look better when framed upwards. This produces a more flattering perspective with most subjects and including a water background contributes to storytelling, especially when the surface is visible. Well, the Angled Relay Lens enables just that, while shooting small critters on the sand, with a bugeye twist!
When I first started shooting the EMWL system, it took me a couple dives to get fully acquainted. Moving to the Angled Relay Lens required some adjustment too, though not quite as much.
Subject on the Sand
I found myself hovering over the sandy bottom of the Lembeh Strait, aiming the EMWL system downwards, so that the pointy end (the 160° objective lens) would lie nearly flat in front of the subject, with a slightly upwards angle. Holding a muck stick with my left hand helped me steady myself, and this was the only contact I had with the seafloor. Shooting this way creates challenges with motion blur, as the EMWL cuts down a lot of light, and I was forced to use higher ISO settings in order to increase my shutter speed. Also, the Angled Relay Lens is around 170g/0.37lb more than the straight Relay Lens, so be prepared to add extra floats.
Despite all this, from the first dive with the Angled Relay Lens, I took images that I really liked—and which would have been impossible to produce with any other equipment. As a bonus, framing subjects with the housing away from the bottom meant that size didn’t matter anymore! One shortcoming of using a full-sized pro camera like my Nikon Z9 is that you can’t get as low when shooting subjects on the sand, but this becomes a non-issue with the Angled Relay Lens.
I photographed this nudibranch during my first dive with the Angled Relay Lens. While it was crawling on the sand, I was able to include the sunball in the background (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18, 1/125s, ISO 500)
This hairy frogfish was also sitting on the sand, but being about 3in (8cm) in size, it stood out from the seafloor, making it an easier shot to compose compared to the above nudibranch (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18 1/100s, ISO 500)
Subject Above the Bottom
Besides animals on sand, the Angled Relay Lens is beneficial for the many scenarios where a subject is swimming over the bottom, or positioned low on a reef. With the standard Relay Lens, the EMWL protrudes as far as 11in (39cm) in front of the housing, making it difficult or impossible to aim with an upward angle. The Angled Relay Lens solves that problem and is much easier to use in such a scenario, where you play around with the system’s 45° angle. Indeed, you can point the housing slightly downwards, say at a 15° angle, and the front lens still has a comfortable 30° upwards angle (i.e., 45° minus 15°).
During a dive at Lembeh’s famous “Nudi Falls” dive site, my guide showed me this nudibranch, which was less-than-ideally positioned in the middle of the reef. I decided to attempt the shot anyway, and I was surprised that I could squeeze the EMWL close enough to achieve this composition (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18, 1/40s, ISO 800)
Top: Two robust ghost pipefish photographed last year in Lembeh, with the straight Relay Lens. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t frame them against a water background (Nikon D810, Nikon F 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 100°, f/13, 1/40s, ISO 640). Bottom: This year, with the Angled Relay Lens, the majority of my pipefish photos, like this one, are framed against blue water (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/20, 1/50s, ISO 800)
On that note, the 160° Objective Lens was my favorite optic to use with the Angled Relay Lens, since the name of the game was to include as much water background as possible in the frame. Check out my EMWL review for a more detailed discussion on that lens and how it compares with the 100° Objective Lens.
Top: This pink painted frogfish was tucked in a patch of weed and sponges, a subject I would normally shoot with a snoot to hide that distracting background, or use bokeh to smoothen it out. Bottom: Instead, the Angled Relay Lens let me get more water than muck in the frame. The final touch was the torch of my dive guide, Fandy, who is also a very talented model (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18, 1/60s, ISO 800)
Do You Still Need an External Viewfinder?
I normally use an external 45° viewfinder, because it makes framing upwards easier, amongst other things. With the Angled Relay Lens, however, the housing is pointing down, and looking through my external 45° viewfinder wasn’t always as comfortable.
If the subject was on the sand and I wanted the front optic really flat on the ground, then I would sometimes switch to the rear LCD screen and frame my photo from a distance. Most of the time, though, I preferred framing through the Nauticam 45° viewfinder for the extra stability—one hand on the housing and the external viewfinder resting on my mask.
