Macro Diving Truisms

Deep macro diving is awesome, shallow macro diving is better.

Surface swims–both out and back–save you gas in your cylinder and make for more photos. And more photos is better!

If you can’t see anything to shoot, go slower and closer to the bottom.

Whatever camera you use, back-button focus makes it better. Research how to do this for your camera type and practice it.

In photography, light is always the most important thing. In underwater photography, light is absolutely everything.

A good photographer with a compact camera and a handheld torch will be better than a mediocre photographer with an expensive set of gear: full-frame DSLR with strobes and snoots.

If your macro photos are bad, get closer. If they’re still bad, get more light.

You can extend your safety stop for quite awhile if you find a good subject or 3 to photograph. Going from 60 bar of gas to 25 bar takes a long time when you’re only 5 meters deep.

Have a goal for each macro dive: learning a new drive site, using a piece of new gear, or practicing a new technique.

Good dive guides save you time hunting for subjects and are worth their weight in gold. While you’re working on a subject, they find the next one for you.

You should have 30+ dives before you start shooting underwater macro. If you can’t control your buoyancy and pay attention to your surroundings, you have no business diving with a camera.

A dive buddy shooting macro isn’t really a dive buddy. I can’t even take photos on land with my wife and find her again.

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Composition Rules for Underwater Macro

Digital Photography School did a good post on 5 Rules in Macro Photography and When to Break Them. I thought it was pretty good, especially since in underwater macro we have our own rules.

Black Backgrounds

I admit to being a partial nut on low-key underwater macro and even made a video and wrote a blog post about it. Low-Key is relatively easy to do underwater because you don’t have much light to use anyway, so you might as well keep the darkness as a background.

However, sometimes color, whitewash, or high-key photos work too. Look for white or bright backgrounds or bring your own.

Some people I know also bring slates with a color scheme. That way they can get a disco-glitter background.  Combine it with bokeh (blurry background) and it gets really “dreamy” really fast.

Frontal Face Shots

if you are having trouble choosing a macro shot, just get in front of the subject’s “face” and get as close as you can. This is the “never fails” shot. But if you’ve seen 5 million photos like this, it starts to get a little bit repetitive. And sometimes the subject doesn’t cooperate: you can’t get in front of it.

Instead, try other aspects of the subject like feet or gills. On frogfish, the feet are absolutely fascinating to capture.  Nudibranch gills look like feathers and can save your dive if all the nudies happen to be “head-down” in the rocks.  Try to get your friends to laugh about the phrase “nudi butts”.

Focus on Rhinophores and Eyes

Another general rule is that the eyes or rhinophores (eye stalks on nudibranchs) should be in focus.  Mostly this is because the human eye always looks for the eyes of other humans: “look at me when I’m talking to you…”

However, if the subject has other prominent features, then it makes sense to put them in focus and the eyes in half-focus.  Things like crab claws, nudi butts, coral polyps, etc make great parts to be in focus.

Fill the Shot

In general, you want to fill the shot with the subject.  That way, it has more detail to show.

But sometimes it’s very nice to leave a lot of negative space around the subject, especially if you use low-key or high-key techniques.  That balances out the shot.

 

See you underwater!!

–Mike

Via Reef Divers: Spot a Coral, Spot a Shrimp

Great article over at Reef Divers about shrimp in bubble coral.  It goes back to what I’ve said before: don’t look for critters, look for the places where they live and eat.

The shrimp are transparent, so they make for a good photos.  I’ve seen them quite a few places.  When we were in Raja Ampat, I made a very strong effort to point them out to the other divers in the group so they could get some shots.  I’ve even seen shrimp on bubble coral right on the wrecks at 25m deep in Truk Lagoon.  Even though I was rigged for super-wide, I snapped them and if you magnify the photo, they’re there.

I didn’t have a good bubble shrimp handy on Instagram, so have a glassy one instead.  =)

Put a Little Tech in Your Life

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of what some entry-level tech diving skills do to help you take better macro photos.

Trim and Buoyancy Skills. Macro photographers spend a lot of time sitting right on the bottom or just above it and movement of several millimeters can ruin your shot. Trim for any diving should be perfectly horizontal.

Breathing Rate and Gas Planning. If you’re doing macro dives, start keeping track of your Surface Air Consumption (SAC, or sometimes called “Surface *Gas* Consumption”) and Respiratory Minute Volume (RMV). Better air consumption means longer dives which means more photos. Knowing your averages and how to use them also means better dive planning. Better gas planning means longer dives but safer because you know where the limits are. You can also do rock bottom calculation… as you descend, keep track of your gas usage getting to the bottom and use that plus a gas reserve as your limit to begin your ascent. Macro divers usually have the square dive profile (down, stay at the same depth, come up) that works well with this method.

Movement. A handful of tech diving propulsion techniques will make your macro diving life so much easier.

  • Frog Kick. Used by tech divers because it doesn’t kick up the silt inside of caves and wrecks: the fins push water upwards and back, not down. On a macro dive, this also means that you don’t cause a lot of backscatter for yourself or others.
  • Modified Flutter. Knees bent, fins high, and little kicks front and back at the knees.
  • Reverse Frog. Can help you back up on a subject if you get too close.
  • Helicopter Turn. Frog kick on one side, reverse frog kick on the other. Helps you to spin around like a helicopter to get a better angle on the subject without moving forward or backward.

