Howto: High-Key Underwater Macro Photos

I previously discusses low-key photography, now moving on to high-key photography.  High-key photography is a subject on a white or light background.

Why High-Key

High-key is a great way to bring out other colors in the photo.  The trick is to overexpose the photo except for the subject, which you leave as normal or just a little bit overexposed.

Getting Started

The process is relatively simple.

You need a lighter background to bounce light off of.  The important thing is that empty water does bounce light back but only with a slow shutter speed and only if you want a blue or brown background.  There are a couple of ways to get the right background:

  • Pick a subject with a vertical backstop.  Coral, anemones, etc.  Even colors like orange or red work.
  • Shoot looking down on the subject so that the sand or coral serves as the background.
  • Use a dive slate as a mobile background.

The next thing that you do is to light the background and try to avoid getting excessive light on the subject.  This could mean many things:

  • 2 Strobes or Video Lights with Diffusers: point them forward or outward.  Try to “kiss” the subject with the inside edge of the light beam.
  • 2 Video Lights: cross them behind the subject.  Without diffusers, it’s easier to see where the edge of the beam is, so you end up adjusting your lighting more.
  • Single Focus or Video Light: Use a longer arm to reach over the top of the subject and light behind it.

The most nuanced part of the setup is to make sure that your subject isn’t in silhouette.  If you have to, add weaker light from the front or top to add a small amount of light to the subject so that some of the details are restored.

The last thing to do is to adjust your exposure.  This depends on your gear, but it’s usually one or two of the following:

  • Manual Mode: Use a wider aperture like F4 or F6 and a slower shutter speed.  The hard part here is to avoid a super-thin depth of focus (with a supermacro converter, I usually have a paper-thin focus plane) or to slow the shutter speed down so much that you introduce blurring from moving: yourself or the subject.
  • Automatic Mode: Adjust the Exposure Compensation to +1 or +2 to trick the camera into exposing a lighter photo.  The amount that you have to adjust depends on how much light the background and subject reflect.
  • Turn Up the Lighting: With some setups like strobes and video lights, you can increase the power on your lighting to overexpose the background.  The important thing is to overexpose the background and not the subject.

Since there are many variables involved, there are many options that all work.  Try using multiple techniques to get the job done and feel free to experiment.

Take it to the Next Level

While you’re making the background lighter use a board with glitter for an interesting background.  Combined with overexposure and a bit of bokeh, it makes for a really nice picture.

Try different colored backgrounds like orange sponges or a field of light-blue tunicates as a background.

Try compositions with the subject offset to the left or right and some negative space opposite them.  Try to use the 1/3 layout with the subject on one of the thirds and the other side blank.

 

Dry Land Training: Focus Distance

Finding your minimum and maximum focus distance is a critical skill in underwater macro.  This is because if you can’t focus, you can’t take pictures that you’ll like.  In supermacro, most of the the time you can’t even see your subject because the depth of focus is so thin.

I test for maximum and minimum focus distance every time I have a new camera, lens, or wet diopter.  I’ll even test combinations of these 3 to see what I like.

Given:

  • A well-lit room
  • One camera with lens
  • One housing with appropriate port
  • Series of wet diopters
  • A subject (can be a nudie replica or something as mundane as the screw on a tripod head)

Process:

  1. Mount camera and lens in housing with port.
  2. Find minimum focus distance first.
  3. Put the glass of the port up against the subject.
  4. Try to gain focus with the auto-focus–back-button or half-press on the shutter.
  5. When you have the closest focus point, measure the distance from the end of the port to the subject.
  6. Check for farthest focus point.
  7. Move the camera back from the subject while you are trying to gain focus.
  8. When you can’t focus anymore, go forward just a bit and get a focus.
  9. When you know the furthest focus point, measure the distance from the end of the port to the subject.

Tricks:

  • Put the camera in constant focus mode:
    • Panasonic: AFC
    • Canon: AI Servo
    • Nikon: AF-C (Continuous-servo AF)
  • Us manual focus to set the minimum and maximum focus distance.
  • Put the subject on a ruler so that you can easily measure the distances.
  • Try stacking wet diopters.  I sometimes use a Nauticam SMC-1 with a Saga +5.  Different diopter combinations have different focus ranges.
  • Once you have a focus lock, move the camera in and out to see how deep the focus is.  Try it with maximum and minimum aperture.

 

Breakfast macro photography. #PancakesAndWhaleSharks #UnderwaterMacroPseudoWideAngle

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

See you all underwater!!!

–Mike

Review: Underwater Macro on the Lumix G9

In March, I bought a new Panasonic Lumix G9 to replace my EM10 MkII.

So far, I like it, both on land and in the water.  It’s worked out pretty well for me.  I’m at the end of a month-long trip consisting of the following:

  • 8 days in Raja Ampat and Misool
  • 10 days in Bali: Padang Bai, Tulamben, and Ubud
  • 5 days in Santorini (no diving, lots of donkeys and white buildings)
  • 5 days at home in Massachusetts (no photography)
  • 5 days in Athens (no diving, lots of buildings made of rock)

I think I’ve carried the G9 every single day on this trip except for when I went home.

