Macro Diving Truisms

Deep macro diving is awesome, shallow macro diving is better.

Surface swims–both out and back–save you gas in your cylinder and make for more photos. And more photos is better!

If you can’t see anything to shoot, go slower and closer to the bottom.

Whatever camera you use, back-button focus makes it better. Research how to do this for your camera type and practice it.

In photography, light is always the most important thing. In underwater photography, light is absolutely everything.

A good photographer with a compact camera and a handheld torch will be better than a mediocre photographer with an expensive set of gear: full-frame DSLR with strobes and snoots.

If your macro photos are bad, get closer. If they’re still bad, get more light.

You can extend your safety stop for quite awhile if you find a good subject or 3 to photograph. Going from 60 bar of gas to 25 bar takes a long time when you’re only 5 meters deep.

Have a goal for each macro dive: learning a new drive site, using a piece of new gear, or practicing a new technique.

Good dive guides save you time hunting for subjects and are worth their weight in gold. While you’re working on a subject, they find the next one for you.

You should have 30+ dives before you start shooting underwater macro. If you can’t control your buoyancy and pay attention to your surroundings, you have no business diving with a camera.

A dive buddy shooting macro isn’t really a dive buddy. I can’t even take photos on land with my wife and find her again.

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Composition Rules for Underwater Macro

Digital Photography School did a good post on 5 Rules in Macro Photography and When to Break Them. I thought it was pretty good, especially since in underwater macro we have our own rules.

Black Backgrounds

I admit to being a partial nut on low-key underwater macro and even made a video and wrote a blog post about it. Low-Key is relatively easy to do underwater because you don’t have much light to use anyway, so you might as well keep the darkness as a background.

However, sometimes color, whitewash, or high-key photos work too. Look for white or bright backgrounds or bring your own.

Some people I know also bring slates with a color scheme. That way they can get a disco-glitter background.  Combine it with bokeh (blurry background) and it gets really “dreamy” really fast.

Frontal Face Shots

if you are having trouble choosing a macro shot, just get in front of the subject’s “face” and get as close as you can. This is the “never fails” shot. But if you’ve seen 5 million photos like this, it starts to get a little bit repetitive. And sometimes the subject doesn’t cooperate: you can’t get in front of it.

Instead, try other aspects of the subject like feet or gills. On frogfish, the feet are absolutely fascinating to capture.  Nudibranch gills look like feathers and can save your dive if all the nudies happen to be “head-down” in the rocks.  Try to get your friends to laugh about the phrase “nudi butts”.

Focus on Rhinophores and Eyes

Another general rule is that the eyes or rhinophores (eye stalks on nudibranchs) should be in focus.  Mostly this is because the human eye always looks for the eyes of other humans: “look at me when I’m talking to you…”

However, if the subject has other prominent features, then it makes sense to put them in focus and the eyes in half-focus.  Things like crab claws, nudi butts, coral polyps, etc make great parts to be in focus.

Fill the Shot

In general, you want to fill the shot with the subject.  That way, it has more detail to show.

But sometimes it’s very nice to leave a lot of negative space around the subject, especially if you use low-key or high-key techniques.  That balances out the shot.

 

See you underwater!!

–Mike

Via Reef Divers: Spot a Coral, Spot a Shrimp

Great article over at Reef Divers about shrimp in bubble coral.  It goes back to what I’ve said before: don’t look for critters, look for the places where they live and eat.

The shrimp are transparent, so they make for a good photos.  I’ve seen them quite a few places.  When we were in Raja Ampat, I made a very strong effort to point them out to the other divers in the group so they could get some shots.  I’ve even seen shrimp on bubble coral right on the wrecks at 25m deep in Truk Lagoon.  Even though I was rigged for super-wide, I snapped them and if you magnify the photo, they’re there.

I didn’t have a good bubble shrimp handy on Instagram, so have a glassy one instead.  =)

TG4/TG5 in Microscope Mode with Sea and Sea YS-01 Strobe

This is a very common gear combination and has proven to be one of the biggest pains in life to get this working.  It shouldn’t be this hard.  I’ve seen a diver throw their camera on the ground and swim away from it because the strobe wasn’t doing what they thought it should.  I picked the same camera up and took pictures, no problem.

There are 2 core problems:

  1.  The settings you need are poorly document and are not intuitive by any means.
  2. The the camera and flash use optical TTL which most people don’t know even exists.  I myself had to experiment and reread old forum posts about different models.

Optical TTL is an interesting thing.  Most people know electrical TTL which uses waterproof electronic wires between the camera and the strobe.  In optical TTL, the camera turns on its own built-in flash, monitors the exposure that it’s shooting, and when it has received enough light, it turns off the on-board flash.  The strobe turns on when it receives light via the fibre optic cable, and turns off when there is no light coming through the fibre optic cable.  The signaling between the camera and strobe is a simple on-off instead of pre-flash and monitoring that most people are used to.

The Camera Setup:

Turn on TTL

Inside the main menu, second camera icon, choose “Accessory Settings” and set “Remote Flash” to RC.  This is an abbreviated form of “Remote Control”.  This turns on optical TTL.  Why they can’t call it TTL, I don’t know.

