Behind the Shot: Baby Boxfish

This is the first of a new feature I’m adding called “Behind the Shot” to explain how and where I took the photo.

Have a look at this baby boxfish. They’re the cutest thing you’ll ever see underwater.

Location: Yap, Federated States of Micronesia

Dive Site: Slow and Easy

Depth: 14 meters

Story:

Even though Yap is known for its larger animals like mantas and sharks, it does have excellent macro in a couple of places. The folks at Manta Bay Resort can show you where.

On this dive, the outer reefs were beaten up by the waves in the afternoon wind. So we rigged from wide-angle photography gear to macro. After a very short boat ride from the dive center, we dropped into Slow and Easy.

Slow and Easy has a moderate sandy slope from 8 meters down to 25+ (I haven’t been that deep there). There are large boulders up top in the 5-8 meter depths and they have a lot of interesting life there like pipefish, blennies, and lizardfish.

On this dive, I was with Elaine, as usual. As soon as we finished our decent, she started working a hermit crab and I started to swim slowly and scan for things to shoot. You know, the basic beginning of a macro dive.

There was a 70-cm round depression. You’ll see this a lot on the sandy bottom, usually uphill from a rock and off to one side. I’ll scan these quite a bit because they collect floating materials like grass, seaweed, etc. This was no exception, and the name of the game that day was “eel grass”. There was quite a bit of it lining the depression.

I took out my pointer stick and started to look around under the eel grass, gently lifting up individual pieces. Some movement caught my eye. What really caught my eye was how everything was drifting away slowly with the current except for a 2mm pea which was holding its position and even going up-current.

With things this small, you don’t really know what it looks like, even with good light. But you can see it using your camera and a supermacro diopter: they turn your camera into a microscope. I got a focus lock on a nearby piece of sand and then held up the camera to view the green ball in it. All I could see was 2 big eyes staring back at me. So I turned on my strobes and followed the pea for a bit, taking photos as it moved around.

I moved the camera in and out until it looked like the eyes were in focus and then pushed the shutter. This was harder than you might think. The boxfish was moving. I was moving to chase it. The camera was moving because I had to hold it in mid-water.

I got maybe a total of 10 shots. Then when I looked down to refocus closer to the end of the lens, I couldn’t find the boxfish again.

After the dive I had to research on Google to find out what it was that I found.

Lessons Learned:

Take a test photo underwater as soon as you descend and adjust your exposure so that it’s good.  This will reduce the amount of time that it takes to start taking pictures when you find a subject.

Go slow when you dive and learn how to hunt.  Nothing beats time underwater for building skills and intuition at hunting.

If you know that a subject is rare, small, and moving, it’s best to take a handful of photos with your existing camera settings then make major adjustments like adding another diopter.

See You Underwater

–Mike

Some Words on Focus Lights

To follow up on my camera setup, you will see that I have a focus light set up.  I don’t use it constantly for reasons that I’ll explain in a minute.  However, I think it’s a very important accessory to have and use and it will save your dive several times over.

Why use a Focus Light

In order to understand focus lights, you have to understand autofocus.  The camera has a focus zone that depends on the camera make, model, and configuration.  On compact cameras like an Olympus TG5, it’s a fairly large square in the middle of the picture.  On my Olympus OMD EM10MkII, it’s a square that can be configured for size, location, and how much of the surrounding area is included as secondary focus.  On high-end DSLRs like the D850, it’s a set of squares inside a larger zone that can be configured in several ways.

The way that autofocus works is that the camera zooms the lens in and out.  This is called “hunting” in photography slang.  As it zooms in and out, the computer in the camera looks at the lines, patterns, and individual pixels inside the focus zone.  It tries to find the zoom setting where the largest piece of the focus zone is sharp.  Even with a slow autofocus, it will zoom in and out once or twice and then set the focus.