Some notes in no particular order….

Housing.  Since the camera was just released in February, it’s still early for the housing to be in the usual dive photography shops.  I went to the Nauticam booth at the Asia Dive Expo in Singapore and bought their demo model.  Nauticam is starting to make their mirrorless housings more like their DSLR housings.  This is a shift in price and features: $1400 for an EM10II housing v/s $2600 for the G9 model.  There is a fully-removable back on the G9 v/s the hinged back on my EM10II. And the G9 housing has 2xM14 and 1xM16 bulkheads (one M14 has the vacuum system valve) v/s the single M14 bulkhead (where I put a vacuum valve after purchase) that was on the EM10II.

Accessories and Lenses.  I went from one Micro Four Thirds camera to another Micro Four Thirds.  That means that my lenses, housing ports, strobes, arms, etc still stayed the same.

I’m still using the Olympus 60mm Macro, Nauticam port, and Supermacro Converter (SMC-1) for macro and supermacro.

I’m still using my Olympus 7-14 Pro with 180mm glass dome for wide angle.

Flash Trigger.  I did lose an onboard flash (the EM10 has a built-in flash that I used to signal the strobes), so I needed to get a flash trigger.  I got one bundled with the housing.  Sadly, it doesn’t do optical TTL, so I’m running my strobes in manual mode.

Image Stabilization.  The G9 has some serious image stabilization.  What that means to photographers is that you can run a slower shutter speed without blurring the photo because of your own motion.  This is cool on land, but only 25% as awesome in the water because our subjects are moving.  That is, if you’re taking pictures of a nudibranch in a current, image stabilization helps where you’re moving but not where the subject is moving.  Still, it’s a good thing to have.

Back Button Focus.  This was fairly easy to set up: assign the F1 button as the AF Lock button and turn off half-press AF on the shutter button.

Joystick.  The housing doesn’t have controls for the joystick.  It’s OK, I don’t miss it underwater.

EVF and LCD.  For macro, I use a Nauticam 45-degree viewfinder.  The Electronic View Finder (EVF) of the G9 is awesome and works great with the Nauticam viewfinder.  Although folks with glasses might want to try setting the EVF resolution (v.mode button on the right side of the EVF) to a smaller size if they need to.  The housing doesn’t have a button to set the EVF.

I use the LCD for underwater wide-angle photography.  The LCD seems to be a little bit darker than the actual picture.  After awhile you’ll get used to it.

For switching between EVF and LCD, the F3 button to the left and below the EVF works great.  There are 3 modes: LCD, EVF, and switch back and forth using the sensor built into the EVF.  In the last mode, the housing will always set off the sensor, so it’s functionally the same as EVF.

Filming Video.  4K60P video is awesome, and the housing has a button for it.  Just film away.  However, I have yet to figure out how to do playback of videos on the camera underwater because the “play” button is on the LCD as a touch control.

Red-Light Focus.  The camera has some problems with focusing while I was using a red focus torch and point-focus.  The phase-detection software in the autofocus engine gets confused by so much of a single color.  So I switched to back-button focus, moved the camera off of the subject, locked focus on the bottom using white light, and switched back to red light for the real subject.

High-Resolution Mode and Focus Stacking.  It’s like HDR but for high resolution images of 80MP (by the way, high-resolution files are huge) or for extended depth of field.  On land, you need a non-moving subject and a tripod.  It doesn’t work in underwater photography unless the camera and the subject don’t move.  However, on land it’s awesome for the sunrises and sunsets and landscapes that crowd around dive sites.

Burst Shooting.  I forgot to try this underwater but I’ve used it quite a bit with my wife and niece while they were swinging on giant swings or jumping on beaches… the usual fast-action tourist shots.  It would work underwater provided that you turn off your strobes and take the photos with either natural light or focus/video lights.

Burst shots do make a lot of files very quickly.  Each file is 18-20MB in size for RAW files.  I go through and delete the rejected shots in Lightroom Library Module to save hard drive space.

Reading Raw Files.  MacOS and Windows can’t read them natively yet, so you have to manage photos in LightRoom.  This will eventually change with updates from the operating system vendors.  I did keep on “Save as RAW and as low-quality JPG” for awhile so that I could manage files with the OS, especially where I forget to format the SD card.  However, it slows down the SD card writes so I eventually moved it to write just RAW files and my camera operator (ie, myself) was trained enough to remember to dump files off card and format card at the end of each day.

S-Curves.  For macro, I use +5 to highlights and -5 to shadows to add a lot of contrast to the photo.  Because strobes sometimes kill the contrast: they work too well.  Back on land, it’s a bit too extreme and the family complained about how this looks in their tourist shots.  So I have to go back to a normal curve for land photography.