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Second Camera Screen, Accessory Settings

 

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Use the Right Flash Mode

Inside the quick menu (from shooting mode, hit the lightning button to the right of “OK”) there are 3 modes that you can use.

“Fill” works to turn on the strobe but without TTL: you manually adjust the strobe power.  “Fill” means that no matter what the camera meters the scene at, it should fire the built-in flash anyway, and this will trigger the strobe to fire.  Fill is designed to add light to foreground objects in an otherwise-lit scene such as people in the shade with a sunny background.

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Fill Mode

“RC” Uses TTL and sends the start-stop signal to the camera’s built-in flash. “RC” only appears after you turn on “Remote Flash: RC” in the main menu as described above.

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RC Mode

“Slow” fires the flash and keeps the shutter open, this gives more time for light to reflect off the background.  Think of it as “front curtain sync” if you’re used to flash on land.  I was unable to tell if the camera uses TTL for “Slow”.

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Slow Mode

The Strobe Setup:

Use TTL

Turn the power knob to TTL.  Done.

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Set to TTL.

Put a Little Tech in Your Life

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of what some entry-level tech diving skills do to help you take better macro photos.

Trim and Buoyancy Skills. Macro photographers spend a lot of time sitting right on the bottom or just above it and movement of several millimeters can ruin your shot. Trim for any diving should be perfectly horizontal.

Breathing Rate and Gas Planning. If you’re doing macro dives, start keeping track of your Surface Air Consumption (SAC, or sometimes called “Surface *Gas* Consumption”) and Respiratory Minute Volume (RMV). Better air consumption means longer dives which means more photos. Knowing your averages and how to use them also means better dive planning. Better gas planning means longer dives but safer because you know where the limits are. You can also do rock bottom calculation… as you descend, keep track of your gas usage getting to the bottom and use that plus a gas reserve as your limit to begin your ascent. Macro divers usually have the square dive profile (down, stay at the same depth, come up) that works well with this method.

Movement. A handful of tech diving propulsion techniques will make your macro diving life so much easier.

  • Frog Kick. Used by tech divers because it doesn’t kick up the silt inside of caves and wrecks: the fins push water upwards and back, not down. On a macro dive, this also means that you don’t cause a lot of backscatter for yourself or others.
  • Modified Flutter. Knees bent, fins high, and little kicks front and back at the knees.
  • Reverse Frog. Can help you back up on a subject if you get too close.
  • Helicopter Turn. Frog kick on one side, reverse frog kick on the other. Helps you to spin around like a helicopter to get a better angle on the subject without moving forward or backward.

Gear. This goes into a bunch of different points.

  • Some of the principles of Hogarthian diving rigs–used in various brand types and levels of strictness–make a lot of sense for macro divers: backplate and wings for perfect trim, simplified and reliable gear, etc.
  • You shouldn’t have any dangling gear to catch on the bottom. Since we’re close to the bottom most of the time, this is a big safety issue for yourself and for the animals on the bottom.
  • Jet-style fins (I have 2 pairs of Apeks RK3 in different sizes for wet and dry diving) make frog kicking and repositioning easier.
  • Thigh pockets for backup torches. Photography is all about light, and backup video torches can make the difference between improvising a lighting studio and aborting a photo dive.
  • Solo Diving Gear. Redundant air supply, spare mask, and a couple of cutting devices. You have to be able to fix problems by yourself because buddies aren’t close enough to get to you in a timely manner.
  • Slung stage cylinder for redundant air supply.

Self-Sufficiency. Being self-sufficient in a diving sense means that you can solve diving problems underwater by yourself. You become a “Self-Rescuing Princess”, as I refer to myself sometimes.

 

 

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

How to Get Good Aquarium Macro Photos

Sometimes, aquariums have good subjects for you to take pictures.  A good example is the weedy sea dragon which lives in Southern Australia and then only in a couple of known locations.

But how do you get good aquarium shots, and especially how do you get aquarium macro shots?  Well, there is a process and a couple of considerations on gear.

Call First.  Most aquariums have policies on photography.  Call them for information before you go there.  There are 3 questions you want to ask…

  1. Do you allow photography?  Most allow photography but no flash (it reflects off the glass anyway….)
  2. Do you allow tripods or monopods?  Because you’re doing low-light photos, tripods help you out a lot.
  3. Do you allow lens skirts?  Lens skirts block out the light coming from behind you so that you can shoot photos through glass without any light reflection.  They are absolutely critical for shooting in an aquarium.  They also work for cityscapes from your hotel room if you’re into that sort of thing.

Timing.  Go early in the day during a week.  Avoid peak visiting times because you’ll have to wrestle people to get a good spot on the glass, especially if you’re using a tripod.

Gear.  My rundown on what I take….

