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 Lenses for Micro 4/3

Very good comparison video of macro lenses for M43.  Makes me think a little bit more than usual….

I think that just about everybody doing underwater macro with a M43 (Panasonic G9, GH5, etc and the Olympus OMD-EM1/5/10) is using the Olympus 60mm Macro.  I haven’t seen any debate about this at all.

The reason that we all use the 60mm is because more magnification is good and the image quality of this lens is good.  And hey, that’s what everybody else uses, so why not?  However, I wish there were other good M43 macro lenses: a 100mm or 120mm would make me very happy although it might not be useable underwater.

But, we also have wet diopters (wet lenses), and they change the lens game considerably.  I myself have both a Nauticam Supermacro converter SMC-1, a Saga +5, and an Inon super-wide macro (bug-eye).  I’m have the additional magnifier for the SMC-1 coming next week for even better supermacro, although for the past 18 months I’ve been a heretic and stacked the Saga +5 on top of the SMC instead because the price is right.

My thinking goes like this:

  • It’s harder to focus underwater because of less light.  This means less contrast for autofocus.
  • It’s harder to focus underwater because current and surge: you and your subject are constantly moving in large and small amounts.
  • It’s harder to focus underwater because well, you’re underwater and breathing through a hose.
  • A 30mm or 45mm macro lens plus wet diopters is an interesting option, especially if they have a faster autofocus.  If you can shoot closer and/or use wet diopters, then you can even get to supermacro.
  • A macro lens at a wide F-stop (F2.8 for most macro lenses) means a thinner plane of focus.
  • Adding a wet diopter makes a thin plane of focus.
  • Stacking wet diopters makes a very very thin plane of focus.
  • I usually end up shooting at F22 with stacked diopters to increase my plane of focus as much as I can.  Obviously, this changes my exposure so I have to compensate in shutter speed, strobe power, or ISO.
  • It is very common for the lens to be able to focus in front of and beyond what the wet diopter is capable of.  IE, the focus range of the lens exceeds the focus range of the diopter.  This adds to difficulties in autofocus because the lens hunts in places where it cannot focus.  Using a limiter switch on the lens (the Olympus 60mm has one) helps because it eliminates the hunting in the longer ranges.
  • Focus lock helps a ton with wet diopters because it almost eliminates out-of-range situations unless you’re setting a new focus.
  • For larger subjects (shrimp gobies, garden eels, larger crabs, scorpionfish, etc), diopters can also be unscrewed or swung out of the way with a hinge.  I use a hinge for the SMC-1.  I screw the Saga +5 on and off because it doesn’t have a downsize threads to fit the front end of the SMC-1.  Screwing on and off is not a quick process.
  • If you remove the diopter, then the focus is further away, so using a limiter switch on the lens means that you maybe can’t focus at that longer length.  So really, using the limiter switch is a tradeoff between autofocus speed and being able to take pictures of larger subjects.
  • You absolutely need to try all of the options available to you before you do it underwater.  Dry-land training is huge.

What’s the point of all this?  Well, everything in photography is a tradeoff.  The more you understand what decisions you’re making, the more you can adjust when things don’t work out the way you intended.  And I’m a huge believer in being able to adjust to conditions and just keep shooting.

 

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

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