Why Wide Angle??
Outside of the world of underwater photography, the use of wide angle lenses, especially for beginners tends to take a backseat in lieu of telephoto and zoom lenses.
This can be seen very obviously in the way modern cameras, particularly compact or bridge cameras are marketed by the manufacturers.
20,30,40 and even 50X zooms are now relatively common, and it’s easy to see why.
The lure of a camera that promises us the ability to shoot things a mile or so away as if it were only across the road has an obvious and gadgety seductive appeal.
However delve a little closer into the world of photography and you can see that the cameras that are marketed less aggressively to the mainstream, usually have much more modest zoom ranges, so why is this? and why are these cameras often more expensive than cameras that appear to deliver so much more?
Well there are a few reasons.
One is that it is easier to make much better quality optics using a shorter zoom lens, and the ability to capture much more available light if it isn’t trying to literally “shoot the moon”.
Another is that the manufacturer can put a slightly larger sensor in the camera than the long range super zoom or bridge models. And larger sensors generally deliver better quality.
There is also usually more emphasis placed on the wider end of the zoom, as this is often actually much more useful for all round photography than a super zoom would ever be.
All of these factors, more clued up photography enthusiasts value much more highly than longer zooms, as you can usually shoot in much lower light,and at a higher quality .
Add in the much more pocketable form factor and you have a winning walk around photo combo.
Please don’t be too disheartened at this, if this is news to you and you own a super zoom or “bridge” camera, we have a superzoom at home, which is great for those occasions that merit its use, like here where the super zoom lens has given Shelly a unique viewpoint difficult without a longer lens and taken on her Canon HS50 Bridge camera zoomed fully in.
Ok, but what on earth has this all to do with underwater photography?
Well, in a previous role, I worked within sales of underwater cameras and housings, and very quickly realised that those cameras that had long zoom lenses were impractical for underwater use, for the reasons above, but also for more practical reasons too.
If the camera has a long built in zoom lens then if you are going to put that camera into an underwater housing then the housing has to be large enough to accommodate the camera with the zoom lens fully extended. This usually meant that the manufacturer didn’t even bother making a housing for the camera, and third party offerings were always going to be a clumsy compromise, unergonomic, and often relatively expensive when compared to other solutions of a higher quality.
So as keen enthusiasts and underwater photographers ourselves, we preferred to concentrate purely on specific camera models that we knew were going to work well, not just for this but for other reasons useful to budding underwater photographers too, such as the provision of a high quality easy to use custom or manual white balance setting.
Another very important factor was the ability for certain housings to utilise third party accessories, such as wide angle lens adapters and it is this factor alone that I am going to take a closer look at in this blog post, because it was far and away the thing that got asked about most regularly, and is still something that keen on land photographers, are most puzzled about.
How wide angle are we talking here?
Well, lets first establish in as simple as terms as I can muster, what I mean when I’m talking wide angle with regards to current understanding.
If you imagine that normal human eyesight and perspective as our baseline, and its been long established that the useful amount that we see extends for around 45deg in the horizontal plane, and that this is roughly the angle of view of what used to be called a standard lens, and is generally considered normal realistic perspective.
BTW I am well aware that our actual field of view is more like 160deg across the horizontal but only if you count our peripheral vision too, before I get a load of comments 😉
So any lens that had a greater field of view than our baseline “standard” is considered wide-angle.
On most high end compact cameras this is around 75deg across the horizontal at the wide angle end, and is only just considered a starting point for normal underwater photography, and we actually need to go much wider than this, to around 100deg and even wider.
This is achieved in conventional interchangeable lens cameras like DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras by using a specific super wide or fisheye lens, and using the relevant dome port for that lens. In compact cameras we normally use an additional super wide angle or fisheye lens adapter that fits onto the outside of the housing, and this has the added usefulness of being able to be attached and detached whilst still under the water.
One of the reasons why high end digital compacts are so popular in underwater photography. This multi lens practicality is also available to some of the Mirrorless camera users, but you need to check the specifics with your friendly local underwater photography retailer before diving in and purchasing a camera before considering this.
You could always drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, as this info changes as fast as the technology does and I try my best to keep abreast of it.
Ok, I’m losing patience now, why does using a super wide-angle lens underwater make such a fundamental difference?
It’s all about the water. Simply put, even the clearest of water is significantly more dense than air. This is why that even if you stick you head underwater in a newly cleaned and filtered swimming pool, subjects only 10m or so away start to reduce in clarity, colour and contrast. The colour is what we notice first, with the red end of the spectrum diminishing quite quickly, and I will address this in another post on white balance soon.
Its pretty obvious though when you look for it, that the contrast and clarity is reduced quite considerably too.
Using a very wide angle lens allows us to get a whole lot closer to our subjects, and still get them all in shot, this is very clear with something large like a wreck, but most of your general underwater photography of everything from your buddy, to the beautiful reefscapes that we are familiar with will benefit from the use of a wider angle lens.
as it stands to reason that if we can get much closer to our scene or shot in hand then, and because we are shooting through much less water, then our pictures will be clearer and have more contrast, and depending on your depth too, will also exhibit better colours.
Even if you are more used to shooting in the often poorer visibility conditions of more temperate waters, then a wider angle of view will definitely benefit your shots, as you will be encouraged by the lens to get a whole lot closer.
Here is a before and after example in very clear conditions so you can see what I am talking about.
In the first shot I have framed the wreck without the benefit of a wide angle lens, other than the one already built into the camera, which is wide on land, but because of the magnifying effects of water becomes less wide in the water. The second shot is with a wide angle adapter of around 130degrees attached to the front of the camera’s housing, and all I did was to frame the wreck in the same way. I was able to get significantly closer shooting with this angle of view and framing the same.
I was actually nearly three times closer, which is why the second shot is much clearer particularly in the area of the bow, which is closest to me.
Now with the wide angle lens attached increasing the angle of view to around 130deg I am able to reduce the distance between me and the wreck yet still get it all in shot.
What are the downsides?
Didn’t you just know there would be some drawbacks eh? Well using super wide lenses either on your compact or other cameras, comes with some issues. On land photography with uncorrected super wide lenses, is something that is rarely seen for anything other than some extreme sports like skateboarding for dramatic effect, or just for abstract purposes and something that lends itself to the bowl like distortion inherent in these lenses.
Underwater we can get away with it a lot of the time because there aren’t any tell tale man made straight lines to give the game away, and wrecks tend to be curved looking bow onwards anyway. As in here below with this reef scene which was taken with available light with a fisheye lens on the camera.
Here though you can see the exaggerated perspective effect of a fisheye lens, and it’s very apparent in this example.
This shot of my dive guide friend Reda gives you an idea of the curvature distortion that a super wide lens gives to your pictures, this can be corrected to a certain degree within modern software as on the shot at the bottom where I corrected the curvature within Adobe Lightrooms lens correction section.
You also have to be careful with your lighting, it’s much easier to shoot super wide-angle shots using available light rather than strobes so wrecks and shallow reef scenes are a good place to start. When you start shooting using strobes though you have to be more careful about your light positioning, balance and coverage to achieve the result you want.
There’s no denying it if you want to move up from first base with your underwater photography then a wide angle lens will make the most profound difference to your shots.
And is worth every penny.