Editor’s Note: DPG would like to thank Fantasea for supplying the Fantasea-AOI UCL-09F super-macro and UWL-09F wide-angle wet lenses, Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II, Fantasea FG7X II housing, Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark IV, Fantasea FRX100 IV housing, and various accessories used in this review.
Until recent years, there has been a trend of thinking that a DSLR was necessary to shoot high-quality images. But that thinking has changed with the arrival of the latest, higher-end compact cameras, such as the Sony RX100 IV and Canon G7 X Mark II.
These compact—even pocket-sized—setups are very much capable of producing great quality images, and make for a lot less gear to travel with to your next dive destination. The real limiting factor is inevitably the in-built zoom lens and the lack of focal lengths appropriate for underwater photography, at the macro end but especially in the wide-angle department.
Fortunately, these focal lengths have been expanded in both realms. With advances in wet optics, we are seeing a DSLR-like field of view in both wide-angle and macro imaging. Since these lenses can be added or removed during a dive, it becomes evident that a huge benefit of this type of setup is versatility.
Recently, I have been putting two of the latest wet lens options to the test, a new series by Fantasea and AOI consisting of three different macro lenses varying in magnification—the macro UCL-05LF and UCL-06LF, plus super-macro UCL-09F—and a wide-angle lens, the UWL-09F. For this review, I was shooting with the UCL-09F and UWL-09F on both the Sony RX100 IV and Canon G7 X Mark II.
However big or small what you hope to encounter, it’s imperative that you bring the accessories you need. The new Fantasea-AOI lenses allow you to cover the full spectrum of subjects on a single dive
1. Overview of the Fantasea-AOI UWL-09F Wide-Angle Wet Lens
The Fantasea-AOI UWL-09F is made of a very durable aluminum alloy with a black hard coating for added protection. With its standard 67mm thread mount, the lens is directly compatible with a wide range of housings, not just Fantasea’s own lineup, and it ships with an adapter that makes it possible to attach the lens to almost any housing.
The UWL-09F gives a typical compact setup an amazing 130-degree field of view (with a 28mm equivalent lens)—great for wide-angle underwater photography. This field of view allows you to maneuver closer to your subjects, making for better compositions, simpler exposures, and overall sharper and more color-rich images, as there will be less water between you and your subject.
The lens also boasts a very impressive zero minimal focus distance. This gives the shooter the ability to get close enough to their intended subject to make the best possible use of their light sources, all while knowing their camera will be able to focus. It also opens up the possibility for some advanced techniques such as close-focus wide-angle and over-unders.
Fantasea-AOI UWL-09F Wide-Angle Lens Highlights
- Bezel: Aluminum alloy with black hard coating
- Lens construction: 5 elements in 5 groups
- Lens coating: anti-reflection coating
- Magnification: 0.45x
- Field of view (FOV): 130° (with a 28mm equivalent lens)
- Mounting: 67mm thread
- Dimensions: 5.2 x 3.7" (133.3 x 94.4mm)
- Weight: 36.4oz (1033g)
- Depth rating: 200ft (60m)
According to Fantasea-AOI, the UWL-09F was engineered to eliminate chromatic aberration in your images—the “purple fringing” that results when wavelengths of color are focused at different positions in the focal plane—and the glass elements in the lens have an anti-reflection coating designed to help avoid those pesky lens flares when shooting into the sun.
Mounting and removing the lens during a dive was very quick and easy. I recommend a small turn counter-clockwise, to align the grooves for the thread mount, before rotating clockwise to secure the lens. Once the lens is snug, you can adjust the dome shade to your shooting orientation for optimum results.
With the boost in field of view from the UWL-09F, it was possible to get close and expose this turtle correctly while including a diver in the background for perspective
2. Wide-Angle Underwater Photography with the Fantasea-AOI UWL-09F
With the addition of the UWL-09F, the large increase in field of view was immediately obvious, even to the point of giving images a true “fisheye” perspective. After just a few dives, I was excited to see the UWL-09F producing very crisp photos, even in the corners.
In use, the lens provided an excellent angle of coverage, making it a breeze to compose a shot with a model diver in the background and create a more captivating final image with a very pleasing fisheye-like appearance. The lens enabled me to get closer to my subjects, allowing for better exposures, more compositional options, and ultimately more-satisfying results.
The left image is taken with the on-camera lens, while the right image is shot with the addition of the UWL-09F. The added field of view allowed me to get lower and closer to my subject while still fitting the huge barrel sponge into the frame
When shooting into the sun, the UWL-09F produced great transitions into the blue, tight sunballs, and the anti-reflection coating proved to work well, especially at shallow depths were lens flares can be an issue. The lens allowed for speedy focusing, especially in well-lit, high-contrast scenes. Even when shooting into the sun, I found the lens allowed for quick, accurate autofocus.
Wide-angle attachments commonly result in images with slight softness in the corners, which is brought under control by the use of higher apertures. With the UWL-09F, I kept my aperture dialed in at f/11 to ensure the best possible image quality, but the lens produced excellent corner sharpness when wider open, too. Only at wider apertures than around f/6 did some softness start to creep in, but overall the lens produced great results across the typically used range of apertures for wide-angle shooting.
High apertures are needed for shooting into the sun. The UWL-09F gets you closer to your subject to dial in the desired settings and strobe power for proper exposure
3. Overview of the Fantasea-AOI UCL-09F Super-Macro Wet Lens
The UCL-09F is constructed using the same durable aluminum alloy and black hard coating as its wide-angle counterpart. At under 10 ounces, the lens is both lightweight and compact, making it very easy to pack and transport.
The lens boasts an impressive optical power of +12.5 diopters, promising the possibility to fill the frame with even the smallest of subjects. Like all macro converters, the UCL-09F decreases the minimum lens-to-subject distance, allowing you to increase magnification of your subject. Having the ability to get much closer to your macro subject, you are able to show more detail, create better exposures, and produce great quality images of tiny critters or detail shots of larger fishes, such as the eye or body patterns.
Fantasea-AOI UCL-09F Super-Macro Lens Highlights
- Bezel: Hard anodized aluminum with black hard coating
- Lens construction: 5 elements in 2 groups
- Lens coating: anti-reflection multi-layer coating
- Magnification: +12.5 diopters
- Mounting: 67mm thread (front and rear)
- Dimensions: 2.7 x 1.5" (70 x 38.6mm)
- Weight: 9.8 oz (278g)
- Depth rating: 200ft (60m)
The UCL-09F offers a standard 67mm thread for mounting the lens on most housings, but there is also a front 67mm thread so you can stack close-up lenses as well as add filters. Like the UWL-09F, the lens is designed to work with all types of camera setups, from compacts to mirrorless systems to DSLRs.
Fantasea and AOI have also released two other macro lenses in this new line of wet optics: the UCL-05LF and UCL-06LF macro lenses, which have optical powers of +6 and +12 diopters, respectively. Both also have front and rear threads to maximize the creative possibilities, and all of the lenses in the series are designed and manufactured to the same standards.
The minimal focusing distance and magnification obtained with the use of the UCL-09F gives you the ability to fill the frame with small subjects
4. Macro Underwater Photography with the Fantasea-AOI UCL-09F
With the addition of the UCL-09F, I could instantly see the boost in magnification for macro subjects such as crabs, lobsters, and even fish portraits. But what impressed me most was the extremely close focusing distance obtained with the use of the lens.
Getting really close to small subjects makes for better exposures and more isolated and interesting compositions for those tricky critters that like to blend in or are found in busy environments. The UCL-09F allowed the camera to focus even when the subject was a mere inch away, bringing into play smaller subjects like blennies and coral polyps.
The left image is taken with the camera’s lens on its own, while the right image shows the impressive magnification you can achieve with the UCL-09F
I found the best results were obtained with the camera zoomed around three-quarters of the way; utilizing the full zoom made it very difficult to achieve focus. The images produced showed excellent detail, with good corner sharpness, and the lens had a very usable depth of field when shooting at higher apertures. To maximize depth of field, I generally shot at f/11; depth of field was very narrow at apertures wider than f/7, making focusing somewhat more challenging. For techniques such as bokeh, which requires the use of wider apertures, I noticed the lens didn’t interfere with speedy autofocus, despite there being less depth of field to work with during composition.
