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!!


The Whys of Back-Button Focus and Focus Lock

Back-button focus is a technique where you change the focus button to on of the programmable function buttons (F1, F2, F3, etc) on the camera so that it makes the camera focus instead of the usual half-press on the shutter button.  This will let you lock the focus at the same distance from the end of the lens until you use the function button to refocus.

You then:

  • Choose a subject.
  • Push the focus button to get a focus lock.
  • Move the camera back and forth until the subject is focused the way you want it.
  • Push the shutter button for an instant picture.
  • Keep taking pictures with the same focus.

“That sounds complicated just to take a picture.  Why would you do this?”

For starters, autofocus is slow.  You half-press on the shutter button, the camera picks a piece of the picture, moves the lens in and out until the blur disappears or is the smallest that it will get, then signals that it has focus.  You then push the shutter button the rest of the way.  If you lock the focus, then for the cost of a little bit of time setting up the shot, you can take all of your pictures after that very quickly.

You get more control.  You can think of focal plane as a sheet of glass perpendicular to the lens and at a fixed distance away from the end of the lens.  As long as something is inside that sheet of glass, it’s in focus.  Now you can do like I did with the skeleton shrimp below and put eyes and “hands” in focus by angling the camera so that the those pieces of the picture are inside the focal plane.

You can focus on something that’s not the subject and then reframe.  I do this a lot with subjects that are hard to focus on.  Moving things.  Things inside holes.  Things not in the center.  Point your camera at something the same distance away from the camera lens as the subject and then focus lock on it.  You can then move your camera back to the subject and move it towards and away from the subject to get it in focus.

Macro photography is almost impossible without focus lock.  You have too many variables to consider to make a shot.  Simplify your shooting by reducing the effort of using autofocus by locking your focus.

Shooting in low-light situations is hard, even if you’re using strobes.  You can’t always use a focus light.  Crabs and shrimps look the other way when you shine white light in their eyes.  Nudibranchs feel the heat and change direction.  When you turn off the focus light, you’ll see the camera “hunt” when you try to focus: the lens moves in and out trying to find the right focus but because it’s too dark it can’t see the difference in focus distances.  So turn on the focus light, focus on the sand or coral, turn the focus light off, reframe on the subject, and keep shooting.

Most compact cameras don’t have a moveable focus point.  On most DSLRs and mirrorless, you can use the direction arrows or joystick to move the focus point around inside of the frame.  With compact cameras, you can get focus in the center of the frame, lock the focus, then reframe the subject.

“Wow, Mike, that sounds like an awesome idea that I’m really sold on, how do you set it up?”

It depends on the camera, they all do it differently across brands.  For a howto specific to your camera, try google for “<model> back button focus”.  I’ll post later on how to do this for the Olympus OMD mirrorless.

On compact cameras, programmable buttons are fairly rare.  However, they sometimes have a “focus lock” feature where you can focus on an object and then lock the focus point.  I’ll post later on how to do this for the Olympus TG4 and TG5.

Sample times when I’ve used back-button focus:

  • Fast Little Blue Fish.  They move in and around the coral too fast for you to get a good focus.  So lock your focus and take a picture when they appear in the gap between coral.  I talked about this in Little Fast Blue Fish.
  • Skeleton Shrimp.  They live usually on hydroids: cousins to coral that look like little white-brown shrubberies.  These hydroids sway gently in the current.  Back and forth, back and forth.  Too fast for your auto focus.  Next time they swing by, focus on them and lock your focus then snap each time they swing by after that.
  • “Fast-Moving” Nudibranchs.  Focus on a spot in front of their direction of movement where they crest a micro-hill and lock your focus.  When they move up on top of the terrain, get a picture when they’re more silhouetted. I describe this in this post about Bornella.
  • Critters in Tunicates. You’re taking a picture where the subject is inside a tube.  The autofocus on the camera sometimes will lock on the top of the tube.  Lock focus then move the camera forward to move the focus into the middle of the tube.
  • Hairy Shrimp and Other Teeny-Tiny Things.  When using supermacro gear and taking pictures of things smaller than 3mm across, your focal plane is extremely small.  Use focus lock to lock your focus then move the camera slightly to give you the focus that you want.



See you underwater!!


Little Fast Blue Fish

A little video I did with Elaine at around 8 meters deep on top of the Gosei Maru shipwreck in Truk Lagoon, Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia. Shallow macro spots are always better because you can have crazy long bottom times. 70+ minutes on a single 12L (Aluminum 80) without being a tiny person.

The fish are (I think) Green Chromis, Chromis viridis. I slowed the video down to about half speed and they’re still fast. If you use regular autofocus (ie, use the camera like a normal person), there isn’t enough time to focus and take the picture. The fish is gone before you have a chance to take their picture and you end up with a lot of pictures where “trust me, there used to be a fish there”. At best, a blue-green blur.

The trick here to get good pictures is to use back-button focus (yes, the TG-4 used here and it’s brother the TG-5 can do this) to lock the focus plane at a fixed distance from the end of the lens. Then you move that focus plane into the gap between coral where you expect the fish to show up. When one pops up between the coral, snap a picture.

And before you ask: yes she is breathing but very very very slowly. You can see bubbles at the beginning of the video. Most macro photographers breathe slowly because bubbles push water and disturb/scare their subjects.

The scene from a little bit farther back… Because this is a lifeboat davit that sticks out horizontally, the best way to get a stable position is to hold the davit with the left hand. The rest of her body is floating neutral in the water.

See you underwater!!


Why You Should Take Macro Pictures Underwater (Or at Least Try..)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!


Bornella Breakfast

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!!


About This Blog

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.

Sea fan supermacro. #olympus #omdem10mkii #underwatermacro #supermacro

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See you underwater!!


Policies and Disclaimers

Because bloggers sometimes “roll in the dough” that they got from pushing paid-for-reviews on their readers…..

  1. 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.
  2. I won’t review it unless I’ve used it.
  3. Assume I paid for something (gear, trips) myself unless I say otherwise.
  4. I will use Amazon affiliate links where applicable for products.
  5. I use Google Adwords via WordPress plugin.
  6. I can change this policy as I see fit.