Video: TG4/5 Low-Key Macro

I built a video tutorial for doing low-key macro photography using the Olympus Tough TG4 or TG5.  It’s suprisingly easy to do when you see somebody else do it.

One huge warning: dive torches usually heat up and can burn out the bulb when you use them outside of the water.  They need to be in the water to cool them down.

Feel free to play with the angle of the torch and distance from the torch to the subject.  In general, the closer you are to the subject, the brighter it will be and the darker the background will be.  You’ll also have to deal with shadows and transparency when you do low-key because you’re lighting from one direction.

A huge thanks to Pikachu for sitting still during the modeling session.

 

 

See You Underwater

–Mike

Focus and the TG4/5

The Olympus Tough TG4 and TG5 are two camera models that you’ll see a lot of around the macro dive sites.  They’re relatively cheap and have an awesome macro mode.

Like most compact cameras, the TGs have a single large focus point in the center of the frame.  It makes focusing a bit of a challenge sometimes.  Here are some techniques to help you out.

Focus, Hold, and Reframe.

This is a typical way that people work around the fixed focus point with a compact camera.  It works like this:

  • Select a focus target.
  • Half-press the shutter button to get an initial focus.  You’ll see the focus square in the LCD change to the color green and the camera will beep.  The beep is hard to hear when the camera is in a housing and underwater.
  • Keep holding the shutter button at half-press to keep the focus locked.  Don’t let go and don’t push it all the way to take the shot.
  • Reframe the picture.
  • Check to make sure that the right part of the picture is in focus.  Move the camera back and forth to move the focus.
  • Push the shutter button all the way down to take the shot.

So for something like a nudibranch’s rhinophores (their “horns” or “eyes” or “sensor stalks” or whatever you what to call them), you will always have problems getting them in focus with a compact camera because the area between the rhinophores is empty space.  So focus on one rhinophore, hold the focus, reframe to put both rhinophores in focus and the subject in the frame, and snap the shot.

One problem with this technique is that when you change the framing you might move the camera in or out a little bit which changes your focus.  So right before after I reframe, I do one split-second check that my focus didn’t move.

Focus Lock

Both models of TG camera have a highly undocumented focus lock feature.  The way you set it:

  • Select a focus target.
  • Half-press the shutter button to get an initial focus AND HOLD IT THAT WAY.  You’ll see the focus square in the LCD change to the color green and the camera will beep.  The beep is hard to hear when the camera is in a housing and underwater.
  • Push the “OK” button on the back of the camera to lock the focus.  Now the camera works the same as with Back Button Focus.  If you didn’t hold the shutter button at halfway, pressing “OK” will take you to the quick settings menu.
  • Take pictures using the locked focus.  Move the camera back and forth to change the focus point to put it exactly where you want it.  Pivot around the subject to change the angle of the focal plane.
  • Continue to take pictures with the locked focus.  You can now take pictures a lot faster than with the focus, hold, and reframe technique.
  • To unlock the focus, hit the “OK” button again.

Going back to our nudibranch example.  Focus on the flat spot between their rhinophores, lock focus, then usually you back off a tiny bit to put the rhinophores into focus.

Manual Focus Adjustment

Most compact cameras do not have manual focus.  But the TG4/5 supports it, although strangely.  You lock the focus just like described before.  Then you can use the up and down arrows on the keypad to move the focus point forward and back.  A shrewd reader will discover that they can use focus lock and the down arrow to move the focus as close to the front of the lens as possible and this lets you to take shots where tiny subjects fill the frame.  You’re welcome.

See you underwater!!

–Mike

Howto: Low-Key Underwater Macro Photos

Why Low-Key?

Low-key photography is a well-lighted subject with a black background.  After I learned how to do low-key photography, I spent a couple of months taking low-key photos of everything: people, Christmas ornaments, small toys, pets and food….

If you look at macro photos that win contests, you’ll see a large amount of low-key photos that are winners.  Why?  Because it takes a high level of mastery of light to do and it makes a very dramatic feelings in people.  In other words, you get points both for technical merit and for emotional impact.  And that’s what good photographs do.

Getting Started

So, you might ask, how do you get low-key photos?  For starters, you have to be able to take a black picture.  This is different between fully manual shooting on a mirrorless or DSLR and shooting on a compact camera, mirrorless in shutter-aperture select, or DSLR in shutter-aperture select.

Setup for Fully Manual Mode on a Mirrorless/DSLR:

  • Start with a normal picture exposed correctly.
  • Use the lowest ISO available.
  • Reduce the aperture and shutter speed until the picture is black and the subject is barely visible.  Something like F14-32 and 1/125-1/600.
  • Lock your focus.

Setup for Compact and Shutter/Aperture Priority:

  • Start with a normal picture exposed correctly.
  • Use the lowest ISO available.
  • Reduce the exposure compensation (EC) to -2.  This tells the light monitor on the camera to reduce the exposure by 2 stops.  This makes a dark picture.  On some cameras, use an EC of -1 and brighter lighting.
  • Lock your focus.

