You’ve Found a Critter, Now What?

Read about how to find macro subjects.

You first 30 macro subjects are rather intimidating.

But first!

Stop and take a couple of breaths.  Relax.  Think, then act.

Mark the subject so that you can find it again if you drift away a bit.  I’ll stick my Lembeh stick into the sandy bottom in good visibility or drop a lit torch about half a meter (or less) away in bad visibility.  That way if I look down at my camera to fix a problem or have a hand conversation with somebody, I can go back to where the subject is.

Some things to ask about the subject…

Is it shy?  Some subjects like gobies retreat into their home (or just leave the area) when you approach.  They’re afraid that you’re going to eat them.  With these animals, you have to go slow and steady when you move around them.

Does it hate white light?  Shrimp and crabs are notorious for not liking white light.  It hurts their eyes.  With these creatures, you have to either use a red focus light or no focus light.  White lights are straight out.  This also means that it’s hard to get photos of them without a strobe.

What are its key features? Every animal has a set of features that really define what they are.

  • Shrimp and crabs: eyes, claws.
  • Nudibranchs: rhinophores, gills, eggs.
  • Seahorses and pipefish:  mouth, eyes, tiny fins, and sometimes a pregnant belly.
  • Gobies and other small fish: eyes, face fringes, dorsal fin.

Which direction is the animal facing and moving?  Most of the best shots are from the front of the creature.  This isn’t always the deal, but understanding where the “face” is can be a good start at how you approach the photo shoot.

Some questions about where you’re at…

Is there another subject nearby?  Sometimes, this happens: there is a better subject nearby.  Or sometimes your subject is in a bad location to shoot (usually facing down or in a crack that you can’t stick a lens and strobes in) but there is another one of the same close by that is in a location where you can shoot.

Where is the current coming from?  Ideally, you want to take pictures while you’re facing into the current to minimize sand in the shot.  Sand is backscatter and that’s bad, mkay?  Sadly, though, most subjects when you find them will be facing into the current, and this complicates life.  So you have to stop and think about where you and your camera can be located in order to minimize the dirt in your shot.

Is the bottom safe to you and itself?  Will you break off coral if you take this shot?  Will you be rolling around on fire coral?  Is there a scorpionfish sitting in the marl that will stick you with venom?  More about safety here.

Approach the Subject

Add or remove your diopter.  Match your diopter to the size of the subject.  I use a flip holder, so it’s relatively trivial to flip in and out on shots.  The one downsize is that I then have to change exposure settings, especially aperture, because the depth of field and amount of visible light change.  Some people screw their diopters in and out, and if you’re one of those people, be sure to mark your subject before you do.

Adjust your strobes.  If there isn’t enough room for you strobes on the bottom, then you’ll have to move them to the top of the lens like Mickey Mouse ears.  Or use a completely different style.  If you keep your strobes off while you hunt, turn them on now.

Get a focus lock.  Lock your focus on the sand or coral nearby.  Or use the focus gear on your housing to move the focus to the desired length away from the lens front.  This will help you find the subject better.  I’ll also make a test shot to wake up my camera and strobes if they went into sleep mode.

Go slow.  Fast means making dust in the water and scaring the subject.  Try to contain your excitement.

Shoot away!!

 

 

See You Underwater!!

–Mike

 

 

 

Behind the Shot: White Rose

Teeny tiny tubeworm. TG4 with 2 handheld torches.

A post shared by Michael Smith (@ryzhe.kuznetsov) on

Location: Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia

Dive Site: Kwanji (awesome place to get grilled tuna or jack during surface interval)

Depth: 18 Meters

Story:

I was a student in a workshop run by Irwin Ang and it was a pretty rough day. Being at the end of the dive season in late December, the waves at Tulamben were fairly high and made shore entries hard. We aborted at a dive site the next day.  The surge was killing my stability to take focused shots without motion blur.  I was overweighted by 3kg just to keep from getting pushed around as much by the surge.  That also made water entry even more worse with the big waves: it’s hard to keep your head above the surface when you’re packing 8kg of ballast and no exposure suit.

When the start of the dive is hard, it’s almost impossible to get into the right mindset to go hunting.  Sometimes you can’t find anything because all the creatures are on strike or asleep.  Or it could be that you forgot how to see and you need to just take pictures of anything so your eyes work again.  So I started looking for abstracts to take pictures of.

