Working with a Macro Guide

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend at Anilao Photo Academy in the Philippines.  It’s a great experience and I very much recommend it to anybody who wants to dive and shoot.  It was my second trip there and it reminded me my love of their guides and why a dive guide is a good thing to have.  I’ve dived with both Jason and Doodz there.

I’ve also used a couple of macro guides in Tulamben (Darmada and Yansu and at times some of their friends) and have a ton of respect and love for them also.

I’ve also guided my friends in Pulau Tioman, Singapore, Japan, and even a little bit in Massachusetts.  Since I can find some creatures, I’m reasonably decent at taking the “swim fast, scare fish” crowd and turning them into “go slow and see things” macro photography divers.  And some of them are getting really good.

Guides are officially Dive Masters and as such they are there to keep you safe and get you back to the boat alive.  However, a good macro photography guide does a whole lot more:

  • Finds you subjects quickly
  • Finds a subject while you are busy taking photographs so that you have less time hunting
  • Knows where to find the rare and unique subjects

Working with a Guide

There are several things that you can do to work with a guide better.

Tell Them What You Want.  Before you dive with your guide, have a quick conversation with them about your skill level in diving and what kind of macro experience you want to have.  If you want to find a specific creature, tell them that and they will usually find it for you.

Show Them Your Pictures.  They usually like photos, or are at least too polite to tell you that you suck.  =)  But really, show them some photos off your phone so that they understand what kinds of photos you are capable of taking.  It will help them understand a little bit more about how you think and what kind of shots they can set up for you.  If you have decent skill, they will show you some of the harder subjects.

Learn How To Hunt.  At the beginning of the dive and when you finish with a subject and the guide is busy, you still have to hunt and find your own subjects.  While it’s great when you’re working with guides, you still have to have your own capabilities.

Know When to Leave a Subject.  If you’re working a very common subject or one that you have lots of photos already, the guide will probably find something better while you’re busy.  If you’re still taking pictures of that common subject, you’re losing time that you could be working something awesome, and dive time is always limited.  So get a couple of good shots then move on.  This could be clown fish, hermit crabs, skeleton shrimp, or even Pikachu when you’ve shot a lot of them on that trip.

Be Responsible for Yourself.  Get better at diving.  Monitor your gas consumption.  Retreat to shallower areas when you are running low on NDL or gas.  Learn the frog kick and don’t kick up sand and nudies when you move.  What this does is let the guide worry less about your survival and worry more about finding good macro subjects.

Take Good Photos.  This one is fairly obvious, but not in the way that you would think.  Guides want you to take good pictures, that’s how you tell your friends what an awesome time you had.  It also leads to referrals and tips.  However, the important thing is that you learn how to take good underwater macro photos before you book the guide.  Attend a workshop.  Do some dry macro photography.  Do macro dives at home.

Show Them Your Camera Setup and Techniques.  By this, I mean This has 2 main benefits.  The first is that if they know what the capabilities of your photography setup are, they can help you find the right subjects and angles.  For instance, they will know what size of subject can you shoot: how small can you go.  Or how close you have to get to the subject to be able to focus on it.  The second is that it helps the guide to know how to help other photographers with similar gear and techniques.

Be a Good Customer.  Give them tips at the end of your trip and don’t be cheap.  These guys usually grew up in the area and pay money back into the local economy.  Common tip for 2-4 days is $50USD and a week’s worth of diving is $100USD.  Credit and tag them in your photos so they can build a sort of online portfolio.  And most importantly, when you talk to your dive photographer friends and they like your photos, give them contact info for the guide so that they can get the business.

See You Underwater!!!

–Mike

Gear Optimization

Always keep working on your gear and optimize it to take better pictures.

How to Optimize

After every dive, I ask myself a couple of questions:

  • What pieces of my gear did I have problems with?
    • Takes 2 hands to operate?
    • Have to adjust several times to get positioned?
    • Fell apart while I was swimming?
    • Was so annoying that I wasn’t shooting relaxed?
    • Increased my breathing (SAC) rate?
  • Is there anything that I didn’t use that I can safely get rid of?
  • What non-shooting tasks did I spend the most time on, and can I find a way to reduce this time?

There are 3 key things that I am always trying to optimize: Getting setup for my first shot of a subject, getting that first shot right, and getting faster repeat shots.

