There are many reasons why you might want to try underwater macro photography while you dive. I personally got started when my wife and I attended a macro workshop with Irwin Ang and Jane Mong Lee Kian in Tulamben, Bali. We didn’t really know much other than basic photography techniques. As far as macro, we only knew that it was a type of underwater photography and we are always ready for another diving trip to Tulamben.
- It’s fun. Almost addictive. It’s like a miniature treasure hunt each and every time. In my usual dive site, there is almost a flavor-of-the-week feel to it. Some days it’s nudibranchs. Other days, skeleton shrimp, or even seahorses.
- You’ll amaze your friends. I’ve seen it time and time again: when I show friends my underwater macro photos, they don’t believe that they were taken on the same planet that we live on. Good pictures look like they come from the mind of Dr Seuss.
- You can do it anywhere. Where I live now in Singapore, they call the water “milo peng”–iced chocolate drink–because the visibility on a good day is 3 meters. On a bad day, it’s 0.5 meters–1.5 feet. But when you are on a dive taking macro pictures, all you need is 20cm of visibility. You would be surprised how many sandy, silty, shallow “muck dive” sites that exist. These sites have no interest for normal divers but for macro shooters, they are paradise.
- It can save a trip. Even in some of the best diving locations, the weather is beyond your control. Wind and waves can stir up sand and silt to reduce visibility and make the surface unsafe for boat activity. Current and tides can push divers out past the dive site or turn the dive into a drift dive. But no problem, just look for a shallow, flat dive site in a sheltered bay and try your skills at macro.
- You get better diving skills. Macro diving requires breath control, fin movement, and buoyancy skills on a microscopic level. Move too much and you can’t find your subject again. I’ve personally seen my air consumption slowly get better as I get more relaxed and efficient underwater.
- You find more wildlife. I’ve taken friends on macro dives, and when we go slow and deliberate and “check all the shrubberies”, we see 10x the normal amount of sea life. Part of that is the new small things we find, but the big sea life also is less afraid of you when you don’t charge right at it and stick an action camera and video light in its face.
- You learn more. You start to learn about ecology and habitat. You find where the animals live and what their behavior is. You learn more about photography, waterproofing, and lighting. You learn more about yourself, your skills, and how to stalk underwater subjects.
- It’s as uncomplicated (or complicated) as you want it to be. I’ve seen photographers with a handheld torch and an Olympus TG-4 that can take better pictures than other photographers with expensive setups. With macro modes on compact cameras, macro doesn’t require a huge investment in equipment.
- It makes you a better photographer. Underwater macro is sometimes demanding on your lighting and camera use. You’re using a paper-thin plane of focus and being pushed side-to-side by the surge. You have to find a stable position and not crush the coral. You’re breathing through a hose underwater. This stress-test of your skills translates into better photography skills on land and subjects like flowers that suddenly seem easier to photograph than before.
- Guaranteed whale shark sighting! Or mola mola. Or manta. Or something big that you can’t capture an image of with a macro rig. Even in a group of divers, somebody has to take a “sacrificial” macro setup to make sure that you’ll see big animals.
See you underwater!
At a normal weekend macro photography dive trip to Pulau Hantu in Singapore, I saw this Bornella Anguilla nudibranch. It rained the night before, so all the usual creature spots were a little bit more dusty than usual. I was having problems finding something to shoot. Then I saw something that looked like a little guppy swimming in the water column. Yes, these actually swim like a fish. A very awkward fish. It swam down to the ground and then went from position to position to find something to eat. I stopped taking photos just to watch it go about its breakfast then thought that it was so awesome I needed to get a video.
To get the video, I had to flip off the supermacro diopter and use my normal macro lens. For lighting, I used my on-camera torch that normally finds use as a focus light.
Position and stability is very important for macro video because of the short depth of focus. To get a stable position, I used a trick I read in Alex Mustard’s Underwater Photography Masterclass (affiliate link). You reach your left hand across your body and grab something safe (no coral, no hydroid, no scorpionfish, no sharks) about 20cm to the right and a little bit below the subject. You hold the camera with your right hand and rest the lens or bottom of the housing on your left wrist. This way, you form a bit of a triangle with your elbows and wrists and get the support for the camera that you need.
These guys move around a lot. So you have to get to where they’re going and set up:
- Be patient, check your air supply, and be calm.
- Try to get in front of them. Good buoyancy and helicopter turns help.
- Find a spot with a little rise so that as they come up the backside and over the top of the rise, they’re mostly silhouetted against the water. Or at least not down in a crack where you have to take photos looking down.
- Focus on the top of the rise so that when they climb it, they’re in focus. Use back-button focus to lock the focus on the top of the rise.
- If you’re using a torch, nudies will turn away from it when they can feel the heat. If you have a focus lock, shut off your torch if you don’t need it.
- Wait, be patient.
- When they get on top of the rise, snap away.
- When they move off the top, back off and repeat the process.
And while I was at it, I made some normal photos too…
The moral of the story: underwater macro photography is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to find.
See you underwater!!
My name is Michael Smith and I’m an underwater macro photographer. I’ve taken lots of pictures underwater–both wide-angle and macro. However, I think there are only a handful of hotspots around the world–Tulamben, Anilao, Lembeh, Red Sea, Osezaki, etc–where there is enough interest for underwater macro groups. Photographers outside these areas don’t really have anybody to talk to and share tips and techniques with.
Another thing that I’ve noticed is that there is lots of information on how to make the camera work for underwater macro but not a lot of information on technique: how to hunt, how to share a subject, how to manage a buddy, how to plan a dive, etc.
Now back to this blog. I’m trying to make information available on how we’ve done macro photography dives and expand the hobby. I’m trying to fill the gaps left by the standard underwater photography material that is already out on the Internet.
See you underwater!!
Because bloggers sometimes “roll in the dough” that they got from pushing paid-for-reviews on their readers…..
- I’m not really making any money on this blog yet. It doesn’t even come close to how much I spend on gear, trips, certifications, etc.
- I won’t review it unless I’ve used it.
- Assume I paid for something (gear, trips) myself unless I say otherwise.
- I will use Amazon affiliate links where applicable for products.
- I use Google Adwords via WordPress plugin.
- I can change this policy as I see fit.