Now, Add Some Lighting

  • Use a hand-held spot torch with a sharp edge to the spot.  Get it 2-3 cm above or to the side of the subject and pointing directly at the subject.  That will light up the subject and nothing else.
  • I use my left hand to hold the torch and I squeeze my wrist against the left side of the housing.  This stabilizes both the torch and the camera and lets them move together as one unit.
  • Wide-angle torches don’t work because they also light up the background.  This ruins all hope at a low-key photo.  Better yet, use a torch with a small diameter spot like the snoot torch I describe below.
  • You can place a torch on the ground to the side of the subject 2-3cm away from the subject.  Better yet, put one torch on each side of the subject.  The light should hit the subject and maybe the ground to the sides of the subject but not in front or back of the subject.  This is tougher to do than it sounds, especially for a moving subject.

This nudie taken with TG4 and handheld torch….

Take it to the Next Level

Some awesome things can help you take better pictures and experiment with low-key photography….

Take Low-Key Portraits

You can use the same concepts to take low-key portraits of your friends and family.  You use a flash or a very bright studio light to light up the subject. Try one light from the side for shadows on the face and a bit more “edgy” look, or use 2 light sources to even out the portrait.  You can even do this outdoors if you have strong enough light.

Take Low-Key Photos with Your Phone

You can use your phone camera to take low-key images.  By either using an exposure compensation function or touching the screen in the dark parts of the image to change the exposure.  You can even use the torch function on a second phone to act as the light source, although most of the time I use a bicycle light.

Use a Snoot Torch

I have a ScubaLamp MS30V3 which is an 1200 lumens torch with a snoot attached to it.  This focuses the beam into a 5-degree circle.  There are a handful of manufacturers that make similar gear.

The benefit of using a snoot torch is that it makes a very fine dot of light.  This reduces the amount of light that spills out of the subject and lights up the surrounding environment.  That way, only the thing that you want to be lit is lit.

Snoots also help to reduce backscatter because they don’t put the light in front of the subject.

Use a Strobe

With normal strobes without a snoot, it’s hard to do a low-key photo.  This is because in most shots your strobes also light up the background.

However, you can still do it if you pick the right subject and composition.  Look for isolated subjects on “shrubberies” where you can get the camera underneath them and shoot looking out into open water.

If you’re shooting like this, you can slow down your shutter speed to 1/125 or 1/150 and some of the light will reflect back off the water.  This makes a blue background.

I took this nudie using a strobe….

Use a Snoot on Your Strobes

Combining the last 2 techniques, you can use a snoot on your strobe.  They’re a tube that only allows a small focused beam of light out of the front of the strobe.  The more advanced ones have laser pointers so that you can position the snoot.

I have some friends that use an ingenious method for a remote snoot.  They mount a normal strobe with a snoot on a triopod–usually a GorillaPod–with tape and a half-kg weight for stability.  They cut a fibre optic strobe cable down to strip the plastic sheath off and lay the exposed fibre onto the ground next to the subject.  That way, it makes a remote trigger for the strobe.

All this comes with a warning: snoot strobes are hard to use.  Get some practice time in before you try it underwater.

 

See You Underwater!!!

–Mike

Protip: Also Take an Action Cam

As I talked about in my Why You Should Take Macro Pictures Underwater blog post, having a camera rigged for macro is the best way to find a whale shark/manta/mola mola/tiger shark/sea turtle/etc.  Why?  Because they can tell when you can’t take a picture of them and they just show up.  It’s very unsporting of them to do this.

If you have a compact camera, the solution is easy: just flip it to wide-angle mode and take pictures.  It might take 15 seconds, but you can do this.  This is one huge advantage for the TG4/TG5 or a handful of other compact cameras.  They can do macro and wide-angle without having to change lenses.

But on a mirrorless or DSLR, there are different lenses for each style of photography, and that requires that you know what kind of shooting you’ll be doing prior to each dive.  You have to commit to macro or wide-angle for each dive.  You *could* use something like the Nauticam World Wide Lens to convert a M67 flat port to a dome, but you still need a semi-wide lens.

So I cheat.  I like to carry a small action camera with me that is rigged for wide-angle shooting.  Even better if it can do video shooting.  I’ve used a Paralenz and a GoPro Hero for this.  Either one works well.  For the Paralenz, when I’m diving the tropics, I stuff it into the left-hand sleeve of my rashguard so I can just pull it out and film.  For the GoPro, I use a small handle and stuff it into a pocket.

I’ve thought about mounting action cameras between float arms using a small arm and 3-way ball joint but haven’t done it yet.  That way, I just have to tip the big camera down and shoot.  When I try it, I’ll let you know.

 

 

See You Underwater!!

–Mike