However, when you’re in low-light situations such as underwater, there is not enough contrast between light and dark for the camera to see how sharp or unsharp the photo is when it zooms the lens.  As a result, the camera keeps hunting.  If you see the camera hunt over 2 times, then you need to add light to help it.  I think this is worse with supermacro where the focal plane is very thin, so as a side-note, you can use higher aperture settings and maybe get better focus.

Extreme Low Light

I’ll turn on my focus light when the light is so bad that I can’t tell–even with back-button focus–if the subject is in focus.  Just a little bit of light helps me see in the viewfinder.  I will also use the focus light on my strobes during times like this.

Shrimps and Crabs and Focus Lights

Shrimps and crabs hate white light.  I think it hurts their eyes.  They will always turn away from you if you use a white focus light.  However, there is a way!  If you use a red focus light and strobes, they can’t see it.  They’ll gladly sit there all day while you take your photos.

Protip: you can drop a white-light torch around the back of the shrimp and they will turn around and face you or come to your side of the coral whip.  Just a little bit of light–if you overdo it, it’s rather abusive to the creature and is animal manipulation.

Nudies and Flatworms and Focus Lights

Nudies and flatworms can feel the heat from torches, including your focus light.  That’s why when they get within focus range, they turn to the side and “ruin” your face-on shot that you set up so meticulously.  After a couple of times, it begins to feel like they can sense right before you push the shutter button.  After a couple of days of doing this, you’ll think that the nudies are psychic and are reading your mind.

To fix this, use the minimum amount of focus light to reduce the heat or lock your focus and turn the light off.

Strobes and Focus Light

Some strobes have a button on the back that turns on a small onboard focus light.  In some cases, this is preferred to the main focus light because it doesn’t shine down the port.  On some strobe diffusers, like the ones that come with the YS-D2s that I have, they have a piece of plastic that you pop into the diffuser to make a red focus light.  To be honest, I don’t use this much except for super low light conditions.

Colors!

Some focus lights can add other colors into the picture.  Most of them can add red.  Because shrimp.  Some of them also can add blue or ultraviolet.  A tiny amount of blue or UV will make the white in the subject glow slightly, like a white t-shirt under a black light at your favorite nightclub.  It’s a very nice effect to put into your photos.  Just try not to disco dance.

 

Focus Lights and Backscatter

It’s an inconvenient truth for an underwater macro photographer: your focus light causes backscatter.  It’s probably ruining most of the photos that you’re taking today.  Because the focus light is shining down the side of your lens port, it lights up sand and dirt between the end of the lens and the subject.  Or sometimes behind the subject, but your strobes were going to hit that anyway.  That dirt and sand shows up in your pictures as backscatter.

All this ugly sand in my photos blocking my rhinophores, what’s a macro photographer to do?

Well, there are 3 ways to reduce backscatter with a focus light.

  1. Reduce the brightness of your focus light.  That minimizes backscatter because there isn’t as much light to be reflected.  It took me a long time to get into the habit, but always use the minimum amount of focus light that you need to get a focus and if you don’t need a focus light, don’t use it.
  2. Turn on the focus light, use focus lock, and then turn the focus light off.  You would be amazed how infrequently I refocus on a dive: mostly I focus once and then take many photos with that same focus.  Having a zoom gear on the camera helps, too: you can manually focus if you need to refocus.
  3. Add an arm to the focus light to move it up so that it shines down on the subject instead of shining down the side of the lens port.  That moves the light away from the end of the lens.

 

 

See you underwater!!

–Mike

How to Hunt Tiny Underwater Animals

Hunting for 3mm long macro underwater photography subjects is not easy.  In fact, when you first start out, it’s just one step short of impossible.  Here are some tips for you to try…

Do Your Research

The easy answer to finding tiny animals is that you don’t really hunt them, you hunt the places where they hang out.  Every animal has a home, and a place to eat, and a way to find a mate.  These are usually easier to find that than it is to find a 3mm subject.

Research dive sites and macro photos that were taken there.  You learn which species to expect.  Get an idea of the silhouette and color.  But more importantly, look at what they are “sitting on” when the picture was taken.  That gives you something that is easier to find.

