Not just frogkicks, but also reverse frog and helicopter come in handy on macro dives.
Location: Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia
Dive Site: Kwanji (awesome place to get grilled tuna or jack during surface interval)
Depth: 18 Meters
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!!!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!