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Choosing the Right Lens
by Vinny Kutty at Mostly Cichlids

The quality of the lens and the light are the two most important factors in aquarium photography.

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The optics of the lens determines how well the subject transfers to an image on the film. A cheap and dirty lens will not do justice to a beautiful fish or plant. Assuming you have just purchased a 35mm SLR camera body, you must now decide what lens you are going to buy.

Many camera manufacturers design their lenses to fit only their cameras. A Minolta lens will not fit a Nikon camera and vice versa. Therefore, the camera body determines the make of the lens. All Nikon lenses will fit all Nikon cameras. Other camera manufacturers do not always make it so simple, some old Canon lenses may not fit modern Canon bodies. There are independent lens manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron, who make lenses for all makes of cameras.

A good friend and ACARA editor, Lee Newman once described photographers as "an opinionated lot." He is right. Having mentioned that disclaimer, I think all good fish photographers agree that macro lenses are the best choice for fish photography. Macro lenses are designed to focus closely on small objects. They are capable of very small focusing distances (distance between the subject and the camera.) A good macro lens will be capable of a 1:1 reproduction of the subject. If you focus in close to a subject, say a Neon Tetra, the image of the Neon tetra on the film/slide you get back from the processor can be the same size as the fish was in real life. A 1-inch fish in real life can be 1-inch long on the slide. This ability to go up close is the advantage of macro lenses.

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Macro lenses are the most appropriate forms of lenses for this purpose, but they are expensive. A Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Auto Focus macro lens costs about US $600 if mail ordered and possibly a little more if purchased at the camera store down the street. Canon's macro lens is a little cheaper. Sigma and Tamron manufacture macro lenses in the 90-105mm range that are even cheaper. The usual 35-80mm zoom lenses they sell with the purchase of a SLR camera are not of the highest quality and often produce mediocre images when scrutinized with loupes. These cheap, small zoom lenses are probably what most amateur photographers who are contemplating fish photography, own. If you absolutely cannot afford a macro lens, you may be able to get by with a zoom lens at the longest focal length setting of 80mm on a 35-80mm lens.

If you have adequate lighting by using flashes, you can still generate acceptable images. They may not be of the same quality as the ones produced using macro lenses, but you will still enjoy them. If you have longer focal length zoom lenses in the 200mm range, you may have to back up very far from the fish and it becomes very difficult to properly focus on small fish and your flashes may end up too far away from the subject to adequately illuminate them. Longer lenses require faster shutter speeds and in fish photography, where light is at a premium, faster shutter speeds may not be possible.

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Choosing the correct focal length is also critical. If you are going to photograph large fishes like full-grown pike cichlids or Cichlasoma species, then you can get by with a macro lens in the 50-60mm range. However, if you are planning on taking pictures of smaller fish, I highly recommend a lens in the 100mm range. Most manufacturers sell a lens in both focal lengths. Nikon makes a 200mm macro lens that is excellent but it costs almost US $2000 and it is difficult to take pictures of larger fish without backing up several feet away from the tank. If you are using a camera-mounted flash, you need to be about three feet away from the subject. So, I again suggest a lens in the 100mm range.

In outdoor photography, the speed of the lens is critical. For example, a 300m f/2.8 telephoto lens costs much more than a 300mm f/5.6 lens. This is because the f/2.8 lens was designed to allow much more light, using larger and more sophisticated optics. Consequently, the 2.8 lens can use much faster shutter speeds. With a 300mm lens, this could mean a sharp picture with the 2.8 lens and a blurry one with the 5.6 lens. Fortunately, this does not apply to fish photography where flashes are used. The duration of the flash is about 1/1000th second and this is fast enough to freeze any moving fish and compensate for hand movements.

I use a Nikon N70 camera body with a Nikon Mikronikkor 105mm f/2.8 AF lens. I think this lens is worth its weight in gold! Everybody who uses this lens has something similar to say about it, not just fish photographers but others as well. I am so fond of it that I have managed to talk three of my friends into buying this lens. Their spouses don't talk to me anymore. Every image on this site credited to me was taken with this lens. My photographs that appear in Aquarium Fish Magazine were all also taken using this lens. Vivitar has a similar lens but its overall quality is lower.

Here is the highly opinionated information about the choice of a lens maker: I can't deny it but I am a Nikon man! I have been an admirer of the finish and quality of the intricate and detailed components of Nikon cameras and lenses for a long time. I have used Canon lenses and cameras and find them equal performers. However, I find the optics and durability of Nikon lenses to be superior. Most of the professional fish photographers I know in North America use the Nikon 105mm lens. Everyone raves about the images produced using this lens but not about the initial expense.

Many fish photographers use extenders or extension tubes. These are lenses that are attached on the camera between the camera and the lens. They help you get closer to the subject. A 2X extender converts a cheap 50mm lens into a 100mm lens. Rather, the image appears the same size as through a 100mm lens. Buying an extender may be cheaper than buying a larger lens but this should only be a last resort. Extenders never enhance the image, they often deteriorate it. The biggest drawback is the dramatic loss in depth of field; adding an additional flash can compensate for this. Cheap extenders are like cheap filters, "just a piece of glass" that could reduce the quality of the final image.

I suggest you purchase a UV filter for your lens as soon as you can. UV filters are good protectors against physical abuse. I consider them shock absorbers. Since they are usually not very well made, I unscrew the filter before I take pictures of the fish and screw it back on after the shoot.

The June 1998 issue of Outdoor Photographer had the following macro lenses in the ads in the back:

Canon 100mm, f/2.8 ($619) ($460*)
Minolta 100/2.8 ($610) ($610*)
Tamron 90/2.8 ($439) ($409*)
Sigma 105/2.8 ($400) ($317*)
Nikon 105/2.8 ($549) ($315*)

Of course, I don't guarantee any of these prices. Some of them are autofocus and some manual; this is just to give you an idea of the price range. Lens manufacturers and sellers have, in my opinion, have stretched the meaning of the word 'macro.' Many lenses capable of respectably small focusing distances are sold as macro lenses. There are many zoom lenses that are sold as macro lenses. These are not true macro lenses; they are not capable of 1:1 reproductions and I believe you get better images from fixed focal length lenses than zoom lenses.

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* = prices adjusted as of December 2003.
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