Settings for Underwater Macro.  I have a couple of things that I set for macro:

  • Photography Menu
    • Quality: RAW.
    • Photo Style: Vivid.
    • Metering Mode: Spot.
    • Highlight-Shadow: +5 Highlights, -5 Shadows.  Because strobes kill contrast sometimes.
  • WrenchC
    • Focus/Release Shutter
      • Shutter AF: Off.  Turns off focus at half-press.
      • AF Assist Lamp: Off.  Doesn’t work inside a housing.
    • Operation
      • Fn Button set
        • REC Mode
          • Fn1: AFL AEL.
  • Mode Dial: Manual

Settings for Underwater Wide-Angle.  Yes, I do wide-angle sometimes.  I set the following:

  • Photography Menu
    • Quality: RAW.
    • Photo Style: Natural.  Because vivid amplifies the blue-green look underwater.
    • Metering Mode: Spot.
    • Highlight-Shadow: +3 Highlights, -3 Shadows.  Because water kills color and contrast.
  • WrenchC
    • Focus/Release Shutter
      • Shutter AF: On.  Turns on focus at half-press.
      • AF Assist Lamp: Off.  Doesn’t work inside a housing.
  • Mode Dial: Shutter Priority

Settings for Dry Photos:  Even more amazing, I even take photos on land.  Here is what I set:

  • Photography Menu
    • Quality: RAW.
    • Photo Style: Vivid.  Because I like it.
    • Metering Mode: Area plus spot.
    • Highlight-Shadow: +0 Highlights, +2 Shadows.  Because outside photos with the subject in the shadows.
  • WrenchC
    • Focus/Release Shutter
      • Shutter AF: On.  Turns on focus at half-press.
  • Mode Dial: Shutter Priority

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Adding UV Light

A couple of months ago I got a new focus torch.  It’s a Scubalamp F24.  I had been using a Fixeye Fix Neo which is good in its own right but I swapped it out for one reason: the F24 has a blue and a UV pink/purple light.  The UV makes white and yellow glow, just like a black light on a white t-shirt.  This adds a little something into the photo that I like, even when I flash over the top of the subject with my strobe.  If I notice that the subject has some white in it and isn’t scared off by bright light, I turn on the UV.

You’ll agree with the results….

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Video: TG4/5 Low-Key Macro

I built a video tutorial for doing low-key macro photography using the Olympus Tough TG4 or TG5.  It’s suprisingly easy to do when you see somebody else do it.

One huge warning: dive torches usually heat up and can burn out the bulb when you use them outside of the water.  They need to be in the water to cool them down.

Feel free to play with the angle of the torch and distance from the torch to the subject.  In general, the closer you are to the subject, the brighter it will be and the darker the background will be.  You’ll also have to deal with shadows and transparency when you do low-key because you’re lighting from one direction.

A huge thanks to Pikachu for sitting still during the modeling session.

 

 

See You Underwater

–Mike

Howto: Low-Key Underwater Macro Photos

Why Low-Key?

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.

Getting Started

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.

Setup for Fully Manual Mode on a Mirrorless/DSLR:

  • Start with a normal picture exposed correctly.
  • Use the lowest ISO available.
  • Reduce the aperture and shutter speed until the picture is black and the subject is barely visible.  Something like F14-32 and 1/125-1/600.
  • Lock your focus.

Setup for Compact and Shutter/Aperture Priority:

  • Start with a normal picture exposed correctly.
  • Use the lowest ISO available.
  • Reduce the exposure compensation (EC) to -2.  This tells the light monitor on the camera to reduce the exposure by 2 stops.  This makes a dark picture.  On some cameras, use an EC of -1 and brighter lighting.
  • Lock your focus.

Now, Add Some Lighting

  • Use a hand-held spot torch with a sharp edge to the spot.  Get it 2-3 cm above or to the side of the subject and pointing directly at the subject.  That will light up the subject and nothing else.
  • I use my left hand to hold the torch and I squeeze my wrist against the left side of the housing.  This stabilizes both the torch and the camera and lets them move together as one unit.
  • Wide-angle torches don’t work because they also light up the background.  This ruins all hope at a low-key photo.  Better yet, use a torch with a small diameter spot like the snoot torch I describe below.
  • You can place a torch on the ground to the side of the subject 2-3cm away from the subject.  Better yet, put one torch on each side of the subject.  The light should hit the subject and maybe the ground to the sides of the subject but not in front or back of the subject.  This is tougher to do than it sounds, especially for a moving subject.

This nudie taken with TG4 and handheld torch….

Take it to the Next Level

Some awesome things can help you take better pictures and experiment with low-key photography….

Take Low-Key Portraits

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.

Take Low-Key Photos with Your Phone

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.

Use a Snoot Torch

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.

Use a Strobe

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….

Use a Snoot on Your Strobes

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!!!

–Mike

Protip: Also Take an Action Cam

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!!

–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

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