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

Composition Rules for Underwater Macro

Digital Photography School did a good post on 5 Rules in Macro Photography and When to Break Them. I thought it was pretty good, especially since in underwater macro we have our own rules.

Black Backgrounds

I admit to being a partial nut on low-key underwater macro and even made a video and wrote a blog post about it. Low-Key is relatively easy to do underwater because you don’t have much light to use anyway, so you might as well keep the darkness as a background.

However, sometimes color, whitewash, or high-key photos work too. Look for white or bright backgrounds or bring your own.

Some people I know also bring slates with a color scheme. That way they can get a disco-glitter background.  Combine it with bokeh (blurry background) and it gets really “dreamy” really fast.

Frontal Face Shots

if you are having trouble choosing a macro shot, just get in front of the subject’s “face” and get as close as you can. This is the “never fails” shot. But if you’ve seen 5 million photos like this, it starts to get a little bit repetitive. And sometimes the subject doesn’t cooperate: you can’t get in front of it.

Instead, try other aspects of the subject like feet or gills. On frogfish, the feet are absolutely fascinating to capture.  Nudibranch gills look like feathers and can save your dive if all the nudies happen to be “head-down” in the rocks.  Try to get your friends to laugh about the phrase “nudi butts”.

Focus on Rhinophores and Eyes

Another general rule is that the eyes or rhinophores (eye stalks on nudibranchs) should be in focus.  Mostly this is because the human eye always looks for the eyes of other humans: “look at me when I’m talking to you…”

However, if the subject has other prominent features, then it makes sense to put them in focus and the eyes in half-focus.  Things like crab claws, nudi butts, coral polyps, etc make great parts to be in focus.

Fill the Shot

In general, you want to fill the shot with the subject.  That way, it has more detail to show.

But sometimes it’s very nice to leave a lot of negative space around the subject, especially if you use low-key or high-key techniques.  That balances out the shot.

 

See you underwater!!

–Mike

Put a Little Tech in Your Life

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of what some entry-level tech diving skills do to help you take better macro photos.

Trim and Buoyancy Skills. Macro photographers spend a lot of time sitting right on the bottom or just above it and movement of several millimeters can ruin your shot. Trim for any diving should be perfectly horizontal.

Breathing Rate and Gas Planning. If you’re doing macro dives, start keeping track of your Surface Air Consumption (SAC, or sometimes called “Surface *Gas* Consumption”) and Respiratory Minute Volume (RMV). Better air consumption means longer dives which means more photos. Knowing your averages and how to use them also means better dive planning. Better gas planning means longer dives but safer because you know where the limits are. You can also do rock bottom calculation… as you descend, keep track of your gas usage getting to the bottom and use that plus a gas reserve as your limit to begin your ascent. Macro divers usually have the square dive profile (down, stay at the same depth, come up) that works well with this method.

Movement. A handful of tech diving propulsion techniques will make your macro diving life so much easier.

  • Frog Kick. Used by tech divers because it doesn’t kick up the silt inside of caves and wrecks: the fins push water upwards and back, not down. On a macro dive, this also means that you don’t cause a lot of backscatter for yourself or others.
  • Modified Flutter. Knees bent, fins high, and little kicks front and back at the knees.
  • Reverse Frog. Can help you back up on a subject if you get too close.
  • Helicopter Turn. Frog kick on one side, reverse frog kick on the other. Helps you to spin around like a helicopter to get a better angle on the subject without moving forward or backward.

Gear. This goes into a bunch of different points.

  • Some of the principles of Hogarthian diving rigs–used in various brand types and levels of strictness–make a lot of sense for macro divers: backplate and wings for perfect trim, simplified and reliable gear, etc.
  • You shouldn’t have any dangling gear to catch on the bottom. Since we’re close to the bottom most of the time, this is a big safety issue for yourself and for the animals on the bottom.
  • Jet-style fins (I have 2 pairs of Apeks RK3 in different sizes for wet and dry diving) make frog kicking and repositioning easier.
  • Thigh pockets for backup torches. Photography is all about light, and backup video torches can make the difference between improvising a lighting studio and aborting a photo dive.
  • Solo Diving Gear. Redundant air supply, spare mask, and a couple of cutting devices. You have to be able to fix problems by yourself because buddies aren’t close enough to get to you in a timely manner.
  • Slung stage cylinder for redundant air supply.

Self-Sufficiency. Being self-sufficient in a diving sense means that you can solve diving problems underwater by yourself. You become a “Self-Rescuing Princess”, as I refer to myself sometimes.

 

 

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

Behind the Shot: White Rose

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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.

The Nemo Rule

Elaine and I have a rule about anenomefish, clownfish, and Nemo fish: don’t take pictures of them on the swim out to the dive site.  Instead, take pictures of them towards the end of the dive if you still have air.

