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

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

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.

 

You’ve Found a Critter, Now What?

Read about how to find macro subjects.

You first 30 macro subjects are rather intimidating.

But first!

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.

Some things to ask about the subject…

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.

  • Shrimp and crabs: eyes, claws.
  • Nudibranchs: rhinophores, gills, eggs.
  • Seahorses and pipefish:  mouth, eyes, tiny fins, and sometimes a pregnant belly.
  • Gobies and other small fish: eyes, face fringes, dorsal fin.

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.

Some questions about where you’re at…

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.

Approach the Subject

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.

Shoot away!!

 

 

See You Underwater!!

–Mike

 

 

 

Behind the Shot: White Rose

View this post on Instagram

Teeny tiny tubeworm. TG4 with 2 handheld torches.

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

Location: Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia

Dive Site: Kwanji (awesome place to get grilled tuna or jack during surface interval)

Depth: 18 Meters

Story:

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.

Lessons Learned:

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.

Behind the Shot: Baby Boxfish

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

Story:

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.

Lessons Learned:

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

–Mike

How to Hunt Tiny Underwater Animals

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…

Do Your Research

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.  =)

Tips for Stalking

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.

Places to Check

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.

Hire a Good Spotter

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!!

–Mike