  • Camera. Anything works, but that’s the story for most photography.  What I really look for in aquarium shots is good low-light performance.  The biggest problem that you will have is lighting.  Most tanks are dark inside, so you have to open up the aperture, bump up the ISO, and use slower shutter speeds.  Burst mode works very well if you want to take pictures of moving fish.
  • Lenses.  What I would recommend is a wide and a telephoto, both with zooms.  Because you’re standing on the dry side of the glass, you can’t get “macro close” to the subject, so a lens that can focus at a longer distance is preferable.  A telephoto might work well for macro subjects.  The Olympus 60mm macro for Micro Four Thirds can also focus out to infinity which comes in handy.  And lastly, since you’re working with low light, you want as fast (ie, big apertures and low F-Stop) of a lens as you can get and yes I understand that zoom lenses aren’t usually fast.
  • Lens Skirt.  I mentioned this before.  It’s a very valuable tool.
  • Tripod.  This is good for both video and for still photography.  It helps when you do slow shutter photos.  It helps when you set up your lens skirt in a weird location where you don’t want to manually hold the camera for long periods of time.
  • Glass Cleaner.  Either magic clothes like you use for lenses or a photography wet wipe.  These are very important to clean the glass because otherwise you’ll see fuzzy spots in your photos where people leave fingerprints on the glass.

How to Do It.  Now we’re ready to go take some snaps.

  • Find a good subject.  Look for macro subjects closer to the glass.  The more water between you and the subject, the more magnification you need and the more you need to do color-balancing.  Some aquariums have smaller tanks with smaller fish, they are perfect for macro shots.
  • Stick on the Lens Skirt.   They have 4 suction cups to hold on to the glass.  Try to put the lens skirt perpendicular to the subject so the camera lens shoots straight through the glass.
  • Clean the Glass.  Very important.  Clean the glass where your lens will go.  This is usually a “window” inside the lens skirt.
  • Set up the Tripod.  Mount the camera and lens on the tripod so that the camera is inside the lens skirt and the lens shoots directly through the glass.
  • Take some Photos.  Feel awesome about your skills.  You’ll have to mess with settings a bit to get the right exposure, and you’ll probably have to change exposure for each tank.
  • Sharing is Caring.  If the aquarium has a lot of people, let them use your lens skirt from time to time so that they have good photos too.  And most importantly: they won’t complain about your lens skirt, tripod, and desire to hog all the good subjects.

 

Learning to be Shallow

Shallow macro dives are awesome!!!  Some of the best times that I’ve had have been in the shallows with a camera.  And by shallow, I’m talking 5-8 meters.  Why?  Let me go through the reasons:

Long Long Long Dives.  Since divers don’t consume air quickly in the shallows (you should know this from your basic open water class), we have more time to shoot.  Like 80+ minutes from a single 11.2 Liter aluminum, even more if you’re a tiny person.  That’s a lot of photos!!

No Decompression Limit.  This is the biggest benefit.  Since macro divers have longer dives than most divers, nitrogen saturation and NDL are a bigger issue.  But when you’re less than 10 meters deep, it’s impossible to breathe enough nitrogen to run into mandatory decompression.  In fact, the entire dive is at a normal decompression depth.  This means less surface interval time.

Better Ambient Light.  This means you can hunt subjects without a torch.  This means that in some cases you don’t even need artificial light for your subject.  The picture below of the blenny was taken at 4 meters deep with a low-power fill strobe to add color.  However, you can see the background is also not as blue as in deeper dives.

Shorter Swim Times and Smaller Gas Reserves.  On shallow dives, it takes less time to swim down to the bottom and then up at the end of the dive.  This means more time on the bottom looking for subjects.  But more importantly, when you dive deep you need more of an air reserve.  Say, from 25 meters deep you might “turn the dive” and start swimming up to the shallows at 80-85 bar so that you get to the safety stop at around 50 bar.  Any less doesn’t give you enough gas to deal with emergencies at depth.  On a 5 meter dive, “turning the dive” means that you surface.  You only need 5 bar (if that) to surface from 5 meters, so you head up at 30 bar: the gas reserve can be a lot smaller.  Just be kind to yourself and don’t run completely out of gas: it adds quite a bit of risk if you can’t make it immediately to the surface and it is bad for the cylinder because it could let water inside.

Surface Swims.  On a shallow dive, you can save air by doing a surface swim without using your regulator set (protip: a snorkel comes in handy).  Because you can see the bottom, you can still navigate.

Extend Your Deep Dives.  You can get in a shallow macro dive as part of a deeper dive by simply extending your safety stop if you’re near the bottom.  Instead of sitting around motionless for 3 minutes at 5 meters like most people do, try looking around for subjects and snapping photos for 15 minutes or until you get low on air.  This comes with a warning: sometimes non-macro-diving divemasters freak out when I surface with only 20 bar of gas. (Hi guys!!)  =)

3rd and 4th and Night Dives.  Usually when you do 2 deeper dives earlier in the day, it’s safe to do one or two shallow macro dives.  Even if you started the day out doing wide-angle, you can take a break, get lunch, reconfigure your camera for macro, and go do a relaxed shallow dive.  No stress + no NDL + macro photography = fun!

 

 

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Video: Spider Crab

I think I’ve had this in a sushi roll before…..

A crazy spider crab from Raja Ampat. This crab is so camouflaged that it has hydroids growing on it. These are hard to take video of because you don’t know for sure where the face and eyes are except for “in the middle somewhere”.

The current is pretty bad, too, I kept getting knocked around.