I think this is a huge problem for most photographers and they don’t even know it… Yes, I had the same problem until I learned to turn off the light and embrace the darkness.
See You Underwater
I think this is a huge problem for most photographers and they don’t even know it… Yes, I had the same problem until I learned to turn off the light and embrace the darkness.
See You Underwater
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.
This is a typical way that people work around the fixed focus point with a compact camera. It works like this:
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.
Both models of TG camera have a highly undocumented focus lock feature. The way you set it:
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.
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!!
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.
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.
This nudie taken with TG4 and handheld torch….
Some awesome things can help you take better pictures and experiment with low-key photography….
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.
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.
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.
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….
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!!!
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!!
You first 30 macro subjects are rather intimidating.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
See You Underwater!!
Location: Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia
Dive Site: Kwanji (awesome place to get grilled tuna or jack during surface interval)
Depth: 18 Meters
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
See you underwater!!
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…
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. =)
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.
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.
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!!