ABC: Always Be Charging
Batteries are my personal nemesis that I’ve learned to work with over time, and I think that most underwater photographers also have a love-hate relationship with them.
My problems with most batteries:
- Chargers take up space in your bags
- Different types of devices have different batteries
- Battery chargers usually come with a power cube of some kind
- Some chargers have “fixed” plugs that don’t let them pack nicely
- Batteries are heavy
- Batteries have to be in your carry-on baggage
- Batteries usually can’t be seen through on x-ray because they contain metal
- Batteries heat up when they charge
- Hot batteries in a sealed device create vacuum and offgas issues
- Batteries will last for 2.5 dives on average and that third dive might run out
- You can’t take photos with a camera that has dead batteries
- You can take photos if one or two of your 4 light sources dies
Out of all these considerations, I have this strategy for batteries:
- Have enough batteries for 1.5 days of photography
- Minimize the amount of chargers that I have to take with me by standardizing on just a couple of battery types
- Whenever possible, have chargers that plug into USB
- Always Be Charging: batteries on the charger are one of the first things that I do after every dive
- Take an extra set of batteries on the dive boat
- Have 2 containers next to the charging table: one for empty batteries and one for full batteries
- Whenever I’m not taking photos (hunting for subjects or waiting or on the boat), I shut off my camera, strobes, and focus light
- I try to resist the urge to look at photos on the boat unless we’re headed back to the dock although sometimes I fail at resisting
- I carry 2 spot-beam dive torches for tech-diver redundancy and to use as a macro torch
- I have redundancy between my strobes, focus/video torch, and handheld dive torch so I don’t really need a full set of extras for strobes
- If you’re diving with a guide, you will take more photos and will use batteries faster
- If you’re doing 3 dives plus an early morning or night dive, you’ll need more batteries because they won’t charge fast enough
- Chargers can go in checked baggage
And finally, my dive trip packing list:
- 4x 18650 (2 handheld dive torches plus maybe the ScubaLamp MS-30 snoot torch)
- 2x 26650 (1 focus torch)
- 1x 14500 (dive computer)
- Nitecore 4-bay charger for 18650, 26650, 14500 (it has a straight cord with no power cube) (in checked bag)
- 12x Eneloop Pro (2 strobes and each holds 4 batteries, I don’t take a full set for 2 days because it’s just too many to carry) [See Note Below]
- 2 Eneloop 4-bay chargers with folding US plug (in checked bag)
- 2x Camera Battery (either TG5/LI92B or G9/DMW-BLF19)
- USB-powered single-bay charger for camera battery
- 2-bay USB charger for phone, tablet, batteries
- Waterproof bag or box for the boat: I have a dive mask box that seals and is the perfect size for batteries and my phone
- Extra bag for batteries in my carry-on so I can can just put them into an x-ray tray at airport security
See You Underwater
 You’re maybe not supposed to put Eneloop batteries into a sealed device: opinions vary on this. You can read more at WetPixel. I hedge my bets by never ever using batteries right off the charger that are warm. This is why I get them on the charger early so that they have time to cool.
Very good comparison video of macro lenses for M43. Makes me think a little bit more than usual….
I think that just about everybody doing underwater macro with a M43 (Panasonic G9, GH5, etc and the Olympus OMD-EM1/5/10) is using the Olympus 60mm Macro. I haven’t seen any debate about this at all.
The reason that we all use the 60mm is because more magnification is good and the image quality of this lens is good. And hey, that’s what everybody else uses, so why not? However, I wish there were other good M43 macro lenses: a 100mm or 120mm would make me very happy although it might not be useable underwater.
But, we also have wet diopters (wet lenses), and they change the lens game considerably. I myself have both a Nauticam Supermacro converter SMC-1, a Saga +5, and an Inon super-wide macro (bug-eye). I’m have the additional magnifier for the SMC-1 coming next week for even better supermacro, although for the past 18 months I’ve been a heretic and stacked the Saga +5 on top of the SMC instead because the price is right.
My thinking goes like this:
- It’s harder to focus underwater because of less light. This means less contrast for autofocus.
- It’s harder to focus underwater because current and surge: you and your subject are constantly moving in large and small amounts.
- It’s harder to focus underwater because well, you’re underwater and breathing through a hose.
- A 30mm or 45mm macro lens plus wet diopters is an interesting option, especially if they have a faster autofocus. If you can shoot closer and/or use wet diopters, then you can even get to supermacro.
- A macro lens at a wide F-stop (F2.8 for most macro lenses) means a thinner plane of focus.
- Adding a wet diopter makes a thin plane of focus.
- Stacking wet diopters makes a very very thin plane of focus.
- I usually end up shooting at F22 with stacked diopters to increase my plane of focus as much as I can. Obviously, this changes my exposure so I have to compensate in shutter speed, strobe power, or ISO.
- It is very common for the lens to be able to focus in front of and beyond what the wet diopter is capable of. IE, the focus range of the lens exceeds the focus range of the diopter. This adds to difficulties in autofocus because the lens hunts in places where it cannot focus. Using a limiter switch on the lens (the Olympus 60mm has one) helps because it eliminates the hunting in the longer ranges.
- Focus lock helps a ton with wet diopters because it almost eliminates out-of-range situations unless you’re setting a new focus.
- For larger subjects (shrimp gobies, garden eels, larger crabs, scorpionfish, etc), diopters can also be unscrewed or swung out of the way with a hinge. I use a hinge for the SMC-1. I screw the Saga +5 on and off because it doesn’t have a downsize threads to fit the front end of the SMC-1. Screwing on and off is not a quick process.
- If you remove the diopter, then the focus is further away, so using a limiter switch on the lens means that you maybe can’t focus at that longer length. So really, using the limiter switch is a tradeoff between autofocus speed and being able to take pictures of larger subjects.
- You absolutely need to try all of the options available to you before you do it underwater. Dry-land training is huge.
What’s the point of all this? Well, everything in photography is a tradeoff. The more you understand what decisions you’re making, the more you can adjust when things don’t work out the way you intended. And I’m a huge believer in being able to adjust to conditions and just keep shooting.
See You Underwater!!!
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!!!
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.
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!!
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!!!