My Workhorse Lens for Underwater Photography

My Workhorse Lens for Underwater Photography

New underwater photographers often ask me what my favorite lens is for creating underwater images. And while I have a few different lenses that I shoot with underwater, none get used more than my Tokina AF 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 AT-X 107 AF DX Fisheye Zoom Lens. It is lightweight, great for travel, and has a very short focusing distance, which makes it ideal for close focus wide angle underwater photography.

The Tokina 10-17mm lens is a pretty special tool for Canon and Nikon cropped sensor shooters, and is available at a very good price point if wide-angle photography is your thing. While fisheye lenses may not get a whole lot of use topside, the story changes dramatically underwater. Fish-eye lenses tend to curve straight lines, hence their limited and specialty use topside. However, it is difficult to find straight lines underwater, unless they are manmade. For wide-angle shooters, fisheye lenses will typically be the workhorse lens underwater.

As it’s not always possible to get close to your subject, the lens' zoom capabilities provide a bit more reach for skittish marine life. However, remember that you should always try to get as close as possible to your subject. By physically reducing the water column between you and your subject, the final image will be sharper, the scene will be better illuminated by your strobes, colors will pop, and you'll notice less backscatter.

close focus, wide angle, underwater photography, tokina 10-17, joanna lentini

The lens' 180º field of view creates a dramatic fisheye effect that is great for reefscapes or super social, pelagic marine animals. In fact, the lens is capable of capturing much more than the human eye can actually see. And the front element of the lens features a water repellent optical coating for any droplets that may find their way in. This is something that can certainly happen when opening your housing to change lenses and ports. Having that coating is nice for peace of mind.

The lens’ ability to focus at 5.5 inches allows me to get extremely close to my subjects. This can be super-useful in close focus wide-angle underwater photography. CFWA underwater photography is basically what it sounds like. To use this technique simply place your dome port within a few inches to two feet of your subject. Due to the wide field of view the lens will also capture the larger background as well. This technique can be used to create very dramatic images, often making the subject looks larger than it is. Properly lighting the subject is perhaps another article altogether.

close focus, underwater photography, tokina 10-17, joanna lentini

As I mentioned in the beginning, I don't exclusively shoot with the Tokina 10-17mm underwater, but I do have to remind myself to switch it up. Whether topside or underwater, shooting with the same lens can create a bit of monotony in your portfolio. While the Tokina 10-17mm is my favorite it’s good to get into the habit of using other lenses for different perspectives. Some of the other lenses I attach to my Canon 7D Mark II are the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 and Canon's 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. Which lenses do you like for underwater photography? Let me know below...

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4 Comments

Rifki Syahputra's picture

yes, tokina 10-17 is an excellent choice for underwater. it's a great & fun lens to use.
limitation is only the max aperture (3.5-4.5), but for a flash photography, not a big deal.

Michael B. Stuart's picture

I wonder if the aquatic subjects aren't also more comfortable around a lens with a fisheye?
I love lenses with short minimum focal lengths. So much more flexibility.

Andy Deitsch's picture

I loved my Tokina 10-17 but when I switched to full frame this year I had to figure out an alternative. Leaving the Tokina was actually what delayed my decision to switch the longest but I just needed more dynamic range than Canon could provide in a DX body.

BTW, nice shot of Babylon.

David Fuerle's picture

It is my go to lens for surf photography. Using it on a 7d. For virtual panoramas I use it on a 5D MKIII (I shaved the lenshood for that).
Attached is a picture I took in france with the Tokina/7D combo: