How to get better macro images by getting the basics right.

Scuba Travel, photo pro, Martyn Guess

MARTYN GUESS provides some ideas on how we can all get better underwater macro images.

I see so many macro photographs that with a bit of thought could be so much better. Normally these are subjects against a very distracting background caused by shooting into the reef or what I call ID shots with no real thought of the best way to try and capture the subject.
Good macro photography requires us to follow a few basic rules. The image needs to be well composed, colourful and maybe with some interesting behaviour. Good eye contact is essential and more important, it has to be well lit

Macro Subject Selection

It’s easy to follow the guide and shoot what he finds for you. However not every subject is worth the effort and the time. Consider how accessible the critter is – is it in a cleft in the rock that it is impossible to get a camera close to? Is it facing the wrong way? Is the critter against a really complicated background. In these situations, a good photograph is going to be very difficult if not impossible. Acknowledge the spotting, thank the dive guide and move on! Spend more time on a good subject in a good position.


Look carefully for any type of behaviour. A critter doing something interesting or unexpected will draw the viewers attention. Take the Honeycomb Moray in the picture for example. Ordinarily, I would have been satisfied just trying to get a well-lit shot but as I settled down I noticed that deeper under the rocks were loads of shrimps. I decided to wait a while to see whether they would come close to the Moray. The shrimps and the Eel live in a symbiotic mutualistic relationship. The shrimps are protected from predators and in return, it cleans their protectors’ teeth and skin. If you are aware of this you will understand that waiting might give rise to some interesting shots. When it does make the most of it. The cardinalfish in the picture is a classic example of interesting behaviour. The male fish mouthbrooding the eggs and periodically aerating them by opening his mouth. If you know about this behaviour you watch out for it and get a much more interesting shot. The best people to teach you about behaviour and to point it out is the dive guide. Make a point of chatting with him or her and encouraging them to point behaviour out.

The peak of the action

Following on from watching for behaviour once spotted the trick is to take the shot at the optimum time. Such as when the critter opens its mouth or maybe turns to look at you. You just have to be observant and press the shutter just at the right moment, keep shooting throughout and pick the image that displays the action at its absolute peak. The latest cameras with fast processing and frame rates will allow you to cover the action! The image of the Mandarin fish mating typifies the peak of the action.

Eye contact and angle of view

If the critter you are photographing has eyes or Rhinophores (in the case of Nudibranches) then it is important that these are sharp and that you get the sense in the image that the critter is looking at you. I place my focus point over these areas to make sure they are the sharpest part of the image. Most cameras will let you take control of the focus. Check out the camera focus menus if you are not sure how.

Scuba Travel, Macro, Martyn Guess, Seahorse

What will definitely help with the impact of the image (and this applies to all camera formats) is if you get low to the subject and look up towards the eyes and Rhinophores.

Backgrounds colour

Getting low and shooting up into the water column will allow to control the blue or even get darker or black backgrounds. The water is a simple plain background against which to set the subject, adding impact to the overall image. The trick is the location of the subject and being able to shoot at a suitable angle. Avoid a distracting background such as the reef. I see many images where the photographer has shot downwards or into the reef and all you then get is a subject fighting with the colours or substance of the background.
The colour of the water column is primarily controlled by the camera speed. So if you want a black background to increase your shutter speed. If you want a blue or lighter background to bring the speed down. Your strobes will freeze the subject movement.

Creative Backgrounds

There are many ways that the background can be controlled and give something more pleasing – different lighting techniques and careful use of the aperture and shooting into the water column are the most important. Opening the aperture up to say F5.6 can help to blur the background, as the aperture will limit the depth of field. In this way, the subject will be sharp depending where you focus and the background nicely blurred. The image of the Octopus shows the effect of an open aperture and slow speed.

Similarly, a small aperture says F22 will give you a good depth of field but in combination with a relatively high speed will help darken the background if shot into the water column (See the image of the Harlequin shrimp) Look out for colourful simple backgrounds such as sponges and then try and spot a critter or wait for something to appear to photograph against it.

Scuba Travel, Macro, Martyn Guess, Nudibranch

Camera settings

I recommend switching off auto and taking control in Manual. Aperture and speed set to take control of depth of field and background. If your camera has it – single point autofocus with 3D tracking to follow a moving subject or assist as you move slightly. If your camera allows -set up for back button focus. The latter allows you to focus and recompose easily and helps the image to be slightly sharper with no focus lag. ISO set ideally low to minimize digital noise but used carefully to facilitate the use of other settings –for example where the speed would be too low to avoid camera shake.

A lot of information to take on board but concentrate on these basics and I am confident your images will start to take a quantum leap forward. Next time Macro Lighting techniques…


Want to learn how to take or improve your underwater macro images? Why not come on a photo specific trip. These trips are meticulously planned to the best destinations at the best time of year where the conditions should be perfect for building a portfolio of great images. The workshops, which are for all levels of experience but mainly aimed at people with a few trips under their belts, include classroom sessions and presentations as well as in water help and guidance, all done in a relaxed and non-competitive friendly environment.


Martyn has been diving for over 30 years and taking underwater images for nearly 25 years. He has been very successful in National and International competitions and regularly makes presentations to Camera and Photography clubs as well as BSOUP. (The British Society of Underwater Photographers) Today he shares his passion and knowledge – As well as teaching underwater photography courses he leads overseas workshop trips for Scubatravel.