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!!!
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.
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!!!
You first 30 macro subjects are rather intimidating.
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.
See You Underwater!!
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!!
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!!
Back-button focus is a technique where you change the focus button to on of the programmable function buttons (F1, F2, F3, etc) on the camera so that it makes the camera focus instead of the usual half-press on the shutter button. This will let you lock the focus at the same distance from the end of the lens until you use the function button to refocus.
- Choose a subject.
- Push the focus button to get a focus lock.
- Move the camera back and forth until the subject is focused the way you want it.
- Push the shutter button for an instant picture.
- Keep taking pictures with the same focus.
“That sounds complicated just to take a picture. Why would you do this?”
For starters, autofocus is slow. You half-press on the shutter button, the camera picks a piece of the picture, moves the lens in and out until the blur disappears or is the smallest that it will get, then signals that it has focus. You then push the shutter button the rest of the way. If you lock the focus, then for the cost of a little bit of time setting up the shot, you can take all of your pictures after that very quickly.
You get more control. You can think of focal plane as a sheet of glass perpendicular to the lens and at a fixed distance away from the end of the lens. As long as something is inside that sheet of glass, it’s in focus. Now you can do like I did with the skeleton shrimp below and put eyes and “hands” in focus by angling the camera so that the those pieces of the picture are inside the focal plane.
You can focus on something that’s not the subject and then reframe. I do this a lot with subjects that are hard to focus on. Moving things. Things inside holes. Things not in the center. Point your camera at something the same distance away from the camera lens as the subject and then focus lock on it. You can then move your camera back to the subject and move it towards and away from the subject to get it in focus.
Macro photography is almost impossible without focus lock. You have too many variables to consider to make a shot. Simplify your shooting by reducing the effort of using autofocus by locking your focus.
Shooting in low-light situations is hard, even if you’re using strobes. You can’t always use a focus light. Crabs and shrimps look the other way when you shine white light in their eyes. Nudibranchs feel the heat and change direction. When you turn off the focus light, you’ll see the camera “hunt” when you try to focus: the lens moves in and out trying to find the right focus but because it’s too dark it can’t see the difference in focus distances. So turn on the focus light, focus on the sand or coral, turn the focus light off, reframe on the subject, and keep shooting.
Most compact cameras don’t have a moveable focus point. On most DSLRs and mirrorless, you can use the direction arrows or joystick to move the focus point around inside of the frame. With compact cameras, you can get focus in the center of the frame, lock the focus, then reframe the subject.
“Wow, Mike, that sounds like an awesome idea that I’m really sold on, how do you set it up?”
It depends on the camera, they all do it differently across brands. For a howto specific to your camera, try google for “<model> back button focus”. I’ll post later on how to do this for the Olympus OMD mirrorless.
On compact cameras, programmable buttons are fairly rare. However, they sometimes have a “focus lock” feature where you can focus on an object and then lock the focus point. I’ll post later on how to do this for the Olympus TG4 and TG5.
Sample times when I’ve used back-button focus:
- Fast Little Blue Fish. They move in and around the coral too fast for you to get a good focus. So lock your focus and take a picture when they appear in the gap between coral. I talked about this in Little Fast Blue Fish.
- Skeleton Shrimp. They live usually on hydroids: cousins to coral that look like little white-brown shrubberies. These hydroids sway gently in the current. Back and forth, back and forth. Too fast for your auto focus. Next time they swing by, focus on them and lock your focus then snap each time they swing by after that.
- “Fast-Moving” Nudibranchs. Focus on a spot in front of their direction of movement where they crest a micro-hill and lock your focus. When they move up on top of the terrain, get a picture when they’re more silhouetted. I describe this in this post about Bornella.
- Critters in Tunicates. You’re taking a picture where the subject is inside a tube. The autofocus on the camera sometimes will lock on the top of the tube. Lock focus then move the camera forward to move the focus into the middle of the tube.
- Hairy Shrimp and Other Teeny-Tiny Things. When using supermacro gear and taking pictures of things smaller than 3mm across, your focal plane is extremely small. Use focus lock to lock your focus then move the camera slightly to give you the focus that you want.
See you underwater!!
At a normal weekend macro photography dive trip to Pulau Hantu in Singapore, I saw this Bornella Anguilla nudibranch. It rained the night before, so all the usual creature spots were a little bit more dusty than usual. I was having problems finding something to shoot. Then I saw something that looked like a little guppy swimming in the water column. Yes, these actually swim like a fish. A very awkward fish. It swam down to the ground and then went from position to position to find something to eat. I stopped taking photos just to watch it go about its breakfast then thought that it was so awesome I needed to get a video.
To get the video, I had to flip off the supermacro diopter and use my normal macro lens. For lighting, I used my on-camera torch that normally finds use as a focus light.
Position and stability is very important for macro video because of the short depth of focus. To get a stable position, I used a trick I read in Alex Mustard’s Underwater Photography Masterclass (affiliate link). You reach your left hand across your body and grab something safe (no coral, no hydroid, no scorpionfish, no sharks) about 20cm to the right and a little bit below the subject. You hold the camera with your right hand and rest the lens or bottom of the housing on your left wrist. This way, you form a bit of a triangle with your elbows and wrists and get the support for the camera that you need.
These guys move around a lot. So you have to get to where they’re going and set up:
- Be patient, check your air supply, and be calm.
- Try to get in front of them. Good buoyancy and helicopter turns help.
- Find a spot with a little rise so that as they come up the backside and over the top of the rise, they’re mostly silhouetted against the water. Or at least not down in a crack where you have to take photos looking down.
- Focus on the top of the rise so that when they climb it, they’re in focus. Use back-button focus to lock the focus on the top of the rise.
- If you’re using a torch, nudies will turn away from it when they can feel the heat. If you have a focus lock, shut off your torch if you don’t need it.
- Wait, be patient.
- When they get on top of the rise, snap away.
- When they move off the top, back off and repeat the process.
And while I was at it, I made some normal photos too…
The moral of the story: underwater macro photography is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to find.
See you underwater!!