The reason is that anemonefish are pretty cool.  Ever since the movie, we have a love affair with Nemo.  They also have some reasons why you shouldn’t take pictures of them early on in the dive:

  • They move around a lot.  This means you spend more time trying to get in the right position for a shot.  Sometimes you’ll spend the entire dive working an anemonefish and not have the air to go deeper for the subjects that you’re there to take pictures of.
  • They’re very photogenic.  Lots of charm.  Everybody wants a picture of them, especially if you’re new to underwater photography.  It’s like the underwater macro version of ADHD: “Oh look, SQUIRREL!!!”
  • They’re very common.  You see them everywhere.  This means that the chances of you seeing one at the beginning of the dive is very high.  But that Nemo is keeping you from all of the other rare macro subjects that you’re looking for.
  • They usually live at shallower depths.  Conveniently, you’ll see them frequently at 5 meters deep where you’re doing your safety stop.  As long as you have air, extend out that safety stop and get some Nemo pictures.

Two huge huge huge HUGE tips.

  1. Always when you see an anemonefish, check the anemone for other animals.  Things like porcelain crabs, transparent shrimp, etc also live in anemones and they make awesome subjects.  One dive in Anilao, I watched an anemonefish continually bite a porcelain crab that was in their anemone.  Great behavior, great photos.
  2. When you see a large anemonefish, they are the female of the group.  Back off a bit and watch them to see if they go someplace and “kiss” a rock nearby.  Or even keep gravitating back to a rock a meter or so away.  If you check on that rock, you’ll find little fish eggs.  Break out the supermacro adapter and get some shots!!

So when do you take pictures of Nemo?  Here are some good times:

  • Dive is more than half over and you don’t have a different subject.
  • You’re at or near your safety stop, both in depth and distance from the entry point.
  • You have plenty of card space and camera battery.
  • You can’t find any other subjects after looking for a long time.

And you get a 2-for on photos.  Because Nemo……

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Why You Should Take Macro Pictures Underwater (Or at Least Try..)

There are many reasons why you might want to try underwater macro photography while you dive. I personally got started when my wife and I attended a macro workshop with Irwin Ang and Jane Mong Lee Kian in Tulamben, Bali. We didn’t really know much other than basic photography techniques. As far as macro, we only knew that it was a type of underwater photography and we are always ready for another diving trip to Tulamben.

  1. It’s fun. Almost addictive. It’s like a miniature treasure hunt each and every time. In my usual dive site, there is almost a flavor-of-the-week feel to it. Some days it’s nudibranchs. Other days, skeleton shrimp, or even seahorses.
  2. You’ll amaze your friends. I’ve seen it time and time again: when I show friends my underwater macro photos, they don’t believe that they were taken on the same planet that we live on.  Good pictures look like they come from the mind of Dr Seuss.
  3. You can do it anywhere. Where I live now in Singapore, they call the water “milo peng”–iced chocolate drink–because the visibility on a good day is 3 meters. On a bad day, it’s 0.5 meters–1.5 feet. But when you are on a dive taking macro pictures, all you need is 20cm of visibility. You would be surprised how many sandy, silty, shallow “muck dive” sites that exist.  These sites have no interest for normal divers but for macro shooters, they are paradise.
  4. It can save a trip. Even in some of the best diving locations, the weather is beyond your control. Wind and waves can stir up sand and silt to reduce visibility and make the surface unsafe for boat activity. Current and tides can push divers out past the dive site or turn the dive into a drift dive. But no problem, just look for a shallow, flat dive site in a sheltered bay and try your skills at macro.
  5. You get better diving skills. Macro diving requires breath control, fin movement, and buoyancy skills on a microscopic level. Move too much and you can’t find your subject again. I’ve personally seen my air consumption slowly get better as I get more relaxed and efficient underwater.
  6. You find more wildlife. I’ve taken friends on macro dives, and when we go slow and deliberate and “check all the shrubberies”, we see 10x the normal amount of sea life. Part of that is the new small things we find, but the big sea life also is less afraid of you when you don’t charge right at it and stick an action camera and video light in its face.
  7. You learn more. You start to learn about ecology and habitat. You find where the animals live and what their behavior is. You learn more about photography, waterproofing, and lighting. You learn more about yourself, your skills, and how to stalk underwater subjects.
  8. It’s as uncomplicated (or complicated) as you want it to be. I’ve seen photographers with a handheld torch and an Olympus TG-4 that can take better pictures than other photographers with expensive setups. With macro modes on compact cameras, macro doesn’t require a huge investment in equipment.
  9. It makes you a better photographer. Underwater macro is sometimes demanding on your lighting and camera use. You’re using a paper-thin plane of focus and being pushed side-to-side by the surge. You have to find a stable position and not crush the coral. You’re breathing through a hose underwater. This stress-test of your skills translates into better photography skills on land and subjects like flowers that suddenly seem easier to photograph than before.
  10. Guaranteed whale shark sighting! Or mola mola. Or manta. Or something big that you can’t capture an image of with a macro rig.  Even in a group of divers, somebody has to take a “sacrificial” macro setup to make sure that you’ll see big animals.

See you underwater!

–Mike