Mounting and removing the lens during a dive was very simple and fast. The lightweight build of the lens is a huge benefit: Connected to the arm of your setup, the extra equipment is barely noticeable during a dive.
Focusing with the UCL-09F is a breeze even when subjects are camouflaged and in a busy environment. This slender filefish thought he was hiding!
5. Underwater Video with the Fantasea-AOI UWL-09F and UCL-09F
Both of the lenses proved to work very well when utilized for video capture. Maintaining accurate focus when using the lenses wasn’t challenging, and I was able to obtain video clips showing excellent detail and sharpness with both lenses.
With both the UWL-09F and UCL-09F, footage benefited greatly from being shot at higher apertures, which ensured the best sharpness in the corners for wide-angle shooting and the greatest depth of field for macro.
Highlight reel shot with Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II and Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark IV in Fantasea housings with Fantasea-AOI UWL-09F and UCL-09F wet lenses
Fantasea-AOI UWL-09F for Wide-Angle Underwater Video: The increased field of view and zero minimal focus distance benefit the video shooter immensely. Since video lights provide less illumination than strobes, to get the color in your footage to “pop,” you have to get really close to your subject, as the UWL-09F allows. Color-correction filters like Fantasea’s ColorEye filters give you further scope for optimizing color.
The lens also gave great results when shooting in natural light at shallow depths. With the very pleasing fisheye-like perspective, great detail in the corners of the image, and lovely control of sunballs due to the anti-reflection coatings, the lens really took the wide-angle video capabilities of the camera to the next level.
Fantasea-AOI UCL-09F for Macro Underwater Video: The increased magnification and decreased minimal focusing distance offered by the UCL-09F makes it possible for the careful shooter to get great results with macro video. When working with shallow depth of field, focusing is key, so your camera’s ability to autofocus quickly and accurately is crucial. These tiny creatures are often skittish and camouflaged, so your equipment needs to be on point.
The UCL-09F provided the ability to fill the frame with even tiny subjects. And with the lens’ minimal focusing capabilities, I was able to isolate small subjects and focus purely on their details and behavior rather than their surroundings.
Cross into the realm of super-macro photography with the UCL-09F. Here I captured great detail in these coral polyps mere millimeters in size
6. Final Thoughts
The new Fantasea-AOI wet lenses change the game in terms underwater photography and video with a compact camera. By harnessing the abilities of wet optics to address the focal length limitations of the camera’s in-built lens, you end up with an imaging machine that remains streamlined but is much more versatile in the water.
The addition of the UWL-09F produces a very enticing compact setup with a super-wide shooting ability, closing the gap between compacts and DSLRs still further—both in terms of image quality and creative possibilities—and at a fraction of the cost of a bulky DSLR setup. The impressive 130-degree field of view of the lens gives a true fisheye perspective, producing images of superb quality but without taking away the camera’s ability to focus efficiently.
The UCL-09F similarly transforms your compact’s ability to tackle the small stuff, putting magnifications at your fingertips that fill your compact’s LCD screen with the tiniest critters. The lens’ high optical power means care has to be taken to ensure proper focus—especially when working at wider apertures and shallow depth of field—but the lens’ very minimal focusing distance brings your rig right next to your subject for easier exposure, composition, and amazing detail in your final image.
The compact UCL-09F is also particularly easy to dive with, even when not in use: An attachment for your strobe arms or a small pocket on your BCD will make your diopter ready for the next critter—all while keeping your wide-angle setup primed for any action heading your way.
The wide field of view afforded by the UWL-09F was essential for framing the action at the Cayman Islands’ famed Stingray City
About the Reviewer: Chase Darnell is an award-winning underwater photographer and filmmaker currently based in Grand Cayman with Cayman Turtle Divers. With the crystal clear waters of Cayman at his full disposal, Chase is in the water daily with a camera in hand to document his experiences. He accounts his images to a simple theory: “More hours in the water equals more life-changing experiences.” For more of his work, visit his website.
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