Learning Macro Photography Underwater
by Jill Smith
First time with my new macro lens in Bahamas this November! For me, preparing for this “macro trip” meant reading article after article on tips for underwater macro photography. The images online are stunning, and these pros make it sound easy. Now that I have completed my first trip attempting to implement their tips and techniques, I assure you, it is not. It is my humble opinion that underwater macro photography is the MOST DIFFICULT kind of photography that exists (Perhaps others know better, but I am skeptical). It’s like trying to take a photo of erratically moving subjects at night in a snowstorm while you are floating and unstable; this is a photography challenge on steroids.
I have to admit, mine is not the ideal set up. I am using a 90mm macro lens with a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera with Nauticam housing, which is great, but I am using my macro lens with a dome port. Why? I was too lazy and cheap to order the port that goes with my macro lens, and thought I would experiment and decide for myself if I really do need the proper macro port. After a week of using it this way, I am now considering (but still undecided) the flat port for my macro lens for three reasons:
Above: A Yellow-line Arrow crab catches one of the bloodworms that is swarming my video light and eats a late dinner.
The other equipment factor that affects my success, I think, is my lack of strobes. I am using two video lights mounted on arms, so I do have the ability to adjust lighting position, but it is next to impossible to sneak up on a fish with these bright lights shining in their eyes. Then again, I found them to be very beneficial on the night dives, when photographing coral banded shrimp, or yellowline arrow crabs, for example – they are attracted to the blood worms swimming around my video lights, and scramble out to catch them for dinner (win win!). The big advantage to having strobes versus video lights, is that if I set strobes for “through the lens” (TTL) metering, I can pre-set my aperture and shutter speed, allowing the strobes to adjust their output to accomplish proper exposure. There is an additional advantage to this, obviously, as constantly dialing in new f-stops and shutter speeds detracts from my reaction time to photo opportunities.
Aperture - Ideally, though there are exceptions to the rule, my goal is to keep the aperture small, f8 to f22 at least, to give me the depth of field I need when I am very close to my subject (the trade-off is the diffraction distortion that occurs at high f-stops, but I will have to content myself with a post-processing sharpen to aid in minimizing this effect). My next priority is to keep the shutter speed fast – as fast as 1/200 or higher. This is desirable for two reasons: the first is that I want to freeze any movement to keep the subject sharp, and the second is to manipulate the background colour. The slower the shutter speed, the more ambient light is a factor in the background, often contributing to washed-out images with low contrast. A faster shutter speed results in your subject being illuminated primarily by your strobes or video light, rather than the ambient light, and further contrast is created as the background darkens to dark blue and even black, depending on just how fast the shutter speed is set. This is far easier to do with macro photography, as we are naturally close to our subject, and much more challenging with wide angle photography, as light falls off so quickly underwater with every foot of distance.
Caribbean Reef Squid at night – this fella was interested in his reflection in my dome port, but I struggled to get him in sharp focus as he fluttered about. The image is flawed, as his eyes are out of focus, but the value for me is in the memory, as I loved meeting this fella. So I will just have to try again should the opportunity arise.
I am still experimenting with placement of lights, but I generally try to keep them at the 10:00 and 2:00 position, closer to my lens than I would for wide angle photography. Sometimes this is difficult to maintain, as coral formations may obstruct lighting in some cases. I have learned to accept that sometimes you have to “swim” away from a subject in search of a more ideal subject and setting.
Everything I have read about underwater macro photography, advised, “Get close to your subject. When you think you are close enough, get closer…” This proved to be a helpful tip for me as I photographed the face of a large Southern stingray at close range. I knew I wanted to be close, and creeping in slowly, I took a shot before each “incremental creep”, in anticipation of subject desertion, but he was very cooperative. I took several shots, and as I started to turn back to join my buddy Annie, I remembered “the rule” of getting closer. So I turned back to the ray, and really got closer for a couple more shots. Interestingly enough, the last shot I took of his face is the shot I love the best!