Gear. This goes into a bunch of different points.

  • Some of the principles of Hogarthian diving rigs–used in various brand types and levels of strictness–make a lot of sense for macro divers: backplate and wings for perfect trim, simplified and reliable gear, etc.
  • You shouldn’t have any dangling gear to catch on the bottom. Since we’re close to the bottom most of the time, this is a big safety issue for yourself and for the animals on the bottom.
  • Jet-style fins (I have 2 pairs of Apeks RK3 in different sizes for wet and dry diving) make frog kicking and repositioning easier.
  • Thigh pockets for backup torches. Photography is all about light, and backup video torches can make the difference between improvising a lighting studio and aborting a photo dive.
  • Solo Diving Gear. Redundant air supply, spare mask, and a couple of cutting devices. You have to be able to fix problems by yourself because buddies aren’t close enough to get to you in a timely manner.
  • Slung stage cylinder for redundant air supply.

Self-Sufficiency. Being self-sufficient in a diving sense means that you can solve diving problems underwater by yourself. You become a “Self-Rescuing Princess”, as I refer to myself sometimes.

 

 

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Learning to be Shallow

Shallow macro dives are awesome!!!  Some of the best times that I’ve had have been in the shallows with a camera.  And by shallow, I’m talking 5-8 meters.  Why?  Let me go through the reasons:

Long Long Long Dives.  Since divers don’t consume air quickly in the shallows (you should know this from your basic open water class), we have more time to shoot.  Like 80+ minutes from a single 11.2 Liter aluminum, even more if you’re a tiny person.  That’s a lot of photos!!

No Decompression Limit.  This is the biggest benefit.  Since macro divers have longer dives than most divers, nitrogen saturation and NDL are a bigger issue.  But when you’re less than 10 meters deep, it’s impossible to breathe enough nitrogen to run into mandatory decompression.  In fact, the entire dive is at a normal decompression depth.  This means less surface interval time.

Better Ambient Light.  This means you can hunt subjects without a torch.  This means that in some cases you don’t even need artificial light for your subject.  The picture below of the blenny was taken at 4 meters deep with a low-power fill strobe to add color.  However, you can see the background is also not as blue as in deeper dives.

Shorter Swim Times and Smaller Gas Reserves.  On shallow dives, it takes less time to swim down to the bottom and then up at the end of the dive.  This means more time on the bottom looking for subjects.  But more importantly, when you dive deep you need more of an air reserve.  Say, from 25 meters deep you might “turn the dive” and start swimming up to the shallows at 80-85 bar so that you get to the safety stop at around 50 bar.  Any less doesn’t give you enough gas to deal with emergencies at depth.  On a 5 meter dive, “turning the dive” means that you surface.  You only need 5 bar (if that) to surface from 5 meters, so you head up at 30 bar: the gas reserve can be a lot smaller.  Just be kind to yourself and don’t run completely out of gas: it adds quite a bit of risk if you can’t make it immediately to the surface and it is bad for the cylinder because it could let water inside.

Surface Swims.  On a shallow dive, you can save air by doing a surface swim without using your regulator set (protip: a snorkel comes in handy).  Because you can see the bottom, you can still navigate.

Extend Your Deep Dives.  You can get in a shallow macro dive as part of a deeper dive by simply extending your safety stop if you’re near the bottom.  Instead of sitting around motionless for 3 minutes at 5 meters like most people do, try looking around for subjects and snapping photos for 15 minutes or until you get low on air.  This comes with a warning: sometimes non-macro-diving divemasters freak out when I surface with only 20 bar of gas. (Hi guys!!)  =)

3rd and 4th and Night Dives.  Usually when you do 2 deeper dives earlier in the day, it’s safe to do one or two shallow macro dives.  Even if you started the day out doing wide-angle, you can take a break, get lunch, reconfigure your camera for macro, and go do a relaxed shallow dive.  No stress + no NDL + macro photography = fun!

 

 

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Video: Spider Crab

I think I’ve had this in a sushi roll before…..

A crazy spider crab from Raja Ampat. This crab is so camouflaged that it has hydroids growing on it. These are hard to take video of because you don’t know for sure where the face and eyes are except for “in the middle somewhere”.

The current is pretty bad, too, I kept getting knocked around.

 

Share Your Subjects

Sometimes when you dive with a group, you find a rare and unusual subject.  I’m here to remind you that “sharing is caring” and to give you the how-to for sharing based on a lot of group macro dives.

How to share your subject:

  • If there is a queue of divers waiting to shoot your subject, get 10 or so shots and then go to the back of the queue or find another nearby subject.
  • Mark the subject so that others can find it.  Use a torch or a lembeh stick if you’re on the plain, sandy bottom.
  • Get the other diver’s attention by pointing your torch at them and waiving side to side.
  • Motion for the diver to come over.
  • Point out the subject and its relationship to how you market it.
  • Show them the subject on your camera LCD so they know exactly what to look for.
  • Show them the subject again.
  • Show them which angle is the best for the subject.
  • Wait for them to find the subject and give you an “OK” sign.
  • Back up with either reverse frogkick (If you don’t know how to do this, learn on your next couple of dives) or by pushing off a non-sensitive bottom.
  • Slowly fin away from the other diver with modified tech flutterkick (knees bent, feet up higher, small kicks) or frog kick.  Avoid kicking dirt over everybody.