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My Favorite Gear: Nauticam EMWL
By Matthew Sullivan, June 28, 2024 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

A large polkadot batfish standing tall on a rubble slope. Normally a skittish subject and one that is near impossible to photograph wide angle, the length of the Nauticam EMWL 130° objective lens and the small size made the batfish far more comfortable and allowed for a unique portrait (Sony a9, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Seafrogs housing, Nauticam EMWL with 130° objective lens, dual Retra Flash strobes)
 

Nauticam has a long list of vaunted water contact optics: the Wide Angle Conversion Port (WACP) series lenses, the Wet Wide Lens (WWL) series lenses, and the Super Macro Converter (SMC) and Compact Macro Converter (CMC) lenses. Perhaps the most specialized and certainly the most unique among the lineup is the Extended Wide Macro Lens (EMWL). The EMWL is a modular optic system designed for extreme close focus wide-angle underwater imaging opportunities that open up picture possibilities that are hard to impossible to achieve with other gear.

The EMWL is meant for photographing small subjects prominently in the frame while putting them in their habitat for context. Since the day it was released, I have lusted after the EMWL, as such pictures are my favorite types of images to create—especially of strange and unusual fish like batfish and frogfish.

Here, I won’t go into the different modular components that make up the EMWL, but focus instead on the final and most important part—the objective lens. There are four of these objective lenses in the EMWL system: the 60°, 100°, 130°, and 160°. My favorite is the 160°, followed by the 130°, then the 60°. I have not used the 100°, but I personally do not feel I would find too much of a use for it. I choose to forgo the relay lens (middle) section of the EMWL system and instead use a monitor. There is some debate as to whether or not the relay lens impacts image quality; I tend to think it does. The monitor allows me to perform the same function of flipping the image, making the relay section unnecessary, and at least to my eyes, increases image quality without that extra glass in the way.
 

This young snapping turtle, around the size of a silver dollar, was photographed in a shallow, rocky creek that would have been a nightmare with a dome port and surely resulted in scratches. The tiny front element of the 160° objective lens allowed me to get the lens right down on the bottom, avoid scratches, and get a low level perspective on the little snapper (Sony a7S III, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Isotta housing, Nauticam EMWL with 160° objective lens, dual Retra Flash Pro Max strobes)
 

The EMWL also allows (with proper framing and lighting) to take what are essentially black background macro images of critters like this striated frogfish. Why would you want to do that instead of just using a macro lens? Well, in this instance, the water was dark and murky and silty. The EMWL allowed me to nearly touch the frogfish with the front element, eliminating a lot of dirty water between myself and the fish, resulting in a sharper subject, less backscatter, and easier lighting (Sony a7S III, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Isotta housing, Nauticam EMWL with 160° objective lens, dual Retra Flash Pro Max strobes)
 

At a pinch, the EMWL can be used for classic wide-angle subjects as well, like this manatee. The image quality at further distances like this isn’t quite as good as a normal wide-angle lens or as good as the EMWL when shot much closer, but it is perfectly acceptable and plenty sharp. I suspect for faster-moving subjects like sharks, perhaps my opinions would change but for slow-moving manatees, the EMWL is a manageable rig (Sony a9, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Seafrogs housing, Nauticam EMWL with 130° objective lens, dual Retra Flash Pro Max strobes)
 

The 60° objective lens for the EMWL is often overlooked but can be quite useful for creating macro portraits of subjects with just a tad wider perspective than you’d normally get from a standard macro lens. It has the smallest front element of all four objective lenses, and it seems many subjects don't mind at all it being in proximity to them (Sony a9, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Seafrogs housing, Nauticam EMWL with 60° objective lens, dual Kraken KS160 strobes)
 

While it has the largest front element of any of the EMWL objective lenses, the 130° is still extremely small and very much smaller than a dome port. The 130° is also the longest of the four optics and extends out quite far. This combination is fantastic for photographing shy subjects, as it allows the photographer to be further away without intimidating the animal. In this case, with a larger dome port, it would have been impossible to get very close to this largemouth bass and his nest, but the EMWL with the 130° was perfect (Sony a7R II, Canon 60mm f/2.8 Macro, Seafrogs housing, Nauticam EMWL with 130° objective lens, dual Nikonos SB-105 strobes)
 

The extremely small size of the 160° objective lens allowed me to get it inside the leg length of this arrow crab, making it look enormous as it reaches around the lens. Doing this with a dome port would require a much larger crab and would be decidedly more difficult! Lighting would also be a challenge. Because the EMWL sticks out quite far from the front of the camera, positioning strobes is far easier than it would be in tight quarters with a dome port and a small subject (Sony a7S III, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Isotta housing, Nauticam EMWL with 160° objective lens, dual Retra Flash Pro Max strobes)
 

A wild-looking and quite large (~2-foot) smooth puffer. This is not a common fish and the only one I've ever seen. I was thrilled to have the EMWL on this dive, as it allowed me to emphasize the unusual puffer while placing a diver in the frame. Using a macro lens would have resulted in a very poor image and a dome port would not have allowed me to get as close or as low (Sony a9, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Seafrogs housing, Nauticam EMWL with 130° objective lens, dual Retra Flash strobes)

 

Final Thoughts

Divers looking for the ultimate tool to create eye-catching close-focus wide-angle images, need look no further than the Nauticam EMWL system. It opens up pictures that just aren't possible with other gear, and while it does so at a wallet-crushing price, it is worth it in my opinion. The image quality is vastly superior to previous attempts at lenses like this and even pixel peepers (like me) will be satisfied.

Make no mistake, there is a learning curve with the EMWL, but once figured out, it is incredibly fun. Frankly, it is almost too fun. It has barely come off my camera since I got it and I find myself having to force myself to use other lenses. Without a doubt, the EMWL is among my favorite gear and will have a place in my gear pack for the forseeable future.
 

This is the type of image (of a striated frogfish, no less) that I’ve envisioned and wanted for a very long time. Until the EMWL, I had some pictures of frogfish that sort of approximated this but weren't quite what I was after. The shot was captured with my personal favorite objective lens: the 160°. It has a very small front element while providing the widest view—a perfect combination for extreme wide-angle macro (Sony a7S III, Sony 90mm OSS Macro, Isotta housing, Nauticam EMWL with 160° objective lens, dual Retra Flash Pro Max strobes)
 


 

About the Reviewer: Matthew Sullivan is a Florida-based wildlife photographer who has been diving since he was 10 years old. He has traveled extensively, visiting well-known dive destinations such as Guadalupe Island, Indonesia and the Philippines, but he also likes to dive closer to home in the Pacific Northwest. When not taking pictures underwater, he can be found trekking mountains, or exploring national parks and rainforests in search of new adventures and wildlife encounters.
 


 

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