The eyes have it. One of the biggest rules of macro photography is that if nothing else is in focus, make sure the eyes are. As I said, I am using the auto-focus feature, and while I am struggling with light placement, exposure, and my own buoyancy, not to mention a critter that may or may not be a cooperative subject, it is very difficult to ensure the eyes are in focus on a tiny fellow. With a new port for my macro lens in the budget for next year, and a focusing gear for manually adjusting, my focussing results may improve. But then, the proof is in the putting, isn’t it?
While I generally would like to have my aperture very small (f8 – f22 or more) to ensure adequate depth of field on tiny marine friends, there is something to be said for a large aperture, and allowing a great deal of the image to be out of focus; distracting backgrounds can be blurred away to draw the eye to your subject's eyes, transforming a mundane and ok image, to spectacular. I doubt I will be attempting this feat until I have more control over my focus controls, though!
This part is a great deal of fun, and it helps a lot when your dive buddy has sharp eyes (thanks Anne)! I found that this dive trip with my new macro lens was a completely different – and rewarding – experience than other dive excursions. Rather than swimming along looking for large animals, I found we were slowly inspecting the coral formations and finding little things that we have never seen before! It was amazing! Now I keep an eye out for cleaning stations in hopes of capturing images of this kind of animal interaction, as these tiny guys are so interesting!
At night it seems easier to find the small things. Stephen and I approached the base of a coral formation, and tucked our lights in close – the blood worms immediately start swarming our lights, and we soon saw the waving antennae of a coral banded shrimp coming out to pluck a blood worm for dinner!
On another night dive, I found if I “scanned” the black open water around me by sweeping my light side to side, I could find other small things in the open water. One of these was the small squid already mentioned, but also I found a couple of very, tiny jellyfish – no bigger than the tip of my pinky. My camera simply could not focus on this tiny creature, and this is the best I could manage. I think perhaps I would have been better off to try and get my finger in the shot beside it for focusing purposes. All the same, he was pretty cool to see!
Now I am in the habit of looking around the base of vase and barrel sponges, searching for the tell-tale antennae of the cleaner shrimp, and inspecting the branches of coral and sea fans for nudibranchs. We have an Indonesia trip coming up in 2019, and are currently researching the best places to find little critters there. For instance, beautiful Coleman shrimp can sometimes be found living with their mate on fire urchins. Emperor shrimp will hitch a ride on a sea cucumber (the TTC of the sea, apparently), to safely travel from one coral head to another, but also to snack on parasites that live on the skin. Pearl fish actually live in the anus of the sea cucumber for safety, so we will be checking out that little crevice as well. Harlequin shrimp can be found living on blue starfish, and so on and so on… Isn’t it amazing!?? Love it all!
MY biggest challenge is that I am a chronic “rusher”. I rush at everything, so going slow is totally counter-intuitive to my very essence. It’s a wonder that Jody and I are even married to each other, as his “M-O” is the antithesis of my hurrying nature. But I digress…
And check this out for "cool" - So many of my images hold much more than I ever realized when I took the photo initially! The title image at top of this clinging channel crab, has so much more detail than I ever noticed...until, that is, I was editing the shot:
1. The eyes of this crab are stunning! They are yellowish and speckled, and completely gorgeous, but I never saw that until I was adjusting the contrast of the file.
2. The yellow ball between the eyes might be a coral egg? Hey, if you KNOW that to be true or untrue, could you please add a comment? I'm pretty sure it is, but you never know...
3. The black blobish things on the crab could be some kind of organism, but I don't know what. At least not yet.
4. There appears to be some kind of soft coral (purplish) growing on its head. Could it be?
How did I miss all those cool details??!
And how delightful to have an opportunity to scrutinize these critters later!
Also, in the 5 minute video compilation we put together, I can see a yellowline arrow crab on a coral head that a large clinging channel crab is crawling around. It seems every time I watch, I notice something new!
And even in the image below, where I found a lettuce sea slug, I didn't notice the second one, just peeping around the corner! I love finding these new things!
Our Roatan scuba adventure is coming up in February, and we will all be trying to improve our shutterbug skills in an effort to come up with something even better! Can’t wait!