Following on from my first workshop with Scubatravel in the Philippines I thought it might interest readers to see how I approach my macro photography. There are of course some basics to understand and you need the right equipment to get good shots. However, your images will improve hugely when you have a choice of lighting techniques, or understand the subject behaviour. Carefully considering composition and the background will also help. Macro images work best not only when the critter is doing something interesting but also when they are lit in a way that makes them leap off the page.
This is the first in a series of short blogs that I will be doing on underwater macro photography. In this blog I intend to cover:
• What is macro and close-up photography
• Subject selection and behaviour
• Camera settings
What is macro photography?
So what is macro photography? Putting it simply is taking images that appear in the camera frame as greater than life-size or 1:1. In the case of very small subjects, I have to use a teleconverter and wet lens to achieve an image that is much bigger than life-size. Macro photography will involve very close subject to camera distances.
Close up photography is where the image is taken close up so it fills the frame but isn’t bigger than lifesize.
Both techniques are important and it depends on how you, the photographer want to portray the subject. Maybe tight up on a tiny subject so the critter appears bigger than it actually is or backed off showing the subject and its environment. The choice is yours!
Subject Selection and Behaviour
It’s very easy to follow the guide and snap away at what he finds for you. However, it’s important to learn that not every subject is worth the effort or the time to get a shot. Consider how accessible the critter is. It might be so deep into a crevice that whilst it might be interesting to observe. This makes it almost impossible to make a good photograph. You may be tempted to try and move the critter, simply unacceptable! A typical example is a pygmy seahorse facing into the fan, not your camera. Take my advice and move on – you will find something better positioned to photograph. Maybe explain to the guide when you finish the dive or he won’t show you anything on the next dive!
Consider also what the background looks like. Are you shooting into sand or muck as this might dictate the lighting technique to use? Is there a reef behind, which might distract from the critter with a strong colour or pattern? Could you get yourself into a position to shoot into the blue? Do you want a blue or black background?
I sometimes find a good background – it might be something with an interesting texture or colour, then I wait for something to arrive.
Look out for interesting behaviour – a critter tending eggs or mouth-brooding – about to yawn, mating ritual etc. In time experience will help you to recognise how and when certain types of critters behave. When interesting behaviour occurs to make the most of it. I have sometimes spent the entire dive with one subject waiting for it to perform. As Martin Edge preaches, take your shot at the “Peak of the action”.
If you find Cardinalfish in groups under a ledge or coral you can bet that some of them will be mouthbrooding eggs. Remain still and patiently look out for the fish with the bigger and squarer jowls you will get your reward. Watch the fish and every now and again he will aerate the eggs he is holding. Pink if they have just been laid or silver if they are close to hatch. The latter being more picturesque in my opinion.
I really advocate using the camera in manual mode and taking control. The settings are like baking a cake and all contribute as ingredients to make the taste or image as you want.
ISO low – 100 ideal as it will reduce noise but sometimes not practical. Adjust the ISO to enable you to get the speed and Aperture as you want. If for example, the ISO is too high then getting a more open aperture might be difficult. You will not be able to get the speed high enough to counter the low aperture. (I.e. beyond the speed that the camera will sync to the strobes) or if the ISO is too low you may not be able to get enough light on the subject and have to open the aperture reducing DOF.
Use the aperture to control the depth of field. The higher the number the more depth of field i.e. the amount of the frame in focus in front of and behind the subject. The lower the number the shallower the DOF and this can be very nice if you want to create softer images with nice blur or bokeh.
Depending on the background colour required but fast enough to avoid camera shake or freeze a moving subject. If you are shooting into the blue then a slow speed will give you the blue and a fast speed darker and towards black. Keep shooting and adjusting to get the look you want!
If your camera has it, I recommend 3d tracking and set up the camera for back button focus where you use your thumb to focus and your forefinger to depress the shutter button. This will give you a sharp focus when you want it as the image will be in focus when you shoot. You can recompose as much as you want as long as the camera to subject distance doesn’t change.
With the normal shutter function, the camera takes a split second to get the image into focus and then take the shot. I set up my camera for AFC so when the focus button is depressed and held down the camera keeps the subject in focus. The 3D tracking will follow the subject if it is moving. I also move the single point of the focus to where I want it in the frame normally over the subject’s eye or the part of the subject I want really sharp.
It is easy to concentrate so much on taking the actual subject, getting the lighting right, using magnifiers etc that good composition goes out of the window.
• The rule of thirds and strong diagonals are a prerequisite for striking macro images.
• Maintain eye contact.
• Get low and shoot slightly up.
• Think about colour combinations – an ordinary subject can look totally different against another vibrant colour.
The go-to lens for DX cameras for macro photography is a 50mm lens if you are a Canon user, 60mm if Nikon or if a mirrorless camera user such as Olympus then 45mm or 60mm lenses are the ones to go for. For FX DLSR cameras then either the Canon 100mm or Nikon 105mm is the go-to lenses.
Ideally something like the INON 240s (about to be superseded). You need something, which can enable you to get in close to a subject so my large Subtronics are definitely for wide-angle!
At some point, you will want to use a snoot. It helps isolate the subject from a messy background and makes the subject stand out. I have tried everything over the years from making my own from DIY or plumbing stores to fibre optics through various manufacturers efforts but without a doubt, the best and easiest to use is the RETRA LSD. (Look out for one of my later blogs where I will explain how to use them!)
In the past, we had to rely on teleconverters or extension tubes which were a bit of a pain as you were then fixed for the dive but over the last few years, various manufacturers have produced a range of lenses which screw onto the port either directly or via a holder.
They come in all sorts of strengths. Nauticam makes their CMC 1 and 2 for mirrorless or compact cameras – the CMC 2 also goes well with the Nikon 60mm lens on DX cameras. The SMC 1 and more recently SMC 2 that are designed to go with the 100 or 105mm lenses depending on your camera manufacturer. These all magnify the image by letting you get closer to the subject than the lens will normally allow. Depth of field can be limiting and you need reasonable eyesight when getting onto really small stuff. The newer cameras handle the extra magnification well in autofocus so they can be relatively easy to use. You have to be careful though that you don’t bash into the subject, as you get closer!
In certain instances, I will dive with a teleconverter behind my 105mm lens if I know I am specifically going to photograph say pygmy sea horses or a particular small subject. The magnifiers can then be added for even more magnification.
My tool kit including various wet lenses or magnifiers, shaping inserts for the snoot and diffusers for my strobes
Hopefully, this blog will have given you some background information or refreshed your knowledge of some of the aspects of Macro and close-up photography. In the next blog, I will get into detail about how to light your macro images.
If you are interested in improving your macro photography then you should consider a trip where you would be with like-minded people and be able to learn as you dive and have the opportunity to see some amazing critters and to dive with them repeatedly. Join me on a photo workshop and if you are quick there are a couple of spaces for my trip with Scubatravel to Bali at the end of August or why not join me next year in March in Anilao in the Philippines for world-class macro opportunities.