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

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