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

TG4/TG5 in Microscope Mode with Sea and Sea YS-01 Strobe

This is a very common gear combination and has proven to be one of the biggest pains in life to get this working.  It shouldn’t be this hard.  I’ve seen a diver throw their camera on the ground and swim away from it because the strobe wasn’t doing what they thought it should.  I picked the same camera up and took pictures, no problem.

There are 2 core problems:

  1.  The settings you need are poorly document and are not intuitive by any means.
  2. The the camera and flash use optical TTL which most people don’t know even exists.  I myself had to experiment and reread old forum posts about different models.

Optical TTL is an interesting thing.  Most people know electrical TTL which uses waterproof electronic wires between the camera and the strobe.  In optical TTL, the camera turns on its own built-in flash, monitors the exposure that it’s shooting, and when it has received enough light, it turns off the on-board flash.  The strobe turns on when it receives light via the fibre optic cable, and turns off when there is no light coming through the fibre optic cable.  The signaling between the camera and strobe is a simple on-off instead of pre-flash and monitoring that most people are used to.

The Camera Setup:

Turn on TTL

Inside the main menu, second camera icon, choose “Accessory Settings” and set “Remote Flash” to RC.  This is an abbreviated form of “Remote Control”.  This turns on optical TTL.  Why they can’t call it TTL, I don’t know.

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Second Camera Screen, Accessory Settings

 

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Use the Right Flash Mode

Inside the quick menu (from shooting mode, hit the lightning button to the right of “OK”) there are 3 modes that you can use.

“Fill” works to turn on the strobe but without TTL: you manually adjust the strobe power.  “Fill” means that no matter what the camera meters the scene at, it should fire the built-in flash anyway, and this will trigger the strobe to fire.  Fill is designed to add light to foreground objects in an otherwise-lit scene such as people in the shade with a sunny background.

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Fill Mode

“RC” Uses TTL and sends the start-stop signal to the camera’s built-in flash. “RC” only appears after you turn on “Remote Flash: RC” in the main menu as described above.

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RC Mode

“Slow” fires the flash and keeps the shutter open, this gives more time for light to reflect off the background.  Think of it as “front curtain sync” if you’re used to flash on land.  I was unable to tell if the camera uses TTL for “Slow”.

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Slow Mode

The Strobe Setup:

Use TTL

Turn the power knob to TTL.  Done.

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Set to TTL.

How to Get Good Aquarium Macro Photos

Sometimes, aquariums have good subjects for you to take pictures.  A good example is the weedy sea dragon which lives in Southern Australia and then only in a couple of known locations.

But how do you get good aquarium shots, and especially how do you get aquarium macro shots?  Well, there is a process and a couple of considerations on gear.

Call First.  Most aquariums have policies on photography.  Call them for information before you go there.  There are 3 questions you want to ask…

  1. Do you allow photography?  Most allow photography but no flash (it reflects off the glass anyway….)
  2. Do you allow tripods or monopods?  Because you’re doing low-light photos, tripods help you out a lot.
  3. Do you allow lens skirts?  Lens skirts block out the light coming from behind you so that you can shoot photos through glass without any light reflection.  They are absolutely critical for shooting in an aquarium.  They also work for cityscapes from your hotel room if you’re into that sort of thing.

Timing.  Go early in the day during a week.  Avoid peak visiting times because you’ll have to wrestle people to get a good spot on the glass, especially if you’re using a tripod.

Gear.  My rundown on what I take….

  • Camera. Anything works, but that’s the story for most photography.  What I really look for in aquarium shots is good low-light performance.  The biggest problem that you will have is lighting.  Most tanks are dark inside, so you have to open up the aperture, bump up the ISO, and use slower shutter speeds.  Burst mode works very well if you want to take pictures of moving fish.
  • Lenses.  What I would recommend is a wide and a telephoto, both with zooms.  Because you’re standing on the dry side of the glass, you can’t get “macro close” to the subject, so a lens that can focus at a longer distance is preferable.  A telephoto might work well for macro subjects.  The Olympus 60mm macro for Micro Four Thirds can also focus out to infinity which comes in handy.  And lastly, since you’re working with low light, you want as fast (ie, big apertures and low F-Stop) of a lens as you can get and yes I understand that zoom lenses aren’t usually fast.
  • Lens Skirt.  I mentioned this before.  It’s a very valuable tool.
  • Tripod.  This is good for both video and for still photography.  It helps when you do slow shutter photos.  It helps when you set up your lens skirt in a weird location where you don’t want to manually hold the camera for long periods of time.
  • Glass Cleaner.  Either magic clothes like you use for lenses or a photography wet wipe.  These are very important to clean the glass because otherwise you’ll see fuzzy spots in your photos where people leave fingerprints on the glass.

How to Do It.  Now we’re ready to go take some snaps.

  • Find a good subject.  Look for macro subjects closer to the glass.  The more water between you and the subject, the more magnification you need and the more you need to do color-balancing.  Some aquariums have smaller tanks with smaller fish, they are perfect for macro shots.
  • Stick on the Lens Skirt.   They have 4 suction cups to hold on to the glass.  Try to put the lens skirt perpendicular to the subject so the camera lens shoots straight through the glass.
  • Clean the Glass.  Very important.  Clean the glass where your lens will go.  This is usually a “window” inside the lens skirt.
  • Set up the Tripod.  Mount the camera and lens on the tripod so that the camera is inside the lens skirt and the lens shoots directly through the glass.
  • Take some Photos.  Feel awesome about your skills.  You’ll have to mess with settings a bit to get the right exposure, and you’ll probably have to change exposure for each tank.
  • Sharing is Caring.  If the aquarium has a lot of people, let them use your lens skirt from time to time so that they have good photos too.  And most importantly: they won’t complain about your lens skirt, tripod, and desire to hog all the good subjects.

 

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

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.

 

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