If you can find somebody who seems to know where the animals are, get them to take you for a couple of dives or at least mark on a map what areas you should try.  Or follow all the other people with the big cameras.  =)

Tips for Stalking

Plan your Dive, Dive your Plan.  You only have so much gas to breathe, so having a plan on what area you want to hunt in helps you make better use of your time.  At a minimum, you should have an idea on what depth you’ll be going to, how long your gas will last, what animals you’re looking for, when you will move into shallower water, and what your surface technique will be.

Take a Test Shot First.  As soon as you descend, turn on your strobes, get a good focus lock, and take a test photo.  You’re checking if your lighting is appropriate for the depth that you’re at.  This saves you time once you find your first subject.

Swim into the Current or Uphill.  Everybody I know does this when we hunt.  This keeps any sand that you kick up going behind you instead of into the area that you’re searching in.  Don’t follow other divers, that puts you into their sand trail which is even worse than your own sand.  Instead, do your own search 2-3 meters to either side of them.  A tech-diver frog kick and helicopter turns here also help.

Go Slow.  On most good macro dives, we’ll travel 10m horizontally at the most once we get to the right depth.  Going slow means that you can scan left-to-right across the sandy bottom and cover every bit of the area.  It also means that you can see small movements of your subjects much easier.  Normally I scan between 1-2 meters left and right in a 10cm strip, then move forward 10cm and scan again.

Use a Torch.  In low visibility diving or when the sun is blocked by clouds, you won’t be able to see small things below 10 meters deep.  You need light to see creatures: shapes and colors are muted by the natural light being filtered by the water.  Sometimes you will see animals “flash” when they move in the torch light.  Shrimp and crabs will move visibly because they don’t like white light.  For coral whips, hydroid, tunicates, etc I will reach around behind them with a torch and check for silhouettes.

Take Extreme Close-Ups.  When I’m having a slow day of spotting, I’ll start to take pictures of scorpionfish eyes, coral polyps, sea pens, christmas tree worms, etc.  A lot of times, while I’m doing that I’ll find another real macro subject nearby.  I just wasn’t in the right mental state to find subjects, and taking a couple of snaps gets my head into the right place.

Mark your Subject.  Once you find a good subject, mark it with your torch, pointer, etc.  That way, you can find it again if you lose sight of it.  It also makes it easier if you go find somebody and want to take them to your subject.  I’ve left my torch sitting on the bottom numerous times while I went to bring another diver over.  I’ve also detached my focus light, set it on flash mode, and pointed it uphill towards other divers so my friends know where to come find a special subject.  I’ve seen people send a SMB to the surface and tie it off next to their subject so that they can come back on a second dive to find their animal again.

Turn off your Camera and Lighting.  I turn off my camera, strobes, and focus light while I’m hunting to save battery.  However, in an emergency at the end of a dive I’ll use the focus light or the focus light button on my strobes to give myself a torch.

Places to Check

Hydroids.  Where 2-12cm white hydroids grow out of the rocks, check them quickly for anything that doesn’t look like it’s part of the hydroid: bumps or strange colors.

Tunicates.  These tube structures sometimes hold shrimp or isopods.  Don’t spend much time, but always check them when you see them.

Under Rocks.  Shrimp and crabs like to hide in cracks under or between rocks.  You’ll normally see them run into the crack when you come close.  Stop and wait, they’ll usually come back out and let you take their photo as long as you don’t hit them with white light.

Coral Whips.  Sometimes they have whip gobies, small camouflaged coral whip shrimp, or a sawblade shrimp.

Swim-Throughs.  Nudibranchs and other macro subjects like them because they’re protected from the current and the surge.

Inside Anemones.  They have porcelain crabs and at the deeper depths (15+m) they have white-dot transparent shrimps.

On Fire Urchins.  Coleman’s shrimp and zebra crabs live on them.

Sides of Boulders and Wrecks.  Some nudibranchs like to travel on the sides of these.

