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

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

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

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.