If you’ve never been to Tulamben, it’s the land of black sand… all volcanic rock.  After every dive, you dig it out of your dive clothes.  It’s awesome for low-key (black background) images.  And it’s easy to see white things on.

I found this tiny white tubeworm, a white thing on the black sand.  It was at the most 3mm across.  This takes a supermacro setup and even with the macro mode on the TG4 I barely had enough magnification to see the subject.  So I zoomed in and used focus lock and manual focus to as close to the lens as I could get.

Lighting was hard–at anything below 12m or so there isn’t enough ambient light.  I had been hand-holding a torch with my left hand alongside the camera.  But the more you zoom (ie, the closer you get to supermacro), the more light you need.  A single torch just wasn’t bright enough.

I almost always carry an extra torch in my right thigh pocket.  So I pulled it out, turned it on, and set it on the ground about 1.5cm to the right of and slightly in front of the tubeworm.  Then I put my other torch similarly on the left side.  This made a “miniature portable underwater macro portrait lighting studio”.  Just like your glamor shots only different.  =)

I did bump the ground once and the tubeworm disappeared for a couple of minutes when it felt the vibration.  Working close with tubeworms, you sometimes have to back off a bit, let it relax and come back out.  They can feel vibration and they can feel moving water.  The trick with a tubeworm on the bottom is to remember where they are because otherwise you’re back to searching on the sandy bottom.

Lessons Learned:

Lighting.  Carry extra.  In the tropics, I usually wear neoprene tech diving shorts with thigh pockets and have one or two more torches clipped off in my right pocket.  This allows me to mark good subjects for friends and add more light when I need it.

The ground can sometimes give you a third, fourth, and fifth hand. Feel free to set a torch down to provide side lighting or even backlighting.  Add colored lights if you feel like it.

When you can’t find a normal subject like nudies or shrimp, look around at coral, tubeworms, etc. Find patterns and abstracts. Sometimes it’s that your brain isn’t in the right mood to look for tiny things and taking pictures gets it working right.

Take a minute to watch the subject and go slow when you set up for a shot.  Some subjects don’t like shadows, the wake of a diver, white light, or vibrations.  Almost always go slow and then 150% slower than that.

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

On Solo Diving

I think it’s time we all face up to a an unpopular fact. Macro divers are solo divers, and it’s time that we start acting like it. In Singapore, almost all of us are solo, low-visibility divers in dive sites next to shipping lanes. The only saving grace is that most of the time we’re at 12 m or less deep and can do a CESA if we have an air supply problem.

Nobody else is going to be your dive buddy when you spend 30 minutes trying to coach a 5mm glass shrimp into focus. Even if your dive buddy is a macro photographer themselves, that just means that both of you will end up absorbed in taking pictures and completely unaware of what is going on with the other diver. You’re not really doing the job of supporting each other if one of you has an emergency. You just happen to be “same ocean same time” dive buddies which isn’t really dive buddies.

And then there is the problem of diving with other divers when you want to do macro. Even in a well-meaning group, you can’t really take any good macro photos while you’re trying to keep up with everybody else. You get frustrated and take along wide-angle gear on the next dive. In short: it’s impossible to do underwater macro photography with other divers unless they understand that the point of the dive is to not swim anywhere.

Now it’s not that I’m trying to give anybody a “guilt-trip” or say that you should stop doing macro dives. In fact, just the opposite. DIVE MOAR!!! What I’m saying is that all macro diving is solo diving and that our style of diving involves a higher level of risk and some additional training, gear, and techniques to deal with that risk.

It’s not just me, the dive training agencies and magazines have some thoughts on solo diving, although it’s a bit bipolar sometimes:

With all of this in mind, back in November/December I went through the SDI Solo Diver class with Dive Zone Tokyo. It’s more about the theory: better air management, solo navigation, risk assessment, risk mitigation, and understanding what and why you’re doing something. The knowledge was pretty good (although I harbor a humorous theory that it’s a gateway drug for tech diving), and then my practical application was to go on a drysuit solo macro photography dive. That was cool. I got dropped off at 12 meters near the entry point and hunted subjects through the boulder field while the rest of the group beelined out to the soft coral. Later on, I tried to find the blue-tipped pikachu nudibranch in the inner bay and almost got to the spot but spent too much air searching and had to come up to the surface.