Larger Sea Pens.  Smaller crabs and shrimp live in their sheltered crevices.

Where you see Flashes.  That means another photographer has found a subject and has started taking pictures.  Don’t hover over them (it’s a cardinal sin), but look around in the area and wait for them to finish with their subject.  If you have your own subject and can trade them yours for theirs, they will gladly show you what they were looking at.

Hire a Good Spotter

If you want to do some serious macro photography, hire a spotter.  In places like Anilao and Tulamben, there are a handful of dive guides that can serve as your spotter.  There are also tons of dive guides that can’t see anything smaller than themselves.  In Tulamben, I’ve worked with Darmada, also known as Nemo.  In Anilao I’ve worked with Jason Mendoza at Anilao Photo Academy.

Where a good spotter pays for themselves many times over is that when you’re photographing a subject, they’re on the hunt for you.  That way, when you’re ready for a different subject, they already have one found.  This optimizes your time: you spend hardly any time hunting and you find at least 4x the animals than if you were hunting solo.  If you have a special species you want to find, your dive guide can find it for you.

This Doto sp. lives on the hydroids.

Larger (20+cm) sea pens usually have macro subjects inside them.

 

See you underwater!!

–Mike

A Catalog of Macro Mistakes

In the interests of Tony and Chelsea Northrup’s Photography Screwups, I present my own screwups.

But first, the video:

Now, my own list of underwater macro oopses…

The first time I used an Olympus TG4 underwater, it was a borrowed camera and housing.  I didn’t know that they took the o-ring out of the housing for travel and that I needed to put it back in before the dive.  Took 2 seconds to flood the housing and stopped the dive immediately.  Protip: you can get adapters for your BC inflator hose that are a blower to get the moisture out of your housing. =)

I have a one-way vacuum valve on the top of my Nauticam housing.  I’ve dived without putting the cap back on it.  That’s not catastrophic.  However, when you release the vacuum, it sucks any water in the valve into the housing and sets off the moisture and water alarm.

I’ve dropped my supermacro diopter on the sandy bottom at Seraya Secret dive site when I was trying to hold too many things in my hands at the same time.  I had to chase it as it rolled down the slope and started to gain speed.  Protip: use a flip adapter (highly recommended) or a mount on a bar arm that you screw the diopter into.

I’ve bumped the viewfinder diopter on the camera before I put it into the housing and then had no idea why I couldn’t focus underwater.  Protip: for a workaround, either use autofocus or use the LCD/Live View instead of the viewfinder.

The first dive that I used strobes on, one of the guys on the boat sat on my camera and broke the fibre optic cable.  Plenty of room to sit, I don’t know why it seemed like he had to sit on the camera.

However, all this failtalk brings us to a fantastic point….

The most important photo is the photo you take before each dive to make sure that the camera works and is set up properly.

While you take that photo, check the following:

  • Camera, strobes, and focus light have batteries.
  • Can use the viewfinder.
  • Can focus at a macro and supermacro distance.
  • Can write to storage card.
  • Strobes fire.
  • Can use the menu system.
  • Focus light turns on.
  • Can use zoom gear.

See you underwater!!

–Mike

My Underwater Macro Camera

My current macro camera setup….

Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds

Olympus OMD EM10 Mark II

Olympus 60MM ED Macro

Nauticam EM10II Housing

Nauticam M14 Vacuum Valve (I have the older 1st version)

Nauticam 45-Degree Viewfinder for Mirrorless

Fisheye Fix Neo 1000 Mini WR Torch

2x Sea and Sea YS-D2 Strobes

2x Nauticam 8-inch Carbon Fiber Float Arms

2x Carbon Arm Strobe Diffusers

2x fibre optic cables

7x Nauticam Standard Clamps

3 Beneath the Surface Foam Floats

Optional: Nauticam SMC-1 Supermacro Converter

Optional: Nauticam diopter flip adapter

Optional: Saga +5 wet diopter on top of the SMC-1