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!!!
Sometimes, aquariums have good subjects for you to take pictures. A good example is the weedy sea dragon which lives in Southern Australia and then only in a couple of known locations.
But how do you get good aquarium shots, and especially how do you get aquarium macro shots? Well, there is a process and a couple of considerations on gear.
Call First. Most aquariums have policies on photography. Call them for information before you go there. There are 3 questions you want to ask…
- Do you allow photography? Most allow photography but no flash (it reflects off the glass anyway….)
- Do you allow tripods or monopods? Because you’re doing low-light photos, tripods help you out a lot.
- Do you allow lens skirts? Lens skirts block out the light coming from behind you so that you can shoot photos through glass without any light reflection. They are absolutely critical for shooting in an aquarium. They also work for cityscapes from your hotel room if you’re into that sort of thing.
Timing. Go early in the day during a week. Avoid peak visiting times because you’ll have to wrestle people to get a good spot on the glass, especially if you’re using a tripod.
Gear. My rundown on what I take….
- Camera. Anything works, but that’s the story for most photography. What I really look for in aquarium shots is good low-light performance. The biggest problem that you will have is lighting. Most tanks are dark inside, so you have to open up the aperture, bump up the ISO, and use slower shutter speeds. Burst mode works very well if you want to take pictures of moving fish.
- Lenses. What I would recommend is a wide and a telephoto, both with zooms. Because you’re standing on the dry side of the glass, you can’t get “macro close” to the subject, so a lens that can focus at a longer distance is preferable. A telephoto might work well for macro subjects. The Olympus 60mm macro for Micro Four Thirds can also focus out to infinity which comes in handy. And lastly, since you’re working with low light, you want as fast (ie, big apertures and low F-Stop) of a lens as you can get and yes I understand that zoom lenses aren’t usually fast.
- Lens Skirt. I mentioned this before. It’s a very valuable tool.
- Tripod. This is good for both video and for still photography. It helps when you do slow shutter photos. It helps when you set up your lens skirt in a weird location where you don’t want to manually hold the camera for long periods of time.
- Glass Cleaner. Either magic clothes like you use for lenses or a photography wet wipe. These are very important to clean the glass because otherwise you’ll see fuzzy spots in your photos where people leave fingerprints on the glass.
How to Do It. Now we’re ready to go take some snaps.
- Find a good subject. Look for macro subjects closer to the glass. The more water between you and the subject, the more magnification you need and the more you need to do color-balancing. Some aquariums have smaller tanks with smaller fish, they are perfect for macro shots.
- Stick on the Lens Skirt. They have 4 suction cups to hold on to the glass. Try to put the lens skirt perpendicular to the subject so the camera lens shoots straight through the glass.
- Clean the Glass. Very important. Clean the glass where your lens will go. This is usually a “window” inside the lens skirt.
- Set up the Tripod. Mount the camera and lens on the tripod so that the camera is inside the lens skirt and the lens shoots directly through the glass.
- Take some Photos. Feel awesome about your skills. You’ll have to mess with settings a bit to get the right exposure, and you’ll probably have to change exposure for each tank.
- Sharing is Caring. If the aquarium has a lot of people, let them use your lens skirt from time to time so that they have good photos too. And most importantly: they won’t complain about your lens skirt, tripod, and desire to hog all the good subjects.
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!!!
Cute little guy with a white sand background. Look for the microshrimp.
I think I’ve had this in a sushi roll before…..
A crazy spider crab from Raja Ampat. This crab is so camouflaged that it has hydroids growing on it. These are hard to take video of because you don’t know for sure where the face and eyes are except for “in the middle somewhere”.
The current is pretty bad, too, I kept getting knocked around.
Sometimes when you dive with a group, you find a rare and unusual subject. I’m here to remind you that “sharing is caring” and to give you the how-to for sharing based on a lot of group macro dives.
How to share your subject:
- If there is a queue of divers waiting to shoot your subject, get 10 or so shots and then go to the back of the queue or find another nearby subject.
- Mark the subject so that others can find it. Use a torch or a lembeh stick if you’re on the plain, sandy bottom.
- Get the other diver’s attention by pointing your torch at them and waiving side to side.
- Motion for the diver to come over.
- Point out the subject and its relationship to how you market it.
- Show them the subject on your camera LCD so they know exactly what to look for.
- Show them the subject again.
- Show them which angle is the best for the subject.
- Wait for them to find the subject and give you an “OK” sign.
- Back up with either reverse frogkick (If you don’t know how to do this, learn on your next couple of dives) or by pushing off a non-sensitive bottom.
- Slowly fin away from the other diver with modified tech flutterkick (knees bent, feet up higher, small kicks) or frog kick. Avoid kicking dirt over everybody.
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.
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.
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.
Finding your minimum and maximum focus distance is a critical skill in underwater macro. This is because if you can’t focus, you can’t take pictures that you’ll like. In supermacro, most of the the time you can’t even see your subject because the depth of focus is so thin.
I test for maximum and minimum focus distance every time I have a new camera, lens, or wet diopter. I’ll even test combinations of these 3 to see what I like.
- A well-lit room
- One camera with lens
- One housing with appropriate port
- Series of wet diopters
- A subject (can be a nudie replica or something as mundane as the screw on a tripod head)
- Mount camera and lens in housing with port.
- Find minimum focus distance first.
- Put the glass of the port up against the subject.
- Try to gain focus with the auto-focus–back-button or half-press on the shutter.
- When you have the closest focus point, measure the distance from the end of the port to the subject.
- Check for farthest focus point.
- Move the camera back from the subject while you are trying to gain focus.
- When you can’t focus anymore, go forward just a bit and get a focus.
- When you know the furthest focus point, measure the distance from the end of the port to the subject.
- Put the camera in constant focus mode:
- Panasonic: AFC
- Canon: AI Servo
- Nikon: AF-C (Continuous-servo AF)
- Us manual focus to set the minimum and maximum focus distance.
- Put the subject on a ruler so that you can easily measure the distances.
- Try stacking wet diopters. I sometimes use a Nauticam SMC-1 with a Saga +5. Different diopter combinations have different focus ranges.
- Once you have a focus lock, move the camera in and out to see how deep the focus is. Try it with maximum and minimum aperture.
See you all underwater!!!