Even if you don’t want to go the certification route, you should start carrying the gear to survive a solo diver emergency and know how to use it:

  • Spare air supply
  • Cutting device
  • Spare mask
  • Compass
  • SMB

Shrimp from my first official solo dive in Osezaki, Izu Penninsula, Japan:

And me on the same dive:

See you underwater!!

–Mike

The Nemo Rule

Elaine and I have a rule about anenomefish, clownfish, and Nemo fish: don’t take pictures of them on the swim out to the dive site.  Instead, take pictures of them towards the end of the dive if you still have air.

The reason is that anemonefish are pretty cool.  Ever since the movie, we have a love affair with Nemo.  They also have some reasons why you shouldn’t take pictures of them early on in the dive:

  • They move around a lot.  This means you spend more time trying to get in the right position for a shot.  Sometimes you’ll spend the entire dive working an anemonefish and not have the air to go deeper for the subjects that you’re there to take pictures of.
  • They’re very photogenic.  Lots of charm.  Everybody wants a picture of them, especially if you’re new to underwater photography.  It’s like the underwater macro version of ADHD: “Oh look, SQUIRREL!!!”
  • They’re very common.  You see them everywhere.  This means that the chances of you seeing one at the beginning of the dive is very high.  But that Nemo is keeping you from all of the other rare macro subjects that you’re looking for.
  • They usually live at shallower depths.  Conveniently, you’ll see them frequently at 5 meters deep where you’re doing your safety stop.  As long as you have air, extend out that safety stop and get some Nemo pictures.

Two huge huge huge HUGE tips.

  1. Always when you see an anemonefish, check the anemone for other animals.  Things like porcelain crabs, transparent shrimp, etc also live in anemones and they make awesome subjects.  One dive in Anilao, I watched an anemonefish continually bite a porcelain crab that was in their anemone.  Great behavior, great photos.
  2. When you see a large anemonefish, they are the female of the group.  Back off a bit and watch them to see if they go someplace and “kiss” a rock nearby.  Or even keep gravitating back to a rock a meter or so away.  If you check on that rock, you’ll find little fish eggs.  Break out the supermacro adapter and get some shots!!

So when do you take pictures of Nemo?  Here are some good times:

  • Dive is more than half over and you don’t have a different subject.
  • You’re at or near your safety stop, both in depth and distance from the entry point.
  • You have plenty of card space and camera battery.
  • You can’t find any other subjects after looking for a long time.

And you get a 2-for on photos.  Because Nemo……

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Safety and Underwater Macro Photography

Underwater macro divers have several types of injuries that are more common than “normal” divers. This is a non-exhaustive list of them.

Bottom-Related Injuries. No, not *that* kind of bottom…. We spend a lot of time grabbing, laying down, or kneeling on the sandy bottom.

For starters, please don’t kill the coral or animals by squishing them. Only touch the sandy bottom, and even then, think about if you really need to touch anything or if you can hover.

Some nudibranchs and skeleton shrimp live on hydroids. Hydroids have many different species but mostly look like little white bushes with a white or brown stem. Fire coral looks like a brown elkhorn coral. Both hydroids and fire coral have small nematocysts like jellyfish that sting you when you touch them. After 3 or so days, this turns into a very itchy rash like poison ivy or poison oak. I normally get it on my hands, arms, and knees. Prevention is easy: don’t touch anything and wear a 2/3mm wetsuit as protection. If you do get a rash, you can kill it easily by rubbing it with white vinegar like a jellyfish sting.

Stonefish, scorpionfish, cone snails, etc live on the bottom and are completely non-aggressive. They also can stab you and inject venom. The zebra crab pictured below lives on top of an animal called a “fire urchin”. It’s called “fire urchin” because with the red and white coloring it looks like it’s on fire and because when it pokes you and shoots its venom into you, it feels like it’s on fire. Short answer: always check where you’re going to be for dangerous bottom-dwellers before you touch anything.

Sea urchins have very long spines that are impossible to remove: the more you try to grab them, the more they fall apart. The Southeast Asian remedy is to take a shoe and beat on the area where they went into your skin. This breaks up the fibers and your skin can eject them normally over time–and a longer time at that. However, it’s not a fun experience.