Time to First Shot

What I’m looking at here is the time that it takes to go from swimming and hunting to set up for a shot. And then the opposite: to go from shooting to hunting for more subjects.

My Techniques.

Learn to hunt. Hunting is the biggest non-shooting time that I have during a dive. Anything I can do to locate subjects more quickly vastly improves my shooting time.

Control your clips. Clipping and unclipping your camera takes time. Experiment with holding it by hand on a longer lanyard. Experiment with different positions of carrying. Experiment with different clip-on points (I use the right shoulder d-ring).

Torch. You’re usually hunting for subjects with a torch. When you find a subject, you have to transition to holding a camera. I normally use a simple torch with a bolt snap (dog clip) tied on the end of it. I do one of three things to switch to a camera: clip the torch to the camera on the lanyard, clip the torch to my right shoulder d-ring, or set the torch on the ground to mark the subject so that I can find it again.

Take a quick peek. Have a good look at the subject before you place your camera. This can tell you what the best shooting angle is. Positioning and repositioning yourself takes a lot of time, so try to get it right the first time.

Camera placement. I find that when I shoot supermacro I spend a lot of time trying to get the lens in the right place for the subject. Then adding a 45° viewfinder makes this even more difficult until you get used to it. There are several tricks to this. If you use manual focus or back button focus, set up the camera at the same focus distance. If you’re using autofocus, get the camera in position but further back, use autofocus to get an initial fix, find the subject, move into the subject, and refocus. You can also set focus lock and move the focus in closer if you want to. Memorize the area around the subject to use as landmarks so that if you see the landmark you know which way to move the lens.

First Shot Accuracy

By this, I mean that when you take the first shot it is exposed properly and in focus.

My Techniques

Remember your settings. When you set up your camera before a dive, use the same settings for exposure: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, strobe positioning, and strobe strength. If you’re using manual focus, get your first focus fix on a test object that is approximately the same distance away from the lens as your “typical” macro subject.

Take a test shot. As soon as you descend, take a test shot of a rock or something else to verify your exposure settings.

Use a viewfinder. For some housings, 45° viewfinders are worth their weight in gold. They allow you to see exactly where your focus is by angling the image upwards so that you can get closer to see your picture.

Turn on focus peaking. This setting gives you a zebra stripe in the viewfinder for areas of the picture that are in focus. This drastically increases your accuracy in placing the focus.

Stabilize your camera. By anchoring your hands and elbows, you can keep the camera from shaking.

Breath control. When you breathe out fully, there is a natural pause before you start to breathe in. Also there is a smaller pause at the top when you fully breathe in. These pauses are good for shooting photos and for shooting firearms. A more advanced version makes mini-pauses in the middle of the breath. Don’t hold your breath for longer than 5 seconds because it makes you shake.

Handle with trigger. A shutter trigger reduces the amount of camera shake and “wrist twist”when you take a photo. Both of these mess up your framing and your focus point.

Time to Repeat Shot

The last optimization is to reduce the amount of time between shots on the same subject.

My Techniques

Focus lock and manual adjustment. If you’re skilled at this, you can fire multiple shots very quickly when you’re on a subject. You can practice this on land before you get in the water.

Faster strobes or no strobes. Strobes use capacitors to hold electricity and discharge it quickly to make a flash. Filling up those capacitors takes time. Better strobes have a shorter recharge time. Better yet, try shooting without strobes and use a video light, handheld torch, light ring or natural light: they are faster techniques.

Handle with trigger. Triggers are fast when you want to repeat a shot.

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

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

Via Reef Divers: Spot a Coral, Spot a Shrimp

Great article over at Reef Divers about shrimp in bubble coral.  It goes back to what I’ve said before: don’t look for critters, look for the places where they live and eat.

The shrimp are transparent, so they make for a good photos.  I’ve seen them quite a few places.  When we were in Raja Ampat, I made a very strong effort to point them out to the other divers in the group so they could get some shots.  I’ve even seen shrimp on bubble coral right on the wrecks at 25m deep in Truk Lagoon.  Even though I was rigged for super-wide, I snapped them and if you magnify the photo, they’re there.

I didn’t have a good bubble shrimp handy on Instagram, so have a glassy one instead.  =)

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