This is one scenario where a straight external viewfinder would be the most comfortable option.
I composed via the rear LCD screen when shooting this lionfish at night (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 100°, f/18, 1/200s, ISO 800)
As I wrote in my EMWL review, I found the optical quality to be excellent, especially when using the 160° Objective Lens. The good news is: I didn’t notice any loss of sharpness or color contrast when swapping the straight Relay Lens for the Angled Relay Lens.
A classic turtle shot from Bunaken: Would you have guessed that it was taken with the Nauticam EMWL? The sharpness is excellent and the appearance of Snell’s window is very pleasing (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18, 1/125s, ISO 640)
When the Standard Straight Relay Lens Is Better
Think of all the attractive subjects you have to pass up because they are positioned too low. The Angled Relay Lens lets you shoot them from below, possibly including the surface, a model, the sun, or all of the above, in the background. Great.
Now think about a frogfish that is ideally positioned to shoot with a normal EMWL setup, or even a traditional CFWA setup (fisheye/mini-dome). It is sitting above the seafloor, so you have space to bring your housing close, and it is looking slightly up, enabling strong eye contact—what a perfect photo opportunity! Well, if you are shooting the Angled Relay Lens, that subject isn’t so productive anymore. Quite the opposite: Unless you think the bottom jaw of said frogfish is a great subject on its own, you’re going to have to wiggle in midwater, upside down, trying to achieve a pleasing composition.
This scorpionfish sitting inside a barrel sponge was highly photogenic but a nightmare to compose with the Angled Relay Lens, even despite switching to the rear LCD screen (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/20, 1/200s, ISO 500)
You get the idea: Use the right tool for the right job. There will be subjects where the Angled Relay Lens is unsuitable and you would be better off with the straight Relay Lens. One solution is to take off the Angled Relay Lens when you encounter such a subject—but your camera would have to support flipping the screen/EVF, as the EMWL’s image is otherwise upside-down with no relay lens.
I wish I had had the straight Relay Lens for this shot, as framing slightly downwards would have showed more of the coconut octopus’ body and tentacles (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/20, 1/50s, ISO 640)
The Feature I Missed
As explained in my wide-angle course, verticals tend to produce the most dramatic CFWA imagery. Indeed, you get more space to spread out visually-distinct foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds, resulting in images with more “depth.” You can also include more water and sunlight in the photo.
While the Angled Relay Lens is a fantastic CFWA accessory, because it makes it so easy to include the surface/model/sun in your shot, it cannot be rotated: It is usable in landscape orientation only.
A typical scenario where I wish I could have rotated the Angled Relay Lens and included more of the sunball in the frame (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/18, 1/160s, ISO 500)
The Angled Relay Lens for the Nauticam EMWL is the most exciting piece of underwater photography gear that I have tried in a while—well, since I started using the EMWL two years ago. Nothing excites me more than a product that lets me create previously-impossible images, and this is exactly what this lens does. I can think of so many dive sites, subjects and scenarios where it would produce “never-before-seen” images.
However, there is no doubt that the Angled Relay Lens is a specialist tool, and it has its limitations. It won’t suit all subjects, depending on how they are positioned, and it can also only be used in landscape orientation.
Assuming you’ve already bought into the EMWL system, should you add this accessory to your arsenal? Remember the fun you had when discovering the new “bugeye” perspective offered by your shiny new EMWL? The Angled Relay Lens is an invitation to take it one step further, continuing that discovery of previously unseen perspectives. Whether or not this is worth the hefty price tag, only you can decide…
During a night dive, this Napoleon snake eel went out of its den and bumped on the front optic of my EMWL, filling the frame. Thanks to the Angled Relay Lens, I could frame it against some black background (Nikon Z9, Modified Nikon Z 105mm, Nauticam EMWL 160°, f/22, 1/200s, ISO 640)
About the Reviewer: Nicolas Remy is an Australia-based pro shooter and founder of online underwater photography school The Underwater Club. His images have been widely published in print and digital media, and have won over 35 international photo awards.
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