Overweighting. I usually go 1 or 2 kg overweight on macro dives (except when there is a full-coral bottom) so that it’s harder for the current and waves to push me around. In a big surge, I might add 3kg. It’s not fun to swim with that much extra weight, you have to add a lot of air to your BCD. That extra weight is dangerous if you can’t ditch it in an emergency like a BC failure. Don’t rig it on your body without being able to drop enough of it to get to positive buoyancy. IE, make that extra weight ditchable/removable.

Standoff distance. Some animals are dangerous if you get too close. The more obvious ones are the kind with teeth like eels. They have a habit of hiding under the rocks and coming out at you when you least expect it. But also think about the mantis shrimp. They can crack glass on the end of a camera housing port. Some bigger fish like bumphead wrasse can ram you like sheep. Crabs and lobsters can pinch. Supermacro shooters are the worst at standoff distance because the focus distance on these rigs is sometimes less than 3cm. Always determine the minimum standoff distance to the subject and to other things in the immediate area. Watch the animals in your area to see if they look alarmed and back off if you need to.

Decompression Limits and Out-Of-Air. Macro divers usually have better air consumption and as a result, they have longer bottom times. They also get hyperfocused on taking pictures and don’t pay enough attention to their dive time. Some quick tricks to help you out:

  • Set a time alarm on your computer as a reminder. Even better if you can set several of them. If you’re used to 60-minute bottom times, set up an alarm for 40 minutes and every 5 minutes after that.
  • Use an air-integrated dive computer. They compute both nitrogen loading/no-decompression limit (NDL) and your breathing rate and alarm you when either is starting to run low.
  • Put your computer on your camera where you can see it easily. You can strap it to a float arm. There are even some float arms that come across the top of the camera horizontally just to hold your computer.
  • Learn from tech diving/DIR. There is a lot to be said about incorporating some of the risk-management concepts and setup for tech diving into your macro diving routine. I use a backplate/wings, long hose, jet fins, air calculation, etc in all my dives now.

Entry and Exit. Camera gear is usually close to neutrally-buoyant underwater but on the shore and getting into the water, the amount of gear on your body can be enormous. You hit the water surface harder and you float less than normal divers. For boat dives, always enter the water then have somebody hand you your camera. For shore dives, a couple of pointers:

  • Abort the dive if the waves are bigger than a meter. There is always another website. Plus if the waves are that big, you’re probably not going to be able to take good pictures anyway. Go driving and find a better spot.
  • Pick the most sheltered entry point. Even if it means a longer swim, it’s still better.
  • Use a tech-diving regulator necklace. Put your alternate second-stage on it so if you get rolled by a wave you can get a regulator in your mouth easier.
  • Stage some of your gear in the water. Pick it up after you do your entry. I have an idea to try using 2 half-sized cylinders rigged sidemount because you have the same amount of air but it’s easier to manage and you can pre-stage the cylinders in the water.
  • Get help to carry your camera and your weights. Even with a small team, you can hold someone’s camera while they go ashore in just scuba gear, drop their gear, and come back to get everyone’s cameras and other heavy things. It takes more time but it’s safer in rough conditions where you don’t have a shore crew to help.

Burning out torches and strobes. You can’t take photos without light. You can’t hunt effectively for supermacro subjects without a torch. In low-light conditions, we might use our torch the entire dive. Always carry an extra torch and replace torch batteries after every dive. In an emergency where you lose your torch batteries completely, you can use your focus light on your camera and sometimes your strobes have a light that you can turn on.

Current, Waves, and Surge. Both of these have a larger impact on us. Because we have more weight, we don’t float as well on the surface. When we are in shallow water, we don’t have the use of our arms like we do on normal dives and the surge and waves can roll us on the rocks. Pushing a camera into a strong current is less hydrodynamic, so don’t swim down-current at the start of a dive where you’ll get trapped and can’t swim back up-current while you’re racing the last of your air supply. In an extreme emergency, you can do an open-water ascent.

Addiction and costs. Not really an in-water danger, but underwater macro photography is so much fun that you’ll find yourself dreaming about it at work, while you’re driving, etc. Try to stay in the present. And, with some exceptions, underwater photography gear is expensive. Set a budget and stick to it.

Solo Diving Risks. We dive solo very frequently. I’ll address this in a later blog post.

Zebra crab. #underwatermacro #anilao #olympusomdem10markii #nauticam

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See you underwater!!

–Mike